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Spurred and initially led by Hong Xiuquan, the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) seriously challenged China’s Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12). Millions of lives were lost in the ensuing chaos. As the largest rebellion in Chinese history, it was a catalyst for the first reform movement launched by the Qing in an attempt to modernize the empire, a process the Qing had resisted for some time after its clash with Western powers in the First Opium War (1839–1842).
The Taiping Rebellion occurred in a period of unprecedented crisis, when the Qing dynasty was plagued by an exploding population (nearly tripling in two centuries to exceed 430 million by the 1850s), political and social problems, and challenges from Western powers that it could not meet, as evidenced in its defeat in the First Opium War (1839–1842). With the city Guangzhou (Canton) becoming one of the five ports opened to international trade, as stipulated by the Treaty of Nanjing (1842) at the conclusion of the that war, Western influence became increasingly tangible in the city and its surrounding area, though missionaries, including Protestant missionaries from the United States, had been arriving in China’s southern coasts before the Opium War. Meanwhile, the opening of Shanghai as one of the treaty ports undermined Guangzhou’s position as the sole hub of international trade in China. As a result, many laborers who had been hired by foreign trade-related businesses in the Guangzhou area lost their jobs, which contributed to worsening social problems that had accumulated in southern China.
Hong Xiuquan (1814–1864), born to a peasant family of the Hakka ethnic group in a village close to Guangzhou, was raised to pursue a career as a scholar-official. Having repeatedly failed to pass the civil service examinations in Guangzhou, Hong suffered a breakdown in 1837 and was bed-stricken for weeks, during which he had hallucinations. A few years later he read a set of Christian tracts, Quanshi Liangyan (Good Words for Exhorting the Age), which was compiled by a Chinese Christian, Liang Afa (1789–1855), and delivered to Hong’s hand after he failed examinations in Guangzhou in 1836 by an American missionary, Edwin Stevens (1802–1837). Hong made connections between Christian theology and his visions and was convinced that he was actually Jesus Christ’s younger brother, and that he was sent to Earth to expel demons, namely the Manchus (who ruled China during the Qing dynasty), from China.
Having baptized himself and a few friends and relatives, Hong began his evangelical mission in his home village. In early 1844, along with one of his converts, Feng Yunshan (1822–1852), Hong went to Guangxi Province after having lost his teaching post at the village school due to his Christian convictions. In the poverty-stricken southern Guangxi, Hong and Feng found enthusiastic adherents among poor peasants. Later in 1844, Hong left the evangelic work to Feng and returned home to continue his religious study for a couple of years (during which time he had a short sojourn in Guangzhou to study with an American missionary, Issachar T. Roberts [1802–1871]); Hong then penned several religious tracts to expound his own understanding of Christian faith. When Hong rejoined Feng in Guangxi in the late 1840s, Feng had set up a religious community of thousands in the Zijing Mountain area. With the expansion of their community and the heightening of the tension with the Qing local authorities, Hong and his followers proactively prepared for an armed uprising.
The Early Stage (1851–1856)
In late 1850, Hong called for a rebellion against the Qing dynasty. He proclaimed the establishment of Taiping Tianguo (the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace) in January 1851 and declared himself the Heavenly King shortly thereafter. The Taipings, as they become known in English, set up an elaborate military system in which men and women were segregated and forced to submit all their properties to a public treasury. After having stayed in the city of Yongan in eastern Guangxi for half a year to rigorously undertake state building and militarization, the Taipings began to march north to the Yangzi (Chang) River valley in 1852. The Qing armies, which had not been engaged in serious fight for decades, failed to stop the advances of the spirited Taipings. In the spring of 1853, the Taipings, then in the hundreds of thousands, took Nanjing, a political and economic center in southeastern China. Hong made Nanjing his capital and renamed it Tianjing (Heavenly Capital).
After taking Nanjing, the Taipings moved quickly to expand their military victories. A northern expedition was dispatched to take Beijing, the capital of the Qing dynasty, and a western expedition was sent to take control of the middle Yangzi River valley and secure the areas surrounding Nanjing. Although the northern expedition failed, the Taipings were successful in expanding their territories in the middle and lower Yangzi River valleys. Administrative apparatuses were set up on the conquered territories, which combined military and civil functions. A utopian land program blueprinting equal distribution of land was promulgated, but never implemented. Many social and cultural reforms—including banning opium smoking, foot binding and prostitution—were carried out. Repudiating Confucianism as the demon’s teaching, the Taipings adopted Hong’s version of Christianity as their official religion and used it as the basis for their civil-service examinations, in which both men (and very recently women) were encouraged to participate.
The Taipings’ claim that they believed in Christianity stirred great excitements among the Western missionaries while the prospect of an extensive civil war worried the Western businessmen in China. Both groups urged their countries’ diplomats to take actions and go to the Taiping capital for a close examination of the rebels. In 1853 and 1854, Britain, France, and the United States sent envoys to Nanjing to investigate the new regime. Although the Westerners were deeply disappointed by the Taiping religion, which they thought was a great distortion of Christianity, and by the rebels’ lack of commitment to order and construction, the Western powers decided not to act against the Taipings immediately because they had not settled their conflicts with the Qing government. As a result, they adopted temporary neutrality toward the rebellion, but their overtone betrayed their hostility against the Taipings.
