Millennials & the Revolution of Politics

Right now in the United States, Super Tuesday is just a couple of days away.  It’s pretty amazing that I know that.  I have never paid such close attention to American politics before.  I never cared that much; not until it came down to the actual Republican vs. Democrat.  In general we, your neighbours to the North, breathe more easily when it’s the latter.

But right now there’s a political revolution going on that has broad implications in both of our countries.  There’s a huge generational divide.  It’s the generation we call the Millennials.  They’re changing how everything works.  In current North American politics, both in the recent Canadian federal election and in the upcoming American Presidential election, there has been a visible, undeniable generational split in opinions at the polls, and it has made, and is making, a significant difference.  Millennials are the reason that the Conservative Harper regime in Canadian government was finally overthrown, and Millennials are changing the face of American politics even as you read this.  Nothing in national democratic politics is ever going to be the same again.

Why?  Is it that Millennials are creative and innovative?  Well, to some degree that’s true; the younger generation is almost always more flexible and more willing to try new things than the older generation.  Is it that they realize how fixed the system is and they are desperate for change?  Well, that’s partially true too.

But more than anything, I think it comes down to one simple thing: Boomers watch TV.  And Millennials don’t.

The Problem with Corporate Media

We in democratic capitalist societies labour under the delusion that the media is the Fifth Estate, which exists as an independent watchdog to inform us on the benevolence, and abuses, of those in power.  The media, we believe, reports on events in a way that delivers the news with forethought, expert consultation, and a fair, if not entirely unbiased, lens.  My parents still share this subconscious assumption.  But it’s not true.  It’s never been true.

Corporate media is, of course, interested in furthering the interests of things that benefit corporations.  In general, they support right wing policies because right wing governments support bigger corporate tax breaks, trickle-down economics, low wages, and lack of regulation.  It’s only common sense, really.  These things benefit any large corporation, and I don’t think there’s any denying that broadcast media is entirely ruled by large corporations.   What you may not know is just how large they are.

You would think that print media would be different; the last bastion of the independent journalist.  But again, you would be mistaken.  Almost every major newspaper in Canada is owned by two companies.  That’s right, just two.  They are Sun Media and Postmedia.  How big do you think a corporation has to be to own so many newspapers?

It didn’t used to be that way.  There was the CBC, and then there were mostly local private companies.  Until our broadcast media was partially deregulated in 2008, and again in 2011, by the Conservative government of the time.  Is it any wonder that the news seems to be favouring the right wing view more and more all the time?

Sometimes the bias is so blatant that it’s a suitable subject for ridicule.  But most of the time it is subtle; so subtle I know most people don’t notice it.  Watching coverage of the Bill C-51 protests here in Canada was most instructional for me, because I had just caught on to the tricks and so I really noticed them:

Two very different stories may be observed in the Vancouver Sun, which is a major corporate newspaper, and the Vancouver Observer, which is a somewhat respected but smaller and decidedly more left wing “alternative” media source.  Both papers are reporting on the exact same protest in the same city.  If you’d like to play along at home, I urge you to fire both of those links up in separate tabs and compare them as you read.

Our first clues as to the tack of the stories can be found in the headlines.  The editor of a paper is the one who chooses the headlines.  The Vancouver Sun headlines their story with “Vancouver protesters rally against Tories’ Bill C-51.”  Seems innocuous enough, right?  But let’s break it down a little.  First, limiting the story to Vancouver divorces it from the national movement in the minds of the readers.  Vancouver has a reputation for being a sort of “San Francisco of Canada,” and is regarded as a haven for what the right wing sees as “leftist nutbars.”  So this makes it sound like the protest is a local phenomenon.  Note, also, that the Sun is quick to call it “The Tories’ Bill.”  This demands polarization.  It makes it personal.  It suggests that anyone who might disagree with the bill is only taking exception to the then-unpopular Tories, rather than objecting to legislation which gives unsettling powers to the government. It trivializes it as “party politics.”  It’s a “nothing to see here” tactic.

In the meanwhile, the Vancouver Observer tells us that “Thousands protest Bill C-51 across Canada.”  We are meant to be alarmed.  Thousands? What is horrible enough to get “thousands” to protest?  And “across Canada?”  What could be causing such a sweeping concern?

Our next big clue is image.  The Observer has chosen an image that shows a vast sea of protesters, standing politely with their signs and listening to a speaker on a stage.  I am sure that they were trying to get as many people as possible in the shot to display how widespread the opposition to the bill is.

