The decade before the end of the nineteen-century has been described by many historians as a period of great discontent for Chinese population as a result of frequent natural disasters, such as river floods and droughts. Historically, these events had severe repercussions on both economy and social life of the entire country, as they created a state of imbalance between man and nature at all levels. At the lowest levels, creating instability among the masses and leading them to rebel, and at the highest levels, threatening seriously the existence of the dynasty in power.
Taking this into consideration, it seems appropriate to attribute the rebellion of the Boxers as the consequence of natural disasters. However, studies on the origins of this secret society and the events prior to its uprising in the summer of 1900, led me to consider the floods that struck on China just before the end of the century, in conjunction with other events of the period, as an important cause of the Boxer uprising. Given that there also are clear divergences in scholars opinions on the Boxers, in this essay I will attempt to discuss the relevance of droughts in causing the uprising as well as other decisive events.
Generally, uprising and mass rebellions have been identified, in Chinese history, with natural disasters, which were considered as a heavenly sign to preannounce the fall of a dynasty and the rise to power of a new one. This was not precisely the outcome of the Boxer uprising, but China, eventually, did experience a change of guards to leave space to a new ruling class. According to Wakerman (1975), the rural class must be taken into consideration as origin of those movements, because this represented the rebellious and most unstable class. When nature was merciful peasants were dedicated to their job and loyal to the state; in times of famine instead, they were the first victims of poverty and death, therefore they raged against the state to demand more capable rulers. In this view, the initial motive of Boxers anti-Manchu activity, often underestimated by book writers, can be justified. Although many have emphasised that an anti-foreign spirit drove this secret society, it is also true that originally they opposed the Manchus, on the one hand because not considered Han Chinese and on the other because of the concessions allowed to foreign powers during the last fifty years. There were incidents testifying that the sentiment against the state, mostly as a result of famine, remained alive until the very end of the century. In July 1899, as an example of direct challenge against Qing military, Yue Jintang, a lieutenant-colonel in Shan County, was ambushed and killed by bandits .
Another connection between the rebellious movements and the peasantry can be found in the articulation of agriculture and land tenure. Many movements, even if not as widely known as the Boxer movement, originated in northern China. That region is relatively arid compared to the south, therefore much more exposed to droughts. Cultivation here, already lower in output than southern China, could be severely damaged, sometimes by very dry seasons, sometimes by the outbreak of water from rivers banks. For centuries, state officials have been engaged in the maintenance of river works and supervision of water levels, this is why their performance has also been determinant in preserving the power of ruling class. Shandong is the province were the Boxer movement originated and was more active. There, like in other provinces, the Yellow River flooded repeatedly throughout Chinese history and in several occasions starving peasants could only choose between migration, usually toward the south, and banditry. In this respect, dynastic power could be in serious danger if unable to guarantee a safe environment for those who worked the land. After all, most of the economic activity in China has concerned agriculture for thousands of years.
Assuming that the Boxer uprising was caused by the natural disasters of end of century, it is opportune to identify where the government failed in containing the floods of the Yellow River. Shandong was a province that had had little difficulty in meeting its obligations toward the state and the surplus in production had generated means for supporting public work projects. After the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95 the government military expenditure created a huge budget imbalance, because of its obligations as a defeated country, and the heavy burden, mostly higher taxation, to meet further expenses was left on the rural population. This incumbency was made even harder to comply by the decline in price of silver throughout the 1890s, which also devalued the salary of officials, who then more easily fell into corruption. This kind of behaviour was a clear example of non-respect towards Confucian values. The maintenance of river works could not be underestimated by the officials, indirectly appointed by the emperor, but whenever they showed more concern for their own interests, public works maintenance became poorer, to the extent of driving the peasants to rebel. For example, Esherick compares the success of careful officials in avoiding major floods, like Li Pingheng, with the very bad performance of corrupted ones, like Zhang Rumei . The government found itself in the crucial position to decide whether costs could be cut down by reducing its troops, without, on the other hand, weaken the defence in Shandong and other provinces against both the pressure of foreign presence and local banditry activities, including the strengthening of the Boxers. To sum up, the cost of national defence was to heavy and even the reduction of river patrols was attempted, contributing to the disastrous floods of the Yellow River. If natural disasters are not considered as the main cause of the Boxer uprising, however it is very true that they made life very precarious on the north China plain and they were the cause for civil unrest. During the 1890s droughts were as a serious cause of distress as were floods, but the flood of the Yellow River in 1898 is the closest disaster which had impact on the Boxer uprising.
