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The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864)

Mar 18, 2020 © Ulrich Theobald

The Taiping Rebellion, lasting between 1851 and 1864, was the largest social uprising in the history of the Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911). The Heavenly Kingdom (Taiping tianguo 太平天國) founded by the Taiping rebels controlled the economic hub of China in the lower Yangtze Region and almost brought the Qing dynasty to an end. Only the greatest violence - coupled with military reform - rendered possible the suppression of the politico-religious movement.

The Rise of the Taiping

While some factors leading to the rebellion were quite common throughout Chinese history – like social injustice, defective local administration, and corruption – others were peculiar for the Qing period. Such are the huge population growth in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the large scale of internal migration in the search for jobs, and contact with western ideas and religion.

Social disruption was widespread in the hinterland of the coastal provinces, and control of society was in the hands of bandits, triads, and opium smugglers. The province of Guangxi, inhabited by a host of minority peoples like Yao and Hakka (Kejia 客家), was shaken by a series of sectarian uprisings in the 1830s and 1840s. Their leaders Lan Zhengzun 藍正樽 (d. 1850), Lei Zaihao 雷再浩 (d. 1847) and Li Yuanfa 李沅發 (1828-1850), lost their fight against the authorities, but the society of Guangxi became increasingly militarized, as the local gentry took measures to protect their assets and villages against the incremental number of bandit attacks and fights between immigrant Hakka and local Punti (bendi 本地) groups.

Against this backdrop of a helpless local government, a new sectarian movement was founded by Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全 (1814-1864). Hong had thrice failed in the prefectural examinations in Guangzhou 廣州 (Canton). In 1837 he became acquainted with an American missionary who gave him a kind of book of meditations based on quotations from the Holy Bible and various sermons called Quanshi liangyan 勸世良言 "Good words to admonish the world" by Liang Fa 梁發 (1789-1855). Based on these fundamentalist evangelical pamphlet with its apocalyptic vision of a (terrestrial) Heavenly Kingdom founded by the Messiah, the desperate Hong experienced a vision in which he was the younger brother of Jesus and through which he transformed from a broken-hearted man into a person convinced of his power. After his fourth failure in the state examination in 1843, he turned against the state and its system.

Hong began to ponder about the meaning of Christianity for China, and combined the few aspects of the foreign religion he knew (abandonment of idolatry, clean living) with traditional Confucian concepts of morality, like abstention from licentiousness, unfiliality, gambling or homicide. Hong and his cousin Feng Yunshan 馮雲山 (1815-1852) returned to their home districts in Guangxi, where they converted local communities. Feng was a good organizer and founded a God-Worshipping Society (Bai shangdi hui 拜上帝會) with many branches in the region. The headquarters were in Jintian 金田 close to Guiping 桂平, Guangxi.

Hong Xiuquan himself began to study the Bible with the support of the Baptist missionary Issachar J. Roberts (1802-1871). During his absence from Jintian, the Society produced some new, ambitious leaders, namely Yang Xiuqing 楊秀清 (1823-1856), Xiao Chaogui 蕭朝貴 (c. 1820-1852), Wei Changhui 韋昌輝 (1823-1856), and Shi Dakai 石達開 (1831-1863). Inspired by religious ecstasy, they transformed the Society into a military movement fighting against regional opponents. Their 20,000 followers all hailed from the lower classes and included farmers, rural workers, charcoal-burners, and also some members of the Triads. After some successful engagements with the Qing military, the Society proclaimed, on 11 January 1851, the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (Taiping tianguo 太平天國).

The rebels began to move northwards. They marched through Guangxi, Hunan and Hubei, and finally right down the Yangtze River to Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu. The Taiping troops were often victorious, but not always. Yet lack of coordination, energy and competence on the side of the Qing armies made the Taiping expansion victorious. En route, the Taiping army filled their ranks with voluntaries from the local populace of central China. When they besieged Changsha 長沙, Hunan, in September 1852, their army had grown to a force of 120,000, and after the conquest of Wuchang 武昌 (today's Wuhan 武漢), Hubei, they were half-a-million strong. On 19 March 1853, they conquered Nanjing and shorty after Zhenjiang 鎮江, Jiangsu, an important spot giving control over the Grand Canal. The Taiping renamed the time-honoured southern capital Tianjing 天京 "Heavenly Capital". At that time, they counted 2 million adherents.

