Category: Strange and True

Like all large cities, Tientsin, or Tianjin, is not without its share of intrigue, crime, and sinister plots. I use Tientsin and Tianjin intermittently throughout these true stories, typically referring to the city Tientsin as pre-1949, and Tianjin for post liberation. Some of these true stories I heard about while growing up, living, and working in Tianjin, and others stem from information I’ve gleaned from Chinese press. I’m always looking out for more. Other stories included range from Shaanxi, Romania, and elsewhere around the world.

Little Hero

The following is based on the true story of Wu Yuan, sometimes known as Li Chin Fang. Due to the similarities in the missionary reports of both Wu Yuan and Li Chin Fang – orphans – who attended Western mission schools, and whose accounts were written by diametrically opposed Catholic and Protestant hands, the stories have been combined into one true, and epic adventure of Wu Yuan during the Boxer Rising of 1900. Hero or traitor? You, gentle reader, can decide.


By C.S. Hagen

PEKING to TIENTSIN – Little “Almond Eye” squatted in a crenel along the Tartar Wall, above the Sluice Gate while a missionary doctor tied a rope around his waist. Almond Eye, or Wu Yuan, gripped a porcelain bowl half filled with porridge. Beneath the porridge, wrapped in oiled silk, a secret message was hidden.

A nearby cannon belched thunder. Wu Yuan’s thin frame flinched.   Sporadic musket fire was followed by a modern rifle tattoo. Somewhere in Peking’s Foreign Legation area, a child wailed. At twelve years old, Wu Yuan knew the sound. Hunger cried the same in any language.

The Roundeye doctor, Mei Weiliang, or Dr. William Scott Ament, spoke the language of birds. An assistant translated. “Do you remember the English words the doctor taught you?”

Wu Yuan nodded. “English letter.”

“Very good. You are our last hope, Wu Yuan. Good luck, and Godspeed.”

The large doctor needled Wu Yuan’s shoulder fiercely, demon eyes burning with a ghost’s greenish light. An earlier messenger had attempted a different route by slipping through the barricades. He failed. Boxers were attentive, and everywhere, which did not bode well for Wu Yuan.

Peking and the Tartar City Walls - online sources

Peking and the Tartar Walls – online sources

“Three days ago a native messenger, bearing our tidings, was sent out in fear and trembling, induced to attempt to reach Tientsin by lavish promises, and by the urgency of missionary entreaties,” a survivor of the Siege of the Legations, acclaimed author Putnam Weale, wrote in his 1900 book Indiscreet Letters from Peking. “But instead of even getting out of the city, the messenger was captured, beaten, and detained for several days…”

A most hideous capital punishment awaited those convicted of betraying their country: the lingchi death, or death by a thousand cuts.

Wu Yuan’s knees turned rubbery one foot off the wall, and he looked behind him. Past rubble and barricades sprawled brightly lit streets. The Tang Dynasty Hanlin Academy was engulfed in flames, casting fiendish shadows across rooftops. Blood-red flags draped storefronts. Lanterns painted the streets crimson, illuminating frenzied Boxers by the hundreds, fists raised defiantly toward the Legation. Somewhere, closer to the Forbidden City, drums beat. Dungchen horns blared. Wu Yuan’s side of the barricades resembled hell. Here, amongst the ruins, darkness reigned. Not a soul stirred. Open fires were forbidden for fear of tireless snipers.

Wu Yuan wiped away a tear. Peking black dust, stirred by soldiers, camels, and ash, turned his sleeve grey. Having just recovered from another round of consumption, he was leaving no family behind. His mama and baba were beheaded in his hometown in Shantung for following the Western gods. Schoolmates at his mission school had been rounded up and taken away. As far as Wu Yuan knew, he was a lone survivor. Baba hid him in a dried-up well, where he saw nothing, but heard everything. Mama’s screams haunted his dreams.

After the Boxers left, he fled with neighbors to Peking, where they were all now huddled, separate, and disdained by the Roundeyes inside the Foreign Legation.

Ament“Even in this matter of Chinese refugees the attitude of our foolish Legations is rather inexplicable,” Putnam Weale wrote of the Chinese trapped alongside foreigners inside Peking’s Foreign Legation. “Actually up to within a few days ago some of the Ministers were still resolutely refusing to entertain the idea that native Christians—men who have been estranged from their own countrymen and marked as pariahs because they have listened to the white man’s gospel—could be brought within the Legation area.”

Wu Yuan could stand the noise, the dust, the screams, no longer. Terrible screams, chilling words, his countrymen directed at him.

“They [Boxers] began shouting and roaring in chorus two single words, “Sha-shao,” kill and burn, in an ever-increasing crescendo,” Putnam Weale wrote. “I have heard a very big mass of Russian soldiery give a roar of welcome to the Czar some years ago, a roar which rose in a very extraordinary manner to the empyrean; but never have I heard such a blood-curdling volume of sound, such a vast bellowing as began then and there, and went on persistently, hour after hour, without ever a break, in a maddening sort of way which filled one with evil thoughts. Sometimes for a few moments the sound sank imperceptibly lower and lower and seemed making ready to stop. Then reinforced by fresh thousands of throats, doubtless wetted by copious drafts of samshu, it grew again suddenly, rising stronger and stronger, hoarser and hoarser, more insane and more possessed, until the tympanums of our ears were so tortured that they seemed fit to burst. Could walls and gates have fallen by mere will and throat power, ours of Peking would have clattered down Jericho-like. Our womenfolk were frozen with horror—the very sailors and marines muttered that this was not to be war, but an Inferno of Dante with fresh horrors. You could feel instinctively that if these men got in they would tear us from the scabbards of our limbs. It was pitch dark, too, and in the gloom the towers and battlements of the Tartar Wall loomed up so menacingly that they, too, seemed ready to fall in and crush us.”

Boxer depiction, artist unknown - online sources

Boxer depiction, artist unknown – online sources

Sleeping heel to nose, nose to heel, there was little room to breathe inside the Foreign Legation. Wu Yuan, standing no taller than a donkey’s back, perfect size for Knife-Sharpener Ma’s nightly farts aimed directly into his nose, rivaled the horror Wu Yuan had for musket fire and Boxer chants. Like rotten, thousand-year-old eggs.

Wu Yuan’s stomach grumbled. The porridge was bland, without salt, but still smelled delicious.

When Mei Weiliang the doctor asked for volunteers to send a message to Tientsin, 80 miles away, Wu Yuan raised his hand. He had nothing to lose. Suffering from consumption, he was already drawing near the wood. He didn’t need a fortune-teller to tell him how much longer he had. Better to die on the outside than trapped like a rat inside. They’d all suffered equally under the Boxers’ attacks, Roundeye and Chinese alike. Nearly a dozen Roundeyes and more Chinese than he could count were dead and buried in shallow graves. Food was scarce, eaten down to horseflesh, and a reward of 500 taels, approximately 350 Mexican dollars, was his upon completion of the mission. Five-hundred taels. A lifetime’s worth of noodles – with beef. Full stomach every day.

“Quickly, now.” The assistant said. “Before they see you.”

Wu Yuan sucked in his breath, clinging to the rope with both hands when the doctor pushed him over the edge. A ceramic crack rang loudly against stones below.

The doctor swore. The harsh sound curses make were also the same in any language.

“He dropped the bowl,” Ament’s assistant said. “It’s no good.”

Wu Yuan found his voice. “I’m all right. Let me down.”

Slowly, the rope lengthened. The doctor’s strange, hairy face grew smaller, then vanished within smoke. Wu Yuan found footing behind a massive stone, blown from the Tartar Wall. Imperial soldiers guarded the sluice gate not more than a hundred paces away. Both held torches. To the south where Tientsin lay, a road, usually teeming with merchants, camels, monks, and traveling troupes, was empty. Bodies strung from crosses, like the Western god’s Yesu, lined both sides.

Hands shaking, Wuyuan discovered the spilled porridge, and found the oiled silk message. He licked the secret message clean, then tied it around his ankle. Frayed pants hid the cloth. Although his heart beat faster than a hummingbird’s wings, he slipped from his hiding spot, shuffling slowly, as beggars do, straight toward the Imperial soldiers.

“Bless you, food please,” Wu Yuan said. He stretched his begrimed hands toward the nearest soldier. “A thousand blessing upon you. Food. Water.”

The Imperial soldier jumped in surprise. “Get away from here, you filthy beggar.”

Wu Yuan dropped to his knees. Held his hands over his head. “My family is dead. I’ve had nothing to eat for days. If you do not help me, nobody will.” Wu Yuan grunted when the soldier kicked his leg.

“Show some pity,” the second soldier said. “Can’t you see he’s starving?  Even in times like these we cannot forget our Confucian principles.” A cold, metallic piece was pushed into his palm. “Now go. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay far away from here.”

“Bless you. Thank you.” Wu Yuan bowed deeply, hugging the copper coin to his chest. Every instinct told him to run, but he bowed a second time. “I must get to my grandparents’ home in Tientsin. The journey is so long, I’m afraid I cannot make it.” He held up his hands again.

“Don’t take an inch to gain a mile.” The second soldier picked him up by his collar and tossed him toward the road. “Get going before I regret my charity.”

“Yes, thank you. Baba used to tell me the same thing. May the gods bless you.”

Wu Yuan turned his back on the soldiers, on the burning Tartar City, careful to keep the same, slow cadence. Sweat streaked his back. His lips shook with fright. He dared not glance at the dead, bodies poked like pins into the dusty earth. No more than a dozen steps away, Boxers, wildly screaming, carrying torches and spears – a thronging mass – crashed toward him. Wu Yuan edged to the road’s side, directly under the hanging bodies.

“Down with the foreign devils,” a Boxer screamed. “Kill them all, root and branch.”

Expecting he had been discovered, the ensuing chant chilled Wu Yuan to the bone.

“He heard the noise of guns and the roar of the mob who cried “Down with the Christians,” a 1920 book Rules of the Game by Floyd Wesley Lambertson said about Wu Yuan’s escape. “His eyes were blinded by the flare of torches and the glow from burning houses. There were dead bodies in the street. There were shrieks and groans. Everywhere, there were Boxer soldiers with guns or spears hunting for victims.”

But the first Boxer, dressed in black, red strips flailing from his wrists and ankles, passed him by. The second, a large man with a yellow charm pasted to his bare chest, only offered an uninterested glance. A third Boxer, dancing wildly, bumped his shoulder, sending him careening into an execution post.

Wu Yuan clung to the post, legs no longer able to move. His palms slickened. Toward the procession’s end, Wu Yuan recognized a young man, a former student at the same mission school he had attended, but had been excommunicated. Wu Yuan hung his head, and the man passed him by. Slowly, their vile chant diminished behind the Tartar Wall.

Wu Yuan waited for his heart to slow. Hours passed, it seemed. The Tartar City quieted. Even bulletproof Boxers needed sleep. A porridge vendor, pushing a groaning cart, idled past. Wu Yuan pried his fingers from the sticky post, and resumed his shuffle toward Tientsin, five paces behind the merchant, begging for porridge every other step.



Wu Yuan ambled south for two days, never walking quickly, for fear of being noticed, and always on the main road. Any other route would have been considered suspicious, and Wu Yuan wore his beggar face. He had nothing to hide. He slept when he could no longer walk, choosing places outside store fronts. In the open. Begged for food. Occasionally, he mingled with refugees from one village or another, until their route diverged. Most passersby offered him nothing but cursory glances, but a few, namely an elderly woman, handed him flat bread. A red-robed monk gave him a pat and an apple.

He woke each morning in sweaty pools, coughing, willing himself to forget the nightmares. The road to Tientsin was flat and dusty. Surrounding fields were desolate; crops were burned, and what tender shoots managed to escape the flames were blanketed by ash. The brown dirt was cracked, thirsty for rain. Wu Yuan stumbled upon a rain dancer, wearing a green wreath, and swinging a long, wooden sword. He watched the spectacle, fascinated. The grizzled man stabbed upwards and down, left and right, made whooshing noises and called upon the gods to send rain.

A dust storm came instead.

There were few hiding places along the way. Trees were rarities, under which he rested. He drank from algae-covered canals, clearing the grime before scooping up the bitter water. On the second night, his consumption flared, leaving him in a coughing haze. His stomach cramped. Dysentery wasn’t far behind.

Halfway to Tientsin, an empty, aching stomach forced Wu Yuan toward a village, which showed no signs of Boxers. With only a single copper piece, he ordered a bowl of noodles – without beef. He eyed the soup seller, chopping meat, enviously, but satiated his appetite with the thought that one day soon he could order all the beefy noodles his stomach could want. The fragrance was almost too much to bear, however, and he drooled as he slurped.

Sudden commotion stopped Wu Yuan midway through his noodles.

“They’re back,” the noodle man said. His face turned white. “Boxers.”

Boxers. A chopstick snapped in Wu Yuan’s hand.

A powerfully built man, queue snaked around a thick neck, bare chest covered in yellowed charms, marched into the village square. His underlings quickly ushered the inhabitants into a circle. Wu Yuan tried to flee, but Noodle Man kept him close.

“Stay close, child. Pretend I’m your father.”

“I have nothing to fear,” Wu Yuan said. A Boxer pulled Noodle Man into a male row. Women were separated as well, and stood shivering against a wall despite summer’s heat.

Great Elder Brother, the Boxers’ helmsman, inspected the villagers, took his time with the women, pulling two young ones away. Boxers turned clothes inside out, unwrapped bundles. An especially thin man found Wu Yuan’s half eaten noodles were still warm.

“And who are you?” Great Elder Brother stood before Wu Yuan. “Those were your noodles?”

Wu Yuan nodded.

“A boy of means. How fortuitous.” Great Elder Brother motioned for a Boxer to search Wu Yuan. A yellow-turbaned hunchback began rifling his clothing.

“You smell like a pigsty,” Yellow Turban said. The man’s face was wrinkled deep as the dry earth, and he walked as if he had a needle in his foot. Yellow Turban’s search moved to Wu Yuan’s legs. His ankle burned.

“Where is your home?” Great Elder Brother was growing impatient. Clearly, the Boxers weren’t finding any foreign devils or er maotzu, second-class long hairs, here.

“Shantung,” Wu Yuan said. “I’m on my way to Tientsin to find my grandparents. Roundeyes killed my entire family.” Mission school teachers taught lying was a sin, but in a situation like this, Wu Yuan guessed the gods wouldn’t mind.

Great Elder Brother cleared his throat, spat. “Stay with us. We’ll find some work for you.”

Yellow Turban finished patting him down. “He’s clean.”

“Thank you for your kindness, but I really must…” Yellow Turban pushed him toward the village’s main gate, where a line of young boys and girls was forming. Parents cried out behind him, calling out their children’s names.

“Line up.” Yellow Turban’s voice was high pitched, resembling a woman’s. He yanked the ears of two children, hauling them back in line.

A child Boxer - online sources

A child Boxer – online sources

“You should be thanking us, not whimpering like dogs,” Yellow Turban said. “You are all part of the ever victorious Harmonious and Righteous Fists. With us, you will learn to become fighters with iron waists, iron heads, iron bodies, impervious to bullets, resistant to water and fire. Study hard, be obedient, and you will be like the mighty Monkey King. Nothing will be able to penetrate you, not even the shells of the dog soldiers.”

“Now, for your first lesson. Repeat after me.” Yellow Bandit raised his hands, signaling the children to speak. “Righteous Harmony, we sacred Boxers, slaughter the foreigners to preserve our land. Boxers of Righteous Harmony, our power is great, indestructible.”

Wu Yuan did as he was told. Yellow Turban wasn’t satisfied.


The children mumbled.   A child nearest him received a slap. “Louder.”

The exercise was interrupted when Great Elder Brother issued the order to move out. They marched south, toward Tientsin, but stopped at a smoldering village at sunset. Charred trees attested to the violence that had befallen the village. Bodies of men, women, and children were piled before the ruins of a Catholic church. Ravens cawed. Flies buzzed hungrily. Teary-eyed children swarmed like ants, hauling bricks from the wreckage, stacking them in neat rows. A hastily-built altar, brimming with flags, pouring incense from an urn on top, stood before the charred church’s entrance.

Yellow Bandit led Wu Yuan and the children to a tent. Three Catholic priests knelt in the dust, waiting death. Boxers with large swords lingered behind them, sipping tea. When Great Elder Brother arrived, the executioners snapped to attention.

“What are you waiting for?” Great Elder Brother said. “Send their dog souls to the eighteen hells.”

Artwork depicting Catholic priests being assaulted by a mob - online sources

Artwork depicting Catholic priests and ‘er maotzu’ being assaulted by Boxers – online sources

“Stay strong, brothers,” a priest said. “We dine in heaven tonight.” An executioner forced his head down.

The Catholic priests died quietly. One sword slice each separated head from body. Some might say the priests died bravely. But what good is bravery when it meets death? Fate, was the only real force in this world turned upside down. Fate had led Wu Yuan here, to this blistering village, and fate, perhaps, would see him through. When the heads fell, Boxers cheered. Great Elder Brother scowled. Apparently, he wanted a show.

An elderly man approached Wu Yuan, raised his arms up for inspection.

He showed his bicep. The old man, lean and swaying like a willow, frowned. After running in place and a dozen squats, Wu Yuan and one other child were found to be unacceptable for hard labor. They were pulled from the line; the rest were herded toward the bricks.

“Too weak,” the old man said. Wu Yuan collapsed when the old man gave him a shove. “Send this one to the inn. He’s strong enough to empty chamber pots.”



Wu Yuan spent eight days cleaning chamber pots, hauling in fresh straw for bedding, and all the while his ankle burned with an urgency checked only by the deepening rattle in his chest. Consumption was returning with a fury. He weakened. The innkeeper, a lazy, toothless man, too fat to beat him, kicked him out when he coughed up blood.

“What should we do with this one?” Yellow Turban, more tanned and wrinkled than ever, hauled him into the Catholic church ruins, where  Great Elder Brother lounged in an oversized chair.  A Boxer altar had replaced the pulpit.

“What’s the matter with him?”

“He’s sick.”

“Homesick, more like it.” Great Elder Brother leaned close. Sniffed. Wu Yuan detected rice wine on the helmsman’s breath.  He struggled to keep his chin up.  “This one has a date with the paper man. Nothing we can do.”

The paper man. Wu Yuan had heard of the black magic. Legends said the paper man was sent up into the air by wu magicians, and fell heavy as lead, crushing its victims on whom it descended. He’d always laughed at the superstition, but the wild gleam in Great Elder Brother’s eyes, the way he sat back in his mahogany chair, judging him, turned rumor into truth.

Great Elder Brother tossed a silver coin in the air. “Go home. Enjoy a good meal before the paper man finds you.” A giant fist slapped into his palm. Wu Yuan bowed stiffly, and backed away, cringing at Great Elder Brother’s deep-throated guffaws.



Noodles with donkey meat boosted Wu Yuan’s spirits, and he left the Boxer encampment with forty copper coins. His strength, however, diminished with each step, slowing his pace. Nearing nightfall, he came upon a boatman on the Grand Canal, spent most of his coins for a place to spend the night and passage to Tientsin.

Tientsin Celestial City - online sources

Tientsin Celestial City – online sources

“I slept that night on a boat by the bank, and close by, on another boat, there was a Boxer altar,” Wu Yuan said in missionary reports written in China’s Book of Martyrs, published in 1903 and written by Luella Miner. “A crowd of Boxers, with wrists and ankles bound with red, and with red girdles, went onto the boat to worship their divinity, while others were practicing on the bank. Those practicing would first make obeisance toward the southeast; then, with cries like a hedgehog, they would brandish their weapons, or act dizzy and fall over backward. Others would lift them up and shake them, supporting them for a while; then they would strike out wildly in the air with their swords, leaping like madmen.

“I stood quietly watching them, not acting the least afraid, so they did not suspect me. They asked question of all on the boats whom they suspected, but asked me nothing.”

Next morning, when Wu Yuan awoke in another sweaty pool, the boatman was fleeing.

“Boatman,” Wu Yuan said. “Where are you going?”

“It’s too dangerous in Tientsin,” the boatman said. “Pleasure doing business with you.” He jingled a small purse, then disappeared over the bank.

“Turtle’s egg,” Wu Yuan said. Then glanced over his shoulder, half expecting the mission school teacher to be waiting with a ruler.

“There was nothing to do, but to start on again a’foot, going that day eighteen miles to Anping,” Wu Yuan said in China’s Book of Martyrs. “I met throngs of Boxers on the Great Road, all saying they had been summoned to Peking. As I always looked fearless and unconcerned, they paid no attention to me.”

Despite his sickly condition, Wu Yuan traveled four more days, reaching Tientsin’s West Arsenal by June 27, 1900, according to the China Book of Martyrs. The Peiho’s eastern bank was strewn with dead Imperial soldiers and Boxers. Barricades were everywhere, and carefully guarded by Boxers. Day and night, lamps burned in every house. No one dared venture into alleyways. He found a place to sleep outside a shop by the Celestial City, two miles away from the Tientsin’s Foreign Settlement.

Tientsin's Mud Wall - Tianjin Daily

Tientsin’s Mud Wall, South Gate – Tianjin Daily

On the fifth day, Wu Yuan attempted to breach the barricades, but found all routes impossible. Being without money, exhausted, stomach cramping from dysentery, he found work keeping the camp registry for a Boxer army camped near Tientsin’s Mud Wall, near Taku Road. Chinese cannons blasted the Settlement constantly.

“I was greatly distressed because I could get no opportunity to steal into the Settlement with my message; but sad though I was, I never dared to show it. I saw that, even if I succeeded in getting into the Settlement, they were not in a condition to send soldiers to the relief of Peking.”

BarrrowsCorpses floated along the Peiho, collecting in the river dips, and creating an omnipresent stench. He worked with the Boxers until July 14, when foreign soldiers counterattacked, sparking the invasion, and eventual complete destruction of the Celestial City.

“I resolved to take in my letter at once, though I expected no reward, having delayed so long. I crossed the river, and went toward the north gate of Tientsin. All the others on the road were going northward; I alone went toward the city. I found the north gate open, and an English sentry on guard, who pointed his rifle at me.”

Wu Yuan quickly procured the message, waving it above his head. “English letter. English letter.”  The English words, bird language, worked.  The sentry led him to a small encampment where soldiers were eating breakfast. Beef, not horsemeat, wafted heavy in the air. The sentry perused his secret message, while a Chinese soldier in an English blue jacket uniform sauntered over. “Have you eaten breakfast?”

“No,” Wu Yuan said. “But I’m not hungry. My foreign friends are shut up in Peking, and are in great danger.”

“Not to worry,” the soldier said. “Don’t you know we’ve won?  Eat something first, and then we’ll take you to the general.”

Wu Yuan wolfed down steamed rice and salted beef. The best meal he’d had since before Boxers slaughtered his parents.

According to the China Book of Martyrs, General Sir Edmund Barrows received Wu Yuan. “Send help quickly,” the secret note said, according to the Rules of the Game.

“He took the letter, glanced at it, and then, as he was able to talk Chinese, he asked me several questions about the Chinese soldiers, whether they were scattering, and in what direction they were going,” Wu Yuan said. “He then took me to the British Consulate in the Settlement, here, Mr. Drew of the Customs, told me that he was ready to give me 500 taels as a reward for bringing the letter.”



