History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth

By Paul A. Cohen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Drought and the Foreign Presence

"I was eleven or twelve suia at the time of the Big Sword Society disturbances. People began learning Spirit Boxing before the coming of the flood." "The Spirit Boxers got started when I was sixteen or seventeen sui; they grew rapidly after the flood." "The earliest that there was Spirit Boxing at the Liuli Temple was during the first half of the year of the flood, when I was seventeen or eighteen sui." "We had a boxing ground in this place; the Spirit Boxers were here already before the flood. But they only practiced; it wasn't until after the flood that they became active. It was the flood of the sixth month of the year in which I was eighteen sui."1

These statements were made by elderly inhabitants of northwestern Shandong in response to questions put them by members of the Shandong University History Department in surveys conducted in early 1960 and the winter of 1965-66. The flood referred to by the respondents, and used by them (significantly) as a memory marker to locate the point in time at which the Spirit Boxers became active in their localities, was that of the Yellow River, which burst its dikes at several locations beginning on August 8, 1898. Described by contemporary foreigners as "MORE APPALLING AND DISASTROUS than any within living memory," the Yellow River flood of 1898 wreaked devastation on large portions of western Shandong. Thirty-four counties in all were affected, thousands of villages inundated. 2 Millions of people who were lucky enough not to drown or die from disease or starve were reduced to a diet of willow leaves, wheat gleanings, and cottonseed mixed with chaff and pits; 3 many others abandoned everything and, like disaster-afflicted farmers since time immemorial in North China, migrated elsewhere and begged (or even stole) to survive. By the winter of 1898-99

____________________
a
Chinese are considered to be one sui (year) old at birth; they then add another sui at the start of every new lunar year. The age count in sui is therefore always at least one year greater than the Western age count.

-69-

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