The Taiping State

During the march from Jintian to Nanjing, the Taiping enriched their military system by a political system headed by five kings – for each cardinal direction one, and Hong Xiuquan being the "Heavenly King" (tianwang 天王), a primus inter pares. Yang Xiuqing and Xiao Chaogui were the Eastern and Western Kings, respectively. This administrative position was not just combined with military powers, but also with priestly authority and the ability to "communicate" with God. The political style was absolutist and spiritual: major decisions were announced as the will of God received by the two superior kings during sessions of trance. Some official ranks were modelled on the ritual classic Zhouli 周禮.

Following the paradigm of the many counter-empires in Chinese history, the Taiping proclaimed their own calendar and depicted their opponent, the Manchu Qing dynasty, as alien oppressors. While playing out the "nationalist" card against foreign occupants, the Taiping also saw in the Manchus a religious opponents, namely the personification of God's antagonist. The fight against this devilish enemy was an important step for the founding of a heavenly kingdom on earth.

The early phase of social life of the Taiping Kingdom was characterized by rigid puritanism. They forbade wine, tobacco, opium, and prostitution, and strictly segregated men and women. On the other hand, the Christian idea of the equality of men and women found its expression in the creation not only of female military companies, but also in access for females to posts in the administration. Under the influence of Hakka custom, females of the Taiping Kingdom were not forced to bind their feet, as was common among the Chinese. Gender segregation was abolished in 1855 because it critically undermined the morale of the male population.

On the lower levels of ideology, male brotherhood and belief that all men were equal determined social life. Common to nearly all adherents of the Taiping was the hatred against the rich and powerful of the traditional system, mainly the members of the gentry.

The theocratic state of the Taiping enacted a new field allotment system (Tianchao tianmu zhidu 天朝天畝制度) in which land was allotted to each family according to the number of heads, all adults – males and females – receiving equally productive shares. Private land ownership was abolished, and the state had the power to allocate labour and reap the revenues of the land. Labour and revenues were redistributed according to need. The Taiping administration thus stands in the tradition of the imperial Chinese state which tried to solve economic problems with heavy-handed bureaucracy. Yet for peasant families, the social revolution promised by the Taiping state was quite attractive, even if the model did not hand over land to the tillers – in theory, all land was owned by the state or by God. In practice, however, the traditional relationship between tenant farmers and landowners (the gentry elite) more or less continued. At least, the tax quota were somewhat lighter under the Taiping than under normal conditions (Kuhn 1978: 293-294).

This image of an egalitarian society is tainted by the hierarchical system by which the elite of the Kingdom, the Heavenly Kings and their assistants as "stewards of Jehovah" (Kuhn 1978: 280), stood aloft and enjoyed privileges, like resplendent dress, well-stocked harems and superior diet. The egalitarianism of the Taiping was not founded in a coherent corpus of theory.

While the Taiping elite, hailing from Guangxi, occupied all important posts, the rest of the administration was run by civil servants selected in a same way as in Qing China, namely by state examinations. Yet even if the system itself was similar to the traditional one, the tests consisted of Christian themes and panegyrics of the Taiping leaders (Kuhn 1978: 291), and were relatively easy to pass, so that the social basis of recruits for the civil service was much broader than in the Qing empire, where more or less only members of the gentry elite were able to participate. Accordingly, the educational quality of the officialdom was rather mediocre – not to speak of their hesitating ideological commitment to the Taiping regime. As there was no difference between civilian and military ranks, any civil servant could be assigned to the one or the other task.

The Taiping elite was graded into two ranks of nobility, while the officialdom was classified into eleven ranks. The central government consisted of six functional divisions, similar to the Six Ministries of traditional China. The local administration suffered from the same weakness as that of the Qing, namely a thin layer of bureaucracy for large districts with huge populations. In such a situation, the Taiping could not but retain the same persons that had served in the local administration before the Heavenly Kingdom conquered the place.

Qing Resistance and the New Hunan Army

In late 1854, the Taiping launched a northern expedition, hoping to conquer Beijing. Yet the campaign was undermanned and poorly planned and supported. The Taiping troops were warded off in early 1855 close to Tianjin 天津. The Qing survived and decided to carry out substantial reforms. The Taiping themselves were confined as a regional regime in the lower Yangtze area.

