Jasper Emperor against the West

Witnesses of the Ihethuan uprising were wrong: Buddhist monks did not slaughter Christian babies

Soon, these teenagers, silently watching the embassy escort of the “overseas demons”, will chant: “Tear the electrical wires / Rip out the telegraph poles / Break the locomotives / Destroy the steamers / The slain devils will go to the ground / The slain devils will go to the next world.” Photo: Underwood & Underwood

Wrath of the gods

In 1897, in the north-east of China, Shandong and Zhili provinces, there was a terrible drought. The fields are dry. Hunger set in. More than two million peasants died. The next year, breaking through the dilapidated dams, and crushing everything in its path, the Yellow River spilled. Almost all villages in the northeastern provinces were razed to the ground. Three million people died. The people were in despair of their own impotence. He knew: Heaven is angry with him because he tolerates the damned Europeans who despise their gods and do not respect the spirits of their ancestors. But what could the peasant oppose to rifles and machine guns?

By the end of the 19th century, China’s position had indeed become unenviable. The country has actually turned into a semi-colony divided into zones of influence between England, France, Germany, Russia and Japan. The division of China into the spheres of interests of the great powers meant not only political and economic changes in the life of the Middle Kingdom, but also social ones.

The inhabitants of Shandong province, perhaps more than anyone else, felt the consequences of the new order. German engineers worked here, who built railways, telegraph lines and steamships faster and more than others, transporting manufactured goods along the Grand Canal to the capital. The Europeans did not stand on ceremony with those whom they considered primitive barbarians: road routes indiscriminately destroyed fields, cemeteries and villages. The consequences of such a rapid modernization immediately made themselves felt. Boatmen, carters, porters and innkeepers lost their jobs. There were more than a million of them.

Some Christian missionaries did not stand on ceremony either, who launched a stormy activity in Shandong and Zhili. By 1895, 1,300 Christian churches were built here. 180 thousand Chinese were baptized. Of course, most of the missionaries were sincere enthusiasts. They built schools and hospitals in Chinese villages, and collected donations to support the poor and homeless children. But there were quite a few of those in whom there was more adventurism than faith. They were doing good business. Under the guise of a place for building temples, they took land from the communities, which they rented out to rich peasants. It was not difficult: military representatives at the court of Empress Cixi (1835-1908) could always put pressure on the Chinese government, which ordered local officials to do the will of the Europeans.

The family of a Christian pastor hiding from the Ichtuan. The first Christians to reach China were the Nestorians. Fleeing from religious persecution in Byzantium, they appeared here, most likely, during the reign of the Tang dynasty (VII-X centuries). The Nestorians believed that Christ was originally not a god, but a man. He became a deity later, thanks to his righteous life. This meant that anyone can become a god. This interpretation was close to the Chinese: after all, Buddha also became enlightened by his own powers. Photo: Underwood & Underwood from the Library of Congress Archives

Those of the Chinese who were more polite and poorer loved to make friends with resourceful missionaries: with their help, they could win lawsuits and not pay taxes. The Chinese were simply afraid of such people. In the 1960s, peasants, recalling the events of the early twentieth century, said that seeing such people from afar, they preferred to hide in time. In conversations with them, you had to keep your ears open and watch what you say. The old men had to give way to them – they did not even dare to lean on a stick in the presence of insolent people.

This emphasized oppression of elders ran counter to all the norms of Confucian morality. Some Christian priests were eager for local girls. Preserved and stories about how the unfortunate, getting pregnant from them and not being able to endure the shame, committed suicide. It was even said that some had whole harems of three or four concubines. On the basis of these stories, which make part of the Chinese both fear and hate Christians at the same time, completely unthinkable legends began to be born.

They said they had a red stupefying potion, with which they steal children and sell them to local witches. They were also suspected of poisoning wells and causing damage to people and livestock. Burials of babies were allegedly found near Christian churches. They thought that these were children from the relationship of Christians and witches, whom mothers killed immediately after birth.

