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“The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth” by Paul Cohen Report

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Updated: Dec 8th, 2021

The book written by Paul Cohen in 1997 represents a historical narrative written on the subject of the Boxer Rebellion that took place at the turn of the 20th century in China. It lasted for 2 years, from 1898 to 1900 and had religious motives and the motives of purity of culture as its main source.

The approach the author takes to the narration is rather extraordinary – he himself stipulates his attitude to outlining historical events and assumes that a historian can never be correct and objective generating his/her own reality as compared to the events that really happened:

However counter­ intuitive it may seem, I would argue (and I believe most practicing historians would join me) that the history the historian creates is in fact fundamentally different from the history people make. No matter how much of the original, experienced past historians choose or are able to build into their narratives, what they end up with will, in specific and identifiable ways, be different from that past (Cohen 3).

The specificity of the book is already shown by its name – Cohen at once focuses on the historical event in three keys – the rebellion as an event, as an experience and as a myth. The first part is mainly concentrated on the thorough chronological recollection of the events that preceded and followed the rebellion, the rise of Boxers and the role of Taipings in the life of China at that period of time, their Christian basis of religion and the power they experienced before the Boxer activation (Cohen 14-56).

The second part of the narrative is built up in an absolutely different way – it is concentrated on the people’s reminiscences about the time Boxers became active and how they disseminated their power, rumors based on superstitions and magic, consequently gaining more and more power within China and then committing all inhuman and cruel actions for the sake of the purity of the Chinese population and religion. The second part of the narrative is actually the collection of all elements of life in China that accompanied the rebellion – the author explicitly enumerates all events that may be significant for understanding the rebellion and the essence of boxer practice, speaking about the flood and famine following it, the irritating presence of foreigners in China, the way the Boxer religion influenced human minds, the ways they disseminated their superstitious rumors and what impact they had on human minds exhausted by the problems they had then etc. The part ends with the recollection of cruelties, deaths and massacres Boxers committed for the sake of their religion, including both the opinions of detached observers and the former Boxers, also giving the clue to understanding and justifying at least to the smallest extent the set of actions that were undertaken at that period of time by the Boxer religious group.

Chapter 2 of the book is titled ‘Drought and the Foreign Presence’ – it includes reminiscences of the Chinese residents connected with the severe flood preceding the events relevant for the present book. It is based on the results of surveys conducted in 1960s in China, so the information seems to be highly credible – people spoke about the famine they suffered, about the major part of China being affected and the hard times that came after the flood. There is a discrepancy in opinions about when the Boxer movement appeared, before or after the flood, but anyway the period of the Boxer religious group emerging and gaining force was surely stipulated.

The third chapter, “Mass Spirit Possession”, is dedicated to the effect produced on human minds by the Boxer religion. It was based on mysterious conversion described in detail at the beginning of the chapter that was thought to give superhuman abilities and invulnerability to the converts, the whole ritual was filled with mythological elements and produced the supernatural effect on the Boxers. Chapter 4 proceeds with the enumeration of events probably fabricated by Boxers that led to the worsening of the religious juxtaposition – Boxers used the folks’ superstitions as the tool of influence; as an example the case with burning the churches that presumably became not pure because “some woman from across the way had come out of her home and spilled dirty water” (Cohen 119) can be an illustration of ungrounded suspicion leading to bloody and cruel villainies:

After burning down these churches, the Boxer bandits issued orders to all families not to eat meat for three days. They also instructed women not to go out of their homes at night and not to throw dirty water into their courtyards, lest they give offense to the gods and incur blame…. (Cohen 119).

Chapter 5 deals with the impact of rumor on the public perception of the events – people were extremely superstitious and believed everything that had been said, being afraid of everything and multiplying the rumors thus making them unbelievably horrible – the example with bloodstains on the doors of villagers signaling the coming beginning of the massacre can be a vivid example – Boxers themselves disseminated the rumors thus fabricating the coming events and modeling them as not the planned reality but as an inescapable fate of Christians and non-Boxers.

Finally, the sixth chapter titled shortly “Death” includes a thorough account of all crimes and massacres committed by Boxers for the sake of their religious beliefs. It is awful to realize that even in so many years the events are justified by former Boxers still believing that they were killing not in vane, calling foreigners by the humiliating name “secondary hairy ones” (Cohen 173).

The third part of the book is titled “Boxers as Myth” and is concentrated on the transformation of the story of the Chinese rebellion in the context of the shift of power from the imperial to communist. The author investigates the way the reality was transformed with the governmental purpose “to serve the political, ideological, rhetorical, and/or emotional needs of the present” (Cohen 213). There were two transformations of the Boxer revolution being called the ‘mythologized past’ as the prologue title (Cohen 211) – here the Boxer movement was used as a tool of influencing the minds of the Chinese in the needed direction, in an anti-imperialist way. The first transformation took place during the New Culture Movement and the Boxer movement was emphasized as “ferociously anti-Christian” (Cohen 223).

Later on, in the 1960s-1970s, the “cultural remaking of China” (Cohen 238) was more intense under the conditions of strengthening communism, so the government was the only institution that was free to design the history of China the way it wanted and considered necessary – so the vision of the Boxer revolution “was different in context, answering to the specific thematic needs of the period” (Cohen 261).

This way, the historical narrative of Paul Cohen reveals the history of the Boxer movement in three key dimensions he sees possible, thus not only opening new shades of meaning of this significant event in the Chinese history, but also giving the new clue to understanding history on the whole as well as drawing innovative guiding lines in analyzing historical events.

Works Cited

Cohen, Paul. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

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