Military resistance against the Taiping began in Hunan, a province which had in the early stage of the rebellion suffered the onslaught of the uprising. Hunan had also experience in the creation of non-professional local militia in the fight against the White Lotus rebellion in the early years of the century. Finally, there were several members of the scholarly elite who believed that the Qing government was in need of some reforms, in order to refresh the blood of the dynasty. The militia "training" troops (tuanlian 團練) of Jiang Zhongyuan 江忠源 (1812-1854) had defeated the Taiping in May 1852 at Suoyidu 蓑衣渡 near Quanzhou 全州, Guangxi. Similarly, Hu Linyi 胡林翼 (1812-1861) had recruited a small army of mercenaries (yong 勇 "braves") to fight rebels and bandits.

Yet the most important figure in the creation of a strong anti-Taiping army was Zeng Guofan 曾國藩 (1811-1872). In late 1852, he started with a mercenary army in Xiangxiang 湘鄉 near Xiangtan 湘潭, Hunan. He was given the nonofficial title of Grand Minister of Local Defence (tuanlian dachen 團練大臣) and began to coordinate local military throughout the province. In the course of 1853, the militia cleared the province of Hunan and then, having experience in fighting insurgencies, began to challenge the Taiping. This new body of troops, known as the Hunan Army (xiangjun 湘軍), did not replace the traditional Banner and Green Standard troops, but supported them.

The Hunan Army followed precepts of the late Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) military writer Qi Jiguang 戚繼光 (1528-1587), who had organized militia companies to fight the Wokou pirates 倭寇 along the coast. The binding element was a clear chain of command (shuwu 束伍) from detachment commanders (tongling 統領) to battalion commanders (yingguan 營官) and company commanders (shaozhang 哨長). The cement to bind together the army was personal relationship among the officers, an element which allowed for the formation of true comradeship. Yet this was not enough. The troops were also given substantially higher pay than the professional soldiers of the Qing, and received training, instruction in discipline, and indoctrination in Confucian principles. The final element giving the Hunan Army legitimacy was its backing at the court by influential courtiers, for instance, the Manchus Wenking (Wenqing 文慶, d. 1856) and Sušun (Sushun 肅順, 1816-1861).

Zeng had to create new sources of revenue in order to finance his novel army. Apart from selling ranks and titles, a new mercantile tax was introduced, the likin tax (ch. lijin 釐金). More or less with the consent of the Qing court, more fiscal power was laid into the hands of the provincial government, and the regular fiscal machinery sometimes bypassed. Units of the army even levied the local likin tax directly. The Qing court for their part, economically and financially stricken by the Taiping's occupation of China's granary in the lower Yangtze region, tried to alleviate their financial problems by issuing base copper currency, heavy coins with higher denomination, and several types of paper money (see Qing-period money).

In spite of these measures, Zeng's army was not always victorious in the beginning. In 1856 the rebel armies under the command of Shi Dakai occupied a vast territory reaching to Wuchang in central China. In summer, a Qing siege of Tianjing was successfully repelled, and commander Xiang Rong 向榮 (1801-1856) was killed.

After the death of Feng Yunshan and Xiao Chaogui, Yang Xiuqing became the dominant figure of the Taiping State. He achieved domination over the other kings Shi Dakai, Wei Changhui and Qin Rigang 秦日綱 (1821–1856), and even overshadowed Hong Xiuquan by claiming to be an incarnation of the Holy Ghost. Hong Xiuquan therefore sought for support by Wei Changhui who on 1 September 1856 assassinated the would-be usurper, along with 20,000 of his supporters (Kuhn 1978: 295). Shi Daikai fled the capital to join his troops farther west and only returned when Hong Xiuquan had killed the "slaughterman" Wei Changhui. Yet appalled by the intrigues in the new government around Hong Xiuquan, Shi decided to leave the Taiping movement and began a long-lasting campaign in the west which finally led him into Sichuan, where he was arrested and executed by the Qing in 1863.

The internal struggle at the Taiping court relieved the Qing from military pressure. In late 1856, Hu Linyi liberated Wuchang and advanced to Anqing 安慶, Anhui, pushing out the rebels of the middle Yangtze area. Two years later, military fortune switched back to the Taiping side, where Chen Yucheng 陳玉成 (c. 1837-1862) and Li Xiucheng 李秀成 (1823-1864, the "Loyal King" Zhongwang 忠王) defeated in autumn 1858 a Hunan Army unit in Sanhezhen 三河鎮 in Feixi 肥西, Anhui.

