Chinese Affairs (July 1862)

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written July 1862


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Source: His despatches and Other Writings on China, India, Mexico, the Middle East and North Africa, Edited with an Introduction by Shlomo Avineri, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1968. First Edition, pp 418-420.
Keywords : Colonialism, China

(Die Presse, July 7, 1862)

Some time before the tables began to dance, China – this living fossil – started revolutionizing. By itself there was nothing extraordinary in this phenomenon, since the Oriental empires always show an unchanging social infra-structure coupled with unceasing change in the persons and tribes who manage to ascribe to themselves the political super-structure. China is ruled by a foreign dynasty. Why should there not be initiated, after 300 years, a movement to overthrow it? From the start, the movement possessed primarily a religious character; but this it had in common with all Oriental movements. The immediate causes for the emergence of the movement were close at hand: European intervention, Opium Wars, consequently a shattering of the existing government, the outflow of silver into foreign lands, disturbances of the economic balance through import of foreign goods, etc. Paradoxically, it seems to me, opium acted as a stimulant, not as a tranquilizer. What is original in this Chinese revolution are only its bearers. They are not conscious of any task, except the change of dynasty. They have no slogans. They are an even greater scourge to the population than the old rulers. It seems that their vocation is nothing else than to set against the conservative disintegration [of China], its destruction, in grotesque horrifying form, without any seeds for a renaissance. For the characterization of these “God’s Advocates” the following excerpts from a letter of Mr. Harvey (English Consul in Ningpo) to Mr. Bruce, the English Ambassador in Pekin, will suffice.

“Since three months,” writes Mr. Harvey, “Ningpo is in the hands of the revolutionary Taipings. Just as in any other place in which these robbers have established their rule, the only consequence of it has been devastation. Do they follow other goals as well? To them it seems that the power of unrestricted and unlimited enthusiasm is actually as important as the destruction of foreign lives. It is true that this view of the Taipings does not agree with the illusions of English missionaries who tell fairy tales about ‘the salvation of China,’ the resurrection of the Empire,’ ‘the saving of the People’ and the ‘introduction of Christianity’ by the Taipings. After ten years of noisy quasi-activity, they have destroyed everything and produced nothing.

It is true, says Mr. Harvey, that in official contacts with foreigners the Taipings show themselves to possess more frank behavior and energetic toughness than the Mandarins; but this is the whole of their catalogue of virtues.

How do the Taipings pay their troops? They do not receive any regular pay, but live off plunder. Are the cities they occupy rich, so they swim in abundance and surplus; are they poor, then the soldiers endure hardships with exemplary patience. Mr. Harvey asked a well-dressed Taiping soldier how he liked his profession: ‘Why shouldn’t I like it?’, he answered. ‘I put my hand on anything I like, and if there is resistance, then – ‘ and he made with his hand a gesture signifying decapitation. A human head has no more value than a head of cauliflower.

The revolutionary army includes a nucleus of regular troops, old, seasoned and much-proved partisans. The rest is made up of recruits or peasants who have been pressed into service during the punitive campaigns. The leaders systematically send to one province the troops pressed into service in another, remote province. Thus more than forty dialects are being spoken by the rebels in Ningpo, while the Ningpo dialect is being heard for the first time in remote districts. All the hooligans, vagabonds and evil characters of every district join the troops voluntarily. Discipline maintains order only during service. Marriage and the smoking of opium are prohibited to the Taipings under penalty of death. Marriage should be postponed until after ‘the empire has been established.’ By way of compensation, the Taipings are allowed to inflict, during the first three days after the capture of a city whose inhabitants have not fled, any conceivable infamy on the women and girls, without any limit whatsoever. After these three days, all feminine persons are forcibly evicted from the cities.

Terrorization is the Taipings’ only tactic. Their success depends solely on the effectiveness of this instrument. The primary means of producing this terror is the surfeit with which it is inflicted on one given point. First, emissaries are being sent in order to find the way peacefully, disseminate alarming rumors, accomplish a few acts of arson. If these emissaries be caught and executed by the Mandarins, new ones follow in their steps until the Mandarins and the city dwellers flee or, as has been the case with Ningpo, the ensuing demoralization facilitates the insurgents’ victory.

An important instrument of terror is the Taipings’ colorful peacock-like dress. On Europeans it would have a ridiculous impression. On the Chinese it works like a talisman. These clothes give the rebels greater advantage than mobile cannon. Add to this their long, pigtailed, black or blackened hair, the wildness of their countenance, their melancholy shrieks and an affectation of anger and insanity – and it is enough to scare to death the formalistic, meek, geometrically-circumscribed average Chinese.

The emissaries having created panic, there follow on their heels specially harassed peasant refugees, who exaggerate the number and strength and terror of the approaching army. While the flames rise from the cities and their inhabitants march to the front under the impact of these horror scenes, one begins to perceive from afar, as if it were an apparition, some of these colorful hell’s hounds, whose appearance has a magnetic effect. At the approaching moment hundred thousand Taipings then thrust forward with knives, spears and hunting-guns, wildly attacking the half-demented foe and destroying everything in their wake, if they do not encounter – as they lately did in Shanghai – opposition. ‘The Taipings,’ says Mr. Harvey, ‘are an enormous mass of nothingness.’

Doubtless the Taiping impersonates the devil in the manner in which he has been represented in Chinese phantasy. But only in China was such a sort of devil possible. It is the consequence of a fossil form of social life.