The Big Sword Society (大刀會) first appears operating in southwestern Shandong province (山東) in the late 1890’s. (Esherick 96) As a border region, it was not tightly governed and the local gentry were politically weak. (Cohen 17) It was prone to banditry, opium growing and salt smuggling. Yet the Big Sword Society was neither a bandit gang nor a secret society nor a sectarian movement.
Liu Shiduan (劉士端), who is credited as the founder and leader of the Big Sword Society, was a martial artist who in his thirties had learned the “Armor of the Golden Bell” from an itinerant martial artist named Zhao (趙) (Esherick 107). Liu was both well-educated and prosperous; he owned about 100 mu of land. In the early 1890s, Liu started to teach martial arts and the “Armor of the Golden Bell” to his own disciples. His students were typically rich peasants or small landowners such as Cao Deli (曹得禮) and Peng Guilin (彭桂林) who would both become leaders in his society. [Esherick 107-108]
During this period, already existing banditry had intensified due to the imperial military having been diverted out of the region in response to the Sion-Japanese war. The society began as an anti-bandit group; supported by local gentry, landlords and rich peasants. That is, the society represented the interests of those who had property to defend. The poor did not join, as they had nothing to protect (Esherick 109 Cohen 17).
Much has been made by some of the group’s association with the supposedly “heterodox technique” of “Armor of the Golden Bell.” In fact, there is evidence the group may have actually referred to itself as “the Armor of the Golden Bell.” (Esherick 55) Just as Qing officials had applied the label “White Lotus” to virtually all heterodox religious sects, the name “Big Sword Society” may have been attributed to Liu’s group by external observers. We will return again to the issue of externally applied names. For now, we note that the local officials, who certainly were concerned with “heterodox practices” and sectarian activity, could also distinguish between lawless bandits and anti-bandit groups defending the social order. [Esherick 109] As Paul Cohen notes, “[in] the initial phase of its development, the organization’s sole purpose was to protect people’s lives and property.” (Cohen 17)
In 1895, Liu’s society caught the attention of the Caozhou (曹州) prefect Yuxian (毓賢) by arresting a large number of outlaws and turning them over to the local authorities. With official approval, they continued suppressing banditry between 1895 and 1896. Liu himself was credited with the capture of the bandit leader known as “Rice-Grain Yue the Second” (岳二米子). [Esherick 109-110]
Most histories related to the Boxer Uprising focus upon a shift with Liu’s group towards anti-Christian violence in 1896. However, evidence suggests that the nature of these disputes was not religious per se as much as the tendency of Christian missionaries to abuse their position as foreigners and their frequent interference in everyday affairs. In the first instance of conflict with Christians, bandits who have been involved in conflict with Liu’s society converted to Catholicism to gain legal immunity from arrest and to place them under the protection of the foreign powers. (Cohen 19)
In the second instance, Liu himself did not even actively participate, but events spun out of control and resulted in the end of his society. In northern Jiangsu (江蘇), the Pang family (龐) and Liu family (劉) were involved in lineage disputes over land use. The Liu lineage had sought leverage by converting to Catholicism. The leader of the Pang lineage, a young man who had only recently come into his position, requested the assistance of the Big Sword Society. (Cohen 19) Liu Shiduan sent his disciple and Big Sword Society co-leader Peng Guilin (彭桂林) to assist the Pang family.
Jospeh Esherick details the entire incident, which ultimately resulted in burned houses and other property damage but no Christian casualties. (Esherick 116-119) The government response was clearly disproportionate; Liu Shiduan and thirty other leaders of the society were arrested, tried and beheaded. (Cohen 20) As Esherick notes, the society had been created by landowners to protect their property and had maintained close relationships with local officials and local militia; it was an orthodox institution. For this very reason, the execution of its leadership had been extremely effective and immediately brought the society for all practical purposes to an end. “After Liu Shiduan was killed, there just wasn’t anymore Big Sword activity.” (Liu’s son quoted in Esherick 120) Yet, the name “Big Sword Society” would re-emerge during the Boxer Uprising?