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The Taiping Rebellion, also known as the Taiping Civil War or the Taiping Revolution, was a massive civil war in Imperial China between 1850 and 1864. It was started by Hong Xiuquan (洪秀全), who either really was Jesus' little brother or just a kooky cult leader promoting a butchered version of Christianity based on a promotional pamphlet he read once (no, really). Hong launched an armed rebellion against the reigning Qing dynasty and established the "Taiping Heavenly Kingdom" throughout much of southern China, ruling from Nanjing. The conflict was a total war with all civilian areas and resources regarded as legitimate targets, and it became one of the bloodiest wars in human history with a death toll ranging between 20 and 100 million. It has also been described as "the most gigantic man-made disaster of the Nineteenth Century."
The war began in large part due to the Qing's religious persecution against Hong's Christian millenarian cult, known as the "God Worshiping Society".[note 1] However, the rebellion received so much support due to the generally wretched conditions in Qing China, including famines, corruption in the government, economic stagnation, and discriminatory racial policies. The Taipings, for their part, sought to overthrow the ruling dynasty of Manchus, convert China's people to their version of Christianity, and completely remake the social and moral order in China.
Also, yes, Hong really did believe he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ.
The Qing Empire
The Taiping Rebellion was, of course, launched against the Qing dynasty of China. It may be easy to see Hong's Christians as the bad guys here, but the Qing were gigantic assholes.
As the youngest and last imperial dynasty of China, the Qing arose through conquest. They were Manchus, an Asian ethnic group native to Manchuria that is today a minority of about three million people in China. Before their ascendance to the Chinese throne, the Manchus lived in their own separate state(s) and were considered foreigners by the majority Han Chinese.
During the early 17th Century, China was ruled by the Ming dynasty, which was rapidly losing power and authority. The Ming's conflicts with the Manchus led the latter to cross the Great Wall and invade the former with the help from several defected Ming generals. The conquest was so successful that the Manchus reached the gates of Beijing itself in 1644; the last Ming emperor hanged himself to escape his enemies and the Manchus crowned one of their own as the first Qing emperor.
After the war, the Qing emperors staffed their courts with Manchus and enacted a series of decrees requiring the Han Chinese to follow Manchu cultural traditions and speak the Manchu language for official business. There was also a ban on interracial marriage until the 18th Century, and a law that required Han Chinese to wear their hair in the Manchu queue style. Most professions, especially government positions like bannermen and bureaucrats, were hereditary. Servitude was also common, as the Manchu enslaved prisoners of war and persons could be sold by their families as slaves.
The formation of Hong's semi-secret society as further explained below can also best be understood in the context of Chinese civil society in the 19th Century. There was no Chinese civil society in the 19th Century. Grassroots political movements were banned by the Qing, along with any form of opposition to the government, and the dynasty was serious about cracking down on dissent. This means that political organization had to be done through secret societies, some of which were seditious and pro-Ming, some of which were criminal syndicates, and some of which were simply a matter of self-defense against a corrupt government.
China, Europe, and the opium question
The seeds of the Taiping Rebellion also began to grow in an era of major economic and social unrest in China. The Qing had come to power just as Western colonial empires began making inroads into China. Although this weakened the rule of the Qing, the emperors did not sit idly by and allow their nation to be exploited. For much of the early 1800s, trade with the West was exclusively routed through the southern city of Canton (Guangzhou), and Europeans operated under tight supervision. As the value of the Chinese market grew, British merchants demanded greater access, especially to sell opium. This problem was exacerbated by the mercantilist beliefs of the UK; they were concerned that their trade deficit with China was draining bullion out of their country, so they wanted to export drugs to make up the balance.
The failure to negotiate a free trade agreement convinced the British that only force would compel the Chinese to open their markets. This had the expected result. The First Opium War lasted from 1839 to 1842 and resulted in a rapid Chinese loss. It ended with the Treaty of Nanking, in which China ceded Hong Kong and allowed British merchants to expand beyond Canton and trade in five "treaty ports". This shifted much of China's economic activity away from Canton and thus left southern China in a severe economic depression. As we all know, it doesn't take long for economic troubles to become political troubles.