General Barrows asked him to return to Peking with a half-inch-sized note hidden inside his collar. Traveling by foot, Wu Yuan left the next day. Bolstered by success, new provisions, clean water, and with few Boxers left on the road, Wu Yuan traveled 37 miles the first day. He slept in a destroyed locomotive. He was searched more than once by soldiers, who never discovered the secret note. Rumors that the besieged foreigners in Peking were overwhelmed, Wu Yuan no longer acted the beggar, but pushed as fast as his legs would carry him. Within four days, Wu Yuan reached Peking’s Tartar Wall, but was turned away at the Hata Gate. He entered through the Shun-chih Gate, guarded by red-turbaned Boxers.

The Shun-chih Gate, Tartar Wall - online sources

The Shun-chih Gate, Tartar Wall – online sources

“The next day, from early morning until late afternoon, he went hither and thither trying to steal through the Boxer lines. At last, he succeeded, and after several narrow escapes as he made his way toward the legations in the darkness, he reached a bridge on Legation Street held by American soldiers. There, he waited until light, when he was seen by a soldier.”

“Don’t shoot.” Wu Yuan forgot the foreigner most likely spoke no Chinese. “English letter, English letter.”

The soldier helped him up a bank and into the American Legation, then to the British Legation, where Wu Yuan revealed the missive, A vast army gathering in Tientsin will soon march to the relief of Peking, the note read.

“A curious figure this messenger bringing news from the outside world made as he sat calmly fanning himself with the stoicism of his race,” Putnam Weale wrote about Wu Yuan in the Indiscreet Letters from Peking. “I wish you could have heard him; it seemed to me at once a message and a sermon, a sermon for those who are so afraid. The little pictures this boy dropped out in jerks showed us that there were worse terrors than being sealed in by brickwork.”

The China Book of Martyrs recalled Wu Yuan’s arrival with the news as a godsend. “A glad crowd surrounded the little Chinese hero, and many eyes were dimmed with tears; but he seemed all unconscious of having done a noble deed. He had but done his duty, and was happy in the thought that he had done his foreign friends a service.”

Wu Yuan wasn’t the first messenger to bring good news. Shortly before Wu Yuan found his way back to the besieged foreigners inside the Tartar City, a Japanese messenger delivered the same news. But the arrival of a second messenger, and a note written by an English hand, confirmed the fact that help was on the way.

Putnam Weale further wrote about Wu Yuan in the Indiscreet Letters from Peking, although did not reveal the boy’s name. “Once he was tied up and made to work for days at a village inn. Then he escaped at night, and went on quickly, traveling by night across the fields. Somehow, by stealing food, he finally reached Tientsin. The native city was full of Chinese troops and armed Boxers; beyond were Europeans. There was nothing but fighting and disorder and a firing of big guns. By moving slowly he had broken into the country again, and gained an outpost of European troops, who captured him and took him into the camps. Then he had delivered his message and received the one he had brought back.

“That is all; it had taken twenty-four days.”

Wu Yuan lived two years after his epic journey, but consumption claimed his life early. He received the promised 500 taels, approximately USD 350, of which 200 taels went to help those suffering from his same disease, according to the China Book of Martyrs. A medal from the British Government testifying to the value of Wu Yuan’s services reached his friends soon after his death, and was encased in glass in the Museum of North China College, according to the China Book of Martyrs.



The Case of the Ghost Market Human Head

By C.S. Hagen

TIENTSIN, CHINA – The sun had set. Mama was braising supper, fresh carp with scallions and cone-shaped corn cakes called sticky bobo, Bangchui’s favorite. Baba, his usual grumpy self, was home from pulling a rickshaw, smelling sweaty, chain-smoking Double Crane cigarettes.

“Bangchui,” Mama said. She gave the giant wok a pull, slopping thickening soy sauce onto the stone oven. Flames burped from the hearth. “Go take a bath. Dinner is almost ready.”

“But…” The twelve-year-old boy’s stomach growled.

“No buts.” Blue smoke hid Baba’s face. “Do as you’re told.”

“Yes, Baba.”

“Should have named you Lazy Worm. You aren’t worthy to carry the Hao family name. Go. Hurry back. The American soldiers always cause havoc on the weekends.”

Giving Baba a wide berth, Bangchui closed the rickety front door behind him. The Hai River wasn’t far. He’d spent all afternoon swimming, he didn’t need a bath, and to make matters worse, he was hungry. Despite the lack of streetlights, Bangchui could find his way to the riverbank blindfolded.  Perhaps he could catch a water snake or a fat frog to take home and eat, fried with lots of garlic and chives.

A Chinese Junk - transliteration of the Portuguese word Junco - photo by C.S. Hagen

A Junk – from Portuguese word Junco – by C.S. Hagen

Moonlight painted the Hai River silver, inviting him in. Junks and sampans were silent, bobbing gently. An American gunboat billowed a long smoke trail, heading east toward the ocean. Barely two years since the Japanese surrendered, and the city was swarming once again with foreign soldiers, only these ones resembled monsters from the Monkey King’s Journey to the West. Fiery red hair and burning green eyes, they drove their Jeeps through town with abandon, laughing, and smelling of strange spirits.

Bangchui spat in the ship’s direction. Baba said the Americans were good for Tientsin, but he knew better. Stupid Roundeyes. They couldn’t even speak proper words.

Thick mud oozed between his bare toes. He enjoyed the sensation, and dug deeper, disturbing tadpoles and a frog too small to eat. Not far away, an object bobbed to the surface, winked at him, and then sank.

“What’s this?” Bangchui took a step closer, remembering his clothes. Hurriedly, he stripped and dove naked into the cool waters, his bathtub. Swimming toward where he last saw the object, it resurfaced two meters downstream. He dove, kicking his legs like the mighty Zhang Heng from Water Margin and caught the bundle before it sank too low.

The object was heavy, tied at the top with a string he couldn’t pry apart. He dragged it the river’s edge, and waited for the water to drain. What was inside? Silver? No, silver was too heavy to float. Paper money, yes that was it. Surely some local hooligan had dumped the bundle filled with loot into the river for a quick escape. Or perhaps a communist spy from the Eighth Route Army had lost his cash while fleeing from Kuomintang police. The possibilities were endless.

Tianjn hutong - by C.S. Hagen

Tianjn hutong – by C.S. Hagen

Making sure no one was watching, he hugged the bundle to his bony chest, and set off toward home. Flat feet smacked the stones loudly, but he was in a hurry. He couldn’t remember one time when Baba had said a kind word to him. Today, his luck had changed. Baba was surely to be impressed.

An elderly couple out for a stroll gave Bangchui pause at the corner to his alley. Squeezing behind a chicken coop, he waited. He could not risk being seen with such a prize. Arms wrapped tightly around the bundle, it felt strangely warm against his bare chest.


It had a heartbeat.

Baduum… baduum… The beats grew louder, faster, pumping into his arms, up to his shoulders and neck.   His ears burned. A chicken pecked his bare knee, drawing blood. The old couple shuffled past and then he realized the rhythm came from his own racing heart.

Fingering the bundle, Bangchui suddenly became a huihuir, no, better yet, a Han spy, escaping the Forbidden City with arms full of treasure. He was Li Kui and Guanyu and Liu Bei and Cao Cao, brave heroes from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, all rolled into one. The thought emboldened him. A chicken squawked in protest. He kicked at the cage. The chicken pecked at his toe, missed.

Chuckling, he broke into a run, speeding down the narrow alleyway, and burst into his house. The front door clanged against the earthen wall, showering him with dust from the rafters. Words caught in his throat. All at once the pungent fish aroma, his father’s cigarette smoke, and the oval-eyed, astonished looks from his parents were a breath-taking attack on all his senses. Mission accomplished. Proudly, he hefted the bundle toward the ceiling. “Look what I’ve found.” His voice cracked.

“Bangchui.” Mama nearly shrieked. “Where are your clothes?”


The Hai River at night - photo by C.S. Hagen

Tianjin’s Hai River at night – photo by C.S. Hagen

WHEN BANGCHUI RETURNED, clothed, the bundle was resting on the family table. Baba was tugging the string to little avail.

“You’re only making the knot tighter,” Mama said. She brought scissors out from a drawer. “I’m just not sure about these things. Perhaps we shouldn’t open it.” She snipped the first string. “We all know the story about the poor merchant finding a pot of gold along the road.”

A second snip. The bundle loosened, an inch.

“You and your superstitions,” Baba said. “Just cut the strings.”

“The poisonous golden worm, I tell you. Once you let it in the house it might bring you luck, but it comes with a cost, and can only be satisfied with human blood. Best to leave these things where they lay.” She cut the final string.

Baba peeled the bundle’s layers back like a mangosteen’s thick skin. “This is a fine weave.” He fingered the cloth. Bangchui’s heart soared.

Mama’s scream pierced Bangchui’s ears with the nerve-shattering ferocity of a diving Japanese Zero. Suddenly, his skin crawled with Goosebumps. Baba stumbled backward, knocking over a chair, his fingers shaking as he pointed toward the bundle. Bangchui hurried closer for a look. Center table, wrapped in wax cloth, sat a human head.

The Case of the Ghost Market Human Head, noted in Tientsin historical documents as one of the “Eight Strange Cases of the Republic,” had begun.


The Restauranteur’s Second Wife

Police Investigator Xia Menghai appraised the crowd surrounding the Hao residence with hesitancy. Another call into the hutongs, third time this week, for his overworked, underpaid, and severely under-appreciated position. Wasn’t easy being a Tientsin police officer anymore. The day before he settled two domestic disputes, broke up an upstart thieving ring, pocketed their scores, and then was ordered into a Nankai University student march protesting the presence of American soldiers in the city.

His measly paycheck was hardly enough to feed his wife and two children, not to mention the mistress he kept on the sly lodged in the old French Concession. These days, he couldn’t spend money fast enough to keep up with the inflation. Ends had to be met, however, such was life. He didn’t blink twice when opportunities arose, such as manhandling a plump pimp for petty cash. His favorite, though, was drug smugglers, still shoveling their trade after the Japanese surrender. The call for illegal opium in Tientsin was still as strong, and much more profitable, as it was before the war.

Life was simpler during the war days. Cleaner, somehow. More righteous. If only he was paid enough perhaps he could straighten his ways. Now, he was just another cop, walking his beats, robbing rich and poor to stay one step ahead of his creditors. Investigator Xia sighed. Above it all, however, he was downright bored.

“Inspector, inspector.” A middle-aged man pushed through the crowd and greeted him. Inspector Xia nodded, puffed out his chest, and approached.

“Old Hao, I presume?” Inspector Xia said. “What is all the fuss about?”

“You aren’t going to believe it,” Old Hao said.  He was a middle-aged man baring rusty teeth. “Come in, come in, inspector. Please. Have some tea. It’s tasteless as a northwest wind, but it’s wet, and warm.”

“No thank you. State your business. I’m a busy man.”

“Yes, yes, my apologies for bothering a man of your lofty position,” Old Hao said.

Investigator Xia stooped to enter the shack, which reeked of mud and something not unlike sewage. He stifled a cough. Eyes slowly accustomed to the gloom. A one-room apartment. Kitchen. A stone kang doubled as a couch. Hardly room for a family of three. He’d seen it all before, too many times to count. Day-old fish sat uneaten in a wok. Flies swarmed. That was a pity. All Tientsiners, including himself, enjoyed braised fish and sticky corn cakes. Perhaps, these poor people truly did have an emergency after all.

A child, tear tracks across his cheeks, slumped in a far corner. A plain woman, dressed in black pantaloons and a sleeveless shirt, presumably the mother, patted the child’s back none too gently. Old Hao excitedly pointed to a bundle sitting on a small table. The cloth was beyond this family’s means, most likely fine linen.

Without waiting, Inspector Xia peeled back a layer, and jumped.

“What’s the meaning of this?”

“My son…”

“I should have brought backup. Who is responsible? Who is that… that head?”

“Please don’t be angry,” Old Hao said. “I can explain.”

“You better explain, and speak quickly, or you’ll all be wearing shackles.”

“My son was bathing in the river, and he found this head. He brought it home thinking it was treasure. Oh why, couldn’t he have left it alone? No good son of mine. He’s too curious for his own good.”

“Is this true?” Inspector Xia turned his wrath on the son. “What is your name?”

“Bangchui.” The boy wiped snot across his nose.

“Bangchui? What kind of a name is that? Why are you called a wooden hammer?”

Old Hao stepped too close. Inspector Xia held out a hand.

“We named him Bangchui so that he would be passed over by the King of Hell,” Old Hao said.

Inspector Xia had heard of such beliefs. Not prone to superstitions, he gave little credence to the seven hells or any heaven. Some lesser folk, however, believed in bestowing strange names to their children in order for Yan Wangye, the King of Hell, to overlook them.

“Do you have witnesses?” Inspector Xia said.

Bangchui shook his head.

“He’s a good boy,” the boy’s mama said. “Ask the neighbors. He thought he was bringing home a prize.”

Inspector Xia grunted. He’d seen beheadings before, during the Japanese occupation, and while he was fighting the Island Dwarfs in nearby Shantung Province, but not in Tientsin. The boy had sticks for arms. He doubted such a poor family had anything to do with murder. More than likely expected a reward, though.

“So who is this woman?” He peeled back a layer, eyeing the head. Young, even pretty, for a severed head. Long, black hair, lips thick as mandarin orange slices.

“We don’t know,” Old Hao said.

“Very well. All of you need to accompany me to the police station.” Mama gasped. “I’m not charging any of you. Yet.” Inspector Xia hefted the head. Heavier than he thought possible. “First, Bangchui, show me where you found it.”


A TRAFFIC POLICE officer identified the severed head. It belonged to Liu Shi, second wife or the er nainai of Wang Jinyuan, the famous Suxiang Zhai restaurant owner. Inspector Xia smelled a family quarrel, but when he arrived at the Wang residence, the house was quiet, tidy. Old Xu, the Wang household manager and his personal wine-meat friend, was finishing up an argument with a watermelon seller, saying the melons weren’t ripe, and had to be taken away.

Old Xu invited him in for tea.

“What can I do to help you, Inspector Xia?” Old Xu smoothed his long shirt across his legs, adjusted wire-rimmed glasses. He was a decent looking man, neither too thin, nor too fat, middle aged, without a wrinkle, and teeth white as ivory. He was a wine-meat friend because they were not close, but had met when the occasion called at Suxiang Zhai for drinks and dinners. He didn’t appear ill at ease with the inspector’s sudden arrival, but then a man of his position hadn’t achieved such success by wearing his emotions on his sleeve. Old Xu signaled for a servant to pour tea.

“How is Wang Jinyuan’s health?” Inspector Xia asked of Wang Jinyuan. The tea was fragrant, perfectly warmed. The servant left the teapot’s spout pointing directly at Old Xu, a mistake, in the olden days, worthy of dismissal.

Old Xu nudged the teapot’s spot toward the wall. “Well enough,” he said. “Does your arrival have something to do with Wang Laoye?”

“Umm, how is his first wife?”

“She is well. Thank you for your consideration. Why do you ask?”

“How about Wang Laoye’s grandmother on his father’s side?”

“She passed away years ago. Really, old friend, what is the reason for all these questions?”

Inspector Xia paused for emphasis. “And how about er nainai, the second wife?”

“She is well, although I haven’t seen her for several days.”

“You haven’t seen her?” Inspector Xia pushed back his chair and stood. “And why is that exactly?”

Old Xu nearly dropped his teacup. “They live in the interior of the compound. I stay here with Zhou Liang and Pang Guang, the runners.” Old Xu pointed out the Ming Dynasty window to where two young men sat idle in the courtyard. “Perhaps she isn’t feeling well.”

The answer made sense, but Inspector Xia wasn’t entirely convinced. Everyone was guilty in his mind until proven innocent. Still, he wasn’t going to get any easy information if he leaned on the suspects too hard without ample reason.

“I have no authority over where or when she goes.” Old Xu said. “Would you like to speak with Wang Laoye?”

The invitation stole some wind from Inspector Xia’s sails. It wasn’t proper for him, a simple police investigator, to barge in on a man of Wang Laoye’s position without evidence. “That wouldn’t be proper. I think it’s best you bring him the news.”


Inspector Xia slumped back into the chair. A powerfully sour feeling rose from his gut, stinging his throat, warning him this case wasn’t going to be easy to solve. His teacup was empty. “News, old friend, of the direst kind.”


A Terrible Fright

After Wang Laoye heard the news, he was overcome with grief. And not the faked kind, Old Xu noticed. His boss was genuinely distressed. Old Xu tried to placate, insisting there was no need for him to personally identify the head, but Wang Laoye wouldn’t hear of anything else.

News of the murder swept through Tientsin faster than a Gobi Desert sandstorm, scooping all local news agencies, including the Takung Pao, the largest newspaper company in the area. Poor neighbors gathered around the Wang family’s large estate, nestled into the old city’s north side, begging for an audience. Some wanted to sell their living daughters to replace Liu Shi, the second wife. One woman, approximately Liu Shi’s age – around twenty-two – offered to commit suicide on the spot for a small fee, to be given to her children, so second wife could be buried with a body.

Noble though the requests may be, Old Xu denied them all. Second wife’s head was stored in an old wooden ice chest. Despite police efforts to find her body, two days passed, and then three. The funeral could not wait. Preparations were made, and second wife’s head was buried in a full-sized coffin with ceremony in the Wang family cemetery.

Typical  Chinese gravesite - photo by C.S. Hagen

Typical well-to-do Chinese gravesite – photo by C.S. Hagen

A new commotion stirred in Tientsin one week after the burial. Liu Shi’s body was discovered in a watermelon patch outside the city. The watermelon farmer, Lao Jia, was arrested, and later released for lack of evidence. Inside the Wang family’s mansion, preparations, once again, were made to reunite second wife’s head and her body, but the ordeal called for someone with surgeon-like hands, to sew the pieces together. Lao Xu turned to the local Da Liao, who was actually a teahouse owner, wise man, pharmacist, and brave soul, capable of such a chore.

“In those days the Da Liao was a type of local wise man,” the radio report from FSM Telecommunications Corporation on Dot FM reported. “People turned to the Da Liao anytime they were in trouble, and the Da Liao was expected to have the answers.”

Because second wife’s husband, Wang Laoye, was a pillar in the community, the Da Liao agreed to the gruesome deed. A second funeral procession, including Wang Laoye, Lao Xu, the Wang family runners Zhou Liang and Pang Guang, who were to dig up the grave, attended. Wang Laoye, in his distress, carried the white soul banner, a responsibility usually reserved for a son or daughter, and led the small procession to his second wife’s grave, weeping the entire route.

Second wife’s severed head and body could not be touched by sunlight, moonlight, and starlight; a golden blanket was spread across the grave. Blindly, Da Liao pried open the coffin, inserted a hand, and went no further.

“What is it, Da Liao?” Wang Laoye said.

“Don’t be afraid,” Da Liao said.

“Is her head there?” Wang Laoye pushed his formidable weight forward, short moustache twitching in anticipation. “What are you touching?”

The Wang family runners quailed, and dropped to the ground.

“I am touching a hand,” Da Liao said.

“What?” Wang Loaye pawed at the grave’s side, kicking up dirt like a dog digging a hole.

“Stop.” Da Liao said.

Wang Laoye slumped to his side. The white soul banner lay on the dirt beside him.

Da Liao closed his eyes and reached further inside the coffin. “I have found the hand again, and there is a body. Are you sure you only buried a head?”

“Yes.” Wang Laoye wailed. “How can this be? Has my beloved wife grown a new body?”

“Don’t be silly.” Da Liao withdrew his hand to throw back the blanket.

“No.” Wang Laoye shrieked. “We must wait for morning. I am a Scorpio, anyone who dares move will have to deal with my sting.” Old Xu was confused to what Scorpio meant, and feared his boss was losing his mind. Wang Laoye struggled to his feet, picked up the white soul banner, and began parading around the grave, chanting like a priest.

A Daoists's blue robes - photo by C.S. Hagen

A Daoists’s blue robes – by C.S. Hagen

The Da Liao relented to Wang Laoye’s wishes, sending Lao Xu to bring Tientsin police. The group waited until morning, and in the presence of a grumbling, sleepy-eyed Investigator Xia, threw back the golden cover, revealing a man’s body in Daoist robes meticulously placed beneath second wife’s head. The man had half a purplish birthmark on his neck, and no other injuries besides a missing head.

The sour smell sent onlookers recoiling in disgust. Zhou Liang and Pang Guang fled home.


Ghost Market Delights

Ghost markets are not named for hauntings or the sudden appearance of apparitions. The name stems from a Chinese idiom, “cold enough to crack a ghost’s teeth,” for they appear silently before the dawn, at the coldest time of day, and vanish with hardly a trace. Merchants lighting pipes and hand-rolled cigarettes from a distance resemble ghost lights, better known as will-o-the-wisps.

Another reason for the chilling name is that a ghost market’s vendors spread their wares on a rug, using the darkness to disguise chipped teacups, torn sweaters, and stolen goods. Their hearts have demons, according to local vernacular, meaning the merchants have ulterior motives, covering up scratch marks on a bicycle with charcoal, or deftly stuffing the wool back into a pair of ripped winter pants. Ghost markets are also places for the poor to sell their meager possessions, and for the less fortunate or curious wanderer to find a trinket or two, the replacement piece for a dish set. Always barter. Never accept a price at face value. Examine the goods closely, and if possible, simply stay home. Thieves, pickpockets, and sometimes murderers, are a ghost market’s specters.

ghost marketTJ

LATE SUMMER, 1947, He Laofu found his usually corner at the Xishi Avenue ghost market in Tientsin’s Nankai District. He spread out his rug. Placed bottles, glass cups, and trinkets in the middle and a stone at each corner. He arrived early, settled into the damp chill by lighting a hand-rolled cigarette. Down the street other early birds arrived, but here, they left each other to themselves. Nobody wanted to know another merchant’s trade.

A faint object not far away attracted He Laofu’s attention. He quietly stepped over and found a bundle wrapped in fine cloth, round, and heavy as a watermelon.

“Who left this here?” He Laofu spoke to himself. “A thief?” The thought dawned on him in the thick darkness. If a thief left such a wonderfully wrapped bundle in the middle of a desolate ghost market area, surely, a prize was inside. He could not open it here. Onlookers would grow envious. He stowed it in his corner, wrapped in a shoddy blanket.

Business was better than usual, and before dawn, he set his prize in the center of his rug, pulled the corners into a second bundle, threw the entire package over his shoulder to go home. He told a neighboring merchant he was sleepy, and that business was too poor to continue. The merchant agreed with a heavy sigh.

He Laofu surprised his wife making the morning fire. “Why are you home so early? Did you make it rich?” His wife said.

“How did you know?” He Laofu placed the mysterious bundle on the table. His wife’s eyes lit up like fireflies in the darkness of their tiny home. “You may have the honors.”

He Laofu’s wife opened the bundle carefully, trying to save the strings. “Oh, finally, our luck has changed. How we must have angered the gods to have led such a poor life so far.”

He Laofu leaned closer, smelling a faintly metallic stench. He wished his wife would hurry, but he kept his lips shut. She had the barbed tongue and quick temper of a Tientsin woman, and he didn’t want a provocation today.

Suddenly, wife screamed. Bile rose in He Laofu’s throat, and he threw himself against the wall. A man’s head, one eye gummed shut, the other opened wide, stared a dagger through his heart.

“Impossible.” He Laofu shouted, and then he fainted.


