Different Strategies: The Approaches to Mobilisation and the Status of Rebels in the White Lotus Rebellion in Qing China

Zhen Wei, University of Edinburgh

In this paper, I argue that the strategies the rebels used to mobilise members of the secret societies of the White Lotus religion to join the White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1803) in Qing Dynasty China (1644-1911), were associated with the status hierarchies of those societies. My study is based on the 313 confessions of rebels who participated in the rebellion. Reading through the lens that these confessions were constructed by interrogators, rebels, and the state power, I conducted quantitative and qualitative analysis. I propose that the rebels can be divided into four groups, according to their status within these secret societies, and the dominant strategic approaches for mobilising the rebels of each status are different. The most influential members of these societies were more likely to be persuaded by assuring high official posts in future. Those at the second status tended to be enticed by religious millenarianism, which promotes the idea of creating a utopian world after the disaster. The third status of rebels were mobilised by promises of victory and threats of violence, while participants at the fourth status were mostly coerced to join. The results present the possible mobilising strategies used in China’s premodern rebellions. The association between these strategies and rebels’ statuses has not been revealed by previous studies of the millenarian rebellions (e.g. Hobsbawm, 1958; Perry, 2002). This association existed, I argue, because rebels believed the number of official posts in the future regime was limited, meaning these posts could only be promised to the influential members of secret societies, and because the millenarian ideas of the rebels were underdeveloped and couldn’t easily be disseminated among the masses. Recognising this association and why it existed enhance our understanding of the Chinese rebellions, and may even help explain the failure of China’s rebellions to bring about revolutionary transformations.

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 Presented in Session 198. Movements & Revolutions