China's International Attitude of Withdrawal during the 19th Century

By Schiele, Alexandre | Geopolitics, History and International Relations, July 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

China's International Attitude of Withdrawal during the 19th Century


Schiele, Alexandre, Geopolitics, History and International Relations


1. Introduction

From 1850 to 1864, the Taiping Rebellion raged across Southern China. During these fourteen long years, imperial troops scattered as cities fell in front of the advancing rebels. It was only when the Qing dynasty1 received Western military support that it finally stopped their advance, took back lost cities and finally overwhelmed Nanjing, Hong Xiuquan's2 (1814-1864) last stronghold and capital of the Great Peaceful Kingdom of Heaven. The scope of the rebellion against the Empire and its equalitarian ideology made it a critical moment in the timeline of revolts3 that periodically engulfed China until the 1911 Revolution. These fourteen years of hope, zeal, weariness, terror and massacres cost the lives of more than twenty million (Platt 2012: 358)4 and made hundreds of millions more refugees.5 Furthermore, because of its duration and scope, it is the greatest revolutionary upheaval of the 19lh century. All through its history, China was swept by large millenarian movements,6 and the Taiping Rebellion along with its specific ideologies echoed the sudden transformation of China's international environment.

In the mid-19th century, the Chinese Empire, here referred to as a sociopolitical structure, faced potentially fatal contradictions: overpopulation and the fall of agricultural production; growing numbers of candidates for a fixed number of government offices (Balazs 2012);7 unprecedented corruption levels; increasing tensions between the Manchu aristocracy and the Han bureaucracy; and finally, as economic actors shied away from productive activities, arbitrariness replaced rule by law. Furthermore, peasant revolts and uprisings by subject peoples8 undermined the foundations of the Empire while burdening its finances. Although the Manchu banners always won in the end, each military campaign stretched on longer and longer. All these signs, from peasant uprisings to foreign invasions, seemed to herald the end of a dynastic cycle9 if the Qing dynasty did not pull itself together. Since the Manchu firmly held all the frontier regions from which invasions could come - a major worry for every Chinese emperor considering that the real threat to the integrity of the Empire always came from its land frontiers10 - the Qing dynasty had all the time it needed to bring back order, or so it thought.

Beginning in 1834, modern fleets gradually forced the opening of its ports and cities to foreign trade, and by way of consequence, to Western values. The powerful Manchu armies were powerless in the face of this new threat. The Empire had no choice but to concede to the extraterritoriality" of Western powers in order to safeguard its integrity, yet the Western powers sought only new products and new markets. Some were not satisfied with concessions and therefore would try to carve out colonies (Spence 1991: 183).12 On the other hand, the Empire sought to limit Western influence on its margins, but trade was only the first step and unacceptable demands would soon lead to war again. For local populations, the Western presence was devastating because it radically transformed economic, political, and social relations, as well as the values that were organically linked to them. This is why, paradoxically, Western presence was also accepted as a vehicle for the emanci- pation of the marginalized groups of the Empire. It was from this contradiction that the Taiping Rebellion partially stemmed from.

From this context of unprecedented economic, social, political and cultural change in Chinese History, a new millenarian movement was born, organizing itself and facing the reigning dynasty and Confucianism. Against legal discriminations,13 the Taiping propagated a sinicized version of "Christianity." In the span of a few years, the movement attracted poor intellectuals and peasants whose lives were unsettled by the First Opium War (1839-1842) - the Second Opium War (1856-1860) took place during the Rebellion. The Empire tried to repress the movement out of the fear that it would ally itself with the Western powers but it backfired: on the one hand, the Empire had to resist the Western invasion forces which enjoyed logistic, technological and military superiority; on the other hand, it had to face a revolution that drew its inspiration from Western ideals and culture, offering nothing less than to rebuild China from the bottom-up. …

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