Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The Great Peace
The Taiping Rebellion
A Note

Taiping Imperial Seal

In the mid-19th century China was convulsed by a series of rebellions that almost overthrew the Qing, called by foreigners the Manchu, Dynasty. The most serious of these challenges to Qing rule was the Taping Rebellion that lasted more than 15 years before the last embers were snuffed out. (1850-1866).1

Aside from the irony of a movement with the name of “Great Peace” that instead inaugurated a spectacularly bloody rebellion that cost at least 20 million, (That’s right at least 20 million lives.),2 we have the fact that it lasted so long, involved massive campaigns that sometimes took years spread out over a very large area. As can be seen in this map. 

3. Map showing location of Taiping Rebellion and 
campaigns in China

The above map shows the various movements of the main Taping armies during the war. Has can be seen the campaigns covered a very large area of China.

This rebellion is very little known in the west today. Although in terms of scale and duration it easily exceeds the American Civil War and can probably be best compared to the Napoleonic Wars in Europe during the period 1799-1815. Although it seems indisputable that in terms of lives lost the Taping Rebellion easily exceeds the losses in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars.

If this rebellion is little known in the West it is not because the war lacks excitement or colour. It seems to lack memory in the West because it is outside of the cultural traditions / history of the West. Certainly the fact that this event is culturally less well known in the West than the American Civil War is a bit strange, considering that in sheer scale it easily dwarfs that war.

Painting of Fighting During the Taiping Rebellion

The Taping Rebellion occurred during the long decline of the Qing Dynasty and marked both a reaction to both the effects of the decline of the Qing and the intrusion of Westerners into China, both culturally and militarily.  

In the case of Westerners it is no coincidence that the Taping Rebellion started less than ten years after the end of the disastrous Opium war with Britain. An event that profoundly and thoroughly humiliated the Qing Dynasty and to many signaled that the Qing Dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven. The episode also reflects a low point for the West in that Britain went to war in order to open up China even more to the importation of Opium from India.4

After the war many felt that Qing had failed and it was about time for a new dynasty.

The main centre for events that touched off the Opium war and for much of the war itself was Canton, so not surprisingly the instigator and head of the Taiping Rebellion came from nearby.

The man was Hong Xiuquan. Hong was a failed participant in the Chinese examination system which he had taken four times. He was inspired by a religious tract he had picked up in Canton while taking the examinations there. The tract was a Chinese retelling of parts of the Old and New Testaments designed to win converts to Christianity. Subsequently Hong had a very vivid dream which many years after the dream he interpreted by means of this tract. Perhaps at another time I will go into Hong’s vision and religious impulse.

The end result was that Hong conceived of himself has Jesus’ younger brother and the one destined to bring both the true faith to China and to drive out the “Barbarian” Qing Dynasty.5

In other words the Taping Rebellion was a religious crusade launched with religious fever and fanaticism. The Taping movement despised much traditional Chinese religion and actively attacked Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, as idolatry.6

Painting of Fighting during Taiping Rebellion

Rather ironically a great deal of traditional Chinese religious thought was present in Taping religious thought and attitudes. In fact the differences from Western Christianity are so great as to make it a separate religion.

The Taipings has I said above emerged in the aftermath of the defeat China suffered in the Opium war and the rebellion erupted in southern China about 200 miles west of Canton in December of 1850 and from there on the Taiping armies moved and fought the armies of the Qing dynasty until they established their central base and capital at the city of Nanjing, near the Yangtze delta in 1853.7

 Aside from Hong Xiuquan who died a little over a month before the Qing retook Nanjing the rebellion had some remarkable leaders. Perhaps the two most extraordinary were Shi Dakai called the Wing King and Hong Rengan called the Shield King.

Both of them were early converts to the new religion preached by Hong Xiuquan. Shi Dakai was an early leader who after a vicious factional struggle emerged on top late in 1856 but left over disagreements regarding policy with Hong Xiuquan. Shi than left on a long and meandering campaign that covered over the next 6 years something like 6,000 miles during which he evaded, fought and defeated various Qing forces until he was forced to surrender with a remnant of his forces in 1863.8

Hong Rengan was in many respects the most extraordinary of the Taiping leaders. When the rebellion started he was unable to join Hong Xiuquan and so stayed around and in Hong Kong where he interacted with many Europeans, especially Englishmen and acquired a strong appreciation of Western Science and learning. Further he learned to speak very good English. When he finally joined Hong Xiuquan in Nanjing in 1858 he became influencial. With his strong interest in Western culture Hong Rengan sought to change Taiping policy and pursue a strategy and policy of Westernization. Thus Hong Rengan wanted railways, newspapers and steam powered boats. All the paraphernalia of the West.9  

In many ways Hong Rengan is a very attractive figure in his efforts to control the millennial excesses of the Taiping's and in his desire to reform China by adopting much Western lore / learning and technology. In fact he is the hero of recent book about the fall of the Taiping rebellion.10

For one of the less understood aspects of the Taiping Rebellion was how much of a revolution it amounted to. I am not here so much referring to the quasi millennial “Communism” exposed by the Taiping leadership that they from time to time tried to implement, and generally failed to make last. Although it helped to make the Taiping attractive to Chinese Communists later on. Such attempts at "Communism" did help to stir up much anti-Taiping sentiment.11 I am instead referring to how the interplay between their religious views and policy views resulted in a recasting of Chinese culture.