A Huihuir’s Life is the Life to Lead

By 1947, Tientsin’s huihuir, or Dark Drifter societies, pronounced hunhuner, were watered down to a faint shadow of what they had been during the Qing Dynasty. They no longer sported the long queues and flowered wigs. Nor did they carry ax handles and walk the streets dragging one leg. Occasionally, a huihuir wannabe was inspired, perhaps by a father’s stories, to walk into a small shop, slice a meaty thigh chunk away, slap it on the counter and demand free food, but without the numbers the huihuir society once had, individual hooligans had little sway.

Wars, revolutions, and bearing the brunt of too many crimes their members did not commit, dwindled the huihuir down to a laughably petty few.

Broad-shouldered Wang Siwen and his teenaged gang, however, longed for the old days, where huihuir were powerful and a young boy’s name could strike terror into a merchant’s heart.

Wang Siwen called himself Really Big Shrimp. His second in command chose the moniker Bad Luck for Life. Their top general was Hero, more a perpetually-nose-picking-ogre than teenage child. Typically, huihuir came from Tientsin’s poorest areas, including the No Care Zones, and the South Market, or the Nanshi Food Street, but not so for Wang Siwen and his gang. They hailed from wealthy families in Huangjia Park, near the old Concessional area. Wang Siwen and his gang enjoyed reading books, fishing, and other more civilized hobbies. They were known to perform good deeds instead of fighting and causing messes like their predecessors.

“We aren’t creating a name for ourselves,” Bad Luck for Life said. The huihuir gang was lounging in a park. Wang Siwen looked up from the classic Water Margin, cleared his throat.

“What do you mean?”

“We’re always doing good deeds. We haven’t gotten into a fight, well… ever. How are our names supposed to be feared far and wide if we don’t go out and cause a mess?”

Wang Siwen closed his book. “Do you all feel this way?”

Bad Luck for Life, Hero, and the others nodded. Dissension among the ranks was not good, and the boy had made a valid point. By anyone’s account, Wang Siwen’s gang resembled the Red Cross more than bloody huihuirs.

“Very well,” Wang Siwen said. “I propose a quest.”

The boys shifted excitedly. Hero stopped picking his nose.

“A quest for gold and treasure beyond your wildest imaginings,” Wang Siwen said. “All of you, go, now, and don’t return to me until you’ve procured some treasure. Steal anything you can.” Wang Siwen leaned back up against the gazebo’s pillar, reopening his book.

“Aren’t you going too?” Hero said.

“Did Liu Bei, the great king of Shu in the Warring States Period actually go out and fight?”


“The answer is no. He didn’t. At least not very often, and only when he absolutely had to. My job is here, watching the fort and planning our next move. Now go, leave me be.”

Wang Siwei spent the hours reading until he grew bored, and then played hopping chicken with some neighbor children. At dusk, he returned home, ate his fill of dumplings, and waited under the family’s mulberry tree for his gang to return. Baba rarely ventured outside. The gnarled tree was as secretive a place as any. One by one Wang Siwei’s boys returned, each spreading out their finds as if in tribute to a king. Wang Siwei grunted at a ball of string, some flatbread, a handful of salt, and an orange cat. He cursed when Bad Luck for Life revealed an empty American whiskey bottle, but grew interested when Hero lugged in an oversized bundle.

“I stole this from a dog,” Hero said. The bundle made a squishy noise when he set it down. The general was beaming.

“Well. What is it? Open it up.”

Hero spent an eternity pulling the strings every which way, until it finally came loose.

Aiya.” Wang Siwei sucked in a sharp breath through his teeth. Hero fell onto his ample bottom. Bad Luck for Life’s whiskey bottle shattered on stone.

In the midst of Wang Siwei’s huihuir gang, grinning through bloodied teeth, sat the bloodied head of a young man, long hair tied into a loose topknot. A purplish birthmark stained his neck and cheek.

“What’s all that racket out there?” Mama called from the house.

“Nothing, Mama.” Wang Siwei said quickly. “We’ll clean it up.”

The youngest huihuir began whimpering. “Hush,” Wang Siwei said. “Crying isn’t going to help anything. Quick, Hero. Cover it up.”

“I’m not touching it.”

“You will if you want to stay a huihuir.”

Hero reluctantly covered the head with the cloth. Wang Siwei strode between his little gangsters, stroking his beardless chin. Suddenly, he had an idea.

“What luck, Hero. You’ve done it.”


“We’ve a proper quest now. Our job, brave blood brothers, is to find the killer. We will be inscribed as heroes into the annals of this fair city. We will find rank, power, and riches beyond our wildest dreams. No longer will we have to kowtow to…”

“Siwei.” Mama called again from back door. “It’s time for bed.”

“Just a minute, mama.”

“Now, child, or there’ll be no snack.”


Three Heads, Two Bodies, and No Motive

Inspector Xia finished his third fried bread stick and half of his rice congee when a deputy thrust his office door open. Before he could speak, five children entered carrying another bundle.

Congee lost its appeal. He pushed it to the side.

“Another head?” Inspector Xia said.

“What?” A tall, broad shouldered boy bowed. “Wait. How did you know?”

“Bring it here. I suppose you had nothing to do with the murder, correct?”

“Correct, elder brother.”

Inspector paused. Elder Brother was a term used in gangs and the old huihuir societies. These boys wore fine Zhongshan shirts, their teeth were clean, and hair washed to a shine.

“You simply stumbled onto the head?”

“Correct, again, elder brother.”

“I took it from a dog.” A stout teenager with a finger in his nose said.

“Did you now? And just where did this take place?”

“Near the river, not far from Xishi Avenue.”

“The ghost market, yes. As I thought. Very well.”

Wang Siwei set the bundle on his desk, and then introduced his gang with exaggerated pomp, swearing he would do anything needed to find the killer.

Inspector Xia puzzled over the teenagers’ nicknames, but he’d seen too much strangeness since the case began to ask the names’ significance. The room flooded with curious police officers, and he flipped the bundle open.

The room filled with a pregnant silence.

“Hello, Mister Chu,” a young police officer said.

“You know this man?” Inspector Xia said.

“Surname is Chu. Forgot his name. He’s a frequent caller at my favorite brothel. Another Luzu Temple monk.”

“Are you sure?”

The young officer pointed. “Sure as that birthmark is shaped like a spoon. Hope that helps.”

“Yes… well, I’m not sure. Yet. I need to think. Go find out where he lived.”

The police officers filed out, taking the head. Wang Siwei and his gang remained. All smiles.

“Listen, I may need your help after all. Do you think you can locate two runners from the Wang family residence?”

“The Wangs that own the shoe store on Victoria Road?” Wang Siwei said.

“No. The owners of the Suxiang Zhai restaurant. You know of it? Good. I am looking for two boys, Zhou Liang and Pang Guang.”

“Are they the murderers?” Wang Siwei said.

“I just want to speak to them.”

The nose-picking boy withdrew a finger. “I know Pang Guang.” Hero said.   “We went to school together. He lives in Hong Qiao District. He’s getting married soon.”

“Very good to know. Go and keep an eye on his house. Report back to me anything you see or hear.”

“Yes, sir.” Wang Siwei said in English, saluting with his left hand.

The boys left, leaving Inspector Xia staring at his half-finished congee. So far, second wife had been reunited with her body. Mister Chu was identified and put back together. The remaining head belonged to a Daoist monk surnamed Shan. Lao Xu had helped him identify the monk, who had frequented the Wang family house on many occasions. What was the connection? Who was the killer? Was it one person, or were there more? He had interviewed Lao Xu, and the big boss himself, more than once. Second wife, Liu Shi, had frequently left with Shan to visit Luzu Temple where Shan lived with another monk named Ren Likui. The two had been roommates. Had second wife broken her marriage vows with Shan? Nothing seemed amiss during the interview, but Ren Likui admitted his friend had been missing for nearly a week.

Other police officers had been searching for the Wang family runners since the day after their disappearance. What was he missing? Police investigation entry level taught relatives, or friends commit most murders, had to be someone close to the deceased. His blood began to boil. Never, in his policing days, had he ever felt driven to solve a case. Usually, the shackles were placed upon the first, and easiest, suspect he could find. Never mattered until now.

Inspector Xia slammed a palm on his desk. Congee spilled. He needed to have another talk with Ren Likui. The first visit had been brief, and the Daoist too calm, too poised. His answers short, albeit courteous. Almost as if he was ready for him.

Luzu Temple, 20th century - Tianjin Museum Archives

Luzu Temple, 20th century – Tianjin Museum Archives


Ren Likui

The Daoist monk opened the door to his shack at Number 7 Xinyili. His former pearly complexion had darkened. Once perfectly combed hair was ragged. Dark bags sagged under his eyes. Inspector Xia didn’t miss the momentary surprise on the monk’s sage like face.

“Sorry to disturb you,” Inspector Xia said. He was tired of running in circles, and decided on a more direct, disturbing approach. Bending the rules was his specialty, and if it didn’t work, no one would be the wiser.

“You look tired.”

“I haven’t been sleeping well.”

“Guilty conscience?”

“Would you care for some tea? It’s from the Yellow Mountains. Good for …”

“No. Thank you. I’ll come straight to the point. I hear you and Liu Shi, you remember her? Wang Jinyuan’s second wife? Good. Anyway, I hear the two of you were lovers.”

Ren Likui quailed. “Lovers? Where did you hear such a lie?”

“A bird told me. Is it true?”

“No. No. No. I’m afraid that’s not quite possible.”

“Don’t lie to me anymore.”

“I’m not lying.”

“I think you are.”

“If you must know, I prefer a different type of company.”

“What do you mean?”

“I prefer the company of a warm-hearted soul, and not a snake, like Liu Shi.”


“I like men, Inspector Xia. That is no crime.”

“It’s not.” Inspector Xia surveyed the tiny room Ren Likui and Shan had shared. One large bed, crooked, and a simple washbasin. Books, scrolls, writing brushes were scattered across a table. Two chairs. Winter robes hung from a wall. No kitchen. They must take their meals in the temple. The ground was laid with bricks.

“We found Shan’s head this morning.”

Ren Likui stifled a sob.

“You loved him?”

“With all my heart.” Ren Likui sat on his bed. An opposing bed leg rose off the ground.

Inspector Xia kneeled, peering under the bed. Bricks bulged upward, strange for an old dwelling. Typically, after decades of use, the bricks compacted, or sunk. He had never seen bricks rise.

“Appears you have a floor problem.”

“Yes, yes. You see how I live. Wu liang tian zun.” A Daoist mantra for praising the gods.

“I think it’s time you tell me the truth, Ren Likui.”

“What do you mean? I’ve told you everything I know. Liu Shi came to the temple to burn incense. I gave instruction about her proper path. That’s all.”

“And yet you call her a snake.  Why is that, I wonder?  I knew about Shan and second wife’s affair all along.” Inspector Xia didn’t know.

Ren Likui pulled a worried face from his hands. “You did?”

“Yes, and I know much more.”

“I will say nothing. Not unless you produce Shan’s body.”

“Do you mean the body you have hidden under your bed?”

Ren Likui sobbed.

“She tried to seduce me first.” The Daoist monk became a sniveling mess. “But then, she turned on my dear friend. As the saying goes, for a woman to chase a man is like the wind slipping through yarn. My Shan resisted, at first, and I’d like to think it was for my sake, but we were not to be.” He sighed toward the ceiling. “Wine is a poison to the gut, fornication is a steel knife to the bones.”

“Go on.” Inspector Xia’s heart was racing. He coughed into his fist to hide his excitement.

“She wanted Shan to flee Tientsin with her, but he would not think of it. So she found another man, Chu, I believe his name was.”


“Shan lured him to the temple and killed him in a fit of jealousy when he found out she was having an affair with him.”

“Yes, so I’ve heard. Continue.” Inspector Xia bit the inside of a finger.

“She had the heart of a snake. Stole my Shan from me. One day, after the period of clouds and rains were over, Shan came back to me. Distressed.” Ren Likui smoothed the bed’s frayed quilt. “He began telling me everything. How she was trying to squeeze flour from a bullfrog by threatening to tell everyone about their affair. I… he was so vulnerable. I couldn’t help myself.”

“And then?”

“It’s all a blur. At night, demons find me. They torment me. I keep seeing it over, and over again… If I could only sleep.”

“See what?”

“My Shan. When I came to, he was dead. It was as if I could not control my own hands. I cut off his head, wrapped it carefully in wax cloth, and in my finest linen, and… then it was stolen in the night.”

The confession was as expected as a Tientsin summer rain, and the words drenched him head to foot, in exhilaration.

“Why cut off his head?”

“So Liu Shi could never find him. Even in the spirit world.”

“I see.” Inspector Xia had victory at his fingertips. The case was all but solved. What proof was needed when a signed confession was thrown into your lap? In his ecstasy, he stood, pointed an accusing finger. “So your friend Shan first killed Chu in a jealous rage, and then turned on second wife before she could…”

Ren Likui interrupted. “What are you talking about? My Shan had nothing to do with second wife’s death.”


An Inch of Ashes

Shan’s body was discovered in a tub buried beneath Ren Likui’s bed. Ren Likui was found guilty in Zhihli Province Supreme Court for Shan’s murder, and met his gods, and demons, before a firing squad.

In former years, Inspector Xia would have been satisfied that two-thirds of the murderous case was solved, but second wife’s murderer was still not discovered. The Wangs, being an influential family, pressured him and his boss to find the culprit. Summer chilled. Winter arrived with hardly a mention of autumn.

Daoist gods and demons - photo by C.S. Hagen

Daoist gods and demons – photo by C.S. Hagen

Wang Siwei and his merry huihuir were good to their promise, and found the Wang family runners. Zhou Liang was discovered dead at home from a knife wound. Pang Guang nearly asphyxiated from coal dust fumes in his home on the night before he was to marry. He revived, and implicated himself in the love affair between second wife and Shan, but not with her murder. No more information was forthcoming from little Bangchui, or his family, nor could Inspector Xia learn anything new from He Laofu, and his wife. The watermelon seller was investigated again, but Investigator Xia found no solid proof connecting him to second wife’s murder. At best, he had inadvertently carried her body to his fields, dumping her under a pile of melons. But who placed the body into his cart? Old Xu? Wang Laoye? He could not connect the dots.

SOME LOCAL STORIES say Ren Likui was also convicted of second wife’s murder. Other Tientsin legends say culprits much closer to home were involved. All sources for this true story admit second wife’s love affairs were not as secret as she thought they were.

Before the first snow, 1947, two years before Mao’s communist forces swept across China, forcing the Kuomintang to Taiwan, Old Xu was reportedly seen in the Xishi Avenue ghost market, late at night. Solemnly, he stacked paper money into a pile, weeping as he struck match after match, before lighting a small blaze. According to city legends, the paper money smoke flew straight and narrow, all the way to the heavens, and he confessed, as he added the last of the spirit money, that it was Wang Jinyuan’s first wife who ordered him to murder second wife. He also begged the heavens’ forgiveness for murdering Zhou Liang before he could confess to his assistance in hiding second wife’s body, under Old Xu’s direct orders.

After the fire dwindled to ashes, a sudden north wind swept through the ghost market, filling Old Xu’s mouth and throat with ash and hot coals, choking him to death.

Incense and ashes - by C.S. Hagen

Incense and ashes – by C.S. Hagen

This story is based from true accounts from the Ghost Market Human Head case, considered one of the “Eight Strange Cases of the Republic,” according to a radio report from FSM Telecommunications Corporation on Dot FM, records from the Tianjin Museum Archives, story databases Writing Collections and Docin, online directory Tianya, and the Elderly Culture Exchange Report. Most conversations, and some personality traits, including descriptions in this story are imagined, but the facts, the characters involved, the locations, and the harrowing murders, unbelievable as they may seem, are nonfiction.


Plight of the Twin Paragon Sisters

By C.S. Hagen 

TIENTSIN, CHINA – Ligu and Chungu never lingered at market, like other girls their age, hoping to get noticed.  When the Zhang sisters grew hungry, they tightened their clothes.  Too poor to have their feet bound, they contended themselves with helping mama embroider lotus shoes and trinkets for copper pennies.  During a time of near anarchy, as the Qing Dynasty succumbed to Sun Yat-sen’s Republic in 1911, Tientsin’s streets teemed with gangsters, prostitutes, foreign merchants, and revolutionaries, but the Zhang sisters held true to their family’s Confucian values, keeping the “door wind” (门风), or bad reputation, at bay.

The Zhang sisters, Ligu (丽姑), the eldest, and Chungu (春姑), stayed home, as virtuous young girls under the Confucian order.  They adhered to the “four virtues,” practicing proper speech and jealously guarding their chastity; they worked diligently, and strived for modesty.  Their family was among Tientsin’s poorest classes living in the Heping hutongs, but they didn’t complain even when their father, a rickshaw puller, couldn’t earn enough to put rice on the table.

A painting done by C.S. Hagen in 1987

A maobi painting done by C.S. Hagen in 1987

Innocent of the prostitutes and gangsters around them, the Zhang sisters blossomed into young teenagers, catching the eye of a local wealthy mawang, or pimp, Dai Fuyou (戴富有).  Dai was more than a pimp, however; he was a “white ant,” a trafficker of young girls sold, tricked, or kidnapped then forced into the prostitution trade, known in Tientsin as the Land of Broken Moons.

Dai schemed.  He plotted how to tempt the Zhang sisters into his “wolf’s lair,” according to a November 20, 2013 documentary broadcasted by China Central Television Network (CCTV12), and didn’t find an opening until baba, Zhang Shaoting (张绍庭), lost his rickshaw.

And then Dai set his trap.

The Twin Paragon Sisters (双烈女案) case is documented in part through an unnatural death records book dating to the Ming Dynasty. The book is thick, revealing more than 36,000 women who met grisly ends in attempts to keep their chastity, and reads, according to CCTV12, like a “King of Hell’s Death List.”

The Zhang sisters’ case is also known as one of Tientsin’s “Eight Strange Cases of the Republic.”



Every time Zhang Shaoting found a little fortune, disaster followed. Much like Old Testament Job. The two men could have been bosom buddies.

In the late 1890s, Zhang, at 19-years-old, fled his hometown of Nanpi in Hebei Province and took refuge in Tientsin’s Old Xikai District, a 4,000-acre strip west of the old “Celestial City” under French control. (Present day Xikai Catholic Church, Isetan, and Binjiang Road area).  He found gainful employment in a ceramics shop, worked hard, and won the shopkeeper’s daughter’s hand in marriage.  He was a cautious fellow, submissive, sometimes talkative, according to Nanpi Government reports. Being raised as a devout Buddhist, he was careful to protect his family’s “door wind.”

Lao Xikai Church, or St. Joseph's Catholic Church, in the Lao Xikai area - Tianjin Archives Museum

Lao Xikai Church, or St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, in the Lao Xikai area – Tianjin Archives Museum

When Ligu was one-years-old, the first disaster struck.

In June 1900 approximately 120,000 Righteous and Harmonious Fists mauled Tientsin, declaring war on colonial foreign powers of the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Germany, Russia, Hungary, Italy, and the United States in what came to be known as the Boxer Rising.  Supposedly impervious to bullets through magic charms pasted on their chests and Plum Flower Boxing, the Boxers attacked embassies in Peking, beheaded missionaries across the provinces, slaughtered opium dealers at the port cities, and joined forces with Qing Dynasty Imperial troops to sack the Tientsin Foreign Settlement, an area along Tientsin’s Hai River given to the eight foreign powers through the Unfair Treaties of 1860.

Read more about Boxers here.

Read more about the Boxers’ Red Lantern Society here.

The Eight Allied Nations’ response was harsh.  Naval cannons aboard the H.M.S. Terrible and H.M.S. Fame flattened Tientsin’s ancient walls and city, including the ceramics shop in which Zhang worked. Jin Lao, the proprietor, died days after the siege, leaving Jin Shi, his wife, and young daughter stranded.

An uneducated man, Zhang turned to the rickshaw. Grueling work in Tientsin’s hot summers and bitter winters.  Lacking money to purchase the vehicle, Zhang was forced to rent.  Costs weren’t cheap, according to Michael T.W. Tsin in a book called Nation, Governance, and Modernity in China: Canton 1900-1927.

The rickshaw puller taking a break - Virtual Shanghai

The rickshaw puller taking a break – Virtual Shanghai

“Most companies charged a daily deposit of C$5 [five Chinese dollars] plus a rental fee of about C$1 for each rickshaw.  The amount was paid by the contractor, who assumed full responsibility for the vehicles.  A puller had to pay the contractor a commission for his service, in addition to the cost of leasing the rickshaw.”

In Tientsin, contractors formed guilds to protect their interests, and zealously guarded their rickshaws and fiefdoms on which they moved people and goods.

“The transport workers and the guilds that controlled them, with a history of more than 200 years, were among the oldest and most important participants in the making of the Tianjin [Tientsin] working class,” according to Gail Hershatter in her book The Workers of Tianjin, 1900-1949.

“Tianjin [Tientsin] lived by trade: it was the meeting point of five rivers, an important juncture on the Grand Canal, the loading point for sea shipment of goods from North and Northwest China, the entry point for foreign imports and Shanghai goods, and the major northern station of two railroad lines,”

Freight haulers, rickshaw pullers, and three-wheeled carts all worked for the highly organized guilds frequently fighting each other for turf.  Tientsin’s guilds were among the most feared and despised organizations, according to Hershatter.

A puller, such as Zhang Shaoting, was usually charged 60 Chinese cents per shift, which varied from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., or from 2 p.m. until midnight.  Naturally, rickshaw pullers labored at the bottom of Tientsin’s social order, and were affiliated with Dark Drifters, hunhunr, and gangs, such as the Qing Bang and the Green Gang.

“Carters, boatmen, innkeepers, transport workers, brokers – even if innocent, they deserve to be killed,” was a common Tientsin folk rhyme in the early 20th century.

The copper cash strings Zhang brought home were hardly enough for three mouths, and when Chungu was born three years after her elder sister, mama turned to embroidery to make ends meet.  Later, she also gave birth to a boy, ensuring the family’s name, but forcing her husband to work longer hours, deteriorating his health.

In the spring of 1916, Zhang’s rickshaw was stolen while he napped.  A rickshaw in those days would take a year’s wages to pay for, and Zhang, now nearing 40, became desperate.

Wang Baoshan (王宝山), a Dark Drifter lackey of Dai Fuyou, hurried to his “elder brother” with the news, according to CCTV12.  When Dai heard of Zhang’s plight, he sprang his trap.  He knew all he needed about the Zhang family, after all, they did not live far away; they were practically neighbors.

Read more about Dark Drifters here.

“Give your daughters in marriage to my two sons, and I will more than settle your score for the stolen rickshaw,” Dai said, according to CCTV12 and Xinhua News. “I can have the marriage contract written up immediately.”

Seeing no way out of his predicament, Zhang agreed, and hurried home with the good news.  His daughters were to be wed to wealthy landowners. The Zhang’s family fortune had taken a good turn.

True to his word, Dai soon brought the marriage contract, but found excuses not to sign. “What’s the hurry?  We’re all one family now.  Listen up, I can do you one better.  Since your daughters are now my daughters, and my sons your sons, and because you are not wealthy, why not let your daughters live in my mansion?  They will be treated like my own blood, or my name is not Dai.”

Once again, Zhang agreed, and Ligu and Chungu, filial daughters, left with Dai to live in his mansion.


