Tag Archives: Boxer Rebellion

Drought and Religion, ACTION

I have a guest post at The Wild Hunt entitled “Drought and Religion” about the current ongoing drought in California, historical and contemporary polytheist perspectives on drought’s religious implications, and the history of drought-related to political and economic conflicts.

I also have an interview entitled “Ancestors, Ancient Culture, and Old Gods” in the Litha 2015 issue of ACTION, the newsletter of the Alternative Religions Education Network (AREN). Sadly, this is the last issue of ACTION, by mutual decision of Christopher Blackwell (Editor and Chief Reporter) and Bill Kilborn (Web Guy).



Uncontrolled: The Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900

Artist: Johannes Koekkoek, 1900. Credit: Public Domain.

Artist: Johannes Koekkoek, 1900. Credit: Public Domain.

My latest Gods and Radicals article, “Uncontrolled: The Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900,” is up. It expands on my previous posts about the Boxers with material from Paul Cohen’s excellent book History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth.

The article touches upon Boxer organizational structure, social dynamics surrounding mass spirit possession, Guan Di’s role in the movement, the use of magic and prayer to attempt to control fire, morally questionable actions such as edicts restricting the movements of women or the widespread summary execution of civilians, and the all-female Red Lantern auxiliary force.

Book Review: Boxers & Saints

gly - boxersgly - saints

Gene Luen Yang, a Chinese-American writer and illustrator, recently published two graphic novels telling the stories of two individuals caught up in the events of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The protagonist of Boxers is a young boy who becomes a leader in what Yang translates as the “Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist” (aka the Boxers). Saints is told from the perspective of a female Chinese convert to Catholicism.

In an interview with Wired, Yang said that he deliberately published the project in two separate volumes in order to “to reflect its dual nature.” In the same interview, he shares that he is Catholic, a fact I was unaware of when I read the books–and which reading the books did not lead to me to guess. In other words, I think that Yang did an excellent job of telling both sides of the story.

I think that the traditional gods (such as Tu Di Gong, the local land god) and the phenomenon of spirit/deity possession among the Boxers are treated respectfully. The artwork sample from Boxers accompanying the Wired interview includes one of the scenes depicting deity possession, if you’d like to see for yourself.

I highly recommend these two graphic novels. I read Boxers first, then Saints. While they are designed to be able to be read separately, Saints contains several interesting “twists” to the events in Boxers, so I would suggest reading them in the same order that I did.

Fengshui, Luddism, Environmentalism

I recently purchased anthropologist Ole Bruun’s Fengshui in China: Geomantic Divination Between State Orthodoxy and Popular Religion. According to the dust jacket, it is the “first in-depth academic analysis of fengshui.”

Among a myriad of interesting topics Bruun has researched, one that stands out is the association between fengshui and opposition to industrial development. In the late nineteenth century, fengshui “gradually acquired the guise of an anti-foreign discourse, a national emblem justifying an obstructionist set of practices” (Bruun 60).

I wrote about this previously when discussing the Boxer Rebellion, but the history of fengshui-inspired resistance to modernization goes back several decades before that uprising.

For example, the Shanghai-Wusong railway, which was completed in 1875, was specifically “built with an oddly winding track to avoid accusations of interference with the fengshui of the region and disturbance of graves and spirits” (Bruun 61).

Nonetheless, the railway was on its way out within the year, and dismantled entirely within three:

The railway operated at a profit until 1876, when the death of a Chinese on the line was announced by the Chinese authorities in Shanghai; this was followed by a number of official protests and disturbances along the line, openly supported by the local gentry, who accused the line of ruining fengshui.

