One of the most fascinating things about Bioshock: Infinite is its skewed take on history. At the game’s heart its’ a shooter, first and foremost, and you can easily play through the game and have a hell of a time without know who John Wilkes Booth is, or what really happened during the Boxer Rebellion. However, having that knowledge makes for a richer and more complete experience of the game. You’ll understand more about the characters and their motivations, and the world they inhabit.
And hey, learning’s cool, right? If you can learn, while shooting someone in the face or killing them with a murder of ravens, even better!
So here’s your potted history guide to the real events that inspire and transpire in Bioshock: Infinite.
The Boxer Rebellion
If you’ve seen the Charlton Heston film 55 Days of Peking, you’ve already got a rough grounding in what the Boxer Rebellion (which lasted from 1899 to 1901 all up) was all about, albeit skewed by a Hollywood sensibility and a level of terrible ‘foreign’ acting that seems alien for its racism by the light of modern standards. But the broad strokes of the conflict are there – wary of foreign influence and Christian missionaries, a popular rebellion laid siege to the largest foreign enclave in Beijing for 55 days before being shattered by the Eight Nation Alliance of Austria-Hungary (and what a blessing the Austro-Hungarians were to military history, bless ‘em), France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. After this siege was lifted by the Alliance, all out war ensued that pretty much saw China really held over a barrel by foreign powers – exactly the outcome the rebellion had been trying to fight against.
The siege itself is rightly the stuff of legend – 409 soldiers holding out against over 20,000 enraged Chinese soldiers and fanatic martial artists. The spiritual heart of the Boxer Rebellion was the Boxers themselves, so called by Western observers due to their martial arts practices. Their real name is much cooler - The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists.
That’s how you name a political movement!
These guys were true believers, too. They felt that their martial and spiritual prowess was enough to make them immune to pesky things like bullets and explosive shot, and that they’d be reinforced by heavenly warriors arriving from on high to save China from the evil Gweilo.
The Boxers, though initially a civil uprising, where eventually supported by the Dowager Empress of China, though her support was less than staunch, as you might expect given the hammer about to fall on the country.
The siege was a classic case of a well-trained, well-equipped smaller force holding off a larger, less disciplined and well-equipped one. Historically, it’s usually a recipe for the larger force to be handed a massive defeat, but the combination of national pride and spiritual fervor kept the Boxers going – at least until an allied force of 20,000 soldiers landed, the Russians invaded Manchuria, and Chinese civilians were pretty much caught between hammer and anvil. The Chinese capital was held under occupation, immense reparations were demanded by the Allies, and in hindsight it all just looked like a phenomenally bad idea.
In the end the Allies propped up the Imperial Dynasty, and used it to control the country, at least until the line failed, and devolved into what is called the Warlord era.
In Bioshock: Infinite, the floating city of Columbia seceded from the United States after firing on Chinese civilians during the Boxer Rebellion, and revealing the armed nature of the city. Columbia’s founder, the self-styled prophet Comstock, aggrandises himself in later acts by presenting himself as not only a hero of the fight against the Boxers, but also another enemy far closer to home... The Plains Indians.
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee
Booker De Witt, Infinite’s protagonist, witnessed the events at Wounded Knee. In 1890, 22 years before the events of the game, the US 7th Cavalry intercepted and detained a body of 350 Lakota Souix. The soldiers surrounded the Sioux, and demanded they surrender their weapons and board trains to leave the area.
Reports vary as to what happened – a rifle discharge during a scuffle, or perhaps a performance of the spiritual Ghost Dance – but at the end of a cold winter’s day in December, 150 Sioux men, women and children had been killed, and another 50 wounded. There were casualties among the soldiers, too, but most likely self-inflicted, due to poor disposition of field pieces and the indiscriminate nature of the close-quarter fighting.
The Wounded Knee Massacre is considered the end-point of American Indian Wars. Wounded Knee itself is now a National Historic Landmark. To this day there is an ongoing struggle to have the 20 Medals of Honor awarded to US soldiers for the massacre withdrawn.
In the game, not only is De Witt a witness (in fact, from what he says, it’s highly likely he took part, and is none too proud of the fact), but two other characters claim a link with the so-called battle, including, again, the prophet Comstock. He claims to have led the 7th Cavalry to victory at Wounded Knee, and is proud of defeating the Indian ‘savages’.
The 7th Cavalry, by the way, is a pretty infamous unit from the period. During the Indian Wars 7th Cav fought at Little Bighorn (also known as Custer’s Last Stand), and a couple of troopers even had a pistol fight with Wild Bill Hickok.
7Th Cav is still in service.