Select Page

“Marginality is an involuntary position and condition of an individual or group at the margins of social, political, economic, ecological and biophysical systems, preventing them from access to resources, assets, services, restraining freedom of choice, preventing the development of capabilities, and eventually causing extreme poverty.” The above quote is given to us by the University of Bonn by way of its Center for Development Research theme, “Marginality: Addressing the Root Causes of Extreme Poverty”. The site which I came across presented world-wide statistics and trends concerning poverty. It noted a global population of 1,373 million people with an income of less than $1.25/day in 2005. The poverty income line, however, is set at $1/day. These people are labeled “poor”. The people labeled “ultra poor” have incomes of less than $0.63/day; and they were numbered at 223 million in 2005.

The group of people of the world living on less than $1.25/day have been graphically divided into six world regions: Sub-Saharan Africa 28%, East Asia & Pacific 23%, South Asia 44%, Europe & Central Asia 1%, Latin & Caribbean 3%, Middle East & North Africa 1%. Whereas there has been a reduction of the number of people living at this border of the poverty line, the number of ultra poor has been very difficult to influence. Within these areas of concentration, even the regions with increased economic growth have not been able to alleviate extreme poverty and hunger. In 2005, there continued to be an urban migration of poor and marginalized groups; but, the vast majority of poverty cases have remained in rural areas. Ethnic minorities, disadvantaged peoples, and the disabled are overly represented in poverty groups. Researchers find a definite correlation between remoteness, exclusion, and extreme poverty. The relationship between poverty and marginalization is the topic of interest which the Center for Development Research is investigating. Within that investigation, “Six Dimensions of Marginality” have been globally grafted: Economic (low income), Health (high stunting), Infrastructure & Landscape (lack of accessibility), Natural Resources (soil constraints/unsuitable for agriculture), Governance (weak governing), Education (low mean years of schooling).

Marginality is not only of great concern to Centers for Developmental Research when studying the causes and effects of poverty. Marginality is also a factor of great interest for researchers of Martial Arts Studies. It has been frequently stated that, historically, martial artists in China have been marginalized individuals and/or individuals who were associated with marginalized groups. As such, they were socially at the bottom of the ladder; regardless of how they used their martial skills. Both soldiers and bandits were marginalized individuals because being martial meant using violence, and the use of violence placed a person in a morally low position on the hierarchical scale of Confucius. The norms of Chinese society reflected the values of Confucian thought, and these norms were the foundation upon which the judicial system rested. Being outside the norm of Chinese society meant marginalization. For every norm not adhered to, there was a group of individuals living outside of free access to: income, health care, infrastructures & land, natural resources, and education. The degree of marginalization determined the degree of sanctioned access to participation within the society; with the ultimate exclusion being death by starvation or execution.

Man in red/white/blue

In Confucian thought, “Man” was basically good. This was a premise; a starting point of logic to understand and to judge all actions. Confucians believed that individuals needed education and guidance from a good society of individuals being good examples. When things went wrong and the system failed, Confucians looked to find the reason for the failure. In the case of empires, it was an examination of the worthiness of the emperor to hold the mandate of heaven. In the case of citizens, the Chinese courts could be extremely harsh to those who were out of step with the rules of society. Chinese humanity seems, at times, to have been a contradiction in terms. “This faith in humanity is actually an important point to keep in mind when thinking about the social regulation of crime and violence. In the modern west we tend to remember traditional Chinese justice only for its violence or seeming brutality. Torture and execution were used much more liberally at the time than would be acceptable today. Nor were all people equal before the law in China. Social relationships and status were often the defining facts in how a crime or lawsuit was resolved.” – [Ben Judkins]