The Wolf’s Den

Not long after the Zhang sisters arrived, Dai hired a middle-aged woman to teach the sisters how to sing crude songs, fit only for a teahouse brothel.  Daily, men came to listen to the lessons, and Ligu noticed the men speaking excitedly to each other in hushed tones.

In the Qing Dynasty’s twilight years, teahouses were community centers, nests for gossip and news, but were also podiums for talented artisans, courtesans, and prostitutes to tell stories, recite poetry, sing songs, and tempt possible lovers.  Such establishments were hounded by the so-called “mosquito press,” local tabloids who rated the performances, and gave helpful “tips” to anyone wanting to enjoy the “Flower World,” more appropriately known as the Land of Broken Moons.  The comings and goings of strange men and heavily painted women at Dai’s mansion increased Ligu’s fears she and her sister had been tricked, according to CCTV12 and Tianjin Museum Archives.

Early one morning Ligu and her sister fled Dai’s mansion, returning home.  Ligu found baba sick, too weak for work, but when he heard the news, he was livid.

When Dai discovered his sons’ fiancées had ran away, he too was angry.  Having such tasty meat so close to his lips could not be forgotten, according to CCTV12.  But Dai had laid his trap, and was not deterred.  Having in his hands the original unsigned marriage contract, he made a counterfeit document, with all parties’ signatures, and promptly sued Zhang for breach of marriage contract in the Zhili Province Supreme Court.

Upon seeing the signed forged document, and recognizing a man of means, court officials wasted no time in siding with Dai, and ordered the Zhang sisters to return home with Dai to be married to his sons.  Dai’s lackey Wang and his two sons also testified the marriage document was authentic, according to CCTV12.

“Dragons breed dragons; a phoenix gives birth to a phoenix. A mouse’s son can dig a hole,” CCTV12 reported, meaning Dai’s sons were as wicked as their father.

Zhang, barely strong enough to walk, spewed blood across the courtroom floor after a coughing fit.

“Zhang’s sudden loss, followed by the elation from arranging his daughters’ marriages, and then the consequent anger at being cheated was too much for Zhang to bear,” CCTV12 reported.

“He became deathly sick and died two days later,” the Xinhua News and online records from the Tianjin Museum Archives reported.



After nearly 100 years, a memorial stone dedicated to the Zhang sisters still bears their tragic story.  The massive stone was spared the ravages of war and the Cultural Revolution, CCTV12 reported, because a former viceroy of three northeast provinces, Xu Shichang (徐世昌), wrote the story, and a famous politician and calligrapher, Hua Shikui (华世奎), painted the characters.

The Twin Paragon Sisters memorial stone still standing in Tianjin's Zhongshan Park - online sources

The Twin Paragon Sisters memorial stone still standing in Tianjin’s Zhongshan Park – online sources

The Zhang sisters were distraught, characters in the stone read.  No one could help them.  Their father was dead; their mother was a simple seamstress.

With Tientsin law on their side, lackey Wang and Dai’s two sons pounded on the Zhang family door, demanding that the sisters report to the Dai household the next morning.  If not, both would be sold to a brothel, CCTV12 reported, which was a fate the sisters already suspected.

All night long the Zhang sisters cried to the heavens and to the earth, with no response, the memorial stone read.  Nearing dawn on March 17, 1916, Ligu, who was 17-years-old, turned to her 14-year-old sister.

“The life of a whore is no life for us,” Ligu said.  “It is better we die than to let the door winds befoul the Zhang family name.”

Choking on her tears, Chungu agreed.

Ligu procured three packs of red phosphorus matches from under the bed.  One by one, she cut the tips off and placed the match heads into a pile.  She poured two cups of kerosene and dumped the match heads into the cups, creating a powerful poison.

“You must drink this.”  Ligu handed her younger sister a cup.  “The fate of a whore is worse than these few minutes of discomfort.  If we must die then that is our fate, but we must not ever slight the Zhang family’s name.”

Ligu drank down the poisonous concoction.  Chungu hesitated.

“I heard those who commit suicide will go to hell and be tortured,” Chungu said.

“Do not be afraid,” Ligu said. “Even in death we will leave behind our innocent bodies.”

Chungu raised the cup to her lips, obeying her big sister and crying as she gulped kerosene and match heads down.

A picture broadcasted by CCTV12 about the Zhang sisters before their suicide pact

A picture broadcasted by CCTV12 portraying the Zhang sisters before their suicide pact.

Pain didn’t set in for two minutes, the memorial stone read, and then the sisters’ stomachs began to roil.  Both fell to the ground, screaming in pain, waking mama and neighbors who hurried to discover the commotion.

Mama urged the girls to drink water.  Both refused.  Ligu convulsed.  Blood leaked from her eyes and mouth.  And then she lay still.

“Even in death, we will leave behind our innocent bodies,” neighbors reported Chungu said.  And then, with a final, weak cry, Chungu followed her elder sister into the afterlife.


The Aftermath

The Zhang sisters’ tragic story spread like wildfire through Tientsin, alerting young and old, rich and poor, alike.  Thousands took to the streets in protest of the court’s decision.

News of their double suicide soon reached the ears of Xu Shichang, a future Nationalist president during the Warlord Era, and Hua Shikai, a Tientsin native, and former military minister for Qing Dynasty princes.  After the revolution in 1911, Hua retired to Tientsin, bought a house in the Italian district, and became a renowned calligrapher.

One of the four famous ministers of the late Qing Dynasty, Zhang Zhidong (张之洞), also heard of the Zhang sisters’ suicide pact, and was moved, not only because they shared the same surname and hometown, but because of the girls’ adherence to Confucian principals in a time when most Tientsin natives could not afford to.

Hua, Xu, and Zhang Zhidong publicly damned the Tientsin courts, and demanded Dai’s arrest, according to Tianjin Museum Archives.  The fragile Nationalist government, in only its fifth year since the revolution, grew fearful of unrest.  All attempts to arrest Dai failed; the white ant escaped.  Protesting crowds grew larger.

Paragon Sisters group pic

Before the third day after death, when the spirits return to collect monies for heaven, Yang Yide (杨以德), the Zhili Province police minister, scripted province-wide arrest warrants for Dai, and tried to appease the populace by collecting monies from local merchants and gentry for a proper burial, according to the Tianjin Museum Archives.

Yang Yide (杨以德)

Yang Yide (杨以德)

“Funerals, like weddings, could be a ruinous expense,” Hershatter wrote in her book The Workers of Tianjin, 1900-1949.  “Families went into debt to buy burial clothes and to rent a burial plot for the deceased… ; to do otherwise would violate the codes of filial piety and invite bad luck and the scathing judgment of the neighbors.”

When the burial day arrived, more than a thousand people joined the funeral parade.  Musicians were hired.  Professional criers wailed at the parade’s tail.  Soldiers in full military regalia cleared the streets.  Relatives from Nanpi, now known as Dongguang County, made the journey, and the largest, most extravagant coffins were hoisted by eight pallbearers each.  The funeral parade started in the western part of old Tientsin, circled the city, and ended on present day Xiguan Avenue.  The sisters were laid to rest inside a Female Paragon Temple, or temples for strong women.

Before 1911, Female Paragon Temples, Lienv Ci (烈女祠), were reserved primarily for female martyrs defending piety and chastity.  Tientsin’s Paragon Temple at one time housed more than thirty graves, including the Zhang sisters, and held sixty-one tablets honoring those who died while defending their innocence.

On May 4, 1919, the wife of the future  first premier of communist China, Deng Yingchao, declared women’s equality across China, consequently abolishing thousands of years of feudalism and Confucian thought.  Tientsin’s Paragon Temple was destroyed to make room for a movie theater soon after the declaration, according to the Tianjin Museum Archives.  A hutong sprouted around the theater, and became known as the Female Paragon Temple Hutong (烈女祠胡同).  Most, if not all of the hutong, is now gone.

According to the Tianjin Museum Archives, the Zhang sisters’ remains and their headstones were relocated to Nanpi before the theater was constructed.  Monies left over from police collections were used to provide for widow Jin and their brother, who also returned to Nanpi under Zhang Zhidong’s protection.

In later years, the Zhang sisters’ tragedy was featured in numerous Peking operas and plays across the nation.  The stone monument telling the sisters’ story sits in Tianjin’s Zhongshan Park, protected under a small, grey-roofed pavilion to this day.  How the stone survived Tientsin’s  warlords and revolutions isn’t important.  Its facade has smoothed with time; the characters are chipped, and difficult to read, but it remains as an affirmation that goodness, sometimes, is stronger than evil.

Hua's house


Chuanyechang wood plaque, characters written by Hua Shikai - online sources

Chuanyechang Bazaar on Binjiang Road wood plaque, characters written by Hua Shikai – online sources








Interview with a Fox Demon

 Fargo resident travels to western China in search of one of the last known “fox demon” shamans in modern times


By C.S. Hagen 

SHAANXI, CHINA (PRC) – Chen Xing yawned for the tenth time and moved to the screened door of his shaman clinic. He yawned not from boredom, but rather in preparation for the spirit about to possess him.

Among other more painful effects, the yawns were a human side effect and a small price to pay for signing a deal with a fox spirit, he said. Xing yawned once more, this time longer and louder than before.


Chen Xing, or Chen Saiwa, before being possessed by a fox demon – photo by C.S. Hagen

“When it possesses me I don’t know or remember anything,” Xing, who prefers to be called by his new name, Chen Saiwa, said. His final yawn was an impossible, bone-chilling intake of breath that lasted longer than half a minute. His eyes burned like slow-burning coals and he smiled a second before the possession was complete. “It’s all through the Boluo Fox.”

At the screen door he doubled over, retching, and then stood. His slightly plump, young body no longer resembled the 37-year-old peasant’s son. Ask the villagers of Boluo or the infirmed in Yulin, Xi’an, or Inner Mongolia and he was Chen Saiwa, local shaman healer, diviner and messenger of Guanyin Pusa, or the Goddess of Mercy.

Eyes squinted and teary, only two front teeth protruded from between his pursed lips. Although the day was clear and sunlight streamed through a crack in the tinted, boarded-up windows, his thinning, dark hair had gone almost completely grey. Hands behind his back and slightly bent forward at the waist, his movements were stiff and slow, those of a much older man. He used yellow charm paper to wipe tears from his eyes.

“Good, good,” Saiwa said in a different, gravelly voice. Dressed in blue jeans, a wife beater T-shirt and tennis shoes, he scraped his feet to the fox altar that held two bottles of Chinese wine and snatched one of them. Saiwa thirstily swallowed once – as easily as the potent alcohol was water – then spat a second on his left palm holding it to the light for study.

“I am nothing but a small, small fox spirit. Hei-ki-ma-hei-ki-ma. What is it that you seek?”


The ancient town of Boluo - photo by C.S. Hagen

The ancient town of Boluo, the winding Wuding River, and the Ordos Desert – photo by C.S. Hagen

Fated for Possession

Beneath the crumbling, baked brick walls of Boluo Castle in northern Shaanxi province an entire village believes in the Boluo Fox. They have believed since before World War II. They say a man named Lei Zheng Wu, known to villagers as Old Wu, was the spirit’s medium before he died of liver cancer in 1994 and Saiwa accepted the fox’s terms.

They call Saiwa and his progenitor miracle workers, healers of the sick of body and soul, and many smile warmly when asked about their local hero.

“At first, like many others, I didn’t believe,” said Wang Xinxin, a former resident of Boluo now living in nearby Yulin. “But Old Wu treated me for an illness and he treated me well. Later, Chen told me everything from my past very clearly, things he could not or should not have known. I thought Saiwa was crazy at the beginning, we all thought he was crazy, but now many people from Boluo even Inner Mongolia come here to Yulin to get healed.”

Both men’s stories are similar, Wang said. Before accepting the fox spirit, neither of the men could read nor write. Both were poor, Old Wu learning the trade of goat herding and Saiwa that of an underpaid chef.

“His food was terrible to eat,” Wang said.

And both men underwent three years of intense sickness.

“I am a peasant’s son,” Saiwa said. “I was completely opposed to it at first. But I couldn’t work, couldn’t make money. I was so sick and the hospitals had no idea why and could do nothing for me. For three years I went through a bitter time. The fox beat me down until I agreed, and since it possessed me I got better, day-by-day until now I can live a normal life.

Saiwa is married and has paid the government fines by having a second child. His predecessor Old Wu was married with seven children, six boys and one girl. He admitted he feels blessed with virility and wants more children.

“It spoke to me and told me then it was the Boluo Fox,” Saiwa said, “and that it was fate that we should be together.”

Lei Ying, the "son of thunder" standing before his father's old fox clinic - photo by C.S. Hagen

Lei Ying, the “son of thunder” standing before his father’s old fox clinic – photo by C.S. Hagen

Old Wu and the First Possession

A fox shrine in Boluo stands behind the former home of Old Wu and is guarded religiously by his sons. On the southern side of the shrine there is a small house, an outdoor kitchen and a hollowed out cave where Old Wu used to heal and his grandfather once lived.

“This is the real clinic,” said Lei Ying, the eldest of Old Wu’s sons. He is the son of lightning, Ying joked, as the surname Lei means lightning in Chinese. Despite the rumors that the children of fox spirits are imbued with supernatural abilities, he says neither he nor his siblings are so blessed.

Legends that foxes are demigods of fertility stand to reason, he said. Ying is older than sixty and wears large sunglasses and a wide-brimmed straw hat. His handshake is strong and he brandishes a friendly smile at every question. He opened the doors to his childhood home and gave a tour of the inside of the small fox shrine. Six stone markers stand like graves toward the east side of the structure.

The fox temple Chen Saiwa built - photo by C.S. Hagen

The fox temple Chen Saiwa built – photo by C.S. Hagen

The white, stone shrine had no stairs going up and yet was three stories high. A small room at the bottom of the shrine was made for worshippers. Old Wu’s son lights four incense sticks inside the clinic, bows and talks of his childhood.

“It was strange growing up with a fox spirit for a father, but I could do nothing to change that,” he said and pointed to the drawing of his father at the altar. In the picture, a white turban is wrapped around his father’s head and he wears a Mao-styled jacket. The room is lined with red silk banners emblazoned with gold-colored writing in appreciation for Old Wu and Saiwa’s shamanist work. Even as a child, he said, neighbors or classmates did not ostracize him and his family, at least not until the Cultural Revolution.

“My father was reluctant at first. Before the fox spirit possessed him he could not read and the only thing he knew how to do was tend sheep.”

After three years of sickness where he wore little but undergarments in the winter and thick wool coats in the summer, the fox spirit possessed Old Wu, and he could not only cure the sick, he could read and write charms as well. All without any study, Ying said. He was capable of performing shamanistic rituals, read people’s fortunes and write charms to ward off evil. He began each session by spitting wine into his left hand and examining it, Ying said.

“It was as if the spirit gave him the powers to read and write, to predict the future and cure the ill.

Inside the Lei family fox clinic - photo by C.S. Hagen

Inside the Lei family fox clinic – photo by C.S. Hagen

“He used to sit in a chair here,” Ying pointed to a desk near the old door where a chair once stood. “And he kept his door open at all times. People would come by, they would lie on the bed and he would spit wine on to his hand and perform miracles.”

He charged an average of five Chinese dollars per visit, not a trifling fee before World War II, but never turned a patient away.

“I was healed here once as a boy,” said Zhang Xing Rong, a neighbor. “And once my son was sick, it was a disease you would not understand but it had to do with the earth. Old Wu spit wine on to his hand and could see the problem by studying his palm. He then gently picked up my son’s legs and kissed them with his lips, like this.” Zhang imitated the fox spirit delicately taking his son’s legs and made a kissing noise.

“And then he was better. We didn’t even have to buy medicine, and in those days it only cost us five Chinese dollars.”

People in the village believe in the fox spirit, Zhang said, and consider its nearby presence a blessing. The village is between the mountain of Boluo Castle and a rural highway lined with shops. He was born here like his forefathers as far back as he can remember, he said. Each passing person who stood to stare and ask why a foreigner was walking through their village smiled and nodded their heads when told he was looking for the son of Old Wu. They quickly hurried on their way after a few words amongst themselves as the village had a wedding to prepare for. One woman named Chen Hua Hua, also reportedly possessed by a vixen spirit, helps the Lei family and looks after the village’s fox shrine, called Boluo Ting. It was built in honor of the Boluo Fox after the Cultural Revolution by funds predominantly provided for by Saiwa. She stood holding a hooked, wooden beam for carrying ceremonial buckets of water for the upcoming wedding. She recognized Old Wu as the former village fox spirit and excused herself to make ready for the newlywed’s arrival when firecrackers erupted back down the dirt path.

Following the path to the base of the village stands a thousand-year-old temple named Jieyin Temple, or the Receiving Temple of Boluo. The villagers nickname the temple, not the shrine near Old Wu’s house, the Boluo Fox Temple, Zhang said.

“We always respect it, and protect it when we could,” Zhang said.

During the Cultural Revolution all superstitions, cult magic and shamans were vehemently banned throughout China. Old Wu spent three years of a seven-year sentence in prison. He became possessed by the Boluo Fox in the late 1940s and was imprisoned in 1959 during the Anti-Superstition Socialist Education Campaign.

After his release he continued to practice in secret, Ying said. Although the government suppressed him, among his clients were high-ranking cadres from the regional government.

Old Wu practiced in secret.

The fox clinic in those days was a hidden-away room, which was part of a more larger temple complex. There was room for three kneeling supplicants.

“He got out early because of good behavior and everyone liked him.” Ying said. “Plus the government then had nothing to feed their prisoners.”

The Jieyin Temple holds the deteriorated leftovers of an old sandstone carving of Buddha that dates back to the Tang Dynasty. A monk completed the carving after he saw a natural outline of Buddha in the stone. Historically, the carving is called Stone Buddha, and although the first temple was built around the 6th century A.D., it has withstood fire, wars, and attempted lootings by Mongolians, Chinese, British, French and Spanish invaders. Centuries of violence and bitter desert elements have reduced Stone Buddha to resemble a two-faced demon today, but a visage remains. Recent government funding that includes the restoration of the Boluo Castle above has breathed fresh life into the village and despite China’s hesitancy toward the belief of fox spirits or demons, holds two larger than life idols in respect for two fox spirits.

Jin Chan Laotzu, or Old Master of the Golden Chan, the original fox demon - at left - photo by C.S. Hagen

Jin Chan Laotzu, or Old Master of the Golden Chan, the original fox demon – at left – photo by C.S. Hagen

The Boluo Fox, according to temple documents, is named Jin Chan Laotzu, or Old Master of the Golden Chan, and it stands amongst the seven Diamond Kings of Heaven, the protectors or governors of the continents, beneath the carving of Stone Buddha. Each king is monstrous in appearance and size and carries a magical weapon. One holds Blue Cloud, a magic sword capable of bringing the Black Wind – a thousand spears in a single swing. Another king brandishes the Umbrella of Chaos, formed of supernatural pearls that can generate violent storms and earthquakes. Strangely, inside the temple shrine before Stone Buddha that stands more than thirty feet high, only the fox spirit appears humanly normal. Dressed in blue robes and a red cape, it stands with his hands raised, palms upwards, neither smiling nor frowning.

The Boluo Fox didn’t leave Old Wu until shortly before his death in 1994. Old Wu died of liver cancer and didn’t once try to cure himself, Zhang said.

“He was happy until the end.”

“But he was sad when the fox spirit left him,” Ying said. “The fox spirit went out and possessed another man not from this village. His name is Chen Saiwa and he lives in Yulin.”

Heading back down the path through the village and away from the ancient Boluo Castle, Ying stopped at the wedding as the newlyweds arrived. He grinned and talked to neighbors and cheered as madly drumming dancers past. Although Ying would admit to being nothing more than a keeper of his father’s temple, one glance at his leathered face and the lifelong friends gathering around him sharing cigarettes said at the very least, the son of lightning was a highly respected member of the small village.

Boluo's crumbling walls - photo by C.S. Hagen

Boluo’s crumbling walls – photo by C.S. Hagen

Boluo, an ancient fortress dating back to the Ming Dynasty, circa 14th century A.D., was built to protect China against the marauding hordes of Genghis Khan’s descendants. It borders Inner Mongolia and the western Ordos Desert. Once towering walls surrounded the city have mostly crumbled. The city gate still stands and a handful of people reside behind the walls. Some of the inhabitants live in grottos carved into hillsides. The Wuding River lazily winds and shines silver in the valley below. Crops grow in abundance and the smells of maize, barley and fennel fill the air.

It is a perfect lair for a fox, said Taoist Master He Lutong, from Tianjin.

“Only in the ancient, undeveloped areas can something like this happen,” Master He said. “Only where history is long and the traditions are real will foxes make their appearance.”

Spirits, he said, do not like the light and the bustle of city life. They prefer to reside where they are respected or feared. They predominantly prey on the sick and weak-minded. Legends of fox spirits are mostly as whorish vixens capable of sucking souls and eating the hearts of men. But once they’ve become a nine-tailed fox through mediation, knowledge and deeds, he said, whether by the high road or the low or the path of evil, they become the Goddess of Mercy’s messengers and sometimes assassins.

“The difference between good and evil as we know today are humanity’s definition, not the fox’s,” Master He said. “They have their own definition. Give an evil person or a good person a cure, it doesn’t matter to them. And sometimes an evil person’s cure may be punishment.”

A cure, perhaps, as in the legend of Su Daji, an evil vixen who corrupted the heart of a once righteous emperor and destroyed the Shang Dynasty nearly four thousand years ago. According to the Chinese texts such as the Lost Books of Zhou and the Investiture of the Gods, she enjoyed eating men’s hearts, inventing new ways of torturing her many enemies and the art of seduction. She was sent to destroy the emperor after he ridiculed Nüwa, one of the most ancient Chinese gods.

The fact that a kind-hearted fox spirit reportedly lives in Western China did not surprise Master He, and he made mention of another fox spirit enshrined in the Queen of Heaven Temple in Tianjin, a city of eleven million people near the country’s capitol.

Granny Wang the Third at Tianjin’s Temple of the Heavenly Empress - photo by Annie Gao

Granny Wang the Third at Tianjin’s Temple of the Heavenly Empress – photo by Annie Gao

“Granny Wang the Third was very good with the people,” Master He said. Although he had never heard of Saiwa or Lao Wu, he said their stories are similar. Granny Wang predominantly resided near Tianjin during the end of the last dynasty of China. Those were days of great poverty and affluence and worst of all, war, Master He said. But Granny Wang kept away from the rivalries, sometimes helping villagers escape peril at the hands of warlords and bandits. “You would almost never find her in the temples, she was always in the people’s homes, curing the sick and helping the people avoid calamity.”

Temple reports dating back to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 say that she was a joyous person, always keeping herself busy until her death when one of the legends says she turned to stone inside Tianjin’s Queen of Heaven Temple. Her effigy remains there, and also at the Mountain of Marvelous Peak in Beijing, but she is unknown throughout most of China. She holds a vial of pills in one hand and people visit her to help with illness to this day, Master He said. They burn incense, bow three times, and rub her feet to cure illness, touch her hands to stay healthy.

“No problem was too little for her,” Master He said.

Mention her name in Tianjin to anyone born before the Cultural Revolution and they smile. “Big problem, little problem, Granny Wang will show,” said Boxer Rebellion Musuem curator Lin Xinqiao. He recalled as a child living in the crowded hutong streets of Tianjin where a shrine was dedicated to her. The shrine was torn down and her effigy thrown into the city’s main river during the Cultural Revolution, he said. As a child he remembers his mother paying homage to Granny Wang.

