Why did the Boxers think they were invincible?

Legend had it that in ancient Chinese martial arts, there’s a lost technique called 铁布衫 which is an ultimate skill to master. Someone who had mastered the technique would effectively be wearing a suit of armour. The method of training in 铁布衫 involves a process of conditioning. It is believed that bones and muscles will toughen after repeatedly striking them with hard objects. With this training, it is believed that practitioner’s body will become impenetrable to physical assault after a conditioning period of 3-5 years.

The Empress Dowager Cixi had heard about this skill and had inspectors confirming to her that it was real. Her Highness was very pleased that the ancient skill was revived. There is another technique called 金钟罩 which was somewhat “easier” to master because it involved the call on spirits. Mastering this technique will also render the practitioner impenetrable to weapons. It’s as if the person is enclosed within a golden bell. Since many members of the Boxer movement were street performers skilled in acrobatics, their displays often gave the audience the illusion of 金钟罩 and 铁布衫. Not only did audiences believe them, even members of the movement believed them. Till this day, there are still people in China who believe that 金钟罩 and 铁布衫 really exist.

Censorship and brainwashing also helped to promote this belief. Government officials would write journals documenting experiments in which loaded rifles fired at practitioners of 铁布衫 and 金钟罩 escaped unharmed. In reality, the rifles were aimed off during those displays and the usual stage magic tricks were employed. When people tried to experiment without the intention to cheat, the results were fatal but censored, downplayed or explained away.

It should be noted that the scientific method did not fit well into traditional Chinese culture more than a century ago. The Chinese people’s love for myths and legends, coupled with street performances and official experiments demonstrating the amazing powers of qigong, 金钟罩 and 铁布衫 had hordes of Chinese people thumping their chests over their ancestral treasures.

During the late 19th century in China, a religious movement known as the Boxer Rebellion义和团 with the slogan “Support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners.” (扶清灭洋) emerged in Shandong Province. The seeds for this movement were actually planted by Qing government officials who put the blame of natural disasters that occurred during that time on foreign devils and the religion they practised. The construction of motorable roads and railway lines often encroached on burial grounds. Natural disasters and bad luck were blamed on the violation of sacred ancestral grounds by foreign devils.

there are still believers of 义和团 super powers today

Comprising mainly impoverished peasants and artisans from the lower social strata, the Boxer Rebellion lacked sophisticated ideology and modern weapons. Since they were blaming a foreign religion, they were eager to employ prayers and mystical powers inherited from their ancestors to beat the enemy. Boxers believed that the spirit of their ancestors would render them impenetrable to bullets and cannons used by the foreign devils.

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As it turned out, the rapid growth of the Boxer Rebellion caught all foreigners in China by surprise. Everywhere, gyms with altars were established, with young men practicing martial arts and getting into trance states on every street corner. Boxer followers wore red turbans and carried large sabres, following the 大刀会 with whom they merged. Many people were impressed by the Boxers’ prowess and followers had no shortage of female admirers.

The Boxers’ first targets for destruction were Christian churches. Foreign missionaries became their first victims. They also went around vandalising shops selling foreign goods, damaging cars and railway lines. As missionaries and Chinese Christians were easy targets, the Boxers were emboldened by their success. Feeling ready to eradicate foreigners once and for all, the the Boxers congregated in Beijing and began a full on assault on all foreign representatives in 1900. Diplomats, missionaries, soldiers, and some Chinese Christians took refuge in the Legation Quarters. Seeing this as an opportunity to drive the foreigners out, Empress Dowager Cixi threw her weight behind the Boxers in Beijing and urged Chinese people in provinces to support them.

The foreign legation soon came under siege by a sea of Boxers and Qing soldiers. Foreign diplomats called for military support. Soon, a multinational force from eight countries disembarked from the port at Tianjin and headed towards Beijing. The Qing imperial forces joined the Boxers in attacking foreign troops. Earlier on, Viceroy of Zhili, Li Hongzhang did not obey orders to attack churches, Christians and foreign business interests. He also refused to send reinforcements to Beijing when the capital was under siege. In fact, he even held secret talks with the alliance of 8 nations to spare the areas under his jurisdiction. As a result, southern provinces were spared the wrath of the Eight-Nation Alliance – Germany, Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Italy, and Austria-Hungary . They had a combined military strength of only 50,000 compared to hundreds of thousands of Boxers and the Qing army. The outcome was all too predictable. The Eight Nation Alliance marched into Beijing and looted the Forbidden City, carting off thousands of pieces of valuable artefacts. Books and government offices were burned. Some were looted and kept in museums in London and Paris till this day.

According to some estimates, almost 100,000 Boxers were killed believing in their invisible armour. Cutting through Chinese territory like a hot knife through butter, some soldiers from the allied forces went on to loot and rape. Empress Dowager Cixi who had abandoned Beijing and fled to Nanjing, forgave Li Hongzhang for disobeying her orders and ordered him to hold peace talks with the foreign devils.

李鸿章

In 1901, Li signed the Boxer Protocol ending the Boxer Rebellion, and obtained the departure of the Eight-Nation Alliance at the price of huge indemnities for the Chinese. This was probably the last major event in China’s century of humiliation but who really humiliated China?