Bonfires and Revelry: Pagan Primitivism

(This is a chapter from the upcoming book by Christopher Scott Thompson, Pagan Anarchism)

I first became a Pagan around age 12, when I was living in a tent in the woods along a dirt road in Maine. My family was building a stack-wall log cabin, where we would live for about four years as homesteaders. We had no electricity or running water, no indoor plumbing and no telephone. I carved a figure out of wood, brought it to my father and asked him if we could put in the vegetable garden to placate the spirits there. That may have been my first conscious act of Pagan religious practice.

Critiques of modern civilization are usually met with derision and ridicule. Who would want to give up all our modern conveniences? It’s a fantastic daydream, and would be a horrible experience in real life—or so they tell themselves. I’ve actually lived that way, so I know they’re wrong. It’s a lot easier to live without modern technology than you would ever think.

Many Pagan anarchists identify with anarcho-primitivism or “anti-civ,” a branch of anarchist thought that sees the primary cause of oppression as civilization itself. Some anarcho-primitivists see the problem as being agriculture, and seek to create a new society inspired by the freedom and low ecological impact of hunter gatherer societies.

Anarcho-primitivism is starkly different from classical anarchism because it aims to resist all forms of industrial civilization. Classical anarchist thinkers such as Kropotkin were not opposed to industrial technology, only to the misuse of that technology to control and exploit people. Although anarcho-primitivists are anti-capitalist, they would also be opposed to an industrialized anarchist society. According to A Primitivist Primer by John Moore:

“For anarcho-primitivists, civilization is the overarching context within which the multiplicity of power relations develop… Civilization – also referred to as the megamachine or Leviathan – becomes a huge machine which gains its own momentum and becomes beyond the control of even its supposed rulers. Powered by the routines of daily life which are defined and managed by internalized patterns of obedience, people become slaves to the machine, the system of civilization itself.”

In place of the traditional anarchist commune or people’s assembly, anarcho-primitivists prefer the band—in anthropological terms, a family-based group of between five and eighty people. It’s easy to see how a band could be run according to anarchist principles, with shared rituals and spirit practices of a Pagan character. A band would live much closer to nature than most humans now do, and would more easily develop a spiritual relationship with the hills and forests, the streams and ponds. The appeal of primitivism to Pagan anarchists is not hard to understand. However, not all anarcho-primitivists are sympathetic to Paganism.

One essay, “To Rust Metallic Gods,” subtitled “An Anarcho-Primitivist Critique of Paganism,” takes the entire Pagan revival to task for idealizing Europe’s polytheistic past. According to this essay, all of the Pagan religions of Europe enshrine a patriarchal mentality of violence and subjugation. The symbolism of our most ancient myths reflects the adoption of agriculture, and the alienation of humankind from nature. According to the author:

“So what then of the historical Pagan societies? As clerical religions, they atrophied participatory spiritualities rooted in place. Increased human domination of landscapes coincided with personification of natural forces as humanoid figures, with distancing from primeval elements and phenomena. These militaristic chiefdoms and kingdoms may have claimed to worship the land, but they owned the land as property. They mined the land for copper and tin and iron. The initial transition from gathering surface clay or salt or flint to gathering surface copper or tin or bog iron may have occurred gradually, but the additive consequences reveal an extractive orientation. They had class hierarchy, slavery, and conquest. Anti-authoritarians have no good reason to venerate or romanticize “heathen” conquerors.”

As the author points out, the veneration of war gods and conquerors seems more appropriate for fascism, and modern European fascist movements have appropriated Pagan myths and symbols. Many people involved in Paganism express semi-fascistic ideas about warrior honor and the sacred nature of hierarchy. These ideas are obviously totally inappropriate for an anarchist form of spirituality, so the author encourages Pagans to turn away from ancient gods and myths and embrace a new animism:

“…worship of sun, fire, and moon directly. Appreciation for lunar and solar cycles. Solstice and equinox celebrations. Reverence for rivers, forests, marshes, hills. Altars and shrines for local spirits. Feasts, bonfires, and revelry.”

