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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ti-Ping Tien-Kwoh (The Taiping)

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The word "Ti-Ping" will be better known in the west as "T'aiping" or "Taiping".

I've departed from the way I usually introduce these books on this occasion by including a longer excerpt, but I am really taken with what can be learned about this very important group in Nineteenth Century Chinese history - those who rebelled against the Manchu overlords who had been ruling China since 1644 and were betrayed by the European colonialist powers.

It was superficially a Christian movement that could have expected support from the British against a crumbling dynasty - the Manchu interlopers from the north, yet in the end, in a ruthless game of double betrayal, the imperialists sided with those aimed at crushing them.

This is a fascinating and comprehensive account, but I decided to focus only on their view of women - or females, more accurately, as all who were not men beyond a select few had little status from the moment they were born, and were destined for lives of misery and servitude. If you have read the first section of
Wild Swans you will see its confirmation in this account.

The fine illustrations also tell their story.

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Ti-Ping Tien-Kwoh
by Augustus F. Lindley (1866)

by Augustus F. Lindley

Two of fifteen chapters

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During my intercourse with the Ti-pings, if one part of their system and organization appeared more admirable than another, it was the improved position of their women, whose status, raised from the degrading Asiatic régime, approached that of civilized nations. This improvement upon the ignorant and sensual treatment of 2,000 years affords strong evidence of the advancement of their moral character.

Although the practice of polygamy has by some war Christians been used as an argument to justify murdering the Ti-pings, I do not remember an instance in which those ultra-moral personages have endeavoured to teach the Ti-pings the difference between the law of well-beloved Abraham's time, upon which many of their religious rules are framed, and the later dispensation of the Gospel. It is, however, a great mistake to imagine that the Ti-pings are either confirmed or universal polygamists.

In the first place, as they have thrown off all the other heathen practices of their countrymen, there is no reason to suppose they would make this an exception. In the second place, I know that many who have become enlightened by the New Testament, have abandoned polygamy; while a vast number of the rest, only partially instructed, are either averse to it, or simply maintain the establishment of one principal and several inferior wives, or concubines, according to ancient custom, and as a mark of high rank. It is also a fact that in some countries a plurality of wives is rather beneficial than otherwise; and it may be that China is one of these.

But above all, however detestable we may consider polygamy, where is the Divine command against it?

The Ti-pings have abolished the horrible custom of cramping and deforming the feet of their women. But although, under their improved system, no female child is so tortured, many of their wives have the frightful "small feet;" having, with the exception of the natives of Kwang-se, some parts of Kwang-tung, and the Miau-tze, originally conformed to the crippling custom.

All children born since the earliest commencement of the Ti-ping rebellion have the natural foot. This great benefit to the women, their consequent improved appearance, and the release of the men from the tail-wearing shaven-headed badge of former slavery, form the two most conspicuous of their distinguishing habits, and cause the greatest difference and improvement in the personal appearance of the Ti-pings as compared with that of their Tartar-governed countrymen.

The much higher social position of the Ti-ping ladies over that of their unfortunate sisters included within the Manchoo domestic régime, has long been one of the brightest ornaments of their government. A plebeian Ti-ping is allowed but one wife, and to her he must be regularly married by one of the ministers. Amongst the Chiefs, marriage is a ceremony celebrated with much pomp and festivity; the poorer classes can only marry when considered worthy, and when permitted to do so by their immediate rulers. In contradistinction to the Manchoos, the marriage knot when once tied can never be unloosed; therefore, the custom of putting away a wife at pleasure, or selling her – as in vogue among the Chinese – or the proceedings of the British Court of Divorce, has not found favour in their sight.

Every woman in Ti-pingdom must either be married, the member of a family, or an inmate of one of the large institutions for unprotected females, existing in most of their principal cities, and superintended by proper officials; no single woman being allowed in their territory otherwise. This law is to prevent prostitution, which is punishable with death, and is one which has certainly proved very effective, for such a thing is unknown in any of the Ti-ping cities.

The stringent execution of the law has, in fact, been rather too severe, for I have seen cases where women have rushed about the streets to find new husbands directly they have received the melancholy tidings of their late beloved's decapitation by the "demon imps." It is possible these bereaved ladies may not have been on the strength of the regiment; but at all events this acting of the law was rather too exaggerated. The conduct of the Chinese lady who fanned her husband's grave to dry it previous to her early acceptance of a new lord, and so preserve a correct propriety, is more excusable than this.