Across Asia worship of the fox is widespread. Some fear the spirit; others respect it. In China, the fox spirit is known as the huxian, or hulijing. In Japan, the kitsune lives on through the practice of worshipping Inari. Japanese families who are known as fox familiars reportedly raise foxes from generation to generation to achieve good fortune. In Korea the kumiho is a malevolent creature that enjoys eating human livers.

“In some places and instances it is known more or less as the opposite of Buddha,” Master He said. Although the fox spirit is a messenger for the gods, it can also help human kind achieve instant gratification for prayers. For instance, Master He said, a disgruntled wife whose husband is cheating on her or for vengeance of any kind. In the past in Southern China, rare instances of widespread panic have been attributed to the fox spirit for spreading a disease known as Koro. Koro is a culture-specific syndrome in which the person has an overpowering belief that his or her genitals will retract and disappear. Westernized doctors have treated such patients with psychotherapy, while in China Taoist priests beat gongs and incant charms to exorcise the fox spirit.

Taoist priests and legends generally agree that although vixens can be killed while in the form of a fox or trapped by experienced priests, peach wood, or toumuk in Cantonese, is the best weapon to use to kill them. A nine-tailed fox who has achieved the status by either the moral road or the path of evil, is very difficult if not impossible to kill, Master He said.

“Of course they exist,” Master He said while at his office. Two customers awaited him to have their fortunes read. “There is simply too much evidence throughout history and today to say they do not.”

Chen Saiwa, after possession in his clinic - photo by C.S. Hagen

Chen Saiwa, after possession in his clinic – photo by C.S. Hagen

Interview with the Boluo Fox

Before Saiwa became possessed he asked the Boluo Fox if it was willing to be interviewed. He invites the Boluo Fox when he needs but has no control over when the fox spirit will leave. After lighting four incense sticks, which he placed upon the altar, he lit a fifth curled incense and placed it underneath. He then kowtowed, or bowed three times before an effigy of Goddess of Mercy. Grabbing a carved canister filled with fortune sticks, he shook it until one fell out.

The answer was yes.

More than an hour passed before the final yawn and the possession was complete. The possessed Saiwa smiled frequently, and said he had met Westerners before but never for an interview. He drank periodically, straight from the bottle, coughed from the lower abdomen after each sip and kept one hand always behind his back.

“You desire information. Do not fear. I will not hurt you,” Saiwa said. He spoke Chinese but of an ancient form, one that is no longer used in modern China.

The Stone Buddha - photo by C.S. Hagen

The Stone Buddha – photo by C.S. Hagen

Saiwa, or the Boluo Fox, said he has no name. Neither does he need to eat or sleep. He has no humanly recognizable form any longer and is an assistant of the Goddess of Mercy. He said in human time he is older than 10,000 years and originally was a black fox that came from Mongolia. After crossing the Ordos Desert into Shaanxi he arrived in the form of a fox at the Stone Buddha carving before it was made. Upon entering the temple he injured his paw and The Goddess of Mercy took pity on him, taking him for a pupil.

Saiwa refers to himself only as “this monk,” and says many of the haunting stories of evil fox demons are little more than legend. The infamous Su Daji, concubine of the Emperor Zhou of the Shang Dynasty in 400 B.C., was not a fox spirit, he said. She was simply an evil woman.

“Just as with people, there exist the good and the bad. When this monk was in training this monk had many fox friends, just as people have friends, who were bad and tried to lead this monk astray. This monk made many mistakes. Many friends took the bad road. The xie dao (path of evil), is the easiest path.” The Boluo Fox took another sip from the bottle and shuffled closer.

“Hei-ki-ma-hei-ki-ma,” the Boluo Fox repeated each time he finished a statement.

He merely smiled when asked if he had ever eaten a human heart. According to ancient Chinese texts human hearts keep a young fox’s complexion after they learn to shape shift into human form. A human soul on the other hand, is far more potent. It is a powerful aphrodisiac to help them achieve immortality.

Besides healing the sick and protecting humans, one of his responsibilities, he said, was to ensure that other fox spirits do not stray from the path of enlightenment. He reins them in when possible, and sees that they are punished when he cannot control them. Though he has never met one, fox spirits are everywhere, he said, even in the United States. When Saiwa listens he squints his eyes and drinks deeply from the glass bottle of wine. Afterward, he smiles, like a rabbit and differently from the man before the possession. He appears older, greyer, eyes puffier but genuinely interested in answering any questions he can.

Some questions he said he was not allowed to answer. Questions about the progress of mankind through the centuries, the end of the world and if heaven truly exists.

“This is the first time we have met and you are the first Westerner to interview me,” he said. “There are many things this monk cannot tell you for this monk is but a servant of the Goddess of Mercy and does only her bidding.

“You ask this monk why this monk chose Lei Zheng Wu and Chen Saiwa? Chen Saiwa is but a dock for this monk to inhabit and perform her will. This monk looked inside them and saw our meeting was destiny.”

The two men are related, but not directly. Saiwa’s mother was Lao Wu’s wife’s sister. The Boluo Fox did not choose one of Lao Wu’s direct family to inhabit.

Outside of his host’s body, the Boluo Fox said it is impossible for humans to see his true form. While he was in training before the first dynasty of China, he had to learn to take the shape of a human. He had to eat and sleep, just like any other fox. It took him one thousand years to reach the Ninth Tail, or the final step in a fox’s road to enlightenment. His training included performing good deeds, like healing the sick, helping the injured and the poor, and above all, protecting human beings in any way he could.

When asked about the legends of other fox spirits eating human hearts or stealing qi and souls away, he avoided the question and said he was far above such practices now and that not all legends are true.

“We have rules that are enforced. If fox spirits break those rules they are punished. There are many legends about us and many roads we can take,” he rubbed a hand across his cheek much like a fox might while cleaning his paw.

“And there are many of us on earth, and not just in China. Hei-ki-ma-hei-ki-ma. This monk won’t be here forever but this monk will listen to the will of Buddha, whose most fervent dream is peace on earth and to fight against calamity.



Family Fox Feud at Boluo

Wedding celebration in Boluo - photo by C.S. Hagen

Wedding celebration in Boluo – photo by C.S. Hagen

At the village of Boluo no one doubts the authenticity of Saiwa’s claim that the Boluo Fox chose him as a medium, but Lei’s children forced Saiwa from their community.

“His sons in their hearts are not happy,” Wang Xinxin said. “They did not like him at first and they do not like him now. It is a family problem.”

Saiwa’s mother and Lei’s wife were sisters, Wang said. In keeping with the tradition of fox familiars, Lei’s family is jealous that the Boluo Fox chose someone outside of their immediate family. Even after Saiwa built the Fox Shrine behind Jie Yin Temple in the late 1990s, the Lei family keeps watch over the shrine but does not want Saiwa to return.

“Old Wu’s family is jealous of me after I built the shrine,” Saiwa said. He spent upwards of eight hundred thousand Chinese dollars in constructing the memorial to the Boluo Fox. “It isn’t important that I go back, the Boluo Fox wants to return. Boluo has been his home for a very long time.”

Ying refused to speak on the matter.

Despite the family opposition, Saiwa is content and happy that he allowed the Boluo Fox to use him as a medium for healing. He has learned how to read and write and spends his spare time studying Buddhist scriptures. He receives patients daily and said the possession is sometimes painful.

“It was unpleasant at first,” he said before the Boluo Fox possessed him. “There is a pain or more like an emptiness in my head. When it’s over I remember nothing during the time he possessed me and I must lay down for an hour or so before I feel better.”

Thinking back twelve years before when he first encountered the Boluo Fox he said he did not believe such creatures existed when he was young.

“Now my days are simple. I am a simple man and do not regret my decision.”  Saiwa married after he accepted his fate of being the “port” or caretaker for the Boluo Fox. He sired two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom accept his role as a shamanistic fox medium.

“My wife thought I was crazy at first,” he said. “But through the years she has accepted our fate. Our children have never been sick. Not once.”  When the Boluo Fox possesses him, his friend and patient Wang said he speaks with the same voice as Old Wu. They both use the same methods to cure the sick.

“He even looks and acts the same,” Wang said. “Many people from Boluo come here to Yulin to get healed,” he said. “And you pay as you can, usually people pay 30 to fifty Chinese dollars but its up to the individual. Saiwa will not turn anyone away even if they cannot pay.”

Saiwa says he cannot cure all sicknesses however, some patients he leaves to the hands of science and modern medicine. He openly admits his skills, once possessed, cannot cure every ailment. A 24-year-old man whose muscles were deteriorating was once brought to him for consultation. The man was taking illegal drugs, Saiwa said. His parents did not know and the young man refused to admit his addiction until the Boluo Fox told them what his problem was.

“They told me what I said after I woke,” Saiwa said. “At least now they can seek proper care and treat the real problem and not just the symptoms.”  Saiwa said no matter how the Cultural Revolution repressed shamanism and mystic beliefs, there are many like him throughout China, some of whom are imposters seeking recognition. His patient, Wang, agreed.

“There are a lot of bad foxes out there,” Wang said. “Back in Boluo there is a woman there who claims to be a fox spirit as well, but I don’t believe it is true. I haven’t heard of any bad foxes that have done terrible things, it’s more like they are fake, and will treat you for an illness but you walk away feeling even more uncomfortable than when you arrived.”

Saiwa has been treating people from Boluo, Yulin, Inner Mongolia and Xi’an for more than twelve years. Hanging from the walls of his clinic are crimson silk banners, each one in recognition for his healing work. Hanging closer to the altar are strips of blue paper, also giving testimony to those he has healed.

“If I treated someone improperly and that person died, no one would believe in me,” Saiwa said.

Wang Xinxin worshipping at the fox altar - photo by C.S. Hagen

Wang Xinxin worshipping at the fox altar – photo by C.S. Hagen

Wang described how Saiwa told him of a time when Wang had been in a traffic accident and burned his leg. Local doctors could not heal his injuries and the wound became infected. At one point doctors in Yulin told him he would lose his lower leg. As a truck driver Wang could not continue his work without the use of both legs and he turned to the Boluo Fox for assistance.

A foul smelling tincture of boiled herbs, bean paste, and yellow wine then administered by the hands of the Boluo Fox cured him.

“The hospital could not heal me, they said they might have to take my leg,” Wang said. “But he healed me within three days. There are many things that are hard to believe, but I’ve seen proof enough and I do believe.

“The Boluo Fox is real.”

Crate Ripper Case

By C.S. Hagen

TIANJIN, CHINA – Twisted love triangle stories from time immemorial outnumber the flakes of a winter’s snow, but there is one instance, especially appalling, that occurred in Tianjin.  This true story, called the “Crate Ripper Case,” takes place in the old English Concession area in October 1947, and is listed in historical records as one of the “Eight Strange Cases of the Republic.”

Gather closely. Add a log to the hearth.  Light and good jasmine tea will scare the demons away.  Listen in; you don’t want to miss a single word.

Fifteen months before Mao Zedong’s communist troops stormed into Tianjin via the Qingnian Road, the Li family lived in four identical houses at the golden corner of Hong Kong and Glasgow roads, known today as Munan and Guilin roads.  Father Li, an industrious entrepreneur, the brainchild behind the Tianjin Zhongtian Electric Factory, passed his legacy to his children, but failed to endow his fortitude to his youngest son, Li Baowu.

Baowu was a loafing playboy, most likely inbred traits inherited from Tianjin’s Dark Drifters.  He kept er nais, or concubines, in Tudor houses from the northern-most Austrian Concession all the way to the south, where the Germans and Belgians lived.   His wife of twenty years, Dong Yuzhen, daughter of the Kuomintang mayor of Tianjin at the time, Dong Zhengguo, he kept at the corner house on Munan Road with his four surviving children.

Lucky, lackadaisical Baowu, being an educated chap, a Tianjin College of Business graduate (now the Foreign Language Institute on Racecourse Road), was naturally a curious fellow, for his sexual escapades and frivolous parties were the talk of the town.

Baowu could not be tamed.  Under his stretched belt he had three wives, a host of concubines and saltwater girls who lived in boats along the Hai River.

Saltwater girls came from sampans like these, throughout history they were denied the chance to live on land and became brothels on the water

Saltwater girls came from sampans like these, throughout history they were denied the chance to live on land and their homes became brothels on the water – photo by C.S. Hagen

Not until 1945, days after the Japanese left in defeat from Tianjin, did Baowu find his perfect match and fourth wife.  A half German, half Chinese beauty named Shi Meili,  English name Marion Sze, winner of the Miss Beidaihe Beauty Pageant.  Before she met Baowu she was a secretary with round, wet eyes, a pointed chin, and eyebrows arched like silkworms, the Tianjin Republic Daily reported in 1947.

Love fell on Baowu.  Meili agreed to become his fourth wife and he bought her a house at Number 53 Dali Road, or perhaps it was the other way around: Baowu bought the house and Meili agreed to marry.  Either way, the love struck couple married in secret and Baowu spent most his nights with her in carnal comfort on Dali Road, leaving his quieter, rounder first wife alone with his children at 74 Munan Road.

Life was grand for Baowu, a notorious do nothing and mouse-hearted villain of this true story.  He spent thirteen thousand US dollars on a coat, ordered catering service from the renowned Kiesslings for lunch.  He bought Meili a Buick, hired her a chauffer, and insisted his first wife, mother of four surviving children, take rickshaws to the market.  When he was feeling especially energetic he beat his first wife, sometimes bashing her head against a coffee table or kicking in her pregnant stomach, killing his fifth and sixth unborn children.

On October 25, 1947, Yuzhen, the first wife, traveled by rickshaw to Dali Road, insisting that her husband accompany her to buy a new coat.  When he refused, they argued.

(Bad picture, only one taken from internet) Number 53 Dali Road, where the heinous murder was committed

(Bad picture, only one taken from internet) Number 53 Dali Road, where the heinous murder was committed – online sources

“You give me money so I can buy myself another day,” neighbors reportedly heard Yuzhen say.

Not wanting to disturb the neighbors more than necessary, Yuzhen accepted an invitation from the fourth wife to come upstairs and enjoy lunch and some wine.  The argument continued.  A bottle was thrown.  Baowu naturally protected himself with a hammer, striking Yuzhen across the head.  When Yuzhen fell, Meili pounced.  She held the first wife by the legs until Baowu exhausted himself by smashing her head in with the hammer.

For four hours after the heinous murder, Baowu and Meili sat and watched Yuzhen’s body, perhaps hoping she would wake, or somehow magically disappear.  When the first wife neither awoke nor vanished, they rolled her up in the bloody carpet and placed her in the bathtub.

According to the Tianjin Republic Daily later that afternoon Meili faked a loud, fond farewell out her bedroom window.  “Zou hao, zou hao, Wu Nainai,” farewell, farewell, fifth grandmother.  She called out Yuzhen’s pet name.  The loyal couple then proceeded to clean the house, taking care not to leave a trace of their bloody deeds.  Baowu made one trip outside to buy a whicker crate, which cost him ninety thousand francs.

Long after the city slept, with only the harvest moon as a silent witness, Baowu and Meili took a butcher’s knife to the first wife’s corpse.

They hacked.  Thwack, thwack!  They sawed.   Gzzz, gzzz!  Chopped her into three pieces and then burned her face so she could not be recognized.   Carpet and Yuzhen fit perfectly – a bug in a rug – into the crate.  When they finished they rested from their labors, and saw that it was good.

Now, Meili was not just a porcelain vase.  She had a head of fine brown hair and a brain to go with her pale beauty.  She contacted a Latvian friend, Naylor and Maleina, who were involved in the shipping business.  Thinking if there was no corpse there would be no crime, she asked to store the whicker crate in the Latvian’s warehouse, and equip it with an address to be shipped to Germany.

“Dearest Maleina,” Meili wrote in a note on October 26.  “I need to place with you this carpet and possessions because my husband’s number one wife is bothering me.  I am afraid and cannot live here on Dali Road any longer.  I also don’t want my husband to know about this and I will explain at another time.”

A second note quickly followed, hand carried by a servant girl.

“Beloved Maleina, sorry for the disturbance.  I will prepare the crate immediately and make sure it is wrapped securely.  I’ve already told my husband, who will come by soon to take measurements.”

When they arrived with the crate three days later on the afternoon of October 28th to Suite 16 Tai’an Road, inside the Jingming Apartment Building, the four of them carried the crate to the warehouse.  Naylor mentioned the crate was unusually heavy and had a strange, fishy smell coming from inside.

“It’s because my lazy cat peed on the rug.”  Meili tossed her auburn hair and threw a laugh into the sky, replying casually and with the lightning-fast thinking processes of a fox demon.

Read more about fox demons here:

Later that day Baowu purchased a wooden box large enough to insert the crate into and had it nailed up tight as a fish’s arse.

“Oh, by the way,” Baowu said to Naylor and Maleina.  “My first wife is missing.  Have you seen her?”

If only our villainous hero had said nothing.  If only he had one less drink the night before, one less romp in the bed to clear his head.  But he didn’t keep his mouth shut, and he couldn’t stop at one drink too many.  Villains rarely can.

The Latvian couple of course had not seen Baowu’s first wife, and according to police reports found Baowu’s remark course and extremely strange.  Not only did the Latvian couple begin to wonder why Baowu cared more for a crate than his missing wife, but their cat, a snow-white creature with a black diamond on its forehead, found the crate intriguing as well.

Usually, Maleina spent her afternoons playing with her cat, Snowball, which her husband had bought for her because he spent much of his time away from home. Snowball, however, had more important business and spent the next two days circling Yuzhen’s secret coffin.

Snowball’s wails from the warehouse drew Maleina’s attention.

Meeoow!  Yaaawww!  Meeeeooow! 

Upon close inspection a foul and sticky substance was oozing from a crack.  Maleina called the police.

After Yuzhen’s younger sister identified her sister’s legs, the investigation that followed first targeted rickshaw drivers and the local bandits.  Baowu told Tianjin Chief Superintendent Xiao that bandits had probably overheard the argument he had with his first wife and that she was robbed for money, all the while sliding a thick wad of bills into the officer’s lap.  Baowu spent hundreds of thousands bribing police, so much that it was learned later that nearly every Tianjin police officer benefited from his unreserved charity at some time during his incarceration.

On October 31st, police could no longer deny the facts and public outrage on behalf of Yuzhen and her family was threatening a riot in the streets.  Baowu and Meili were arrested while they slept.  The Crate Ripper Case rocked Tianjin with its barbarity, and became known as the “Republic’s final case.”  Baowu was sentenced to death, but spent the next two years in luxury at the Xiaoxiguan Prison in Xiqing District.  Meili was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The couple lacked for nothing while in prison and before the communist forces overwhelmed the Republic.   Baowu wore his own clothes, slept on a soft Western bed.  He even hired his personal chef to cook his meals.

Not until May 4, 1951, was Baowu tried and sentenced a second time by a new communist court.  He was executed by firing squad twenty days later.

Meili was released in 1954 and was rumored to have opened a hotel in Hong Kong.  Local legend says she returned once to her Dali Road home in the 1960s, but no one has seen her since.

As every egg cracks when struck, so can it be said true love will never crack when struck.  Love is not selfish.  Love does not kill, or hack up a spouse to please a lover.

Love does not covet and is never jealous, for if it does it turns into more insipid things: lust and hate, to name a few.  Love is earned and given freely, and has its best results when one learns first to love his or herself.  Only then does one own the right in a romantic relationship to say those three little words “I love you” and only then can love manifest all its wondrous, sticky, tender strings.

Perhaps guided by a fox demon’s lust we all can love, but at most for a day, more likely only a minute.  For a beautiful fox demon like Shi Meili will eat your heart faster than it takes to write this sentence.


The Fox Poem

Author Anonymous, translated by C.S. Hagen

The fox of an old grave when in its day, into a woman of lovely features it decays.  Female coiffure, exquisite suffer, where no man dwells she abides and slowly, between rustic hamlets she strides. 

Eight or nine of ten who behold her are beguiled.  Taken in by her beauty they’re defiled.  Eater of souls, scavenger of hearts, within her arms sanity departs.

When at sunset, no human sounds are heard, she sings, she dances, wails the absurd.  Without raising her eyebrows velvety as a kingfisher, but bowing her face, she bursts into laughter, a thousand, a myriad of joys for her prey to taste. 

The vulpine enchantress brings absolute ruin.  Understand her ways and potions brewin’!  For a man’s mind she makes boil without rest.  Beware of her wiles, or forever lie trapped in her breast!

Eight or nine of ten who behold her are beguiled.  Taken in by her beauty they’re defiled.  Eater of souls, scavenger of hearts, within her arms sanity departs.

A Chinese charm for exorcising fox demons

A Chinese charm for exorcising fox demons

Crate Ripper Case Revisited

By C.S. Hagen

TIANJIN, CHINA – Sixty-seven years after the Crate Ripper Case was solved, old Tientsin hands remember the mysterious murder like it was yesterday.

Angela Cox Elliott, born in a civilian prison at the Japanese Weihsien Internment Camp, was only a child when Li Baowu and his lover, Shi Meili, otherwise known as Marion Sze, killed, beheaded and dismembered Baowu’s first wife, Dong Yuzhen, sensationally startling the world in the process, and adding its own death nail into the traditions of polygamous marriage.  She remembers it was the talk of the city until long after the communist takeover.

Time and gossip have pretzel-ed fact and fiction, but the truth – provided by eyewitnesses who still remember – proves the murder was premeditated, and is more gruesome than anything else reported on the incident since October 25, 1947, the day Dong Yuzhen died.

(Left) A movie produced in Hong Kong late 1947  called “Empty Crate Corpse” (空屋箱尸) featured the heinous crime.  (Center) Dong Zhengguo, (董政國) a Tianjin warlord, died May 20, 1947 of illness, only four months before his daughter’s grisly murder on October, 25 1947.  (Right) Dong Yuzhen (董玉贞), 35, mother of four, known in the Western press as Chaste Jade, was the victim.

Li Baowu, also known as Walter Li, was the vice general manager for the Tientsin Chung Tien Electric Factory.  He enjoyed model cars and women, so much so he kept three wives and a host of prostitutes across the city.  Marion was pale-skinned, of Sino-German blood, and a rare beauty – eyebrows arched like a kingfisher’s – who loved her furs and diamond rings.  The couple was not married, but Walter Li lived with Marion at number fifty-three Dali Road, often neglecting his first wife and children.

A telephone made by the Tientsin Chung Tien Electric Company

A telephone made by the Tientsin Chung Tien Electric Company

Dong Yuzhen, known in Western media as Chaste Jade, frequently visited her husband at the Dali Road house where arguments inevitably ensued.  If Marion received a fox fur coat, Chaste Jade naturally wanted a Siberian mink coat.  They argued loud enough to disturb the neighbors.

The Crate Ripper Case was not only reported in Tianjin, known as Tientsin in pre-liberation days, but headlined in international newspapers ranging from Massachusetts to Singapore.

The Lowell Sun splayed the story on November 14, 1937 with the headline Chaste Jade’s Murder Rocks Tientsin.

“A beautiful Eurasian girl, a socially prominent Chinese businessman, and his first wife, Chaste Jade, are the principals in one of the bloodiest triangle murders yet splashed on the front pages of the Tientsin press,” the article written by Al Wedekind began.  Dong Yuzhen is named Chaste Jade, her murderous husband’s English name is Walter Li, who was listed as thirty-eight years old, and Shi Meili was named Marion Sze, who was twenty-seven at the time.

