published on May 11, 2018
Violence and the Evolving Face of Yao in Taiping Propaganda
This paper explores the interplay between rhetorical and political violence during the Taiping Civil War (1851–1864). Specifically, I examine how yao 妖, a conception bearing many cultural and historical connotations, was profusely employed in Taiping propaganda and in individual testimonies reflecting traditional political and religious beliefs. In extant Taiping placards, the Taiping rebels used xiwen 檄文, the prose of “call to arms,” to persuade people to take up the Taiping cause and to solicit and justify violence. With the compilation and extensive distribution of these xiwen, visions of violence were disseminated among the masses. Drawing inspirations from ancient historical narratives, vernacular literature, and popular religion, the Taiping rebels ingeniously used yao to refer to demonic existences that should be extinguished with the Heavenly vision. In its versatility, the meaning of yao transmuted as the Taiping movement developed. At the beginning of the movement, yao was used broadly to refer to the Taiping’s religious opponents, however, since 1853, it became a core political and religious concept used to refer to the Manchus and their supporters. Nevertheless, the meaning of yao continued to transform as the Taiping rebels sought to convert local Han militias who were fighting for the Qing government. Ironically, the Han literati conversely used yao to describe the war and the Taiping rebels. When yao was associated broadly with the Manchus, Qing loyalists, and the Taiping rebels, its dehumanizing power became a force of destructive violence beyond comprehension.