A year later, Hong Xiuquan's cousin, the well-educated Hong Rengan 洪仁玕 (1822-1864), took over the government in Tianjing as the "Shield King" (Ganwang 干王). This energetic person launched with his essay Zizheng xinpian 資政新篇 a series of reforms to strengthen the shackled Taiping state. He suggested strengthening of the central government, modernization of economy and communications with the help of Western techniques, for instance, the introduction of Western-style banks and railways and the thorough reform of the examination system to practical issues instead of inquiring knowledge of literary, philosophical and religious writings. Hong Rengan also advocated a new military campaign to re-conquer and secure central China, and to advance to the east to join with the Christian nations in the foreign concession (zujie 租界) in Shanghai.

In May 1860, the Taiping destroyed for a second time the Great Camp of Jiangnan (Jiangnan daying 江南大營), headquarters of the Qing outside Tianjing, and killed the commanders Zhang Guoliang 張國樑 (1810-1860) and Hechun 和春 (d. 1860). In June, Li Xiucheng conquered Suzhou 蘇州, the economic centre of the east, and the Taiping tried to establish contact with Western powers. In the early years of the Taiping Kingdom, there had indeed been voices among the British and French suggesting an alliance with the "Christian Kingdom" and the Christian Western powers.

Yet in the eyes of Western merchants, the Taiping and their chaotic kingdom posed a threat to peaceful trade. Moreover, the zealous theocrats in Tianjing condemned opium trade, which was an important source of revenue for British merchants. The British therefore refused the approach by the Taiping and decided instead to support the Qing government against the rebels. British and French forces in Shanghai pushed back the Taiping attack on Shanghai in summer 1860. Half a year later, James Hope (1809-1881) negotiated with the Taiping for neutrality, but in the end, the British minister in China Frederick Bruce (1814-1867) decided to support the Qing government, and negotiated with Prince Gong (Ch. Gongzhong Qinwang 恭忠親王, 1833-1898).

Thereafter, British and French troops provided arms and training to the Qing forces. Yet the most important contribution was the so-called Ever-Victorious Army (changshengjun 長勝軍) commanded by Frederick Townsend Ward (1831-1862), then Henry A. Burgevine (1836-1865), and finally by Charles George Gordon (1833-1885), known as "China Gordon" and eventual victor over the Mahdi in Sudan. It consisted of "barbarian" mercenaries (yiyong 夷勇) like Filipinos, but also Chinese mercenaries. The military operations were financed from the revenues of the United Defence Bureau (Zhong-wai huifang ju 中外會防局).

Cooperation was not always easy, as can be seen in the case of the Lay-Osborn Flotilla, created by Horatio Nelson Lay (1832-1898), head of the Customs Bureau, and commanded by Sherard Osborn (1822-1875). Having arrived in Chinese waters, the British refused to surrender command to Chinese authorities, and the project failed.

On the Qing side, too, substantial changes took place. On 8 June 1860, Zeng Guofan was appointed governor-general (zongdu 總督) of Liang-Jiang 兩江 (Jiangsu and Jiangxi), a position which gave him the highest military authority in the east. Zeng immediately employed Li Hongzhang 李鴻章 (1823-1901), who had gained experience in fighting against the Nian rebels 捻 in the Anhui-Shandong border region, and gave him an independent army command in the province of Anhui. He also took care for the reinforcement of the Hunan Army which was in great despair after the disastrous defeats in the past years. Zeng's idea was to supply his Chinese army with Western arms and ammunition. Zeng Guofan prepared for the recapture of Anqing which happened in September 1861 and was accompanied by a slaughter of the local population.

Having failed to conquer Shanghai, the Taiping circumvented the city and in winter 1861/62 occupied Ningbo 寧波 and Hangzhou 杭州, both in Zhejiang at the coast. In early 1862, Zuo Zongtang 左宗棠 (1812-1885) was appointed governor (xunfu 巡撫) of Zhejiang. With Zuo's support, the Taiping Kingdom could be attacked from four sides: Zeng from the west, Li form the north and from Shanghai, the Ever-Victorious army from the east, and Zuo from the southeast.

