White Lotus Rebellions


Literature Review: White Lotus Rebellions

During the Qing Empire (1644-1911) and before the dawning of the nineteenth century, ominous forces had developed which threatened the status quo of traditional Chinese society. These pressures weakened dynastic control from within governmental circles as bureaucrats vied for more attention and control of the opium and tea trades. The incredible doubling of the population from 150-300 million during this century and the rise in inflation during this same period were forces which made the lives of ordinary citizens, predominantly peasants, increasingly more difficult. These factors, combined with higher real taxes, and other economic forces precipitated by the above mentioned opium and tea trade, led to a long series of internal rebellions which weakened the central government. The financial cost, military might and political capital spent suppressing these rebellions was crushing. As the state was less able to maintain control of the people, especially in the interior, the people sought a new or revised method of control to replace the diminishing power of the state.[1]

These economic challenges led to a series of rebellions which were perpetrated by adherents of the White Lotus teachings. Beginning with the Shantung Rebellion in 1774, followed by the White Lotus Rebellion from 1794-1804, then the Eight Trigrams Revolt of 1813-1814, they were all carried out by religious sectarians who followed a set of heterodox teachings. Members of this Buddhist sect believed that the Maitreya Buddha’s return was imminent and would result in the restoration of the Ming Empire. Believers practiced meditation, fasting and spiritual divination as well as the healing arts. Adherents of the White Lotus teachings were scattered throughout northern China and traced their origins back 300 years. These seemingly unconnected groups organized and executed these rebellions, which along with influences from the Western world, would eventually weaken the Qing dynasty and bring about its collapse. Research on these rebellions has been focused on the empire’s military response to these rebellions, the family sect networks, a thorough examination of the religious and spiritual origins, scripture and practices, and the market forces which contributed to the rise of the rebellions and the collapse of the empire as a result.

Albert Feuerwerker’s 1975 publication, Rebellion in Nineteenth-Century China, is part of a larger body of work undertaken by the University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies and focuses briefly on the White Lotus Rebellion. The essay provides a thorough overview of the socio-economic causes of these rebellions including economic stagnation, political exhaustion, the militarization of society and impact of foreign influence occurring particularly in the later part of the nineteenth century. He builds upon Philip Kuhn’s work, Rebellion and Its Enemies in late Imperial China, especially in his treatment of the militarization of society. Feuerwerker explains that “popular rebellion in China, as is true elsewhere, was usually the undertaking of the mostly illiterate lower classes, sometimes inspired or assisted by a handful of disaffected intellectuals”.[2] He makes the case that although these heretical teachings were outlawed, they were able to maintain their influence on certain sectors of society and continued to attract new members through kinship and familial bonds and through an attractive message preached to those disaffected by society.

The first studies of these rebellions were conducted by Philip A. Kuhn following his research of Qing dynastic archival material and resulted in the publication of his 1970 monograph entitled, Rebellion and its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864. In it, Kuhn focuses on the White Lotus Rebellion from a primarily civil control point of view. He questions previous historian’s Marxist approach in the treatment of this subject in that “Chinese Marxist historians have naturally seen things from the victims’ point of view and have related the movement of modern history primarily as a struggle against imperialism”.[3] He states that, “The White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1805) uncovered startling weaknesses in the apparently powerful Ch’ing military system”.[4] Those charged with maintaining order were woefully undertrained, undisciplined and lacked vigor. A secondary problem Kuhn uncovered was that garrisoned forces were stationed in the districts or cities and could not penetrate the villages in the interior of China which is where the rebellions rose and fomented.[5] This, combined with the decentralized White Lotus leadership and organizing abilities provided unique challenges for the state. Kuhn provides a thorough account of the origins of the rebellion, and how it was eventually crushed by the Qing Empire through the employment of local mercenaries by magistrates and prefects.[6]

Susan Naquin approaches these rebellions from the point of view of the rebels, those disaffected by society which is different from the previous two authors. Her 1976 book, based on her PhD. dissertation, Millenarian Rebellion in China: The Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813, even though about a later rebellion, was really a continuation of the earlier White Lotus Rebellion. She builds upon the work of Daniel L. Overmyer and Jonathan Spence and used the Ch’ing dynasty archives in the National Palace Museum in the Republic of China to conduct her research. In the publication, Naquin explains that the name of the adherents changed to maintain their survival, but their aims, claims and beliefs changed very little. It is Naquin’s contention “that a careful study of this “White Lotus Society” reveals not a mysterious monolithic organization but small scattered groups of believers whose common religion had been transmitted since the sixteenth century through long and loose chains of teachers and disciples”. [7] In her thorough treatment of this uprising, she likens it to other heretical religious sects in Christianity, Islam, and Hindu and Buddhist cultures which are sometimes institutionalized and at other times outlawed.[8] This comprehensive and leading work was the first to assemble the “primary sources necessary to write a history of the White Lotus sects”.[9] She states the that secondary sources which were available at this time were incomplete at best and she makes the connections between sects and followers.