In the meantime, the Sun has chosen a much closer angle, so that you really have no idea how many people are at the event.  And they have also chosen a picture intended to make the protesters look as stupid as possible.  The big sign in the center of the image says, “Harper Darper,” which sounds like a child making fun of someone in the schoolyard.  If that weren’t bad enough, the most clearly-visible sign other than that one says, “Honk to defeat Happer!”  Obviously it’s a misprint, and the protester tried to correct it – you can see a black Sharpie line turning that first P into an R if you squint – but it’s difficult to see and obviously your first impression is meant to be “what a bunch of buffoons!”  You are supposed to dismiss them as “stupid left wing crazies.”

Now let’s break down the articles themselves.  Our first paragraphs set the stage nicely.  In the Sun we are told that “more than a thousand people” gathered to protest “Harper” in particular, and “the new anti-terror bill” by extension.  Okay, yes, there were more than a thousand people.  The Observer tells us that there were actually about a thousand more people than a thousand people, which is a total of two thousand.  So the Sun was telling the truth, but the implication minimizes things just a little.  Also, the Sun is letting us know that the protesters are protesting Harper because they don’t like him; not the proposed legislation because it’s objectionable.

In the Observer, our first paragraph tells us that about two thousand people “descended on the streets” to “express frustration with the federal government’s proposed anti-terror bill.”  So in this key sentence we are told a) there are a lot more people out there than the Sun was saying there were; b) they are frustrated with the federal government, not any party or person in particular; and c) that the bill is still a proposed bill, not something that is already law.

It seems like it’s a conspiracy.  But it really isn’t.  It’s the natural result of the corporate system of ownership; reporters making subtle changes to their pitched articles to make them palatable to their editors, who must then make them palatable to the company management, usually passing through several layers of bureaucratic stratification in between.  And ultimately, the paper is printed to please the boss, who likes things that benefit corporations just fine.

Most of Canada’s newspapers endorsed Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the last election despite plummeting popularity; the ones who didn’t supported mostly the Conservative Party with Harper’s resignation as a caveat.  People couldn’t understand it.  But Postmedia ordered all of their subsidiaries to endorse the Conservatives; which is actually a traditional owner’s prerogative.  In other words, every media company that has ever existed has a bias.  And they are expected to.

This is where publicly-owned media, run properly, can provide an alternative view and thus widen the lens we are given to look at the state of things; but even that has its problems.  Because the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is a Crown Corporation, meaning that the Canadian government is the primary shareholder, there are limits to the powers of the CEO and the Board of Directors.  As a result, a significant faction within the CBC, angered by the Conservative appointments and the reduced budget, supported – almost downright campaigned for – the Liberal Party and our current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  But we need to understand their bias as well; the Liberal Party promised all kinds of things to the CBC as part of their campaign platform, including a lot more funding.  Thus, even in Canada’s nominally non-partisan public media company, every time we heard about the New Democratic Party or its leader Tom Mulcair, it was to deride and discredit their campaign promises and to make Mulcair look as foolish as possible, with photos seemingly selected for the purpose.  And that was regardless of which mainstream media company was reporting on the election.

But even publicly-owned broadcasting is not safe.  The CBC, long regarded as a public resource with a decidedly left-wing approach (and it used to be) was gutted completely by Stephen Harper in his last couple of years as Prime Minister.  He cut its funding, fired most of its executives, and appointed a whole bunch of his Conservative cronies to significant positions.  Justin Trudeau’s attempt to fix some of this has been actively stymied by tactics from these appointees that look a lot like crazy Republican stunts to me.  (Incidentally, when a government changes hands, requests for appointees to step down like this are a normal, expected part of the system; which of course, the current CBC isn’t telling us.)

Things like this have already been done to the BBC several years ago and are now firmly entrenched.

It’s an interesting point because I see the American media doing the exact same thing to Senator Bernie Sanders that the Canadian media did to the New Democrats, for the exact same reason; corporations hate social democracy.  Social democracies limit corporate powers and increase wages.  Social democracies believe in what’s best for all of the people, not just a select few.  I think it’s a safe bet that the mainstream media will never show us an unbiased view of policies that might put more limits on corporations; which is why so many people seem to think that Mr. Sanders’ “socialist” policies are “unrealistic.”  Even my parents.  The funny thing about this is that most of Sanders’ platform is the way Canada did things, from the 60s right up to the Harper administration, and it worked just fine.