The End of the Taiping

The attempted Taiping invasion of Shanghai in summer 1862 with a force of 50,000 men was successfully countered. The year can be seen as the beginning of the last chapter of the Taiping Kingdom. Hong Xiuquan, who had never occupied a really authoritative position in the Taiping government and must be rated as politically incapable, withdrew from public issues, and thus also undermined the position of his cousin Hong Rengan. The successors of the early four kings were but parvenus because of their military achievements, and with the protracted war, the title of king was often bestowed just for minor reasons. The central government of the Taiping had virtually ceased to exist.

Also militarily, the Taiping were forced to withdraw. Li Hongzhang had secured for his armies the revenue from the Maritime Customs in Shanghai as well as the likin tax from the province of Jiangsu. With these funds, he supported Zeng Guofan in the west. Having his headquarters in Shanghai, Li had also direct access to Western military technology, at least in a much more comfortable way than the Taiping had. He bought 15,000 rifles and Western artillery and hired Western officers to train Chinese troops.

In December 1863, the Qing liberated Suzhou. At the time, Zeng Guofan's brother Zeng Guoquan 曾國荃 (1824-1890) began with the siege of Tianjing. His army breached the walls of the city on 19 July 1864 and then looted and burnt the city, massacring perhaps 100,000 people (Kuhn 1978: 309). At that time, Hong Xiuquan had already died of illness.

The fall of Tianjing was followed by campaigns of destroying the last Taiping army contingents. The largest among them stood under the command of Lai Wenguang 賴文光 (1827-1868), who offered his support to the Eastern Nian rebels. In summer 1865 his army attempted a charge on Beijing and defeated in the battle of Gaolouzhai 高樓寨 the Mongol commander Senggerinchen (Ch. Senggelinqin 僧格林沁, 1811-1865). He was captured and executed as late as January 1868 in Yangzhou 揚州, Jiangsu.

Consequences

The Taiping rebellion had the Qing dynasty brought to the verge of extinction. Economically, the wealthy region of the southeast had been occupied and then devastated. 20 to 50 million people perished (xxx). The Taiping cut off the Qing from tribute grain and mint metal supply. Tax, military and (unsuccessful) monetary reforms were the necessary outcomes. It is rather a surprise that the Qing survived the onslaught of the Taiping rebellion while at the same time fighting against the British and French in the Second Opium War (1856-1860). The attempt of the Taiping to contact, and then to fight the foreign community in Shanghai resulted in the latter's decision to support the Qing, in order to create a stable political and economic environment.

In order to put down the Taiping rebellion, the Qing court handed over military, financial and administrative power to local leaders like Zeng Guofan. This leadership change perhaps initiated the autonomous warlords of the Republican period (1912-1949) (Dillon 2009: 25).

The Taiping rebellion was only one of several uprisings that haunted 19th-century China. In the same period, the Nian rebels (1853–1868) were active in northern Jiangsu, Anhui and Shandong; the Muslim Panthay rebels (1855–1873) disturbed Yunnan; the Red Turbans (1854–1856) of the Heaven-and-Earth Society (Tiandihui 天地會) shook Guangdong, and in Xinjiang, the Dungan 東干 leader Yaqub Beg (1820-1877) revolted between 1862 and 1877. The inability of the Taiping leaders - whose revolutionary spirit prevented recognition of other ideologies - to cooperate with competing rebel groups, particularly the mafia-like Nian 捻 organisation, contributed to their demise.

The revolutionary model of the Heavenly Kingdom as a political and social alternative – sometimes deemed pre-communist (Feuerwerker & Cheng 1970: 77) – had proved ineffective. Rebels and revolutionaries had to search for other models. The same is true for the Qing government. At the court, a decades-long discussion about reforms was carried out. The so-called Tongzhi Restoration (Tongzhi zhongxing 同治中興) aimed at reconciling Chinese tradition with modern, Western institutions and equipment. China entered the period of self-strengthening (ziqiang 自強) in order to cope with future challenges.

Source:
Dillon, Michael (2009). Contemporary China: An Introduction (London/New York: Routledge).
Feuerwerker, Albert, S. Cheng, (1970). Chinese Communist Studies of Modern Chinese History (Cambridge, MA: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University).
Kuhn, Dieter (1978). "The Taiping Rebellion", in John K. Fairbank, ed. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 10, Late Ch‘ing, 1800-1911 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), Part I, 264-317.