Taiping Rebellion 1850 - 1864 Tài píng dà guó

Taiping Rebellion, bible
Bible in classical Chinese, published by Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, 1853. Available under a Creative Commons license .

The Taiping Rebellion, as much as anything, marked the end of the Imperial system in China. There were two main influences that made the rebellion such a potent force. Firstly the Qing dynasty was a foreign dynasty run by an elite of Manchu families. Han people were not allowed to marry Manchus or settle in Manchuria. All men had to wear their hair in a 'pigtail' or 'queue' as a continual reminder of submission to Qing rule. Secondly Chinese people along the coast were in contact with foreign people with different creeds and philosophies. News of the French Revolution and the fall of the Bourbon dynasty excited much interest. The general level of belief in the traditional Buddhist and Daoist religions was in decline and the Taipings offered a reinvigorated religious revival. The first Opium War had demonstrated the weakness of the Qing regime and it had greatly increased the burden of taxes. There was a regional ingredient too, southern China had for centuries considered itself separate to the north, remembering with some nostalgia the prosperous days of the Southern Song dynasty.

Hong Xiuquan, Taiping
Hong Xiuquan - leader of the Taiping Rebellion. Contemporary Drawing, about 1860. Available under a Creative Commons License

Christian Vision

Hong Xiuquan () [1 Jan 1814 - 1 Jun 1864)] was the leader of the Taipings (transliterated as ‘Great Leveling’ or ‘Great Peace’) with a mixture of Chinese; Christian and European ideas. Hong Xiuquan came across Christian missionaries and the Bible at an early age in Guangdong. After an illness he had a vision in which he believed himself divinely inspired. Hong offered equality between men and women as well as reform to the hated system of land ownership where landlords exploited poor tenant farmers. Chinese people with a grievance against the Qing system enthusiastically joined the new movement. From this reformist point of view, the Taiping rebellion is seen as the forerunner of the Republican and Communist mass movements one hundred years later.

“You, our countrymen, have been aggrieved by the oppressions of the Manchus long enough: if you do not change your politics, and with united strength and courage sweep away every remnant of these Manchus, how can you answer it to God in the highest heavens? We have now set in motion our righteous army, above to revenge the insult offered to God in deceiving Heaven, and below to deliver China from its inverted position, thus sternly sweeping away every vestige of Manchu influence and unitedly enjoying the happiness of the Taiping dynasty.”

Rebellion spreads

The rebellion began in Guangdong where Bibles had been brought into Guangzhou. Hong (a member of the Hakka minority people) had by 1847 taken control of the whole Guangxi province (The rebellion was strongly supported by both Hakka and Miao ethnic groups). One of the by products of the first Opium War was that ports had been opened up all along the coastline, making many porters and tradesmen redundant in Guangzhou; the debilitating addiction to opium was also concentrated in this area. Another significant factor was indirectly caused by the British seizure of Hong Kong in 1842. The British immediately set about clearing the Pearl Estuary of the pirates who had been a scourge on all shipping running the gauntlet through to Guangzhou. Many of the pirates fled upstream and terrorized the communities inland with looting, raping and protection rackets. The Taipings were seen as an effective militia to combat this new threat to the local's livelihood and so gathered much local support.

By 1850 the movement had become a powerful force of organized armed resistance; in 1853 he had captured the Yangzi valley and the great city of Nanjing. A large Manchu army was defeated and slaughtered. Some foreign missionaries became convinced that the movement would bring Christianity to China and a million bibles were printed. Gambling; opium; tobacco; foot-binding and alcohol were forbidden, equality of rights for women were established and Buddhist and Daoist temples were destroyed. At the peak of the rebellion two thirds of the land of China was under Taiping control. If they had pressed north there is little doubt they would have swept away the Manchu rulers, but Hong was content to remain at his capital Nanjing. From there he ruled the great Taiping Kingdom ( tài píng dà guó). However, weaknesses soon became apparent, the Taipings failed to win over the literati elite and so could not install the necessary bureaucracy to run their kingdom effectively. In particular the dykes controlling the river flow were not maintained leading to floods and famines. When the Yellow River changed its course in 1851 many died directly or indirectly and public support was dented. Many of their promised reforms, particularly land reforms were not carried through leading to unrest and disillusionment. In addition, a predictable eruption of internal strife within the hierarchy of Taiping 'kings' weakened central control.

Taiping Rebellion, museum
Site of King Shiwang's Residence of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in Jinhua, Zhejiang the key historical sites under state protection. April 2011 Available by Doctoroftcm under a Creative Commons license .

