Uncontrolled: The Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900

By Heathen Chinese

Boxers in Tianjin. Credit: Public Domain.
Boxers in Tianjin. Credit: Public Domain.

The anti-foreign Yihequan (義和拳, “Boxers United in Righteousness”) movement of 1898-1900, better known in the West as the Boxer Rebellion, was characterized by relatively decentralized and non-hierarchical organizational forms. It would be a mistake, however, to label the movement as a whole anti-authoritarian. For one thing, their best known slogan explicitly stated their support for the ruling imperial dynasty: “Support the Qing, destroy the foreign” (“扶清滅洋,” “Fu Qing mie yang”).

More importantly, however, participants in the movement exercised power in morally and ethically questionable manners in territories they controlled. I have no wish to superimpose “modern” value judgements onto the worldview of the participants in the Boxer movement, but I also have no intention of glossing over such aspects of the movement as edicts restricting the movements of women or the widespread summary execution of civilians.

In his book History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth, historian Paul Cohen examines the varied facets of the Boxer movement from many different points of view. Cohen’s nuanced approach proves to be essential when seeking to understand a movement as nebulous and complex as the Boxer Rebellion.

The Many Headed Hydra

If it is difficult for historians to fully understand the Boxer movement in hindsight, it was even more difficult for Qing government officials who were tasked with interacting with the movement as it emerged and expanded. For example, in October of 1899, the nascent Boxer movement clashed with Qing soldiers in the Battle of Senluo Temple, while flying the banner “Revive the Qing, destroy the foreign.” The governor of the province of Shandong, named Yuxian, had no choice but to respond to these events.

Yuxian recommended that local officials “be punished for their complete bungling of the crisis leading up to the Battle of Senluo Temple” (Cohen 32). This was “widely misinterpreted (by the Boxers themselves as well as by the Christians) as a censuring of these officials for having called in the troops to put down the Boxers,” due to Yuxian’s well-known “antiforeignism and consistent policy of leniency toward the Boxer rank and file” (Cohen 33). Leniency toward the rank and file, however, did not equate to leniency for the leaders of groups causing violent disturbances. Yuxian executed the three major Boxer leaders, “while ordinary Boxers were allowed–even encouraged–to meld back into the general population” (Cohen 33). Far from dissolving, however, the Boxer movement in fact began to rapidly expand into new geographical regions.

Cohen builds upon the arguments of Joseph Esherick’s The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, agreeing with Esherick that Yuxian’s policy of decapitating the leadership failed due to “the Boxer movement’s capacity, like Hercules’ Hydra (to borrow Esherick’s apt image), to reproduce itself (including the production of new leadership) with ease” (33).

Etruscan pottery depicting the Lernaean Hydra, c. 525 BCE. Credit: Wolfgang Sauber.
Etruscan pottery depicting the Lernaean Hydra, c. 525 BCE. Credit: Wolfgang Sauber.

The basic organizational unit of the Boxer movement was the tuan, which was centered around an altar or boxing ground in a public square:

Boxer units might number anywhere from 25 to 100 or more members. Typically a village would have a single Boxer unit (often called a tuan in the final phase of the uprising), larger villages, towns, and cities a plurality of units (which in urban areas were generally referred to as tan or altars). (Cohen 39).

Smaller units typically focused on attacking local Christian converts (at least initially), but were adaptable to changes: “Sometimes, when a major action was planned […] thousands of Boxers from nearby towns and villages came together under a unified command” (Cohen 42). There were particularly high levels of concentration and of leadership in the large port city of Tianjin and in the capital, Beijing, where “small groups of Boxers from all over Zhili, but chiefly to the south, filed into the city, where they became attached to one or another of the many altars that were established there” (Cohen 42).

Cohen mentions Esherick’s theory that “the relatively egalitarian social structure of the impoverished northwest […] favored the emergence of a social movement with weakly defined lines of authority and, for this very reason, made it more difficult to suppress such a movement by eliminating its leadership,” but cautions against relying too much upon this particular theory, reminding readers that these same organizational traits were “displayed in a great variety of different social settings, some of them far more highly structured than that of northwestern Shandong” (33-4).