Another consequence of China's loss to the Europeans was a surge of Westerners travelling throughout China. Europeans were permitted to own property in China and travel through the countryside, and this of course included Christian preachers. That last bit would result in disaster.
Hong and his crazy Christian club
After his third failed civil service exam at the age of 23, Hong underwent a series of strange visions of a man with a golden beard. The strange man gave him a sword, and complained about the demons of the world. When Hong encountered a Christian pamphlet five years later, after a fourth failed exam, he decided that the visions were a sign from God that he was the third member of the Trinity (along with Yahweh and Jesus, giving the poor Holy Spirit the boot). Thereafter, he labelled himself brother of Jesus and launched a ministry preaching to the poor, focusing strongly on Old Testament ideals of asceticism and sacrifice. So remember, kids, if you don't get the job you want, the proper solution is to start a cult and lead an uprising against your government! (Or not, given the way things ultimately turned out.)
Feng Yunshan, a distant cousin of Hong, traveled with him to southern China to preach their version of Christianity. After Hong moved on, Feng remained and succeeded in converting large numbers of the oppressed Hakka cultural group. Entire families and villages would convert en masse, and Feng was soon able to assemble his followers into a movement. This became the "God Worshippers Society" (bai shangdi hui 拜上帝會), which was enormously attractive to Hakka and poor peasants due to its promises of equality and solidarity. Hong eventually figured out what was going on, and he returned to take control of the group because why the heck wouldn't he? With Hong's return, the group became increasingly militant and rebellious, as Hong bolstered his own power by identifying the Qing as evil demons who should be resisted by a unified force. Hong and the other leaders of the God Worshippers Society all maintained enormous harems of concubines, although their followers were required to remain celibate, and lived in luxury in their capital of Nanjing from 1853. (Sound familiar?)
One of the unique features of Taiping Christianity was their interpretation of the Bible's instructions on the way to organize a society. They believed that Jesus wanted governments to support the weak and the poor. The Taipings took this even further by outright abolishing socioeconomic classes, mandating gender equality, and instituting collective ownership of property.[note 2] As one might expect, this was enormously attractive to the brutally poor peasants of rural China, and this rapidly expanded the Taiping's power base. The Qing dynasty took notice of Hong's sect as the ranks of Hong's "Society" swelled to tens of thousands.
Attempting to suppress Hong's movement, the Qing began a series of brutal pogroms that were so grim that "suicide stations" were set up to cater to those God Worshippers that wished to give themselves a more merciful end. This had pretty much the result you think it did.
Uprising of the Heavenly Kingdom
After years of persecution against his sect by the Qing, Hong Xiuquan gathered his followers in the southern village of Jintian to announce and order an uprising against the Chinese government in 1850. With the poverty-stricken southern Chinese countryside filled with unemployed and angry people, Hong was able to assemble an army of more than half-a-million people by 1853. The Qing attempted to repress the revolts, but they were continually unsuccessful.
After the battles in Jintian, Hong Xiuquan declared that he was establishing his movement as a new oppositional Chinese nation called the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace (太平天囯 Taiping Tianguo). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace proceeded to not be peaceful. Despite being surrounded on four sides by the Qing army, the Taipings broke out of the encirclement and ran rampant through southern China.
Along the way, the Taipings destroyed the temples of Buddhists and Taoists, causing them to side with the Qing. Chinese intellectuals also fled Hong's populism, while European-backed Christian missionaries denounced the Taipings as nothing more than a heterodox cult.
Conquest of Nanjing
Under constant threat of attack by the Qing, Hong began to search for a defensible base of operations. His army made its way northwards, destroying unguarded cities and temples as they passed until coming to the fortified city of Nanjing. After a battle, the Taipings broke through the unprepared city's walls and swiftly destroyed most of the buildings and conquered what was left. Believing the Manchus to be the physical forms of demons, Hong's followers executed the Qing's soldiers and burned the Manchu civilians to death outside the city. Bad way to go.