The Ihetuani enter Beijing. This is how Boris Evreinov described the night assault on the embassy quarter in his diary: “It was as bright as day, both from the shots and from the mass of sparks emitted by bullets when they hit the stones. Bullets whistle overhead, repeatedly hitting the roof and showering us with shrapnel and dust. But now the shots become more frequent, merge into one continuous chatter, and shouts are heard from all sides: “Sha! sha! ” (“Kill! Kill!”). It is the Chinese who are going to attack. And the darker the night, the stronger the firing. ” Photo: Whiting View Company from the Library of Congress Archives

And in the midst of all these calamities sent to the peasants of the northern provinces of China, strange people suddenly began to appear in the villages. They wore quilted jackets, tied with a red sash, behind which they plugged a large knife.

The bandage on their head was also red, and some of them had red pants. Who they were and where they came from – no one knew. They called themselves ihetuans – “detachments of justice and peace.” This is in hindsight, when the uprising was suppressed, the Chinese officials established that the Ihetuan society originated at the beginning of the 19th century. It spun off from the secret society “Bailai Jiao” (Society of “White Lotus”), whose goal was to overthrow the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty, which came to power in China in 1644. But by the end of the 19th century, the ideology of society was transformed, the task of protecting traditional Confucian ethical norms came to the fore, punishing bribe officials and those who showed insufficient attention to elders and ancestral spirits.

Invulnerable high

What the ihetuani said fell on fertile soil. In their leaflets, they wrote: Heaven justly sends its punishments – after all, Europeans lay roads and transmission lines wherever they please, violating all the requirements of feng shui, disturbing and annoying the spirits of the earth. Moreover, Christian missionaries disaccustom the Chinese to worship the gods of natural elements and ancestors. In general, the world order has lost its balance. The conclusion was obvious: destroy the railways, rip out the telegraph poles, flood the steamers, kill the crafty missionaries and drive the western barbarians out of the empire.

The peasants themselves thought so, but they had neither the courage nor the means to go against the citizens of the great powers. Ihetuani gave them both. The fact is that they were fluent in Wushu. While practicing wushu, they not only mastered the techniques of hand-to-hand combat, not only learned to concentrate their will and believe in themselves, but also mastered meditative practices. To enter into a trance, they often used special substances that were placed in incense burners in the training rooms. The Ihetuani were sure that, having entered a trance, they become invulnerable to bullets and projectiles. There was no end to those wishing to get magical abilities. It was precisely because of the practice of wushu that the Europeans called the ihetuan “boxers” (in the western encyclopedias, the uprising of the ihetuan is just mentioned as “the boxer uprising”).

The main gate of the Shaolin monastery. Shaolin was founded in 495 by the Buddhist monk Bhadra, who came from India. In 620, 13 Shaolin monks helped Emperor Li Shimin of the Tang Dynasty to hold onto power. As a reward, the monastery received the right to have a monastic army. In 1928, during the civil war in China, Shaolin burned down. It was restored only in 1970. Photo (Creative Commons license): KongFu Wang

For the representatives of Western civilization, the meditative practice of ihetuania seemed to be a jumble of ridiculous movements. For example, professor-sinologist Dmitry Pozdneev (1865-1942) described their wushu lessons as follows: “10 boxers gathered in the barn, inscriptions were hung on the walls of the barn, apparently, the names of deities or spirits to which the boxers were addressing … On the table in front of the inscriptions lay a long knife and vessels with fragrances and incense, like Buddhists …

First, all the Ichuans stretched out to the southeast, where their spirit dwells, then jumped up, and the chief of them began strange gesticulations and jumping. Others imitated him. Then the first one grabbed a knife and began to twirl it rapidly in the air; no one else had knives, and they remained witnesses of his movements, only making terrible faces that terrify the audience … After half an hour of exercise, the senior boxer stopped in a daze, showing, as it was later explained to the audience, that he had reached a degree of invulnerability from weapons. ”

Three in one

It is from such descriptions of “smoking like that of Buddhists” or similar ones, which were present in almost all the memories of Europeans about those events, and the myth of Buddhist monks who led the people’s wars in China was woven.

The fact is that at that time representatives of Western civilization had a rather poor idea of ​​the essence of Chinese religiosity. And it consisted in the fact that the inhabitants of the Celestial Empire simultaneously professed three teachings: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. And each of them had its own scope. For example, the New Year was celebrated according to Taoist customs, and buried according to Buddhist customs.

