Ch'ing China

The Taiping Rebellion


   While the Chinese entered into conflict with Europe and European culture during the Opium War and after, it was also convulsed by a number of rebellions in mid-century. With rebellion in Nien (1853-1868), several Muslim rebellions in the southwest (1855-1873) and northwest (1862-1877), and, especially, the Taiping rebellion, the consequences for China during this period were devestating. In the Taiping rebellion alone, which lasted for twenty years, almost twenty to thirty million died as a direct result of the conflict. In fact, the period from 1850 to 1873 saw, as a result of rebellion, drought, and famine, the population of China drop by over sixty million people. Along with humiliating defeats at the hands of European powers, the mid-nineteenth century in China was truly tragic.

   The Taiping rebellion, though, is, as an internal disturbance, and odd compliment to the conflicts with the west. It combined both European and Chinese cultural patterns in a unique and volatile mix. The person in which this strange mix fermented was Hung Hsiu-ch'üan (1813-1864), the leader of the rebellion.

Hung Hsiu-ch'üan

   Hung Hsiu-ch'üan was the son of a poor farmer near Canton. He was a promising young student, but repeatedly failed the civil service examination in Canton. After one such failure, he overheard a Christian missionary speaking and brought home several Christian treatises. The next year he again failed the exam and, according to some historians, had a nervous breakdown. Whatever happened, Hung had several visions in which an old man told him that people had stopped worshipping him and were worshipping demons; in another, the man appointed him as a slayer of demons. Hung believed that the man in the visions was God the Father and that a younger, middle aged man that visited him in visions was Jesus Christ, his Elder Brother. He himself was the Younger Brother and had been sent by God to earth in order to eradicate demons and demon worship.

   Hung, however, did nothing with these visions until seven years later when he began to study with Issachar J. Roberts, a Southern Baptist minister who taught him everything he would know about Christianity. With the Christianity of Roberts, Hung, some relatives, and some followers formed a new religious sect, the God Worshippers, that dedicated itself to the destruction of idols in the region around Canton.

   The movement attracted followers for a variety of reasons. Western historians argue that the famines of the 1840's inspired the Chinese to join various movements that were successfully feeding and taking care of themselves. Chinese historians stress the anti-Manchu rhetoric of Hung's early movement. While the God Worshippers were dedicated to the destruction of idols and the stamping out of demon worship, it's clear that they felt that the Manchu rulers were the primary propagators of demon worship. In Hung's early philosophy, he seems to have arrived at the conclusion that the overthrow of the Manchus would help bring in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

   The movement, however, did not become open revolt until the government started to harass the God Worshippers systematically. Combined with his belief that the Kingdom of Heaven would be established on the ruins of the Manchu government, the God Worshippers were also militantly organized to destroy and eliminate demon worship. In the late 1840's, Hung reorganized his movement into a military organization. He and other leaders systematically began to build up a treasury (all believers had to give their property to the movement), consolidate forces, and lay up a store of weapons. In December of 1850, Hung was attacked by government forces and, since he had spent so much time preparing for war, he successfuly turned back the attack. In 1851, Hung declared that a new kingdom had been established, the Kingdom of Heavenly Peace; he himself was the Heavenly King and the era of the Taiping, or "Great Peace," had begun.

   The Kingdom of Heavenly Peace was a theocratic state with the Heavenly King as Absolute Ruler. Its objective, as implied by its name, was the achievement of peace and prosperity in China with all people worshipping the one and only one god. It consisted of a single hierarchy which undertook all administrative, religious, and military duties. The movement was founded on a radical economic reform program in which all wealth was equally distributed to all members of society. Taiping society itself would be a classless society with no distinctions between people; all members of Taiping society were "brothers" and "sisters" with all the attendant duties and obligations traditionally associated with those relationships in Chinese society. Women were the social and economic equal of men; many administrative posts in the new Kingdom were assigned to women This social and economic reform, combined with its passionate anti-Manchu nationalism, made the Kingdom of Heavenly Peace a magnet for all the Chinese suffering under the dislocations and disasters of the mid-century.

The Rebellion

   From a military standpoint, the rebellion got off to an impressive start. The army itself was uncannily disciplined; after elaborate initiation rituals, Taiping believers became fanatically disciplined and devoted soldiers, willing to die without hesitation in God's cause against demonic forces. The army of the Taipings roared northward through the central Yangtze valley to Nanking. In many ways, however, this dramatic progress of the Taipings was no progress at all and explains why they lost so easily despite their impressive start. The central reason they advanced so quickly was that they avoided large urban centers and so encountered little resistance. When they conquered a territory, they made no effort to consolidate the conquest by setting up an administrative mechanism, but instead roared on northwards. There was no room for disagreement in the military hierarchy; not only did the Heavenly King gain his authority directly from God, but the military generals themselves claimed to be guided by God the Father in a series of visions. There was little room, then, for serious strategic thinking in this environment.

   The Taipings occupied Nanking in March of 1853; they renamed the city, T'ien-ching, or "Heavenly Capital." From T'ien-ching, they attacked Beijing, but their army, after making rapid progress north, was defeated. For the next ten years, the Taipings occupied themselves with conquering Western territories and fighting continuously to maintain their territory in the central Yangtze valley. The rebellion swung from one side to another, now a defeat, now a victory, now a defeat.

   Under the pressures of war and an inefficient administration, the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace slowly began to unravel. The leaders of the Kingdom failed to consolidate their authority in conquered territories, preferring instead to rule over major cities. In reality, then, Taiping rule only extended over major cities in the conquered territories rather than the territories themselves. The Taipings had very few competent officials; efforts to recruit scholar-officials were usually unsuccessful since most educated Chinese were deeply disturbed by the theocratic nature of the state and the lack of education among its leaders.

   Most significantly, the Taiping administration began to disintegrate when Hung himself withdrew from active participation in administrative and military affairs. Believing that the Heavenly King should rule only by his divine virtue and not by active engagement in politics, Hung seems, in reality, to have grown steadily more unbalanced. Rather than dedicating himself to divine virtue, he plunged into the sensual pleasures of the palace and the sexual pleasures of the harem of women he had collected around himself. Hung's withdrawal from Taiping administration sent cracks all through the Taiping administration.

   By 1864, the Kingdom of Heavenly Peace was coming to an end. Chinese forces had threatened T'ien-ching for months when Hung's central general fled to the south. Hung himself believed that God would defend the Taipings, but in June, 1864, he seems to have lost his certainty of God's protection and poisoned himself. The imperial forces discovered his body, wrapped in the color of the emperor, yellow, wallowing in a sewer beneath the city. At a cost of nearly thirty million lives over a period of twenty years, the Heavenly Peace had come to an end.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-2-97