A Girl Who Lived with Monkeys
No text can be read in isolation. Each is connected to other works through a network of invisible threads. These are the product of suggestion, desire, memory and meaning.
The job of a historian is to tell us what happened. Often such stories are resolved through chains of causality. Yet when we come to questions of interpretation, the significance that something held for an audience, we are faced with entire fields of meaning that emerge from these more complex webs of association. As such, there is a very strong tendency to make our understanding of new events conform to a socially significant preexisting pattern.
Nor is this characteristic of human thought something that is confined to the remote past. Recently it was reported that a young girl had been discovered deep in a forest in India. After being spotted by travelers a police officer was sent to collect the girl. She was found living with a group of monkeys who had raised her. She could not talk or walk on two legs. Her nails had grown long and claw like. When the police officer grabbed her, the girl’s simian family screamed and chased his car down the road. The press quickly dubbed her “girl Mowgli” after another animal raised child made famous by Rudyard Kipling and Walt Disney.
Very little of this story was actually true. There was a girl, and there was a police officer, but that was about the extent of it. In reality an abandoned child was found sleeping by the side of the road in a part of the jungle that did contain monkeys, but also enough traffic to make it highly unlikely that the girl had been in the area for very long. Rather than having been “raised by monkeys” the girl suffered from some sort of developmental disability, which was likely the reason that she had been abandoned by her parents and left to die. The last article I read suggested that girl’s condition was starting to improve, but I doubt that this story will ever supplant the first one in the public imagination. It was the very fact that she seemed to fit an archetypal myth of a human being raised in a “state of nature” that gave her plight meaning. It was impossible to hear about a child found among monkeys and not read these events in terms of the preexisting folklore. If that was not the way her life happened, perhaps it should have.
The Boxer Uprising has a very similar quality to it. As these events unfolded there was a very strong tendency to read them in terms of other dominant patterns in Western thought and history. Perhaps the strongest and most defined parallels were drawn with British colonialism in India and the Sepoy Mutiny. Period journals and letters inform us that foreigners living in the legation were acutely aware of these parallels. The weight of history informed their decision not to accept the Chinese government’s offer of safe passage to the coast as a similar offer in India had resulted in a massacre. This degree of self-conscious identification with the events of the Sepoy Mutiny as a means of making legible the unfolding crisis has been explored by Robert Bickers in the Introduction to Bickers and Tiedmann’s edited volume, The Boxers, China and the World (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).
A similar pattern emerged in popular literature, especially mass market novels aimed at boys. In China and the Victorian Imagination (Cambridge UP, 2013) Ross G. Forman asks what these tales of the Boxer Uprising suggest about China’s role in turn of the century popular culture. One of the most striking elements of his discussion is how quickly these stories began to be produced. Indeed, they could come to market with such speed only because authors and publishers took preexisting tales of adolescent adventure set in India or South Africa, and transposed them directly to a Chinese context. While certain elements of the Chinese landscape were introduced, at heart these stories remained a vehicle for exploring and promoting the logic of empire.
When reviewing the primary sources surrounding the Boxer Uprising it is vitally important to remember that newspaper readers in June or July of 1900 did not know how these events would end. Lacking the foreknowledge that we bring to the event, period actors and the wider public attempted to make sense of these events through the geo-political lens of their day. These had been shaped by events in South Africa, the Philippines, and most importantly, India.
Yet there was another source that readers drew from. That was the popular image of Chinese martial artists that had developed over the course of the 19th century. It was the image of Chinese sword dancers, gymnasts, boxers and secret society members, inherited from countless newspaper and magazine articles which shaped the image of the turn of the century “Boxers” in the public imagination. Again, additional information was processed in light of one’s existing understanding.
Who Are the Boxers?
