The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was an anti-Christian and anti-foreign movement with significant religious dimensions. I’ve pulled some quotes that I consider interesting from the perspective of religious history. The Boxers drew on a number of older traditions, but the movement arose in order to address a specific set of political and social problems including colonization by foreign powers, missionary Christianity and industrial technology. To begin with, since the Opium War of 1840 (don’t even get me started on that!) the European powers had begun to ceaselessly extort land and privileges from the ruling Qing Dynasty (Preston 12). In 1897, in response to an attack on German Catholic missionaries, Kaiser Wilhelm II threatened that the Chinese would “feel the iron fist of Germany heavy on their necks,” and thereby procured Germany a naval base on the Shandong peninsula. He didn’t stop there either:
He demanded further concessions to the missionaries, including the construction of churches and cathedrals with Chinese government funds. At German insistence, the inscription above their doors read “Catholic church constructed by imperial order.” The kaiser’s action understandably reinforced Chinese fears that the missionaries–or the “primary devils” as they called them–were in political cahoots with their governments, which were using them as a pretext for intervention. (Preston 25)
The spread of Christianity in China exacerbated many social tensions:
[Converts] were forbidden to practice ancestor worship, so fundamental and integral to Chinese life. This meant that the close-knit social fabric of town and village life was falling apart. As even a reforming Chinese scholar, writing under the pseudonym “Wen Ching,” put it: “As soon as a man becomes a Christian he really ceases to be a Chinaman.” […] Many were from the poorest groups anyway and were disparagingly called “rice Christians” in the belief that they had converted only to fill their stomachs. (Preston 26)
Christian churches also tended to offend native Chinese religious beliefs:
Another source of grievance was that, since 1860, missionaries had had rights to build or rent premises. Some used this as an excuse to appropriate temples or halls or to build on sites where their high-spired churches collided with the geomantic beliefs of “feng-shui” […] This caused tremendous offence–Wen Ching likened it to the erecting of a stinking tannery next to Westminster Abbey. (Preston 26-7)
Church steeples were not the only violation of feng shui. The Boxers also detested the effects of the industrial technologies that foreigners had been imposing upon the landscape, and indeed proceeded to cut telegraph wires and destroy large sections of railroad during their uprising. Both tactics also proved highly effective militarily in fighting against the invading force of Europeans and Americans, who had expected to be able to use those technologies as they fought the Boxers (Preston 92-3). The antipathy towards railroads is slightly ironic considering one of the major jobs the Chinese in America were employed to do earlier in the 1800s, but the belief that human sacrifice was required in the construction is a little more chilling when one considers how many Chinese died in building America’s railroads (one per every mile of track here in the Monterey Bay region).
The Boxers attacked all manifestations of foreign influence. In particular they hated and feared the railways the foreigners had built and not just for the economic hardship they had brought the ordinary people. They believed that the “iron centipedes” or “fire carts” were desecrating the land and disturbing the graves of their ancestors. According to William Bainbridge, the second secretary at the American Legation, the Boxers said that “the ponderous locomotives and rumbling trains pressed heavily the head of the Dragon and that his beneficent exhalations were smothered and no cloud could form in the heavens.” Boxers believed that railway engineers practiced gruesome rites. An incredulous George Morrison received a letter from a missionary in Peking: “Suppose you have heard of the kidnapping scare which has already lasted over a fortnight…Five thousand boys and five thousand girls are needed for immolation on the new railway! […] The railway is the cause of all this ado. The Chinese believe that no great work can be successfully executed without a human sacrifice in some form.” Telegraph lines were similarly feared. Wind moaning the the high telegraph poles sounded like spirits in torment. Rusty water dripping from the wire looked like the blood of the spirits of the air. Foreign-owned mines, dug deep in search of mineral wealth, were a worse violation, disturbing the beneficial spirits of the Chinese earth. Bloodthirsty manifestos now promised: “When we have slaughtered them all, we shall tear up the railroads, cut down the telegraphs, and then finish off by burning their steamboats.” (Preston 30)
Against all these evils, how could the Boxers resist? They called upon the gods to help them:
The Boxers would call on a god to come down and possess them and then fall into a trance, whirling and dancing with their weapons in their hands, daring members of the crowd to attack them. The promise of invulnerability offered by these rites must have been irresistible, particularly to those who felt they had little power over their daily lives. The Boxer ceremonies were also compelling because they were so closely intertwined with Chinese popular culture. The gods the Boxers called on to possess them were well known from the colorful and dramatic operas performed at temple fairs and village celebrations. […] When a Boxer invoked a particular god, he would take on its characteristics. If he had called on Pigsy [a Buddhist character/deity from the Xiyouji], he would begin rooting about. If he had called down the God of War, he would strut and snarl in a suitably martial way. (Preston 23-4)
In China Unbound, Paul Cohen points out some of the significant innovations of the Boxer spirit possession phenomenon:
Boxer possession functioned in very different ways from the possession accompanying Chinese spirit mediumship. For one thing, even before the winter of 1898-9, possession among the Spirit boxers was a mass, not an individual phenomenon. And, for another […] one senses very strongly that, on a personal level, the overwhelming object of Boxer invulnerability rituals was less community protection than self-protection […] [I]n some societies, possession appears to serve both roles [public and private] simultaneously. Certainly this was the case with the Boxers. In fact it would not be wide of the mark to argue that the broad range of individual (private) needs spirit possession satisfied within the context of the Boxer movement (the precise mix varying from one Boxer to another) constituted a major reason for the ease with which the Boxer possession developed into a mass (public) phenomenon… (Cohen 95)
Finally, one extremely interesting aspect of the Boxer Rebellion was the role of women in it. Even the Empress Dowager of China took note of that:
She was also intrigued by tales of the Boxers’ female wing–the “Red Lanterns”–whose name derived from the red lights they carried to help the Boxers burn down missionary buildings. These girls, mostly between twelve and eighteen years of age, also claimed strange magical powers, including the ability to fly. It was rumored that “the red lantern girls could pull down high-storied houses with thin cotton strings, and could set fire to the house simply by moving a fan.” They were considered the equals of the male Boxers despite the Boxer belief that female impurities rendered Boxer spells useless. (Preston 31-32)
Of course, there are many complexities to the story of the Boxer Rebellion that I have not even begun to touch upon, in the religious realm as well as the social and political. I’ll share more interesting facts as I come across them.
Cohen, Paul. China Unbound: Evolving Perspectives on the Chinese Past. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.
Preston, Diana. The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China’s War on Foreigners That Shook the World in the Summer of 1900. New York: Walker & Company, 2000. Preston’s book focuses almost exclusively on the European and American experience of events, which does make sense because she doesn’t read Chinese and there exist plenty of eyewitness accounts in English, but is also unfortunate for obvious reasons.
Cohen’s essay on the Boxer Rebellion is very interesting, but I’ve only been able to look at it online, which is an awkward format to read in.