Translated by Olivia Milburn and reprinted by kind permission of the author, translator, and publisher, Sinoist Books.
Read in Chinese here.
In the year 1900, Tianjin was ripped apart by the uprising of the Fists of Righteous Harmony, otherwise known as the Boxers. As a result, the city gates were no longer closed as it got dark, fires were kept burning all night, nobody slept, and the streets were in uproar. Wave after wave of Boxers poured into the city from Hebei or Shandong Provinces, and they all wore distinguishing Eight Trigrams badges on their chests and the backs of their jackets. They wore turbans of different colours and carried flags, with swords by their sides, and held either cudgels or spears. However, their attitudes were very different: some of them screamed and shouted wildly, some of them marched in unison, and some of them looked dark, saying not a word, and with a murderous expression on their faces, grinding their teeth with a horrible gritting noise that made your hair stand on end. After entering the city, they began by setting up an altar which they draped with their flags and hung with talismans and red lanterns. Immediately, the ordinary people of the city rushed to bring them bread and steamed buns, pickled vegetables, onions, and fragrant deep-fried dough twists. They had heard that the Boxers planned to fight the people in the Foreign Concession straight away. They could already see the light of the fires burning in Majiakou and Laolongtou, and black smoke was rising over the city, accompanied by sporadic bursts of gunfire. The Boxers were burning the foreigner’s “rats’ nests” over there.
The population of the old city was about one hundred thousand, but they were now joined by at least two hundred thousand Boxers. There were plenty of battles between the people of Tianjin and the foreigners in those days, but win, lose or draw, they were never afraid.
One day at the beginning of the sixth lunar month, all the Boxer divisions in the city rushed out of the North Gate and lined up in battle formation on either side of the Grand Canal. Their glittering swords were drawn; their flaming torches blazed, and all this was reflected in the waters. Everything took place without anyone saying a word – it was amazingly silent… scarily silent. Supposedly, the Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch was on her way from the south at the head of a flotilla of Red Lantern boats and would arrive at any moment.
Over the course of the next few days, stories about the amazing exploits performed by the Red Lanterns militia circulated throughout Tianjin. A poster appeared all over the city, and the wording was very frightening:
Men should study to become Boxers;
Women should learn to become Red Lanterns.
Let us leap across Zizhulin and chop every foreigner into pieces.
The word “foreigner” on the poster had been crossed out with a thick line of red ink, just like how the names of the dead are written on official notices concerning the execution of criminals. Supposedly, when these posters were put up around Zizhulin, the foreigners were so scared they didn’t dare be seen on the streets; they stayed at home with the curtains drawn as tightly as they could.
Although the poster mentioned Red Lanterns, nobody had ever seen one. Everyone said that they were unmarried girls or young wives who wore red and were as beautiful as fairies, and they knew a special incantation that killed foreigners. Their leader, known as the Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch, was supposed to be as lovely as a goddess, quite as beautiful as the statue of the Queen of Heaven in the temple. When it came to martial arts or knowledge of magical incantations, she was also much better than any of the male Boxer leaders.
As they watched, a flotilla of huge boats sailed up the Grand Canal with red lanterns hanging from the masts. They travelled as far as Jiajia Hutong and then stopped, and here the Red Lanterns disembarked. Each one of them was wearing red trousers and a red jacket, with a shining silver sword carried on her back, and they each held a red silk fan in one hand and a red gauze lantern in the other. As the light shone on their faces, they really did look more beautiful and powerful than the Women Generals of the Yang Clan in the opera of that name.
The Boxers standing on the bank had been very well trained; when they caught sight of the Red Lanterns, they all put their one hand up to their chest in a gesture of respect, simultaneously bowing their heads. Not one looked straight ahead. The Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch didn’t get off the boat and never even showed her face – the leaders of each group of Boxers were summoned to the boat to meet her. The senior commanders, Zhang Decheng, Cao Futian, Liu Chengxiang and so on, lined up and boarded the boat in single file, looking very serious and formal, as if they were entering a temple to pray to a god.
With this, the inhabitants of Tianjin were left to speculate wildly about the identity and appearance of the Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch. Some people said that her real name was Lin Hei’er and that she was a local girl who’d grown up where the river met the sea. Her father had taught her martial arts, and they’d worked together as acrobats and performers, but somehow or other her father had angered a foreigner who’d had him thrown into prison where he died, and she was determined on revenge. Other people said that she wasn’t human at all – she was the Queen Mother of the West born into human form, who could call up a magical fire to burn up Zizhulin and make the seas run dry so that no foreign boats could sail. Of course, there were all sorts of people who worked at the Tianjin docks: some of them said that she was a shaman from the other side of the river who could summon the really important gods, but even more said that she was a local whore with a terrible temper who had worked in one of the brothels in Houjiahou. Naturally, it was the most unpleasant of these stories that everyone believed.
Early one morning three days later, the Red Lanterns suddenly all left their boats and lined up on the bank. In a very short space of time, three thousand Red Lanterns were standing in rows, their steel swords strapped to their backs, with lanterns in their right hands and fans in their left hands.
The Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch still didn’t appear, so it was a young woman dressed as the goddess Sanxiangu, with her hair combed up into a high bun on top of her head, who led the militia into the city. The Boxers who were already there had lined up along each road and avenue to stand guard for the Red Lanterns.
As the Red Lanterns marched in through the gate to the city, they stamped their feet in unison. The sound of several thousand people stamping their feet like that is truly shocking; it shakes the earth and resounds through the sky. The Red Lanterns were famous for this manoeuvre; they called it “stamping a city”. They did this to suppress evil spirits and terrify foreigners.
