Chart: Comparing historical Chinese and foreign-inflicted deaths

Posted: April 16, 2012 in Chinese Culture, Politics
Tags: , ,

During the “Century of Humiliation” from 1839 to 1945 China was taken to its knees by foreign imperialists. The country was carved up, exploited, looted, raped and dethroned as the world’s greatest superpower. Only in 1949 when the communists triumphed over the Kuomintang in the civil war did China become whole again and begin the road back to its former greatness.

This is the Communist Party’s narrative of history. It’s the message that’s taught in textbooks and reinforced in the media, museums and movies every day throughout China. The elephant in the room that this narrative ignores of course is what happened for the first 30 years of communist China. And it also ignores the damage done by wholly domestic forces during the Century of Humiliation. The below charts show the relative death tolls inflicted on China by domestic and foreign forces over the past two centuries.

The first breaks down the major deadly events.

Getting an accurate count on these events is notoriously difficult*; especially when looking back to the 19th century. But even when we look at the range of estimates the picture is pretty obvious. The next chart shows when we combine these events into a simple Chinese vs. foreign-caused death comparison.

Here’s what it looks like when you just compare deaths caused by the Communist Party’s policies to the events of the Century of Humiliation (This graph doesn’t include the Communist Revolution).

In just 27 years the Communist Party managed to kill significantly more Chinese than all the foreign aggressors did in the previous 106 years combined.

Now in many ways these graphs miss the point. Killings were only one of the grievances over the Century of Humiliation. The damage done to the Chinese psyche was caused more by foreigners stealing territory, imposing unequal treaties, looting cultural relics, exploiting Chinese people, and of course, the heinousness of Japan’s war crimes. But making other considerations goes both ways. During the party’s first 30 years it took the personal property and land of millions, destroyed countless historical relics, denounced and humiliated people for the crime of being intellectual, and enabled violence often every bit as vile as what the Japanese committed. But these death tolls simply provide one objective measurement of the damage caused to China, and they have some important implications.

The nationalism derived from the Century of Humiliation legitimizes the party’s rule and unites the people against a common enemy. China’s education system emphasizes the greatness of China’s 5,000 year civilization and in many ways promotes the idea that Chinese are exceptional people by nature. Take this question from a college entrance exam:

25) Since reform and opening up, China has successfully embarked on improving national conditions and adapted to the road of peaceful development. Adhering to the path of peaceful development is in line with China’s historical and cultural traditions. This is because______

  • A. The Chinese nation is a peace-loving nation
  • B. Peace and development is the trend of the times
  • C. In foreign exchange the Chinese people have always stressed “loving neighbors” and “finding common interests among diversity “
  • D. Chinese culture is a culture of peace. Longing for peace has always been a spiritual characteristic of the Chinese people [A,C, & D are "correct"]

China was the greatest nation in the world and only lost its footing because of incompetent leadership and war-warmongering foreigners who don’t share China’s peaceful values. The party kicked out the imperialists for good (according to its version of history) and still takes an aggressive stance on any whiff of foreign insult or interference with China. Therefore, the Communist Party is “The inevitable choice in China’s social development.

However, to acknowledge that much of what derailed the country in the first place was home-grown violence would take a lot of wind from that idea’s sails. So would the implication that the rescuer (the CCP) did far greater damage to the country than those it needed rescuing from.

These numbers also matter for low-level foreign relations. Chinese businessmen have been known to invoke the Century of Humiliation as leverage with Western counterparts in getting a better deal. You’ll sometimes even hear common street vendors use historical grievances to justify overcharging foreigners. There remains a strong sense that China is still poor because foreigners set China’s progress back a century. So when there’s a chance to balance the scales a little bit, some try to seize their due compensation.

