Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Boxer Rebellion Part 2: Fight Club

Stage Two: Fight Club
            The Boxers full title, according to Preston was 'I Ho Tuan' or Boxers United in Righteousness and they emerged from the Shantung province from two previous groups, the Big/Great Swords and Spirit Boxers, both of which had originated in Shantung.  The Big Swords were a militia or vigilante group made primarily of land owners who sought to protect their property from bandits.  The Spirit Boxers came from a much poorer demographic and while they did proactive martial arts they also based a large amount of their practices around charms and mysticism.  Ultimately the Spirit Boxers were the stronger influence on the final dogma of the Boxer movement, having performed martial arts shows to draw in recruits and claiming that through spirit possession they could become invincible to bullets and swords.

            Spirit possession was, in my opinion, very similar to the religious practice of talking in tongues in some Christian sects, in which the believer takes on the presence of a spirit or angel and acts or speaks with the authority and power of that supernatural creature.  Boxer's used names of creatures from very well spread mythos in their martial arts demonstrations, speaking the cultural language of those they wished to recruit.  Using this cultural mythos their movement spoke to a large demographic within the Han of the province using symbols that had been taught to them since their birth.

            The Boxers appealed to, ironically in my view, many of the same demographics that the Christian Missionaries had been converting from.  The Boxers were more effective I think, because they professed a more active view point and spoke from a familiar native position to those groups.

            Aiding in the growth of this movement was large levels of disenfranchisement from a drought which struck the Shantung region forcing many directionless and poor young men into population centers looking for work and instead finding this militant anti foreign movement.

            As the Boxers United in Righteousness took on a more focused membership from those economically displaced by the presence of steam technology and telegraphs posts,  what could be considered manifestos or newsletters began to be distributed in large sums, "We support the Qing regime and aim to wipe out the foreigners; let us do our utmost to defend our country and safeguard the interests of our peasants" (Purcell, pg224) serving as a perfect example of what the ultimate goal would be for this movement.

            To further parallel this movement and the work of Missionaries, rather like nuns the Boxers had a position for women within their movement with its own responsibilities.  Much as nuns would serve as nurses and teachers in addition to being a part of the church hierarchy, the Boxers had the Red Lanterns who were mostly teenage girls and young women who carried red paper lanterns, in part used to help burn missions, and said to be the source of some level of mystical power.  "They were considered the equals of the male Boxers despite the Boxer belief that female impurities rendered Boxer Spells useless."  (Preston, pg32)

            I considered the idea that the anti-Christian sentiment might have stemmed in part from the Taiping Rebellion, granting a strong cultural memory to Chinese culture that might lead to a sort of demonizing folklore surrounding Chinese who have succumbed to the corrupting foreign influence of Christianity.  But that didn't really pan out in my view.  The Taiping Rebellion happened in the south, the Boxers emerged from the North, the Taiping Rebellion had little resemblance to Western Christianity and was not supported by them when they fought through China, where as the Boxers focused their attention on the idea that it was only corrupt Chinese who would join foreign missions to begin with and that the Christianity they followed was distinctly foreign and absent of Chinese influence.  The Boxers did not have a vendetta against some cultural memory of the Taiping Rebellion, they were against Christianity in the here and now of their lives.

            I have a difficult time understanding the nature of this movement at this stage.  They oppose the presence of new technology because it has economically damaged them, and because it violates taboos, and they oppose Christianity because it is divisive to communities, and because they think that they are performing inhuman practices on people, but in my research I have found no one in the movement attempting to negotiate on little things.  For instance, why is it the local people don't just ask the missionaries to show them around the mission one day so that they can see there are no jars of eyes?  Why not get a job with the railroad like so many Chinese workers had done for decades in America?  Why not learn how to put up and use telegraphs so they know what they are and how they work and really question the nature of how these things fit into ancient traditions of natural balance?  It seems like a step was skipped somewhere.  That people went from poor farmers, to really poor farmers too quickly, and that they went from disgruntled to violent too quickly.  Why was it that no one stopped, looked around, and asked whether there were compromises or deeper investigations that could happen?  I can not find evidence of a cultural apologist on either side of the conflict and that is unnerving to me, I feel something important has been edited out somewhere.

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