A very brief tease from the forthcoming volume, “Chinese martial arts: a historical outline”
Very few events are ever what they first appear to be!
The previously mentioned leader of the Spirit Boxers, Zhu Hongdeng (朱紅燈), it is said “could not use a sword or a spear.” (Esherick 393)
We then have the 1900 account of a local Zhili official;
..the members of my family went to have a look at the [martial arts] ground at the temple. They were told that boys ten of so years of age, after practicing there for seven or eight days, became invulnerable to swords. I certainly didn’t believe this. But on the first day of the fifth month, as we passed through the village of Gaoqiao, the driver said there was a [martial arts] ground at the temple there. So I got down from the cart to go see. I saw that the people there were all young lads of thirteen of fourteen, the youngest no older than eight…. I asked them: “Who teaches the [martial arts]? In reply they said: “There is no instructor at all. Only the gods who attach themselves to the boys’ bodies, after which the latter are able to do the [martial arts] exercises. It is called Spirit Boxing. After eighteen days of practice, they achieve mastery.
The above account is self-explanatory. Later, Paul Cohen suggests that many of the Spirit Boxers had learned (at least in part) their “fighting techniques” from Chinese opera performances. (Cohen 107).