God’s New Sons: Media Coverage of the Taiping Rebellion and the Ghost Dance of 1890

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, or Taiping Rebellion, was a religious and political movement that swept over China beginning in 1851, eventually reigning over most of China’s provinces until its fall in 1864 to Chinese imperial and British forces. The Ghost Dance of 1890 was a new religion that rapidly spread among Native American tribes of the American West from 1889-1891. Though separated by a few decades, both movements involved non-white cultures absorbing Christian ideas and reinterpreting them into a millennial style that inspired thousands to join in their practice. Both movements spawned from their respective leaders, Hong Xiuquan and Wovoka or Jack Wilson, experiencing visions wherein they met the Christian God; the men were each inspired by these dreams to share their new theological ideas with their cultural fellows. However, Europeans and Americans understood Taiping theology in much greater depth than Americans ever did with the Ghost Dance. This fundamental difference can be traced to the sharp contrast in media coverage of the two religions.

The central disparity between the media’s presentation of the Taping Rebellion and the Ghost Dance of 1890 was the agency of its religious practitioners in shaping the popular opinion of their own movement. This ability to contribute to the public discourse allowed Taiping followers to represent their religious beliefs as they understood them, whereas the Ghost Dance was seen only through the eyes of fearful whites viewing it from the outside. Official Taiping documents translated into English and letters from foreign visitors to the Taiping capitol of Nanking frequently appeared in The North-China Herald throughout the rebellion.1 These visitors were often missionaries invited to Nanking by Hong himself. Though these men frequently came to see the Taiping as blasphemous and heterodox, this was after having spoken with followers of the new religion.2

In contrast, no reporter ever met with Wovoka during the Ghost Dance’s peak period of popularity both in the media and among Native groups, which lasted only from 1889-1890.3 Instead, the white perspective prevailed in the papers and focused on the practice of the Dance among the Lakota Sioux, which journalists interpreted as a sign of coming war.4 This white perspective removed the possibility of viewing the Dance as a religious movement founded in some Christian concepts for most white American audiences. Even those aware of the true religious nature of the movement saw it as a threat due to the preconceived notion that Native Americans were savages incapable of rationality.5 In summation, the way that newspapers covered each movement controlled the way that white audiences of both Europe and America understood them; since Taiping believers contributed to this coverage in a way not available to Indians practicing the Ghost Dance, the Chinese Taiping were not assumed to be crazed aggressors from the outset.

  1. Just one example being: J. L. Holmes, ‘To the Editor of the North-China Herald’, The North-China Herald, Shanghai, 1 September 1860, pp. 2-3, [accessed 30 October 2020]. []
  2. See Holmes, ‘To the Editor’, pp. 2-3. William R. Doezema, ‘Western Seeds of Eastern Heterodoxy: The Impact of Protestant Revivalism on the Christianity of the Taiping Rebel Leader Hung Hsiu-Ch’üan, 1836-1864’, Fides et Historia, 25: 1 (Winter 1993), pp. 73-76. []
  3. L. G. Moses, ‘“The Father Tells Me So!” Wovoka: The Ghost Dance Prophet’, American Indian Quarterly, 9: 3 (Summer 1985), p. 342. []
  4. Just two of many examples: ‘Ready for the Trail’, Chicago Herald, Chicago, 23 November 1890, p. 10. ‘Reds Come for Rations’, Chicago Inter-Ocean, Chicago, 23, November 1890, pp. 9-10. []
  5. Louis S. Warren, God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America, (New York, 2017), pp. 15, 37. []

Nannü and Modern Gender: How He-Yin Zhen’s Concept Anticipated Current Understandings of Gender

In The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts of Transnational Theory, Lydia Liu, Rebecca Karl, and Dorothy Ko claim that He-Yin Zhen’s conceptualization of nannü ‘signifies not only gendered social relations between man and woman but also, more broadly, the relationship of the past to the present, of China to the world, of politics to justice, of law and ritual to gendered forms of knowledge, interaction, and social organization’.1 The concept of nannü, He-Yin argued, worked within patriarchal discourse as a means of legitimizing men’s oppression of women. This incredibly broad definition leaves room for multiple discussions to develop around nannü. Though the authors try to move the conversation away from its traditional male-female translation, this idea has some interesting similarities to modern evolving understandings of gender. In particular, the breaking of the binary view that has long held in the West and the growing acceptance of gender as a societal category.

