Tariq Ali on The Panthay Rebellion by David Atwill


"The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away."

Three huge rebellions swept Manchu-ruled China in the nineteenth century. The two best-known and much written about are the Han-led, semi-Christian, mildly reformist, Taiping revolt (1850–1864) and the anti-colonial Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901). The third is the subject of this valuable and indispensable account by David Atwill. The Panthay Rebellion (1856–1873) has been bracketed as a Muslim revolt and largely ignored, both inside and outside China. It was, in fact, much more complicated than that, and while it would be stretching the facts to describe it as progressive in the modern sense of the word, its leaders were open-minded and tended to avoid superstitions that were the curse of Chinese culture. A spiritualist tendency within the Chinese intelligentsia regularly prayed to the Confucian philosopher Mencius appealing for advice to help solve the country’s problems. Du Wenxiu, on the other hand, the instigator of the Panthay revolt, chose to rely on the people of the Yunnan, and his message was essentially political.

All three revolts, in different ways, were harbingers on the coming fall. An atrophied Qing dynasty, the longest in Chinese history, was on its last legs. Its decision to collaborate with European imperialist powers provided the trigger for the Boxer upheavals. Ten years after their suppression, the dynasty fell and was replaced by a confused Republic.

I had no idea that there had been a Muslim Sultanate in Yunnan. When I began the last novel of my Islam Quintet, Night of the Golden Butterfly, I decided that it would be set in Lahore and London, but with reference to China since the heroine was a Lahori from a Chinese family. This involved a lot of research that included reading most of the translated Chinese classics and some histories. One of these was W. J. F Jenner’s The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China’s Crisis (1992). Bill Jenner was fluent in Chinese, had worked for the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Beijing, was an ardent Maoist during his younger days and later a distinguished scholar. There was much of value in his book of disillusionment, even though I didn’t appreciate the note of European condescension that sometimes crept in and disfigured his thought processes, leading him to over-stress the continuities in Chinese history. What I found in the first few pages of The Tyranny of History astonished me, as it had astonished Jenner: 

From Chinese accounts, contemporary or modern, one would never imagine of the Muslim rebellion in Yunnan in the third quarter of the nineteenth century that one of its leaders wrote to Queen Victoria requesting, in language rich in purely Chinese references to uprisings and sage rulers of antiquity, to be allowed to become a subject of hers. (I would never have believed this if I had not been shown a photograph of the letter by Mr Joe Ford who found it in, as I remember, India Office archives in London.) It is much harder to find indications in Chinese sources of the full diversity, ethnic and other, of the ‘China’ of any period than it is for a European country…

Rarely have I been so excited by such a discovery. The reason was purely instrumental: it was perfect for my novel. Work on the Night of the Golden Butterfly had been interrupted by the jihadi attacks on the United States in September 2001, my energies consumed by writing on the wars of the 21st century. I now transformed the Chinese family in Lahore that I had invented from economic to political refugees: a universal condition that follows every long war. I searched for more material in diverse publications in the Muslim world but found virtually nothing. It was the same in Europe. There was more in the United States, but nothing else in terms of quality or research that came near to David Atwill’s work. I quarried it shamelessly, but with great pleasure. Today I am shocked that Night of the Golden Butterfly is cited in more than a few reference works on Islam in China, as though it were a history. It is not. My fictional reconstructions in the Islam Quintet never fool around with historical facts; they simply construct a scaffolding around them.

David Atwill’s book is the real history of the dual power created in Yunnan by Du Wenxiu, later know as Sultan Suleiman. Atwill underlines how the outbreak of the Taiping Rebellion had shaken the Chinese Empire, whose main forces were henceforth occupied in crushing that insurgency. In Yunnan, meanwhile, 1,500 miles to the west, a series of atrocities by the Manchus and Han Chinese against the Muslim Hui Chinese and other minorities laid the basis for another resistance movement, which in due course became the Panthay Rebellion. Du Wenxiu’s strategic plan was not just to inflict a temporary defeat on the Manchu Governor-General imposed on the region, but to take the entire province and possibly declare independence. An old Yunnan proverb cited by Atwill helps us to understand the self-confidence of the rebels: ‘The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away.’

The Han Chinese had always regarded the Hui people as outsiders, interlopers, even though by the 19th century they had been settled in China for almost twelve centuries. The first mosque was built in the Tang capital, Chang’an (today Xian), in 742 CE. Muslim traders had arrived shortly after the Prophet Muhammad’s death along the Silk Road and in trading vessels, and soon there were thriving Muslim communities in many Chinese port towns, from where they travelled to the interior. Over the centuries, the Sinicised Muslims (Hui) became part of Chinese history, despite rules designed to prevent intermarriage and confine them to ghettoes. Their distinct identity was mainly a question of differing rituals, such as prohibition of pork and alcohol. The fact that Hui were used by the state as tax-collectors and became moneylenders helped the Han elites to incite popular hatred against them, a fate shared with Jews in Europe and Armenians in Ottoman lands. This came a bit later, however. The early Tang period was much more open and cosmopolitan in outlook, which explains the rapid spread of Muslim communities and a spate of voluntary conversions. In 847 an Arab, Li Yansheng, was permitted to pass the civil service exams and was appointed to a post in the Palace. The open attitude of Qubilai Khan’s later Yuan Dynasty opened the Wall for new immigrants of the Muslim faith. It is a rich history.

David Atwill convincingly argues that the Panthay Rebellion was not a ‘Muslim’ revolt as such, but a united front of many ethnic minorities in Yunnan under Hui leadership, hence the Sultanate. Du Wenxiu’s political strategy was to unite Yunnan against the Qing court – its relays in the province and the Emperor – and to break the Han officials and their supporters by isolating them from ordinary Han people. The Sultan constantly stressed Hui-Han unity against the Manchu court, not without some success. To appease and please the Han population, a Forbidden City was reconstructed in Dali. The aim was to stress that the Hui were also Chinese. In the early days of the Sultanate, when large numbers of Hui queued in public to have the Manchu-imposed pigtail (or queue) removed from their heads, many Han people joined them.

The Sultanate lasted for almost eighteen years. And as in many other cases elsewhere in the medieval and modern worlds – Sicily, al-Andalus, the Arab Middle East – Sultan Suleiman’s bold experiment was defeated by an imperial strategy of divide and rule. A Hui turncoat, Ma Rulong, helped to restore Manchu rule, denigrating Suleiman for not being a proper Muslim in order to divide the leadership of the Sultanate and its followers. Suleiman was accused of eating pork and drinking wine. Military victory for the Manchu brought a mass emigration of the Hui people from Yunnan to Thailand, Burma and Vietnam, with some reaching India. It’s time for Chinese historians to study and discuss the Panthay Rebellion, regardless of the Chinese state’s continuing oppression of the Muslims of Xinjiang.

Tariq Ali
July 2022

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