Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Boxer Rebellion 

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The other day I opened the History Channel app on my little Samsung tablet and a documentary on the Boxer Rebellion in China caught my attention. The Boxer Rebellion is often misunderstood as "Chinese attacking foreigners." But the Boxers were a select group. This was a strange, devilish religious cult of rural people who had come to believe that they were impervious to foreign bullets.

This term is misleading for those who come from a western context. In America we think of boxing as hitting. But when Chinese people talk about martial arts like Tai Chi, they often use the term "boxing" when they are speaking English. Their reasoning is that since it involves the hands, it must be like boxing. But it's not really the same.

Much debate has centered around the original cause for their anger at foreigners. Since missionaries became the primary target, there seems to be the impression that missionaries did something to offend the Boxers (and by extension, the Chinese people in general). But is this fair? The documentary mentions the fact that the missionaries attacked ancestor worship, which was a cherished tradition and very much ingrained in Chinese culture. I question whether that was really the main issue, because it has never been clear to me the extent to which the Boxers were angry because of things the missionaries had actually done, or by crazy rumors about the foreigners that had no basis in fact. But, just for the sake of argument, let's examine the charge. Did the missionaries really attack the practice of ancestor worhip?

Yes. Guilty as charged. This had not always been true historically in China, and was in sharp contrast to Matteo Ricci (利玛窦), who tended to downplay the significance of ancestor worship. Ricci had a problem with Buddhism. But he had no real quarrel with the Confucian practice of ancestor worship, which he dismissed as veneration for the dead.

But the evangelical Christian missionaries who spread across China in the 19th and 20th centuries saw things very differently. To them, worshiping ancestors was no different from worshiping idols. So, to the extent that the Boxers may have been angered at the missionaries for threatening traditional beliefs, their fears were richly justified. But my problem is that I don't know if that's true. What I mean is, as I have stated earlier, I don't know if the anger of the Boxers really had anything to do with things like ancestor worship, or if they had somehow become convinced the foreigners were actually responsible for the drought that had plagued the countryside.

Whatever the case, it is important to point out that there were many ordinary Chinese people who were very much opposed to the Boxers, and, in fact, many of them also became victims of the Boxers. The great question historically is the extent to which the Dragon Lady supported the Boxers. Initially she seemed to be taking a neutral position, although I tend to think that she was secretly glad the foreigners were having trouble. But the documentary says that corrupt ministers in her government tricked her into thinking that the foreigners were trying to dethrone her. She blew a gasket and ordered the imperial army to aid the Boxers. This was a fatal error, because the Boxers were sure to fail eventually, and she bore the brunt of the blame for everything the Boxers did.

But let's get back to the missionaries for a minute. I guess I pay attention to this, because my parents were missionaries. So when I hear reports like this, I am struck by the contrast between what is often expressed, and what I see from my frame of reference. You see, from a secular perspective, helping people with education or medical services is considered a good thing for missionaries to do. But changing people's beliefs is considered an invasion of their culture. I don't agree with this. If people are worshiping their ancestors and their ancestors cannot really help them, then we are doing them a kindness if we point them toward a loving God who really interested in their concerns, who wants to reveal himself to them, and who is mighty to save. So the role of missionaries as belief changers can be just as important and just as life changing as the work they do in ministering to practical needs.

For example, it was the missionaries who put an end to the cruel practice of foot binding. This required changing the people's beliefs about women, about children, about people in general and about God and the purpose for which he has created us, and it is my firm belief that the missionaries were ideally suited for this task, because effective missionaries are nothing if not belief changers.

So if you believe that changing people's beliefs is always bad, then I can understand why you would not like missionaries. But if there are times when the best thing you can do for people is to change their beliefs, then missionaries surely have a roll to play in the development of civilized society.

Did anything good come out of the Boxer rebellion? Yes. After the eight powers liberated the foreign community, the Chinese government was required to pay a huge indemnity to those eight countries. Each country took their portion as payment for the damage done by the Boxers. Except the Americans. There was feeling in America, that the amount was excessive. In fact, it exceeded what the Americans had demanded. So, with the permission of TR, who thought it was a good idea, a very large portion of the American indemnity was returned to China, on the condition that it be used to provide scholarships for Chinese students to study in the United States. Part of this process involved the establishment of a prepratory school called "Tsinghua College" for the purpose of preparing students to go to America.

The China Inland Mission was offered indemnity payment for the great losses they had suffered, but they refused to accept it.


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