The CCP perpetuates the myth that the West was responsible for the decline of China, and continues to praise the Taiping and Boxers “cults.”
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 2 of 8. Read article 1.
The 2021 Resolution on history insists that “all Party members should uphold historical materialism,” and adopt Marxism as the scientific, infallible tool for the interpretation of history. Yet, it also refers to a tradition of interpreting Chinese history that emerged in the two resolutions on CCP history that preceded this one, the third, i.e., Chairman Mao’s resolution of 1945 and Deng Xiaoping’s resolution of 1981. It is important for the third resolution to stress the continuity with the first and the second.
“These documents, the 2021 Resolution says, unified the whole Party in thinking and action at key historical junctures and played a vital guiding role in advancing the cause of the Party and the people. Their basic points and conclusions remain valid to this day.”
The first and the second resolutions on history were steps in the process leading to an official interpretation of Chinese history, which is simple to the point of being simplistic. The third resolution repeats that, “With a history stretching back more than 5,000 years, the Chinese nation is a great and ancient nation that has fostered a splendid civilization and made indelible contributions to the progress of human civilization.”
“After the Opium War of 1840, however, China was gradually reduced to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society due to the aggression of Western powers and the corruption of feudal rulers. The country endured intense humiliation, the people were subjected to untold misery, and the Chinese civilization was plunged into darkness.”
In fact, many Chinese nationalists shared this view of history, and one can still find versions of it promoted in contemporary Taiwan. It posits that the glorious and splendid Chinese civilizations was destroyed by the aggression of Western imperialism in the 19th century. What is true in this view is that China had indeed offered to the world a magnificent civilization, of which its literature and art remain as exceptional testimonies. The only quarrel non-Chinese historians of China may have with the CCP is that the latter’ s historical approach promotes the “excellent traditional Chinese culture” selectively, by systematically eliminating from it religion and spirituality.
In continuity with the rationalist ideologists of early nationalist China, the CCP perpetuates the myth that traditional China had no religion, passing off the real absence of a word that might have been translated with “religion” as if it supported the false statement that Imperial Chinese were not religious. They might not have had a word for indicating it, but their daily life was full of what we would now call religion.
Again in continuity with some trends in nationalist China, the CCP makes Western imperialism the main culprit of the decadence of Imperial China, although it also mentions that “the corruption of feudal rulers” prevented an effective reaction against the Western powers. Again, not all is false in this narrative. The Western powers, particularly the United Kingdom, exerted an enormous and unfair pressure on the Qing empire and accelerated its demise, while the Qing emperors did not manage to deal with the West adequately and underestimated its strength.
However, it is a gross over-simplification to pretend that “after the Opium War” and the subsequent so-called “unequal treaties” with Western powers (and Japan), China started its decadence and went “from light to darkness.”
The defeat in the Opium War and the unequal treaties occurred because Imperial China was already in a situation of decline. Some historians believe that the decline started when the Qing replaced the Ming in 1644, although the late Ming period had already been one of civil wars, gross social injustice that produced peasant rebellions, and fiscal collapse of the state. The Qing were “foreign,” i.e., non-Han, emperors, as their dynasty was founded by Manchus, a Tungusic people speaking their own language different from Chinese.
The Qing continued to use Manchu as their court’s language, cultivated their diversity, and generated Han resentment and reactions. They also did little to solve the social problems that had led to the fall of the Ming. It is true that Western imperialism made the Qing’s problems worse, but similar pressures were exerted on Japan, whose rulers dealt with the West somewhat more skillfully, and were also able to implement modernizing programs that ultimately saved their empire.
The CCP adopts the self-congratulatory explanation that attributes to external factors, i.e., Western imperialism, China’s “plunge into darkness,” while it would be more helpful to consider also the internal factors that had started the decline long before the Western powers appeared.
The Resolution also maintains and canonizes the interpretation of “the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom movement” and the Yihetuan (i.e., the Boxer rebellion) as part of the unfortunate and unsuccessful but “heroic and moving struggle” that “patriots of high ideals” launched to “save the nation.”
As has been discussed in previous Bitter Winter articles, these are curious interpretations, considering also the struggle the CCP promotes against religious movements it labels as xie jiao (“heterodox teachings,” translated in the CCP’s own documents in English, less accurately, as “evil cults”). Hong Xiuquan, the founder of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, proclaimed himself the younger brother of Jesus, married eighty-eight wives, and had those of them who displeased him or forgot they should constantly smile beheaded.
The war to eradicate the Heavenly Kingdom he managed to establish costed China between 30 and 70 million deaths. Although some Western historians have re-evaluated Hong’s religious creativity, in modern journalistic jargon he would be the quintessential “cult” leader, and in Imperial China the Taiping were considered a stereotypical example of a xie jiao.
Mao, who launched the first great campaign to eradicate the xie jiao in Communist China, arresting in the 1950s more than 13 million members of Yiguandao and other religious movements, regarded the Taiping as a patriotic proto-Communist movement. It is unclear whether Mao was aware that Karl Marx himself, in a little known text, had concluded that the Taiping were a reactionary religious movement and had compared it to Spiritualism in Europe and the United States. But if he knew, Mao did not care. He had decided to bracket the Taiping’s obvious religious nature and regard them as a social protest movement.
He considered in the same way the xenophobic and anti-Christian movement of the Boxers, exterminated by the foreign forces of the Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900 and 1901 after it had killed some 30,000 missionaries and Chinese Christians. It is difficult to consider the Boxers too independently from their religious and even magical beliefs, but this is what Mao did. As late as 2021, that the Taiping and the Boxers were heroic social movements rather than “evil cults” remains the CCP’s dogmatic position reaffirmed in the Resolution.
As the Resolution shows, this is part of a vision of history opposing light and darkness, the splendid Chinese culture and the sinister West that destroyed it, with the implication that the West is still at work today and continues its plots of destruction against China. However, we are told that, unlike the Taiping and the Boxers, the CCP is armed with the scientific tools of Marxism, and this time the story will have a different ending.