As part of the Chefoo Convention the Chinese government agreed to purchase the line. But instead of continuing its operation the line was dismantled in 1878 and the rails and rolling stock sent to Taiwan, while the Chinese officials supervising the destruction work moved about in sedan chairs “as an expression of their abhorrence of mechanical locomotion” (Chang K.N. 1943: 24). (Bruun 61)

Obviously, the local gentry had other reasons aside from traditionalism and fengshui to oppose the rise of a new (industrial capitalist) ruling class, but Bruun reminds us that the local peasantry probably had its reasons to dislike the railroad was well:

It is possible, however, that practical considerations among the peasants were equally important to superstitious beliefs. The later nationalist Minister of Railways, Chang Kia-ngau, wrote of this incident [the dismantling of the Shanghai-Wusong railway] that the Chinese peasants, “like home-loving peasants everywhere,” were unwilling to suffer expropriation of their land for railroad purposes and the locomotives were feared as a danger to cattle and pedestrians” (Chang K.N. 1943: 25). (Bruun 61)

The resistance was widespread, and just as much (if not more) anti-foreign as anti-industrial; that is, no fancy new technology need be involved for Westerners to be told to leave: “From Sichuan in western China we hear of missionaries being turned away by local gentry when attempting to build summer cottages in scenic mountain areas (Service 1989: 105-107)” (Bruun 61).

Bruun retells another story, where the local villagers were the angry ones, and the gentry colluded with the telegraph company: “In Western Yunnan, a group of villagers saw the telegraph as a menace to the good fortune of their district and cut down the poles – and sold the wire in compensation for their trouble” (62). The retribution, however, was brutal:

An energetic magistrate […] had two men arrested, and charged with the offense. They were probably innocent, but under the persuasion of the bamboo they were induced to acquiesce in the magistrate’s opinion as to their guilt. They were sentenced to be deprived of their ears, and then they were sent on foot, that all might see them, under escort along the line from Yunnan City to Tengyueh and back again. No poles have been cut down since (Morrison 1895: 157). (Bruun 62)

As this case illustrates, “fengshui-based protests to railway and telegraph construction apparently died out soon after their nativization” (Bruun 62). However, this does not necessarily imply a widespread and immediate embrace of those technologies, since in the story from Yunnan, fear of having one’s ears cut off and being paraded publicly by the local magistrate probably had something to do with the cessation of resistance to the telegraph.

It was not, however, the end of resistance to Western influence as a whole:

Both Western teachings and particularly Western technology remained under heavy charge, the latter often compared to machine-breaking, or “Luddism” in industrializing Europe (Chesnaux 1973: 50). High factory chimneys were often opposed due to the polluting fengshui influence of smoke (Morrison 1895: 175).

Modern weaving and spinning machinery was destroyed in rural districts near Canton in the 1880s, and attacks on factories, now termed “factory-smashing” in Chinese (da chang) continued until the end of the century. Peasant resistance to modern textile industry was widespread in towns, which had attracted thousands of impoverished peasants in search of work. (Bruun 64)

Bruun contrasts the Chinese machine smashing with the Luddite movement of England, which as Thomas Pynchon reminds us, were first targeted at “knitting machines which […] had been putting people out of work for well over two centuries.” Again, the anti-foreign (and anti-Christian) element of the struggle was a strong one:

Unlike similar movements in England, motivated by purely economic aims, Chinese resistance typically combined a number of sentiments: modern technology was rejected because it was foreign as much as because it was seen to create unemployment. Factory-smashing and attacks on missionary property and personnel often occurred simultaneously.

In some cases, as for instance in the 1891 anti-Christian riots in the Yangtze valley, local gentry incited the peasants against the foreigners and provided both arguments and arms. When the Yellow River went over its banks in the late 1890s and impoverished thousands of peasants […] in the northeast, foreign churches and missionary personnel were accused of having cause the disaster by their malicious fengshui influence (Davis, F. 1971: 15). Revolts raged over the three provinces.

This increased tension climaxed in the Boxer Uprising in 1897-1900 aimed at destroying everything foreign. (Bruun 64).

