International & Global Education
In the historical narrative, the Boxer Uprising of 1899-1901 serves as a pivotal episode in the tumultuous era of East Asian history, marked by vehement anti-foreign and anti-Christian sentiments in China. For the most part, Martial Arts history texts and articles fail to account for the seismic impact the failure of the Boxers had on the perception of the utility of traditional martial arts. Indeed, the past decade has witnessed a similar derision of so-called traditional martial arts in light of the so-called advantages demonstrated by MMA. While the repercussions of the Boxer Rebellion reverberated across the region, a particularly intriguing facet of its impact lies in its influence on Japan's martial identity development.
The Boxer Uprising: A Catalyst for Transformation
Amidst the transformative Meiji Era, Japan vigilantly observed the unfolding events in neighbouring China. Contemporary newspapers such as The Japan Times provided an insightful lens into the fervent resistance of the Boxers against foreign influence. The uprising captured Japan's attention due to its strategic implications and sparked deliberations regarding the nation's martial identity.
Government Responses: Deliberate and Cautious
Official responses from the Japanese government during the Boxer Uprising reflected a nuanced and deliberate approach. Diplomatic statements emphasised regional stability and a meticulous balancing act to safeguard Japanese interests. This calculated response indicates an acute awareness of the significance of martial prowess in the geopolitical landscape, laying the groundwork for a more deliberate cultivation of Japan's military image. Indeed Japan"s military came to the aid of the failing Chinese's Empire in suppressing the rebellion on what was, ironcially, not to be its first footing in Beijing in the 20th Century. But that is another story.
Public Sentiment: Pragmatism and Empathy
As discerned from newspapers and public discourse, public opinion exhibited a spectrum of sentiments. Specific segments of society expressed empathy towards the Boxers' struggle, aligning with broader anti-imperialist sentiments. Conversely, in a pragmatic vein, the educated elite underscored Japan's imperative to protect its interests amidst regional unrest. These nuanced public discussions reflected a growing consciousness of the importance of martial strength in navigating a shifting global order. During this rebellion, those Japanese who had eradicated the samurai class in the name of modernisation appeared to have been on the winning side. A caste system of warriors armed with 16th-century technology did not match the mechanised, modern killing machine that professional armies offered. So-called "ki" or 'qi" could not stop bullets and shrapnel, regardless of how much had been cultivated. The slaughter of the boxers was a cold testament to this complex reality.
Traditional Martial Arts under Scrutiny: The Aftermath of Shortcomings
An integral facet emerging from the Boxer Uprising was the critical reassessment of Japan's traditional martial arts. Specific Japanese sources from the period, notably within newspaper articles and academic discussions, began questioning the efficacy of conventional martial arts. The perceived shortcomings during the Boxer Uprising prompted a rigorous examination of their relevance in the face of contemporary challenges. It is of note that no-were in the upsurging of rediscovering their ancient martial arts (Koryu) or their modern derivatives (kendo, karate, judo) was their primogeniture offering them as a means of self-defence during the Meiji years. Instead, the martial arts were to consistently billed both within japan and to a lesser degree within Okinawa as a means of 19th century health and well-being, a tool which was to be used be used to build sports fitness and a national corpus of Japanese spirit. Moroever, especially in the hands of Kano, Japan's Budo was to be a gift from Japan to the world - hence the inclusion of Judo in Olympics.
During these late years of the 1800s within the public discourse there is little naiveté that the martial arts, both ancient or new, were in any way effective against modern paradigms of violence and their accompanying tools. If anything was true, this notion of Japanese martial arts as 'effective self-defence' was something added to them once they were exported to the UK, aka Bartitsu, or other places where a large cohort of Japanese were absent. Generally a Japanese and Ryukyuan assertion with these martial arts offered pragmatic self-defence was a later invention circa 1930s with it primarily being a pos-war marketing phenomena.
For those of us in karate, the boxers name of 義和拳; 义和拳 contained the character for kempo so often utilise by Okinawan's to identify their art - the danger and irony of this could ot have been lost on Chinese scholars such at Itosu as the sought to promote their new for of TouDi...
Transformation of Perception: Martial Arts as National Assets
In the wake of these discussions, a subtle transformation transpired. Traditional martial arts, hitherto principally regarded as cultural heritage, began to be reevaluated as potential assets for national defence. The perceived inadequacies underscored the necessity for adaptation and modernisation within martial arts schools. This shift in perception marked the nascent stages of the development of Japan's martial image, aligning traditional practices with the evolving concept of national strength.
Conclusion: Navigating Identity in a Shifting Terrain
The Boxer Uprising played a pivotal role in shaping Japan's martial identity during a profound global transformation. Government responses, public sentiment, and the reevaluation of traditional martial arts collectively contributed to Japan's martial and military identity evolution. In the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, Japan embarked on a journey not only to navigate its own identity but also to position itself as a formidable force in the dynamic geopolitical landscape of the early 20th century.
NB - The visual above offers a some evidence of the gross stereotypes western powers had of the Chinese during this period. It also offers witting evidence as to the greed of those who went to the 'aid' of the Qing dynasty.
Gallant Little Soldiers: The Boxer Uprising and the Development of a Martial Image of JapanJ Fonseca - War and Stereotypes, 2020.
Multinational counterinsurgency: the Western intervention in the Boxer Rebellion 1900–1901. E Ouellet - Small Wars & Insurgencies, 2009.
Modern martial arts and the reinvention of tradition. 2015. B Wilson.
Okinawan and Japanese Budo
James M. Hatch
International Educator who happens to be passionate about Chito Ryu Karate. Born in Ireland, educated in Canada, matured in Japan