The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study

By Victor Purcell | Go to book overview
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The great mass of the Boxers were illiterate or semi-literate at most, but they were essentially 'Chinese' and their outlook was part and parcel of the Chinese ethos. This outlook they derived to some extent from tradition and to some extent from the ideas which percolated through to them from the literati. But since few of them (the exceptions being the scholar-recruits to their cause) had any direct access to, say, the Chung Yung or the Tao Ching, from what sources then did the majority of them derive their ideas of the sages? The answer seems to be—from popular novels and plays.I

In the China of this period, Confucianism (or rather neo-Confucianism) was the orthodoxy of the educated, while the practice of the other religions was generally left to the people at large. In the minds of the peasantry, their ethical judgments were mainly Confucian, while matters of divine guidance, reward and retribution, the after-life, and immortality belonged to the other religions. But the several spheres were by no means clearly separated. The common people derived their interpretation of these faiths less from the literati and the priests than they did from tradition as disseminated by the popular novels and the operas based on them. During the second half of the nineteenth century the output of the latter increased by leaps and bounds. They offered an escape from the ugly facts of life in general and from national humiliation in particular.

The religious ideas of the Boxers can be traced back from their incantations and ritual to novels and operas such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (San Kuo Chih Yen I), The Water Margin (Shui Hu), Pilgrimage to the West (Hsi Chi), The Enfeoffment of the Gods (Fêng Shên Yen I), Prefect P'êng's Cases (P'êng Kung An), Prefect Shih's Cases (Shih Kung An), etc., etc. The last two named were of especial importance as referring to the province of Shantung where the Boxer troubles started. The harmonious triangular alliance of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, for example, is the main theme of The Enfeoffment of the Gods in which the Three Religions score a


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