Opium Wars

All this was happening at the same time of European pressure for 'Free Trade' which lead to the Opium Wars (1839-1860) and it was European interests that controlled the outcome of the Rebellion. A policy of strict neutrality by the foreign powers was initially adopted, allowing the Europeans to supply guns and military advice to both sides; a Civil War is a lucrative business for the arms trade. Indeed the American Frederick Ward was arrested on 19th May 1861 for supporting the Qing side. Two Englishmen proved vital to the outcome of the rebellion Augustus Lindley for the Taipings and Charles 'Chinese' Gordon for the Qing forces. Foreign observers at first applauded the transformation in Taiping lands:

Taiping rebellion, flag
Flag of Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Image by Samhanin available under a Creative Commons License
“Throughout their long line of march, for 1,500 miles, over fertile and populous districts, plunders, murder, and rape, the usual attendant curses of Asiatic warfare, were denounced and punished by death. With more than Puritanical strictness, they waged an internecine war with the most dearly cherished sensual habits of their countrymen. The ten moral rules of the Decalogue were enforced, and a stricter interpretation attached to its terms. Amorous glances, libidinous songs, and all the common incentives to profligacy, were prohibited and abandoned. The drinking of wine, the smoking of tobacco, gambling, lying, swearing, and, above all, indulgence in the fumes of opium, were denounced and abolished with a moral determination which permitted no half measures.”
George Smith , Bishop of Victoria, Hong Kong.

Back in Europe revolutionaries took an interest in the Civil War. Marx and Engels wrote an article in support. Such sentiments were prophetic of events a hundred years later:

“In short, instead of moralizing on the horrible atrocities of the Chinese, as the chivalrous British Press does, we had better recognize that this is a war pro aris et focis [For faith and hearth], a popular war for the maintenance of Chinese nationality, with all its overbearing prejudice, stupidity, learned ignorance and pedantic barbarism if you like, but yet a popular war.”

But in those days it was the religious aspect that caught the most comment:

“There are important questions which we have to consider respecting the character of the religion of the insurgents; e.g.: Are its doctrines essentially those of the Christian religion? Do the elements of truth preponderate over those of error? Are the defects, which may be observable among them, such as constitute a reasonable ground for condemning the whole movement as one of unmingled evil, and the work of Satanic power? Or, on the other hand, are they the natural shortcomings of a body of imperfectly enlightened men, placed in a situation of novel difficulty, laboring under almost unexampled disadvantages in their pursuit of truth, without spiritual instructors and guides, with only a few copies of the Holy Scriptures, and those apparently in small, detached, and fragmentary portions, with no forms of prayer or manuals of devotion, having their minds distracted amid the arduous toil of a campaign and the work of religious proselytism, with no definite views or clear knowledge respecting the sacraments, the Christian ministry, or the constitution of a Church - engaged in a struggle for life and death - and yet, amid all these hindrances and drawbacks, evincing a hopeful, praiseworthy, and promising vigor of mind and independence of action, in the great undertaking of a moral revolution of their country?”
George Smith , Bishop of Victoria, Hong Kong.

Divide and Rule

The eventual judgment made by Britain and other foreign powers was that their interests were better served by supporting a severely weakened Qing regime rather than the strange and unpredictable Taipings. Christian missionaries came to see the Taipings as not true Christians but heretics and withdrew their support. This is despite the Taiping placement of key Christian doctrine such as the ten commandments at the heart of their religion. The Taipings looked to the Old Testament rather than the New for their inspiration. It is widely stated that Hong claimed to be Christ's younger brother, but this is partly a misunderstanding of the Chinese term ‘younger brother xiōng dì which meant ‘follower’ rather than an actual relative. This is rather like nuns calling each other ‘sisters’ and ‘brides of Christ ’ - they were not meant to be taken literally. Perhaps Hong's self-appointed role of prophet of his own version of Christianity was too dangerous a precedent for foreign Christians to accept. In fact in the early days (1847) the missionary Revd. Issachar Roberts is believed to have refused to baptize him due to his strange beliefs. However it was plain to all foreigners who visited southern China that the Taiping regime was more benign and open than the archaic Manchu regime. With the second Opium War (1856-1860) raging at the time, Britain feared the Taiping rebels might overrun the treaty ports they had just wrested from the Qing regime.

“The undersigned will therefore call upon the commanders of Her Majesty's naval and military authorities to take proper measures to prevent the inhabitants of Shanghai from being exposed to massacre and pillage, and to lend their assistance to put down any insurrectionist movements among the ill-disposed, and to protect the city against any attack.”
Frederick Bruce writing to British authorities, 26th May 1860 Shanghai.

When in 1860 and 1862 the Taipings moved to conquer Shanghai, England took notice. Defense of this valued British treaty port was pivotal and General Gordon was sanctioned to help the Qing forces defeat the rebels. The existing small-scale militia was considered 'all show and no force'. When Gordon took over the 'Ever Victorious Army ' from Frederick Ward he recaptured Suzhou and Nanjing with the death of Hong and many of his followers. Key to victory were the accurate and reliable Enfield rifles and Armstrong guns . Gordon himself did not view either side of the War as virtuous, he viewed both ‘as equally rotten’.

Taiping Rebellion, battle
Taiping rebels are chased out of Yuzhuang, March 8 1854. The Taiping arrived the previous day but had to retire the next day when the Manchus arrived in hot pursuit. From Ten scenes recording the retreat and defeat of the Taiping Northern Expeditionary Forces, February 1854-March 1855. Source : web site Available under a Creative Commons license .

