China, 1899. A storm is brewing. For the past half-century, Europeans have been steadily entrenching themselves around the fringes of the country in their “treaty ports,” playing the long game of economic exploitation. As the Qing dynasty ever so slowly implodes, and as the power of Beijing seems ever more fragile, the British, the Germans and the French have all secured their footholds. China is too big and unwieldy to be colonised and carved up to enlarge the European empires (though this hasn’t stopped a few excitable commentators back in Europe from forecasting a “scramble for China”). It does offer some perfect opportunities, however, for Western businessmen to turn a profit. This is something that the British have been doing with gusto ever since 1842, when they forced the Qing to open their country to trade after a humiliating defeat in the Opium War. Where the British led, others have followed, and now China is crawling with foreigners. And after the merchants, fatefully, have come the missionaries.
It is whispered that they worship a great devil so evil that in his mortal life he was executed for his wickedness. Some say they steal children and scoop out their eyes and hearts, others that they brew potions using the placentas of pregnant women they have captured and raped.[i] Rumour swirls around the Christians like a poisonous fog. Among the young men who throng the country’s secret societies – a time-honoured outlet for rural frustration – there is talk of ridding China of the devilish foreigners. Supersition and simple xenophobia fuse with a not unjustified belief that the Europeans are exploiting China for their own economic gain while the Chinese themselves do not receive any due reward. The rebels are intensely loyal to the Emperor, but believe that the bureaucracy and administration around him have been corrupted and infiltrated by foreign spies and sympathisers. The government of China needs to be purged. The Europeans need to be destroyed.
What happened next was an event that has fascinated Westerners to this day. Though China had endured incomparably greater and deadlier upheavals in the course of the nineteenth century (upheavals which in their turn would be dwarfed by the events of the twentieth), the Boxer Rising of 1900 continues to receive disproportionate attention because it was directed at Europeans. When the Chinese fight each other it is of little interest to most people in the West. When mobs of furious Chinese lay siege to a British legation district, massacre German missionaries, and drive Europeans screaming from their homes across the length and breadth of China, then we sit up and pay attention. European governments at the time paid a great deal of attention: they sent in troops to put the Rising down. Within a year the whole movement had been stamped out. Yet still, more than a century later, we pore over the events of this whirlwind handful of short years, searching for answers.
One aspect of the story seems to remain under-researched. Certainly, I have found it hard to dig up much information on the splinter group that called themselves the Red Lantern Shining. Or perhaps the modern jargon “splinter group” is anachronistic. The Boxers United in Righteousness, the original movement that appeared in Shandong province in 1898, forbade their members contact with women, because they believed that female influence might pollute them and spoil their magical powers. Reactionary and puritanistic, drawing as they did on various ancient Chinese ideologies and folk traditions, the Boxers preached a strict self-discipline and military brotherhood that was to remain unsullied by the complications of sexuality. The Boxer code of behaviour stipulated: “Do not covet wealth. Do not lust after women. Do not disobey your parents.”[ii] Nonetheless there seem to have been plenty of women in China who were not going to let an ideology like that stand in the way of what they believed was a chance to change China for the better. Parallel to the all-male Boxers, there sprung up an all-female movement who likewise sought to rid China of foreigners in the name of the Emperor. These women were called the Red Lantern Shining.
That Western popular culture has not made a big deal out of the Red Lantern Shining is really something of a miracle. An exclusively female underground movement who practised both martial arts and magic ought to have inspired a good slew of Hollywood films by now – or at least a few comic books. Like the Boxers, the Red Lantern Shining believed in the attainment of physical invulnerability through ritual magic. Unlike the White Lotus tradition with which the Boxer movement is often confused, the Boxers and the Red Lantern Shining were concerned less with personal salvation and preparation for the end of days (this was, after all, probably too reminiscent of Christianity), and more with the personal magic of charms and incantations that could grant special powers in battle.[iii] Charms written on strips of cloth were burnt and sometimes swallowed in the belief that when combined with ritual chanting, sometimes for many nights at a time, they could grant invulnerability to swords and even bullets.[iv]
But the Red Lantern Shining went several steps further than their brothers. Members of this sisterhood were said not only to possess magical protection in battle as the Boxers did, but also to be able to walk on water – and to fly.[v] There are stories of the Red Lantern Shining planning to attack Western ships off the Chinese coast and to block their guns. The image is remarkable: imagine, say, a German warship some miles offshore in the East China Sea, one quiet night, when suddenly it is assailed by warrior women leaping and striding over the waves towards it, others swooping through the air and darting, birdlike, around its mighty iron guns. Here, surely, is a compelling and fertile mythology, ideally suited to form the base of facts around which some writer or screenwriter could weave a tale of mystery and magic in the dark days of China’s great decline.
On a more serious note, the history of the Red Lantern Shining does perhaps warrant some more attention for the light it may shed on the position of Chinese women in those troubled times. Joseph Esherick, one of the key Western historians of the Boxer movement, has written of the Red Lantern Shining that “their very existence indicates that some young women also found an opportunity to escape the confines of Confucian patriarchy and join in mysterious and no doubt exciting activities with their peers, outside of the home.”[vi] Amen to that. When the only life ahead of you is one of rural labour and domestic servitude and subjugation, what young person could fail to be excited by the propsect of adventure, comradeship, and the fascinating and no doubt frightening temptation of communion with the supernatural? Given the intensely conservative and loyalist culture among much of the Chinese peasantry, the idea of restoring the might of the dynasty by defending the Emperor from foreigners cannot but have struck deep chords in a great many of the women who joined the Red Lantern Shining, just as it did for the young men who joined the Boxers. But it is hard not to feel that for many there may also have been another motive: escape from the terrible drudgery to which all Chinese peasant women were bound, and into a life of change, challenge, and the wider world.
How crushed, how shattered they must have felt when the rising was suppressed, when they were exposed to the horrors of war at the hands of European professional armies, and when they either faced death or were chased back in anguish to their homes, can only be imagined.
[i] Jonathan Fenby, The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850-2009 (London: Penguin Books, 2009), 80.
[ii] Fenby, The Penguin History of Modern China, 84.
[iii] Kwang-Ching Liu, “Imperialism and the Chinese Peasants: The Background of the Boxer Rising,” review of The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, by Joseph W. Esherick, Modern China 15 (1989): 105-06.
[iv] Fenby, The Penguin History of Modern China, 84.
[v] Fenby, The Penguin History of Modern China, 84-85.
[vi] Joseph W. Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 297-98.