Consensus and fragmentation: how variation in heterodox religious ideas affected mobilisation and outcomes in the rebellions of China’s Qing era
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date27/06/2024
This thesis explores the ideational patterns characterising two types of premodern Chinese rebellions in the Qing dynasty: the Taiping rebellion (1851-1864) and the rebellions of the middle Qing era (1728-1840). Both types of rebellions were rooted in heterodox religious ideas conflicting with the orthodox ideas of mainstream Qing society, notably Confucianism and the Chinese imperial bureaucratic order. However, there are crucial differences in their heterodox ideational content, and these contributed to the development of either consensus or fragmentation among the rebels regarding their support for these ideas. This consensus and fragmentation further shaped the overall ideational processes within the rebel movements, thus influencing the outcomes of the uprisings. The argument presented here is built upon analysis of texts, primarily rebels’ confessions and officials’ reports, using an archival research methodology attending to how the discursive domain of these texts was constructed by different actors, including rebels, officials and governments. My research shows that rebels of different statuses in the rebel organisations were motivated to participate in the uprisings through different mobilisation strategies reflecting their ideas about the goal of participating in the rebellions. These ideas included heterodox religious ones regarding the establishment of a new religiously-orientated order and more secular ones regarding building a new imperial dynasty modelled on previous ones. The elements of heterodox religious ideas remained consistent in texts and oral communications of the Taiping for a longer period than the middle Qing rebellions, although the persistence of other ideational elements is generally similar across both types of rebellions. I argue that these ideational patterns were influenced by whether rebels from diverse background could forge a consensus regarding heterodox religious ideas. In the middle Qing rebellions, this ideational content pertained primarily to the religious leaders’ charismatic characteristics, drawing on shared imaginations from the Chinese cultural context about religious leaders. The leaders had to make the followers believe that they possessed magical powers and were chosen by Heaven, necessitating maintaining a distance from ordinary rebels and conveying vague religious messages to meet people’s expectations of them. The limitations of such religious messages limited the potential for them to be accepted, precluding a consensus among the rebels of different organisational statuses within the rebel movement. Thus, eschewing the goal of building a millenarian religious world, the rebels pursued the establishment of a new imperial dynasty. By contrast, the Taipings’ heterodox Christian-derived religious ideas pertained more to equality and reshaping people’s daily lives, primarily interactions, practices and customs. The focus on the form of life would have been straightforward for the rebels of different organisational statuses to accept, allowing a consensus regarding these religious ideas to arise. The persistence of such ideas over time within the rebel movement contributes to explaining the Taiping rebellion’s so-called ‘revolutionary’ character. This study provides fresh insight on the history of premodern Chinese rebellions, explaining how differences in ideational content shaped rebels’ receptivity towards an understanding of heterodox religious ideas. It explains how these understandings influenced the potential for consensus on these new ideas within the movements.