From this point on, Nanjing became the capital of the Heavenly Kingdom. Hong Xiuquan withdrew into his personal chambers in his conquered palace to enjoy his harem, leaving his underlings to handle military and political matters. Nanjing was divided into a men's quarter and a women's quarter in order to enforce the Taiping's rules on celibacy, while all who owned any property were required to turn it over to Hong's government on pain of death. However, as the Heavenly Kingdom organized itself in its new home, women were permitted to join the civil service if they passed the exams. As they established themselves, the Taipings renamed Nanjing as Tianjing.
In order to take the pressure off their new city, the Taipings began launching invasions into other areas of Qing territory.
The Tianjing purges
The biggest turning point of the war, the Tianjing purges would almost be hilarious if so many people hadn't died.
Hong Xiuquan wasn't the only Chinese dude who was in talks with the Holy Father. His immediate underling, the East King Yang Xiuqing, had been placed in command of Hong's most immediate and loyal followers, who had also received the title "King". However, Hong began to grow suspicious of Yang's increasing ambitions as Yang was caught ordering other Kings beaten and established spy networks across Tianjing.
A series of military victories against the Qing in 1856 convinced Yang that things were stable enough for him to make his move, and in a farcical ploy, Yang pretended to be possessed by God in order to convince Hong to grant him more authority and send the other generals away. Despite a deafeningly loud rendition of "Yakety Sax" playing as the soundtrack, Hong didn't quite figure out what was up until one of his more loyal underlings warned him that Yang was planning an assassination and coup.
- Hong recalled his other generals/Kings to the capital, and they slaughtered Yang along with his family and concubines after a battle which killed 27,000 people, because why do things by halves?
- In the process, another general named Wei Changhu suspected that his colleague Shi Dakai was a traitor due to the man's shock at the carnage.
- Wei killed Shi's followers while he was away, and Shi marched back for revenge.
- Wei then panicked, assuming that Hong would side with Shi, and tried his own attack on Hong.
- This failed miserably and predictably resulted in Wei being killed himself.
- Shi was now the last of the original five "Kings" alive, so Hong appointed two of his siblings as military commanders.
- The tensions between Shi and Hong's family led Shi to abandon the Taiping cause.
As you can imagine, this orgy of violence and stupidity left the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom desperately weakened. All because a guy pretended to be God when a different guy was pretending to be Jesus' brother.
The Second Opium War
China's Xianfeng Emperor remained implacably hostile to the West, even after his loss in the Opium War. He began refusing to abide by the treaties, and the British responded by attacking Canton and Tianjin. Under the terms of the last agreement with the Europeans, other powers theoretically had the right to seek trade with China, so France, Russia, and the United States all got in on the action this time.
A series of nasty conflicts between the Qing administration and the allied forces over the next few years destroyed the integrity of the Qing Emperor's rule, and permitted Hong to build his forces to nearly a million and capture most of the south. In 1860, the fighting had grown so nasty that the British captured Beijing and burned and looted the ancient Summer Palace in retaliation for Chinese wartime atrocities (and China is still pissed about it).
In the end, the war resulted in a predictable Western victory. On top of this, the emperor had been forced to flee Beijing, and had lost much of his naval and army strength, placing him in a very bad position going forward.
By 1860, the civil war had been raging for a decade, and southern China was a blood-soaked ruin. To gain an advantage, both sides began to employ mercenaries from Western nations, which became increasingly important to the overall conflict. At the time, the official stance of the Western powers was neutrality. However, they were beginning to grow increasingly nervous of the Taipings. While Hong's movement was initially seen as a positive, modernizing force, the Taiping government's ban on the opium trade and its increasingly heterodox pseudo-Christian ideology quickly alienated European observers. There was also the fear that a collapse of the Qing empire would also result in a collapse in foreign trade relations; you can't enforce a trade agreement with a government that doesn't exist.
