Kerry Ryan
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The Fists of Righteous Harmony
(The origins of the Boxers in China)

At the conclusion of the nineteenth century, China faced imperialism on all fronts from western powers and began to resist these forces nationwide. In the province of Shantung, people were known for their strong independence who protested to the involvement of German engineering and missionaries in their lives. The Fists of Righteous Harmony was one secret organization in the province of Shantung that supported the resistance that the government was initiating throughout the nation. They eventually received the name “boxers” from foreigners for their style of fighting. This organization had been repressed by an imperial decree in 1909 and returned on the scene at the end of the nineteenth century for their new resistance cause. The boxers not only opposed the work of both Christian and Protestant missionaries, but ostracized and eventually terrorized those who had converted.
There were two groups that were influential to the development of the boxer movement: The Spirit Boxers and the Big Sword Society. The Big Sword Society became prominent in 1895 in Southwestern Shantung which was not politically stable at the time. “[I]n the initial phase of its development, the organization’s sole purpose was to protect people’s lives and property” (Cohen 17). Though there was some attempt by the government to disband the society, they were not completely considered a threat as long as their primary goal remained the same: to protect families. Soon, however, the members of the Big Sword society began a campaign against Christian communities. In 1896 a series of attacks erupted on the Christian communities the Big Swords, though some scholars contend that they were not directly related to anti-Catholic sentiments. Because the society went from being protectors of civilization to instigators of assault, the local authorities took action against their leaders and for the most part, the influence of the Big Sword Society was over. Unlike the Big Sword Society, people involved in the Spirit Boxers, which developed in the mid-1890’s were of a poor peasant background. “Their rituals, which included bowing or performing the koutou in a southeasterly direction, chanting spells, swallowing charms, and, most important, calling upon the gods to possess them were precisely the rituals soon to be practiced by the boxers United in Righteousness during their expansionist phase” (Cohen 30).
The movement of the boxers spread extremely rapidly. They appealed to people wanting to join a secret society for many reasons. “They guaranteed the invulnerability of their followers to the foreign devils’ weapons. And they promised a tremendous victory of the forces which had been oppressing them…” (O’Connor 14). So, it would be easy for boxers to gain support because they claimed to be impenetrable by foreign weapons, to have magical powers, including the power to fly for some and they guaranteed victory. Further, the boxers claimed to have the support of “spirit soldiers,” or soldiers who would come to the aid of soldiers in a time of need. Another reason that they appealed to the Chinese public was that they told propaganda stories about the terror that occurred inside Christian orphanages towards Chinese children and that Chinese women would be raped in Christian churches. For such a proud nation, like China, these two claims would be utterly unimaginable and the highest forms of disrespect. Many scholars have written that the expansion of the Boxer movement was helped by the Northern China drought that occurred in 1898 and 1899. “It created a sizable population of young makes who, idled by the lack of farm work, were bored and had a surplus of free time on their hands” (Cohen 34). Paul Cohen, author of History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, goes on to point out that the Boxers often had surplus supplies of food and as the drought continued, this was influential in encouraging many others to join the cause.

Works Cited


Cohen, Paul A. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Events, Experience, and Myth. New York,
NY: Columbia UP, 1997.

Esherick, Joseph W. The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. Los Angeles, CA: University of
California P, 1987.

O'Connor, Richard. The Spirit Soldiers. New York, NY: G.P Putnam Sons, 1973.

Preston, Diana. The Boxer Rebellion. New York, NY: Walker and Company, 2000.

Price, Eva J. China Journal: An American Missionary Family During the Boxer Rebellion. New
York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989.