To Make the Voice of the Criminal Audible

Jean Genet’s text “The Criminal Child,” previously unavailable in English, was translated and published in December 2015. An anonymous commentary on the text, included as an afterword within the same pamphlet, reads “The Criminal Child” as an intricately coded set of instructions for magical initiation and ordeal.

“The Criminal Child” was originally written in 1948 as a speech to be read on a radio show in order to address reforms to France’s youth prisons that had been proposed at the time. It was rejected and never read on the air. When Genet published the censored text the following year, he wrote in his introduction, “I would have liked to make the voice of the criminal audible. Not his plaint; rather his song of glory.” 1

Genet, who had spent two and a half years as a teenager imprisoned in France’s notorious Mettray penal colony (punctuated by a brief but glorious escape), clearly intended to prove himself the exception to Nietzsche’s observations that “the criminal is often enough not equal to his deed: he extenuates and maligns it,” and that “the advocates of a criminal are seldom artists enough to turn the beautiful terribleness of the deed to the advantage of the doer.” 2

Though perhaps expected to be supportive of prison reforms due to his own past experience, Genet instead recalled that he and his fellow delinquents took pride in the harshness of their treatment, and were ashamed to admit to light sentences: “It’s with a sort of shame that the child confesses that they have just acquitted him or that they have condemned him to a light sentence. He wishes for rigor. He demands it.” 3  From my own teenage years, I can corroborate this worldview.

Of course, Genet never claimed that all incarcerated youth share this adversarial attitude. As an adult and a well-respected writer, he (re)visited a youth prison where the director pointed out to him a “scout team he formed to reward the most docile children.” Scathingly, Genet wrote that these were not the “chosen” of whom he spoke:

Looking at those twelve kids, it was clear that none of them was chosen, elected, so as to take on some audacious expedition, even an entirely imaginary one. But I knew that in the interior of the Penitentiary, in spite of the educators, there existed groups, gangs really, where the bond, what made them stick together, was friendship, audacity, ruse, insolence, a taste for laziness, an air about the forehead at once somber and joyful—this taste for adventure against the rules of the Good.5

For this latter category of youth, Genet argued that imprisonment is an ordeal: “Their demand is that the ordeal be terrible—so as, perhaps, to exhaust an impatient need for heroism.” 6 The youth prison is imagined to be a “corner of the world from which you don’t come back.” 7 And this premonition conceals an underlying, occult truth: “In fact, you didn’t come back. When you came back, you were someone else. You had come across a blazing fire.” 8

His Unique Magical System

“Notes on ‘The Criminal Child,’ ” the exegetical essay published alongside Genet’s text, treats Genet as a sorcerer: “Here Genet details some of the workings of his own internal cosmology, the rites and methods of his unique magical system.” 9

Genet’s system of “criminal rites” offers initiation “not into an order, but into an adventure;” nonetheless, like any initiatory system, it is “ineffable to the uninitiated, but shared between himself and other youthful offenders.” 10

The author(s) of “Notes” fill five pages with their distillation of Genet’s occultism. I cannot quote them in their entirety here, so I must pour these words through yet another alembic:

The youth prison is Genet’s fountain of memory, but each of us has our own clandestine world into which we were initiated as youth. It was there in those spaces that we learned magic as a force of liberation, self-creation, and world-building. Though our childhoods are gone, we can access that space again in remembrance and invocation.11

This space is what Genet called “the nocturnal part of man, which you cannot explore, which you cannot enter unless you are armed, unless you are coated, embalmed, unless you are covered with all the ornaments of language.” 12 Genet’s “ritual work prepares the initiate to enter this nocturnal space.” 13

Drawing heavily upon Genet’s novel Miracle of the Rose, “Notes” observes that this “nocturnal heaven” is populated “with spirits, demons, deities, ancestors, and figures from his past with blue eagles carved across their chests, youths who stand ‘the way Mercury is depicted.‘” 14 You know the look.

Mercury, Barcelona. Photo Credit: Ed Uthman, Flickr.

And how does one arm oneself to enter this “nocturnal heaven?” The same prison director who introduced Genet to the “scout team” of “the most docile children” also showed him a collection of improvised knives, but patronizingly confided in Genet that he didn’t really believe in the need to confiscate the knives: they were made of tin, and therefore harmless.