That all sounds wonderful, and I would argue that any Pagan revival lacking an animist component would not be truly Pagan. Yet to those of us who see the gods (in our dreams or otherwise), they cannot simply be ignored. We love what we love, and devotional polytheism is a relationship of love. When I light a candle and pray to Brighid, I see the flame—but I also see the goddess and feel my heart well up with love for her. That’s just a fact, whether anyone else approves of it or not.

The author also neglects the fact that war gods can be invoked by either side of a conflict. In the Second Battle of Moytura, the three war goddesses known collectively as the Morrígan fight in the rebellion of the gods against the tyrannical Fomorians. A myth can be interpreted in more than one way, and I see no reason a modern polytheist could not pray to the Morrígan before engaging in acts of resistance against the State.

In modern Hong Kong, the war god Guan Di receives prayers from Triad gangsters, the police who hunt those gangsters, and the protesters of the Umbrella Revolution movement. As Heathen Chinese wrote in the essay “Are The Gods On Our Side?” on Gods and Radicals:

“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 Guan Di who answers a protester’s prayer is no more or less real than the Guan Di who answers a gangster’s prayer or the prayer of a police officer. As a deity of conflict, it is simply in Guan Di’s nature to answer prayers related to conflict. Heathen Chinese goes on to say:

“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.”

So I cannot accept the rejection of Pagan religion by some anarcho-primitivists. What about their opposition to civilization?



Most people lacking a clear understanding of anarchism would define “anarchy” as violent chaos, or what happens when central government collapses. In 1991, Somalia collapsed into a patchwork of warring factions when the dictator Siad Barre was overthrown. Few people would argue that the average Somali person was better off during the civil war than under Siad Barre. Being ruled by a tyrant is not a good thing, but having to deal with a different tyrant in every neighborhood is even worse.

It must have been similar when the last Western Roman emperor was deposed in 476, or when the Ashikaga shoguns lost control of Kyoto in 1467.

“Now the city that you know
Has become an empty moor
From which the skylark rises
While your tears fall.”

These are the words of a samurai official (as translated by historian Stephen Turnbull) after the beautiful temples and feudal palaces of ancient Kyoto had been destroyed by civil war. The Ashikaga shogunate had lost its power, its claim to hold a monopoly on the use of force. The result was horrifying, a breakdown of social order throughout the entire nation of Japan. For a hundred years, samurai warlords known as daimyo waged petty local wars with each other for the control of territory. The “Age of Warring States” was a century-long bloodbath, ending only when a series of tyrants succeeded in crushing all opposing clans and uniting Japan under a new shogun.

The men who united Japan were no better than those they conquered. Oda Nobunaga, for instance, marched into battle under a banner reading “Rule the Empire Through Force.” His samurai set fire to a Buddhist holy mountain outside of Kyoto and then marched up the hillside, methodically cutting down any monks who came running in panic out of the burning temples. Yet despite their brutality, the conquerors justified their actions because their conquests put a stop to war. When the Tokugawa clan came out on top, Japan remained at peace for more than 250 years.

The distinction between the Age of Warring States and the so-called Pax Tokugawa is what most people think of as the difference between anarchy and civilization. When civilization breaks down—as in the reduction of Kyoto to an “empty moor” during the Onin War—humanity fractures into senseless violence. Gang bosses war with each other over local power, and ordinary people are left with nothing. Only a strongman can restore society, a tyrant capable of controlling all lesser tyrants and establishing a new monopoly on the use of violence.

This monopoly on the use of violence is what we call the State, and people tolerate it or even celebrate it because they think it brings peace. Certainly the “Age of Warring States” was not a peaceful time, but was the Pax Tokugawa truly peaceful?

behind-the-maskDuring the years of Tokugawa rule, there were more than five thousand four hundred peasant uprisings in Japan. Many of these local rebellions sought a reduction in the crushing taxes imposed by feudal lords. The peasants often won the initial skirmishes against their samurai rulers, but in the end the authorities were always able to crush these rebellions because they had access to firearms and the peasants did not. In some cases, peasants who could not or would not pay their taxes were wrapped in bales of straw and burned alive. Rebels were crucified along the sides of the road. Very often, the local lord would then agree to lower the taxes and meet the demands of the peasants—but only after crushing the rebellion first. The peace of the Tokugawa was only an illusion, maintained through both the threat and the reality of horrific violence.