He-Yin Zhen saw the world ‘as an always-already gendered time-space of social activity, production, and life’; her views align well with conceptions gender and its effects on society that have been pushed into the mainstream by the LGBTQ+ community. Rather than an intrinsic quality or set of qualities, gender has come to be understood as a means of categorizing people, sometimes incorrectly. Using the framework of nannü helps create room for this more complex formulation of gender because it inherently recognizes that society enforces the gender construct constantly. For He-Yin, the effects of nannü were present in every experience that a person has because it formed ‘the foundation of all patriarchal abstractions and markings of distinction’.2 Any trans individual who has ever felt the pressure to ‘pass’ as their preferred gender identity or person who has felt they were ‘not masculine/feminine enough’ can recognize the truth in this statement immediately. These feelings, among many other reasons, have led the LGBTQ+ community and their allies, especially among feminists, to raise awareness about the negative effects of gender norms. Nannü offers another way to explain these effects to people. It could be especially impactful for presenting how gender norms and distinction effect society beyond simply feeling comfortable in public spaces, which those who take for granted see sometimes see as frivolous. With this concept, the effects on the economy and politics could be expressed better.

In particular, He-Yin’s argument that ‘gendered’ identities separated people into socioeconomic groups in a similar way to class could aid current discussion surrounding gender relations. Anyone who is cognizant of the effect of perceived gender on all aspects of daily life would likely agree with Zhen’s worldview. This sentiment is clearly evidenced by the continued frustrations over the gender-wage gap. For modern feminists, He-Yin’s assertion that gender may function as an economic distinction is a statement of the obvious. Even if she was not directly concerned about a wage gap between men and women, her concept of nannü anticipated this issue, as well as the modern global shift towards viewing gender as a complex set of societal and cultural expectations.

  1. Lydia Liu, Rebecca Karl, and Dorothy Ko, The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts of Transnational Theory (New York, 2013), p. 10 []
  2. Liu, Karl, and Ko, The Birth of Chinese Feminism, p. 11 []

Abandoning Family for the Cause – A Look at Kanno Sugako and Kaneko Fumiko

Though historian Arif Dirlik recognized anarchism as a body of widely varying ideas, he argues that all anarchist thought contains a ‘repudiation of authority, especially of the state and the family’.1 By this definition, anarchists must reject connection to their own families for the cause of total social revolution. While many would find this task difficult, looking at the lives of two anarchist thinkers, Kanno Sugako and Kaneko Fumiko, one can see why they may have been driven towards anarchist thought; at the least, one can see how the spurning of family could be so easily accepted by these revolutionaries. I’d like to make it clear that I’m not suggesting an individual must have had a difficult homelife in order to become an anarchist, but I would like to draw attention to its role in the lives of these particular anarchist women.

Both Kanno and Kaneko faced a great deal of hardship in their youth, which contributed to the shaping of their worldviews as teenagers and adults. In the case of Kanno Sugako, she lost her mother at ten, which soon left her at the mercy of a cruel stepmother.2 By the time she was fifteen, Kanno was the victim of rape by a miner who worked for her father. This experience, possibly encouraged by her stepmother, left Kanno with a deep-seated sense of shame, which she coped with by reading Sakai Toshihiko’s essay, ‘in which he counseled rape victims not to be burdened with guilt’.3 The comfort she found through Sakai’s work led her to read his other essays on socialism, therefore exposing her to the ideology for the first time. If it had not been for the cruelty of her stepmother and her sexual assault, Kanno may not have read any of Sakai’s works and may have been less likely to join in the movement as a young adult. What’s more, if she had grown up in a loving family environment, she would have been less likely to agree with the devaluation of family that is essential to anarchist thought. Instead, Kanno proudly claimed that ‘even among anarchists I was among the more radical thinkers’.4 That she found comfort in socialist/anarchist thought rather than in her familial network can only be taken as guiding her towards a more radical way of organizing society. However, how much of Kanno’s radicalism could be attributed to her personal background cannot be determined by this short of an examination.

As for the life of Kaneko Fumiko, she suffered through multiple years of poverty in her early childhood due to her father’s alcoholism before being put under the care of her grandmother.5 While living with her grandmother as Japanese colonists in Korea, Kaneko’s extended family treated her as little more than a maid and often physically abused her. This treatment compounded with her anger over ‘the arrogant manner in which the Japanese occupiers treated the native Koreans’.6 Like Kanno, Kaneko ‘s childhood experiences certainly primed her to accept the anarchist rejection of family’s authority in society. It is no wonder that she questioned why one should remain loyal to a person simply because they are a relative, when hers had always treated her so heartlessly. Instead, she would seek to revolutionize society to equally respect all people. This view in turn connects to her refusal to recognize the authority of the state. After viewing firsthand the abuses enacted on the Koreans, it is understandable that Kaneko would desire a nonhierarchical society based on mutual respect.

