Lessons from the Boxer Uprising

12 Jan

I have in my collection of books “The Origins of the Boxer Uprising” by Joseph W. Esherick. Someone recently told me it is “out of print” (not sure what that means in the age of digital books?) and if it is unavailable that’s a real shame because it’s a valuable book for anyone interested in learning some real history of martial arts in China.

Of course, Esherick’s book isn’t directly about the history of martial arts. His book addresses a lot of important issues in the field of contemporary Chinese history, many of which are really unrelated to the martial arts. He also is very correct in differentiating religious, superstitious sectarians from people whose interests were solely martial arts. However, there are some very important pieces of information and observations in this book that every Chinese martial artists should be aware of.

By the late Qing period, martial arts were widely available and widely practiced in China. There were increasing number of military examination graduates in the rural areas and military Sheng-yaun were often influential men in their villages. The increasing militarization of the countryside included local village militia and anti-bandit groups as a means of protection for villages in increasingly unstable times. A 1716 Cao county, Shandong gazetteer noted:
“The Yellow River repeatedly broke its banks, and bandits run amok.”

The martial arts also served more personal agendas. This wealthy elite became increasingly militarized and tended more and more to depend on violent methods to defend its position. The same Cao county gazetteer noted “the tendency for the wealthy to rely on cruelty and violence is well established.”

In response, there was the militarization of self protection groups, brotherhoods and secret societies. Martial arts attracted young peasants males and figured into a long Chinese tradition of ordinary peasants attempting to create organizations independent from orthodox gentry elites. They also figured into village to village disputes, clan wars and local revolts.

The martial arts were everywhere, and violence was becoming the method of choice in Chinese politics. Sometimes they favored the government and “order”. In Shandong, the home of the Boxer Uprising, earlier in history Tang Heng-le, an elderly medicine seller and teacher of Plum Flower Boxing (Mei-Hua Quan), had led his disciples in alliance with the local militia in suppressing sectarian revolt and violence.

Clearly, in other instances, martial artists represented disruptive forces in society. 1728 the Yong-zheng emperor issued an imperial prohibition specifically on MARTIAL ARTS. The emperor condemned teachers as “drifters and idlers who refuse to work at their proper occupations” who gather with their disciples all day, leading to “gambling, drinking and brawls”. This impression was widespread. A censor’s memorial of 1808, describing border areas of Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui and Henan noted;

“In this area there are many vagabonds and rowdies (wu-lai gun-tu) who draw their swords and gather crowds. They have established societies of various names. They are overbearing in the villages and oppress the good people. The origin of these disturbances is gambling. They go to fairs and markets and openly set up tens where they take valuables to pawn and gather to gamble”.

Many martial artists were marketplace toughs engaged in gambling, drinking, and various forms of extortion and petty crime.

The uniting of religious sectarian groups with existing groups of martial artists, especially the disruptive strains, constituted a real challenge to Chinese society. The Eight Trigrams rebellion of 1813 represented the merging of sectarian groups with groups whose original purpose had soley been the practice of martial arts. Feng Ke-Shan (aka “King of Earth”) was a martial artists with little religious interest but ability to recruit members of local martial arts groups. The martial arts groups had the necessary skills to undertake an uprising.

Increasingly, martial arts was both a practical tool to undertake an uprising but also a marketing tool. The use of martial arts in sectarian groups to make it attractive to a wider audiences was then mixed with other tools these groups used to attract young men; stories of monks, magic and super powers.

Sectarian recruiters had no qualms in manipulating the uneducated minds of young peasants. Recruiters for the “Boxer” movement promised a variety of protection rituals which they believed would protect them from the weapons of the Western powers, often confusing them with actual legitimate martial arts practices.

“One Shandong master promised that the techniques could be learned in a day; another said seven or eight days; a third more rigorous teacher claimed 103 days but still noted that is was ‘much easier than the Armor of the Golden Bell”

In this case, they were promising “faster and better” than the actual legitimate martial arts technique of “Golden Bell”.

Unfortunately, today many martial artists may ultimately find that what they practice is not necessarily the authentic technique handed down by a legitimate master but rather the result of a religious sectarian marketing scheme.


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