It's also important to note that the Qing were starting to lose at this point, and Hong had forced them onto the back foot. The drubbing they got at the hands of Europe and America didn't help either. To expand their gains in the war, the Taipings launched an assault against the city of Shanghai, one of the treaty ports used by the West to sell opium in China. This greatly alarmed them, and, despite their earlier claims of neutrality, the Western powers resolved to end the Taiping revolt.
The solution was a volunteer corps. European diplomats recruited an American soldier-of-fortune named Frederick Townsend Ward to gather an army of European soldiers in China and "volunteer" his services to the Qing. This was an elegant workaround to the neutrality policy, as Ward was not officially affiliated with any Western government and his actions could thus be disavowed. After a series of failures, Ward decided to begin recruiting Chinese soldiers as well, and his "Ever Victorious Army" began living up to its name against the Taipings. Ward managed to turn the tide of the war to the point where he believed he could take Nanjing itself. However, the Qing courts were wary of granting him too much prestige, fearing a Roman Empire-style military coup. Ward was eventually killed in battle by a "golden-BB," and command of the force was passed on to British officer Charles Gordon.
Fall of the Kingdom of Heaven
Despite repeated sorties to the north, and even an attempt to capture the Chinese capital of Beijing, the Taipings were slowly forced back by the Qing and their reluctant Western backers. The British began imposing naval blockades on Taiping cities, which assisted the Qing in retaking them. Eventually, Nanjing itself was surrounded and under siege, defended by the fanatical Taipings. Hong Xiuquan perished during the siege in 1864 after eating a poison weed; it's debatable whether this was a Hitler-esque suicide or the result of starvation brought on by the dwindling food supply in the city. Hong's top-quality spin doctors responded to this by claiming that God's son had gone to heaven to plead for aid on behalf of his people.
Hong's death was essentially the end of the regime he created. His son ruled for all of six weeks before the Qing managed to blast a hole in Nanjing's walls and retake the city. Although the loss of Nanjing destroyed the government of the Heavenly Kingdom, remnants of the Taiping's army would continue the fight for years afterwards, only finally being crushed in 1871.
Aftermath and legacy
Consequences of a total war
The Taiping Rebellion was a total war, and the Taipings gave their entire population military training and required conscription of at least one adult male per family. During the conflict, both sides attempted to starve each other of resources by destroying farmland, butchering cities and villages, and killing animals. The armies made war not only against each other, but against civilians as well.
As the rebellion began in Guangxi, the Qing executed all prisoners speaking its dialect. Indeed, for both sides, the easiest way to pacify newly acquired/re-acquired territory was to simply exterminate the population. This was also the Qing's policy towards the Hakka, early supporters of Hong, and the city of Nanjing. In many areas, the people chose to commit mass suicide rather than allow themselves to be executed.
Beginning of the end for the Qing
As one can expect, the war caused massive economic devastation. It also greatly weakened the rule of the Qing. One of the traditions in China was that of rightful rulership, and a dynasty could only claim to be rightful if they did well by their people. With the death and destruction of the Taiping rebellion, there was a shared sense across the country that the Qing dynasty was collapsing.
In order to preserve itself, the Qing dynasty had to make lasting changes to itself. Its rule was decentralized greatly, and it began to employ greater numbers of Han Chinese in its government bureaucracy. Even so, the loss of prestige and legitimacy during the uprising would doom the Qing. Further calamities would cripple the Qing, who were desperately unwilling to modernize, and an uprising in 1911 finally put them out of their misery and brought a final end to imperial rule in China.
- Chinese Civil War
- Thirty Years War
- Lord's Resistance Army
- Massacres in the name of a peaceful faith
- Spence, Jonathan D. 1997. God's Chinese Son. New York: Norton.
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- This was actual oppression of a Christian group, not to be confused (or equated) with the "Waa we're so persecuted because we can't throw our weight around as much as we used to" whining from modern American Christians.
- This ideology can easily be compared to communism, which took hold in China about a century later.
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