The Taiping Rebellion

The Taiping Rebellion

This week we learned about the Taiping Rebellion, which took place around 1840s-1860s. In it, Hoong, a man who repeatedly failed his government exams, decided to claim he was the other son of God and use Christianity as a recruiting method. This last was rather unique, as previous rebellions had used Buddhism, not Christianity. As much as you would think that the West would be thrilled with this, they weren’t. They were so dissatisfied with the heresy of there being a second son of God that they decided to side with the Qing government instead. So, they helped to modernize the Qing army by equipping them with guns and cannons (thus taking away the advantage of Medieval fortresses) and teaching them how to use these modern tools.

The book reviews taught me that history is not just a set of facts. It is how we view and interpret this bunch of facts- especially what importance we put on them, knowing what we do about what was then the future and is now the past. What’s more, history, like every other discipline, is interpreted through the eyes of humans. Every human has a different life history and different prejudices and thus a different opinion and interpretation. Thus, a man or woman with a more liberal outlook, perhaps because he/she lives in a democracy like the United States and not a communist regime (like modern-day China) is more likely to be sympathetic to Hoong’s cause than a more conservative person.

In this case, the facts have been shaped by the need to portray Hoong’s followers as miscreants fighting against the legitimate government. What isn’t commonly said is why these men decided to fight against this government. Had they won, not only would these reasons be commonly taught, but the Qing government would likely be shown as more evil and incompetent than it was. (The Qing government was actually pretty competent. It just didn’t maintain a large or modern enough standing army.) Remember- history is written by the victor. Due to ethnocentrism, this is especially true if race or ethnicity was involved, as was the case between the Manchu Qing empire and the Chinese and Hakka and other minority groups from Southwest China.

So, depending on which view the book was written from and which view the reviewer felt was correct, the reviewer may or may not have agreed with the book, thus explaining the wildly different reviews.

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Information from:

Melvin Bragg and guests “The Taiping Rebellion“. In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, Feb. 24 2011

Platt, Stephen R. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom : China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War. First Vintage books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2012

Sunquist, Scott W. Review of The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, by Thomas H. Reilly. Church History 74, no. 4 (2005): 900

Bohr, Richard P. Review of The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, by Thomas H. Reilly. Monumenta Serica 53 (2005): 514

Esherick, Joseph W. Review of The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, by Thomas H. Reilly. The American Historical Review 110, no. 5 (2005): 1498


Opium- When East Met West

The main thing I learned this week was just how important opium was to British traders. More depressing was just how much those traders were willing to sacrifice public health and their country’s international reputation for financial gain. The Chinese hated this emphasis on opium, which tended to cause addiction in both countries. There were questions about how the Christian missionaries (who were socially well-looked upon in the West) could try to convert any Chinese to Christianity when the Chinese hated the British for their opium. The Chinese emperor actually sent a letter to the British monarch (likely, at this time, Queen Victoria) to complain about this and to say that the Chinese could live without British trade goods (seeing as China was so superior to Britain and the British apparently only traded what he called unnecessary junk,) whereas the British really needed them and their wonderful and superior trade goods. So, he threatened to simply close China to western trade.

On the other side of the opium importation debate, there were questions about how, without the enormous profits from opium, traders could afford to ship other desired Chinese goods (like spices, silk, and dolls) all the way back to the United Kingdom without losing money. (It is made clear that traders would not bring these goods without the incentive of profit.) Also, British traders complain about both being held up while their ships were being searched for smuggled opium and, as conversely strange as it sounds, the Chinese drug-searching net being sporadic and not as great as they would wish it to be.

Although I did not read anything else to specifically make sense of these texts, I had heard briefly about the opium war in my high school history class and I happened to read a book (albeit historical fiction) this summer that featured opium addiction in Britain in this time period and I did draw on this knowledge in my responses this week.

I’d love to read a text featuring how the British government responded to these continuing opium problems and I’d love to know approximately how many people, in each country, were addicted to opium. I’m sure that many of these were Chinese sailors, but I’d like to know what other strata of society this problem encompassed. Likewise, I imagine that this problem affected mostly men. I’d be interested to know if that is definitely true. I’d also love to know if any of these addicts ever managed to beat this addiction. Other than, perhaps, JStor and Google, does anybody know where I might be able to find this information?

Image courtesy of:

google images

Information courtesy of:

Almack, William. Journal (July 1837- July 1841), MS Add.9529. Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives

Jardine Matheson: Traders of the Far East. London: Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1999, p. 46

Lin Zexu. “Letter to the English Ruler”, in Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 through the Twentieth Century, Vol. 2, 202-205. Edited by Wm. Th. de Bary and R. Lufrano. Columbia Univ. Press, 2001

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I learned that the first diplomatic experience between Britain and China was a disaster. (Isn’t it hard to imagine the British failing at diplomacy?) Although they exchanged gifts, the Chinese emperor viewed Great Britain as a tribute-paying country, and so would not let the British stay and set up a permanent consulate. This view of Great Britain as a tribute-paying county was helped by a (probably purposefully) mistranslated letter from King George III and the Chinese worldview, which said that no country, especially not one located so far away, could be equal to China. They then figured that any rulers of these “lesser” countries would, of course, have to be lesser rulers.