In his mind, Genet could only laugh at the jailer’s obliviousness—confiscating the knives was indeed pointless, but they were far from harmless, and would only be replaced by more dangerous weapons:

Did he not know that, the more it deviates from its practical destination, the more the object is transformed, becoming a symbol? […] What is the point of taking it from him? The child will choose another object to signify murder, something apparently more benign, and if someone doesn’t take that as well, he’ll keep in himself, preciously, the more precise image of the weapon.15

Armed with symbols, the initiate must “pay attention to signs and signs and sigils carved and painted onto walls—M.A.V. (Mort aux vaches), B.A.A.D.M. (Bonjour aux amis du malheur)—and read these as you’d read inscriptions on the walls of an ancient temple.” 16 “Notes” instructs the initiate to build a temple within as well: “Build your inner temple here and consecrate it to ‘amorous passion.’ In this temple you can now face your ordeal.”17

Public Domain. Wikimedia.

“Notes” recalls the eponymous flowers of Miracle of the Rose—in which Harcamone, convicted of murdering a prison guard, transformed “his chains into a garland of roses, one of which Genet clipped and concealed”—and further explicates the term “ordeal” by quoting Raven Kaldera:

Take the rose into your hands, and squeeze the thorns until your hands bleed, even as you smell the scent of Aphrodite. When you can understand why there is no contradiction there, the first step of the path will be open to you.18

To Insult the Insulters

If mysteries can only be understood through experience, why write of them at all? Genet’s primary objective, of course, was to speak directly to the initiated:

This whole time I haven’t been speaking to the educators, but to the guilty […] I ask them to never be embarrassed by what they do, to keep intact inside themselves the revolt that has made them so beautiful. There are no remedies, I hope, for heroism.” 19

Once his speech was censored from the radio, he despaired of reaching his target audience, but decided to publish anyway: “I speak in the void and in the darkness; but even if it were just for myself, I would still want to insult the insulters.” 20 

For the uninitiated, Genet’s counsel is as harsh as it sounds: “Refuse all pity to the kids who don’t want any.” 21 He is explicitly and unapologetically hostile to mainstream society: “Let a poet, who is also an enemy, speak to you as a poet, and as an enemy.” 22 Even Edmund White, Genet’s biographer, found his “poetry” in “The Criminal Child” difficult to translate: “since for Genet crime itself is beautiful, he supports the cruelty of the unreformed prison system because it turns youngsters into hardened criminals.” 23 But that’s not quite right:

“Supports”White’s word—doesn’t quite fit here. Genet is explicitly in his enmity toward this society, its prisons surely included. He sees the prison as an obstacle to be overcome in a path of criminal becoming, a path of individuation.

This is the folly of trying to read him as “the political Genet.” To say that Genet supports (or doesn’t) any given state policy enmeshes his words in a political mode unbefitting the text at hand. Genet neither supports the prison nor desires to reform it. He seeks to escape it […] 24


Blinded by Their Brilliance

In Miracle of the Rose, Genet compared religion to prison, but his comparison was based upon the possibility that the bounded space of the finite (as opposed to the infinite) can lead to a “minute” exploration of the heart:

Abhorring the infinite, religions imprison us in a universe as limited as the universe of prison–but as unlimited, for our hope in it lights up perspectives just as sudden, reveals gardens just as fresh, characters just as monstrous, deserts, fountains; and our more ardent love, drawing greater richness from the heart, projects them on the thick walls; and this heart is sometimes explored so minutely that a secret chamber is breached an allows a ray to slip through, to alight on the door of a cell and to show God.25

Similarly, Genet wrote that prisoners “sentenced to death for life” (i.e. those serving life imprisonment) become hardened and brilliant in their captivity:

Living in so restricted a universe, they thus had the boldness to live in it as passionately as they lived in your world of freedom, and as a result of being contained in a narrower frame their lives became so intense, so hard, that anyone–journalists, wardens, inspectors–who so much as glanced at them was blinded by their brilliance.26

One recalls, of course, that Zeus’s name is etymologically derived from Proto-Indo-European *dewos, meaning “god,” is cognate with Latin deus and Sanskrit deva, and ultimately comes from the root *dyeu- meaning “to gleam, to shine.” The “deities” are “the shining ones.” And so the “shining ones” among the living are touched by gods as well.