Woman is by the Ti-pings recognized in her proper sphere as the companion of man; the education and development of her mind is equally well attended to; her duty to God is diligently taught, and in ordinary worship she takes her proper place; many of the women are zealous and popular teachers and expounders of the Bible; in fact, everything is done to make her worthy of the improved position she has attained by reason of the Ti-ping movement.

The institutions for unprotected women are presided over by duly appointed matrons, and are particularly organized and designed to educate and protect those young girls who lose their natural guardians, or those married women whose husbands are away upon public duty, and who have no relations to protect and support them.

Very many of the women accompany their husbands upon military expeditions; inspired with enthusiasm to share the dangers and severe hardships of the battle-field. In such cases they are generally mounted upon the Chinese ponies, donkeys, or mules, which they ride à la Duchesse de Berri. In former years they were wont to fight bravely, and could ably discharge the duties of officers, being however formed into a separate camp and only joining the men in religious observances.

The greatest physical comfort to the women is their enjoyment of natural feet and the ability to move about as they wish; though, unfortunately, it is only amongst the youngest that this prevails entirely.

It is utterly impossible to describe a more striking contrast than that presented in the walk and carriage of two women, one having the compressed, and the other natural feet; the former, even when standing still, has a very unsteady appearance, but when stumping along with the usual uncertain tottering gait, apparently in danger of rolling over at every step, the crippling custom excites the utmost disgust and the greatest commiseration for its victims. And yet this revolting exhibition is by the Chinese described as "swaying elegantly from side to side like the graceful waving of the willow tree!"

It is, probably, due to the feet – and Chinese feet are naturally very well formed – being of their natural shape, and the consequent elegance of carriage, that many of the Ti-pings' wives have been selected as the handsomest prisoners captured during the war, and that they appear in such advantageous contrast with the Imperialists.

The detestable system of slavery is totally abolished by the Ti-pings, and the abolition made effective by punishment with decapitation upon the slightest infringement of the law by male or female. The law as far as the slavery of men was concerned had no great occasion for existence, such cases being uncommon in China; but the real necessity for such an important innovation consisted in the fact that every woman was more or less a slave.

The head wives of the aristocrat and the plebeian, although not actually recognized as slaves, are still purchased by the bridal present, upon receipt of which, and never otherwise, they are handed over to their purchaser, or husband. The inferior wives are simply bought; with or without the knowledge of their family, for no equality of position is required, as they are selected according to the fancy of their future master, from relatives or slave-dealers as the case may be.

Besides those who are purchased for wives, a great proportion of the women of China become the concubines of successive masters, by whom they are sold from one to the other; many are bought for domestic slavery; but vast numbers are purchased for a life of public infamy. The establishments set apart for this purpose are immense, and contain several hundred women purchased at the tenderest ages and reared to this wretched existence.

At Hong-kong, at Shanghae, and several other places in China, buildings of this class are maintained upon the British territory, and the Hong-kong colonial government, and Shanghae municipal council, regularly tax and recognize them.

It is the common practice of the poorer Chinese to sell their female children, and when the vastness of the population, and the fact that these children are mostly purchased for immoral purposes, is considered, the consequences may easily be imagined.

At many and widely separated parts of China, I have seen comely young maidens from twelve to twenty years of age, offered for sale by their mothers, or speculators, at prices varying from six to thirty dollars, so that, as I have frequently heard the Chinese say, "You may sometimes buy a handsome girl for so many cash a catty (weight of one pound and a third) less than pork." This is the precise state of things which the Ti-pings would not tolerate amongst themselves, and which they would in time have taught all China to abhor were it not for foreign interference.

If the Ti-pings had not been interfered with, it is possible, though very improbable, they might have caused a temporary falling-off of trade, consequent upon the nullification of Lord Elgin's treaty, the usual effects of civil war, &c., and it is quite certain the residue of indemnity, as far as the Manchoos were concerned, would have been lost; but whatever might or might not have been the result, trade would not have suffered much, for the Ti-ping power would soon have been supreme.

Far nobler, then, would it have been for England to have avoided the contamination of the Manchoo alliance, and to have preserved the respect and friendship of at least a portion of the Chinese empire.

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