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Home  /  Inside China  /  Revolts and Revolutions – Is the Chinese 'nature' obedient or rebellious?
Revolts and Revolutions – Is the Chinese 'nature' obedient or rebellious? print version
In this article, we shifts from ancient to contemporary, asking to what extent did the 20th century reshape Chinese political thinking and how come revolts in Imperial China were often seen as a legitimate conduct.
Thomas Meadows, a British scholar who visited China during the 19th century and was intrigued by the Taiping (太平) movement, which led to the extremely violent Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). When addressing the nature of Chinese revolts, Meadows claimed that the Chinese political system is authoritarian but not despot, (that is to say that the emperor isn't a tyrant), that a revolt is an acceptable measure to object the injustice of imperial policies and that the Chinese are more rebellious compared to other civilizations, though they are least revolutionary.

The concept 'mandate of heaven' (tianming 天命) is recognized throughout Imperial China as the legitimacy of a ruler and that any successful revolt against him is a sign from above that he had failed to sustain a just system. Therefore, rebels, though they were often suppressed violently, could always rely on the legacy of successful past overthrows. Even if the usage of the concept of tianming made them seem pretentious, it allowed them to be in accord with China's moral norms, in their broad sense.

Revolts could have began in rural instability which led to an uprising, though the ministers and advisors in the emperor's palace would also judge the emperor's etiquette, and guard the great concept of dao, the true and moral way of governing. In the case of the ministers and even in the case of peasants revolts, Meadow's argument that Chinese are rebellious but not revolutionary can be well understood. Even aggressive revolts (at least by Chinese and not foreign armies), and perhaps particularly aggressive revolts, weren't aiming to change the moral, spiritual and even bureaucratic system as it was presented during the Han Dynasty, but rather adjust it to a more just and efficient model.

If the claim that 'Chinese are not revolutionary' could have seem correct until Meadows' last days, then later came the 20th century and changed the picture completely. Revolutions of the entire system took place, from the republican revolution which overthrew the last Qing emperor and of course the impressive communist revolution which reshapes China to date. Some scholars might be able to find subtle similarities between some elements in the Mao regime and older imperial systems, but this is beyond the scope of this discussion, and it is clear that a major revolution in the bureaucratic and government in China, as well as in traditional values, did take place during the last century.

Such events have led some scholars to define the new nature of Chinese politics and society as more revolutionary than rebellious. Elizabeth J. Perry has defined the current Chinese Communist Party leadership as 'revolutionary authoritarianism', saying that since the beginning of the Mao regime, the leadership often involves the people in mass mobilization projects with revolutionary motifs.

The different Communist Party chairmen since Mao, have each conducted some 'revolutions', even if the government remained firm. The economic reformed promoted by Deng Xiaoping is a good example, 'smaller' scale projects, like the improvement of countryside conditions and development of west of China, led by current leadership chairmen Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao and campaigns aimed to mobilize the population to change its habits, like becoming more environmental friendly, not smoke in public places, etc, are all projects by which the government involves the entire public, either physically or morally. Even when we aren't talking about immense changes, they show the mobilization capacity of the Chinese people and the power to initiate such changes, held by the CP leadership. By the concept of 'revolutionary authoritarianism', Perry claims that the Chinese leadership is able to deal with dynamic conditions and crisis, thus presenting itself as capable of initiating and responding to change, and by this, reassuring the public that no static neglect could take place.  

So we have seen two pictures which seem almost contradicting each other: The revolts during Imperial China, which were meant to overthrow the leader rather than change the system and the big mobilization, revolutionary movements in recent decades, in which the Communist Party always remains in the driving seat. Still, this is a rather simplistic description. It is clear that peasant revolts in Imperial China weren't always taking into consideration the concepts of dao or tianming and were simply protesting against high taxes, corruption, etc. And in the modern era, social unrest exists even if state policies are dynamic, as there are numerous protests, especially in the countryside, which are directed against present leadership.  

Furthermore, some would say that it is hard to detect or analyze a 'Chinese political nature', particularly in the lower classes, where an the effect of an authoritarian leadership exists, which represses liberal expression to some extent.

It is interesting to look for differences and similarities between the nature of protests, revolts, and revolutions between the imperial and the modern era in China and ask whether it is possible that the people possess a long lasting 'Chinese political nature' and aren't only obedient subjects of strong state systems.


Assisting source: Elizabeth J. Perry, "Studying Chinese Politics: Farewell to Revolution?," China Journal, Jan. 2007 Issue 57

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