The Boxer Rebellion: Event, Experience, and Myth
1. About the author:
Paul A. Cohen is an American sinologist and historian who specializes in the history of modern China. He is best known for his 1997 book, History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. In this work, Cohen sought to provide a comprehensive and nuanced account of the Boxer Rebellion, an event that has often been oversimplified and misunderstood in both popular and scholarly narratives.
Cohen was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1937. He received his BA from Columbia University in 1958 and his PhD from Harvard University in 1964. He has taught at a number of institutions, including MIT, Harvard, Brown, and Wesleyan University. He is currently the William S. configurations ichan distinguished Visiting Professor of Chinese History at Yale University.
2. Summary of the book:
In History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, Cohen provides a comprehensive and nuanced account of the Boxer Rebellion. He begins by situating the Rebellion within the larger context of late Qing dynasty China and tracing its roots to the growing sense of nationalism that was prevalent at the time. He then goes on to describe the events of the Rebellion itself, paying particular attention to the experiences of both foreign nationals and Chinese peasants who were caught up in the fighting. Cohen also addresses the ways in which the memory of the Rebellion has been shaped by both Chinese and Western narratives, painting a complex picture of an event that is often oversimplified in popular accounts.
3. The Boxer Rebellion as event, experience and myth:
The Boxer Rebellion was a complex event with far-reaching consequences. In his book, Cohen seeks to capture this complexity by situating the Rebellion within three different contexts: as an event, as an experience, and as a myth.
As an event, the Boxer Rebellion was a watershed moment in late Qing dynasty China. It was precipitated by a sense of growing nationalism among Chinese intellectuals who were increasingly resentful of what they saw asforeign encroachment on their country’s sovereignty. This nationalism found expression in a movement known as the New Culture Movement, of which theBoxer movement was a part. The outbreak of violence against foreign nationalsand Christians in 1899 quickly spiraled into a full-scale rebellion againstthe Qing government itself. Ultimately, the Qing government was forced tocrush the rebellion with help from foreign powers such as Britain, France, Russiaand Japan.
As an experience, the Boxer Rebellion was a traumatic event for both foreignersand Chinese peasants caught up in the fighting. Foreign nationals weresubjected to brutal attacks by rebel groups and many were killed or woundedbefore international forces were able to quell the uprising. For Chinesepeasants who had joined the rebel cause out of a sense of nationalist fervor,the defeat of the rebellion was a crushing blow. Many were killed or imprisonedby Qing forces in the aftermath of the uprising, while others were forcedtopay large fines or serve lengthy terms of hard labor.
As a myth,the memory of the Boxer Rebellion has been shaped by both Chinese and Westernnarratives. In China, official histories have tended to downplay or even ignorethe role of ordinary Chinese peasants in favor of emphasizing the role of theQing government in crushed the uprising. In the West, meanwhile, the memoryof the Rebellion has often been shaped by racial stereotypes and misconceptionsabout China and its people. These stereotypes were further perpetuated by theWayne Wang film, The Joy Luck Club, which presented a highly romanticized and distorted version of the events.
4. The historiography of the Boxer Rebellion:
The historiography of the Boxer Rebellion is complex and contested. Cohen addresses a number of different interpretations of the events in his book, situating them within the larger context of late Qing dynasty China.
One common misconception about the historiography of the Boxer Rebellion is that it is dominated by Western perspectives. This is not the case; in fact, Chinese historians have been writing about the events since they occurred. However, Chinese official histories have often downplayed or even ignored the role of ordinary Chinese peasants in favor of emphasizing the role of the Qing government in crushing the uprising. This tendency has been increasingly challenged in recent years, as more scholars have sought to give voice to the experiences of those who actually participated in the rebellion.
Another misconception is that there is a single “true” account of what happened during the Boxer Rebellion. In reality, there are a multitude of perspectives, both Chinese and Western, that need to be taken into account in order to gain a full understanding of the event. Cohen’s book provides a helpful overview of these different perspectives and helps to situate them within the larger context of late Qing dynasty China.
5. The Boxer movement as part of the New Culture Movement:
The Boxer movement was just one part of a larger cultural phenomenon known as the New Culture Movement (NCM). The NCM was a response to the challenges posed by modernization and Westernization in China at the turn of the 20th century. It was an intellectual movement that sought to promote traditional Chinese values and culture in order to resist what its proponents saw as the corrupting influence of foreign ideas.
The NCM was initially spurred on by a series of intellectual debates between Chinese and Western scholars in the late 19th century. These debates culminated in what came to be known as the “May Fourth Incident,” in which Chinese students staged a demonstration against foreign imperialism in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The May Fourth Incident is widely seen as marking the beginning of the NCM.
TheBoxer movement was just one part of this larger movement. While it didshare some goals with the NCM—such as promoting traditional Chinese valuesand culture—it also had its own unique objectives and goals. The most notableof these was its focus on physical resistance to foreign encroachments onChinese sovereignty, as opposed to purely intellectual or cultural resistance. This focus ultimately led to violence against both foreigners and Chinachristians, which ultimately resulted inthe defeat ofthe rebellion.
6. The cultural remakingof China inthe aftermathof therebellion:
TheBoxerRebellion had far-reaching consequences for both Chinaandthe West. InChina,the defeatofthe rebellion dealtthe final blowto thenear-collapseQingdynastyandpavedthewayforthenewlyformedRepublicofChina(1912-1949). Int
In the aftermath of the uprising, foreigners became increasingly seen as enemies of the Chinese people, paving the way for the rise of Chinese nationalism in the 20th century.
In the West, meanwhile, the memory of the Boxer Rebellion was shaped by a number of factors, including racial stereotypes and misconceptions about China and its people. These stereotypes were further perpetuated by the Wayne Wang film, The Joy Luck Club, which presented a highly romanticized and distorted version of the events. The legacy of the Boxer Rebellion in the West is thus complex and contested.
7. The legacy of the Boxer Rebellion in Communist China:
TheBoxerRebellion also left a lasting mark on Communist China (1949-1976). The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appropriated the memory of the uprising for its own political purposes, using it to rally support for its own brand of nationalism. The CCP also used the memory of the uprising to legitimize its own policies during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when it justified brutal attacks on foreigners and other “enemies of the state” by invoking the specter of the “foreign devils” who had attacked China during the Boxer Rebellion.
The legacy of the Boxer Rebellion in Communist China is thus a complex and contested one. On the one hand, the CCP has sought to use the memory of the uprising to legitimize its own policies and actions. On the other hand, scholars have increasingly sought to challenge the official party line and give voice to the experiences of those who actually participated in the rebellion.
TheBoxerRebellion was a complex event with far-reaching consequences. In his book, Cohen seeks to capture this complexity by situating the Rebellion within three different contexts: as an event, as an experience, and as a myth. This multi-dimensional approach provides a helpful overview of the event and helps to situate it within the larger context of late Qing dynasty China.
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