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Week 8, Gene Expression Book Club, Autumn In The Heavenly Kingdom

The summer palace of the Chinese emperor is burned down, and all of Europe is outraged! Well, perhaps not all of Europe, but the most surprising aspect of this chapter to me is the reaction of the British establishment. Rather than being jingoistic, with exceptions, they seem ambivalent to opposed to the aggressive actions of Lord Elgin. This, despite the reality that the European prisoners were truly ill-treated by the Chinese when in their authority.

I suppose this makes me realize again that I tend to see people from an earlier period as bigoted and blood-thirsty when in reality they had morals just like us. These were the British who after all abolished the slave trade, despite their economic interests.

Much of the rest of the chapter is focused on where it should be, on China. The emperor has fled, and his brother is left holding the bag in Beijing. This is a dynasty without virtue at the head. There is great power politics, and possible aid from Russia, along with foreign mercenaries. It’s amusing to read about the Chinese evaluation of Americans as “pure and honest.” How things have changed.

Much of the latter portion of the chapter was hard for me to follow, in that it alludes to the complicated and confused impressions of the Taiping by the rebels, and various diplomatic efforts involving Europeans, Taiping, and the Manchus. Additionally, there seem to be a fair number of European freelancers operating between the various groups.

Total and utter chaos. No one seems to know what’s going on.


13 thoughts on “Week 8, Gene Expression Book Club, Autumn In The Heavenly Kingdom

  1. …despite their economic interests.

    Because other interests started to get aligned. Maslow Hierarchy is not perfect or absolute but the pattern it shows is clear.

    The British after having looted all over the place and sitting atop the global power structure naturally shifted to the snobby/preachy, We’re the Cultured People Now trope/meme (Dawkins original meaning). We’ll Civilize everyone, by force if necessary (which came from their Christian Civilizational heritage/legacy/baggage and which is one of the core malaise of Western Exceptionalism today as well, this penchant to Universalize human behavior and thought).

  2. Rather than being jingoistic, with exceptions, they seem ambivalent to opposed to the aggressive actions of Lord Elgin.

    As a general historical thing, while aasabiyah is a thing, seems we often tend to overestimate the degree to which a group can achieve a particular thing because they are united behind a goal, rather than because they are just that much more powerful/sophisticated/competent.

    We tend think of outgroups as homogenous, and if they succeed, it’s because they pulled together (and the moral lesson is that we should to!)… But reality often more that they can succeed despite being not much more united because just better tech/quality, superior numbers, luck etc. Probably a cognitive bias.

  3. During the fall of Manchu Qing dynasty, most ethnic Manchu were genocided in south and northwest China (including Xinjiang uyghur region). Only northern Manchu were spared and protected by northern warlord and first president of Republic of China, President Yuan Shikai. Otherwise, Manchu would have disappeared like others in history like XiXia (genocided by Mongol), Qidan (cleansed and pushed into Central Asia by both Jurchen and Mongol), many more(zhongshang during waring states, five barbarians era all but xianbei survived by sinicization)

  4. @Var

    I don’t think this claim matches up with the timeline of British dominance. Britain itself abolished slavery in England in the 1770s, then abolished the slave trade in the Empire in 1807, and finally prohibited slavery throughout the Empire in the early 1830s. British dominance was far from complete in the 1770s, it looked like Napoleon was going to conquer the world in 1807, and while Britain was likely the world’s preeminent power by the 1830s, an uneasy peace having settled on the continent, its position was far from secure with competition from France and, to a lesser extent, Russia.

    I would tend more to agree that businessmen and imperialists within Britain used anti-slavery sentiment as a ground for gaining moral support for the expansion of imperialism, becoming particularly important in the final third of the 19th Century as Russia, France, and particularly Germany looked like they might overcome Britannia, but that’s not to say that there wasn’t a real belief in other quarters in the evangelism of the global abolition of slavery; the British Empire, even within England, wasn’t a unitary state. Britain also, even at the peak of its global power, never had the kind of unilateral power that the US has had over the past 40 years, the Soviet second world order having become sclerotic in the 80s, so Britain really was running counter to its economic interests in abolishing slavery in a way that the US wasn’t when it embarked on missions to spread democracy in the 90s and 2000s.

  5. @Mekal

    Your timeline is incorrect.

    See the Relative Power graphs here for reference.

    UK was by the end of 18th century already THE prominent power on the global stage.
    Yet it had not subdued European rivals in Absolute terms because they too were in relative terms powerful as well, hence this alignment/up-ward mobility in Maslow’s Hierarchy whereby other attributes get used to establish dominance and show differentiation.

    New-practices (which are heterodox to the mainstream orthodoxy, whatever that may be) are age old way of doing so.

    The so called economic loss was trivial. If it wasn’t UK wouldn’t have done this.

    Passing Laws also isn’t the same thing as comprehensively carpet sweeping it in implementation. Lots of things were on law in Western countries. The concept of Democracy itself, even though places like US only became True Democracies in 1960s, almost 2 centuries after it claimed Independence.

    UK still had discriminatory laws against Homosexuals when it last hosted the Football World Cup.

    20 people claiming/writing some new heterodox position doesn’t mean all that much. What matters is what happens on the ground about a position.
    And Slavery didn’t end in late 18th century or 1st half of 19th century under British rule.

    It was a slow evolution, which gained momentum because it suited the interest of the State eventually. Economic or enlightenment had little to do with it and that even last 2 decades of UK’s Military and State actions have categorically demonstrated.