There’s another concern with corporate media.  The media makes a lot of money on political campaign ads, as politicians try to make their messages heard; and also on election coverage, as corporations backing particular parties or candidates sponsor programs that feature those candidates.  And the more political tension they create, the more money they make; which is probably why every political campaign is portrayed as a horse race, even when it’s not.

How the Internet is Transforming Politics

In the early days of media, there were newsletters and newspapers.  Media was a lot less centralized and thus, people read what they wanted to read.  Since there were a couple of dozen New York papers, you just read the one you preferred; or maybe a handful, if you were really well informed.  When it came to politics, you read the papers that supported your political view; for instance, if you were a socialist, you read the socialist papers.

Slowly, larger papers began buying up the smaller papers, and so your options of what to read, and thus the viewpoint you were shown, gradually diminished.  Why did the New York Times become so respected?  Because everybody read it.

We have seen how that sort of centralization reduces the scope of the information lens so that we only hear what the corporate media wants us to hear.  But that’s changing.  There are alternative sources of media emerging; blogs and journals like ours, for example.  And the reason is – you guessed it – the internet.

Right now, political blogging is in its early growing stages.  We are graduating from a few random commentors to semi-professional small blogs and YouTube channels.  And the Millennials, having realized that the food that they’re being fed is (un)liberally flavoured with Corporatist propaganda and always tastes the same, have started seeking out those alternate sources.

Or so it would seem.  The truth is actually simpler than that, if I might cast a pall of cynicism on this ray of hope with an intention of helping us to make use of it in the most efficient possible way.

Millennials don’t watch TV anymore.  They don’t read newspapers.  Between their computers and their cell phones they go online for everything; their information, their entertainment, their social outlets.

So the fact that they’re discovering the alternate media is a cosmic accident, really.  And the only reason why the alternate sources are doing so well is that we’ve been here longer.  Fortunately the large media corporations were initially more interested in fighting or discrediting internet media than they were in using it. But that’s changing too.

Before you dismiss this as a fad, it’s clear that this has changed the way Millennials think.  They are perhaps the most literate generation that has ever existed.  Because they surf the web they know things that previous generations do not.  Because of Google Translate they can talk to people in other countries even if they don’t understand a word of the language.  And thus, it has never been so easy to find like-minded individuals and organize along ideological lines as opposed to geography.

More than that, most Millennials have probably experienced a situation in which they were humiliated on social media for not fact-checking a link or a meme.  Whether this or something else is the reason, Millennials who are politically aware check their facts.  They look up the definition of “social democracy” on Wikipedia.  They Google any statistics they are offered.  They use Snopes to confirm or denounce rumours and scandals.  You can’t just give them the facts you want them to hear, cherry-picked for your convenience.  They will double check.

As a result, we are beginning to see huge ideological divides between generations and it’s starting to make a difference.  Why did Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party win the Canadian federal election?  Because two significant demographics supported him almost unilaterally; First Nations Canadians, and young voters.

Note that these are both traditionally underrepresented groups in the political landscape.  But this time they overcame their reluctance to engage with a system so obviously stacked against them and came to the polls.  This, despite deliberate changes in election laws, such as gerrymandering electoral ridings and requiring proper picture ID as well as a voter registration card to vote – a tactic almost never done in Canadian history and obviously disadvantaging the young and the poor.  And as a result, our First Nations and our youth changed the course of Canadian history.

We are seeing this in American politics as well.  Would Bernie Sanders be doing so well against the likes of former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton if it weren’t for the massive support he’s receiving from America’s youth?  Millennials hear Sanders using the language of the Occupy Movement and his call to fight the 1%, and they are protesting the system with their ballots.  It is even starting to affect demographics that were believed to be unassailable, such as creating a generational divide in the black vote.

Will this factor change the course of this American election?  It already has.  Even among the Republican voters, nobody expected Donald Trump to do as well as he has.  In a way he’s the right wing equivalent of Bernie Sanders; he sounds like a rebel against the system.  He’s just going about it in a way that openly reveals the fascist heart of Corporatism.

Either way, this is likely the last U.S. Presidential campaign that will be so strongly influenced by the mainstream media.  It’s a whole new world out here.

But the battle isn’t over yet.  The halcyon days of net neutrality are already behind us, and there are ways in which large corporations are manipulating the internet to their advantage.  Also, the way in which we access the internet and social media corrals us into echo chambers which entirely lose touch with anyone who doesn’t share our views.  I will address these issues in my next article.


*I have chosen to use the gender-inclusive singular “they” as my default general pronoun in this article.

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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