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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.