Anthony E. Clark. Heaven in Conflict: Franciscans and the Boxer Uprising in Shanxi. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014. Illustrations. 248 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-99400-0.
Reviewed by David Silbey (Cornell University)
Published on H-War (December, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Anthony E. Clark’s Heaven in Conflict: Franciscans in the Boxer Uprising in Shanxi offers a fascinating glimpse into the ground level of a chaotic and messy encounter in China in 1900. The Boxer Uprising took place that summer and not only pitted the Chinese imperial dynasty against a somewhat motley collection of Western powers but also saw the rapid rise and fall of a local Chinese movement that mixed spiritualism, martial arts, and virulent hatred of foreigners. The “Fists United in Harmony” or “Boxers” (as Westerners dubbed them) spread rapidly out of Shandong Province in northeastern China and, helped by a drought and famine, managed to build a massive cadre of followers for the express purpose of “exterminat[ing] foreigners” (p. 45). They blamed Westerners missionaries, engineers, diplomats, and soldiers for the state of crisis that China had been in for most of the nineteenth century, and the Boxers were determined to exact revenge.
The war that resulted was a short one, and most histories have focused on the larger picture: the siege of the Western embassies in Beijing; the fighting around Tianjin; the multiple Western expeditions to China’s capital city to relieve the siege; and the general behavior of the soldiers, diplomats, and rulers of all the nations. Clark, by contrast, is more interested in the ground level encounter. He has taken inspiration, to a degree, from Joseph W. Esherick, whose work The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (1987) focuses largely on the ordinary Chinese and how they became Boxers. But Clark is interested in both sides, and so he constructs a tale not only of the Boxers but also of the spiritual parallels, the Franciscan missionaries of Shanxi Province. Here were two populations obsessed with spiritualism, with local events, and with the day-to-day life that is so often lost in larger histories. Clark tells their stories side by side, tracing the back story of the Franciscan priests and nuns who came to Shanxi, the experiences they had in China, and the consequences of their slaughter. He also tells the stories of the Boxers, as much as they can be reconstructed; of the “Red Lanterns,” prepubescent female Boxers who were reputed to have great magical powers and could fly; and of the male Boxers and their attempt to slaughter those they blamed for China’s crisis. The central moment of this story and the linchpin around which Clark builds his book is the killing of a large group of missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, by the provincial governor Yuxian with help from the local Boxers on July 9, 1900, in Shanxi. The narrative of the book leads up to that moment, looks at it closely, and then spins out the consequences from it.
Clark does good work here, work underpinned by a remarkable collection of archival sources drawn from the United States, China, and the Vatican. He treats the sources with careful skepticism and uses them to piece together a compelling story of both the Franciscans and the Boxers. Clark argues convincingly that the two groups were consciously engaged in spiritual warfare, albeit with different methods and different goals. The missionaries literally saw themselves as disrupting Satan’s work in China, with all the local and household gods of the Chinese merely being manifestations of the devil. To mark their victories, they built churches on the old sites of Chinese temples, as physical affirmation of their dominance. But they were also obsessed with the idea of martyrdom, reading to themselves regularly of the historical Catholic martyrs and the tortures and the scourges that they had undergone. In some sense, it was their deaths they were ready for, not the deaths of their enemies. The Boxers, by contrast, were more than ready for the deaths of their enemies. They believed that they were engaged in a fierce and ongoing war with the foreigners, and that to fight that war they had to kill the foreigners, violently and publicly. Clark never quite says this explicitly, but his implication is that the two sides gave each other what they wanted. The Catholics got their martyrdom; the Boxers, their slaughter. And so, one more small but important part of the uprising played out.
It is not that simple, however, and here Clark falters a bit. For not all Catholics went meekly to their fates. Many fled and many resisted. Clark mentions both, and makes a point of discussing the remarkable resistance of Beicang Cathedral in Beijing, where the Archbishop Alphonse Feverier resisted attacks for fifty-five days with only a few French and Italian marines and a host of willing Catholics, both foreign and Chinese. Clark also mentions a Franciscan mission in Shanxi that resisted similarly. He never really fits either of these into his martyrdom analysis, and it would have deepened the book to consider why some Catholics saw glory in martyrdom and others fought back fiercely. They shared the same God but did not necessarily think that that God was asking the same thing of them.
So, too, there is a bit of depth missing from Clark’s analysis of the Boxers. He points out the fact that most of the Red Lanterns were between eleven and fifteen years old, that Shanxi was a resolutely conservative and patriarchal area of China, and that many of those girls would be trapped in a marriage not of their choosing or something equally confining. But he does not extend the analysis much deeper than that: joining the Red Lanterns gave these girls power in their familial and cultural relationships that they could never hope to get otherwise. For once, they could dominate their families, rather than vice versa. Clark needed to explore those gender dynamics more thoroughly and more thoughtfully because it would suggest the way in which the Boxer Uprising disturbed not only the foreigners but also ordinary Chinese society. Both the men and women in the Boxers came largely from powerless groups in the peasant culture; joining the Boxers gave them influence they could never gain otherwise.
These caveats aside, this is a useful book for scholars interested in the Boxer Uprising, in Chinese society of the late nineteenth century, and in the ground-level experience of popular uprisings everywhere. His focus on religion and spirituality offers a perspective often neglected by historians of conflict, and his deployment of drastically underused and understudied sources breaks new ground in Franciscan studies.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
David Silbey. Review of Clark, Anthony E., Heaven in Conflict: Franciscans and the Boxer Uprising in Shanxi.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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