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

By Paul A. Cohen | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 7
The New Culture Movement and the Boxers

Joseph Levenson once observed that although Christianity had been rejected in China in both the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries, the grounds of the rejection in the two eras were radically different. "In the seventeenth century," he wrote, "Chinese opposed Christianity as un-traditional. In twentieth-century China, especially after the first World War, it was the principal anti-Christian cry that Christianity was un-modern. In the early instance, . . . Christianity was criticized for not being Confucian; this was a criticism proper to Chinese civilization. In the later instance, Christianity was criticized for not being scientific; and this was a criticism from western civilization."1

Certainly, one might quibble with the neatness of Levenson's formulation. In addition to the contrasting bases for Chinese anti-Christian sentiment in the two centuries, there were also important elements of continuity, such as the widely held belief (in both periods) that Christianity was irrational and superstitious, unworthy of the attention of serious folk. 2 Levenson's basic point, nevertheless, stands: Although there was opposition to Christianity in both periods, the cultural, intellectual, and psychological context for the opposition changed in crucial ways.

Paradoxically, an analogous pattern may be discerned in the case of Chinese denigration of the Boxer movement, itself ferociously anti- Christian. In the contemporary Chinese press and in the diaries and other accounts kept by elite chroniclers of the movement, the Boxers tended almost invariably to be perceived (like Christianity from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries) in the context of the age-old distinction between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. The whole range of pejorative terminology associated with xiejiao or "heterodox sects" was thrown at them. They were identified as "Boxer bandits" (quanfei or tuanfei), 3 who stirred up "turmoil" and "disorder" (luan, bianluan) 4 and "misled" (huo) or "incited" (shanhuo) 5 the masses with their "deceitful" (gui) claims. 6 Contemporary

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