However, when we investigate more deeply, we find records of unexpected mercy. The Confucian ideal of education and guidance is reflected in the many cases of genuine attempts of rehabilitation. In the 1800s, the Chinese courts were known to rule more leniently, in certain situations, than they would have been in the courts from Western countries at the time. The Chinese courts made ample use of shorter prison sentences and relocation/exile. Execution was always an easy option for the Chinese; yet, they refrained from using it to its full degree. This, Judkins tells us, is a very important point and it emphasises the strong Confucian belief in rehabilitation. This is all the more interesting in the light of the attitudes of officials who tended to consider peasants as being “hopeless”. As far as officials were concerned; refugees, soldiers, bandits, merchants, wandering monks, vagabonds, and urban ruffians all fell into the category of being “beyond redemption”. This group was considered to be far worse than peasants and they were dealt with much more harshly, across the board, than any other groups within the society. These groups lived with violence. And the stance taken by society was that “violence only listens to violence”. Any group associated with violence was severely marginalized; even the performers of Chinese Opera. All offspring of traveling performers, opera singers, prostitutes, or boat people were banned from taking the Civil Service Examination. “Thus the only path for social mobility was closed to individuals from the lowest social caste.” – [Ben Judkins]

Man in gold/black/red

The irony is that the society needed people of violence to secure their continued existence. Officials needed them to enforce the plans of their bureaucrats. The elite needed them to protect their personal interests. The citizens needed them to defend their homelands. The “Heavens” needed them to ensure that their will would be done in China. Even though Confucian thought sees violence as being “evil”, the use of violence was often a very necessary act of survival. The Confucians solved this dichotomy for themselves by labeling actions as “good” when they were subordinate to the will of “Heaven” and the “Son of Heaven”. That is all fine and well for the gods and the emperor, but, what was to be done about controlling violence on a daily level, far away from the Qing emperor, in Southern China? Well, it seems that the Ming had already addressed this problem. They had been in such circumstances at a time when their own centralized government was not strong enough to control local violence. Instead of attempting to increase centralization to an ever higher level, they chose to develop an “Iron Band” of social control over martial artists, criminals, etc. The elites supported this move because they did not think of the martial artists as being intrinsically bad; so, they never tried to eliminate the martial artists as being the root cause of the violence. Instead, they brought them into their own fold of “Patronage Networks” and in this way created a social regulation of violence. “Part of the Confucian meta-myth is that the martial forces of destruction and disorder (wu) can be institutionalized and controlled by the powers of civil statecraft and education (wen).” – [Ben Judkins]

This process was basically one of: acknowledging the forces of violence, subjugating them, and then offering them something in return. The intended result of high officials taking on the strange bedfellows of local ruffians, bandits and soldiers was for the Confucian ideal of “Wen keeps Wu in check” to guide the relationship and the natural balance of power would not be disturbed. The reality was, more often than not, quite different. “…….elites being out-maneuvered, inconvenienced and generally held to account for the ill-considered self-enrichment schemes of their former retainers.” -[Ben Judkins]. Judkins goes on to write that pretty much across the board, whoever hired “guards” were taken advantage of by them. This is the Ming Dynasty which we are remembering. It is doubtful that the local government officials and the elite of Guangdong had much inherited memory of those incidences of “Wu taking advantage of Wen” back in the days of the Ming. However, it seems highly likely that the Qing would have inherited the system of Patronage Networks for social regulation of violence from the Ming before them. Once a cultural artifact is in place, it may be passed down; abuse or no abuse. When the Qing central government proved itself to be a failure in using centralized power to rule locally, the Patronage system which was already in place took the freedom to control violence on its own terms. When a government is strong, it tends to be less tolerant of crime and disorder than when it is weak. A toleration of high levels of violence is associated with weakened states. The local governments of Southern China, during the mid-1800s, lacked the backing they needed from the central Qing government. So, what developed was a tolerance of violence by sanctioning it through the Patronage Network system of the elites and the local government. This was the situation at hand when the marginalized Taiping rose up to form their Heavenly Kingdom and when the marginalized Red Turban rose up from the same soil to step into the center of their societies; to be seen, heard, and felt as they challenged the weakness of their governments.

