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Chinese Martial Studies, Images of Chinese Martial Arts

Through a Lens Darkly (2): Images of the Boxer Uprising

One of my projects for the next couple of weeks is to revise a conference paper I wrote a few years ago and submit it to a journal.  I have been meaning to get to this one for a while but book manuscript stuff keeps taking priority.  Outside of Chinese martial studies I am interested in international relation, domestic institutions and religion.  As such I decided to write a paper looking at how religious groups generate “social capital” (basically reciprocal bonds of trust within a community) and when that social capital impedes or speeds up cycles of violence.

My case study for this paper was the Boxer Uprising (1899-1900).  Its a great case to look at as you see lots of different religious groups having all sorts of effects on the course of the crises.  My final conclusion was that in certain circumstances religion would have a stabilizing effect on the community, and at other times it was in danger of being captured by radicals.  What matters most is actually not a group’s religious institutions or beliefs per se, but instead the broader social and political institutions that a religious community is embedded in.  In other words, how you regulate your religious marketplace determines how it will function.  The Qing government, following traditional but outmoded political models of the state and its role in Chinese society, regulated their market for religion very, very, badly.  Of course when one looks at the broader pattern of religiously inspired uprisings and revolutions that literally consumed the 19th century Chinese state (White Lotus, Eight Trigrams, the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Uprising–just to name the most prominent examples) this probably shouldn’t come as a great surprise.

All of this has me thinking about the Boxer Uprising again, so I decided to share some images from that conflict.  Contrary to the more commonly ascribed “rebellion” title, the Boxers actually had no problem with their own government.  As a matter of fact this was a pro-government uprising (see Esherick 1987 for an extensive discussion of this distinction).  The Boxers themselves were for the most part impoverished peasants from the countryside.  The movement began with martial arts societies and local militias in the poorer areas of Shandong but it quickly spread beyond that base and became a broader social moment in the rural parts of northern China.  These individuals lashed out at both foreign and Christian interests (which were often the same thing–at least in rural Shandong), eventually marching on big cities like the capital and Tianjin to both support the government and besiege the foreign communities of missionaries and businessmen.

The first image is one half of a stereograph that I found at a local antique store.  Unfortunately the card has curved and warped with age.  This makes it difficult to scan.  I need to take it to a photographic restoration house in Rochester and see if I can get it conserved.  The ostensible subject of the card is the “Boxers of Tientsin” (pinyin Tianjin).  The Battle of Tianjin was a critical moment in the military history of the Boxer Uprising.  It was in the early phases of this battle (around July 17-18, 1900) that the Imperial court decided to back the Boxers and attack the foreign armies (and civilian communities) after a period of wavering.  This decision had a huge impact on the subsequent history of modern China, and the Chinese martial arts.

The battle was also interesting because of its complexity.  Tainjin was an old city that grew up over time.  As such it had a well-defended central administrative area (surrounded by walls 20 feet high, 16 feet thick).  Yet it also had flat open areas down by the river.  This is where the foreign residences were.  The western armies arrived on July 16th to find them already besieged by Boxers from the countryside.  While the western armies had no trouble defeating the poorly fed and armed Boxers, they fared much more poorly against the well-armed soldiers of the Chinese Imperial Army in the wall city.  While the Boxers fought with swords and spears, the Imperial army had a large supply of modern Mauser rifles, ammunition and machine guns.  In fact, the west may never have taken the city at all if not for the heroic (and suicidal) efforts of the Japanese Army to mine and destroy the south gate.

In all the western armies suffered over 1000 casualties in the Battle of Tianjin.  The exact number of Chinese casualties is unknown but it was probably much higher.  What is known is that a disturbingly large number of them were civilians killed by the occupying western armies (and in particular the Germans and Austrians) after the battle had actually ended.

What should be obvious from the picture above is that the gentlemen in the foreground are probably not Boxer (at least not in the political or social sense).  It seems that in the media’s rush to get images of the turn of the century conflict anyone of Chinese origin could simply be called a “Boxer” and western public would believe it.  The presence of what appear to be individuals in western military uniform in the background of the photo is evidence that this photo must have been taken after the battle was ended and order was restored.  Given the uniform weapons and clothing I would guess that this is some sort of newly assembled city defense militia or police force.

The firearms they are carrying are especially interesting.  Some of the Boxers did have old black powder rifles.  However, these guns are much too large to have been held by a single individual, especially given the age and health of the individuals in the photo.  Instead these were designed to be mounted on the walls of the city, where they functioned as essentially small artillery pieces.  If you look carefully at the base of the barrel you can see that they use a cap, rather than a flint-lock, ignition system indicating that they were probably made sometime between the Taiping Rebellion and the 1880s.  Of course everyone in the west just “knew” that the Boxers were armed with primitive and obsolete weapons, so the shot served the photographer’s purpose.  Lots of copies of this card were sold and it must have been a popular subject.  I have a run across 2-3 copies of it myself.

To me the most striking element of this stereograph is its unrelenting humanity.  The subjects of the photograph make no effort to hide their sheer exhaustion and humiliation.  It is a stark reminder of how awful the Battle of Tianjin must have been, even for its survivors.  Its also one of the more exploitative pieces of photojournalism that I have seen from a time and place when that was simply good commercial practice.

One of the most iconic images of the Boxer Uprising. This photograph was taken for the turn of the century wire news media.

The second photograph will likely be familiar to many of my readers.  I have not had any luck in hunting down the exact details of where this image was actually taken.  The search is ongoing.  What I do know is that this was used as a news wire photo in 1900 and it was subsequently picked up by multiple news agencies.

The individual in the photograph is evidently a serious martial artist.  Woven shields like the one in front of him were very dense, and no one carried one of those around for fun.  His is all the more interesting because of its large radius.  The pole weapon at his side is also noteworthy.  The blade is narrower in depth than many of the ones used by Chinese martial artists today, but it looks very effective.  The pole is longer and heavier than the shorter, more maneuverable weapons seen in the modern era.  Evidently the blade is mounted with a tang, rather a socket.  A weapon of this length and heft would actually have a number of advantages on the battlefield, though it would likely prove unpopular in a modern training hall or school.  Compared to the photos that one occasionally sees of market place martial artists with their thin oxtail daos and flexible spears, its clear that this guy means business and is armed accordingly.

The man is also well dressed in warm, new clothing and he wears a hat (perhaps with tiger decorations).  Given that most of the action of the Boxer Uprising happened in the summer of 1900 it seems unlikely that he is an actual combatant.  The fact that he posing for, rather than attacking, the foreign news photographer would also seem to indicate that this individual may not have been as directly involved in the Boxer Uprising as the caption usually implies.  The banner is quite interesting.  It is usually translated as: “By Imperial Order – Boxer Supply Commissariat” indicating that it was probably produced after the middle of July 1900.

I wondered whether this individual was not a local martial artist or member of an armed escort company that was payed to pose as a “Boxer” by a foreign photographer looking for a good shot.  While an iconic image there is a lot about it that just doesn’t seem right.  But whatever its origins, it remains an important visual record of the civilian Chinese martial artist circa 1900.

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