In the coming months as the party begins its difficult power transition (which just became even more complicated) and tries to grab whatever legitimacy it can, we can probably expect to see even more international events covered in China from an angle that harkens back to the humiliating century. And we might even see an uptick in coverage of scarcely-newsworthy events that portray foreigners in China as exploiters or aggressors. It would be a travesty to deny the damage that foreign powers did to China in the past two centuries, but when talking about setting back China’s development, these numbers suggest that foreigners’ role was slim next to certain other “parties.”

*The main sources for these charts are listed on here and here and were compared to a few other independent estimates to get a reasonable range. Some of the “various internal uprisings” have very scant data with only a single (likely unreliable) number though and should be taken accordingly. 

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    • Antosh says:

      SIr, I’m a little confused; are you comparing the author or the communist party to teh article in question?

    • James says:

      Why is it curious?

      If humans all have equal intrinsic worth, and killing one is wrong, then killing more of them is intrinsically more wrong.

      But that is not how most Chinese see the issue, to them, shame is more important than the number of deaths, and so those who caused more shame are more wrong.

      It is more shameful to be killed by a foreigner than by your own people.

      It is a difference of culture.

    • foarp says:

      “It’s a difference in culture”

      Nonsense. Dictatorships and their apologists have played exactly the same game in many other countries – the Stalin regime being a prime example, but North Korea, Imperial Japan, modern-day Cuba and Venezuela etc. also being examples. Or are all these countries Chinese?

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      @Antosh, by “curious strategy,” I’m wondering first at the choice of argumentative strategy and second at the author’s vacillations on the significance of the numbers evidenced by the following statements: “In just 27 years the Communist Party managed to kill significantly more Chinese than all the foreign aggressors did in the previous 106 years combined”; “Now in many ways these graphs miss the point”; “…these numbers suggest that foreigners’ role was slim next to certain other ‘parties.’” Second, my comparison is to the strategy deployed by those critiqued in the linked article. The strategy in that case is to defuse anti-racist arguments by claiming that it is Blacks most responsible for Black deaths. The analogy is not perfect, but the comparison fairly leapt off the page as I read this post.

      @James, see above on “why is it curious.” RE the less said in response to your “intrinsic worth” equation the better.

    • Antosh says:

      @Lorin Yochim , I agree with your first point, the author should be more consistent with the level of importance he attaches to certain pieces of information and how he deploys them in his argument. Now, you will excuse me if I have missinterpreted you, but on your second point I might make comment. . While the author’s comments do bare superficial resemblance to the article’s statement; I believe there is one key difference that immediatly springs to mind: the issue of self-description. In my time in China, I have often heard people talk about the dichtonomy between peaceful, innocent Chinese and the cruel, savage Japanese, British, etc. imperialists. I often feel that Chinese people are aware of the impliactaions of the savagery of periods such as the cultural revolution and what it implies about themselves, so instead they lash out at others as away of distracting themselves and preserving the aformentioned dichtonomy and therefore their “pure” self-image. As a Englishman I have to confess having had limited dealings with black americans, but from my experiences most English people of west-indian or african origin tend to be much more realistic about the problems in their community. In that context the author stands on the opposite side of the American conservatives mentioned in the article as he activly strives to reveal unwanted truths which challange the personal discomfort blame shifting.

    • James says:

      So you don’t believe that humans have equal worth?

      Do you not want to reply because you are ashamed of what you believe?

    • James says:

      @ Foarp

      A difference in culture does NOT mean that I agree with it, find it laudable, or otherwise approve of it.

