restricted access 4. The Boxer Uprising and the Souls in Purgatory
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92 All the Catholic villages of central Shanxi have tales of the Boxer Uprising . Often it is the first story the villagers tell about themselves, and the focus is on how few people survived the terrible massacres. The Cave Gully people do not have a story like this because there was no massacre . When asked about the Boxers, the orphanage caretaker told instead a story that explains how the village was preserved by figures dressed in white who appeared so that the Boxers did not dare fight. The priest had given communion to all the men of the village, so that Jesus would protect them; the figures in white were souls in purgatory come to their aid. When I then asked what he meant by “souls in purgatory” (lianyuhun ), since this is not a common Chinese term, he explained that people offer masses for them and they often appear; they are very powerful in their ability to rescue you from danger and protect you. You invoke them by putting your hands together and praying: “I beg the souls in purgatory to protect me.” You might need their support in a fight. You cannot see them but it is as if many people appear. They can help because God has a special love for them, since they are not like people on earth who commit sins. People also ask the angels, Jesus, God, and Mary but that is more formal; asking the souls in purgatory is more like asking a person who is close to you.1 The Boxers began as martial arts groups that gathered in temples in Shandong province. In 1900 they developed into militias that won central government support and aimed to drive the foreign powers out of chapter 4 The Boxer Uprising and the Souls in Purgatory 9780520273115_PRINT.indd 92 9780520273115_PRINT.indd 92 27/04/13 3:46 PM 27/04/13 3:46 PM The Boxers and the Souls in Purgatory | 93 China, beginning with the missionaries and Chinese Christians, who were seen as their representatives. Shanxi was one of the parts of the country where the violence was most intense, with approximately two thousand Christians killed in the center and south of the province and many more in the northern areas bordering Inner Mongolia, as well as an unknown number of Boxers, and most of the Catholic and Protestant missionaries living in the province.2 Interpretations of these events have focused on the social tensions caused by the spread of Christianity in the years preceding the uprising. In other words they assert that the underlying cause was the conversion of Chinese to an imported Western religion that was alien to Chinese culture.3 The story of the souls in purgatory who saved the people of Cave Gully suggests quite a different interpretation, for the souls are the Catholic ancestors of the villagers. In this story the Christianity of those who come under attack is at once rooted in European Catholicism and strikingly similar to local religious practice. Ideas about the role of the living in shaping the experience of the dead have long been part of Chinese religious culture. The dead were believed to have power over the living, but also to be dependent on their offerings: the dead worshipped by their descendants became ancestors, while those who were abandoned became ghosts. This is very similar to the medieval Catholic doctrine of purgatory, a period after death during which souls are punished for the sins they committed in life but can be helped by the prayers of the living. In the nineteenth century, European Catholics earned indulgences through prayer and rituals which they could then transfer to the dead. In China, Buddhist and Daoist religious specialists conducted rituals to transfer merit to souls and save them from punishment after death. In both China and Europe the souls who received these benefits were felt to be under an obligation to respond to their devotees. The streets of Naples were scattered with little shrines depicting the souls in purgatory, their bodies rising from the flames. Because the souls depended on the prayers of the living to shorten their sufferings, they were willing to grant the requests of those who prayed or offered masses for them.4 A popular Italian collection of stories about the souls in purgatory includes the tale of a certain Duke of Sardinia who had given the revenues from one of his richest cities for the benefit of the souls in purgatory . The duke...


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