Moral norms were governed by the teachings of Confucius. Therefore, the fact that the ihetuan had Buddhist ritual objects does not at all mean that they were Buddhists in the classical sense of the word. Yes, at that time the Europeans could not discern anything other than Buddhist elements in the Iketuan rites: Confucianism and, in particular, Taoism were little known to them. The reason why the ihetuanians were recorded not only as Buddhists, but also as monks, is very simple. The Chinese peasants called all those who worked miracles as monks. And the Europeans did not specify the meaning of this word.

Icon of the Cathedral of the Holy Chinese Martyrs. During the Ihetuan uprising, about a thousand Orthodox Chinese lived in Beijing. Almost all of them were killed by the rebels. Two hundred twenty-two of them, who did not renounce Christ even under torture, were canonized in 1903. Their memory takes place on June 24.

The second source of “Buddhist delusion” is the ichtuan charter. The call to honor Buddha and follow his laws is often repeated there. But in fact, this is nothing more than the traditional Chinese formula for taking any oath.

Frame without painting. Here is an excerpt from the charter: “Ihetuani, fulfilling the will of heaven and honoring Buddhism, kill foreigners and exterminate local Christians in order to protect the state and establish peace for respectable people.” How can you imagine in this role a Buddhist monk who sweeps the road in front of him so as not to accidentally crush a beetle or a caterpillar?

In general, be that as it may, the Europeans were confident that the uprising was led by Buddhist monks. And when in the West in the second half of the 1970s another boom in everything Buddhist began, the story of the Ihetuan uprising (like the Buddhist uprising) surfaced and gave the plot to several films, such as “The Shaolin Temple Wars” or “The Invincible Pole Fighter.” They just embodied the myth of the indestructible Buddhist warrior monk, ready to dismiss his fists for any reason. Why was the Shaolin Monastery chosen? It was simply the most famous Buddhist abode (out of five), where monks were trained in martial arts, which, by the way, could only be used in the defense of the monastery.

In fact, the ihetuani were Taoists (more precisely, radical Taoists, for whom practice was more important than contemplation). Classical Taoism is quite different from classical Buddhism. For a Buddhist, the main thing is to get rid of all attachments in this world as quickly as possible, suppress all desires in oneself and achieve nirvana – a state of unconscious tranquility.

The Taoists, on the other hand, valued life very much and were always looking for the elixir of immortality. Life in heaven from life on earth for them differed only in that gods and spirits have greater abilities in comparison with people. The Taoists did not honor Buddha, but Yu-di – the Jasper sovereign of all 36 Heavens, the lord of the three worlds, the “head” of the ministries (as it was called) of thunder, rain and pestilence. Guan-di, the god of war, followed him. He mercilessly punished everyone who violated the laws of the Celestial Empire. Due to the fact that he was constantly in anger at numerous criminals, his face was bright red. This is most likely why the ihetuani wore red armbands. Behind Guan-di was a countless list of saints and spirits with whom the Taoists could always find a common language through spells.

Justice in action

The deadline came in the spring of 1898 – the poor of Shandong province rose to war with the West. The Chinese government, under pressure from the Western powers, declared the rebels criminals and sent punitive detachments to the north of the country. But the fighting was very sluggish: the troops were sympathetic to those who dared to resist the “overseas devils”.

1899 was a turning point. At last it rained, and in the eyes of the people the ihetuani immediately turned into a mighty army sent by Heaven. The Zhili rebelled, the total number of the people’s army reached 100 thousand. On May 26, 1900, the Ihetuani marched from the south of the Zhili province to Beijing, destroying telegraph lines, railways, along with administrative buildings, and indiscriminately destroying Christian missionaries and Chinese Christians. In total, about two hundred priests and about thirty-two thousand of their parishioners perished.

Russian battery on the city wall of Beijing. The Beijing walls were well fortified. They were torn down only in 1949. Photo: B. W. Kilburn Company from the Library of Congress Archives

It must be said that the Western powers were unable to assess in time the scale and threat of the uprising of the Ichtuanians. They could not even think that this downtrodden people could decide on something serious. In addition, they did not know that Empress Cixi had already promised her support to the rebels, hoping with their help to restore independence to China (officially, war on the West was declared on June 21).