Woman and feathers

There is a certain amount of discussion amongst scholars concerning the nature and degree of relatedness between the Red Turban Revolt and the Taiping Rebellion. The Taiping Rebellion is first and foremost recognized by its religious fanaticism and secondly by its economic and political ambitions. The Taiping had specific goals to meet. They intended to remove the Qing from power, destroy the dynasty system, and to reform society along communal lines while incorporating severe changes in the existing gender roles of the time. The vast majority of the followers of the Heavenly Kingdom were composed of marginalized peasants looking for economic relief through the security preached to them by the ideology of the God Worshipping Society. The Red Turban Revolt of 1854-1855 shared a number of important factors and experiences with the Taiping. The dates given for this revolt are somewhat misleading in that they give the impression of a single year of aggression taking place; in a period squarely in the middle of the Taiping Rebellion; a rebellion within a rebellion. The Red Turban Revolt is said to have been a direct response to the heavy taxing of citizens to finance the war against the Taiping. People in the margins of society live life on the edge of the knife which decides life and death. At that level of systematized poverty each and every new burden causes an imbalance; a shifting of the weight of the poor toward the cutting edge of death. The shifting which led to the creation and development of both the Taiping Rebellion and the Red Turban Revolt can be traced back to the forming of the God Worshipping Society of Guangdong in 1843.

The Heaven and Earth Society of God Worshippers migrated to Guangxi in 1844 and set up shop promoting its particular mix of religion and politics. In 1849, famine struck the region and the balance of poverty was once again shifted to the edge of survival. Hungry peasants caused a number of violent incidents which motivated the Patronage Network to make use of their local forces to roundup and threaten those God Worshippers in the region’s villages with death. By 1850, a general call had gone out, from the leaders of the God Worshippers, to gather in Jintian. A mass of 10,000-30,000 followers converged on the city. This violent meeting between the religious sect and the Patronage forces became the beginning of the Taiping Rebellion. Before this moment in time, there were no Taiping and no Rebellion bearing that name. The group was a mixed group of peasants fighting for individual reasons. Hong Xiuquan and his fellow leaders had long been hoping for a conflict such as the Jintian Uprising to manifest itself. Their strategic plans were in order and the implementation thereof provided them with a victory and a sharp increase of loyal followers which proceeded northward with them to capture Nanjing and to establish their Heavenly Kingdom in 1853. Yet, what of those who did not follow the Taiping after the victory in Jintian? “The disaffected locals, especially the secret societies, saw this as an opportunity, especially as many officials were focused on this recent Taiping excursion. One of the proclamations from the secret societies read: “The ancient books tell us that once in five centuries some man of talent beyond his fellows will appear upon whom the hope of the nation will depend. That period has elapsed since the rise of the Ming dynasty, and it is full time that a hero should come forth and save the nation.” “-[]

Man in animal fur and weapon

These secret societies were as marginalized, as disgruntled, and as desperate as the Taiping. They sought answers to their situation, not through divine intervention and guidance; but, through the appearance of a loosely defined “hero”. These secret societies and the individuals who participated within them formed rather spontaneous alliances with each other and caused a slowly growing movement which itself was as loosely defined as the hero which they expected to appear to rescue the nation. In 1853, west of Guangzhou, dissident activity was increasing to the point where the gentry felt the need to organize militia units to fight against the “Small Sword” rebels of Xiamen who had taken the city of Huizhou. As the conflicts increased, the rebels became known as the “Red Turbans” and their fighting became known as a “Rebellion”. The officials of Guangzhou reported the Red Turban Rebels as being an offshoot of the Taiping. However, historians are quick to note that they were not Taiping, and had never been an offshoot of them. Instead, the Red Turbans were an independent group who merely had a number of shared experiences with the Taiping. The attributed cause and motivation of the Red Turban violence was a grievance with local government management. This grievance was, specifically, a grievance over the taxation which funded the war against the Taiping.