Indeed, Genet canonized the prisoners he wrote of as saints:

The audacity to live (and to live with all one’s might) within that world whose only outlet is death has the beauty of the great maledictions, for it is worthy of what was done in the course of all the ages by the Mankind that had been expelled from Heaven. And this, in effect, is saintliness, which is to live according to Heaven, in spite of God.27

Genet hated Sartre’s biography of him (Saint Genet) and said of it, “In all my books I strip myself, but at the same time I disguise myself with words, choices, attitudes, magic. Sartre stripped me without mercy. He wrote about me in the present tense.” The “words, choices, attitudes, magic” that Genet spoke of are surely the same “ornaments of language” required to explore the “nocturnal part of man.” Sartre stripped Genet of his magic, perhaps because he was afraid of being blinded by it. We honor him for it.

The Ekklesía Antínoou honors Jean Genet as a Sanctus, especially on his birthday (December 19) and the date of his death (April 15). Similarly, Brennos Agrocunos has declared David Bowie to be “Saint Bowie, Patron Saint of Enchanted Misfits.” And at the shrine of Jesús Malverde (the unofficial “Santo de los Narcos”) in Culiacán, Sinaloa, women who have never met Joaquín Guzmán Loera (A.K.A. El Chapo, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel and two-time prison escapee) pray fervently on his behalf: “I ask God to take care of him wherever he is, to take care of his sons, his wife.”

In “The Criminal Child,” Genet expressed the ethic of veneration in simple but elegant terms:

I don’t know of any other criterion for the beauty of an act, an object, or an entity, than the song it arouses in me, which I translate into words so as to communicate it to you: this is lyricism. If my song is lovely, if it has upset you, will you dare say that he who inspired it is vile?

You can say that there have always been words charged with expressing the haughtiest attitudes, and that I would have recourse to them so that the least appears haughty. But I can respond that my emotion calls for precisely these words and that they come naturally to serve it.28

Genet also castigated mainstream French society for its hypocrisy: “Your literature, your fine arts, your after-dinner entertainment all celebrate crime. The talent of your poets has glorified the criminal who, in life, you hate. So deal with the fact that, for our part, we despise your poets and your artists.” 29

Jean Genet, 1983. Photo Credit: International Progress Organization.

TV shows and films portray outlaws as protagonists, but “those who were their more or less exact models suffered for real. […] You know nothing of heroism in its true nature, in the flesh, how it suffers in the same everyday way that you do. True greatness brushes past you. You ignore it, and prefer a fake.”30

This article was originally published at The Wild Hunt.


  1. Jean Genet, “The Criminal Child,” v.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter 4, Aphorisms 109 and 110.
  3. Jean Genet, “The Criminal Child,” 3.
  4. Ibid., 11.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 4.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. “Notes on ‘The Criminal Child,’” 37.
  10. Ibid., 37-39.
  11. Ibid., 41-42.
  12. Jean Genet, “The Criminal Child,” 12.
  13. “Notes on ‘The Criminal Child,’” 46.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Jean Genet, “The Criminal Child,” 10-11.
  16. “Notes on ‘The Criminal Child,’” 40. “Mort aux vaches” is translated as “death to cops,” “Bonjour aux amis de malheur” as “Greetings to friends of misfortune.”
  17. Ibid., 42.
  18. Raven Kaldera, qtd. in “Notes on ‘The Criminal Child,’” 43-44.
  19. Jean Genet, “The Criminal Child,” 14-15.
  20. Ibid., 25.
  21. Ibid., 16.
  22. Ibid.
  23. “Notes on ‘The Criminal Child,’” 45.
  24. Ibid. Emphasis added.
  25. Jean Genet, Miracle of the Rose, 43.
  26. Ibid., 42-43.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Jean Genet, “The Criminal Child,” 13.
  29. Ibid., 20.
  30. Ibid., 21-22.

Heathen Chinese

is the son of Chinese immigrants and is a diasporic Chinese polytheist living in the San Francisco Bay Area (stolen Ohlone land). He practices ancestor veneration and worships (among others) the warrior god Guan Di, who has had a presence in California since the mid-1800s.


An essay by Heathen Chinese is featured in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire Is Here.  Get it here!


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.

Book Review: Almanac of the Dead

By Heathen Chinese

Used for review purposes only.
Used for review purposes only.