On June 10, only a two thousandth detachment of marines under the command of British Admiral Edward Hobart Seymour (1840–1929) was sent to Beijing from the port of Tagu to protect the embassy quarter. However, at the stations of Lofa and Liangfang, they met such fierce resistance from the Ichtuan that, having suffered heavy losses, they were forced to retreat. For the rebels, the passage to the north was open. Part of their troops went further north to Manchuria, the rest entered Beijing on June 11.

The pogroms of shops and firms dealing with foreigners began, and the total extermination of Christians began. The story of the Russian diplomat Boris Evreinov about the pogrom of the Catholic parish of Nan-Tang at the Eastern gate of the city has survived: “Whole vats were full of blood,” he wrote, “the mutilated corpses of old men, women and children were scattered everywhere; most of them died after terrible torment, judging by the corpses frozen in terrible convulsions. There were small children with open entrails, with gouged out eyes, with a shattered skull and even signs of life. In one corner a fire was found with 40 girls, apparently burned alive. ” The Ihetuani often dismembered the corpses of those who believed in Jesus – many of them were convinced that Christians had the ability to resurrect on the third day.

On June 20, the embassy quarter was sieged, which lasted 56 days – until August 14, 1900. There, about nine hundred Europeans and several hundred Chinese Christians were under the protection of only 525 soldiers, while the Chinese forces exceeded 20 thousand people (these were both the ihetuani and government troops). The mission buildings were widely scattered, so the besieged decided to divide the defense into two fortified areas: the first united the embassies of England, Russia and the United States, and in the second – France, Germany, Japan and Spain.

The forces were divided approximately equally. Women (147 people) and children (76 people) were placed in the British embassy as the most protected from shelling. They ate horse meat, smoked leaves, replenished their ammunition by casting bullets.

Section of the “China Pie” by the great powers. On September 12, 1901, the Middle Kingdom and the Western empires signed the “Final Protocol”, according to which China was to pay the winners 450 million lians of silver (about 17 thousand tons). Illustration from the collection of the US State Archives

The embassies were subjected to continuous shelling. If our sailors had not undertaken a heroic counterattack and had not occupied the sections of the city wall that came close to the embassy quarter, there would have been no chances to withstand the defense. The Chinese would have placed cannons there and hit the defenders with direct fire. Elsewhere, the ichtuanians could not install guns: in the open, the besieged, armed with modern rifles with good sights, quickly destroyed the servants. The main blow came from the front, from the side of Mongol Square. Every night the ihetuani went into attack, and every night they were thrown back. As a result of the siege, the defenders lost 4 officers (9 wounded), 49 soldiers (136 wounded) and 12 civilian volunteers (23 wounded).

Two weeks passed before the great powers began active hostilities. On July 14, Tianjin was taken, but they did not dare to move on: they were saving up their forces. And only on August 4, 1900, the 20,000-strong united army of the great powers under the command of the Russian general Nikolai Linevich (1838-1908) set out from Tianjin to help the besieged. Fighting, she approached Beijing on 13 August. On August 14, having blown up the Tiananmen gates, Russian and American units broke into the Chinese capital. Street fighting lasted two days. Empress Cixi fled west to Xi’an. In the captured Beijing, the allies staged a massive robbery: whole trains filled with gold and objects of art from the imperial palaces went to the ports. They shot everyone who was suspected of having links with the Ichtuan. On September 11, Empress Cixi issued a decree ordering the merciless extermination of the ihetuan, who had brought the country to foreign intervention. Full-scale punitive expeditions continued until late autumn. The last detachment of Ichtuanians was destroyed in Manchuria by Russian Cossacks in July 1902.

At the Pyatnitsky cemetery in Moscow, I accidentally stumbled upon a dull echo of these events a century ago, which took place almost 6,000 km away. It was a small abandoned monument. The inscription was badly erased, but nevertheless I managed to read: “The head of the railway engineer Boris Aleksandrovich Verkhovsky, who was executed by the Chinese boxers in Manchuria in the city of Liao-Yang in July 1900, is buried here.”

Pavel Kotov, 08/05/2008

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