Taiping Legacy

This was more than a geo-political tussle; the rebellion cost millions of human lives, with 20 to may be 50 million dead it rates above World War I in the number of casualties. Much of this brutality was at the hands of the Manchus who made ‘scorched earth’ reprisals against the rebels. The Taiping Rebellion was a grass-roots rebellion fought by ordinary peasants and not by trained armies. It had great influence on those taking part in the next Chinese Civil War (1927-1950) between the Nationalists and Communists when the Communists relied on the support of the rural poor people. With the aid of foreign mercenaries and imported arms, China learned how to create a disciplined army, use modern weaponry and modern military tactics. Mao Zedong for instance learned from General Zeng Guofan the leading Qing military genius, who in turn had learned them from General Gordon.

After the fall of Nanjing, the Qing system of control lay in tatters, the Manchu rulers had given autonomous power to local military leaders (warlords) such as Li Hongzhang to fight the Taipings in an echo of the break-up of the Tang dynasty. The Qing Emperors never again really ruled all of China, they had to administer with the backing of strong local warlords. Dowager Empress Cixi who is widely seen as the villain who gave in to foreign demands was actually left very little room to maneuver. The warlords that ruled much of China as a result of the Taiping Rebellion were left firmly in control, if China’s long history was to be repeated would have been one of these warlords who went on to found a new dynasty and indeed this happened when Yuan Shikai proclaimed himself emperor in 1915. But the Republican movement eventually proved the winner and Imperial China came to an end.

Zeng Guofan [26 Nov 1811 - 12 Mar 1872]

Zeng Guofan
Qing Dynasty official Zeng Guofan.available under a Creative Commons License

Zeng Guofan is famous as a Qing military leader who helped put down the Taiping Rebellion. He is an important figure in Chinese history because he was the first to use Western military training to build a new style Chinese army division. The traditional Chinese army training and tactics had proved ineffective against both the Taiping and the European powers. Zeng's division of ‘Hunan Braves’ were recruited from rural areas and he trained them hard. Many came from his native Xiangxiang county. Zeng Guofan hand-picked his officers from among the local scholars, he himself was considered a great Confucian scholar and poet. He instigated a new marine unit that could use the extensive network of waterways to attack and quickly retreat. These tactics held back the Taipings from the central Yangzi area in 1853 (parts of Hunan and Jiangxi). The success of Guofan and his brother Guoquan impressed the Manchu leadership and the force was expanded from the original 20,000 men. As well as reforming the army he sought to modernize civilian rule as well. He realized that the support rather than opposition of the local people was vital to military success.

Li Hongzhang based the ‘Ever Victorious Army’ on Zeng's ‘Hunan Braves’ and eventually with Western aid, the Taipings were defeated. Zeng was rewarded with many high honors by a grateful Manchu emperor. However, the emergence of strong regional leaders such as Guofan led to the period of warlordism that dominated late Qing and the Republican period of Chinese history. Zeng worked with the British General Charles Gordon on the Shanghai defenses, from whom he learned British military tactics.

Zeng published a proclamation in Central China, full of Confucian doctrine and neatly summarizes the differences between Confucian and Taiping doctrine.

“Since the days of Tang, Yu, and the Three Dynasties, the sages of all ages have been sustaining traditional culture and emphasizing the order of human relationships. Hence, ruler and officials, father and children, high and low, honored and humble, were ordered in their respective positions as hat and shoes which can never be placed upside down. Now, the Yueh [Taiping] bandits steal some dregs of foreign barbarians and adhere to the religion of God; from their fake king and fake ministers down to the soldiers and menial servants, they address one another as brothers, alleging that only Heaven can be called father. Aside from this, all the fathers of the people are brothers and all the mothers are sisters. The farmers cannot cultivate their own fields to pay taxes, because it is said that all the land belongs to the Heavenly King. The merchants cannot do their own business to make profit because it is said that all commodities belong to the Heavenly King. The scholars cannot read the classics of Confucius, but they have others called the doctrines of Jesus and the book of the New Testament.

In short, the moral system, ethical relationships, cultural inheritance, and social institutions and laws of the past several thousand years in China are all swept away. This is not only a calamity in our great Qing Dynasty but is, in fact, the most extraordinary disaster since the creation of the universe, and that is what Confucius and Mencius are crying bitterly about in the nether world. How can all those who study books and know the characters sit comfortably with hands in sleeves without doing something about it?”

His role as a minor figure in the Taiping Rebellion is eclipsed by his later influence. Fellow Hunanese Mao Zedong chose Zeng Guofan as his childhood hero. The new style army division of Zeng Guofan served as a model for Mao Zedong's strategy for military training. Chinese armies no longer were built from conscripted part-time militia fighting by rules dating back to the days of Sun Wu's Art of War 2,500 years ago.

See also