August 2022 Handgrenade
By John T. Kuehn
One of the most enduring, and powerful, myths of the current Chinese state and its leaders is the so-called “century of humiliation.” This narrative posits that China was disrupted and thrown into chaos by the imperialistic-capitalistic West beginning in the late 18th Century with the McCartney mission to the Qianlong Emperor (of the Qing-Manchu Dynasty) and coming to an end by 1949 with the triumph of the Chinese Communist Party. More than one century I would say…but the bulk of the humiliation narrative occurred in the 19th century, beginning with the First Opium War (which was followed by a second in the 1860s) and then capped off by total humiliation and triumph of European Imperialistic extra-territoriality after the Boxer Rebellion.
This narrative accounts for the Asian role of Japan in this humiliation by positing Japan as another “western” power, behaving like a western imperial power. These Japanese “humiliations” were very large indeed--the subjugation of the Ryukyus and the first Sino-Japanese War, the colonization of the former Qing tributary kingdom of Korea, the Boxer Rebellion, followed by the Russo-Japanese war fought entirely on Qing imperial territory in Manchuria. By the time the horrific Russo-Japanese War was over China’s biggest threat was no long western encroachments along its periphery (especially Tsarist Russia), but the Empire of Japan. Germany probably ranks second, but was ejected and replaced by Japan during the Great War (another humiliation of sorts, occurring as the Chinese revolution continued after 1911).
The other thing this narrative tends to leave out, and which historians and Asian scholars try to emphasize, is the agency of the Chinese themselves. The Qing’s expanded Chinese empire was racked internally by many revolts, the most destructive being those in the 19th century—the White Lotus Rebellion, the Xian Rebellion, various Muslim rebellions and then the mother of all Chinese holocausts, the Taiping Rebellion…which lasted over 20 years and claimed somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million lives. But even the Taiping rebellion is cut to fit the shoe…its genesis being a strange Christian cult led by “God’s Chinese Son” Hong Xiuquan. But even this explanation seems strained when it is understood the agency of the dispossessed Hakka minority that Hong came from, and the severe constraints on social mobility in China. Hong’s nervous breakdown and revelation had more to do with repeated failures of a Chinese institution, the imperial testing system, than they did some Chinese lettered Bible tract left by Western missionaries. Again, note how in creating this narrative the leaders of the PRC must remove the agency of the Chinese people and replace it with a nefarious agency from the west. It was the “other”—not us. And of course the Taiping were not the only rebels. It was all of these, but was it mostly the West?
Finally they may say…”Well look, John, it was the western encroachments that undermined the stability of the Qing system.” And I say to them, then how does one explain the fall of previous dynasties in Chinese History? The Han, the Tang, the Song, the Yuan (another ‘barbarian’ dynasty), and especially the Ming. Look at the Ming, internal peasant revolts, in the same areas as the White Lotus, the Xian, and Taiping fatally undermined the Ming and allowed China to fall to the horse-mounted Jurchen tribesmen of the north (the Manchus).
So what is the counter to all this? I await the return handgrenades from Panda-students everywhere. As do my faithful reader-participants. Xia Xia.
[sources, primarily Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China and God’s Chinese Son]