The Boxer Rebellion
One of the most famous branch sects was the Yihequan (Fists of Righteousness and Harmony), popularly known as the Boxers. The Boxer Rebellion began in North China in 1898 as a popular peasant protest movement. Unlike the Taiping, the Boxer Uprising was opposed to Christian activity within China, particularly missionary evangelism in the countryside.
Joseph W. Esherick has argued, rather successfully, that the “boxers” were not in fact martial artists, but rather followers of a variety of protection rituals; they took part in certain rituals, believing spirits would possess them making them impervious to foreigners’ bullets. These rituals were easily learned by the young, uneducated peasants of the Yellow River floodplain, and transmitted from village to village.
“The two elements, martial arts and heterodox beliefs, are clearly alternatives, not linked elements of a single tradition.”
– Joseph W. Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising
Members of heterodox sects might practice martial arts, but martial arts were not inextricably linked to spiritual practices.
While the association may have been superficial, the link between traditional martial arts and the Boxers remained in the Chinese mind for generations. In the eyes of the public, martial artists were grossly ignorant and superstitious. Sun Lu Tang in 1915 noted;
“There was a prejudice in the old days that literates despised martial arts as martial artists were short on learning.”
Sectarian recruiters had no qualms in manipulating the ignorance of these 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”.
In the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, the people of China scorned the traditional martial arts as usually in poor physical condition and often at or below the poverty line with no particular social roots. Worst of all, despite their violent tendencies, their violence had been useless against Western technology
Even in academic circles, there remains an overemphasis on the significance of their relationship to heterodox religious sects and secret societies during the mid to late Qing period. While the association itself was real, the nature of this association is usually distorted. To begin with, some college textbooks, such as recent editions of Immanuel Hsu’s The Rise and Fall of Modern China, unwittingly persist in spreading Heaven and Earth Society (also known as the Triads or the Hong League) misinformation about their own origins, ostensibly in a Shaolin Monastery in Fujian, by treating it as history.
This story, never backed up by a single kernel of historical evidence, was hopefully laid to rest by Chinese research outlined in Qing History Research in 1993 and further detailed in Dian Murray and Qin Baoqi’s The Origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in Legend and History (1994)