Aaron Barlow’s post on how our standardized testing is starting to suggest parallels to the civil service exams in Imperial China stuck a chord with me. So here is a post that is a tangent to his post, but it’s possible that the topic may be of as much interest to some others as it has been to me.
We typically think of political demagogues and the mass movements that they inspire as particularly modern and Western phenomena. But they have also been a fairly early product of Western imperialism in the non-Western world—with predictably terrible results.
I have no expertise in Chinese history, imperial or otherwise. But I have long been fascinated by a terrible conflict called the Taiping Rebellion and more specifically by the improbable figure who inspired it.
In the mid-19th century, as the Qing Dynasty’s power began to erode, and China’s economic political, economic, and social problems were compounded by a series of natural disasters, the civil service became, paradoxically, one of the few reliable sources of a stable livelihood and, for many Chinese from modest backgrounds, one of the few routes to any sort of upward mobility. Therefore, the competition for those positions became extremely fierce.
Hong Xiuquan’s repeated failure to pass the civil service exams seems to have led him into a very eccentric evangelical state that became megalomaniacal. Among other things, he became convinced that he was the younger brother of Jesus. Over about a decade, he transitioned from being viewed as a local crackpot to being acknowledged as a spiritual visionary, to being regarded as a political savior. Soon a peasant army, proclaimed as being dedicated to the creation of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, had gathered in his name, and from 1850 to 1864, it marched up and down the river valleys of southern China, devastating the cities and countryside alike.
Hong Xiuquan himself, however, chose to remain largely a figurehead of the movement that he inspired. His forces were led by others, and those responsible for creating a political system out of the movement never managed to transform its violent energy into governance structure that was sustainable or to create alliances with other nations against the Qing.
After a decade and a half of anarchic conflict that may have caused more deaths than any conflict before the World Wars, Hong Xiuquan died as Qing forces were approaching Nanjing. Ironically, he died of food poisoning, from eating wild vegetables that had been scavenged in the midst of a terrible shortage of food. His remains were initially buried in the imperial palace of the earlier Ming Dynasty. But the Qing eventually exhumed his remains, cremated them, and then shot the ashes out of a cannon so that they would be forever dispersed.
Nonetheless, Hong Xiuquan had become so removed from the actual leadership of the Taiping movement that his death did not end the wars. Remnants of his army dispersed to the far corners of China and into neighboring territories and continued to create havoc. In some instances, in places at the far reaches of the Qing Empire, the peoples attacked by these forces had little idea of who they were, where they had originated, or what they represented. So they were actually misidentified in some histories.
There is a further historical footnote, here, that has fascinated me. If you have ever seen the film Khartoum starring Charlton Heston, you know that Heston played a British colonial soldier and adventurer named Charles “Chinese” Gordon. The Qing Emperor appointed Gordon to lead the “Ever Victorious Army” that was pivotal in the defeat of the main Taiping forces. When Muhammad Ahmad declared himself the Mahdi and raised a broad rebellion in the Sudan, threatening the largely Egyptian garrison in Khartoum, Gordon was dispatched to sustain the defense of the city until a relief force could be raised and brought south along the Nile. But the Mahdi’s forces would take the city before such a force was ever even organized. (The Mahdi was portrayed by Laurence Olivier; so one can argue that whoever Heston was portraying was doomed.)
Indeed, it was not until the news that Gordon’s severed head had been placed on public display in the center of Khartoum created a popular furor in Great Britain that a massive force, led by Lord Kitchener and including a young Winston Churchill, was sent against the Mahdists. Muhammad Ahmad himself had died of typhus sometime before the decisive Battle of Obdurman, in which his forces were slaughtered as they futilely charged the British artillery and Gatling guns. Even British officers would recount the massacre of the Mahdists with considerable horror, and the battle ranks as one of the most lopsided decisive battles in history.
Both Hong Xiuquan and Muhammad Ahmad have been subsequently been transformed by the Maoists in China and by Sudanese nationalists into heroic figures who organized important rebellions against Western imperialism. That both were seized by the conviction that they were important religious figures does not seem coincidental, though in Hong Xiuquan’s case, the conviction seems to have much more completely delusional, something much closer to absolute madness.
Here is a poem that I wrote about 20 years ago about Hong Xiuquan. It will likely be of more interest as an attempt to characterize him than as a poem.
He was determined to become
a figure of importance in his village–
the respected arbiter of the futures
of one generation succeeding another,
the sole point of attention
for a room of child faces made individual
by his small gestures of praise and derision,
child faces already desperately focused
on elbowing their passage
through the narrow avenue of escape
or very quickly resigned
to season after season
of working a crop from the meager soil.
He was determined to become
a man respected as much for his wisdom
as for his learning,
a man who gradually and quietly
acquired small properties,
who with the years would come to embody
all the subtle measures of propriety.
Yet all of his determination failed him,
as time after time
he did not succeed in passing
the examination for civil service.
After the final denial of his success,
his flesh failed him,
and in the vague course of a fever,
his mind began to unravel like a fine rope
too long between the fingers.
While he was walking in Guangzhou,
a white man wearing the white collar
pressed into his hand
the folded paper,
and his hand closed around it
like a hard fist,
and in this manner he carried the words
for several miles
until they rose from their printed form
and entered his heart,
seized hold of it–
gathered all his months of delirium
into the moment of rapture
that in the furnace of the desert
infuses great prophets,
and thus he came to see the very face of God,
and, though trembling
with all the apprehension of the lost son,
kissed the face
and, in that kiss, found himself again.
In his village,
those who had no reprieve from troubles,
who began to wither with hunger
as taxes rose on the harvests of drought,
at first found in his serene detachment
a diversion, evidence of madness beyond cure,
and, yet, when hardships began to harden them,
they turned on him with hard words and even blows,
which did not perturb him, which left them
more enraged, and then ashamed.
And so they began to gather before him,
to entreat him to speak
of the great spirit that sustained him.
In a voice at once both intense and detached,
he would say to them:
“I am the second offspring of Joseph and Mary,
the younger brother of Jesus,
blood of the blood of the savior of all men.
I am the second son of Jehovah
who remained among men
to resurrect in times of great need
the Faith that is the great gift
of the Resurrection.
I am the second son of Jehovah
come to lead the Saints among you
to the Heavenly Kingdom.
You must renounce the habits of sinners–
drunkenness, opium, gaming, and abuse of women.
You must renounce these as you renounce
all the wasted luxury of wealth.”
And so those who gathered around him
grew in numbers beyond reckoning,
and because there were those who would harm him,
they took up arms to protect him,
and village to village began the march
up the valley of the Yangtze,
and those who resisted
were treated as the agents of evil
must be treated
in the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.