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.
“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.
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.
“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 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.