One does wonder if, had he let them stay, which would have undoubtedly have allowed them to trade more with the Chinese, the British might not have participated in the Opium Wars about 100 years later. More than that though, one is struck by seeing ethnocentrism (a.k.a. my country is better than yours) practiced by an eastern country, when one knows so well that that same force would help the western countries (like Great Britain) to conquer and colonize them or parts of them just decades later.

We keep hearing about this encounter from the British perspective. I would really love to see it from the Chinese perspective. I know that the Chinese wrote about it because Macartney said that everything he and his men said or did was meticulously written down. I question whether the British fully appreciated how much more the Chinese knew about their natural surroundings (like plants and animals) than they did. It is mentioned in Macartney’s diary, but he doesn’t say whether or not he is impressed with it.

Although we evidently haven’t gotten to that point yet, I’d like to know when prejudice based on skin color and eye shape (a.k.a. “yellow skin” and “slanted eyes”) started with regards to Asians. Well-educated know well when it started with Africans due to slavery in the New World, but Asians weren’t brought over as slaves. I mention this now because there was no evidence of it in this week’s readings, so it must not have existed yet. Perhaps China’s advanced technology and civilization helped with this. It stands to reason that the more a country and its people have to offer, the more respect, however grudging, they may be granted by foreigners. (Conversely, the more resources, natural or manufactured, one can steal, the more interested foreigners will be in colonization.)

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Information courtesy of:

Platt, Stephen R. “How Britain’s First Mission to China Went Wrong: Why the Macartney Mission Went Awry.” LA Review of Books, China Channel, May 18, 2018.

Hevia, James Louis. “4: King Solomon in All His Glory.” In Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793, 84-115. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995

“6.4: The First Edict [from Qianlong to King George], September 1793” and “6.5: The Second Edict, Sept. 1793”. In The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection, edited by Janet Y. Chen, Pei-kai Cheng, Michael Elliot Lestz, and Jonathan D Spence, 87-93. Third ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014

Du Halde, J.-B. The General History of China : Containing a Geographical, Historical, Chronological, Political and Physical Description of the Empire of China, Chinese-Tartary, Corea and Thibet. Done from the French of P. Du Halde. Ecco Database. London: Printed by and for John Watts, 1736

Staunton, George. An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China. Second Edition, Corrected. In Three Volumes. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. London: Printed for G. Nicol, 1798


First Encounter-Week 2

The Jesuits and their Astronomical Learning At Court in China

In this week’s readings, I learned about just how much the Jesuits were valued by the Chinese court. Although this was solely for their astronomical knowledge, I found this to be astounding because they were trying to preach the Christian gospel in a country whose primary theological focus was on the stars and the yin/yang dichotimy. I also learned, although is seems obvious in retrospect, that the Jesuits kept in touch with their superiors in Europe. In a day and age with so little transportation and communication (due to intensive distance and lack of technology) and Jesuits staying in China for years on end, this seems really impressive to me. I wonder- if everything went according to plan (which it evidently sometimes did not), how long would it take for their superiors to get these letters?

I was lucky that I had already taken one class that touched on the history of east meeting west, so I didn’t have to consult any further sources to make sense of this week’s readings.

However, this week’s readings do beg a further research question- in a world far away, both physically and culturally, from Europe, and with so few of them, just how close did these Jesuits get? Were they all friends who lived together in a very close-knit community, like, ironically, Chinatown in major American cities (like NYC) around the turn of the century? If not, did they at least all know of each other? I think it’s likely, especially given that the Jesuits were willing to try to help other Europeans who arrived there.

I think that, although it is from a few centuries earlier, I’d like to read Marco Polo’s account of China. That way, I could see how the Europeans initially reacted to China and compare this to how the Jesuits (who seem to have been a little more open-minded) felt. Perhaps the Jesuits’ seemingly open-mindedness is really a symptom of racial stereotypes (like “slant eyes)” regarding Asians having not been invented yet due to the comparative newness of European travel to Asia.

Along these same lines, I’d like to know just how much the Jesuits revered their ancestors. If they did revere them, perhaps their comparing them (and their violence) to the Romans was a compliment. (Many Medieval people revered the Romans as the last great civilization.) I find it unlikely though, especially given that the only reference to this is with reference to their violence.)

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Data courtesy of:

Elman, Benjamin A. A Cultural History of Modern Science in China. New Histories of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Matteo Ricci: Five Letters from China. Edited and translated by Gianni Criveller, Beijing: Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, 2011

Li, Zhi. A Book to Burn and a Book to Keep (hidden). Translated by Rebecca Handler-Spitz, Pauline C. Lee and Haun Saussy. Translations from the Asian Classics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016

Verbiest, Ferdinand. Ferdinand Verbiest and Jesuit Science in 17th Century China: An Annotated Edition and Translation of the Constantinople Manuscript (1676). Edited and translated by Nikolaïdis Efthymios and Noël Golvers. Sources of Modern Greek Literature and Learning, 2. Athens: National Hellenic research Foundation, Institute for neohellenic research, 2009

Spence, Jonathan D. Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of Kʻang Hsi. New York: Vintage Books, 1975