Sunday, May 07, 2006

Elleman's Military History of China

Elleman treats all the rebellions of the 19th century as an ethno-centric reaction to the Manchu rule. Elleman characterizes the Taiping Rebellion as an _expression of “anti-Manchu Han nationalism.” (pg 57) Regarding the other rebellions that Elleman covers: Nian, Tungan, and Muslim Rebellions; the author calls these “radical reflection of increased regionalism.” He then explains that the only reason that regionalism had a chance to rise up is because the Qing dynasty was so distracted by the larger Taiping rebellion, that they could not concentrate on the situations out in the provinces.

Elleman’s treatment reminds me of Sir John Harington quote from the 17th century: “Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” The term “rebellion” is similar to “treason” in the epigram; rebellions that succeed become “revolutions” that usher in new dynasties. The Manchus/Qings themselves came to power after a period of rebellion that culminated with the sacking of Beijing. Had the Mings been able to resist the Qing onslaught, history would have recorded the rise and fall of the Manchus a failed regional rebellion. As we have seen, a rebellion’s success allows those leaders to dictate the terms by which they are remembered.

This author also asserts the inevitability of success for rebellion against the Qing. According to Elleman, as the rebellions grew stronger, the Qing were forced to adopt western weapons and tactics, both of which were soon matched by the rebels. Elleman cites the diffusion of Western thought and hardware into the China as the reason the Qing were ultimately defeated. The problem with this thesis is that the Qing had the same access to Western thought and hardware as the rebels, but those things could not preserve the dynasty. Further, when innovative military minds did rise up among the Qing, the dynasty was able to defend itself.

The rebellions occurred during a period in which the Qing Dynasty lost the competence and the will to assert its authority throughout China. Such periods in China’s past, during which the provinces perceived that that the central government had lost control, signaled the beginning of the end of the dynasty in power. In an earlier posting, we discussed whether the perception that the dynasty had lost control inexorably led to the Dynasty actually losing control or whether the perception flowed from the actual loss of control. Regardless of which was the cause and which was the effect, opportunistic pretenders to the throne pressed their claims during this 60 year period. It is easy to comprehend how fatigued the Qing dynasty became after two generations of challenges to its rule. This fatigue prevented the Qing from mustering the force necessary to put down the final challenge to their rule in 1912.

It is perhaps the nature of China and the Chinese that gives rise to bloody rebellion. China is a huge area with many different cultures competing for political power. When there is a strong central power that can plausibly claim to have the “Mandate of Heaven” for its rule, China holds together in peace. However, if the rulers lose the interest or will to ruthlessly assert their power all the way to the frontiers of China, rebellions arise either to assert local control or, depending on the ambitions of the rebellion’s rulers, push all the way to the capital in a bid to overthrow the Emperor.