In the forward to the book, Stephan Feuchtwang reminds us that “It may be of some interest to compare the difference between the nineteenth-century observers and Ole Bruun as a late twentieth-century observer of fenshui in China because it is also an indication of changes that fengshui itself has undergone” (vii-viii). We see that in the late nineteenth century, fengshui was used to mobilize anti-foreign resistance, including resistance to industrial development. How has that changed? Well, some things have gotten a little more extreme:

Bruun devotes an entire chapter to the way that Westerners in the late twentieth century have tended to think of fengshui as “environmentalist,” and whether that appellation is deserved or not. In short, no:

It is perfectly sound to explore the fengshui tradition’s role in resource management and its capacity for environmental protection. Too hastily, however, much Western literature conveys the simplified message that fengshui is an ancient tradition that moralizes harmony between man and environment. Taken as a conclusive statement this is an absurdity, fabricated for an environmentally conscious Western audience.

What fengshui means to the individual in its Western intellectual interpretation is not my concern, since any tradition is subject to change and reinterpretation. I shall emphasize, however, that if Chinese peasants destroy their environment but get rich in the process, they are most likely seen to have auspicious fengshui. And if mountain villagers make a fat living from selling endangered species […] they can look out from their south-facing doorways and praise the mountains for their generous fengshui.

Yet it is also clear that, for instance, serious pollution from a factory chimney or contaminated groundwater affecting people’s health may be interpreted as malicious fengshui. As a medium of expression, this holistic tradition may work both in favour of development at the expense of the environment and against environmental degradation. So far, however, fengshui as practiced in the People’s Republic has encouraged the former rather than prevented the latter. (Bruun 232).

Bruun notes that the anti-foreign sentiment of the late 1800s and early 1900s, as described in detail above, was later interpreted through an environmental lens:

It was such nationalistic sentiments, in their popular form frequently dressed up as concern for the fengshui situation of a local area with reference to the “living qi” or the “breath of the dragon,” which were later noticed by environmentally conscious groups and individuals in the West. (233)

In examining the historical texts published about fengshui, Bruun concludes that it was never historically seen as “environmentalist” at all:

Natural symbolism has no immediate impact on the concrete activities of resource management and environmental practices in general. […]

Early Western sources of fengshui reveal that protection of the “environment” (a term first really developed in the republican period) was neither a concern to Western onlookers nor to Chinese users. Nature was most commonly denoted as the resource base that should be brought under control in the service of mankind. (248)

From his fieldwork, Bruun notes that many species have been hunted to near extinction, DDT and other toxic pesticides are regularly sprayed on vegetables (leading to a scarcity of birds and butterflies, though not affecting “wasps and biting flies” at all), and efforts to spread information about the dangers of pesticides through the loudspeakers installed in every villages are routinely ignored as government propaganda.

When it comes to vegetation, Bruun acknowledges that “Trees around houses are still associated with good fengshui,” but also observes that “the material circumstances of life forbid most peasants to plant other than a few trees or a cluster of bamboos […] fengshui is not seen to inspire more vegetation than quite practical considerations will any way produce” (252).

He also notes that trees behind a grave are beneficial, while those in front are not. The reality of overcrowding of cemeteries had led to a leveling of trees:

Therefore, again in theory, if a grave is placed in solitude on a hillside it will contribute to the preservation of tres and greenery at least in some positions. In real life, however, favourable burial ground are scarce and almost any serviceable hillside will be sprinkled with graves, old and new higgledy-piggledy.

To obtain the best fengshui people scatter their graves (Freedman 1979: 197), and since the trees which are beneficial to the grave in front will be intolerable to the grave behind, the compromise is usually no large trees at all, but only shrubs and bushes. In some regions, for instance in Fujian, vegetation is commonly removed in front of graves, frequently turning hillsides into dreary wastes (noted in de Groot 1901: 945). (Bruun 252-3)

However, while the number of ecologically conscious individuals is miniscule, it is not entirely zero:

Still there are no rules without exceptions. Just a few individuals in the villages showed a genuine interest in the natural environment outside the cultivated domain. One was an elderly barefoot doctor, who deplored the disappearance of butterflies which he once had collected, and another was a fengshui specialist, who had developed a “professional” interest in vegetation around houses. (Bruun 253)

Boxer Rebellion

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.