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Chinese Rebellions Essay

History Notes > Empires and World History (c. 1400-1900) Notes

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To what extent did the western 'imperialist' impact give rise to the great anti-Manchu rebellions of mid-nineteenth century China?
In 1853, civil war threatened to tear the Qing Chinese empire apart. Taiping rebels had marched into Nanjing, declaring the city the capital of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace; in the north, the Nian Rebellion raged; Muslim communities in the northwest and southwest were on the brink of armed uprising. These events were watched with interest in the western world, and nowhere more so than in London, where Karl Marx was feeling vindicated. In Marx's view, Chinese dissidents had gathered in 'one formidable revolution', the cause of which he saw as the end of China's self-imposed isolation at the hands of the opium trade, which had been forced upon the Chinese by British imperialism. The degradation of Qing credibility, and by extension the anti-Qing rebellions of the mid-nineteenth century, were directly consequent on corrupting foreign contact: the Manchu-led state would disintegrate like 'any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetically sealed coffin, whenever it is brought into contact with the open air'. Modern scholarship presents a picture that is less clear-cut. The rebellions coincided with a period of social crisis in China, as Marx observed: the power of central government was diminished, with power accumulating in the hands of regional commanders; the bureaucracy was undoubtedly more corrupt and less efficient than it had been at the height of Ming power; and changing patterns of economic activity along with the White Lotus Rebellions of the eighteenth century had left whole regions depressed and many Chinese displaced. However, the causes of this were at first glance domestic. Above all, population pressure played a part. This increased competition for scarce resources, encouraging militarization of communities and as well as indirectly putting strain on the bureaucracy. We must therefore ask what role, if any, Europeans played in bringing about these economic and social changes. Fairbank's view is that the Chinese state was unable to cope with domestic rebellion and foreign pressures in the nineteenth century because of a well-advanced process of endogenous dynastic decline. Bin Wong has recently countered that this view may be too dependent on hindsight, projecting a view of a weak Qing state backward from 1911. He offers the modern nationalist point of view, that it was the series of unequal treaties imposed by Europeans that compromised Chinese sovereignty and opened the door to rebellion. This view, too, may be clouded by some hindsight: European influence, though damaging, was probably not crippling before the Boxer Rebellion, when it did become so. There is a strong case for seeing internal tensions within China as the main driving force behind anti-Manchu uprisings in the nineteenth century. The first half of this century was a period in which endemic processes of destabilization reached their apogee. These were, most notably: demographic changes that put increasing pressure on land and resources, an associated rise in bureaucratic corruption and inefficiency often explained as an consequence of Qing dynastic decline, and an increase in real taxation rates. The aggregate effect of these pressures was predominantly economic, and increased hardship spurred many to join rebel groups. Ethnic and religious tensions also played a part, as the vociferous anti-Manchu rhetoric of the rebel leaders Hong Xiuquan and Zhang Luoxing demonstrates, but these were most likely ancillary to meat-and-potatoes economic concerns. Foreign influence, and particularly the destabilizing effect of the opium trade on domestic commodity prices, served to exacerbate these issues but cannot really be seen as their root cause.

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