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Taiping Rebellion, 1850-64

The Taiping movement gave to China a new religion and a new dynasty. Before the Chinese army succeeded in crushing the Taiping Rebellion, 14 years had passed, sixteen provinces were devastated, and six hundred cities destroyed. The cost in lives is difficult to estimate. The authoritative Correlates of War database places the number at two million people killed, and dates the Rebellion from 1860 to mid-1864 - a chronology which is clearly in error. Other equally authoritative sources give estimates ranging from "at least 20 million" to "well over 30 million people" reported killed, and date the war from either 1850 or 1851, to 1864.

During the mid-nineteenth century, China's problems were compounded by natural calamities of unprecedented proportions, including droughts, famines, and floods. Government neglect of public works was in part responsible for this and other disasters, and the Qing administration did little to relieve the widespread misery caused by them. Economic tensions, military defeats at Western hands, and anti-Manchu sentiments all combined to produce widespread unrest, especially in the south. South China had been the last area to yield to the Qing conquerors and the first to be exposed to Western influence. It provided a likely setting for the largest uprising in modern Chinese history -- the Taiping Rebellion.

The T'aiping movement was not in its origin an anti-dynastic agitation. It had little in common with the secret societies which at the time were so persistent with their slogan, "Exterminate the Ch'ing; restore the Ming." With these societies the T'aipings never really co-operated. Of course there were anti-dynastic sentiments in the air which gave impetus to the rebellion. Many other elements are likewise discernible. The rottenness of the whole Imperial system, with its feet of miry clay, had been thoroughly exposed in the recent war with England. Rage at the acquisition by a foreign power of Hongkong added to the flames of discontent with the authorities at Peking. Moreover, the floods and famines from 1834 onwards, the great earthquake in Hunan in 1834, the terrible famines in Szechwan from 1839 to 1841, all had their effect. Yet, notwithstanding all this, the proximate causes of the revolt were personal and religious.

Hung Hsiu-chuan / Hong Xiuquan (1814-64) was a native of Kwangtung, a Hakka by race, and a literatus by ambition. He made at least three attempts to pass his examinations, studied desultorily various philosophies and religions, including Christianity, but was nominally a Buddhist until the illness which marks the turning point of his career. In this illness he had a trance in which God came to him in the likeness of an old man, took out his heart and returned it to him purified, then gave him a sword and commissioned him to make war against the idolaters. On his recovery he bethought himself of the "Good Words to Exhort the Age" which he had received from a Christian preacher, Liang Afa, and recognized the God of his vision as the God of the Christians. Hong formulated an eclectic ideology combining the ideals of preConfucian utopianism with Protestant beliefs. Some instruction he gained from a visit to a Baptist minister, Issachar Roberts of Canton, in 1846, but Hung's Christianity was to the end of a very crude and imperfect sort, intellectually and morally. Nevertheless, he discarded idolatry, began to preach the new faith and gathered around him converts of sincerity and zeal. Together they formed the Shang Ti Hui, or "Society of God." The leader called himself "the Younger Brother of Jesus Christ," using the term "Younger Brother" (ti) in its Chinese sense of subordination and obedience.

He soon had a following in the thousands who were heavily anti-Manchu and anti-establishment. Hong's followers formed a military organization to protect against bandits and recruited troops not only among believers but also from among other armed peasant groups and secret societies. Up to 1850 there was little that was political in Hung's program. The conflict with the Government came through the use of the word "hui" ("association") which put the movement into the category of the proscribed societies. Then came the return to the old Chinese method of wearing the hair long, instead of in a queue, a custom which branded them as rebels to the Manchu authority and caused the populace to ridicule them as Chang-mao, or "Long-haired rebels."

The emperor Taou-kwang ('Splendour of Reason') sixth of the dynasty, dying in February, 1850, after a reign of 29 years, was succeeded by his son, Yih-choo, surname Hieufung ('General Plenty'). This prince, dissatisfied with his father's liberal measures, adopted a reactionary policy, and showed a disposition to return to the traditional legislation of his house. Loud complaints were made; the smouldering embers of discontent were fanned into a flame; and in August 1850, the mountaineers on the borders of Quang-ee, Quei-chew, and Hoo-quang, called the Miao-tse people, broke out into open rebellion.

Hong Xiuquan's followers resisted exactions, were persecuted, and finally arming themselves for self-defence, destroyed temples, and in October, 1850, won an important victory over the imperial soldiery. In 1851 Hong Xiuquan and others launched an uprising in Guizhou Province. The new order was to reconstitute a legendary ancient state in which the peasantry owned and tilled the land in common; slavery, concubinage, arranged marriage, opium smoking, footbinding, judicial torture, and the worship of idols were all to be eliminated. The Taiping tolerance of the esoteric rituals and quasi-religious societies of south China -- themselves a threat to Qing stability -- and their relentless attacks on Confucianism -- still widely accepted as the moral foundation of Chinese behavior -- contributed to the ultimate defeat of the rebellion. Its advocacy of radical social reforms alienated the Han Chinese scholar-gentry class.

