Anna Chen – 17 May 2023
What the Guardian’s review of the British Museum’s Hidden Century exhibition doesn’t tell you about the Taiping Rebellion
The Guardian’s review of the British Museum’s Hidden Century exhibition continues the 19th-century mindset rationalising British imperialism in China past and present while omitting the driving force behind the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).
Hong Xiuquan’s Taiping Rebellion was a popular effort by millions of suffering Chinese to rid themselves of a decaying Qing government during Britain’s brutal Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) and create a fair new society for the masses out of the wreckage.
Hong can be can be seen as China’s first communist. Initially inspired by the teachings of Christ, he rejected the ossifying strictures of Confucianism and instead sought the abolition of landlordism, the redistribution of wealth for all, and the prohibition of prostitution, bound feet and the smoking of opium, transforming society into Hong’s vision of a ‘Heavenly Kingdom’.
This movement was opposed not only by the Qing dynasty it sought to depose, but also by the British whose interests were best served by the corrupt royal court even though they were at war with each other. As with today, the West would rather destroy social progress in China than see its people flourish.
The British had become massive consumers of the tea, silks, spices and porcelain sent to the great ports of Liverpool, Cardiff and Tlbury. Running out of gold bullion to pay for their chinoiserie, British merchants, protected by the armed forces, turned narco-capitalist and launched the Opium Wars in 1839. China was forced — literally at gunpoint — to import cheap mass-produced industrial quantities of opium grown in Bengal to pay for the trade.
Not content with transforming what had been an aristocratic vice into a nationwide addiction, the British army joined forces with the Qing government to crush the popular Taiping movement and ensure their dominance could continue unhindered. Anti-Hong forces were trained and led by American businessman Frederick Townsend Ward, and later by the British officer Charles George Gordon. They finally defeated Hong at his last hold-out in Nanjing in 1864. 20 to 30 million died, along with his dream of a revivified society — the Heavenly Kingdom.
At the end of the first Opium War in 1842, the Nanjing Treaty, the first of the unfair ‘unequal’ treaties imposed on China, ceded Hong Kong to Britain. Others would create five ports — Canton (Guangzhou), Amoy (Xiamen), Foochow (Fuzhou), Ningpo (Ningbo), and Shanghai — and divide the spoils among British, French, American, German and Japanese concessions.
The British East India Trading Company’s army-backed predations had been joined by the French. In 1860, British and French troops had already looted and burnt down the Summer Palace.
The Boxer Rebellion, a renewed wave of Chinese resistance to foreign occupation at the end of the 19th century, was also met with military might in the Eight Nation Alliance — Britain, the US, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, Italy and Austria-Hungary — which ganged up to crush the Boxers and enforce the continued pillage of China.
Today, the current US-led assault on China has AUKUS and the G7 countries taking shape in yet another alliance to “contain” (read: ‘”carve up”) the new superpower just as it gets back onto its feet.
The Taiping Rebellion and other attempts by the Chinese to give birth to themselves as a stable, developed, thriving nation have always been met with dehumanisation, character assassination and violence. Chinese people have the same potential for raised consciousness, and a willingness to fight for a better way to be, as any other oppressed group anywhere else in the world. We know of Spartacus and the slaves, peasants in the 17th century English revolution and Civil War, Quaker pacifists. You see these sparks and shifts of consciousness throughout history. Yet Chinese people’s desire to take the same road to liberation is trashed unless it is a mirage whipped up to serve colonialists who won’t leave them in peace.
Unfortunately, the Taiping rebellion was crushed by a combination of backward forces, including the rapacious British Empire whose self-justification and twisted narratives continue to this day.
We’re currently seeing a repeat of the same lash-up of imperialist forces to suppress by all means the rising superpower that hasn’t had a war in 40 years, all aided by Biden’s huge anti-China propaganda budget of more than $500 million a year ($800m a year total) on top of vastly increased war machine funding of $1 Trillion for 2024.
Watch this space.
The British Museum Hidden Century exhibition 18 May 2023 – 8 October 2023
One of the show’s curators is Julia Lovell. Review of her book, The Opium War: Smoke and mirrors from 2012
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James on Twitter just sent me this fascinating story about my family namesake.
One of the Taiping rebels, a man named Ah Chen, escaped from China in the face of massive man-hunt of the rebel remnants. He became an indentured labourer in the West Indies, eventually landed in Trinidad, and married a local girl.
They had six children. The eldest, Eugene became Trinidad’s first Chinese lawyer, and a very successful one at that. He married Alphonsine A Gantheaume, a local beauty whose family was wealthy.
Eugene heard about Sun Yatsen, and moved his family to London to see if Sun needed his help. Eugene helped Sun in many ways, putting out newspapers, unravelling the dense legalese at the Paris Conference of 1920.
Alphonsine died very young in the 1920s.
He and other revolutionaries, eg Sun’s widow, Mme Song Qingling, considered themselves the true vanguard of Sun’s San Min Chu Yi. And they abhorred Chiang’g betrayal of Sun’s legacy. Both went to Russia to escape the 1927 Nationalist Revolution.
Eugene did not leave China when Japan invaded. When Japan couldn’t persuade him to endorse the puppet Nanking government, he was was executed in 1944.
His son, Jack, who spent his youth in Trinidad and came to China at age 17, didn’t speak Chinese. Jack married former Red Guard, Yuan-Tsung, who helped to translate for Jack when under interrogation during the Cultural Revolution.
I read Yuan-Tsung Chen’s book: Return to the Middle Kingdom, published in 2008, by Union Square Press. The author went to teach at Cornell in 1972. Her book gives a timeline on the Chen’s family, beginning with Joseph Chen (Ah Chen’s Christian name), including the spouses, the children, and the in-laws.