In her article, “Religion, War and Empire-Building in Eighteenth Century China” published in 1998 in The International History Review, Johanna Waley-Cohen mentions both the White Lotus Rebellion and the Eight Trigrams uprising in the context of their their subversive nature. She points out that, “…wars of religion were virtually unknown for two reasons: there was no single established religion of state, and the religions that were at one time or another prevalent lacked a strong evangelical element.”[10] She goes on to point out that because their was no state established religion, the Qing saw religious practices as something which they needed to control. They preferred to monopolize contact with the supernatural world to maintain order and the Mandate of Heaven. The Qing viewed these various millenarian groups as a potential threat to the status quo. The focus of her article is to point out that the connection between religion and war in China has been less obvious than in other parts of the world where this is much more common. The remainder of the article seeks to prove this point using examples of different rebellions outside the scope of this review.

Susan Naquin’s, Shantung Rebellion: The Wang Lun Uprising of 1774, published in 1981, follows on her earlier work cited above, Millenarian Rebellion in China: The Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813. This earlier uprising is instigated by Wang Lun, a relatively wealthy peasant who gathered an interesting assortment of people as pupils. They studied martial arts (of the eight trigrams pa-kua variety), meditation and fasting. She makes the connection that although Wang Lun has no connections to other sect leaders, the principles that he taught his pupils were similar to those used by other sect leaders, especially the “Eternal Venerable Mother (wu-sheng lao-mu), the central diety of the White Lotus religion, whom he termed Eternal Progenitor (we-sheng fu-mu)”.[11] She also points out, as did Kuhn, that military mistakes made by the Ch’ing, led to the initial success of the rebels. However, she also states that, “Wang Lun’s chief weakness was his failure to generate a mass following.”[12] He did not attempt to form linkages with other sects which eventually led to his demise. This work builds upon her earlier publication, Millenarian Rebellion, in that she continues to make the connections between these seemingly unrelated groups of adherents, united by common beliefs and experiences, but isolated from one another by geography.

In Naquin’s journal article entitled, “Connections between Rebellions: Sect Family Networks in Qing China” published in Modern China in 1982 compliments the works cited above, The Wang Lun Uprising and Millenarian Rebellion because in it she draws connections to the familial origins and networks that were influential in keeping these sects alive throughout the centuries. She relates that these teachings were strongest when learned within the familial structure. These relationships went beyond that of pupil-teacher and, as she explains, “the most tightly connected of all sects were those in which sectarianism was hereditarily transmitted within a single family.”[13] Of the two families which were examined by the author, the Wang and Liu, both “claimed to be the family in which would be born on earth the Maitreya, Buddha, of the Future, the savior of sectarian believers.”[14] This commonly held belief helped lend power to the families and preserve and spread the millenarian teachings of the White Lotus Society. Both families also traced their patriarchs to the late Ming, the formative years of the White Lotus teachings. And both, sought a restoration to the Ming dynasty. The Wang had been active in sectarian affairs during the Ming, whereas the Liu family had only become involved politically since the early Qing. The irony is that, “the ten-year White Lotus uprising of 1796-1805 was, furthermore, organized by men who borrowed the mobilizing authority of both the Wang and Liu surnames without any explicit connection whatsoever”.[15]

Taking an entirely different approach, is this edited version of a PhD dissertation, The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History, by B.J. ter Haar, who was a student of Susan Naquin and Valerie Hansen which was written in 1999. It is a highly specialized analysis of the socio-religious conditions in which the White Lotus teachings were formulated and promulgated. It is a comprehensive examination of the origins of the White Lotus teachings beginning in the Song and Yuan dynasties. He traces the genesis to Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, through the period of Qing persecution. His work seeks to uncouple the religious rituals and beliefs from the political aspects of the sects, to help readers understand that the “potential rebelliousness of religious groups is basically the product of a stereotype, like their supposed lack of sophistication, or their divergence from established traditions…”[16] This point illustrates how, at various times White Lotus teachings were both accepted and viewed as a potential threat to traditional Chinese society.

