The Boxer Rebellion comes through the Telegraph

In the XIX century, the invention of the telegraph affected every aspect the political and social life of the time, from commerce to diplomacy and international relations. Proof of that was the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900​

On May 30th, 1900, Claude Maxwell MacDonald, the British minister in China, sends a telegram to Lord Salisbury, his Foreign Affairs colleague, asking for backup in Beijing, in northern China.

On June 4th, MacDonald sends a new message:

“I have to report that the situation in Peking is such that we may be besieged at any moment here, with the telegraph lines cut and the railway obstructed.”

An outbreak of deaths and violence begins.

The long foreign domination in China, from England and Japan, became oppressive for a major part of the population. The serious economic disruption, allied to an extreme drought period, triggered the creation of a Chinese secret society called Yihequan.

The members of the Yihequan, quickly dubbed by the foreigners as boxers, led an uprising in northern China, where the Japanese and western influences in the country were mostly noted.

The panic was settled.

The isolation

With desire for vengeance, the boxers killed Chinese and Christian missionaries wherever they went. All that was associated to the western culture was considered an enemy.

On June 20th, 1900, the boxers besiege Beijing’s foreign legation district.

On the following day, the empress Tzu’u Hzi declared war to all foreign nations with diplomatic relations in China – the Government of the Qing Dynasty sides with the boxers. 

Whilst foreign allies joined forces to fight the revolution, the boxers maintained the strong-arm contest, not lifting the siege.

Helping forces weren’t able to reach the city since boxers have destroyed the railways, besides cutting the telegraph between Beijing and Tianjin, and between Beijing and Russia.

At the time, the telegraph was far from being frequently used by the British Empire. British diplomats in China feared the new technology, since the information coming from England overrode its jurisdiction in colonial territory.

With the connections cut, Beijing was incommunicable with the outside. China’s Embassy in London couldn’t know what was happening in the capital, and the only communication alternative left was through letter, which took about two months to reach its destination.

The Chinese used the western technologies against foreign domination.

Not even the British ministers in other Chinese cities could communicate with MacDonald and Beijing. The only thing left was the officer’s speculation in London about the situation in the Chinese capital.

The power of the telegraph

On August 14th, 1900, western troops took Beijing and freed the foreign delegation. The responsible were executed and a valuable lesson was learned.

The Chinese, by using the telegraph against western forces, showed the British power the ultimate importance of communication in times of crisis.

After the revolution, Great Britain used this means of communication to claim territories and assembled several lines in all China to support British spheres of interest throughout the Chinese coast.

The telegraph, besides being an instrument of imperialism, becomes also a colonization means in China.

The newspaperSan Francisco Call, on June 14th, 1901, showed the following headline:

“Sir Claud MacDonald declares boxer uprising was caused by the aggressions of foreigners and enmity of mandarins”.

The guilt conscience of the western side was noticeable. However, that didn’t stopped the responsible for the revolution, including the Chinese Government itself, to be severely punished.

On September 7th, 1901, it was signed the Boxer Protocol, between the Qing Empire and the foreign Allies (including the United Kingdom, the USA, Italy, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Japan).

The Government of the Qing dynasty had its authority dismissed and was completely humiliated with this agreement.



As it was proven in the Spanish-American war or in the Boer war, the Government’s control over the telegraph lines was crucial in the conflict’s outcomes, by giving access and control over the information.

The telegraph’s importance as a media was, once again, tested.

This new technology gained recognition in the imperialism and in the transnationalization of the economic relations between countries.