Anarchism’s tenet of individual abandonment of family as a central authority, according to Dirlik’s definition, doubtlessly drew in the loyalties of Kanno Sugako and Kaneko Fumiko. As two women who had received years long abuse at the hands of their biological families, it should be no surprise that they were drawn to a social framework that decentralized the family. While all anarchists may not have had comparable experiences, it remains intriguing that both of these Japanese anarchists did share this background. With more comparison of anarchist thinkers’ personal lives, we could learn more about why they were drawn to this seemingly impracticable social ideology. As for now, this observation is interesting but simply coincidence.

  1. Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution (Berkeley, 1991), p. 12. []
  2. For all biographical information found here see Mikiso Hane, Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan (Berkeley, 1988), pp. 51-2. []
  3. Hane, Reflections, p. 51 []
  4. Ibid., p. 56. []
  5. For all her biographical information see: Ibid., 75-79 []
  6. Ibid., p. 78 []

Xunzi’s Take on Human Nature

As one of the few debates all humans can contribute to, the argument over the basic tendency of human nature towards good or bad appears across  philosophical communities, cultures, and time periods. Confucian culture is no different with two of its most recognized sages representing opposing sides of the debate. Arguing for human nature as good is Mengzi, a Confucian scholar, who is often called the ‘second Sage,’ after only Kongzi (Confucius) himself.1 In opposition to Mengzi is Xunzi, who claimed human nature was at its core bad. Though who was, or rather is, correct continues to be discussed to the present day, Xunzi’s central claim contains a major flaw that could be used to finally settle the debate within the Confucian context.

In the Xunzi, a collection of dialogues authored by the man of the same name, the sage begins chapter twenty-three with a bold, fallible statement.

‘People’s nature is bad. Their goodness is a matter of deliberate effort’.2

At first this appears as a fair argument that naturally opposes the claim that human nature is at its base good. If we do not begin with goodness in our nature, then it follows that we must acquire it somehow; to acquire most anything, an individual must deliberately seek it out, which implies a desire for change. However, Xunzi neglects to explain why human beings make this effort to change their nature. He simply claims that it is the influence of teachers and rituals that cause one’s nature to improve.3 This response only delays the need to find a root for humanity’s goodness because logically we must then ask where these edifying rituals come from.

Xunzi’s response in a similar fashion is not defensible. He claims that ‘ritual and the standards of righteousness…are produced from the deliberate efforts of the sage’.3 Yet if a sage is just another human, where did their ability to become good come from? Upon looking deeply, Xunzi argument points towards some people spontaneously acquiring a good nature and then working to teach others. As an explanation for the origin of all goodness in human nature, it is quite unsatisfactory.

What’s more is that in comparison to Mengzi’s argument, Xunzi’s is weaker and relies on similar paths to virtue. Mengzi’s essential claim is, as already mentioned, that ‘There is no human that does not tend toward goodness’.4 Mengzi rests this argument on the description of each of the virtues as sprouts that can be tended to through our actions. So unlike with Xunzi, there is an origin to goodness; we are born with the ability for it, given the proper effort and environment. This aspect of Mengzi’s philosophy also explains why humans try to be good—we have a natural tendency toward it. Which brings us to the similarity of the two paths to Confucian virtue. According to both Xunzi and Mengzi, achieving virtue is a matter of self-cultivation, meaning that it takes a deliberate effort. In either case, an individual chooses to become better, but in Mengzi’s explanation we find a reason for these efforts.

Though initially the two sides of the debate over human nature’s inherent tendency appear evenly matched, at least in the Confucian context, one side is clearly more justifiable than the other. If being good takes deliberate effort either way, then it there must be a cause and a reason for our ability to embody it. Xunzi’s claim does not provide sufficient justification for why human nature can shed its original evil nature. Beyond that, it is much more comforting to think of humanity as more caring and good, than self-serving and violent.


Ivanhoe, Philip J., and Van Norden, Bryan W., (Eds.) Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, (Cambridge 2005).

  1. Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 99. []
  2. Ivanhoe and Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 298. []
  3. Ibid., p. 300. [] []
  4. Ibid., p. 145 []