In seeking a more comprehensive explanation for the Boxer’s rapid expansion, Cohen highlights five major factors: the dynamic of mass spirit possession, the severe drought that North China experienced starting in the winter of 1898-99, hunger and hunger anxiety, the ambivalent responses by authorities, and the momentum of the social movement itself. This article will take a closer look at the first of these five factors.

Mass Spirit Possession

Cohen, in broadening Esherick’s theory to account for Boxer activity in regions that do not fit Esherick’s sociological profile, points out that the possession ritual “was not linked to a specific social environment and thus served to uncouple the Boxer movement from the distinctive social environment in which it first emerged” (34). This made it easier to replicate elsewhere, as did the relative ease of performing the ritual itself, a point initially made by Chinese historian Cheng Xiao:

In South China, according to Cheng, shamanism was a more specialized and structured phenomenon. The ability to act as a shaman was passed on by teachers to their followers, and because of the procedures that had to be mastered, it was difficult for the general run of people to “become gods.” In the north, by contrast, […] there were, in general, no strict rituals or standards to be followed. All that was necessary to become possessed by a god was to write out charms or recite incantations, and these were so simple and easy to memorize that even illiterate people had no trouble mastering them. (Cohen 113)

Cohen quotes a historian specializing in the Taiping Rebellion on the potential political ramifications of such phenomena: “‘Uncontrolled spirit possession,’ Robert Weller has written, ‘more easily than other forms of religious communication, undercuts authority of all kinds'” (34). In his endnotes, Cohen also mentions the theory of a Japanese historian, Kobayashi Kazumi, who argued that “the Boxers, unlike the Taipings, had (and were possessed by) a plurality of gods, each with independent authority, with the result that they were unable to generate either charismatic leadership or a strong military/administrative organization” (306). In other words, the polytheism of the Boxers may have made them even more difficult to govern than their monotheist millenarian counterparts.

While there may have been military disadvantages to their decentralized organization, and the same factors that led to the their rapid expansion may have also led to their rapid collapse, this “uncontrolled” aspect is an important key to understanding the Boxers as a whole.

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

As an example of the difficulties of internal organization within the Boxer movement, consider the following eyewitness anecdote by Liu Mengyang, whom Cohen describes as “a reform-minded (and anti-Boxer) member of the local Tianjin elite” (77). Liu describes a dispute between Boxers over whose claim to be possessed by the god Guan Di was the most truthful:

Boxer A said to Boxer B: “You’re just pretending to be Guangong [i.e. Guan Di],” to which Boxer B rejoined “You’re the one who’s doing the pretending.” Unable to resolve their dispute, they asked a bandit [i.e. Boxer] chieftain to decide for them. The bandit chieftain said: “I am the one who has been truly possessed by the spirit of Guangong. You two are charlatans. You have the audacity to assume the name of another in order to trick people. You should be killed!” He then brandished his sword and made as if to chop off their heads, whereupon A and B refrained from further wrangling. (Cohen 122)

Liu was disposed to see all Boxers as “bandits,” but Cohen reminds the reader that “not having faith in this or that Boxer’s magic was a very different thing from not believing in Boxer magic and all,” and that “the great majority of Chinese at the time were quite prepared to accept the premises underlying the Boxers’ magico-religious claims” (144). Thus, it is important not to take Liu’s (obviously deliberately disparaging) account as evidence of anything more than an indication of a certain level of organizational disunity within the Boxer movement, and of Guan Di’s popularity among the Boxers.

Guan Di

Cohen makes the interesting observation that even though the Boxers were an armed movement, this was not necessarily their conscious motivation for worshiping (and allowing themselves to be possessed by) the warrior god Guan Di:

Although Guandi was possibly the most popular god in the Boxer pantheon, it is not clear that this was because he was the God of War; Guandi may have been worshiped with particular intensity in periods of armed conflict, but he happened also, in Duara’s words, to be ‘probably the most popular god in the villages of North China’ in general. (108)

In addition to his prominent role in Boxer possession (and the invulnerability to physical harm that possession was intended to confer), Guan Di was a protector of the people in other contexts during the Rebellion as well.

