I’ve been researching Chinese culture for a report. One thing that caught my eye was the Boxer Rebellion at the beginning of the 20th century, when the Chinese people first rose up against foreign powers – in anticipation of the later Maoist revolution. Check out how mystical the Boxer rebellion was [the passage is from Wikipedia]:
The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, known by foreigners as the Boxers, or “Yihe Magic Boxing”, was a secret society founded in the northern coastal province of Shandong consisting largely of people who had lost their livelihoods due to imperialism and natural disasters. Foreigners came to call the well-trained, athletic young men “Boxers” due to the martial arts and calisthenics they practiced. The Boxers’ primary feature is spirit possession, which involved “the whirling of swords, violent prostrations, and chanting incantations to Taoist and Buddhist spirits. When the spirit possession had been achieved, the boxers would allegedly obtain invulnerability against guns and cannon.” People were recruited through demonstrations that apparently showed members were impervious to bullets – where rigged guns were fired at a person who for all appearances had really been shot, but seemed to be unharmed.
The Boxers believed that they could through training, diet, martial arts and prayer perform extraordinary feats, such as flight. Further, they popularly claimed that millions of spirit soldiers would descend from the heavens and assist them in purifying China of foreign influences. The Boxers consisted of local farmers/peasants and other workers made desperate by disastrous floods and widespread opium addiction, and laid the blame on Christian missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Europeans colonizing their country. Missionaries were protected under the policy of extraterritoriality. Chinese Christians were alleged also to have filed false lawsuits. The Boxers called foreigners “Guizi” (鬼子, literally: demons), a deprecatory term, and condemned Chinese Christian converts and Chinese working for foreigners. The Boxers were only lightly armed with rifles and swords, claiming supernatural invulnerability towards blows of cannon, rifle gunshots, and knife attacks. The Boxers were typical of millennial movements, such as the American Indian Ghost Dance, often rising in societies under extreme stress.
Naturally the Boxer rebellion got their ass handed to them by the foreign powers’ army…but you can see why the present Chinese government is so worried by new religious-political movements like Falun Gong, when all that belief in violent magic lies so near the surface of the popular consciousness.
For the curious, you might enjoy this CIA-sponsored documentary on China from 1967, called ‘The Roots of Madness’. Clearly xenophobic, made during the Vietnam War, although also quite interesting on Chinese history, including the Boxer Rebellion. If you have problems with that link, the film is in shorter clips as well, starting here.