The I Ho Ch'uan, Righteous Harmony Boxing, had much in common with its Tai-Ping predecessors: it was another religious delerium erupting into a nation's revolution.
Beginning in 1898, youths would gather in villages in the northern provinces. One boy would begin chanting, follow this up with drawing strange signs in the dust, and eventually build into a frenzy of recitation. His companions would ask him who he was; the answer was always that he was a great man of history who wanted a sword to smite the barbarians. Given a sword, he would begin shadow-boxing and shouting "Uphold the great Pure Dynasty and Exterminate the Barbarian." Sometimes others would strike the outh, or shoot him with arrows, and he would not feel a thing. By this time, the companions would also be handing out leaflets, and exhorting the crowd to help purge China of its foreign influences.
The Boxers enjoyed a virtually immediate popularity, simply because their ideas reflected the concerns of the mostly illiterate peasantry. Flood and famines in the 1890s exacerbated their hardships. The European influences they complained of had brought the locomotive, the telegraph, and the steamboat, but their own lives had grown worse. Christian missionaries made the fatuous mistake to cite technology as their vindication; if we can build steamships, our god must be the powerful one.
The Boxers were also extreme loyalists to the ruling Ch'ing dynasty. This helps explain why they weren't crushed like the Tai-Pings or the Nien-Fei, which were both peasants' revolts which threatened to overturn the Manchoo rulers. The Boxers didn't want massive and sudden overthrow of the government; they wanted their rulers restored to their former glory. And their activities were rapidly becoming more than a nuisance for the regional governors.
Empress Tz'u-hsi's role in encouraging the Boxers is instructive. In old age she had become, in the words of one biographer, "remarkably credulous," and tales of Boxer imperviousness to pain certainly added to their luster in her eyes. To Tz'u-hsi, the Boxers were champions sent from Heaven; to repudiate them, said the signs and portents, will endanger her own rule. So the Dowager Empress vacillated, uncertain of whether to embrace the Boxers (and thus destabilize her existing structore of power) or repudiate them (and risk a revolution that might succeed in deposing her).
The Boxers grew steadily in power, and events took a turn for the worse when British, German and Austrian troops arrived in Peking.
In Mr. American, page 420, Flashman's niece Helen reports: "Did you know that fourteen years ago he was staying at the Residency in Peking when it was attacked in the Boxer rising, and he took charge of the artillery through the seige? He was seventy-eight then. And when the Residency was relieved, the officer in charge of the American Marines said he would write to the President to ask for some special decoration for him, and Uncle Harry laughed and asked one of the Marines to give him his hat, and then he put it on and said, 'That'll do better than a medal,' and off he went."
In Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, Page 309: "to the self-inflicted graze which enabled me to collapse artistically during the Boxer Uprising (I was seventy-eight at the time, an age at which you can get away with a lot)."
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