      I have no problem with stating that some beliefs are better than others.
      I believe that humans are of equal worth, no matter what their race, creed, or nationality is.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Thanks, @Antosh. My own take on the question of self-awareness of Chinese is that they as aware as anyone of self-inflicted tragedy. Considering only the position of the Party itself on these matters, would anyone seriously argue that this awareness was not the motivation of the transformation that Deng’s rise and the “reform and opening up” represents? Clearly this has not meant total truth and reconciliation with the past, but the commonly expressed notion that the lack of such somehow “holds China back” is naive to say the least. Considering the attitudes of common people about these matters, I see little evidence that Chinese people are unaware, so I agree with you on that issue. As to their reference to the wrongs of outsiders, we would be wrong to say that the defensive reflex you mention is not resulted from educational processes as a whole. Still, the CCP created neither the Japanese occupation nor the foreign concessions. The sense of injury is warranted. A second point relates to the image of the “pure Chinese” yo mention, which is raised above in the multiple choice exam question (incidentally, how does one give three answers to a MC question?). I think it is wrong to read this question and other examples of such propaganda solely as presenting a whitewashed interpretation of the past, although clearly whitewashing is (at least) an effect if not the express purpose. Rather, its primary function is normative, that is, it expresses a desired future character for the people and the nation.

      @James, I’m sure I’ll regret saying this, but if two acts are intrinsically wrong, it doesn’t follow that one can be declared more wrong than the other. Of course I agree that human beings ought to be seen to have equal intrinsic worth. Does the question really need to be asked?

    • justrecently says:

      if two acts are intrinsically wrong, it doesn’t follow that one can be declared more wrong than the other.

      If two acts are intrinsically wrong, neither of them qualifies for a nationalist jerk-off file.

      I believe that Jonathan Spence had a point, when he said in 2008 that “[t]he issue I think is now no longer a real one in any important sense and to harp on it now is not something the Chinese have to do. It’s something they can do if they wish to keep an old pain alive.”

      At least that’s the way it should be. Much of the anger at foreigners is convenient, because addressing the older grievances comes at no price (and may actually be rewarding).

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Nationalist jerk-off file. Now there’s an expression I can get behind. Perhaps if we assign a intrinsic dollar value to each life we can all come to some kind of agreement on the comparative guilt of the perpetrators. Wouldn’t that be great?

    • James says:

      @ Lorin

      It seems to me that murdering one person and murdering 50 people cannot reasonably be thought of as equally wrong.

    • justrecently says:

      Perhaps if we assign a intrinsic dollar value to each life we can all come to some kind of agreement on the comparative guilt of the perpetrators. Wouldn’t that be great?

      If life insurance was the topic here, maybe I could see what you mean, Lorin. In terms of historic accounts however, I can’t see your point (let alone, share your view). Your first comment itself looked curious to me. Should the author change his mind, because you compared his post with stuff from some reactionaries from his home country? Should anyone else?

      The author addressed a political issue which is palpable in daily life, he actually showed how useless it is to suggest that one individual violent death would matter more than another, and I believe that’s a good thing.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      @justrecently, in my haste to speak tongue in cheek in the last comment, my point was not clear. It was directed mainly at @James flawed attempt at formal logic. Still, he may have summed up the flawed logic behind this post. If I were feeling particularly cruel I might point out the formal logic is not the only path to “the truth,” but even writing this sentence will invite all kinds of guffaws from the commentariat.

      As I’ve pointed out in my criticisms above, the decision to judge the relative guilt of various “parties” is a curious one. To be very succinct, if the project is to point out that the CCP engages in nationalist propaganda, is it really a good idea to suggest that events such as the Japanese invasion were less important or even benign by comparison? I realize that Eric did not intend to suggest such a thing, but that is exactly what he has done. This strategy has already invited an attempt to place specific values on discrete human lives. Where does this end? I don’t believe that adopting this strategy is limited to left or right positions, an idea that you raise below where you mention spectrums and closing circles.

    • justrecently says:

      I realize that Eric did not intend to suggest such a thing, but that is exactly what he has done. This strategy has already invited an attempt to place specific values on discrete human lives.

      What Eric has “done” for sure is that he has followed a logic which has long been in place – only from an “opposite” (from a CCP perspective) direction. The only other way I can see he could have taken would have been to say that “foreign aggressions were bad, but the way you keep holding them against us is out of proportions”. Then we’d now have a debate about proportions, about if one can ever possibly overerestimate the gravity of such crimes, and if the author isn’t belittling them.