“Li had been separated from his first wife several years,” the article continues.  “On the morning of October twenty-fifth, Chaste Jade called at his home on one of her periodic guests [visits] for money.

“She did not leave the house alive.”

Story as published by the Lowell Star in 1947

Story as published by the Lowell Star in 1947

The Indiana newspaper Tipton Tribune also published the story on the same day.  The article states Chaste Jade had been mutilated and burned and that the family with whom Marion left the crate containing Chaste Jade’s dismembered body had notified police after noticing a strange smell.

Marion left the crate at her friend’s house as she was planning on leaving, and said it was heavy because it was filled with gold bars.  She waved away concerns by blaming a strange odor emanating from the crate on cat urine.

According to foreign Tianjiners at the time, a dog found the crate several days later, and created a ruckus that could not be ignored.  Shortly before Marion’s arrest and while carving ham for dinner at a friend’s house, Marion flippantly mentioned it was much like slicing human flesh.  No one paid her any attention as their minds were on the supposed gold bars locked away in the smelly crate.

The stories scared Elliott, who was only five years old at the time.  She reflected to when she was a child sitting in Victoria Park across the street from the Astor Hotel, watching Marion’s elderly parents.

“Why is that dog sniffing around the crate?”  Elliott recalls her mother saying about the dog that wouldn’t leave the crate alone.  “You would think there was a dead body in it.”

No one would have guessed that there truly was a dead body in the crate. It wasn’t until the fishy smell became too much to bear and a sticky substance bubbled from a crack that police were notified.  After all, they were friends.

During the past decade Chinese media ranging from CCTV to the Tianjin Film Studio to the China Daily have electrified the Crate Ripper Case saying it was the “last case of the Nationalists, the first case of the communists.”  Reports differ on where Chaste Jade’s body was stored and whether the animal sniffing the crates was a cat named Snowball or a curious dog. Another differing report is that according to CCTV Walter and Marion took the body back to Chaste Jade’s house at seventy-four Hong Kong Road (now Munan Road) to dismember in her own bathtub before hauling her in a whicker crate to a friend’s apartment.

As a third generation expatriate in China, Elliott remembers watching a play about the murder before being banished with her family after nearly a century of calling China their home.  Her great grandfather Paul Splingaerd, known around the world at the time as the Belgian Mandarin, arrived in China in 1865.  Paul Splingaerd was appointed a mandarin of the imperial Qing Dynasty, working not only as a magistrate, but also as an industrialist for China before his death in Xi’an in 1906.

“There was a reenactment of the play that I went to see with Mum,” Elliott said.  “I can still picture it – the scene with Mrs. Li – he hits her, she konks out – she’s loaded into the bathroom and then him coming out and they’re discussing whether they would cut the body up.  I can’t remember from then on.  It was just a one-room act.”

In Singapore, the case was called the “Tientsin’s Torso Murder Case,” according to November 4, 1947 article in the Singapore Free Press.  Tianjin locals became enraged.  The president of the Tientsin Middle School, Lu Yi Jen, appealed in a heavily reported speech to all Chinese women demanding an end to polygamous marriages.

“Marion was a very pretty girl, a big show off,” Elliott said.  “She bragged about all the items Mister Li bestowed on her.  The story goes that his wife accepted the relationship.  In those days it wasn’t uncommon for a man to have another girl or sometimes several, except the wife stipulated that whatever he gave Marion, she wanted the same thing.

“I can’t really remember what it was the wife missed out on.  A fur coat, or a ring precipitated the final scene when the wife paid a visit to Mister Li ensuring her demise.”

Most media report Walter and Marion decapitated Chaste Jade and burned her face, wrapping her body parts in a rug.  But this is not what happened.  Not at all.

The night before the murder took place, Walter and Marion played nice with Chaste Jade, expressing a desire to make up for past mistakes.  Chaste Jade purchased a typewriter for Marion, as Marion agreed to move to Beijing.  Instead of moving, however, she invited Chaste Jade for dinner, catered by Kiesslings, inside her Dali Road house.  Wine and liquor was poured.  Conversations turned sour.  Chaste Jade threw a cup and Walter beat her head in with a hammer, breaking her left arm in the process.

According to the Tianjin Republic Daily later that afternoon Marion faked a loud, fond farewell out her bedroom window.  “Zou hao, zou hao, Wu Nainai,” farewell, farewell, fifth grandmother.  She called out Chaste Jade’s pet name.  The loyal couple then proceeded to clean the house, taking care not to leave a trace of their bloody deeds.  Walter made one trip outside to buy a whicker crate, which cost him ninety thousand francs.

After four hours waiting the necessary tools were procured.  Chaste Jade’s limp body was put into the bathtub and dismembered.  Blood pooled down the drain.  Four days later when police discovered the contents inside the whicker crate, her body parts wrapped in towels, they also noticed Chaste Jade’s head was missing.  Her severed head was found inside Marion’s oven.  Walter filed a missing person’s report on October twenty-sixth, but the couple was arrested on Halloween, October thirty-first.  Marion admitted to holding Chaste Jade’s feet, urging Walter to strike harder during the altercation.  She later recanted.


The bathtub in which Dong Yuzhen (Chaste Jade) was killed, according to CCTV.

The bathtub in which Dong Yuzhen (Chaste Jade) was dismembered, according to CCTV.


One eyewitness account reports seeing Marion the day she was arrested.  She waved helplessly as a police car pulled up next to her.  The next day Marion’s parents came asking for help, but there was no help to be had.  Marion needed a lawyer.

“Marion’s mother was a portly, old German lady, but so sweet,” Elliott said.  “Mister Shi was very thin.  It was embarrassing for me to speak with them and I felt very sorry for the old couple.  No doubt Marion must have been a spoilt child.”

Elliott was barely five years old when the Crate Ripper Case stole headlines across the world.  Having just been rescued by US Paratroopers from the Japanese Weihsien Concentration Camp only two years before, Tianjin was not how she left it and tensions were brewing.  The Japanese were gone, but the Nationalists were corrupt; the communists were coming, and Chaste Jade’s murder sparked fury not only against the culprits, but against foreigners as well.

One rumor was that Walter had hired a foreign surgeon to carve up his wife.  Another story is that the couple had purchased tickets for Hong Kong to escape, but cold weather and ice floes on the Hai River delayed their route.  Most international transportation started on passenger and trading ships navigating the Hai River in pre-liberation days, and then traveled south to Shanghai or Hong Kong. Another story, and possibly the strangest, was written in a short story by Tientsin-native Alex Auswaks, a Jerusalem-based crime fiction writer.  He reports in 1994 that Marion was a breath taker, had olive skin, high cheekbones, long, straight, jet-black hair from her father and a curvaceous figure from her mother, a German woman named Josefa Hoffman.  She was fluent in German, Chinese and English, and had a large crowd of suitors.

At school, Marion was a tomboy, but her mother said she was simply high spirited.  When Marion came home once from an opium party, her mother said she had a fever.  No matter her curiosities, Mrs. Hoffman, better known as Frau Shi, said her daughter was loyal.  Loyal to the bitter end when she helped Walter cover up a murder he committed by himself – perhaps – going as far as to contact a German friend, Adolf Fleischmann, a lover or would-be suitor who would have done anything to help.

She was a model prisoner, adapting readily to the communist’s reeducation programs.  Her loyalty is questioned, however, when she was released early from Xiqing District’s Xiaoxiguan Prison to shack up with the warden.  Auswaks’ rendition of the story leaves more questions than answers.

Crate Ripper houses

(Left)  The Dali Road House (25 Dali Road, 大力道25号) where Marion Shi (施美丽) and Walter Li (李宝旿) resided and where Dong Yuzhen (Chaste Jade) was killed.  (Middle) The Jing Ming Apartments(景明大楼)on Tai’an Road (泰安道) where the whicker crate with Chaste Jade’s body was kept and later found. (Right) The Hong Kong Road (74 Munan Road 睦南道74号) Li family house where Chaste Jade lived with her family. 

For days Walter and Marion avoided the truth and police inspectors.  The investigation that followed first targeted rickshaw drivers and the local bandits.  Walter told Kuomintang Tianjin Chief Superintendent Xiao that bandits had probably overheard the argument he had with his first wife and that she was robbed for money, all the while sliding a thick wad of bills into the officer’s lap.  Walter spent hundreds of thousands bribing police, so much that it was learned later that nearly every Tianjin police officer benefited from his unreserved charity at some time during his incarceration.  He eventually cracked under twelve hours of Kuomintang police interrogation, however, and was later sentenced to death, but spent the next two years in luxury at the Xiaoxiguan Prison.  Marion was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The couple lacked for nothing while in prison and before the communist forces overwhelmed the Republic.   Walter wore his own clothes, slept on a soft Western bed.  He even hired his personal chef to cook his meals.

Not until May 4, 1951 was Walter tried and sentenced a second time by a new communist court.  He was executed by firing squad twenty days later.

Eliott and her family stayed in Tianjin until 1956, nearly seven years after the communist takeover.  The years between 1949 and her departure were bleak.  The sparkling clubs lost their luster and once colorful parades down Victoria Street (now Liberation Street) disappeared.  Meat, oil and rice were rationed.  Coffee was brewed with chicory.  Communist officials squeezed remaining families and factories until payrolls could not be met.

Angela Cox Elliott, great granddaughter of the Belgian Mandarin, Paul Splingaerd

Angela Cox Elliott

Elliott’s father worked for the Credit Foncier d/extreme Orient at the corner of Rue de France and Victoria Road, and held out against communist demands as long as he could.  Eventually, his company was forced to shut down, its property given up, and her family boarded the Heinrich Jessen ship to Hong Kong.

Elliott waited more than thirty years to return to Tianjin, which she now considers her home.  As a child, however, she couldn’t wait to leave and go abroad where English was spoken and the streets were clean and filled with lights.  In 1999 Elliott visited the Dali Road house and found the old bathtub.  The house was in decent condition, and people still spoke of the gruesome murder.  Marion was released in 1954 and was said to be working at the Ambassador Hotel in Hong Kong.  Local legend says she returned once to her Dali Road home after the Cultural Revolution and then begged the Li family for forgiveness.

None was given.


The Dainish ship Heinrich Jessen, photographed 1974 in the South China Sea - courtesy of Global-Mariner

The Danish ship M/S Heinrich Jessen, photographed 1974 in the South China Sea – courtesy of Global-Mariner

Us, Round-eyed Millet Eaters

By C.S. Hagen

TIANJIN, CHINA (PRC) – Blood thirsty, sex crazed demons lurked to the frozen north and beyond the western mountains in what was known to ancient Chinese as the Great Wilderness.

Toward the setting sun fiery-haired ogres known as Longlegs prowled.  Their eyes were round as teacups and shot green, envious rays when their appetites were aroused.  Normally, these Slavic barbarians ate millet.

The northern nomads had surnames such as Hairy Folk, Reap Rage and Droughtghoul.  Their children were born without bones, and some clans sprouted wings.  Naturally, these Hunnic ogres ate millet.

From where the hurricanes brewed and mentioned briefly in The Classic of Mountains and Seas, dwelled cannibalistic giants with lips that covered their faces when they laughed.  Not far from the giants lived the Black people, who had tiger’s heads and walked on bird’s feet.  These African specters ate green snakes, and of course, millet.

But never rice.  All the lands outside of the Middle Kingdom were pictured as undesirable, uncivilized, without rice and full of terrors.

For more than five thousand years the mere mention of such horrid places struck fear faster than a dagger’s thrust into the hearts of young and old alike.  In order to keep the demons and marauding hordes away Chinese emperors conscripted millions, built and buttressed the Great Wall.  When the Mongolians broke through in 1215 C.E. and then the Jurchens in the seventeenth century, secret quasi-religious sects such as the White Lotus Society incited rebellion against the foreign usurpers.

Xenophobic Politics

In one of China’s most ancient historical chronicles called the Bamboo Annals the stage for the connection between demons and outsiders was set.

“In the thirty-second year of his reign he attacked the spectre-regions and camped in King, and in the thirty-fourth year the royal armies conquered those countries.”

And then again, written on bamboo slats for Tang dynasty court records, outsiders became ghosts capable of establishing trade.

“There are, at the Western Sea, markets where traders, without seeing each other, put down beside the merchandise the price which they offer; those places are called spectre-markets.”

According to J.J.M. De Groot in his nineteenth century massive study called The Religious System of China, outsiders are mentioned as cannibals with monstrous characteristics.


A southern barbarian eating a snake as depicted by the Classic of Mountain and Seas

A southern barbarian eating a snake as depicted by the Classic of Mountain and Seas

“In the South Sea regions a mother of spectres lives in the Lesser Yü mountains.  She gives birth to all the kwei (demons) that live in heaven and on earth.  At every litter she brings forth ten, which, born in the morning, she devours in the evening.  She is the shen (god) who, under the name of Spectre-lady, exists in Ts‘ang-wu (i. e. the region about the spectre-gate pass). She has a tiger’s head, feet like a dragon, eyes of a python snake, and eyebrows of a kiao dragon.”

Such fear of outsiders invariably turned to hatred, which in some respects was warranted during the Opium Wars.

“When land had to be ceded to the hated foreigner along the coast of China, as a so-called foreign concession, the Chinese Government invariably selected ground condemned by the best experts in feng shui as combining a deadly breath with all those indications of the compass which imply dire calamity to all who settle upon it, even to their children’s children.”  According to De Groot, approximately 1855.

Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tianjin, all of which were treaty ports, all of which were swampy, disease-infested areas in which no one desired to live.  According to De Groot during the Qing Dynasty disease was spread by demons, which naturally came in the form of outsiders.

“People from a yang country have came hither; yang influences have thronged into this place; this is why the king has fallen ill; those men have come here accidentally and caused this spectral evil unintentionally; we therefore can ask them to go away, by means of food and drink, carts and horses.”

The ancient character for barbarian, especially referring to the northern tribes above China.

The ancient character for barbarian.

Another poignant example comes from time immemorial, the Chinese written language, which harshly differentiates insiders from outsiders.  For instance animal radicals were attached to the names of some barbarian groups.  In medieval times, according to Kang Xiaofei’s book The Cult of the Fox, Hu   (狐) meaning fox and Hu (胡) meaning barbarian were homophones that shared the same rhyme and tone.  Starting in the Tang Dynasty the Chinese word for barbarian always referred to the Western, Indo European speaking peoples and the phonetic connection made the fox a convenient tool to describe feelings about foreign elements.  Barbarian odors became fox stench, or huchou (狐臭).  Surnames such as Zhao and Zhang, Bai and Kang were reserved for those with barbarian ancestry and Hu became the surname of most fox demons throughout Chinese literature.

At a political level China has never liked outsiders.  Round-eyed, yellow-haired barbarians are the harbingers of upheaval, sickness and war and little has truly changed since ancient times.  Mao Zedong’s adage “Use the West for Chinese purposes” does not mean old prejudices have broken.  Quite the opposite.  Since Deng Xiaoping opened the doors to capitalism in the 1980s dozens of Western companies, such as Motorola, Galtronics and Ford Motors to name only a few have invested in Tianjin and left, tails between their legs, sucked dry of funds and inspiration.  Other foreign-owned and joint venture companies have succeeded, but for how long and at what price?

If history has anything to say on the matter: not long, and with a heavy price.  Tianjin, to name one Chinese city, has a troubled portfolio.

After the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 the Eight Allied Nations of United Kingdom, France, Japan, Germany, Russia, Hungary, Belgium, Italy and in some respects the United States, invested heavily in Tianjin after destroying the city and its former feng shui.  The Hai River was dredged.  Swamps were dried.  Electricity and indoor plumbing were installed into daunting Gothic buildings.  Waving a freedom flag but intent on imperialism, the Western powers paved roads and created bridges, funded schools and hospitals, restaurants and taverns only to have them stripped during the Japanese invasion in 1937 and then seized in 1949 by the victorious communist party.  One of Mao Zedong’s first “leaps forward” after gaining control of the country was to expel all ‘Roundeyes.’

Today, the foreigner in China is tolerated, sometimes even welcomed.  Much like the red-haired, green-eyed demons of the north the foreigner is a curious creature, but best kept at arm’s length.  A foreigner in China will always be a stranger, looking in, like a child poking a hole through a rice paper window.

The Millet Eaters

During the 1980s, just after China’s bamboo curtain parted for Western investment, most people in Tianjin hadn’t seen a “Roundeye” in nearly forty years.  A blond adolescent foreigner instantly became a novelty to be stared at, groped, pinched and occasionally molested.  Stop to ask how much a jin of bananas were worth and inquisitive crowds would swarm, much like onlookers to a rare animal in a zoo.

Monkey, some would say.

Foreign devil.  Longhaired demon, others would mention.

And then came the prolific term lao wai, meaning old out, the most common modern word for foreigners and a synonym for stupid.  The nickname, although some think it endearing, is used between the Chinese for instance when a plumber attempts an electrician’s job, or when a monkey pilots a ship to the moon.

In the past other more sinister names were used such as the paper man, a demon who rose from the Hai River to kidnap and harm the natives.  Foreigners, and in the north the southern Chinese, also speak the language of birds, and in some places are called Ah-ki, or baby demons that chirp like birds.

The nicknames and curses are said effortlessly, with the mental prowess of tossing a cashed cigarette butt, and in most cases are said not to hurt, but subconsciously to separate the “lao neis” from the lao wais, the insiders verses the outsiders, the rice eaters and the millet eaters, the barbarian from the gentry.

In Tianjin, two types of expatriates exist.  And they’re on opposite ends of a very short street.

There are those who learn the language, accept the cultural differences and barriers and frequent Dog Food Halls, dubiously cozy snack shops not recommended by any sane health professional.  This type of expatriate is like a dry sponge, ready to soak in a new word, a fresh experience and in a blissfully innocent state to befriend and trust and dare.  They can be seen riding bikes or taking public busses.  They’ll work for travel money, become short-lived movie stars and keep intricate journals.   Sometimes they are found at local discos and even less occasionally the five-star hotels like the Sheraton, where the second type of expatriate is usually hovering over a third beer at eleven o’clock in the morning.

The second type of expatriate is financially successful, and usually arguing about sports at safe, English-speaking drinking houses scattered across the city.  This second type of expatriate refuses to learn the language, save for the few choice curses or pillow talk needed to bed a local, leaving translation when needed to a secretary, who is sleeping-with-material as well.  Typically sporting a Buddha belly and throwing unfeigned laughs into the sky, a little Sichuan pepper in a short skirt and legs longer than sugar canes clings close by.  This type of expatriate’s “little golden safe” is filled with hardship allowances from the mother company and safely stowed in a Swiss bank.

Both types of expatriate, and all those that fit in-between, are more frequently than not tools used by both government and populace.  Neither, however, no matter how assiduous their pursuits, will ever truly own a place in Chinese society.  Their places are for rent.

Historically only a handful, such as general of the Sino-Western joint forces Ever Victorious Army in mid nineteenth century, Frederick Townsend Ward, enjoyed official recognition – for a short time.  A temple was erected for the American soldier, known in Caleb Carr’s book as The Devil Soldier.  After Ward was fatally wounded fighting to defend Shanghai, a shrine in his honor was erected in Song Jiang District according to Qing Dynasty decree in 1876, and was torn down by communist soldiers who despised the idea of a Round-eyed hero of China.

“In pursuit of their revisionist goal, communist scholars sometimes misplaced or destroyed invaluable relics and documents relating to the Ever Victorious Army.  But the profound communist discomfort with Ward and his legacy demanded even greater destruction: In 1955 Ward’s remains were dug up, and his grave site and shrine were destroyed and paved over.”  According to historian and author Caleb Carr.

And so that leaves none.  Ward’s selfless mark on China also was rented.


Red hair, black hair, white skin, yellow skin – people are not born hating those who are different.  Society does not segregate itself.  This volatile emotion is learned through fear, funneled by governments, organized religion and agenda-holding pettifoggers and then spilled like crude oil, easily slipping into every societal crack.

Only when mankind surpasses the boundaries of self-defining religion, cultural and historical prejudices – on either side of the ocean – can rice eaters and millet eaters alike see that in the end, we’re not all that much different.  No one is adamantly right, and no one is inherently wrong.

That day, however, is still very, very far away and would most likely take an alien invasion of truly long-legged, red-haired, cannibalistic giants to erase the barriers that exist between East and West, North and South.


Tianjin’s Protective Fox Fairy – Granny Wang the Third

Granny Wang the Third at Tianjin's Temple of the Heavenly Empress

Photo by Annie Gao — Granny Wang the Third at Tianjin’s Temple of the Heavenly Empress


By C.S. Hagen

TIANJIN, CHINA – Qiao Hongshan’s neighbors knew her as a laomazi, or an old maid servant.  Those she healed with spit and charms called her fox fairy, Granny Wang the Third.

Although she’s been dead for nearly two hundred years, her hands and lotus feet are still alive.

From her vantage point inside Tianjin’s Temple of the Heavenly Empress Granny Wang has seen the end of China’s last dynasty and the turning of two centuries.  She’s watched the Opium Wars and half a dozen warlords battle for Tianjin, China’s Pearl of the North.  With heavy lidded eyes perched above rounded, rose red cheekbones, thin lips pursed into a tight, diligent smile, she has offered one tireless hand to all her followers despite the Japanese invasion and the ensuing civil war.  Granny Wang survived damnation during the Cultural Revolution and sits, to this day, an arguably regal figure along Ancient Culture Street.

“Touch Granny Wang’s hand and live to ninety-nine.”  Granny Wang’s followers say.

Photo by C.S. Hagen -- Entrance to the Temple of the Heavenly Empress

Photo by C.S. Hagen — Entrance to the Temple of the Heavenly Empress

For more than one hundred and seventy years she has sat in painted plaster.  A red silk longevity robe is draped across her shoulders.  Her followers burn black incense over tealeaves and call it ‘Brilliant Tea’ (can chaye), a reputedly magical elixir able to cure all sickness.

Many still preform ritual obeisance and can’t resist rubbing her well-worn hand.

Grey hair coiled under a simple skullcap, wearing loose, peasant trousers and a short-collared mandarin shirt, she holds flowers, sometimes magic medicine balls, sometimes copper coins in one hand and offers the other, cupped over a bony knee, for healing.

Legends say touch her hand and be protected against a hundred diseases.  Touch her foot and eliminate a hundred ills.

Qiao Hongshan 乔红山

Before Granny Wang became known as a fox fairy she was a mother of three.  Before being a mother she was a sick child rescued by Doctor Wang Sansi, a traveling scholar formerly of Beijing’s reputed Tai Hospital.  Before being rescued however, she was born into squalor in Tianjin’s Wuqing District.  She was spared the “killing trouble bowl,” a drowning tub often used by parents on female newborns, only to fall ill at a young age.  Outside the Qiao family’s doors smallpox, dysentery, cholera and typhoid haunted city streets.

“The country was plagued with disease, spirits and odorous vapors, swamp, piles of coffins awaiting in the open for an auspicious time and place for burial,” wrote Colonel G.J. Wolseley, quartermaster for the British forces in Tianjin at the time.

“A handkerchief became an indispensible weapon against protecting the olfactories…” Wolseley kept intricate journals during his eighteenth and nineteenth century travels.  “There is no part of the world to which distance lends more enchantment to the scenery than in China.  When actually amongst the highly-manured fields of that empire, the olfactory organs are so rudely assailed by the variety of stenches… that a second trip across the fields is seldom taken.”