This most recent article, published a full ten years after ter Haar’s dissertation, entitled, “Cultural Strategies and the Political Economy of Protest in Mid-Qing China, 1740-1839” by Ho-fung Hung examines political protest events from archival sources and finds that these protests follow a cyclical pattern based on state formation and market development.[17] They change from “predominantly reactive violence in the seventeenth century to proactive demonstration in the mid-eighteenth century and back to reactive violence in the nineteenth century”.[18] In his article, he creates data models to show the rate of violent verses non-violent protest for the period spanning roughly 150 years. He shows that during periods of physical and ideological domination of the society by the empire, rates of reactive protests were low. As the Empire weakened in areas due to fiscal crises, the corruption of local officials and higher taxes levied on the people, the rates of proactive demonstrations increased. He also argues that the protesters were homogeneous in their social backgrounds. The data compiled and resulting argument, can be used to reinforce the earlier argument made by Naquin and Feuerwerker that these heterodox beliefs were wide spread, but cohesive networks or communities of believers were not commonplace.

The first works published in this field focused on the military success and failures and the economic and societal pressures which influenced these protests using Chinese archival material. Later authors turned their attention to the cultural aspects – who got involved in these uprisings, which social classes were attracted and maintained by these movements, how was longevity maintained in a seemingly hostile environment, and what were the political implications of these revolts. Authors in the 1990’s focused their attention on whether or not these sects could be characterized as organized religions and the cycles of acceptance and rejection by the Empire. The last work cited examined how the market forces especially due to foreign investment and commerce influenced culture and state development. This field has been researched and written about extensively, however one area which could be researched is how these teachings impacted gender roles in Qing society. Were the adherents primarily female of male, who held positions of power within the sects and who was responsible for passing along the teachings? These questions are intriguing and could be the basis for future scholarly pursuit.

Works Cited

Feuerwerker, Albert. Rebellion in Nineteenth-Century China. Ann Arbor: University of Mighigan, 1975.

Hung, Ho-fung. “Cultural Strategies and the Political Economy of Protest in Mid-Qing China, 1740-1839,” Social Science History, Vol. 33, No 1 (Spring, 2009): 75-115.

Kuhn, Philip A. Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Naquin, Susan. Millenarian Rebellion in China: The Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976.

Naquin, Susan. Shantung Rebellion: The Wang Lun Uprising of 1774. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981.

Naquin, Susan. “Connections between Rebellions: Sect Family Networks in Qing China,” Modern China, Vol. 8 No. 3 (July, 1982): 337-360.

ter Haar, B.J. The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History. Honolulu: University of Hawai’I Press, 1999.

Waley-Cohen, Johanna. “Religion, War and Empire-Building in Eighteenth Century China,” The International History Review, Vol. 20, No 2 (June, 1998): 336-352.

[1] Kuhn, Phillip A. Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China (Cambridge:

Harvard University Press, 1970), 6.

[2] Albert Feuerwerker. Rebellion in Nineteenth-Century China. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1975), 1.

[3] Kuhn, Rebellion, 2.

[4] Kuhn, Rebellion, 37.

[5] Kuhn, Rebellion, 38.

[6] Kuhn, Rebellion, 50.

[7] Susan Naquin. Millenarian Rebellion in China: The Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976), 2.

[8] Naquin, Millenarian Rebellion, 270.

[9] Naquin, Millenarian Rebellion, 63.

[10] Johanna Waley-Cohen. “Religion, War and Empire-Building in Eighteenth Century China,” The International History Review, Vol. 20, No 2 (June, 1998): 336-352

[11] Susan Naquin. Shantung Rebellion: The Wang Lun Uprising of 1774. (Yale University Press, 1981), 39.

[12] Naquin. Shantung Rebellion, 152.

[13] Susan Naquin. “Connections between Rebellions: Sect Family Networks in Qing China,” Modern China, Vol. 8 No. 3 (July, 1982): 339.

[14] Naquin, “Connections between Rebellions”, 344.

[15] Naguin, “Connections between Rebellions”, 345.

[16] B.J. ter Haar. The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’I Press, 1999), 304.

[17] Ho-fung Hung. “Cultural Strategies and the Political Economy of Protest in Mid-Qing China, 1740-1839,” Social Science History, Vol. 33, No 1 (Spring, 2009), 75.

[18] Hung, “Cultural Strategies”, 75.