If I were to recommend a single book to any pagan, polytheist, anti-capitalist or resident of North America, it would be Almanac of the Dead. Larry McMurtry writes in a blurb on the back of the book, “If Karl Marx had chosen to make Das Kapital a novel set in the Americas, he might have come out with a book something like this.” Perhaps, or perhaps not, since Karl Marx could not possibly have the same lived experience as Leslie Marmon Silko.

Silko is a Laguna Pueblo writer living outside of the Southern Arizona city of Tucson. Her 763-page novel spans the entirety of North America and Mesoamerica geographically, but it all revolves around the central nexus of Tucson. In the dimension of time, Almanac is simultaneously rooted in the codices of the past, unmistakably situated in the present day world of cocaine smuggling and television psychics, and oriented towards the apocalyptic changes-to-come of the near future.

This review is being published on May 13. One hundred and sixty-nine years ago, on this day in 1846, the United States declared war on the First Federal Republic of Mexico, formally initiating a war which eventually resulted in the annexation of New Mexico and Alta California, including most of what is now Arizona. The land in question, of course, was indigenous land, despite the territorial claims of the government of Mexico. The area surrounding Tucson (Tohono O’odham land, with a strong Yaqui presence as well) was not actually annexed by the United States until the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, but nonetheless, Tucson is a city defined by its location on the open wound known as the U.S.-Mexico border. It is a city shaped by liminality, and by the violence which gave birth to that liminality. Bank robber John Dillinger was captured there in 1934. Thousands of migrants continue to attempt to cross the harsh Sonoran desert—many do not make it all the way across. Silko writes, “Tucson was too close to Mexico. Tucson was Mexico, only no one in the United States had realized it yet.”

Tucson. Credit: Matthew Schallan.
Tucson. Credit: Matthew Schallan.

Almanac of the Dead was published in 1991, four hundred and ninety-nine years after a Genoese navigator first stabbed Taíno earth with the flag of Castile and León. In 1994, three years after Almanac was published, the Mayan rebels of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation issued their First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle. One of Almanac‘s nineteen “books” features a guerrilla army-turned-native land reclamation movement dealing with very similar tensions between orthodox Marxism and indigenous communities. Of course, these dynamics are nothing unique to the Zapatistas, they have been grappled with throughout Latin America for many decades. Yet it’s clear from her tone that Silko isn’t just writing about history, she is writing about the ever-imminent near future, and her words resonate with just as much ominous portent in 2015 as in 1991. Perhaps even more so, given the benefit of hindsight, though it doesn’t take a prophet to predict that “California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado—all the southwestern states will run out of drinking water,” or a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Silko hints at the possibility of a sympathetic magic or subterranean convergence between the struggles of the like-minded, and the pages of her novel serve as a meeting ground for a vast array of characters whose real-life counterparts may or may not have met in the waking world. A few of Almanac‘s most memorable characters: Clinton, an Ogou-worshiping black man organizing homeless veterans into a “Poor People’s Army;” the Barefoot Hopi, who prophecies to prisoners of all races about “the day all the walls fall down;” Mosca, a superstitious drug dealer who quits his job to join the Barefoot Hopi’s nascent millenarian movement; Calabazas, a Yaqui smuggler and Mosca’s old boss, who “would never abandon what he called ‘the war that had never ended,’ the war for the land. He wanted to call every successful shipment or journey a victory in this war;” Zeta, Calabazas’s former partner-in-crime who “had not argued with him, but [who] had had her own ideas about ‘the war;'” Zeta’s twin sister Lecha, the aforementioned television psychic (now retired—or more accurately, in hiding), who is transcribing the eponymous Almanac of the Dead. “When the time came, all these scattered crazies and their plans would complement and serve one another in the chaos to come.”

Ultimately, Almanac is about sovereignty: the governments of the United States and Mexico have never had, do not currently have, and will never have the sovereignty granted by the land itself. Of course, in her particular imaginings of what indigenous reclamation of sovereignty might look like, Silko does not speak for all natives (no single writer does). Non-native anti-capitalists should be careful not to cherry pick only those authors whom they can use to validate their own political ideologies. Almanac of the Dead, however, is such a rich and complex work that any reader’s perspective is bound to be expanded by it. What Silko writes about is bigger than politics, bigger than any one religious tradition:

What was coming could not be stopped; the people might join or not […] It made no difference because what was coming was relentless and inevitable; it might require five or ten years of great violence and conflict. It might require a hundred years of spirit voices and simple population growth, but the result would be the same: tribal people would retake the Americas; tribal people would retake ancestral land all over the world. This was what earth’s spirits wanted: her indigenous children who loved her and did not harm her.