As in similar cases, with persecution the movement began to thrive and spread so rapidly in the province of Kwangsi that two Imperial Commissioners, Saishangah and Tahungah, were sent down from Peking to deal with the agitation. Hung took the bold step of proclaiming himself as Tien Wang or the "Heavenly King" and of taking for the title of the new dynasty he expected to found the name of T'aipmg or "Perfect Peace." Never was a name more misleading adopted by a revolutionary movement. From the first Hung made for himself a trail of blood and rapine. City after city was captured and the Manchus began to fear the hour of their doom had struck.

Captains of bandits, whatever their origin, do not, it is true, while their followers amount merely to a few hundreds, choose to make themselves ridiculous or to rouse the general government to more serious efforts against them, by issuing dynastic manifestoes or assuming the state of royalty. But when they begin to count their followers by thousands, forming a regularly governed force they declare openly against the hitherto reigning sovereign, whom they denounce as a usurper. And from the very first, when merely at the head of a small band, no Chinese, acquainted with the history of his country, can refuse to see in such a man a possible, if not probable, founder of a dynasty. More than one Chinese dynasty has been founded by men like this; the Ming dynasty which preceded the Manchu was so founded; and - what is really very important as an historical example - the greatest of all native Chinese dynasties, that of Han, was so founded.

The truculent Yeh in Canton turned aside from his squabbles with the English to lament as follows: "The whole country swarms with the rebels. Our funds are nearly at an end and our troops are few; our officers disagree and the power is not concentrated. The commander of the forces wants to extinguish a burning wagonload of faggots with a cupful of water. ... I fear that we shall hereafter have some serious affair, that the great body of the people will rise against us and that our own followers will leave us." Yeh is said in the course of his administration to have put to death seventy thousand T'aipings, yet he apparently had little or nothing to do with the suppression of the insurrection.

The great soldier Tseng Kuo-'fan did a good deal to check their advance northward, but, one after another, Yochow, Wuchang and Kiukiang were taken, and at last in March 1853 the ancient capital, Nanking, was stormed and sacked, over twenty thousand Manchus being ruthlessly put to the sword. Here the Tien Wang now established his court, proclaimed his dynasty and appointed the Wangs of the East, North, South and West, who subsequently played an important part in the military operations. In 1853 they also took Shanghai. As for Hung he seems gradually to have settled down into a life of luxury and selfindulgence and to have lost the earlier enthusiasm and sincerity of his faith.

Their success thrilled the world, but political corruption and fanaticism and the fate of the imperial dynasty was hanging in the balance. In the earliest stages of the rebellion there was much perplexity as to the proper attitude to be adopted by foreigners. The Christian complexion of the Society naturally disposed many to sympathy and even to admiration. One contemporary account noted: "The rebel leaders are evidently men in earnest. Their unsparing destruction of idols . . . would be impolitic in men with less lofty aims than those of a reformation of the national religion. . . . Their compulsory prohibition of opium smoking, and their threatened exclusion of this contraband article from the country preclude the supposition of their being actuated by a selfish and calculating policy." Bishop Smith described their camp services, Cromwellian-like preachings, to quote from their prayers, odes and creeds. He pictured also the waters of the Yangtse Kiang carrying down to the sea the ruins of thousands of temples and fragments of broken idols. All this was hopeful enough.

Again, from another point of view, the rebellion seemed to invite sympathy, since there was, at least at the beginning, a desire to be on good terms with the foreigners. "Foreign nations, though far removed, are protected and cared for by the one great God; and China, which is so near, is under the same gracious care. There are many men in the world but they are all our brethren: there are many women in the world but they are all our sisters." This also was distinctly promising, especially in view of affairs in Canton, and possibly if strong outside influences could have secured a footing in the counsels of the T'aiping leaders, the insurrection might have been wisely guided to great ends.

But the fact remains that the better acquainted foreign sympathizers became with the T'aipings the more rapidly the sympathy melted away. It was seen that no inroads had been made on the polygamy of the nation and that, if the Bible was being still studied, it was almost exclusively in its most sanguinary and least elevated passages. So the establishment of the Tien Wang with his court at Nanking marked in a double sense the end of the first and more hopeful chapter of the story.