Hongshan was born one hundred and fifty years before penicillin and into a city slowly being eaten by opium smugglers, foreign gunboats, superstition, disease and rebellion.  Magistrates faked blindness and turned deaf to Tianjin’s poor, and pettifoggers, or  yamen runners ‘vomited their hearts out’ to squeeze money from where they could.

When little Hongshan became possessed by a fox spirit is unknown, and mostly the leftovers of urban legends, but if other fox possession stories hold any relevance Hongshan became possessed during her childhood sickness.  Wang Sansi, the heroic doctor for whom she was later named after, took her under his wing, taught her his trade, made her his fourth wife and sired Hongshan’s three sons.

Photo by C.S. Hagen -- A crippled beggar outside the Temple of Heavenly Empress

Photo by C.S. Hagen – A crippled beggar outside the Temple of Heavenly Empress

After her husband’s death she circuited Zhili Province’s villages and practiced her shamanistic arts.  She was known as a midwife, a fortune teller, a healer and a miracle worker.

A favorite place for Hongshan was the Mountain of the Marvelous Peak (miaofengshan), some forty kilometers northwest of Beijing.  She made countless pilgramiges to worship  Mother Tianshan (Bixia Yuanjun), a reported disciple of Queen Mother of the West, who according to some sources was the Queen of Sheba and was also known to recruit fox fairies and fox demons as her messangers.  Under the mountain’s walnut, apricot, hawthorn and peach trees she healed the ‘mountain climbing tigers’ or the coolies who hired themselves out as human donkeys.  Amidst the fruit vendors and peach wood walking stick hawkers at the temple’s entryway, she gave away tea to thirsty pilgrims, never asking for a copper in return.

Sometimes she carried massive stones up the mountain’s slopes for much-needed temple repairs and was was reportedly visited by the Empress Cixi on two occasions.  Nearly all documents describing Hongshan reported she healed incurable diseases, calmed the masses when bandits threatened, and never wasted a moment when someone’s life was in danger, said Taoist Master He Lutong.

“She was good with the people,” Master He said.  “She was approachable, unlike the Queen Mother, her predecessor.  She kept away from the rivalries and helped villagers escape bandits at her own peril.  You would almost never find her in the temples, she was always in people’s homes, curing the sick and helping the people avoid calamity.”

According to the Temple of the Heavenly Empress reports dating back to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Hongshan was a joyous person, who never stayed idle.

“No problem was too little for her,” Master He said.  “There’s a colloquial saying in Tianjin – ‘Big problem, little problem, Granny Wang will show.’”

Granny Wang 王三奶奶

Tianjiners called Qiao Hongshan Granny Wang long before her death around 1843.  She accepted her husband’s surname, Wang.  After her death, of which there is much debate, she became known as Granny Wang the Third.

Beijing claims she died during a blizzard on the way up the Mountain of the Marvelous Peak.  Tianjiners swear she died on what is now known as Ancient Culture Street, only she didn’t truly die.

According to the Tianjin Daily while on her way to the Temple of the Heavenly Empress, she grew tired and hailed a rickshaw coolie.  Upon arrival she discovered she had no money and told the coolie to wait outside.  Her last words were for the coolie to go in and look for her if she didn’t come out momentarily.  The coolie waited until noon, and then went inside where he found Granny Wang still as stone, holding out ten copper coins and a note thanking the coolie.

She transcended death and became an immortal.  In fox fairy terms, she had reached the ninth tail.

Granny Wang became known as a ‘fox fairy of local fame,’ according to Xiao Feikang’s book The Cult of the Fox.  Her selfless life as a healer and fortuneteller made her a deified representation of female mediums who played active roles in the local community.  The Granny Wang Cult followed soon after her death and both Tianjin and Beijing laid claims to the woman turned goddess.

Photo by C.S. Hagen -- Burning incense in the Temple of the Heavenly Empress

Photo by C.S. Hagen — Burning incense in the Temple of the Heavenly Empress

In Beijing, 1927, according to temple records she revealed her true form beside her own statue at the Mountain of the Marvelous Peak, and a photograph was presumably taken of her.

Tianjiners wouldn’t believe the story.  They had to see the photograph with their own eyes.  Tianjin’s affluent salt merchants, actors and craftsmen guilds and lighting companies established charities to help people make the journey, which in turn embarrassed Beijing as Tianjiners far outnumbered their own cult members.

In a time of rampant disease with little hopes or monies for cures, both Tianjiners and Beijing commoners turned to the supernatural for assistance.  According to some technocrats of the time gods like Granny Wang held real power.

“Western science, although it cleverly seeks the Way of weishing, [sanitation] does so entirely on the basis of investigating form and material composition,” wrote Zheng Guanying, a comprador and an ardent Taoist student in his book Chinese and Foreign Essentials of Hygiene, 1890.  “It does not understand the marvelous [ability] of non-matter to give rise to matter, or the ability of the formless to give rise to form [wu zhi sheng zhi, wu xing sheng xing].  Will Western physicians ever understand this?  Even though they know about it, they do not believe in it and only find it laughable.  I can only hope that as Western science progresses, in the end it will be able to comprehend the Way of the Immortals.  Those who perfect the [Chinese] art [of self-cultivation] earn merit and virtue and enter the abode of the Immortals. Those who practice it even imperfectly can still avoid calamity and illness and live to an advanced age.  Is this not a wonderfully felicitous thing for the entire world?”

Today, one way of practicing the Way of Immortals is to rub Granny Wang’s hand or foot.  Another method is to respectfully burn black incense over a bag of tealeaves before Granny Wang’s unblinking eyes, and then take the leaves home to drink.  Upon seeing Granny Wang however, salutations must be made.

“Granny Wang the Third, I’ve (name) come to worship you.”

Upon leaving make sure to let her know she is not forgotten.

“Granny Wang the Third, I’m leaving now.  See you next year.”

Tianjin’s streets are safer and cleaner than they were in Granny Wang’s time.  Western medicine has shattered more than superstitions.  It’s ironic, however, that Alexander Fleming invented penicillin in 1928, but Granny Wang – Tianjin’s protective fox fairy – has been curing the sick since the eighteenth century.

Red Lanterns Rising

By. C.S. Hagen

TIANJIN, CHINA (PRC) – Red Lanterns once flew over Tianjin.

The skies crouched with anticipation as bewildered children and eager onlookers jostled toward the South Canal.  One by one the red lanterns sailed east, flickering like demons’ eyes.

“What’s happening baba?” A child in the crowd asked.  Bone-rattling drums drowned the child’s question and baba leaned closer, wrapping the seven-year-old in an embrace.  Before placing her on his bony shoulders for a better look he spoke into her ear.

“The Red Lantern flies toward Moscow and Tokyo,” said the child’s father.

A white lotus flower

photo by C.S. Hagen —  A white lotus flower


“To destroy the foreign devil’s and Island Dwarf’s cities.”

At the South Canal’s north embankment, near the current Japanese Concession area surrounding Heping Road, the drums reached a fevered pitch.  Trumpets blared.  A thousand voices cried out in unison welcoming the Yellow Lotus.

From a sampan unfurling red sails, dressed in red, holding a red lantern in one hand and a similarly colored kerchief in the other, Lin Hei’er stepped from the boat and on to Tianjin soil.  She had left in disgrace, but returned as a goddess.

“Who’s that baba?”  The child yelled into baba’s ear.

“Yellow Lotus Holy Mother.”  Baba spoke in a whisper that somehow drowned the chanting and throbbing drums.  “Fallen from the sky and here to drive the foreign devils into the sea.  Happy heaven, happy earth.”

More than ten thousand Tianjiners watched as Lin Hei’er, former zaji actress turned saltwater girl, sworn to destroy the foreign occupation soldiers and religions, stood still as an idol while Zhili Viceroy Yu Lu wrapped an official yellow cloak around her shoulders.  Nine sister fairies dressed in red silks, red shoes, red scarves, red tasseled flying knives sheathed across their backs held up their red lanterns, reflections of the floating lights above and casting the harbor into a bloody, wet sheen.

“I want to be like her,” said the child.  “She’s beautiful.”

“Aiya, little yaya.  You poke your head into the clouds while your feet are still here on earth.  Don’t think such foolish things.  There is no ivory in a dog’s mouth.”

Although little yaya was too young in 1900 to join the Red Lantern Brigade, Lin Hei’er, the Yellow Lotus, elusory brigand, whore and leader of the Red Lantern, opened the doors to women’s liberation for little yaya and millions like her.

Remembered today as a revolutionary hero the Yellow Lotus, (黄莲圣母林黑儿), was born in a fishing boat on Tianjin’s South Canal in 1871.  She matured under the rigorous training of zaji acrobatic entertainment.  Before an early marriage to Li Youchuan, she was a saltwater girl, selling her body on river and on dry land.  One of her suitors, a man named Li Youchuan, became her husband.  Little is known of their relationship other than she married at a very young age.

At the Hejia Hutong, near to the South Canal, nearly deserted.  According to residents this area once flourished, and would have been a focal point for the Red Lantern.

photo by C.S. Hagen —  At the Hejia Hutong, near to the South Canal and marked for destruction as of 2012. According to residents this area once flourished with business, theater and markets, and would have been a focal point for the Red Lantern.

Love, although in Chinese is a fairly modern word, is as old an emotion as hate, and must have bloomed between the young couple, for she swore vengeance upon the foreign nations squatting in Tianjin after British soldiers arrested her husband for opposing the opium trade.  Li Youquan died shortly after being interrogated, beaten and starved inside prison.

The Yellow Lotus, at that time still known as Lin Hei’er, fled to Tianjin’s outskirts where she eventually became involved with the White Lotus sect, a popular quasi-religious, martial band of Chinese who opposed the Manchu rule and more importantly, the foreign occupation of China’s trade ports lost in the Opium Wars.  Tianjin Boxer leader Zhang Decheng became Hei’er’s benefactor.  Like thousands of zealous followers before her, she knelt before the Boxer leader, swearing her life to freedom, to mutual faithfulness and to secrecy.  She swore to take the heavens as her father, the earth as her mother, the stars as her brothers the moon as a sister and drank a bowl of chicken’s blood.

Hejia Hutong, resident looking at the house he has lived all his life - soon to be torn down

photo by C.S. Hagen  —  Hejia Hutong resident looking at the house he has lived all his life – soon to be torn down

“If I, your pupil, do not respect your law, or if I divulge this Way of Immortals, may my flesh be reduced to congealed blood.  I will never go against this teaching.  If I should go against this teaching may a thunderbolt strike me dead.”

Incense seeping into her nostrils, Hei’er bowed three times, striking her forehead on the ground.

“I am a teacher.”  Decheng returned his oath.  “I do not teach a heretical sect.  If I should transmit any heretical teaching or if I should use tricks to get people’s money for myself, then may a thunderbolt strike me dead.”

Hei’er, which means ‘black child,’ soon learned the true words, eight character-long protective incantations that would keep her safe as long as she prayed to the three Easts, three times a day.  Once in the morning facing east recited twenty-seven times; once at noon facing south, recited fifty-four times and once in the evening facing west, recited eighty-one times.  Cross-legged, hands clasped to her chest, she learned how to empty her mind.  Forty-nine days later after intensive martial arts training, and a burn mark seared with wormwood leaves most likely at the back of her head, she was a fully inducted member of the Boxer’s Righteous and Harmonious Fists, and leader of the Red Lantern Brigade.

During the early 1900s, rebellions swept China’s northeast.  The Red Lantern, however, originated in Tianjin and became a nation wide symbol of revolt and mystic power.  With their red kerchiefs the Red Lantern became the Boxer’s arsonists, destroying buildings with a gentle wave.  Nearing midnight the lithe, young Red Lantern women took to the streets, shouting propaganda and drawing thousands of onlookers who were swept away with their elegance and violent slogans.

“Women don’t cut your hair,” the Red Lantern shouted.  “Cut off foreign devils’ heads.  Women do not bind your feet.  Strike away the foreign devils’ smiles.”

The Red Lantern was more than arsonists and the Boxers’ propaganda machine.  They were shrouded in mystery.  Legends from the time report they carried flying daggers on their backs, which when thrown, could strike the head off an enemy from leagues away.  The Red Lantern women were also known to possess powers of astral projection, and spied on the Western armies and concession areas.  At dusk, while chanting their protective true words, they stared into the setting sun until their eyes glowed with fire and then pinpoint the enemy’s locations.  Some said their souls floated on copper bowls filled with water or their bodies could fly through the air simply by waving a fan.

One of the spells, or true words the Red Lantern taught Boxers to chant was known as the Closed Fire and Sand Curse.  The true words, when recited with a righteous heart, repelled bullets and made the body impervious to harm.

“Disciples in the red dust, obstruct the cannon’s mouths.  Let their guns resound together and part the sands on both sides of us.”

A representational painting of the Red Lantern - artist unknown

A representational painting of the Red Lantern – artist unknown

A 2013 article in China’s Ministry of Education Humanities and Social Sciences reports the allied armies countered the Red Lantern’s spells by painting naked women on their cannons.

All unmarried women with unbound feet were welcome into the Red Lantern.  The Yellow Lotus trained prostitutes and beggars, giving the young girls red robes when they finished training.  Only those with lotus feet – the rich – were rejected from the Red Lantern ranks.  Widows and those too old to participate in the fights formed the Blue and Black Lantern brigades.  A fourth brigade called the Sha Guo Zhao, or the Cooking Pan Lantern, was also formed.  Armed with magic saucepans that never went empty, they fed the sixty-thousand-strong Boxer army.

Reports published shortly after the Boxer Rising, such as in A Miscellaneous Record of the Boxers and A Month in Tientsin, attribute the crazed actions of many Boxers and Red Lantern women to the ingestion of mercury sulfide.

“The teacher first draws a circle in the ground,” the A Miscellaneous Record of the Boxers reported.  “He orders those who wish to receive instruction to step inside it.  They stand with their eyes closed, and the Teacher murmurs spells into their ears.  Before long, some fall prostrate on the ground.  These he teaches.  Those who do not so fall are regarded as un-teachable. When they practice boxing the instructor holds the boy’s right ear with his hand and makes the boy himself recite the spell three times.  When the spell is completed, the boy lies supine on the ground, almost lifeless.  He is then slowly urged to rise and dance about… Pairs of such boys will fight together as if facing a mighty enemy.  In truth, they are like people drunk, or in a dream.  After a time, the Teacher will slap the boy in the middle of the back and… he will wake up, and stand there like a wooden chicken, having entirely forgotten the art of boxing.”

At the Boxers and Lantern’s helm stood the Yellow Lotus.  When her troops were ready, she fought alongside Boxers.  Hand in hand with Boxer men, (a strict taboo of the times to be seen outside the home touching a man), they marched through Tianjin streets defying Manchu rule and foreign aggression.

According to a 1900 article in the Atlantic Monthly, Boxers revered the Red Lantern women, and Yellow Lotus was judge and jury of all those brought before her.  Found guilty of befriending foreigners or aspiring to foreign ways and heads would roll.  She pardoned a small handful when enough gold was presented.  Viceroy Yu Lu, the governor of Zhili Province, which included Tianjin, invited the Yellow Lotus once to his home and begged her to predict the result of the Boxer movement.

“I have arranged for an angelic host to destroy them (foreign powers) with fire from Heaven,” she told the viceroy.  “You need not be alarmed.”

The viceroy believed.  Tianjin believed.  Foreigners, according to Brian Power in his book Ford of Heaven, believed, to an extent.  Newspapers such as the Tientsin-Peking Times and magazine The Atlantic Monthly reported the Yellow Lotus was wounded during the Battle of Tientsin, caught by British forces after the short-lived Boxer Rising, and was decapitated.

Many other sources, such as the above-mentioned Ford of Heaven, report the Yellow Lotus disguised herself once again as a fisherman and escaped.  She continued striking fear into the hearts of Tianjin’s concession children.  Western soldiers after the Boxer Rising looted Red Lantern sites, specifically Luzu Tang, for Red Lantern memorabilia.  Three decades after the Boxer Rising, the Japanese spy network had exhausted itself searching for the Yellow Lotus’s secret lairs.  Years preceding World War II numerous pirate raids on boats and godowns, or warehouses, plagued Tianjin.  Trains were attacked and robbed.  Kidnappings, which were called ‘seizing a goddess of mercy’ for taking women and ‘grabbing a fat pig’ while snagging men often coincided with train raids.  On May 7, 1923, one hundred and fifteen people, twenty of whom were Westerners, were kidnapped outside of Tianjin from the Shanghai-Peking Express train.  One British citizen, surnamed Rothman, was killed, according to the Winnipeg Tribune.

The Nationalist government at the time would not admit the raids or rash of kidnappings were the work of the Yellow Lotus.  But Tianjiners still believed.  Legends say she escaped to Tianjin outskirts where a cloud awaited to take her up to heaven.

Alive or dead, Lin Hei’er, the Yellow Lotus, at only twenty-nine years of age, broke the shackles of feudal ethics, showing the world women were just as capable as men.  She was the first revolutionary in modern China, according to some an ‘inventor of tradition’ and mother of the Chinese women’s liberation movement.

Her methods can be questioned, and have been for more than a century.  Writers during that time name her whore, bandit and witch.  Her motives, however, cannot be denied.  The foreign hands responsible for her husband’s murder lit the Red Lanterns, burned her love to hate, and cast its bright light for the world to see.  And in a way, more than one hundred and thirteen years later, her red lanterns still fly over Tianjin, and have reached much further than Moscow or Tokyo.


Red Lantern monument, erected 1994, at the spot where Lin Hei'er the Yellow Lotus, landed along the South Canal

(Taken from Xinhua Net) — Red Lantern monument, erected 1994, at the spot where Lin Hei’er the Yellow Lotus, landed along the South Canal


Nationalism or Healthy Pride – World’s Only Boxer Museum in Tianjin

By C.S. Hagen

TIANJIN, CHINA (PRC) – Once upon a previous century, not all that long ago, one hundred and twenty thousand righteous and harmonious fists mauled Tianjin, the pearl of China’s north.  It was a prizefight the West has all but erased from the history books, and a death duel the memories of which the Chinese faithfully nurture.

The bloodbath between what came to be known as the Boxers, pitted against the Eight Allied Nations (United Kingdom, France, Japan, Germany, Russia, Hungary, Italy and the United States) flattened Tianjin’s old Celestial City, shackled the Manchu dynasty to its coffin, and thrust open the shameless pods of the poppy plant.

But nowhere in the world is there so much as a whisper to commemorate the Chinese side of the Boxer Rising.

Except in Tianjin.

Statue commemorating the Boxers at Luzu Temple - photos by C.S. Hagen

Statue commemorating the Boxers at Luzu Temple – photos by C.S. Hagen


Nestled into an impoverished corner of Hongqiao District, within a spear’s throw of the Hejia Hutong, sits an old Daoist temple, originally built in 1719 BCE, the Luzu Tang, or the Lu Dongbing Ancestral Hall.  The temple has been refurbished to become the world’s only Boxer museum.

“As far as I know this is the only Boxer memorial in the world,” said Li Xinqiao, the Boxer museum curator.  Displaying none of the angst his forefathers vented against foreigners, Li is soft spoken, until he speaks of the museum’s artifacts and history.  His thin face flushes with sudden warmth, his eyes glint like fireflies when he recounts the stories.

“This is where they built the Boxer altar for Tianjin,” Li said.  “Here at Luzu Tang.”

Luzu Temple

Luzu Temple, the world’s only true Boxer museum

Mammoth halberds, spears and double-edged straight swords line racks, the way weapons used to be displayed, Li said.  The blades no longer hold an edge.  Rust has eaten most of the iron away.

Inside the main room royal yellow vests emblazoned with magic charms are folded neatly behind glass cages.  Gifts, Li said, to the Tianjin Zhili Province Boxers, which exemplified the highest imperial favor.  Wrinkled, sepia toned photographs, paintings and official communiqué are also on display.

The Zhili Province Boxer chiefs, namely Liu Chengxiang, Cao Futian and Zhang Decheng were revolutionary heroes to Li, as they were to former Chairman Mao Zedong and more recently to many of the young people in China today.

At the temple’s main entrance where the Boxer altar was built, Li said the Boxer chiefs burned charms.  Followers would drink the charm’s ashes mixed in strong wine to summon ancient heroes and gods to possess their bodies, making them impervious to barbarian bullets.  At the front gates was where the women of the Red Lantern gathered, staring at the setting sun until their eyes glowed like fire and they possessed the ability to summon lightning.  A towering statue of Boxer heroes rests approximately where the altar was made today, but in 1900 it was at this spot where the drums were beaten, torches were lit and Boxers danced themselves into a frenzied rage.

Sha!  Sha!  Sha!  Shao!  Shao!  Shao!” (kill, burn) was the Boxer chant, which when screamed from sixty thousand throats must resemble a sound somewhere between a volcano’s eruption and the galloping Mongolian hordes.

Boxer weapons

Boxer weapons

“Surely government bannermen are many,” the Boxers also cried.  “Certainly foreign soldiers a horde, but if all the people spit once they will drown bannermen and invaders together.”

Another favored slogan was, “Whenever you meet foreigners, you must kill them.  If they try to escape, they must immediately be killed.  Destroy Christians root and branch.”

No tree or flower was left in the ground.  Foreign dogs and cats were killed.  Chinese Catholics and Protestants were tortured and beheaded.  Anyone possessing any item made from a foreign country was marked for death.  More shells fell into Tianjin’s International Settlement, which hugs both sides of the Hai River near Liberation Bridge, in June 1900 than the entire Boer War, according to military personnel defending the International Settlement.  In total, more than one hundred and eight thousand people lost their lives during the few short months of the Boxer Rising.

Boxer workout weights

Boxer workout weights

A book written in 1902 by the Reverend Frederick Brown entitled From Tientsin to Peking with the Allied Forces gives a descriptive account of an imperial Chinese soldier’s fear of the Boxers.

“An old man came from the village at two a.m.,” the soldier said.  “It was very dark.  Then thousands of soldiers (Heavenly Soldiers) came down and we fired at them, but the bullets would not enter.  Some did knock men over, but they would jump up, spit the bullets out, and fight again.  How could we fight against such men?”

According to Brown, the interviewee was a Boxer spy.

Missionary journals and first hand accounts written shortly after the uprising describe the Boxers with scorn, dependent mainly on their magical charms, incantations and Plum Flower Boxing.  “Boxerism” is synonymous with words like foreign devil and public beheadings, and sparked Irish author Arthur Ward’s fictional character, evil Doctor Fu Manchu in the early nineteenth century.

In China, Boxerism is national pride.  Stand tall and defy the odds.  Some say the Boxer spirit is connected to triads like the White Lotus Society, or to Tianjin’s hunhunr, the Dark Drifters, and also to the quasi-Christian mystics of 1860 that called themselves Taiping Rebels, the “good Hans.”  No matter the source, Boxer courage is revered to this day, and the evidence does not stop with the dedication of a historical Boxer headquarters into a national museum.

Lu Dongbing, one of the eight immortals and the residing god at the Boxer museum

Lu Dongbing, one of the eight immortals and the residing god at the Boxer museum

Former Chairman Mao Zedong idolized the Boxers.

During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Red Guards shouted slogans similar to the Boxers.

