White Lotus Rebellion

White Lotus Rebellion
White Lotus Rebellion

The White Lotus Society was one of several secret societies that emerged from time to time during the history of imperial China. They required members, mostly from lower social classes, to adhere to rituals associated with Buddhism and Daoism (Taoism), food taboos, and penance.

Such groups attracted the attention of the government, which often took steps to suppress them. The White Lotus Society had roots in the Song (Sung) dynasty and survived the Song government’s efforts to suppress it. It emerged as one of the rebel movements during the late Mongol Yuan dynasty and helped to topple it.

The Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty was ruled by a frontier people, the Manchu, a fact that upset many of the majority Han Chinese. Because early Manchu rulers had been successful and China had been prosperous through the second half of the 18th century, potential opponents of the dynasty had lain low and not been able to garner significant support.

Like its predecessors, the Qing government was ambivalent toward popular religious organizations such as the White Lotus, condemning religious festivals and rituals as wasteful, disruptive, and potentially harmful to morality.

The White Lotus Rebellion (1796–1804) began in the southeastern border area of Sichuan (Szechuan) Province in 1796. Sichuan had undergone dramatic population growth during the 18th century, due to large-scale immigration from neighboring provinces, to about 20 million by 1800; government efforts to slow the pace of immigration into Sichuan had been ineffective. The large influx of people strained government resources and caused tension between the immigrants and the existing local population.

In 1781 the government arrested a White Lotus leader named Liu Song (Liu Sung) and banished him to the frontier. His harassed followers then revolted and the unrest spread quickly from Sichuan to neighboring provinces in central and northern China.

This rebellion indicated the turning point of Qing dynastic fortunes; the army sent to suppress it proved too rotten to perform its task. The rebels were able to garner popular support due in part to their millenarian religious appeal and also to their racial-nationalistic stand against Manchu rule.

Finally, local gentry and officials in the affected regions organized militias to undertake the task of putting down the rebellion, which cost the government 100 million silver taels. Although put down in 1804, the White Lotus Rebellion was the forerunner of more devastating revolts of the 19th century that contributed to the downfall of the dynasty.