Heathen Chinese

heathen chinese

Heathen Chinese is the son of Chinese immigrants. He is a diasporic Chinese polytheist living in the San Francisco Bay Area (stolen Ohlone land). He practices ancestor veneration and worships (among others) the warrior god Guan Di, who has had a presence in California since the mid-1800s. He writes sporadically at

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Are The Gods On Our Side?

Credit: KWAN002.
Credit: KWAN002.

The writers at this website have a shared agenda: the end of capitalism. It’s tempting to declare definitively that the gods are anti-capitalist as well, but relationships between deities and their individual and collective worshipers are more complicated than that. If one accepts the premise that the gods are powers autonomous from humans, then they necessarily have their own agendas, which may or may not coincide with ours.

In acknowledging the individuality and diversity of gods and spirits, it becomes difficult to make broad generalizations. However, at a more localized level, some generalized characteristics can still be said to be inherent within the “function” of specific kinds of spirits. Spirits which dwell in trees typically do not like those trees being cut down. Note that this does not necessarily mean that a specific spirit dwelling in a specific tree is against any tree being cut down, though some might very well feel that way given the terrifying rate of deforestation these days. However, it’s fairly certain that a spirit will object to its own home being destroyed.

Ancestral spirits, at least from a Chinese worldview, generally want their descendants’ behavior to reflect honorably upon their names and are predisposed to favor their descendants’ material survival, which is a prerequisite for the continuation of the family lineage. “Hungry ghosts,” or the restless dead, are by definition inclined to draw attention to themselves and their deaths in some manner or another.

All of these classes of spirits have agendas which may very well coincide with anti-capitalist struggles against the destruction of ecosystems, the killing of youths of certain ancestral lineages, etc. Their assistance in these struggles should be sought out, when appropriate.

But what of the gods, whose agendas are both vaster and more varied than those of local spirits and the spirits of the dead? Where do they stand in the struggles of their worshipers?

Gods and Their Worshipers

In the “Strong Roots and Wide Branches: Essentials of Polytheism” presentation at Pantheacon 2015, River Devora and Anomalous Thracian suggested a working definition of gods: gods are distinguished from other beings with similar degrees of power over mortal lives by having oaths, obligations, agreements or some other form of ongoing give-and-take relationship with group(s) of said mortals. Thus, one may make the generalization that the gods are interested in upholding agreements and maintaining relationships with humans who make an effort to do the same.

So what happens when, humans being humans, conflict arises within or between those groups? If one group or sub-group has broken the “terms” of their agreement with the god through dishonorable conduct or impiety, then the god may show favor to one side over the other, perhaps by granting victory in a decisive battle. However, as occurs much more frequently, conflicts such as class struggle remain embedded within society over longer periods of time.

Guan Di

One of the primary gods that I worship, Guan Di, provides an interesting case study here. As was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article last year, Guan Di is worshiped by cops, gangsters and protestors alike in Hong Kong. When a society falls apart or explodes due to its internal contradictions, how does a god like Guan Di deal with those conflicts between his various worshipers?

Being a mortal, I cannot answer for Guan Di. However, Prasenjit Duara’s 1988 article “Superscribing Symbols: The Myth of Guandi, Chinese God of War,” published in The Journal of Asian Studies, has shown that these types of contradictions are nothing new for Guan Di. I’ve quoted Duara extensively in a post on her essay at my own blog.

Before his apotheosis, the man named Guan Yu was a mortal warrior and general in the late Han Dynasty (he died in 220 CE) who participated in the suppression of a Daoist-influenced millenarian movement known as the Yellow Turban Rebellion, as well as the civil wars that ensued. Centuries after his death, both Buddhists and Daoists claimed Guan Yu as a protector figure within their respective pantheons.

In 1615, the Ming imperial government granted him the title “Di,” which means “Emperor”. However, there was also a massive expansion of his popular worship outside of Buddhist, Daoist and imperial religious organizations during the same time period.