The Taiping army, although it had captured Nanjing and driven as far north as Tianjin, failed to establish stable base areas. The movement's leaders found themselves in a net of internal feuds, defections, and corruption. The capture of Nanking seemed for a time to have exhausted the resources of the Tien Wang. Perhaps, as he had now reached the point attained by the Mings in their overthrow of the Mongol dynasty, there was felt a lack of any precedent for further movement.

But new operations were manifestly necessary, and a fine, if somewhat too audacious, bid for success was made in the truly great march which was executed by General Li. It penetrated a hostile country northwards for some hundreds of miles and reached a point only a very few miles from Peking. General Li was an ex-charcoal seller, and his march in May, 1853, is described by Captain Brinkley as "one of the most extraordinary marches on record . . . like marching across one half of hostile Europe." "This intrepid commander," the historian adds, "deserves a place beside those of the great captains of the world." General Li, however, effected nothing that was permanently useful to the cause. He was checked by General Sankolinsin, and Li Hungchang, who now appears on the field of Chinese history for the first time, hung on the rebel skirts and helped to make the retreat difficult.

The failure of the heroic attempt to beard the lion in his lair by carrying the rebellion to the capital of the Empire was in reality the deathblow to the T'aiping movement, though many years yet were to elapse before its final downfall. But for the energy of others than the leader it must have collapsed much earlier. Yang, who had claimed to be the Holy Spirit, and had even on one occasion exercised the privilege of scourging the Tien Wang, on the strength of a revelation which had been vouchsafed him, fell into disfavor and was executed. The rebel leader remained inactive amid his thirty wives and one hundred concubines, leaving the entire management of the dubious campaign to the eleven Wangs.

The real military genius whom the T'aiping revolt produced was the Chung Wang, whose brilliant movements against the Imperial troops on more than one occasion threatened the foreign settlements at Shanghai and elsewhere. It was this feature of the war which at length suggested the employment of foreigners to aid in putting down a rebellion as wasteful and tedious as it was blood-thirsty. To defeat the rebellion, the Qing court needed, besides Western help, an army stronger and more popular than the demoralized imperial forces. In 1860, scholar-official Zeng Guofan (1811-72), from Hunan Province, was appointed imperial commissioner and governor-general of the Taiping-controlled territories and placed in command of the war against the rebels. Zeng's Hunan army, created and paid for by local taxes, became a powerful new fighting force under the command of eminent scholar-generals. Zeng's success gave new power to an emerging Han Chinese elite and eroded Qing authority. Simultaneous uprisings in north China (the Nian Rebellion) and southwest China (the Muslim Rebellion) further demonstrated Qing weakness.

British and French forces, being more willing to deal with the weak Qing administration than contend with the uncertainties of a Taiping regime, came to the assistance of the imperial army. The first foreigner to offer his services was Frederick Ward of Salem, Massachusetts, an adventurer under whose energetic and tactful leadership the medley hordes of recruits soon became a force to be known henceforth, and not undeservedly, under the high-sounding title, Changshing Kium, or "The Ever Victorious Army." From 1860, when this force began its career, the tide began to turn, and in 1862, when Ward was killed in action, things looked brighter for the Manchus than they had done for twelve years. Yet the "Faithful Prince" (Chang Wang) was by no means at the end of his tether, and many severe battles had yet to be fought.

Ward's little army was for a time led by another American, named Burgevine, who, however, proved a failure and was dismissed by Li Hung-chang, now Governor. This made way for the appointment of the young officer of engineers who was destined to be known as "Chinese" Gordon, until he won the yet more glorious title of "Gordon of Khartoum." The story of Charles George Gordon's wonderful influence, his knightly other-worldliness, of the splendid series of victories, of the "wand of victory" with which he led and inspired his men till they believed him invincible and invulnerable, of his chivalrous anger over Li Hung-chang's breach of faith in the murder of the surrendered Wangs - all these things make up one of the most fascinating chapters in the romance of warfare. By June, 1864, Gordon's work was done; the "Ever Victorious Army " was disbanded, and the Imperial forces were left to enjoy the satisfaction of dealing the last stroke to the rebellion without foreign assistance.

There was now only the capture of Nanking between the Imperialists and their goal. The Chung Wang was still a quantity to be reckoned with, but a breach was eventually made in the walls and the city was captured in July 1864. The T'aiping leader poisoned himself with gold leaf and his son was captured after an heroic attempt had been made by the Chung Wang to carry him on horseback beyond the reach of the victors. Both were executed, although the execution of the "Faithful Prince" was delayed a week in order that the brave soldier might complete the writing of his memoirs. This work has been published and is an interesting record of the career of a brave and generous soldier. The victorious Imperialists sullied their triumph by digging up and desecrating the body of the Heavenly King.

The whole of the fourteen years' struggle, thus brought to so tardy an end, is a long, miserable story of wasted enthusiasm and futile courage.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:29:54 ZULU