When the Taiping Rebellion reached its peak in 1856, fatal infighting occurred. Threatened by the swelling power of Yang Xiuqing (d. 1856), the de facto prime minister of the Taiping regime, Hong had him killed by another leader, Wei Changhui (1823– 1856). Later Hong also had Wei killed when the latter could not stop his indiscriminate slaughtering of Yang’s followers. Tens of thousands of Taiping followers were slain in the incident. Feeling that he was no longer trusted, Shi Dakai (1831–1863), a talented and popular general, led his army out of Nanjing and carried on an independent campaign until he was cornered by the Qing forces at the Dadu River in western Sichuan in 1863, where he surrendered (and was subsequently executed).
The Late Stage (1856–1864)
The Taiping Rebellion was greatly weakened by the events of 1856 and by losing much territory to the Qing armies in the wake of the incident. Meanwhile, the Qing dynasty found a powerful force in suppressing the rebellion, the Xiang (Hunan) army led by Zeng Guofan (1811–1872), a high official and famed Confucian scholar. Zeng commanded strong support among the gentry class by upholding Confucian values in countering the Taiping form of Christianity. Recruited exclusively from Zeng’s hometown in Hunan Province and highly paid and well disciplined, the soldiers of the Xiang army pushed the Taipings into a defensive position. Two new leaders and outstanding generals of the Taipings, Li Xiucheng (1823–1864) and Chen Yucheng (1837–1862), orchestrated a series of successful campaigns to break the impasse, advanced to eastern Jiangnan, and approached Shanghai, an important treaty port since the First Opium War. Hong Xiuquan’s cousin, Hong Ren’gan (1822–1864), arrived in Nanjing after having stayed in Hong Kong for years, breathing new life into the waning regime by attempting to reform the Taiping political and economic systems by using Western models. Although Hong Ren’gan’s reform agenda did not materialize due to the severe military situation in the last phase of the Taiping Rebellion, his ideas were echoed by reformers in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Having finally made his way to Nanjing, Issachar T. Roberts failed to convince Hong Xiuquan, who had by then lost touch with reality and was immersed in his illusionary world, to rectify his religion. Roberts left Nanjing in early 1862.
From 1856 to 1860, the Qing dynasty was engaged in the Second Opium War (also known as the Arrow War) with Britain and France. Disappointed with the Qing noncommittal attitude toward fulfilling the treaty obligations after the First Opium War, Britain set higher goals for the second conflict. After the four-year war punctuated with truce and negotiation, Britain and France landed new treaties that gave the powers more rights including stationing their ambassadors in Beijing and more treaty ports including Nanjing and several other cities in the war zone, which made the Taiping regime an indisputable obstacle to the implementation of the treaty benefits. Shortly after the conclusion of the Second Opium War, a coup d’etat occurred that placed a new rulership on the stage for the Qing. The new leaders, the Empress Dowager Cixi (1853–1908) and Prince Gong Yixin (1833–1898), effected a radical turn in foreign policy, becoming cooperative with the West, which encouraged the Western powers to side with the Qing dynasty in China’s civil war. Having realized that it was best for Britain’s long-term interest in China to leave the Qing dynasty as the ruling regime, Sir Frederick Bruce (1814 –1867), the British envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to China, authored a policy of indirect intervention in China’s civil war, by which the Western powers should assist the Qing dynasty in its campaign against the rebels, and at the same time entice the Qing dynasty to strengthen and modernize its governmental apparatus and functions.
In late 1861, Li Xiucheng and his men carried out an eastern expedition, taking both Ningbo (it became a treaty port after the First Opium War) and Hangzhou, and prepared to attack Shanghai. The Taiping threat to the eastern coast area, where Western commercial interest was heavy, served as the fuse to the onset of Western intervention. The first clash between the Western powers and the Taipings took place in early 1862 when Li attacked Shanghai. After that the Western intervention took shape with foreign mercenaries, the so-called Ever-Victorious Army, financed by the Qing government and headed first by Frederick Townsend Ward (1831–1862) of the United States and then by Charles George Gordon (1833–1885) of Britain. Meanwhile, the leaders of the Xiang army also actively acquired Western weaponry and hired Western military advisors. After 1862, the Taipings retreated city by city under the joint attack of the Xiang army and the Ever-Victorious Army. In June 1864, Hong Xiuquan died of illness. One month later, the Xiang army captured Nanjing, which ended the Taiping Rebellion, even though the remaining Taiping forces continued to fight until 1868.
About 20 million lives were lost in the extensive warfare associated with the Taiping Rebellion and other rebellions of the period. Economic devastations in the lower Yangzi River valley were extensive. While Taiping Christianity failed to leave any lasting impact on Chinese society, the Qing dynasty tried to bring about a restoration of Confucian tradition in the wake of the upheaval. Meanwhile, reform-minded high officials including three major generals rising to power in the campaign against the Taiping Rebellion, Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang (1823–1901) and Zuo Zongtang (1812–1885), pushed the Qing to take the first step toward modernization: the Self-Strengthening Movement (1861-1895), which placed an unequivocal emphasis on adopting Western military technology. In the rest of the nineteenth century, the British policy that had taken shape during the Taiping Rebellion— assisting and strengthening the Qing—continued to serve as Britain’s China policy, resulting in a different form of imperialism in China than in India and some other parts of Asia, where the British Empire ruled as a colonizing power in its own right.
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