Nowhere is this more evident than in the way that Boxers were discussed in period media accounts. As I reviewed the New York Time’s coverage of these events during the summer of 1900 I noticed that name “Boxers” always appeared in quotes. The editorial board of the times knew the proper Chinese name of the group. They had even published imperial edicts commenting on Boxers, as well as translated copies of Boxer posters and placards. Experts on Chinese culture had been interviewed. They were not “boxers” due to a lack of knowledge. This was the product of an editorial decision.
Yet the dutiful reliance on scare quotes suggests a level of discomfort with this moniker. These were not the sorts of boxers that Western sportsmen would be most familiar with. Nor, truth be told, were they identical to the types of Chinese boxers who had occasionally made appearances in the pages of English speaking newspapers and missionary journals throughout the 19th century. While those individuals might entertain (or disappoint) with their sword dances and gymnastic contortions, no one had viewed them as particularly dangerous. And yet they were a ready-made image. Their shared interest in martial practices made the Yi Hi Society more like China’s other boxers than anything else in the West’s lexicon.
Given the importance of the Boxer Uprising as a media event, one would think that the very first thing that newspapers would have been forced to do was to define and describe these “Boxers” for their readers. That was not the case. In looking at the early reports of violence that began to emerge in the spring of 1900 the “Chinese Boxer” construction is clearly present. Yet no effort is made to expand upon what a boxer might be.
Given that the full scope of the crisis was not yet clear, updates in May and early June tended to be small news items. There was likely an expectation that the only people who would find them interesting would be individuals who already followed Chinese events and culture. Such individuals (as I have argued in other places) didn’t need a basic discussion of Chinese Boxing. That had become more or less common knowledge.
All of this changed as Boxers entered Beijing and the scale of the violence escalated in June and July of 1900. Suddenly the crisis in China was front page material. All readers began to take an active interest in these events, which, even if one was not concerned with China, were seen to have critical geo-political ramifications. It was only in June and July, as the violence escalated, that articles began to appear attempting to explain who the Boxers were and to describe their unique modes of violence.
Perhaps the most important examples of these discussions can be found in the weekly and monthly magazines of the period. These publications offered readers a more detailed and sustained discussion of the events of the day. And if that was not sufficient to entice them, they also published lavish illustrations, engravings and photographs which promised readers a glimpse into the reality of world events.
Readers hoping to get a glimpse of the boxers would certainly have been disappointed by what they found. The Boer War in South Africa had exhausted the art department of most of these magazines. Given how few professional artists were located in the Beijing area, most magazines made due with stock photos relabeled in ominous, and sometimes outrageous, ways.
Perhaps my favorite example of this is the June 9th edition of the The Sphere. In it we find a photograph of a supposed “Boxer.” Only the picture shows nothing of the sort. Rather it’s an image of a random man walking down a flooded street carrying an umbrella. Given the role of persistent drought in setting the stage for the Boxer Uprising, one suspects that the picture in question was not particularly recent. Another photo from the same article purports to show a boxer exercise ground. Yet the scene looks suspiciously like a city street, and the presence of a European gentleman walking through the frame (complete with one of the 19th centuries finest beards) makes one doubt the competence of these supposed “Boxers.”
Such visual enthusiasm notwithstanding, these articles did a somewhat better job of introducing readers to the suddenly globally important Boxer movement. This was accomplished by introducing the group, describing its origins and training methods, and then theorizing about its possible motivations and place in the large scheme of things. Consider, for instance, the following excerpt taken from the previously mentioned article in The Sphere.
The Sphere. June 9th, 1900, p. 619
THE CRISIS IN CHINA—The “Boxers,” and who they are. by Alfred Edmonds
A society with so militant a title as the “Righteous Harmony Fists” could hardly be expected to be other than belligerent in its character. This is the society which has caused so much perturbation in the foreign settlements in North China during the past week. The jocular students of the legations have converted the high sounding designations which the Chinese gave the rebels into the more blunt and expressive of “Boxers.”
