Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Book #3: Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom

Like Mao's Great Famine that I read last winter, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom documents a period of Chinese history that is both relatively obscure and unprecedented in the world for its scale. The book, written by Stephen Platt, professor of Chinese history at the University of Massachusetts, caught my attention after I read a column by Platt in the New York Times.

Writing to explain why China so feared even the tiniest hint of rebellion, the latest being the Jasmine Revolution. Civil unrest in China can materialize rapidly out of seemingly nowhere, Platt explained, mentioning the Falun Gong offhand but not offering detail. The Falun Gong attracts the wrath of the Chinese state the way it does because of what it did about fifteen years ago. At the time a little-known group, it put thousands of protesters at the door of Zhongnanhai, the compound that effectively albeit very unofficially serves as China's equivalent of the White House.

The relentless torture that Falun Gong followers have faced ever since might seem inexplicable to the outsider, but not to those who know the subject Platt wrote about in the column and in Heavenly Kingdom, the Taiping Civil War. Also known as the Taiping Rebellion, the Taiping Civil War lasted from 1851 to 1864 and remains the deadliest civil war in history with tens of millions killed.

The Taiping Rebellion originated out of nowhere much like the Falun Gong protests that coalesced into the biggest mass protest in China since the Tiananmen Square protests. In Hong Xiquan, a smart man born in 1814 who lacked the brilliance to pass China's civil servant exam, seemingly fell apart starting after his failure. By the 1840s he claimed to be the brother of Jesus Christ and rapidly attracted followers to his new religion in what was and remains the impoverished southern province of Guangxi.

By the time the imperial government in Beijing noticed, Hong's followers numbered in the tens of thousands. After routing both local and imperial forces sent to target a group that challenged both the political and religious monopoly of the state (the Chinese emperor was regarded as the Son of Heaven and referred to as such), Hong declared the Heavenly Kingdom of Taiping.

The Heavenly Kingdom, headquartered in the coastal city of Nanjing that roughly divides China into north and south, had its support south of Nanjing. Hong attracted a great deal of support from foreign missionaries that came into China from the British colony of Hong Kong, who saw the Taiping Kingdom and its religion as a Chinese analog to Christianity. As such, the West was initially very supportive of the Taiping, who were seen as a Christian influence in an otherwise godly state, a sort of nineteenth-century equivalent to the anti-Communist and now anti-Islamist forces that the West supported in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries respectively.

Pratt devotes equal space to the war within China, as well as the complex web of foreign intervention in the war, chiefly led by the British. Though the West initially supported the Taiping state, they later turned against it to protect the status quo, the status quo being the commercial interests the British had in China's port cities, chief of them being Shanghai. At one point, it even seemed possible that Britain would colonize China in the way that it had colonized India, for the benefits to China seemed obvious. In the end, nothing came of it because Britain could not stomach the prospect of administrating both of the Asian giants.

It is monumental to consider that the Qing dynasty, composed of Manchus who lived separately from Han Chinese in the way that Han Chinese typically live separately from Tibetans and Uighurs in Tibet and Xinjiang, needed 13 years to put down a rebellion. It truly is a testament to the weakness and unpopularity of the Qing dynasty, though perhaps more staggering is the fact that the dynasty survived the civil war and did not fall a half century later until 1911.

Platt identified two chief causes of the Qing victory. The first was the intervention of the British in the favour of the Qing, both official and private, in the form of arms, soldiers and mercenaries. The second was the masterful leadership of Zeng Guofan, who assembled a meritocratic army parallel to the imperial army despite having had no military experience whatsoever, having been a Confucian scholar up until that point.

Platt does touch on the effect that the Taiping Civil War had on the Chinese psyche, from the Chinese government's response to protests to the Communist Party's take on the war itself, reviling Zeng as a race traitor. Though this image is gradually being rehabilitated, it is the Taiping who are lionized as a being proto-Communists who rose up against the conservative order. What Platt does not mention, and this is hardly within the scope of the book, is the way that a century of humiliating foreign intervention in the affairs of an extremely proud nation reverberates today.

In virtually every human rights case of any interest in China today, the Cheng Guangcheng escape and exile to America being the latest example, China rejects any and all criticism as interference in its "domestic affairs". Granted, much of this is thin cover for ignoring grievous crimes committed against its people, but there is no doubt a vast well of resentment at foreign meddling in Chinese affairs to protect commercial interests.

This well will increasingly be tapped by all sorts of people. Yang Rui, a host on CCTV International, made references to "foreign trash" in a post on Sina Weibo and referred to expelled Al Jazeera correspondent Melissa Chan as a "foreign bitch". Only slightly more subtle and sophisticated are movies like 1911, a thinly disguised propaganda piece commemorating the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Qing dynasty. The movie stars Jackie Chan but largely consists of one-dimensional characters spouting party-approved tripe in favour of revolution and in opposition to foreign imperialists. It has a whopping 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

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