Taiping Rebellion

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The Taiping Rebellion and consequent civil war took place in China between 1850 and 1864. It is believed to have been the most destructive civil war in history, causing up to 25 million deaths.

Origins of the Taiping Movement

By the mid 19th century the Qing dynasty was facing severe internal and external pressure. Rural discontent led to an increase in secret society activity, among bodies such as the White Lotus Society, the Small Sword Society, the Society of Elders and Brothers (Gelaohui), and the Triads in the south. Features of this activity included egalitarianism (primitive communism), a membership drawn from peasantry and poor artisans, cult worship, and xenophobia - towards the ethnic-Manchu dynasty as well as foreigners. A common slogan was Fan Qing fu Ming - 'Overthrow the Qing, restore the Ming'. Peasant uprisings were increasing in number in the early decades of the century, and, in south China, tensions were rising between local Chinese and Hakka people - ethnic Chinese who had migrated from north to south China centuries before, but who had never fully integrated.

Hong Xiuquan and the outbreak of the Taiping Rebellion

Hong Xiuquan(1814-1864) was from poor Hakka family in Guangdong province in south China. He had received some education, and had had contact with missionaries in Guangzhou (Canton), but had failed repeatedly in the civil service examinations, and suffered a mental breakdown circa 1837, following which he espoused a garbled version of Christianity in which he claimed that he was son of God, and younger brother of Christ. Around 1845 he founded the 'God Worshipers Society' which grafted elements of Old Testament theology onto peasant rebel tradition, and which began to develop a following among Hakka and minority Zhuang and Yao peoples in Guangxi province in SW China. Guangxi in the late 1840s/early 50s was troubled by famine, rebellion, smuggling, and secret societies; it was a fractured society (with Han, Hakka, and minority nationals) and remote from Beijing: fertile ground for revolt. In 1850 the God Worshipers Society raised a rebel standard at Jintian (Guangxi) and in 1851 proclaimed itself the 'Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace' (Taiping Tianguo).

Early Taiping success

In September 1851 the Taiping army captured its first fortified town, Yong'an (Guangxi) and in Spring 1852 began to march northwards. It failed to capture the provincial capitals of Guilin and Changsha, but in January 1853 took Wuchang (part of the triple city of Wuhan in central China) and in March Nanjing, the former Ming capital and second city of the empire. This they renamed Tianjing ('Heavenly Capital') and it remained the Taiping capital until their final defeat in 1864.

Taiping military code

This was ostensibly an ethical code of conduct, and bears some similarities to the 'Rules of Conduct' decreed for the Red Army in the 1930s and 1940s:

  1. Obey decrees and orders (including Heavenly laws and commands)
  2. Separate men's and women's regiments
  3. Forbid the slightest violation of the people's interests
  4. Be selfless and friendly and obey chiefs
  5. Be co-operative and never retreat in battle.

The Taiping espoused the equality of women (a revolutionary development in Imperial China) and abolished customs such as foot-binding.

Elements of Taiping success

The Taiping army had a strong central core of efficient soldiers, largely of the Zhuang nationality. It was able to play upon Han Chinese resentment of 'foreign' (Manchu) rule, and Taiping nationalism was symbolized by the establishment of their capital at Nanjing (and by abolition of the servile 'queue', or pigtail). They were supported on their march north by spontaneous peasant risings, accompanied by the burning of land ownership deeds and the killing of landlords. The millenarian monotheistic ideology of the Taiping movement gave cohesion to the movement (but the destruction of Confucian temples, family shrines etc. alienated many).

Taiping rule

The Taiping form of government was ostensibly, and initially, egalitarian, applying a primitive communism. No wages were paid, no private property allowed. Artisans were organized into 'Heavenly Battalions' whose products went to the state. Land was allotted to the peasants, but surpluses were taken by the state. It was puritanical, with opium, gambling, and prostitution banned. It adopted a progressive approach to women. Women could take examinations, serve in the army, and were entitled to the same education as men. Foot-binding was abolished. The Taiping had a positive attitude to 'foreign brothers' (and supposed fellow Christians); but suffered disappointment as the foreign powers rejected such Taiping advances as were made, and, after the Second Opium War (1857–60) the powers consciously lent support to the Qing.