The movement had its origins some years ago in Shantung, the province in which Germany has secured so firm a foothold, and its aims were to drive everything of foreign origin out of the country. The society quickly spread to the neighboring province of Pechili, where it found fruitful soil in the Manchu or northern portion of Pekin, the capital of the empire. Here, under the guise of indulging in gymnastic exercises, such as throwing of stones and shooting with bows and arrows, it scattered the seeds of an anti-foreign agitation which had its first serious outbreak in 1898, when the Legations had to be guarded by troops sent up from Taku.
Foiled in their attempts to frighten the foreigners from the city, they redoubled their efforts at organization, and the society soon had ramification throughout the whole of the metropolitan province. The reactionary policy adopted by the wily Dowager-Empress has tended to foster rather than discourage the movement, and unless prompt and vigorous action is taken by the Powers much mischief may be done.
It goes without saying that the term “Boxing” predated the effort of any translation students involved in the siege of the foreign Legation. Yet this article demonstrates that the group’s real name was well known to at least some Western readers by June, and the term “Boxer” was adopted a conscious shorthand.
This article is interesting in that it describes archery as one of the major boxing activities, though most contemporary accounts instead emphasize sword and unarmed forms. It is also important to note that rather than being the new phenomenon the Boxers are here seen as being “some years old.” In strictly historical terms, this is not correct. Eshrick has detailed the forces and timeline behind the rise of the Yi Hi Boxers. While this region of China had a rich tradition of banditry and disorder, this particular movement was actually both innovative and new. Yet as we will see in the following accounts, there was a strong tendency to see the Boxers as a much older movement that only recently emerged as a threat. Consider the following treatment from the Harpers Weekly.
Harpers Weekly, June 16th 1900, p. 556
“The Boxers” By Isaac Taylor Headland, Professor in Peking University
The present condition of affairs in China is the logical outcome of conditions which began more than a year ago. The provinces of Shantung and Honan have always been the centre not only of learning and of great men (Confucius and Menicus have been born there), but also of secret societies, and consequently of such uprisings as that which is at present disturbing China, and especially Peking.
The society called Boxers originated many years ago and is of a twofold or perhaps manifold character. It is a partly athletic, and partly moral and religious. As an athletic association it goes under the name of the Big Knife Society (Ta Tao Hui), and as a moral or religious society under the name of Righteous and Peaceful Fist. It is organized for the most part in the rural and village districts, and, it is said by the officials, is for the mutual help and protection of the country people—help in times of famine, and protection from their enemies, and in case of necessity against oppression of avaricious officials.
During the governorship of Yu Hsien there was constant trouble arising from thieves and robbers, who were made such by the famine caused by the annual overflow of the Yellow River. This society was organized in its present form with the consent and protection of the Governor, and, it is said, with his own son as a member. The Governor gave them swords and constituted them a sort of rural police, who were to protect the people against famine brigands….
About one year ago the Society of Boxers transformed themselves from keepers of the peace to a band of marauders, robbing, murdering, pillaging, and looting all of the Christian villages in Shantung….
Isaac Headland was both a missionary and college professor living in Beijing. Again, I have included only the most relevant section of his article here, but the whole thing is worth reading. While much of the missionary community was in a state of panic by June, Headland was unusually calm. His explanation of the sudden uproar over the Boxers noted that it could not be explained by secret societies, xenophobia or drought. These things were constants in China, and the Boxer panic in the foreign community was new. He attributed the uproar to the arrival of a Times correspondent in the capital rather than novel events on the ground. In short, he goes on to argue that the initial reports of the Boxer Uprising are overblown and “fake news” (to use a modern phrase).
Headland turned out to be wrong on many accounts. Six days before this article was finally published the telegraph cables connecting Beijing to the outside world were cut. The situation in the Foreign Legation had become tense, and the Japanese Chancellor had just been murdered. Only a day after Headland’s assurances reached the public, the bombardment of the Taku Forts by the combined allied fleet would commence.