Battle of Tianjin. Note flames on right. Credit: Public Domain.
Battle of Tianjin. Note flames on right. Credit: Public Domain.

One of the favored weapons of the Boxers was fire, especially fires which the Boxers claimed to light by means of magical incantations. Like the Boxers themselves, Fire has a tendency to be “uncontrolled,” which is of course extremely dangerous in a crowded city like Beijing or Tianjin (especially in 1900). The Boxers, however, also claimed to be able to control the fires they lit and prevent them from burning down the homes of non-Christians.

The writings of Liu Yitong (not to be confused with the Liu Mengyang quoted above), who was “more receptive to Boxer claims than most Chinese elites,” contain an interesting example of such magico-religious firefighting:

Liu recounted an incident in which the Boxers on June 9-10 set fire to two churches in Tongzhou (some mile east of the capital). One of the churches was located very close to a granary. The local magistrate performed a koutou in the direction of the fire and prayed to the gods to protect the granary. Suddenly, as it was related to Liu, there appeared in the air a god in golden armor who stood atop the flames and then disappeared. Neither the granary nor the homes on either side of the church were damaged. Everyone said it was Guandi making his power manifest. (Cohen 126)

Edicts and Executions

The Boxers’ claims to be able to distinguish Christian from non-Christian residences gives rise to the obvious question: how? Liu Yitong “insisted that the Boxers had a remarkable capacity to know which homes belonged to Christians and which did not and that, by burning slips of paper and invoking the help of their gods, they were able to ensure that only the former were burned down” (Cohen 126). Disturbingly, the same method was also used to separate “Christians” from “non-Christians” for summary execution:

The accused party was hauled off to a Boxer altar, where he or she was made to burn slips of paper. If the ashes flew upward, the charge was determined to be false and the accused was given a reprieve; if however, the ashes failed to rise (after, according to some accounts, three burnings), the person was judged to be a Christian and was beheaded. Many innocent (that is, non-Christian) persons were wrongly killed in these circumstances, prompting Zhongfang Shi to remark: “How cruel to treat human life as a child’s sport and rely on whether ash rises or not as the basis for deciding whether a person should live or die.” (Cohen 203)

As is common in many authoritarian social settings, humanity’s worst traits began to dominate everyday life. Unsurprisingly, “a common practice during the Boxer summer, attested to in numerous accounts, Chinese and foreign, was that of settling old scores by falsely accusing people of being followers of Jesus” (Cohen 202-3).

Fear of the Boxers (and of being informed upon by their enemies, no doubt) led many people to preemptively attempt to rid their houses of anything remotely foreign: “When word was circulated that, after the Christians had all been killed, students who read foreign books would be next, many families owning such books consigned them to the flames” (Cohen 203).

Credit: LearningLark.
Credit: LearningLark.

One particularly poignant critique of the Boxers’ methods was recounted by a Beijing man named Tang Yan:

Tang Yan, while at the rice market inside the Fucheng Gate, came upon a weeping woman who complained with bitterness: “At first they said they were going to kill the foreigners, but up to now not a single foreigner has been hurt. The ones killed have all been Chinese who were worshipers of things foreign. What’s more, not a single man has been hurt. The only ones killed have been women and children. Things being this way, how can the turmoil truly be brought under control? I am very frightened.” When Tang heard this, he claims to have been left speechless, as none of the comments of his educated frineds in the preceding several days had been so clear-sighted and resolute. (Cohen 193-4).

Cohen comments in the endnotes:

The substance of the woman’s remarks is interesting. As of the time she made them, it is indeed true that very few foreigners had lost their lives, even fewer in the capital and its environs, which very likely was her frame of reference. On the other hand, although it is certainly possible, as the woman suggested, that the figures for women and children killed greatly outnumbered those for men, there is no hard evidence to support such a claim. (353)

It was true, however, that “women were more at risk than men owing to Boxer pollution beliefs” (194). Cohen, relying upon the account of Guan He, writes that at one point during the Boxer occupation of the city of Tianjin, “women in Tianjin were forbidden to go outside their homes at any hour, and those who violated this injunction (sometimes unknowingly) were killed” (137).

