The year following the defeat of the reform movement saw the outbreak of the Yihetuan movement (known to the West as the Boxers) which was mainly composed of peasants and which had international repercussions. It was the product of intensified foreign aggression and an unprecedentedly grave national disaster, and was a development of the struggle against the imperialist partition of China following the Anti-Japanese War. It was also the culmination of decades of popular upheavals all over the country against aggression perpetrated by the missionaries and churches.
The movement originated in Shandong in 1899. The rapid development of the Yihetuan anti-imperialist and patriotic movement frightened the aggressors. They even compelled the Qing government to replace the governor of Shandong with Yuan Shikai, Yuan Shikai led 7,000 men of his New Army from Zhili to Shandong and, in collaboration with the local armed forces, ruthlessly suppressed the insurgents.
The Yihetuan's struggle against aggression won support form the whole country and people joined up with great enthusiasm. The momentum of the Yihetuan movement shocked the Qing court, which then sought to use it to its own advantage. The expansion of the Yihetuan movement in Beijing and Tianjin encouraged the people of the whole country. To crush the Yihetuan, the imperialist powers joined forces and launched a war of aggression against China.
Bowing to the pressure of circumstances ( the Qing court declared war on the imperialist powers on June 21, but this was no more than a devious trick. Four days after the declaration of war, Empress Dowager Cixi decreed the lifting of the siege of the legations and prepared for truce talks.
Fighting on two fronts against foreign and domestic counterrevolutionaries, the Yihetuan insurgents suffered terrible casualties, its strength seriously sapped and lost Tianjin on July 14. Even more eager to capitulate to the enemy when Tianjin had fallen, the Qing court sent envoys to the Legation Quarter to inquire after the well-being of the foreign diplomatic staff, saying that it was willing to apologize to pay an indemnity and to punish the culprits, but the imperialists ignored these as they planned to extort greater gains from their aggression.
Finally the imperialist powers accepted the second “open-door” policy put forward by the United Stales. In 1901 they forced the Qing court to sign the International Protocol with them. Empress Dowager Cixi, however, was very satisfied with it since it ensured the continuation of her dominance.
The momentous Yihetuan anti-imperialist and patriotic movement failed under the concerted suppression of the imperialist powers and their flunkey, the Qing court. Nevertheless, the tenacious struggle frustrated the foreign powers in their attempt to dismember China and demonstrated the potential strength of the Chinese people.