Of Masks and Queues

Our governor here in Indiana has lifted the mask mandate. It is about time. We, Hoosiers, have been asked to wear a mask for about a year now and if there ever was any legitimate health reason to require citizens to wear masks in their daily lives, it has long since passed. The Chinese COVID-19 epidemic is receding. Vaccines are now available and probably the entire population has been exposed to the virus. There really is no reason to continue the mask mandates and lockdowns.

Yet, the order to lift the mandates has been surprisingly controversial. Those governors which have lifted their states’ mask mandates have been derided as science-denying Neanderthals even as COVID vaccines have become available and cases have been dropping. There is clearly no current justification for continued mask mandates and lockdowns if indeed there ever were. Why is there this insistence on compelling people to wear masks? I have a sort of a theory based on Chinese history. 

In 1644 the Manchus invaded and conquered China. Who are the Manchus, you might be asking? Well if you look at a map of China, the north-eastern part of China, north of Korea used to be called Manchuria.

These days it is called other names for various historical and political reasons, but never mind. The Manchus are the people who live in Manchuria.

The Manchus were a semi-nomadic steppe people much like the Mongolians. As is often the case when a less sophisticated people live alongside a more advanced nation, the Manchus came to admire the Chinese and began to adopt Chinese culture, settling down into cities and farms and importing Chinese artisans. Eventually the Manchu royal family, the Aisin-Gioro clan decided that they admired China so much that they should be the Emperors of China. They began to call themselves the Qing Dynasty and their king proclaimed himself Emperor

So, as I mentioned, in 1644, the Manchus invaded China. At the time China was beset with the usual political unrest, rebellions, and natural disasters which signified the transfer of the Mandate of Heaven from one dynasty, the Ming in this case, to the Qing so the Manchus were able to conquer China.

After they had consolidated their control, the Shunzhi Emperor decreed that every Chinese male must show his loyalty to the Manchus by wearing his hair in the Manchu fashion; his head shaved in the front and long in the back, gathered into a braid or queue. This decree was not popular, except among the toadies and collaborators among the Chinese. The Chinese viewed the Manchu as barbarians and had no desire to emulate them in any way. Moreover, Confucius had taught that as a person’s hair came from his parents, it was an act of disrespect to one’s ancestors to shave to cut one’s hair or beard.

After some initial resistance, the Chinese complied with this decree for the next two and a half centuries, as long as the Qing remained in power. For Westerners, the queue was the stereotypical Chinese hairstyle. Why was this? The Chinese outnumbered the Manchus by more than ten thousand to one. Why did Chinese men continue to wear their hair in a fashion they despised as a mark of their subjugation to a hated occupier? Well, for one thing, the Manchus were fierce steppe warriors, and the Chinese weren’t. Any man who refused to wear the queue was likely to be summarily beheaded as a traitor. A village where the men stopped complying could be destroyed.

Aside from that, China has never been a country that prizes individual liberty or great initiative from the masses. China has been a culture in which the common people were expected to obey their betters and let the Emperor and his Mandarin scholar-officials do the thinking for them. Obedience to their superiors had been pounded into the heads of the Chinese for two thousand years. And yet, the Chinese did resist. As the dynastic cycle progressed and the Qing began to decline, rebellions against the Manchus become increasingly common. The first thing the Chinese did when rebelling was to cut off their queues or let the hair in the front of their heads grow out. 

It seems to me that this insistence on continuing to mandate masks is less about controlling the COVID pandemic at this point and more about compelling a visible sign of submission to the regime, just like the Manchus required Chinese men to wear their hair in a queue. Why else should there be this insistence that everyone wear a mask, regardless of whether they have been infected? It seems to me that in a free country, the decision to wear a mask ought to be up to the individual. If you feel it is necessary to wear a mask to avoid contracting the coronavirus, by all means, wear one. If I believe that having had the coronavirus and been vaccinated believe that I am in no danger and therefore do not believe that wearing a mask is necessary, I shouldn’t be made to wear one. Why the name-calling and mask shaming? 

Maybe you think this is going a bit far. Well, consider this:

Wearing a mask is presented more as a gesture of loyalty to “President” Biden and his agenda than an actual health measure. 