Prior to this period, Boxers and other societies started having influence on the rural population by predicting imminent calamities, which would have brought chaos and death among the population. By promising protection and salvation, criminals, poor and illiterate were pushed, originally, to join the societies. The disasters at end the end of the century, therefore, did nothing but increase the number of criminal groups, in many cases not even well organised. In the case of the Boxers, for example, experts in martial arts and swords fighting turned to banditry and started to target Christians, Chinese converts and anything representing the foreign presence, such as railways and telegraph lines.
Southern Shandong was one of the most affected by the floods and local uprisings became more and more frequent. The situation there was even worsened by the influx of refugees from other severely hit provinces, like Jiangsu. In January 1898, only in Shandong province some forty-eight counties suffered from famine , but things would have got even worse with the flood of the Yellow River in the following August. It inundated hundreds of villages, covering five thousands square miles of northern plain . The size of floods affecting the northern plain have been so thoroughly catastrophic, that a detailed description cannot even been carried out. However, the important aspect emerging from this situation is the chaos that the natural disasters brought. Banditry, organised and not, was spread and performed by increasingly numerous groups, which the government found difficult to suppress because of the restrict budget for national defence. It is this ambiguous combination of events that encouraged some officials to support groups of rebels. Firstly because higher officials in Beijing and other provinces recognised the potential advantage in organising local militia. This would have been lees expensive than running a national army to suppress scattered mass movements, but probably more risky for the stability of the monarchic power. Secondly because local officials feared the power exerted by criminals, so it was more advantageous not to obstruct them. As a matter of fact, both conservatives and reformers in the government supported the idea of a local militia and since the second half of 1898 this became reality under several Imperial decrees. This would bring the Imperial court, in the spring of 1900, to encourage the Boxers in continuing their anti-foreign raids and to serve the throne in full effect as an imperial army.
Even very well known historical events, such as the Boxer uprising, just like minor ones, might have some mystery behind them, as far as their origins are concerned. Modern historians have been divided between two different lines regarding the origins of the Boxers. On one side there are those following the theory of Lao Naixuan, affirming that they were descendants of the White Lotus Society and other sects . On the other side there are those following the theory of George Nye Steiger, who asserted that they were volunteer militia recruited for protecting the throne against foreign menace . Following one of these two lines of thought id determinant in attributing the drought as the main cause of the Boxer uprising. First of all because the natural disasters in the last two or three years of the century had the form of floods and, in any case, they created social unrest as had often happened in Chinese history. In particular, Esherick has defined Shandong province as an area where natural disasters and popular unrest were very traditional problems . Secondly, because if it is true that the drought, or flood, was the main cause, there could have been a Boxer uprising even earlier. It is commonly agreed that the population of the northern plain repeatedly suffered from famine as a result of natural disasters, therefore underground societies were likely to be formed and might have not yet taken the exact connotations for which they are remembered.
Other historians have given lees importance to the flood factor as the main cause of their rebellion because of the anti-foreigner sentiment at the base of their raids. That, undoubtedly, created a big resentment among the population, but given the rural background of the movement s members, I think that what really moved them was the anger caused by poverty and starvation. From this view, I found an interesting connection between the natural disasters and the foreign presence in China, which together contributed to the rebellious movement of end of century. It has probably been more appropriate to analyse these two causes independently from one another, but taking into consideration the innate superstition and strong sense of traditions of Chinese people, what eventually moved the Boxer could be a combined effect of the two. In fact, as I. Hsu states:
Victims of the natural calamities as well as superstitious scholars and officials blamed the misfortune on the foreigners, who, they insisted, had offended the spirits by propagating a heterodox religion and prohibiting the worship of Confucius, idols and ancestors.