The Red Lanterns began by stamping their way around the city, and then they went to the church over on the western side of Tianjin. Five hundred Red Lanterns were lined up outside, and then suddenly a palanquin appeared, carried by four people. It appeared so unexpectedly in front of the church, it might as well have dropped from the sky. Even though the curtains were open, it was impossible to see who was inside. In spite of that, everyone knew that the Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch was sitting right there in the palanquin. Nobody had a clue what spell she cast from inside, but they saw Sanxiangu run from her position beside the palanquin to the door of the church, which she kicked open with one foot. Then she turned round and screamed: “Burn it!”
The five hundred Red Lanterns threw the lanterns they’d been holding into the church, and in an instant it was a mass of flames, and thick black smoke was coiling up into the sky. The five hundred Red Lanterns now raised their left hands and began fanning the flames. The little fans seemed magical – before their very eyes, the flames began to roar, burning ever hotter and more fiercely.
As the onlookers shrieked and called out, the church was burned to a blackened skeleton, and then collapsed into a ruin.
News of the Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch’s awe-inspiring powers soon reached the ears of the viceroy, Hitara-Hala Yulu. Three days after these events, Yulu invited the Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch and the senior Boxer leaders like Zhang Decheng and Cao Futain to visit the vice-regal yamen at the Three Rivers Crossing to discuss an attack on the foreigners in Zizhulin.
As to what happened when Yulu met the Divine Matriarch, or what the two of them spoke about, nobody ever knew. However, one of the men who carried her palanquin heard the viceroy ask the Divine Matriarch: “Will the foreigners attack Tianjin?” The Divine Matriarch was sitting inside the palanquin with the curtains down, and she just said: “Don’t worry about that.” It seemed a throwaway remark, but thinking about it carefully, it was full of self-confidence – there must be a reason why she spoke that way. If she was prepared to treat such a serious matter as unimportant, Yulu felt reassured and broke out in smiles. He immediately made the Divine Matriarch a gift of yellow cloth suitable for making flags.
When the Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch got back, she used the yellow cloth to make a huge battle standard, quite two yards in length, with four black velvet characters appliquéd onto it: Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch. Her standard was bordered with gold tassels, and when it was suspended from the mast on the main boat, two lines of red lanterns hung down on either side. This was a very impressive sight, and when it was lit up at night, it was even more eye-catching. Every evening, the ordinary people in Tianjin rushed round to Jiajia Hutong to set up tables of offerings and burn incense in front of the main boat. They really did treat her like she was some kind of goddess, and they begged her to keep them safe. Now all the evil gossip of days gone by were swept away and forgotten.
Every seven days, the Red Lanterns went and stamped the city – this was to show off their might, to embolden the men in the Boxer units, and to encourage the ordinary people of Tianjin in the coming fight. Within a very few days, battle was joined, and their role in stamping the city became even more important. Every time they stamped the city, the people of Tianjin felt so much more encouraged, and their morale redoubled. Because of this, it became so that they stamped the city every three days, and then eventually they were doing it every day.
The girls in the militia were so busy they couldn’t comb their hair or do their make-up… their hair was all over the place, and their clothes were put on anyhow. In the heat of battle, nobody cares how you are dressed – what matters is morale. As they stamped the city, they would sing as they crashed their boots in unison:
Women don’t comb their hair; they cut off foreigners’ heads!
Women don’t bind their feet; they laugh to see the foreigners dead!
When the time came to fight, the Red Lanterns were always right there on the front line. They would move around setting fires, and they burned the Foreign Concession to the ground. Every time they successfully set a fire in the Foreign Concession, one of the Red Lanterns would set off at a run to report the good news, holding up high a triangular yellow victory flag. When it was all over, the flags were taken back on board the boat.
At this time, there were many stories and many mysteries made about the Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch, in spite of the fact that nobody had ever seen her face. But how could she fail to be extraordinary? She was a woman, in command of several thousand female warriors, who had struck awe into the entire city, and who could make even the most senior official in the entire country obey her commands, who killed people without turning a hair and defied the foreigners’ weapons. And if she was just a mere mortal, was that not even more impressive?
The Boxers were defeated in 1900, and the Red Lanterns disappeared from the face of the earth. Before their final victory, the foreigners were so scared of the Red Lanterns that they would wet their pants at the mere thought of them. When they burst through the Tianjin defences, they shot any woman they saw who was dressed in red, but the fact is that the women they shot dead for wearing red clothes were not necessarily Red Lanterns. People in Tianjin always wore red for celebrations, and young women in the city were often dressed in this colour. Because of this, for the next twenty years or more, you didn’t see the girls of Tianjin wearing red.
As to what became of the Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch, nobody quite knew: some people said she was killed in battle, others that she went into hiding, and yet others that she was taken prisoner – there were all kinds of stories. Supposedly, the foreigners arrested the Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch and Sanxiangu at the Three Rivers, and they were imprisoned in the jail attached to the vice-regal yamen. The foreigners took pictures of the two of them, and they were afterwards exhibited all over the world as part of their spoils of war. As to whether this was true or not, who knows? There was never any further evidence or news about them.
Tianjin people never accepted this explanation. As they pointed out, the two female prisoners in the photographs were obviously women from ordinary families; the whole thing was faked by foreigners trying to show off their military might. There wasn’t anyone in Tianjin who so much as caught a glimpse of the Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch – how could the foreigners be so sure that it was her? All you could say was that they might have won, but they were still afraid of the woman.