Hong Xiuquan viewed his movement not just has an attempt to overthrow the “Barbarian” Qing dynasty but has an attempt to purge  China of all decadent, corrupt and “ungodly” traits. In other words a grand purification of Chinese culture and society, getting rid of all the “corrupt” influences.

It was not through the imposition of new Western religion – Christianity – but the recreation of an alleged pure and “true” faith that had existed before the "corruption" seeped in. Of course the problem with that was that it involved the systematic elimination of much that was part of Chinese culture in the mid-19th century. In effect the Taiping rejected the culture of Imperial China that had existed since the late 3rd century B.C.E.

Thus we get the Taiping’s systematic elimination of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism all of which were declared corrupt. This attacked parts of Chinese culture that were absolutely fundamental to it.12

This eventually produced a reaction. Although the Qing were also dealing with several insurrections at the same time, the most serious being the Nien rebellion in the region just north of the Taiping stronghold of Nanking the Qing were able to enlist the services of a remarkable series of scholar soldiers who raised armies, equipped and paid for them and fought the Taiping for years and years.13

The most remarkable man of these scholar soldiers was Zeng Guofan. Who fought the Taiping with his private army for more than ten years and eventually captured their capital Nanjing in 1864. He was a man scandalized by the wide ranging attack that the Taiping were making on what he thought was true Chinese culture. As such he fought them relentlessly, viciously and in the end successfully; saving for the time being the Qing dynasty which tried to make some efforts in the aftermath of defeat by foreigners and widespread rebellion to reform.14

And of course foreigners were involved. Not just in the second Opium War, (1858-1860), which ended with another humiliation for the Qing dynasty including the humiliating occupation of Beijing by English troops and the destruction of the Summer Palace just outside Beijing.

Later, however, as the Taiping approached Shanghai in 1860 foreigners provided extensive support for the Qing military forces. The foreigners based in Shanghai eventually formed the so-called Ever Victorious Army, which was for a time under the command of Charles Gordon who was later killed in the Sudan in 1885.15

Still crushing the rebellion took years and the last of the Taiping armies were not destroyed until 1866. Further remnants of the Taiping joined the Nien rebellion which was not crushed until 1868.16

Probably with China’s rise in the world we will, in the west, slowly become more aware of this almost apocalyptic struggle.

Fighting during the Taiping Rebellion

1. Spence, Jonathan D., The Search for Modern China, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1990, pp. 170-180, Michael, Franz, & Chang, Chung-li, The Taiping Rebellion, v. 1, University of Washington Press, Seattle WASH, 1966.  

2. Platt, Stephen R., Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, Vintage Books, New York, 2012, p. 358-359. Prof. Platt quotes sources that give losses of up to 100 million!

3. Franz et al, p. 216.

4. Spence, 1990, pp. 143-164.

5. See Spence, Jonathan D., God’s Chinese Son, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1996, pp. 34-

6. IBID, pp. 172-191.

7. Franz et al, pp. 64-71.

8. Spence, 1996, pp. 316-317.

9. Spence, pp. 273-279.

10. That book is by Prof. Pratt listed above. In my opinion Prof. Pratt is far too rosy about the prospects for the Taiping at that late date. By 1858 the rebellion was doomed and only a near miracle could save it from failure.

11. Spence, 1996, pp. 172-191.

12. See Reilly, Thomas H., The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, The University of Washington Press, Seattle WASH, 2004. The book argues that the Taiping ideology was almost entirely Chinese, however this doesn’t gainsay that it still represented a heated attack on much of its fundamentals has they were understood in the mid-19th century.

13. Pratt, pp. 113-139, Wolf, Eric R., Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, HarperTorch books, New york, 1969. pp. 123-124.

14.IBID, Rowe, William T., China’s Last Empire, Harvard University Press, Harvard CONN, 2009, pp. 185-190, Kuhn, Philip A., The Taiping Rebellion, in Editor, Fairbank, John K., The Cambridge History of China, v. 10, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1978, pp. 264-317, at 281-290.

15. Fairbank, John K., The Creation of the Treaty System, in  Fairbank, pp. 213-263, at pp. 243-260, Rowe, pp. 190-193. For a contemporary account of the Ever Victorious Army see for example Anonymous, Twelve Years in China, Hamilton, Adams and Co., London, 1860 and Blakiston, Thomas W, Five Months on the Yang Tsze, John Murray, London, 1862.

16. Franz et al, pp. 175-188.

Pierre Cloutier

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