    It was about Interests. They aligned and slowly on ground practices changed as well. Crediting them for ending slavery somehow or starting the process is comically absurd and apes similar tropes of the British colonial enterprise building Railways in their colonies and they being used by common people hence they being good.

    That is a farce.

  6. @Var

    We’ll have to disagree on the interpretation of the data you provided. It sounds like you already came to your conclusions, because this is a narrative that has existed since the British Empire ended when Marxian conceptions of history were in vogue, that it was all a cover for economic interests. And there’s no such thing as a “true democracy”, it’s a rhetorical cudgel used to denigrate democratic processes that we disapprove of after the fact or because they are delivering outcomes in other countries that don’t match outcomes in our own.

    Also how does Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a psychological concept applying to individual people in the clinical context, on which has never been universally accepted by psychologists, even remotely apply to an Empire? You sound like a redditor citing wikipedia articles, throwing arguments against the wall and seeing which ones stick.

  7. I think this is an interesting take on how we in the West read history. We generally see ourselves as benevolent and on the whole good with a few exceptions: “Yes, a few bad apples engaged in wanton cultural destruction, but hey, none of us agreed with it, and we also abolished slavery!”.

    Non-Westerners are far more cynical, for all the presentation of morality, when the West has the whip hand they will use it to their full advantage in spite of all the moral handwringing.

    To quote Samuel Huntington: “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion … but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”

  8. @Mekal

    “Napoleon was going to conquer the world in 1807”

    That was two years after Trafalgar. Britain destroyed much of the navies of her imperial rivals and conquered many of their colonies (e.g. Cape colony) during the Napoleonic wars, her naval supremacy and status as the foremost imperial power was uncontested by 1815. That made ending the slavery-based plantation economy in the West Indies much easier. Before it had partly been seen as a national security issue since the revenue from the sugar trade wasn’t exactly trivial and other imperial powers had very profitable slavery-based colonies too (especially France with Haiti).
    The moral dimension (evangelical abolitionism) was important, but abolition was only made possible by geopolitical changes.

  9. @David, I would say the relative volumes of those who think of Western encounters with the “non-West” as benevolent, in the West, seem a distinct minority today! (It’s more fashionable to see Western civilization as a uniquely violent culture, from which one the speaker is a heroic dissenter, the scales from their eyes having fallen by dint of effort and self education).

    I’m not sure even in past folk thought it was benevolent on the whole; they seem to have thought they were benevolent in stopping human sacrifice and torture, which was sometimes the case… But when it came to encounters with natives who were marginalized, it seems if was usually more justified by some blend of “they are dangerous” and “this is how it must be, sadly enough”, or it just didn’t matter to them (the whole modern idea that there should be a reverence for preserving human diversity of culture and history, just didn’t matter to them, didn’t enter their moral universe, wasn’t even a consideration; they often just saw them as people who had a worse or erroneous way of things, to be replaced). But not as often “We are benevolent”.

  10. @Matt: “I would say the relative volumes of those who think of Western encounters with the “non-West” as benevolent, in the West, seem a distinct minority today! (It’s more fashionable to see Western civilization as a uniquely violent culture, from which one the speaker is a heroic dissenter, the scales from their eyes having fallen by dint of effort and self education).” – The woke movement is a recent phenomenon and is largely confined to a subsection of the American college-educated and -aged elite. It certainly doesn’t even represent the conservative-leaning side of America, half the country. IMO the hold it has over the cultural fabric of the wider West is still shallow, though that may change.

    I can’t speak for how people in the West thought of themselves in the past, I was restricting the reference to how we see ourselves now.

    The underlying cultural framework in the West is a belief of cultural and moral superiority. The average Joe may have not be educated any classics or virtue ethics but is fed a diet in popular cultural with the indoctrination the West is superior because it is more moral, not the reality that this superiority is historically contingent on the West hitting on a package of social tech that allowed it gain a material advantage over other civilisations.

    For all the trope of Hollywood being a haven of woke liberals, they still pump out historical atrocities like the recent Netflix ‘Barbarians’, ‘Gladiator’, or ‘300’ (these are the ones that come to mind, yes Barbarians and Gladiator have Romans as antagonists, but the underlying theme is a contest between liberal v despostic value). They cater to the market, and the Western market think of itself as cultural and morally superior.

  11. @David, I have the impression that what I describe, or at least deep ambivalence, has where I live been close to the common view among people who think at least a little (but not a lot, nor independently) about history, for most of my lifetime, so perhaps 30 years. It may be different in the United States (“Shining City On The Hill”, “Beacon Of Liberty” etc). People who don’t think much about history still have some reflexive pride in their own culture, much as most typical people from most cultures, but subjectively I don’t think it’s very developed or clear along the lines you describe.

  12. @Matt: I’m not American but its common knowledge that a defining feature of American national identity is based on American exceptionalism. In the Anglosphere, on the conservative side of politics at least there exists a belief in Anglo exceptionalism. Have to admit I’m not as familiar with Europe so can’t speak as affirmatively on European cultural tendencies.

    It might be my impression is coloured by my experience, I’m more familiar with ppl from the conservative side of politics.

  13. ‘It’s amusing to read about the Chinese evaluation of Americans as “pure and honest.” How things have changed.’

    The US Open Door Policy was incredibly pro-China compared to that of all the European nations, though the natural criticism would be that the US was in no position to colonize unlike the Europeans. Still, even in the Americas the US consensus position was a strong stand in favor of trade (including using military force to uphold trade deals) but not formal colonization– and the exceptions on the latter provoked extreme public backlash.

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