The accuracy of his description of the Boxers is also mixed. Rather than identifying them as a new and fundamentally destabilizing presence in local politics, he too argues that they are one of the regions secret societies that had been present for many years. Headland reveals a bit of his thinking on this when he notes that secret societies tend to have an outer and inner aspect. In this case the outer/athletic group is the “Big Sword Society,” and the inner group (which no one in Beijing had heard of before) was the “Yi Hi Society.”
Eshrick investigated the connection between the Big Sword Society and the Yi Hi Boxers at some length and concluded that ultimately theories like Headland’s are wrong. The Big Sword Society was a local militia organized by rich landholders. While it also practiced invulnerability rights and feuded with local Christians, it was a much more conservative force in local society.
The Yi Hi Boxers, in contrast, emerged later and tended to spread in a rhizomic and leaderless fashion among displaced and out of work peasants. While the memory of the Big Sword Society may have inspired members of the later group, that organization had been put down by the Chinese government prior to the eruption of the Boxer crisis. Still, the superficial resemblance between these two groups might help to explain why so many commentators mistook a disruptive new actor for yet another manifestation of a “timeless tradition.” Ultimately such confusion would prove costly. But it is another example of how prior knowledge about Chinese martial artists conditioned the Western understanding of the Boxers.
It is also interesting to note the fuller development of an idea that was only hinted at in the Sphere. Namely, any group as successful and as deeply entrenched as the Boxers could not be a mere popular movement. It could only succeed with elite backing. Rather than being a peasant revolt, the Boxers, like all good secret societies, were a bit more like a conspiracy. The note about the provincial governor providing arms to the group advances this narrative. Yet it will find a fuller expression in our next article.
The National Geographic Magazine, July 1900, p. 281
The Chinese “Boxers” by Llewellyn James Davies
The society or league which is now turning China upside down and forcing the attention of the whole world is known by various names. The most commonly seen in the American papers is the “Boxers” or “Spirit Boxers.” The origin of this name is to be found in the gymnastic exercise which constitute the drill of the society and in the mysterious incantations used. In the Shan-tung Province the society is commonly called the “Ta Tao Hui,” or “Great Sword Society.” This is one of the names used by the society itself, and is a general name. On the cards and posters issued by the society other names occur, which I understand to be of local use.
The “Boxer” society is one of the many secret societies of China, and, as is usual with such societies, has both a political and a religious significance. It is said to be of ancient origin. One Chinese tells me that it had its origins in the opposition to the “Manchu dynasty”, which has ruled China for the past two hundred and fifty years.
Whatever may have been its past history, the society has now collected its forces against the foreigners within the Chinese Empire. It has been preparing for this present outbreak for several years. About three and a half years ago I learned from Chinese friends that such a society was organized, and that it was growing rapidly. Its anti-foreign purpose was known distinctly from that time. It was said to be spreading from south to north….
In organizing this movement the leaders established at convenient centers what were called “ying,” or “encampments.” The members of the society living in the neighborhood met to drill and recite their incantations at these places, and here new members were initiated. Each encampment had, of course, a leader who was responsible to the higher officers. A card sent to each of these encampments, naming the place of the proposed attack and stating the number of men required from each, called out a party of such size as the leader enjoyed….
They have confidently stated that those properly initiated into the mysteries of the cult, and whose “Kung Fu” or exercise of its rules was perfect, would by virtue of this practice become invulnerable, and thus be protected against all bullets or knives. This was not left to future tests entirely. Several intelligent Chinese have told me that they had themselves seen advanced members of the society strike different parts of their bodies with sharp knives and swords with no more effect upon the skin than is produced by wind. The members of the society believe that the claim is well founded. No difficulty is found in explaining the death of society members in battle. In one instance, occurring early last fall, 30 or 40 miles from Tsi-nan-fu, 10 or 12 “Boxers” were killed by Catholics whom they had attacked. It was then discovered that on the evening before or on the morning of the battle these men had broken the rules of the society by eating certain proscribed articles of food. In this way their deaths but strengthened the faith of those remaining.
