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

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

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

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

Excerpt

Philosophers have written lengthy theoretical treatises on what historians do. What I propose in this book, as a practicing historian, is to explore the issue through an actual historical case, the Boxer uprising of 1898-1900 in China. When I first began to study history, my conception of what historians "did" was very different from what it is now. I used to think of the past as, in some sense, a fixed body of factual material which it was the historian's job to unearth and elucidate. I still think of the historian as a person whose main object is to understand and explain the past. But I now have a far less innocent view of the processes -- and problems -- involved. I now see the reconstructive work of the historian as in constant tension with two other ways of "knowing" the past-experience and myth -- that, in terms of their bearing on ordinary human lives, are far more pervasive and influential.

Plotted at a certain level of abstraction, the Boxer uprising formed a major chapter in the narrative structure of the late Qing dynasty (1644-1912). It was the largest-scale armed conflict to occur between the rebellions of the mid-nineteenth century and the 1911 revolution. Seen as a social movement, the Boxers, many of them young farm boys made destitute by the successive natural disasters that had battered North China since the early 1890s, were a striking expression of the more general breakdown of the agrarian order in China at the turn of the century. This breakdown, characterized in many parts of the empire by high levels of popular turbulence, was also reflected in the religious beliefs of the Boxers, in particular their practice of spirit possession and frequent recourse to magic. The antiforeign dimension of the Boxer phenomenon, expressed most dramatically in the attacks on native Christians and foreign missionaries, created a profound crisis in Sino-foreign relations and eventually led to direct foreign military intervention and a Chinese declaration of war against all the powers. Finally, the lifting of the siege of the legations, the flight of the court to Xi'an in the northwest, the foreign occupation of Beijing, and the diplomatic settlement imposed on . . .

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