The Taiping state was ruled by six kings: the Heavenly King (Hong Xiuquan) was assisted by Eastern, Northern, Southern and Western Kings, and Assistant King Shi Dakai.

The Northern Expedition

In 1853 the Northern Expedition was sent from Nanjing to destroy the Qing forces and occupy Beijing. Instead of fighting directly north it detoured west, failed to take the provincial capital Kaifeng, and by October 1853, and the outbreak of the harsh north China winter, had only reached Tianjin. Like the French in 1812 and the Germans in 1941, the south Chinese troops were worn down by the cold, were defeated in 1854 by Qing troops under the Mongol general Senggeinqin, and the final remnants were defeated in 1855. In 1854 & 1855 fighting moved up and down the middle Yangtse, as Wuhan was captured twice and lost twice.

Splits within the Taiping leadership

In 1856 the Taiping court was riven by rivalry between the Eastern King (Yang Xiuqing, a former charcoal burner) and the Northern King (Wei Changhui, a former merchant). Hong Xiuquan, though increasingly remote from matters of government, confided to Wei his fears of Yang's increasing power; Wei then purged Yang and tens of thousands of his supporters. The Taiping general and 'Assistant King' Shi Dakai, one of the most capable leaders, returned to Nanjing, where the Wei faction attempted to kill him; forces loyal to Hong Xiuquan subsequently captured and executed Wei. Hong also became suspicious of Shi Dakai, who fled Nanjing to Sichuan, where he maintained rebellion on his own account until his death in 1863.

Reasons for Taiping decline

According to the eminent sinologist J.K. Fairbank, the Taiping were “inept and ill-directed” They failed to hold on to territories that they occupied while advancing north. They failed to finish off the Qing in 1852 following the fall of Nanjing, while the regime was on its knees. They failed to establish early and adequate contact with foreign powers presenting themselves as an attractive and supportable alternative to the Qing. They alienated the gentry and administrative classes by their anti-Confucian iconoclasm, thus depriving themselves of effective administrators. Poor strategic direction and inept generalship led to the division of their forces in 1853-4. The court became increasingly paranoid and prone to purges and internal bloodshed, while at the same time egalitarianism was abandoned and the rulers gave themselves up to luxury, corruption and debauchery.

At the same time the Qing authorities were developing a more flexible response to the threats they faced.

Qing responses to the Taiping

They appointed 'new men' - members of provincial gentry - to command new armies. In 1853 Zeng Guofan (1811–72) was appointed to raise troops in the Xiang or Hunan Army, to combat the Taiping. Zeng was a Confucian scholar, implacably opposed to the Taiping; he built up an officer core of trusted men, established arsenals and a river fleet, and methodically began to encircle Taiping forces. His chief protégé was Li Hongzhang (1823-1901) who was appointed to raise an army in Anhui, the Huai or Anhui army, similar to Zeng's forces. Li became governor of the key eastern province of Jiangsu in 1862 where he made use of Western and Chinese-Western forces to combat the Taipings around Shanghai and Hangzhou. The Anhui army participated in the final defeat of the Taiping in 1864 and went north to finish the Nien rebels. Li went on to become the key political figure in China for the remainder of his life.

Traditional Chinese 'Green Banner' regular forces had proved useless against the Taiping. The brunt of the considerable fighting was by militias, Manchu Banner forces and the 'new armies' of Zeng and Li. The success of these regional armies, together with the devolution of responsibility to provinces, and the collection by the provinces of a new tax (lijin) on goods transported, was to have major long-term implications for China.

The "Ever Victorious Army" and "Chinese Gordon"

In 1860 Chinese Shanghai merchants financed a private militia, the Shanghai Foreign Arms Corps led by the American adventurer Frederick Townsend Ward (d 1862). This initially employed Western troops, but was increasingly Chinese (with western officers); after achieving some successes it was renamed the 'Ever Victorious Army'. British and French troops were also stationed in the Shanghai area and active against the Taiping. Following Ward's death, and an unsatisfactory American replacement, the Imperial authorities requested the British to second an officer to the Ever Victorious Army. Charles Gordon was sent, and led the Ever Victorious Army with some success, including the capture of Suzhou in Nov 1863. The Ever Victorious Army was disbanded in 1864. However, the actions of Gordon and his troops were peripheral to the main conflict, which involved vast Chinese armies, and ended with the siege and storming of Nanjing in 1864.