Chaos and violence or a violent order, but never peace and freedom for the common people: this is the reality of all forms of Empire, including those from our Pagan past. The religion of the Roman Empire was a broad-minded polytheism, but the Pax Romana was a peace of terror. In words attributed to the Scottish chieftain Calgacus, the Roman historian Tacitus gives us an eloquent account of what any empire really is:

“They plunder, they butcher, they ravish, and call it by the lying name of ’empire’. They make a desert and call it ‘peace.’”

The Roman Empire was one of the world’s great civilizations, and is still idolized by many Pagans as a time when polytheism thrived throughout Europe. Yet this is what one of its greatest writers had to say about it at the height of its power. When civilizations are built with the blood of the conquered, the only people impressed by them will be those who benefit—or those so far removed from the reality of the situation that they cannot smell the blood or hear the screams.

The same applies to modern Liberal Democracies. People suffer and die every day so we can live our lives the way we do. The oceans rise, the cities swelter, species disappear from the planet at a dizzying pace. Our world is changing, becoming less hospitable to life. For as long as we can, we will go on pretending that nothing is really wrong, or that the problems can be fixed with a few cosmetic reforms. We are killing our own species, and we’re so unwilling to stop doing it that most of the debate is about whether we should do “too little, too late” or do nothing at all.

Even for Pagans who reject primitivism, the anarcho-primitivist critique has relevance. The world is obviously in crisis, and the crisis could well be terminal. We could be approaching a future in which the Earth is no longer livable, or will only support a much smaller population. Perhaps the only way to preserve this planet as a living biosphere is to destroy the source of the crisis: our technological society.

Photo by Marion Le Bourhis
Photo by Marion Le Bourhis

by-any-meansThis is the perspective of Deep Green Resistance, a controversial anti-civ organization. According to their Statement of Principles:

“Civilization, especially industrial civilization, is fundamentally destructive to life on earth. Our task is to create a life-centered resistance movement that will dismantle industrial civilization by any means necessary.”

This sounds apocalyptic, and raises the possibility that millions of people would have to die before the primitivist society could come into being.

According to Derrick Jensen of Deep Green Resistance:

“The grim reality is that both energy descent and biotic collapse will be ever more severe the more the dominant culture continues to destroy the basis for life on this planet. And yet some people will say that those who propose dismantling civilization are, in fact, suggesting genocide on a mass scale… Polar bears and coho salmon would disagree. Traditional indigenous peoples would disagree. The humans who inherit what is left of this world when the dominant culture finally comes down would disagree.”

This uncompromising position appeals to some, but it is clearly a picture of mass destruction even if only to prevent a greater harm. The controversy surrounding Deep Green Resistance is partly inspired by this extreme position, but also by their virulent rejection of transgendered people.

We can argue theory all we want, but theory has something inhuman about it. It’s all abstract; it’s based on chains of logic alienated from life. My attitude to this question is not abstract or theoretical. When Deep Green Resistance attacks transgendered people, they are attacking people I personally know and love. I reject that absolutely, and there is no room in my mind for compromise.

Deep Green Resistance has also made it clear that anyone unable to survive without modern medical technology would have to be allowed to die.

According to Derrick Jensen:

“I have Crohn’s disease, and I am reliant for my life on high tech medicines. Without these medicines, I will die. But my individual life is not what matters. The survival of the planet is more important than the life of any single human being, including my own.”

It’s obviously true that the life of the planet is more important than any individual life, but Deep Green Resistance is talking about a future in which we allow millions of people to die because they aren’t physically perfect enough to survive without modern technology. An organization that holds these positions can be nothing but anathema to me.

So we’ll leave that aspect of the controversy to the side, and concentrate on the anti-civ question. In my opinion, a strong case can be made that industrial civilization is irredeemable. It’s hard to imagine a society based on any lifestyle similar to that of the modern United States that would not be destructive to all life on Earth. Everything about the way we live demands a global economy of extraction and exploitation—one that must double in size every twenty years to maintain corporate profits and avoid collapse. According to an article in The Guardian by Jason Hickel:

“Let’s imagine, just for argument’s sake, that we are able to get off fossil fuels and switch to 100% clean energy. There is no question this would be a vital step in the right direction, but even this best-case scenario wouldn’t be enough to avert climate catastrophe… When it comes to climate change, the problem is not just the type of energy we are using, it’s what we’re doing with it. What would we do with 100% clean energy? Exactly what we are doing with fossil fuels: raze more forests, build more meat farms, expand industrial agriculture, produce more cement, and fill more landfill sites, all of which will pump deadly amounts of greenhouse gas into the air. We will do these things because our economic system demands endless compound growth, and for some reason we have not thought to question this.”