The Chinese wore their hated queues under the threat of superior force and lived in a culture that emphasized conformity. We Americans allegedly have a culture that emphasizes freedom and individualism and no one is threatening to chop off our heads for not wearing a mask, at least not yet. So what is our excuse? Why are we being intimidated into continuing to wear masks even as the pandemic ebbs? Are we really that easily frightened? What happened to the people who wear willing to fight for their freedom?

If you want to wear a mask go ahead. If you don’t want to wear one, don’t. That is what people do in a free country. We don’t let our betters tell us whether to wear a mask. We decide for ourselves. Let’s take off the masks and be free. 

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom

The Taiping Rebellion was the bloodiest civil war in the history of China, and quite possibly the most destructive war in the whole sanguine history of war, yet few outside of China know very much about the course of this titanic conflict, or even that it happened.

The Taiping Rebellion began as a religious movement led by Hong Xiuquan, a man who had had a nervous breakdown after failing the very difficult civil service exams that were the path to success in Imperial China. After reading some tracts given to him by Christian missionaries, he conceived the idea that he was Jesus’ younger brother and began to form a cult, which became a Chinese nationalist movement against the Manchu Qing dynasty that ruled China. The Manchus did not care for this movement and their persecution sparked a rebellion that, at its height, involved almost half of the Chinese Empire.

Contemporary drawing of Hong Xiuquan, dating f...

Roughly contemporary with our own Civil War, there were a number of striking similarities between the American Civil War and the Taiping Rebellion, a fact noted by both Chinese and American observers. Both conflicts involved a rebellion by the southern regions of their respective countries against a government controlled by the north. Both were the most destructive civil wars ever fought by

either nation. Both wars threatened the prosperity of the British economy, which depended on trade with both America and China. In both cases foreign powers, especially Britain and France believed they had an interest in intervening. In both cases, the north won.

The differences between the two wars were greater, however. The Taiping Rebellion lasted longer, from 1850 to 1864. It was fought far more cruelly than the American Civil War. Imagine instead of a pleasant conversation between Grant and Lee at Appomattox, Grant seizing the surrendering Lee and having him tortured to death. Or, Sherman deliberately massacring Confederate civilians when he burned Atlanta. The United States was also spared the complication of having British or French troops invading to fight on either side, or having the British Navy burn down the White House to force America to trade. China was not so fortunate. While fighting the rebellion, the Chinese were also forced to fight the Arrow War against the British who burned down the Xianfeng Emperor’s Summer Palace in retaliation for the Chinese government’s mistreatment of their representatives.

The outcome and legacy of the two wars were also much different for the two nations. The United States emerged from the Civil War stronger and more united. In the decades following the Civil War, America became an industrial giant and a world power. Again, China was not so lucky. The Qing Dynasty managed to cling to power for the next half-century, growing ever weaker and less capable of defending China against the encroaching foreigners.

Extent of the Taiping Rebellion (French). 中文: ...
Extent of the Taiping Rebellion (French).
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I said, little is known of this conflict in the West. There have been a couple good histories of the Taiping Rebellion written by Western historians, including Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom by Stephen R Platt. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is not so much a comprehensive history of the Taiping Rebellion, that would take several volumes to do it justice, but a story of some of the leading players would were caught up in the great events. Platt tells the story of Hong Rengan, the preacher’s assistant and cousin of Hong Xiuquan, who felt obliged to join the Taipings to help his cousin and who became Hong’s most trusted advisor. There is Zeng Guofan, the Chinese Confucian scholar who reluctantly became the general who crushed the Taipings. There were James Bruce, eighth Earl Elgin, who led the British in what he felt was an unjust war to force the Qing to allow the trade in opium, and his belligerent brother, Frederick Bruce who hated the Taipings and slanted his reports to encourage the British and the French to send forces to China to fight them. There were many Europeans, especially missionaries who sympathized with the Taipings and hoped that they would create a new, Christian China. There were others, like Frederick Townsend Ward, who sensed that fighting as mercenaries for the Qing could be very profitable.

This emphasis on some of the leading actors in the drama makes Platt’s account interesting and readable. In fact, it reads almost like a novel and I found it hard to put down. The only weakness in his approach that I can see is that he barely mentions the beginnings and early years of the Taiping movement and the history only really begins when Hong Rengan decides to join the Taipings in 1858. The story also ends with the end of the Rebellion, and it might have been nice to read a little more about how China’s “reconstruction era” turned out. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is a worthy book about a somewhat forgotten war and I can heartily recommend it for anyone interested in China.