      In fact, to show that the propaganda line is hypocritical, I don’t think that Eric could have chosen a better approach. And if this invites attempts to place specific values on discrete human lives, it is nothing the post brought about. The preparedness to do such a thing is either there, or it isn’t. To suggest otherwise blurrs the respective tasks of an author, and that of a reader, to be judicious.

    • foarp says:

      @Lorin – To be honest – I cannot see any great flaw in Eric’s logic within the bounds set. The CCP justifies it’s continued dictatorship partially on the grounds that it is necessary to protect China against foreign aggression (e.g., the plaques at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial museum proclaiming that “only a strong socialist motherland prevents this from happening again”) – yet CCP rule has in many ways been measurably worse than what came before it. This is not a “look, they do this to themselves so that makes what foreigners have done to them less bad” argument, this is a “look, CCP rule has been, in what many would agree is a very relevant metric, worse than what it is supposed to have prevented” argument – even if it is dubious that China would have been subject to further invasions without CCP rule post-1945.

      @James – My point was that this is not a cultural difference, but a political one.

  1. justrecently says:

    I think these statistics do matter, Lorin – provided that they are accurate. The “black-on-black” statistic should be somewhat thought-provoking for those who make the popular distinction between perpetrators and victims (and supposing that the allocation of these roles are merely race-based, or nationality-based). Wouldn’t you think that a statistic of Han and Hui people killed in Tibet in spring 2008 makes sense, too?

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I wouldn’t say that the statistics don’t matter, and that’s not what I was suggesting. I also wouldn’t argue that “the century of humiliation” is used to foment nationalism, Having said this, one does wonder precisely why it matters that this is a negotiating tactic in business deals with foreigners. Business people using self-righteous rhetoric to gain advantage? Who knew?

      I find it curious for the reasons stated in my response to @Antosh. To those reasons I would add that the entire post rests on a shaky foundation. It begins with the presentation of a straw man hardly representative of the CCPs version of its own role in history, and hits a low with a blithe comparison of the Japanese occupation with…what “native” transgressions, we can’t be sure. Finally, and perhaps this is the biggest problem of all, the author simply reverses the CCPs supposed position in order to engage in an argument of the “I’m not a murderer, you are!” variety.

      With respect to the Han and Hui killed in (did you mean Xinjiang?), I’m not quite sure where you’re going with that. Were we to find that there were more Hui killed at the hands of Hui people, would we somehow find Hui to be at fault? If it is the case that many Han were killed by Hui, would we then say that the Party’s rule in that region is relatively benign? This comparative strategy is an absolute dead end. It think that @James was getting somewhere with the invocation of “equal intrinsic worth,” but unfortunately dropped the ball in going back to the quantitative/comparative and following it up with “it’s a difference of culture.”

  2. justrecently says:

    A victim at the hands of his or her compatriots is bad, but a victim at the hands of foreigners weighs more heavily than Taishan.

  3. foarp says:

    Of course, this comparison is totally irrelevant. Few Chinese people will ever be convinced by it simply because they will never see it. Even if they did, for most Chinese folk it is no great surprise that the CCP has done wrong, but they believe the Cultural Revolution, GLF etc. to be past history – largely the result of insane and abandoned policies. Foreign wrongs, however, are, at least according to the CCP-line, yet to be redeemed.

    • justrecently says:

      Foarp, I’m not thinking of this as a comparison, but as an illustration. As for the controversy itself, I think it matters in two ways: it matters in discussions among foreigners with different views of this, and it matters when I’m in a discussion with Chinese nationalists – be it among friends, or in business negotiations, or whereever.

      It’s possible to get to a situation where people stop quantifying their victimhood status – France and Germany seem to have arrived at such a point. Neither the world wars, nor the 1870/71 war, nor the Napoleonic, nor the 30-year-war have to be looked at in that light anymore. But without political will, this is hard to be brought about. Weaker selfs (or selves?) are easy to arouse, as Yugoslavia has shown, as one of the more recent European examples.