All revolts, rebellions, movements have their leaders. The Red Turbans were no exception in this regard. They had their leaders and one in particular has been hand-picked by historians to illustrate the story of the Red Turban Revolt. His name was, Li Wenmao, and he was an opera performer who had once been a member of the God Worshipping Society. Canton opera companies had traveled around Southern China performing for locals in rural areas and cities along the many waterways of the Pearl River Delta. His Red Turbans had as their core these traveling opera societies. The opera groups incorporated their political messages into their performances by selective use of well-known operas which supported their moral and political rhetoric. Ben Judkins writes, “The violence started by pitting secret society members involved in the gambling trade against the government, it quickly spread through a series of bloody reprisals and counter strikes to include more or less every secret society chapter and bandit group in the country. These groups coalesced into loose armies intent of sacking various towns and cities, and in the process they recruited tens of thousands of desperate peasant “soldiers” who were looking for economic relief and a change of management.” Li Wenmao was but one of at least ten leaders of the Red Turbans. The group can just barely be considered a group. There was a severe lack of coordination and no real common purpose for them being a group. Peasant utopianism, desire for money, anti-Qing and pro-Ming sentiments were motivations which had gathered them together; but they had no real plan to accomplish anything but havoc and destruction of lives and property. “…Li Wenmao led a large number of companies into an open uprising against the government in the midst of the Red Turban Revolt. Far from being covert, most of this violence occurred on the battlefield. The political motivations of the major leaders of the uprising were far from unified. One group escaped the government’s victory in Guangdong to establish their own Taiping Kingdom in the north. Other factions, including many of the bandit and secret society chiefs, appear to have been motivated mostly by the promise of spoils. The tens of thousands of peasant recruits that filled out the various armies were motivated mostly by hunger and desperation. While highly destructive and dedicated to the overthrow of the local government, the Red Turban Revolt was in some respects surprisingly apolitical, especially in comparison to the ongoing Taiping Rebellion in central and northern China.” – [Ben Judkins]

Man horizontal

The Red Turban Revolt, as unorganized as it was, represented a severe threat to Imperial China. This violent tax revolt along the Eastern Branch of the Pearl River Delta spread quickly throughout the province because more and more people were becoming marginalized due to economic distress. Guangzhou had enormous difficulty defending itself against this revolt. Foshan had fallen quickly to the rebels; leaving its cannon factories for the taking. The eventual victory was for the Qing and many of the rebel forces were driven to more northern and western regions where they were no longer a threat to Guangdong. Yet, compared to the Taiping Rebellion, it is evident in the telling that the Red Turbans were doomed to failure by way of their own incompetence. Tracing the Red Turbans and the Taiping from origins to destructions is an insightful exercise toward understanding how rebellions and revolutions are created and grow; examining what makes the one extensive and the other brief. But, there’s another reason for comparing these two rebellions and that has to do with the role(s) which government played in: the creation of, in their response to, and concerning their resulting action taken after the rebellions.

For both the rebellions, the Qing government found itself in a weakened position. During the early to mid 19th century, China was fighting many wars on many fronts against many adversaries. The Qing were short on the manpower, money, and materials needed to win each and every war which they were confronted with. They had little choice but to delegate defense in many cases to local government and to sanction private solutions to violence. We have seen that in Hunan, this strategy worked well with the Han Chinese; yet, created the unwanted conditions of a strong gentry class, which eventually led to the rise of warlords. In Guangdong, the handling of rebellious violence was first met with a weakened local government; one which had the potential of being aided by the Patronage Networks. The solutions chosen by the government in Guangdong had the effect of creating a very “strong” local government. Guangdong managed to come out of the crises stronger than it was when it began. “Previously the government had lacked the ability to adequately control banditry and piracy in the region for a number of reasons. It lacked troops, it lacked the cooperation of the major clans (who played a much greater role in local politics in the South than in other parts of China) and it was too infiltrated with corrupt clerks and allies of the various secret societies.” This situation changed when challenged by the Red Turban Revolt. The local government officials were forced, by this revolt, to make a choice. They had to decide to choose between supporting the authority of central government control or to align with the local Patronage Networks who were not in favor of the Qing establishment. The clan elders, degree holders, and local landlords also had a choice to make. Their way of life was being threatened by the rebels and they needed to decide who promised a brighter future for them: the regulation of the state or the violence of revolution. Revolution meant economic disaster for the elite. They chose to cut all ties with networks which were affiliated with the rebels. Then, they organized their own groups into militia units which they registered with the local government. In addition, they gave economic support to the Governor. “It was this social realignment more than anything that happened on the battlefield that assured the eventful defeat of the uprising.”- [Ben Judkins]