Green capitalism is a suicidal fantasy. If human civilization is to endure, it will have to change both quickly and drastically. That is the fundamental moral imperative behind modern revolutionary activism.

Does this mean that civilization itself is the enemy? I don’t know that it does. There is no universally-accepted definition of the word “civilization,” but one traditional definition is simply “urban society.” The Classical Mayan civilization disappeared around 900 AD when the Mayan people abandoned the cities and returned to the countryside, where their descendants still live today. So there is precedent for the deliberate abandonment of urban civilization. That doesn’t make it a viable option for us today.

If billions of people suddenly left the cities to return to nature, the ecological devastation would be incalculable. Anarcho-primitivists don’t want this to happen, so it’s hard to see how an anarcho-primitivist society could come into existence without mass slaughter. According to John Moore:

“The personal view of the present writer is that population would need to be reduced, but this would occur through natural wastage – i.e., when people died, not all of them would be replaced, and thus the overall population rate would fall and eventually stabilise.”

I do not find this convincing. For one thing, a significant global decline in population would prevent the doubling of the economy so necessary for capitalism, triggering a catastrophic collapse of civilization with a much more rapid population loss. Unless we’ve already replaced the capitalist system with something that isn’t based on growth, this scenario ends up being just as destructive as any intentional mass murder. Perhaps anarcho-primitivism could only begin to develop after classical anarcho-communism takes hold, but I don’t think that’s what Moore was proposing.


It comes down to the individual anarcho-primitivist.

If their position is like that of Deep Green Resistance, which speaks of triggering the fall of civilization intentionally, then I don’t see how anyone who values the sanctity of life can possibly support them.

If their position is simply that civilization will collapse on its own—and that the best way for the survivors to live after the fall is to adopt anarcho-primitivism—then I think they may be right. I don’t intend to wait around for that to happen while there is still the smallest chance of a better outcome, and that is why I am not an anarcho-primitivist.

Historian Peter Linebaugh suggests a better way forward:

“Since the city, in the sense of law, force, and commodity, has abolished the countryside commons and the “bourgeois” nations destroyed the “barbarian” ones, the commoners of the world can no longer retire to the forest or run to the hills. Unprecedented as the task may historically be, the city itself must be commonized.”

For most of human history, it was surprisingly easy to escape the reach of the State. As James C. Scott shows in The Art of Not Being Governed, most historical States led a precarious existence. No ruler could create an empire without vast reserves of concentrated manpower, yet people could simply walk away from the State at any time and escape to the forests and hills – and they often did. The ruined cities studied by archeologists didn’t necessarily fall prey to any dramatic catastrophe. In many cases, they simply couldn’t continue to function because so many people chose to leave them. For many centuries, States were small islands of slavery surrounded by huge ungoverned wildernesses and the “barbarians” who lived there. Most of the world was a free Commons. Empire-building, industrialization and capitalism have destroyed this Commons, and there is no longer anywhere left to run. With our backs to the wall, our only real option is to free the cities.

I believe that Kropotkin was right in The Conquest of Bread, when he argued that a future urban civilization could be based on the well-being of all rather than the profit and power of a few. Kropotkin was a product of the Industrial Revolution, so he didn’t realize how destructive it would be to continue that lifestyle even under anarcho-communism. If there is ever an anarchist society based in the cities, they will have to be eco-cities or they will not endure.

If we should ever be so lucky as to see that happen, perhaps there will also be bands of anarcho-primitivists living outside the cities and close to nature, worshiping the spirits of the land with “feasts, bonfires and revelry.” It sounds like a wonderful life.


cst-authorChristopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword. Thompson lives with his family in Portland, Maine.

Pagan Anarchism will be released 15 November, and is available 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.

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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