My grandfather’s sister Ethel Shilston left for China to serve as a missionary in September 1899. She had previously a teacher of the deaf and dumb. She arrived in Peking (now usually known as Beijing) just in time to be caught up in one of the most crucial events in recent Chinese history: the Boxer Rising.
The Boxers were a secret society, whose full name has been translated as “The Society of Virtuous Harmonious Fists”. They were the focus of an increasing wave of resentment at Western penetration and exploitation of China in the nineteenth century, which the moribund Ching Empire seemed powerless to prevent. In the summer of 1900 the Boxers struck in Peking, forcing the Europeans back into the Legation Quarter, which was then under siege for 55 days, from June 20th to August 14th. A few Europeans were killed, the most prominent being the representative of the German Empire, as well as an unknown number of Chinese Christians. The Chinese Imperial government appeared divided: the real power behind the throne, the aged Dowager Empress, eventually coming out in favour of the Boxers, who were then supported by soldiers from the Imperial army. To counter this, an Eight-Power Alliance was formed between six European powers plus the Americans and Japanese, and a multinational army of 55,000 formed to relieve the missionaries and diplomats trapped in the legations; two-thirds of the troops involved being Russians or Japanese.
By the end of June 1900, Peking was cut off from the outside world. My grandfather recorded in his diary a report that the Legations had been stormed by the Boxers on July 5th and all the Europeans massacred; it was even said that the Europeans had killed their own women and children to save them from falling into the hands of the Chinese. Not surprisingly, my grandfather marked this diary entry with a heavy black line in the margin. On July 18th the “Newcastle Journal”, the local paper, even printed an obituary notice for Ethel Shilston, describing her as “a type of the best class of modern Englishwomen”, being “strikingly handsome in feature”, combined with “intellectual attainments of a high order” and “an amiable disposition and a charm of manner”. It was not until August 23rd that the family received a telegram saying that reports of the massacre were false, and that the siege of the foreign legations in Peking had been relieved a week earlier.
Directly after the breaking of the siege, Ethel Shilston sent a long letter to her family describing what had happened. My grandfather received it on October 11th, and transcribed long extracts from it in his diary. They run as follows:-
“Many times I have thought of writing but everything looked so hopeless that I had not the heart to do it. We have lived on rumours of the troops coming which have again and again been dashed to the ground.
“Night after night the sky was ablaze with the fires of foreign houses. It was awful to see them and to pick out whose it was.
On the 19th June we heard that we must leave the city within 24 hours. I believe the Ministers would have sent us off and we should have been massacred by the Boxers but God overruled and we were saved at the cast of a man’s life, and that man the German Minister.
The day the German Minister was killed there was a perfect panic among the foreigners. They rushed here leaving valuables, stores, clothing all behind, and as soon as the houses were empty the Boxers burnt them. I wonder if so many nationalities ever lived in such close quarters before. Tents are all over the lawn, people sleeping on all the verandas and everywhere one hears different languages spoken.
On June 20th fighting with the regular troops began and we all set to work to help with the fortifications. We ladies sewed up everything we could tear up for earth-bags, then going out to supervise the coolies filling them. Day after day there was heavy firing, bullets whizzing and whirring over our heads and shells bursting. A hospital had to be opened and day by day the wounded were brought in. It was dreadfully sad to see them.
The Boxers’ first idea was to burn us out. On June 22nd they set fire to some buildings close to the south stables. All hands were called to the buckets; men and women making two lines from each well to pass along the water; the bullets raining in all the time. Next day to the north, behind Sir Claude’s house, the great Imperial Chinese College was set on fire.
Oh, the excitement and the horror of those days and then the fierce attacks at night as if the horde of Boxers were upon us. We had to undress in the dark for fear of attracting bullets to our house, and many nights we partly kept our clothes on, waiting to be called to fly into the church as a last refuge. Night after night we are aroused by their fiendish firing and shelling, and to make things worse a thunderstorm is added on one night. Oh we shall never forget that night. Everyone dressed and sat talking in the dark until a vivid flash of lightning showed up the forms. Now the boom of thunder, now the crack, crack of bullets, now the bang of an explosive shell.
On July 1st I was called to duty at the hospital, so since that time my hands have been very full. I am very glad to have it to do, as it keeps one from thinking so much about the troops that do not come.
Our stores gradually came to an end. We manage to live on horse-steak and rice, horse soup, and tinned fruit (small portion each) and rice.
Then, on August 16th:
The Sikhs were the first to get in. While the Japs and Russians were engaged in bombarding one of the gates, they slipped in unobserved and ran for our Legation. We were at the gate to meet them. Oh the cheering and the clapping to see those fine stalwart men in their picturesque turbans laughing and cheering too. It almost made us cry for joy. Last night I went onto the city wall and saw five of the gates blazing away”.
In May 1902 Ethel Shilston married a fellow-missionary, the Reverend Ernest Box, in Tientsin, and they went to live in Shanghai. She must have been one of the very few people able to read their own premature obituary notices!
After the rising, the western powers imposed an enormous indemnity on China and insisted on the execution of prominent supporters of the Boxers, but the Ching Empire was permitted to continue. It survived for barely a decade before it was overthrown in a revolt and replaced by a Chinese Republic. Before this, however, the two allied powers who had most to gain from the collapse of central authority in China, namely Russia and Japan, had fallen out over the spoils. In 1905 the Russian Empire was disastrously defeated by the Japanese both on land and sea, confidence in the government of Tsar Nicholas collapsed, there was a nationwide call for reform, the crew of the battleship "Potemkin" on the Black Sea mutinied, and the first-ever Soviet was formed in St. Petersburg. The Tsarist regime only narrowly survived what Lenin called “The dress-rehearsal for revolution”. All this could be seen as a spin-off of the Boxer Rising.