Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Bulletproof: The Boxers

November 24th, 2009 · 6 Comments

BoxerRebellionIt is to the turn-of-the-century media’s great discredit that they referred to China’s quasi-Luddite rebels as “Boxers.” Had the minions of William Randolph Hearts been more adept at understanding Chinese, they would have realized that the rebels’ secret society translated more literally as “Fists of Righteous Harmony,” a far more poetic moniker for an organization dedicated to dragging their nation back a few centuries.

Yet these failed anti-modernist, anti-Western rebels will forever be known to Americans as the Boxers, a name that doesn’t quite do justice to the peculiarity of their movement. Like the other groups we’ve described as part of our Bulletproof Project, the Boxers believed that they could render their bodies impervious to bullets. Their method consisted of 100 straight days of physical exercises and magical incantations, after which an inductee was considered pure enough to resist foreign rifles. And then a final ceremony sealed the deal:

Each new recruit had to undergo an initiation rite involving the learning of incantations. Once he reached the stage of being “under the spell,” he was regarded as being immune to bullets, usually demonstrated on the uninitiated by firing blank bullets at his body. These demonstrations often took place at boxing grounds established throughout the country.

What this means, of course, is that the ranking members of the Fists of Righteous Harmony knew full well that their methods didn’t work—the initiation ceremony was nothing but a con. Yet they still sent the recruits into firefights armed with nothing more than swords, since guns were considered instruments of the foreign devils.

This has always struck as the litmus test for defining a cult: do the leaders themselves believe in the principles they espouse?

A nice little collection of Boxer-related photos and artwork here. Despite being so lightly armed, the rebels were surprisingly successful in the early going due to their zeal. For some reason, that fact makes us think of the first stanza of Yeats’s “The Second Coming”.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Have you ever read Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”? It has an interesting future replay of the Boxer Rebellion, this time with significantly more pragmatic leaders.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Drat, haven’t read it. Does he talk about the bulletproof aspect? I think it’s clear the Boxers had widespread support and some genuine grievances, but they were doomed from the start by their intrinsic mysticism.

  • Gramsci

    I guess the Boxers’ use of wushu is a historical echo to “The Matrix,” which casts martial arts as leading at their highest point to being bulletproof (by dodging, then by stopping them altogether). Interesting, when you think about it, that that was what the Wachowski brothers chose to exemplify ultimate mastery. Why not a bomb, or a missile, an animal, etc.?

  • Jordan

    @Brendan

    If I remember correctly, as the group is even called the Fists of Righteous Harmony, the bulletproof aspect does come into play. Plenty of young hooligans who take things too far and get killed as a result. But in the end they’re smart enough to rely on cutting edge tech to deal the final blow.

  • Oliver

    For the next installment of the series, you may want to look at pnieses. Nathaniel Philbrick mentions them in The Mayflower. Or check this out: http://books.google.com/books?id=hsp4AAAAMAAJ&pg=PA359

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Oliver: Awesome, thanks for the rec on the pnieses.

    I actually stumbled upon another great candidate this morning, while looking at Portland Oregonian microfilm at the New York Public Library. I’m starting to get the feeling I could run Bulletproof as a daily series for a year–just so many examples out there.

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