Reading Log 2019 #7: The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China by David J. Silbey

After the glorious triumph that was Julia Lovell’s The Opium Wars , I was in the mood to keep reading about this period of Chinese history, and knew that the Boxer Rebellion was the next epochal event, so I went looking for a book that covered that. Silbey’s tome here is what seemed to be the most recommended, so I went with it.

It was… fine. I finished it like two months ago and am already struggling to remember it in any great detail, unlike Ms Lovell’s masterpiece, which should tell you something.

It covers the details well, even if it focuses too strongly on the Western and Japanese perspectives instead of the Chinese. It also spends too much time in the military weeds and not enough giving a perspective on the greater impact of events.

Starting off with a pretty thin grounding of how the Boxer Rebellion started and its initial path (which, unfortunately, focuses too much on its impact on the Western communities in China rather than, say, its own inherent goals or impact on the Chinese people themselves), it then goes into great, nay, exhaustive detail on the Western military response to the Boxer Rebellion.


And that’s the problem; this is more a ground-level history of a specific military campaign than it is an exploration of a collision between two major civilizations that has had direct repurcussions into two World Wars and relations between the two biggest powers on Earth to this day. And I feel like the jacket sells it as more of the latter than the former.

If you just want a military history of the Western campaign, such as it was, to rescue the westerners trapped in Beijing, it tells that story very well. But it’s quite uninterested in telling the wider story of how it ties into the wider scope of Chinese history, or even the more-specific story of Western Imperialism in China and that impact on current Sino-Western relations. The Lovell book about the immediately preceding Opium Wars discusses all of that quite well, which makes The Boxer Rebellion disappointing.

So maybe it was just a matter of my expectations, but those derived from the back copy and press around the book to begin with, but it didn’t quite do the job I wanted it to. Again, if you want a pretty tightly-scoped history of the actual interactions between the Boxers and the Western armies that fought them, this book will be your jam. I, however, am going to continue to look for something that gives this event a more widely-scoped treatment.

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