  4. justrecently says:

    I don’t see Eric’s approach as one that wants to play down the damage done by imperialism, Lorin. I think it is a reasonable way to address a CCP approach – an organization which explicitly claims to be the irreplaceable guardian of sovereignty, and of five-thousand years of Chinese culture. I’m not suggesting that the memory of the opium wars would be basically gone, if propaganda wasn’t overemphasizing it – overemphasizing it, mind you, in contrast to crimes committed during the inner-Chinese events mentioned in this blog post. If someone wants to chum up to the powers that be, rather than past ones, Liu Dehua gave us a good example of how to do it:

    I’ve been told several times, when Chinese friends and I differed about history issues, that “our schoolbooks are too different”. That didn’t make our disagreement go away – some of them are pretty nationalist, and I am stubborn -, but I can agree with them on that one. In that regard, I don’t think at all that the foundations of Eric’s case would be “shaky”.

    What’s missing here – and that’s a mindset many Chinese leaders would probably like to go away in many technical cases, but keep it when it comes to politics – is a lack of awareness for individual, rather than “national” or “racial” responsibility. Let me get back to the Zimmermann-Martin case.

    As for the strategy used by those mentioned in the article, there seems to be a desire to obstruct justice, merely for the fact that the suspect killer was “white”.

    I’m counting myself into the political “left”, but I’ve started wondering long ago if those terms mean a lot. The Randall Robinson quote in the linked article isn’t helpful. It’s the same “them” and “us” kind of stuff that seems to have motivated the suspect’s protectors. An individual is responsible for what he or she does. Personal circumstances may count as mitigating circumstances. History is important, but not in this context. I’m wondering if – when it comes to the political spectrum, in terms of responsibility -, the far left and the far right are really two ends of a spectrum, or if they aren’t actually the two ends where a circle closes.

  5. justrecently says:

    (Nesting comments apparently doesn’t work for me. Feel free to put them into the right place, if you see the need, Eric.)

    As for the Han and Hui statistics, I was referring to the 2008 Tibetan unrest.

  6. justrecently says:

    One aspect that hasn’t been mentioned so far, I believe: I wouldn’t count the “Great Leap Forward” in too easily. It was an aggression in a kind of its own, but it wasn’t designed to kill people. One may as well consider it a huge, insane economic experiment.

  7. sinostand says:

    Wow, this thread sure went wild after I went to bed last night. Anyways, these numbers are what they are and for you to do what you want with. I personally think that they have two important implications though:

    1. The belief that China is much poorer today than it could be because of foreigners is vastly overstated when you look at Chinese-inflicted events that happened during the Century of Humiliation and the events that came after it. This isn’t a point of dignity. The Great Leap Forward’s deadly results were accidental and I doubt many feel humiliated by it outside the party. But it still greatly undermines the party’s role as rescuer and the legitimacy derived from that idea. This isn’t meant at all to downplay foreign atrocities. They were inexcusable, but they need to be put in perspective when examining where China lost its footing.

    2. The idea that Chinese are more peaceful by nature than foreigners is subtly (and as that test question shows, often directly) made constantly. It lends to the rise of nationalism and a superiority complex (which serves the party well). A few of you have mentioned that these events are well-known by Chinese, which is true, but I really don’t think the specific death tolls are widely known. I’ve met very few who know much detail at all about the Taiping Rebellion except the textbook lesson that its revolutionary spirit was a prelude to the Communist Revolution. And I would venture to say very few young people know the gory details of the Cultural Revolution. In the under 30 age group, I think plenty have the idea that overall, foreigners killed more people than Chinese did. Even when eliminating the accidental Great Leap Forward, that’s simply not true.

    Re: Chinese already knowing all these things and it leading to Reform & Opening up. That’s possible for older generations, but these graphs mainly are relevant for young people that never lived though any of these events and grew up in the post-1989 “Patriotic Education” that really started playing up the Century of Humiliation.