It was proposed at first to use no firearms in the extermination of foreigners, but to trust to the sword alone. Great reliance was placed on certain callisthenic exercises and posturings which were expected to hypnotize or terrify the enemy.
Given the nature and mission of the National Geographic, one can assume that this was a source American readers looked to for detailed answers. Once again, the magazine turned to a member of the missionary community for their regional expertise.
This is one of the more detailed early descriptions of the Boxers, and it contains many interesting points. Attentive readers may have noticed the use of the term “Kung Fu” in reference to the diligence with which a Boxer took to his exercises and maintained the group’s many taboos. The role of these taboos in building the faith of new members in the invulnerability rites is also explored in some detail.
Yet any descriptive progress that is made is quickly lost when the author turns to speculation on the group’s origins. The memory of the late “Big Sword Society” is again invoked. Yet in a fascinating twist we are also informed that this was an old society that was originally dedicated to the overthrow, rather than the defense, of the Qing. The author goes on to relate that this group does not have its origins on Northern China’s drought afflicted plains. Rather, his informants tell him that the group originated in southern China.
One suspects that these informants had no knowledge of what was going on in China as this is incorrect. Instead they were simply describing the sorts of secret societies (all tied to the myth of the burning of the Shaolin temple) that were common in Guangdong and Fujian provinces. Indeed, such societies had even managed to plant seeds in the new world, and were occasionally discussed in magazines like the Harpers Weekly. Period readers who followed China would have been familiar with them.
A few common threads runs through all of these articles and sheds important light on how the martial arts (and Chinese social violence more generally) were imagined in America at the turn of the century. Rather than accepting the fundamentally new and disruptive nature of the Boxer Uprising, in the popular imagination it was seen as simply the latest incarnation of something very ancient. It quickly became just one more element of the type of “secret societies,” “superstitions” and “boxing” that had been a part of popular conscious for decades.
This reading of the situation leads to a paradox. If the fundamental impulses and organizations were ancient, why did the crisis erupt only recently? Rather than accepting the Boxers as a genuine popular (or even proto-national) movement ,Western readers tended to look to geo-political machinations for their answers. In a few cases the Russians were blamed for inspiring the uprising. Yet most commentators perceived instead a carefully planned ploy by the Dowager Empress to remove all foreign influence from China. While the court did, after much debate, support the Boxer cause, this was certainly not a conspiracy that had been years in the making. The alliance between the Boxers and China’s political elites in the summer of 1900 was much more opportunistic and fragile than that.
This intrusion of geopolitical logic into the Boxer crisis serves to bring our attention back to this essay’s main argument. It was difficult for both elites and the reading public to make sense of the Boxer Rebellion in large part because they did not perceive the rapidly unfolding events clearly. The ghosts of India, South Africa and the Philippines haunted their efforts. It was precisely these parallels (whether real or imagined) that allowed the crisis in China to be integrated into the preexisting mental map of imperialism. All of this is important to remember when thinking about the meaning of these events in popular culture.
Yet we too frequently forget the importance of China’s recent past in shaping this narrative. Authors were just as able to draw parallels with events of the Opium Wars as they were the Sepoy Mutiny. Further, the West’s image of both Chinese boxing and secret societies, topics explored in newspapers and magazines throughout the 19th century, had perhaps the largest impact in shaping how the Yi Hi Boxers were imagined. In the early phases of the crisis the nature of Chinese boxing was so taken for granted that explanations were thought to be unnecessary. The language adopted in the more explicit treatments of the subjects that arose in the summer of 1900 again reinforced, rather than undercut, these mental models.
The result was the creation of a paradox, one in which the Boxers were at the same time ancient and a new disruptive force. Students of martial arts studies might note the irony that more than a century later we still debate whether the latest incarnation of the Chinese martial arts are fundamentally timeless or something much more modern. Some debates, it seems, are just too interesting to let go.
Are you interested in delving further into the martial arts of the Boxer Uprising Period? If so see: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (13): Zhao San-duo—19th Century Plum Flower Master and Reluctant Rebel