This edict was related to tactical considerations stemming from Boxers’ belief that women’s yin negated the power of Boxer magic, rather than to a conscious ideological position about the role of women in society, but the end result for women who ventured out into the streets of Tianjin was unfortunately the same.

Red Lanterns

In a paradoxical dynamic rather reminiscent of the Madonna-whore complex described by Sigmund Freud, the Boxers relied heavily upon the support of an all-female (and virginal) auxiliary force known as the Red Lanterns. The Red Lanterns were credited with powers including flight, hurling bolts of fire, sabotaging artillery by removing screws magically, healing and even resurrection. Their magic may have involved some sort of trance: “When the Red Lanterns stood erect and did not move, their souls left them and engaged in battle” (Cohen 125).

Indeed, the Red Lanterns “were viewed as possessors of magic that was even more powerful than that of the Boxers themselves. As one account put it: ‘Although the magic of the Boxers is great, they still fear dirty things [i.e. yin]. The Red Lanterns are in fear of nothing” (Cohen 139).

An actual red lantern, Chinatown, London. Advertisement for Les Misérables in background. Credit: Elliot Brown.
An actual red lantern, Chinatown, London. Advertisement for Les Misérables in background. Credit: Elliot Brown.

The Beijing Boxers requested Red Lantern reinforcements when they proved unable to storm a cathedral they were besieging (a fact the Boxers attributed to the use of powerful yin magic by the Catholic Bishop Favier), and in Tianjin the Red Lanterns were treated with supernatural awe. Liu Mengyang’s account notes:

When they [the Red Lanterns] walk through the streets, they avoid women, who are not allowed to gaze upon them. The people all burn incense and kneel in their presence; they call them female immortals and dare not look up at them. Even the Boxer bandits, when they encounter them, fall prostrate on their knees by the side of the road. (Cohen 139)

Zhongfang Shi reported rumors (which he did not believe) of male Boxers who also did not fear “dirty things,” who were allegedly dressed in black rather than the red or yellow that ordinary Boxers wore: “They cover their heads with black kerchiefs and wear dark shirts and trousers and yellow waistbands. Armed with double-edged swords, they don’t fear dirty things and gunfire is unable to get near their bodies” (Cohen 340).

Though this unit of Boxers may have just been an unfounded rumor, it is interesting to note that the possibility of men who “don’t fear dirty things” was not incomprehensible.

Contradictions and Conclusions

Some people glorify the Boxers for being anti-Western (or far more anachronistically, “anti-imperialist”), some people deplore them for it. Far fewer people celebrate the Boxers for being anti-modern, and many people have expressed contempt them for that very fact. Maoist-influenced historians and propagandists have tried to portray elements of the Boxer Rebellion as “anti-feudal” or even anti-patriarchal.

As is apparent from this selection of facts and stories about the Boxer Rebellion, it is extremely difficult to pin down the Boxers to any one dimension. From the fluidity of their organization to the easily reproducible nature of their possession ritual to their penchant for destruction by fire, the adjective “uncontrolled” describes the Boxers well.

For the purposes of his study, Cohen describes history-as-myth, as opposed to history-as-event (i.e. as narrated by historians) or history-as-experience (i.e. of direct participants), as “an impressing of the past into the service of a particular reading of the present.” Any attempt to mythologize the Boxers is bound to be confronted by their complexities and their contradictions. Some of those contradictions will be deeply disturbing or offensive. And in those areas, it is important to try to understand the worldview and experiences of combatants and civilians alike, in order to learn from the past.

Works Cited

Cohen, Paul. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

14 thoughts on “Uncontrolled: The Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900

  1. One of the martial arts I practice is Yin Yuzhang’s style of Baguazhang. Yin Yuzhang’s father Yin Fu helped escort Cixi out of Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion, so anything to do with this era is of great historical interest to me. Some of the other Bagua boxers such as Li Cunyi participated in the rebellion too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The religious/magical aspect of the Boxers is rarely mentioned what I little had read about them before.


    1. Broadly speaking, Maoist historians were rather uncomfortable with that aspect, and Western historians seem to have focused more on the suffering of besieged Westerners. That’s changing, of course, but those changes haven’t necessarily reached a wide audience yet.


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