With obvious enthusiasm and fascination, Diana Preston spins exhaustive research into a tight narrative in The Boxer Rebellion. There are grand themes, evil villains, bumbling bureaucrats, sickening cowards, and dashing heroes competing to fill each page with tension, danger, and history.
The Boxer Rebellion focuses on peasant unrest in China, primarily in the summer of 1900. Spreading like wildfire, the Boxer way of life attracted peasants from throughout the country. (Boxers were so named because their Chinese boxing was alleged to bestow magical powers.) The Boxers soon grew so powerful that the confused, outmoded Manchu government believed it could win a genocidal war against foreigners by sanctioning Boxer activities. In this setting, Preston weaves a fact-based story of people, perseverance, accomplishments, and shortcomings during a dreadful eight-week siege of Beijing's diplomatic quarter and all foreign settlements throughout China. The characters, from glamorous Tzu Hsi, last empress of China, to naâ€¢ve American soldier Oscar Upham, are realistically depicted, providing needed personal perspective. One of the few disappointments was the absence of a consistent Boxer voice. Then, as now, the winners write the history books, and there is little genuine Chinese perspective. The reader will come away with the overwhelming sense of slipping into a story far larger than anticipated. The Rebellion initiated major changes in global politics, the results of which are still felt today, most obviously in the prevalence of multinational peace-keeping forces, the first of which occurred during the Boxer uprising. Subtly, Preston points to the key issues troubling the rescue army, helping to point out how many of these issues still divide modern nations.
Providing a needed perspective on history, couched in an accessible, thorough narrative, The Boxer Rebellion succeeds in painting intriguing history with modern colors. If you are willing to learn about the world we live in on a sociological, historical, governmental, or political level this is a great place, and a fascinating era, in which to begin.
Andrew Lis writes from New York.