In 2009 the People’s Daily published an article on its website saying “anti-imperialistic, patriotic” Boxer movement caused panic among imperialist countries that wanted to carve China into their own private sections.

More recently young children at the Pingxiang Mingde Primary School are learning Plum Flower Boxing, which includes the martial art’s practice and its heritage, according to a December 6, 2010 article in The Economist.

The Chinese communist party walks a threaded rope when it idolizes the Boxer movement.  Public dissatisfaction, widespread corruption, censorship and random crackdowns are stretching the public’s nerves to near breaking point.  Jump into any taxi and ask what the driver thinks of Tianjin government, in particular.  Try to get a work visa switched to a new company and watch the Third Bureau flex its iron muscles.

When, not if, the rope snaps, a new wave of Chinese-styled Boxerism might not resemble the magical prowess of the Monkey King, or the fighting skills of Guan Yu, the god of war, but then again, it just might.

China has a long memory, and more than two billion axes to grind, and Tianjin is a stiff-necked city with powerful shoulders, with the world’s only true Boxer museum.

A Tianjin Haunting

Grave behind Purple Bamboo Grove Church outside of the old English Concession. Watchmen of the church say it belongs to a young boy, anonymous.

Photos by C.S. Hagen  –  Grave behind Purple Bamboo Grove Church outside of the old English Concession. Watchmen of the church say it belongs to a young boy, anonymous.

By C.S. Hagen

TIANJIN, CHINA (PRC) – Behind the crippled Purple Bamboo Grove Church rests a poorly made grave.  Tiered red brick forms a horseshoe shape, yawning in the middle to reveal blackness beneath.  Ground surrounding the grave is moist and springy, a perfect breeding ground for the poison ivy that surrounds the site in warmer months like so many sentient soldiers.

Three carefully placed ceramic toys adorn the grave’s left side.  The most undamaged toy is of a Christmas tree with four smiling Santas holding hands.

“It is the grave of a child,” the night watchman said.  Fearing to lose his metal rice

The ceramic toy Santa at the grave

The ceramic toy Santa at the grave

bowl of a job, he preferred to keep his name private.  “An elderly foreign lady once visited this spot.”

The watchman didn’t know who placed the ceramic toys on top of the grave, but admitted the old church was haunted.  The boy’s grave was not the only body buried in the back of the Purple Bamboo Grove Church, but no other headstone or marker remain.  In June 2012 a man quit working as a second watchman because he believed the ruined church became alive with the dead at night.

The night watchman who remained knew of the atrocities that were once committed at the church’s front doors and agreed that if any place in Tianjin (formerly spelled Tientsin), should be haunted, the old church stood high on the list.

Cement mixing buckets, bricks, pipes and tarps lay forgotten at the entrance.  Trees are warped and mostly leafless in mid August.  The old Red Cross sign that once advertised the Sisters of Charity Orphanage in the midst of Purple Bamboo Grove, the heart of the red light district and a stone’s throw from the old English Concession, has been chiseled away.  Remnants of communist propaganda painted in revolutionary red still remain.

‘Mao Zedong Thought,’ the slogan says.

Entryway to the Sisters of Charity Orphanage, the Cultural Revolution slogan is painted on left side pillars

Entryway to the Sisters of Charity Orphanage, the Cultural Revolution slogan is painted on left side pillars

Ironically the entrance’s doors remain, but the archway is blackened by fire, reminiscent of the brutal atrocities committed in 1870.

“The sisters were stripped naked, and, one after the other, in full sight of the remainder, their bodies were ripped open, their eyes gouged out and their breasts cut off.  As each one was mutilated the body was hoisted on long spears and thrown into the burning chapel.”  O.D. Rasmussen wrote in his book Tientsin: An Illustrated Outline History (Tientsin Press, 1925).

Missionary reports dating back to 1871 report nine nuns from the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage were burned beyond recognition.

“…And of these most have been mere unrecognizable fragments; how as a fit accompaniment to the rest, thirty or forty of the children of the hospital were smothered in the vaults where they had taken refuge,” reported Charles William Wason in the Shanghai Evening Courier in September 1870.

Inside the Purple Bamboo Grove Church

Inside the Purple Bamboo Grove Church

The original church was destroyed, but was rebuilt.  Pillars the sisters were tortured upon are not the same ones dating back to the Tientsin Massacre in 1870.  The ground, however, hallowed or desecrated, is the same.  The sisters bodies were buried across the street from the Astor Hotel outside the British Consulate, Gordon Hall, demolished in 1984 after the Tangshan Earthquake.  A memorial was erected over their charred remains.

Purple Bamboo Grove altar

Purple Bamboo Grove altar

Events that led Tientsin’s populace to bloody deeds in 1870 and again in 1900 are not without merit, if one was to look through the eyes of the locals at that time.  In a world spiraling toward locomotives, electricity and division of labor, the average Chinese person in 1870 was still mired in superstition and ancient tradition.  Rumors began to spread in Tientsin of the paper man, a demon who rose from the Hai River, (then called the Peiho), to kidnap, injure and kill the natives.

The paper man, of course, had pale skin, colored hair and green eyes.

“…He transforms himself, by the aid of some mysterious power, into paper.  At times, it is asserted, he will appear as a scrap of plain paper; at other times he comes in the guise of an old newspaper.  A favorite dodge with him is to get himself made into a kite.  He thereby accomplishes his object of getting into people’s houses with greater facility…” wrote George Thin in his book The Tientsin Massacre, published in 1870.

According to George Thin the most common remedy was for families to sprinkle bathing water on every scrap of paper in the house, which would “certainly give the paper man his quietus.”

The paper man also took the form of women, and in Tientsin more specifically the Sisters of Charity, who in their black robes and horned white hats struck horror into the local populace.  Such an image to the Chinese sparked fear, for white is the color of death, and rumors the sisters were kidnapping children to make powerful magic spells and medicines quickly became panic.

In truth, the Sisters of Charity provided shelter, food and medicines for orphans, but due to Christian doctrines and the symbolization of communion the populace believed the nuns, as well as all Christian congregations, were cannibals, and were secretly slaying the city’s children to make Eye and Heart Bewitching Philtres.

Citywide panic turned to rage when graves were exhumed behind the Wanghai Lou, or Victory Mary Church.  Inside the graves were bodies of children, who according to missionary journals of the time died from plague.  Rage then became a riot when yamen officials caught three Chinese men who confessed they sold ten children to the Sisters of Mercy.  The rumors raged like a conflagration to every Tientsin district, coming to a head on June 21, 1870.  Missionaries were boiling babies to sell to opium merchants, the people cried.  Pettifoggers, or yamen clerks, ran through the streets and rain dancers with green wreaths, swinging peach wood swords, stirred the local populace to rise up against the foreigners.

Before the sun set more than twenty-two politicians, priests, nuns and merchants were killed.

Daoists believe each person has three spirits: the hun, or cloud spirit, which exits the body on death, the p’o, or the white spirit, which stays behind, and then a third part that enters a spirit tablet and demands reverence from surviving family.  Another essential part of the Daoist beliefs demand that a body must return home in order for its souls to be at rest.

If any credence is given to such beliefs, then surely, the Purple Bamboo Grove Church must be one of the world’s most haunted sites.  A trip within the decrepit structure is harrowing.  The original altar still sits where the church’s last sermon was given.  An unreadable bronze plaque in the wall commemorates the deaths of unknown members.  Stray sections of stained glass in back room windows defy the stench and decay and a humid breeze, sifting through the buildings cracks, whines as loud as screams.

Partially stained glass window

Partially stained glass window


Back room behind pulpit inside the Purple Bamboo Grove Church

Back room behind pulpit inside the Purple Bamboo Grove Church


Tianjin Dark Drifters

By C.S. Hagen 

TIANJIN, CHINA (PRC) – Hunhunr, the Dark Drifters, are alive and well and still thieving in Tianjin.

Once they wore martial pants and a turquoise pouch around the waist.  Their shoes were brightly colored.  A wig, adorned with a jasmine flower, partially covered their shaved foreheads and Manchu queues, which given the laws at that time was tantamount to treason against the emperor.  The hunhunr’s antics didn’t stop there however, they prowled the streets in force, as if wounded, dragging the right leg in unison and bristling with homemade knives and axe handles looking to da chunjia, or stage a rumble.

Today, the Dark Drifters are not as conspicuous, but their brave and somewhat masochistic feats have bequeathed to the city of Tianjin more than a legacy of pseudo gangster attitudes.  Some say the hunhunr, dating back more than two hundred years, still exist in Tianjin.

Dark Drifter History

During the hunhunr’s prime in the nineteenth century, the hunhunr (pronounced huir-huir), were hoodlums, allegedly an offshoot of the Elder Brother Society, who lived together and harassed merchants on market day, extorted monetary collections in crowds and used brute force to muscle their way into any money making endeavor.

The hunhunr society was not as rigid as the triads, and highly prone to savagery.

According to a former Tianjin newspaper Yishi Bao article written in 1935, the hunhunr were “capable of bearing great punishment, several hundred strokes of the rod, and they won’t let out the slightest sound.  Their mouths don’t beg for forgiveness, their faces don’t change expression.”

The hunhunr also loosely controlled transportation to and from the Haihe, Tianjin’s deep-water river along which most trade commenced.  They extorted rickshaw coolies and wheelbarrow pushers traveling through their turfs and inserted themselves forcefully as middlemen between peasants bringing produce from the countryside and urban peddlers, collecting commissions for their “services.”

The site where nine Sisters of Charity were brutally murdered, burned, and then their bodies thrown into the Hai River in 1870. Acts that were later attributed to Dark Drifters, hunhunr.

The site where nine Sisters of Charity nuns were brutally murdered, burned, and then their bodies thrown into the Hai River in 1870. Acts that were later attributed to Dark Drifters, hunhunr.

Because of their maniacal bravery and low standing in society, the hunhunr were also often used by officials as patsies for crimes, such as the rape, torture and burning of nine Sisters of Charity nuns outside the Purple Bamboo Grove Church off of Jiefang Road in June 1870 and then later taken from prisons and beheaded to appease the Eight Allied Powers after the bloody Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

A hunhunr’s lot in life was one of pain, extortion and more frequently than not, death.  Rarely did a hunhunr live to retirement.

The rules for being a hunhunr were simple.  A hunhunr must have heroic stoicism in the face of danger.  If someone rushes a hunhunr with a knife, bare the chest.  No mama, no papa, no whiskey soda?  Then muscle into a gambling den for a share of the profits, and when the bouncers arrive, lie down and demand to be beaten.  Need quick cash?  Enter a store and cut a chunk of flesh from the thigh.  If the proprietor accepts the flesh without flinching, a stalemate is called, if however, the proprietor rubs salt into the wound, continue talking and laughing as if nothing happened and the hunhunr would be entitled to a daily subsidy by virtue of his true grit.  Lastly, the night before a rumble death lots were cast, and those unlucky boys walked to the fight knowing they were the chosen ones to die.

One Tianjin legend dating back to mid 1800s holds that a hunhunr who wanted to run the street of a local transport guild challenged the competition for control of the turf by daring all comers to jump into a vat of boiling oil.  When there were no takers the hunhunr ordered a relative to jump in, who was immediately fried to a crisp.  The hunhunr, however, and his fellow hoodlums and relatives gained permanent control of the guild’s territory.

Any hunhunr who balked at pain was immediately a laughingstock to any other hunhunr, and was often beaten then banished to the nearest No Care Zone, a criminal’s safe haven away from the law both domestic and foreign, for in those days Tianjin was split into the old Chinese ruled “Celestial City” and the eight foreign concessions governed by colonial powers.

A No Care Zone, or Sanbuguan, literally translated to mean Three Who Cares and sometimes referred to with a more lengthy description as ‘beyond the control of the three foreign powers,’ (Chinese, Japanese and Western), were boisterous places, filled with cheap theaters, teahouses, brothels, vaudeville halls, devil’s markets, scrap hoarders and dubious drug shops.  The most famous No Care Zone was at the southern edge of the old city of Tianjin, near the Japanese garrison at Haiguansi.  Another No Care Zone surrounded Nanshi Food Street, which was infamous for houses of ill repute, opium dens and bandits.

Dark Drifters Today

Today, most people say the hunhunr are a plague from the past.  Disgruntled street side breakfast sellers sometimes connect the old hunhunr with the newly formed and government sponsored Cheng Guan, an ersatz, mafia-like police force responsible for cleaning out the “unwanted” inside the city.

According to one Hedong District family however, while walking along Houtan Street during the spring of 2013, an out-of-town farmer selling produce from a “Dog Riding Rabbit” three-wheeled vehicle, was threatened and forced to vacate the street by a group of rough-looking men.

Some are worried in Tianjin that the Dark Drifters, long thought to be extinct, are back.

Some are worried in Tianjin that the Dark Drifters, long thought to be extinct, are back.

“The man refused to pay,” said Chen Liang, a manager at a five-star hotel.  “They weren’t policemen either.  They were hunhunr.  Dressed in black shoes, rolled up shirts, tattoos and shortly cropped hair.”

Recalling stories her grandfather told her of the old days when hunhunr were the scourge on every Tianjin street, she moved quickly away.  The farmer, she said, saved himself a beating by hurrying away on his 3.88 horsepower engine.

“They are a group with a head and they don’t work,” Chen said.  “They take money from vendors outside of produce markets, and pay off the police when they have to.”

These urban hoodlums can be spotted in the market places, outside where the out-of-towner farmers splay their cabbages and mushrooms.  They offer protection to sing song halls and discos, eating and drinking to their hearts delight and never pay a tin coin.  Instead of wigs and jasmine flowers their backs are covered with tattoos, forearms parade cigarette burns, and most likely during the warmer months they lounge in their turfs with T-shirts rolled, unveiling Buddha bellies like a roll up window blind.

Not only has the hunhunr survived, but in the eyes of many outsiders the hunhunr have left behind their stoic, albeit lethargic spirit.  In many movies the Tianjiner is depicted as an uneducated, swarthy brigand, speaking Mandarin with a distinctly spiraled accent.  The Beijing bourgeoisie treats Tianjiners as the ugly, second cousins nobody wants to invite to the party, and yet every Beijing person knows better than to get involved in a street fight in Tianjin, against Tianjiners.  Tianjiners have been known to overturn cars, brandish meat cleavers and curse like sailors when their pride is threatened.

On a different note ask an unemployed Tianjiner to peddle breakfasts before the cock crows, or sweep the spit-stained streets, or maybe get in line for any menial job that gets the hands dirty, and the answer will invariably be no.  Not on your life.  Are you insane?  Leave those jobs for the watercats!  (Tianjin slang for poorly dressed, mop-headed migrants who will do any kind of work for money).  Tianjiners are far more content to stay at home, crunching sunflower seeds and sipping teas, complaining about how Goubuli Baozi is not what it used to be.

Lazy, but in an endearing way.  Headstrong, but in an outlandish way that makes you want to get behind them and cheer them on.  Despite their savagery these are the characteristics of the hunhunr.  Watered down they’re the attributes of Tianjiners.  Even if the hunhunr of today are not what they used to be, they’re still a fascinating historical anecdote of a city shrouded in violence, upheaval and mystery.

Dracula’s Lair

Entrance to Snagov Lake, the final resting place of Vlad III The Impaler, more commonly known as Dracula.

Entrance to Snagov Lake, the final resting place of Vlad III The Impaler, more commonly known as Dracula.

By Chris Hagen 

BUCHAREST, ROMANIA (2010) – The first step up the stone slabs to Poenari is a difficult one, especially just before sunrise when all is dark and an early winter mist pierces like a wooden spike.

Nearly one hundred and fifty flights and precisely one thousand four hundred and eighty steps upwards to his five hundred and sixty-three-year-old lair, the Poenari Fortress is not only “Dracula’s”  true home, it also is considered one of the most haunted place on earth.

Ears at attention and wide-eyed, the knees shake as raindrops mimic tiny footsteps and rolling thunder becomes a demon’s growl along the journey.  A stray dog’s nip at the heel is nearly enough to force the bravest man to cower.

“You know you feel like chills on your spine, have a little panic,” said Valentin Grancea, guide for the Butterfly Villa, a hostel near the Old Town in Bucharest.

“It was in the middle of the mountain where he executed half of the boyars,”

Poenari Fortress - where the legends began

Poenari Fortress – where the legends began

Boyars, the Romanian explained, were local leaders at the time who betrayed “Dracula,” or more accurately named Prince of Wallachia, Vlad “Tepes” or the Impaler.  Sometimes he was referred to as Vlad the Devil, as his father, Vlad Dracul, was bestowed a title in the Hungarian Order of the Dragon, a coalition to fight against the growing Ottoman Empire.

Fear, during the hike, begins when the legends are recalled.

In 1447 when Vlad was seventeen and he had yet to earn his nickname, his thirst for vengeance and the strictest of order began.  In a land torn with internal rivalry, betrayal and the ominous threat of the Ottoman Turks, Vlad sought to unify the three kingdoms of what is now known as part of Romania.

First, however, Vlad the Impaler wanted blood.  Under the guise of a banquet, Vlad invited boyars – guilty of murdering his elder brother – their families and soldiers to the Princely Capitol in Tirgoviste.  After fifteen hundred of the Boyars arrived and drank their fill, his loyal soldiers surrounded them and forced them on a fifty-mile march toward the Carpathian Mountain range and the fortress Poenari .  He impaled approximately half of the Boyars and enslaved the rest atop the fortress, which sits on a peak above the Arges River.  The dungeon can still be seen today along with part of the castle that has not collapsed.

“Sometimes it could take two days for people who were impaled to die,” Grancea said in his thick Slavic accent.  Starting from the buttocks, an executioner would place an enemy, a wrong doer or anyone else Vlad sentenced to the cruel fate on to the top of a sharpened pole.  Slowly, the pole would work its way through the body, usually coming out of the shoulder and sometimes the mouth.

“It was a terrible way to die,” said Reiner Katscher, owner of the Butterfly Villa.  “But Vlad was a fierce ruler and demanded honesty.”

“All is legend,” said a fortress ranger, Nicoloe Victor.  He lives next to the crumbling castle in a small shack, equipped with a simple bed and an old, ceramic heater called a soba.  His job is to ensure people are safe, as tickets are not sold to visit the fortress.

“There is no scoo-bee-doo,” he added with a wave of his hands and a chuckle.

Stories from his rule range from the prince placing a golden cup in his courtyard in Tirgoviste to catch a thief to paying a Italian merchant an extra gold coin after a robbery as a test of honesty.

“Nobody ever took the cup,” Katscher said,  “and Vlad told the merchant, ‘You are fortunate that you told the truth or I would impale you.”

Although impalement was his favorite, Vlad practiced a variety of other tortures. Once, when the Ottoman Turkish armies invaded nearly to Bucharest, he created the Forest of the Impaled, and slaughtered twenty thousand Turks upon wooden spikes.  At this point, the Ottoman armies retreated from disgust and fear, but soon returned and nearly captured the prince at Poenari Fortress.

He escaped however, after his wife threw herself off the battlements and seven brothers made the prince backwards horseshoes.

“The horseshoes made him look like he was going up the mountain and not down,” Katscher said.  A self-declared student of history, he has taken more than two hundred tours in the past five years to “Dracula” related sites around Romania.

All these thoughts and more plague the mind as the seven hundredth step approaches.  Breathing becomes difficult and a chill does run up the spine.  Slowly breaking dawn begins to part the mists but the darkness feels oppressive.  Gnarled oaks and elms, whose branches stretch away from the fortress, do little to help the sense of foreboding that plagues the mountainside.

A small, mostly wooden house, near the middle of the stony path, is considered haunted by locals, Grancea said.

“Some padurars, or people who protect the forest, saw some lights on but nobody has lived there for many, many years,” the guide said.   “They saw the lights and could not figure out why and ran, they say,” he added with a smile.

He went on to say that Romanians knew little of the legend of Dracula until after Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” film was released.  Stoker’s 1897 novel, “Dracula,” mixed the legends together improperly identifying Bran Castle as the one in which Vlad lived.

Sunrise on Snagov Lake, outside of the monastery where Vlad the Impaler was supposedly buried.

Sunrise on Snagov Lake, outside of the monastery where Vlad the Impaler was supposedly buried.

“Before that, we knew of strigoi,” Grancea said which he believes may be a connection.  “It is when somebody is dying but they do not chill.  They are undead, and are still warm and you must stick a wooden pole into their chest to kill them.”

Many superstitions roam the countryside of Romania.  One of which includes tying a red string or cloth around one’s body in order to ward off evil curses.  The strigoi, which according to Romanian legend, have two hearts and are blood-drinking shape-shifters.  There are many ways to ward off strigoi, one of which includes eating or wearing garlic.  These myths and more have survived to modern times, Grancea said.

During Vlad’s reign, he was able to beat back the Ottoman Turks on many occasions, frequently seeking neighbors such as Hungary and the Moldavians for assistance.  He impaled and killed more than one hundred thousand people during his reign.  During captivity in Hungary, Vlad was used as a “face of terror,” to their enemies, Katscher said.

Legends point to a painting where Vlad sits amongst the impaled, drinking from a dripping cup.  The substance inside the cup, which is red, resembles blood, Katscher said.

After being betrayed by his own people, according to legends, Vlad was killed in 1476 after his second enthroning. He supposedly was found on Snagov Lake, decapitated.  Until the 1800s, his body was believed to lie in Snagov Monastery, one of the most famous during its day in the area.

Hundreds of bodies lie under Snagov Lake, Grancea said.  Once during Vlad’s reign, Ottoman Turks rushed across a bridge to the monastery but failed to reach the island as the bridge collapsed under their weight.   The most recent “Legend of the Lake,” reports that two divers went to the bottom of the deep waters in search of treasure.  One man, he said, came up missing a hand but had no idea how it happened.

Vlad the Impaler’s headstone inside Snagov Monastery is simple.  A single stone slab with an engraving of him propped up into a brass stand are all that remain.

Beneath the stone slab also remains a mystery.  In the nineteenth century his grave was unearthed to discover partial remnants of Hungarian-styled clothing and animal bones.

“Don’t believe it was Vlad,” Grancea said.  “This is supposing he is resurrect.  Maybe he change his shape.”

A last bend in the climb to Poenari and the final steps to the dark fortress, shrouded in mist, approaches.  If Vlad the Impaler truly is a creature of the night, or an undead, the narrow entryway to the remains of the fortress is an ideal location for an attack.

It is here, where the hairs on the neck stand on end, but only one decisions remains, continue forward.

Katscher scaled the mountain once during winter after he first invested in the hostel industry in Bucharest.  He said he does believe in hauntings and felt strange that early morning as he hiked through a light dusting of snow to reach the fortress.

“It’s hard to say about these things,” the German born businessman said.  “It was so silent.  It was a special feeling and after all this time I have only felt this at Poenari.

“When it is sunny outside and lots of people, nothing happens,” he continued.

“Some people bring back strange stories when they come back down.  At least Prince Vlad Tepes the Impaler is someone from whom Romanians derive no small amount of courage.  They’re proud, Katscher said, that they had such a strong leader for during his reign all who swore fealty were safe as long as they obeyed the law.

“I am not sure about all the legends, though, even though Poenari is just a ruin, you just can’t help but ask yourself.”  Katscher’s smile faded.  Despite Hollywood’s bastardization of the legends, local myths still ring true for him.  “Could it all really have happened?”

D01 10-29-2011 WDT

Story published in the Wilson Times 2011

D01 10-29-2011 WDT






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