Woman and sword

The Governor had always been burdened with the difficult task of balancing the powers of the elites with those of the masses. The state was not powerful enough to control the revolution without the help of the central Qing government; so, it dropped its normal role as enforcer of Qing policy which had kept the power of the gentry in check. Instead, it took up an alliance with the elite. Both parties benefited from the arrangement. The Red Turban Revolt was put down. However, the story does not end here because what happened next is actually more remarkable than the rebellion itself had been. After the rebellion was over, local government realised that their power had increased substantially. They used this power to take measures to assure that there would be no more rebellions on their watch. “Government troops and gentry led militia members rounded [up] and killed not just former rebels but also bandits, secret society members, traveling performers, homeless individuals, wandering monks and priests, and anyone else who they thought could be “trouble”. Clan leaders took the opportunity to have bothersome community members eliminated and scores were settled by the tens of thousands.” – [Ben Judkins]. Before the “White Terror” had ended, up to 1 million people had been executed in the Pearl River Delta alone. This far exceeds the death and destruction incurred at hands of the Red Turban rebels during their disruption of southern society.

The question which is begging to be asked is, “Why would the government take such extreme action after they had won the war? Judkins answers that the government did this, simply because it could. Previously, the government did not have the material resources nor the support of the elites to rid society of the people which they considered to be “Beyond Redemption”. The bureaucratic and judicial segments of their Confucian society had set aside the values of “moderation” and “education” and focused instead on the values of “justice” and “social order”. Their goal was to make the region stable and the purges accomplished that. The elites and government rid their societies of marginal elements and created a community closer to their own ideals. Because this alliance had unlimited power, it could choose to disregard the options of education and rehabilitation which take time and resources to produce their results. Their choice of elimination was expedient.

Naturally, we know that killing a million marginalized people is never truly an effective “final solution” to the socio-economic problems which are created by poor management of government; be it local or central. Books of World History are filled with accountings of societies turning a blind eye in an effort to avoid the mirror and seeing the actual causes of their own failed governments. In part, we can excuse their ignorance and lack of self-knowledge in failing to understand that societies, themselves, create the phenomenon of marginalizing groups and individuals; which eventually become threats to existence of the society itself. From governments, we expect solutions to the threats of which our societies are faced. In the case of the Red Turban, the destabilizing factor had been identified and exterminated along with all individuals whom they thought might conceivably resurrect them in the near future. The government was satisfied to be rid of a problem, and it saw the problem as stemming from their marginalized groups. The government at hand, the elites which supported them, and the population in general all sanctioned the killing of a million people. The society, as a whole, was either unable or unwilling to examine itself and to recognise the part it played in creating rebellions by way of creating marginalization. All this we can excuse because it is in the past. All parties who had been involved may be presumed to be long dead and buried. We may turn the page and move on with our gained knowledge and insight from these events. We are free to consider the impact of Marginalization on the societies of which we, ourselves, are members. We are free to look deeply into the mirror and to see beyond our own blind spots. We are free to recognise that poverty and marginalization do not serve the needs of ideal societies; and, that ideal societies do not create poverty and marginalization.

Man in white

« Back