Duara cites the research of Huang Huajie, which situates the spread of the popularity of Guan Di within a historical context in which “the rural economy became increasingly commercialized” and traditional forms of social organization were weakened:

Huang Huajie links Guan Yu’s growing popularity in the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911) to the great socioeconomic changes of the era, which of course also enabled the popular media to spread. As the rural economy became increasingly commercialized, self-sufficient kin-based communities tended to disintegrate. In their place, settlements came to be composed of unrelated kin groups, merchants for whom sojourning had become a way of life, and marginal peoples without a community, such as vagrants and bandits. (781-2)

In other words, Guan Di’s popularity does not exist in spite of class struggle but because of it. Duara writes that “for the rootless bandits and rebels of secret societies, the oath of loyalty that Guan Yu upheld gained an unparalleled salience” (782) and that “for them, the oath symbolized loyalty to brotherhood, not to the state that had been their enemy” (790). Ironically, many of the secret societies devoted to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty subsequently formed the nucleus of the gangs (Triads) referenced in the Wall Street Journal article above, some of which have been accused of attacking protestors on behalf of the police. Contradictions upon contradictions. There’s also an interesting urban legend that Guan Di statues in Triad shrines hold the guan dao (Guan Di’s distinctive polearm) in the left hand, whereas Guan Di statues in the shrines of policemen and ordinary citizens hold the guan dao in the right hand.

Duara asks, “If a myth represents radically discontinuous meanings, if its symbols are pursued by particular groups only for their own particular purposes, how can it continue to impart legitimacy so widely across the culture?” (779). She proposes a theory that she calls “the superscription of symbols.” She contrasts “superscription” to “erasure,” writing that “the very mechanism of superscription necessarily requires the preservation of at least some of the other voices that surround the symbol” (791), rather than the total obliteration of those voices.

Thus, two diametrically opposed views of Guan Di (i.e. champion of the imperial dynasty vs. divine witness to the initiation oaths of secret societies trying to overthrow said dynasty) are linked to one another through their relationship to a common predecessor (i.e. the earliest Buddhist and/or Daoist conceptions of Guan Yu as a paragon of loyalty and protector of the faithful).

Finally, Guan Di also provides an example of a god intervening on only one side of a conflict: he was one of the gods who possessed insurgents during the anti-foreign and anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion of 1900. He was also credited with defeating a proposed law that would have forced the Chinese in Santa Cruz, CA to move outside of city limits (Lydon 280).


It seems reasonable to conclude that Guan Di has, at times, answered the prayers of both sides of a conflict simultaneously. It seems further reasonable to extend this pattern to the ongoing conflict that some call “the class war.” Guan Di has thousands and thousands of worshipers with whom he maintains relationship on both sides of said war.

The gods of (primarily European) reconstructed polytheisms and neo-paganisms have fewer total worshipers in the world today than Guan Di does. However, this fact opens the possibility that individual worshipers’ prayers and petitions will proportionally represent a larger “percentage” of a given deity’s relationships and obligations. As the worship of many gods is restored in the West, it is therefore the responsibility and duty of anti-capitalist/anti-racist polytheists and neo-pagans to make their voices heard as loudly as possible. Ask for your gods’ help in our collective struggles before the other side does.

That said, relationships to deities are not numbers games, and they’re not majority-rule democracies. Guan Di is called “Emperor” for a reason – not because he is always aligned with temporal State power (obviously, he is not), but because he exercises sovereignty over the areas of life that he rules. Reciprocity is not a mechanical process with guaranteed quantifiable results, but an organic process founded upon autonomous choices and decisions by both parties – in other words, voluntary association.


It’s tempting to declare that “the gods are anti-capitalist.” With careful consideration of the case study of Guan Di, worshiped by cops and protesters alike, it would perhaps be more accurate to declare that “our gods are anti-capitalist,” by which we would mean the specific gods that we are in relationship with. They are anti-capitalist not because it is innate in their nature but because they maintain relationships with us and answer our prayers, and because we in our turn make an effort to maintain relationship with them as we struggle daily against the impositions of Capital. We could all certainly use as much divine protection, aid and blessings as possible. It is not so much a question of whether the gods are on our side, but whether or not they are at our sides.

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