Saturday, July 28, 2012

A compelling civil war

There is a counter-factual history to be written: what if the Taiping rebellion against the Qing Dynasty had been successful?

A heterodox Christian movement would have established a new regime in China whose Prime Minister had extensive interaction with missionaries and who was open to the West.

It is an intriguing proposition: one that did not come to pass (though the rate of Christian conversion in present day China is notable and a cause of unease to the regime).

The Taiping civil war was the most destructive conflict of the nineteenth century in which up to twenty million people perished and millions were displaced, made refugees. For that reason alone it ought to better known outside of China.

Stephen Platt's 'Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West and the Epic Story of that Taiping Civil War' is a compelling account of that conflict seen from the perspective of key actors and observers both Chinese and Western.

I am about a third of the way through and two things are deeply puzzling.

One is the core narrative of Hong Xiuquan, the prophetic leader of the Taiping. On failing his third attempt at passing the Chinese civil service examination, he had a breakdown, received visions that were deeply puzzling until he read a Christian missionary tract. Suddenly he is clear - he has seen God and his, Hong Xiuquan's, elder brother, Jesus, and they have commissioned him to free China of its bondage - to both idolatry and the foreign rule of the Manchu. He launches a crusade that gathers up millions of followers (following out of conviction and out of necessity) and comes very  close to creating a new order in China. How is this possible? What is the connection between his charisma and its ability to move history with such compelling force and violent consequence?

The second follows this - one of the agendas of the revolt is purging China of idolatry - and thousands of Chinese take to destroying temples - Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist. What might not have occurred to them in March, say, became standard practice in April. Part of this is the strange infection of crowd behaviour and, no doubt, the temptations of greed and the adrenaline of violence but it is extraordinary how vulnerable we are to these temptations. Likewise our presumed affection for traditions of holiness are skin deep (aided, no doubt, by the fact that the holiness of our shrines is often equally skin deep). I am reminded of 'Holy Russia' that crumpled rather rapidly in the face of revolution.

It is an extraordinary story that makes history more rather than less mysterious. At one level you are reading an excellent narrative of the unfolding events and the dynamics of conscious decision making (good, flawed and woeful) and, at times, you imagine that this counts as explanation but behind this rational confidence stalks both the complexity of being human and yet something other.

You can see why people seek 'spirit' in history (including both set of combatants in this conflict) because so much remains unexplained, inexplicable. 

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