    Re: Missing the point and that the real indignity is simply being killed by foreigners. I agree, as I stated. But there is an argument worth looking at that this “humiliation” is a late-20th-century creation and that during many of the events themselves, very few Chinese actually felt humiliated:

  8. asdfasf says:

    The difference is one set of tragedies are the result of incompetence, while the other set is the result of willful malice.

    • sinostand says:

      I think the only event up there you can put under the incompetence file is the Great Leap Forward. The rest were very much willful malice. The 3rd graph includes the anti-rightest movement, cultural revolution, and all the purges of the Mao-era. Perhaps I should have made a 4th graph illustrating just direct killings perpetrated by CCP. In that case, the greater killer (foreign or CCP) would depend on whether you believe the high or low estimates.

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  10. alsharp says:

    @Lorin Yochim

    I’m curious as to why you “wouldn’t argue that “the century of humiliation” is used to foment nationalism”? If the CPC didn’t intend to use the COH to stoke nationalism, in my experience it certainly seems to have ended up doing so inadvertently!

    And, why what is presented here is “a straw man hardly representative of the CCPs version of its own role in history”? It’s a simplification, to be sure, but I’m not sure exactly how it constitutes a straw man? How does the CPC’s version of its own role fundamentally differ from how it’s presented here?

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      @alsharp, thanks for asking for clarification because, RE your first paragraph, I made a damned fool typing error. It should have read, “I also wouldn’t argue that “the century of humiliation” is NOT used to foment nationalism.” That isn’t what one gets for not using double-negatives. ;) Very risky. Of course nationalists use and abuse history, and the CCP retains and even foments nationalism with who knows what unintended consequences.

      RE the straw man, the CCP perspective on its role in past activities is not to deny responsibility for them or even to deny the disastrous consequences of them. Indeed, justification for and legitimation of the present course of reform and opening up, as one example, is precisely the “mistakes” of the period preceding it. The second paragraph of the post are a simplification of the Party’s version of the history of the 1950-1976 period. Perhaps the problem is that the author hasn’t done much to tease out the distinction between raw statistical data (whether low or high) and the judgements made with respect to that data.

      Now, having presented my own oversimplification, I’ll move on.

  11. Tlast says:

    The Tibet War seems to have been left out? PLA invaded Tibet starting 1950, and kept a continuous campaign for several years with air raids and attack on villages.

  12. alsharp says:

    Personally, I think it’s a grave mistake to portray the GLP as some kind of ‘whoops-a-daisy!’ cock-up, that can be dismissed as an unfortunate accident, stemming purely from incompetence.

    Some perspective on this; from the wikipedia article on Frank Dikötter’s ‘Mao’s Great Famine’:

    ‘According to Dikötter, “In most cases the party knew very well that it was starving its own people to death.” Mao was quoted as saying in Shanghai in 1959: “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” ‘

    From the Jonathan Fenby review of the same book:

    ‘As the pressure mounted to provide the all-powerful state with more and more output, the use of extreme violence became the norm, with starvation used as a weapon to punish those who could not keep up with the work routine demanded of them. The justice system was abolished. Brutal party cadres ran amok. “It is impossible not to beat people to death,” one county leader said.’

  13. Jess says:

    In fairness (…I guess), China didn’t really begin its population boom until Mao came into power. The Taiping Rebellion probably would have killed more people…had there actually been more people to kill.
    I wonder how the Mongol conquest of China fits into this. On one hand, the narrative in China these days is that the Yuan was a “Chinese” dynasty. On the other hand, the ruling Mongols were still pretty “foreign,” and officially relegated ethnic Han to the lowest tiers of society.
    And on the other, other hand…census results from the time show a drop in population from 130 million to 60 million, which would really mess up the scale of things.

  14. [...] Chart: Comparing historical Chinese and foreign-inflicted deaths 31.228742 121.576754 Rate this: Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

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