Thursday, May 16, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China: Part 19: The Taiping Rebellion of 1851-1864 (1 of 2)

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7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff devotes a special two part mini-series to the bloodiest civil war in history with the third greatest death toll of any conflict, trailing only World Wars I and II.

The Economics Correspondent has so far focused parts 11 through 18 of his history of China on the last imperial dynasty: the Qing (1644-1912, pronounced “ching”).

The Qing were actually not even Chinese but ethnic Manchurians who swept on horseback from the northeast to capitalize on the civil war raging between the declining, corrupt Ming dynasty and peasant rebels. After conquering China in 1644 the Qing, being alien outsiders, were disliked by their majority ethnic Han Chinese subjects. However after the enlightened rule of emperors such as Kangxi (1661-1722), Yongzheng (1722-1735), and for a while Qianlong (1735-1796) the Chinese reluctantly accepted their new masters' legitimacy.

By the 1790s rising taxes, government corruption, and a declining economy revived resentment among Chinese and several mid-sized rebellions erupted.

Complicating matters were the two “Opium Wars,” with Britain and later France and Russia, which exposed the Qing leadership as impotent in face of the “big nosed barbarians.” The ineffectual Qing was forced to cede territory including Hong Kong and Kowloon (Britain), one million square kilometers of Manchuria and Xinjiang (Russia) and foreign concessions in several port cities (all the above plus France and the United States).

As the 1840’s progressed, life for the average Chinese deteriorated further. Poverty, opium addiction, even sporadic famines were common, and Qing administration was hopelessly stymied by corruption.


It was against this backdrop that a poor peasant from Guangxi province—extreme south China, bordering Vietnam—would see a vision that would change history.

Hong Xiuquan (pronounced “hong shiew chwen”) had applied several times for an administrative position in Qing government, at the time a good career that could raise his impoverished family’s fortunes. But the civil service examination was notoriously difficult, requiring applicants to study the Confucian classics day and night to pass the ridiculously exhaustive test.

Hong failed four times and broke under the stress of his third attempt, suffering a nervous breakdown that cast otherworldly visions, both waking and sleeping. In a repeating dream Hong saw himself before an old bearded man on a throne who complained Chinese were worshipping demons instead of himself. He handed Hong a shield and sword, ordered him to go forth and kill every Manchurian demon in China and establish a new religious Chinese dynasty. Standing beside Hong was a younger bearded man in a robe.

For several years Hong believed the old man was Confucius, but upon reading a Christian missionary pamphlet years later the meaning of his vision became clear: Hong concluded he had been commanded by the Christian God, that the younger man standing beside him was Jesus, and that he was Jesus’ younger brother.

Hong began preaching in rural Guangxi, declaring himself God’s son and promising a new Christian dynasty rid of Manchus, run by and for Chinese. He called it the Taiping Tianguo (“Great Peaceful Heavenly Kingdom”), referred by contemporaries and historians both as simply the Taiping.

The blighted landscape of poverty and Qing corruption provided fertile ground for Hong’s revolutionary crusade and tens of thousands of peasants flocked to his proclaimed holy war: the Taiping Rebellion.


Soon Qing officials heard word of a religious peasant rebellion stirring in the southern provinces and sent troops to investigate.

By 1850 the Qing armies were a shell of their former selves. No longer were they the valiant horsemen and archers who had conquered China two centuries prior. Starved for funds, corrupt, and led by incompetent officers who achieved their ranks through bribery or graft, the Qing troops were defeated time and time again by fanatical Taiping armies.

So incapable was the Qing military that upon sighting Taiping armies its troops would simply run away. After Taiping forces had vacated the area, Qing soliders would enter the villages, slaughter the local civilians, dress their corpses in Taiping clothing, and report a great victory with impressive numbers of enemy casualties.

Of course none of this quelled the rebellion and by 1853 the Taipings, now numbering millions, had conquered most of southern China and seized the ancient Ming capital of Nanjing where Hong established his heavenly kingdom’s new capital and royal palace. The Taipings also controlled most of the Yangtze River valley and with it much of China’s commerce which the Qing government relied on for tax revenues. With so much momentum on their side, Hong’s newly appointed generals (which he called “kings,” subordinate to his “heavenly emperor’s” throne) launched an audacious offensive to take Beijing itself.

Initially the Taiping armies advanced north rapidly, but they failed to secure supply lines or take any cities along the way. As they neared Beijing the hopelessly incompetent emperor Xianfeng fled north to his Manchurian autumn hunting resort, but the Taipings made a serious error diverting resources to seize Tianjin before Beijing. This gave Qing generals time to gather more troops and, after two years of stalemate, Taiping forces were pushed back from northern China.

It’s hard to convey in one article how brutal each side of the war was to the other, how indifferent both were to the suffering of the people, and the scale of the devastation wrought by nearly fifteen years of civil war. Qing troops tortured and massacred the “longhairs” (named so because they refused to shave their heads as required by Qing law), then blew their remains out of cannons to prevent them from reaching the afterlife. Taipings, believing all Manchus were literally “monsters” or “demons,” mercilessly slaughtered any in their path including civilian women and children.

As fighting raged in China’s most fertile and populated regions, the violence laid waste to food production bringing hunger, disease, and death to tens of millions of everyday Chinese. Touring the countryside British geological surveyor Thomas Kingsmill witnessed...

”During [the civil war’s] continuance smiling fields were turned into desolate wildernesses; fenced cities into ruinous heaps. The plains of Jiangxi and Zhejiang [provinces] were strewn with human skeletons; their rivers polluted with floating carcasses; wild beasts descending from their fastnesses in the mountains roamed at large over the land… …No hands were left to till the soil; and noxious weeds covered the ground once tilled with patient industry.”

During the dark years of chaos and destruction many Chinese fled the country altogether, creating a global diaspora. Mass Chinese immigration to California during the 1850’s and 1860’s was largely compelled by the violence of the Taiping Rebellion.


Once the Taiping secured enormous territorial gains its more enlightened officials, notably Hong’s cousin Hong Rengan who had lived among westerners in Hong Kong, made diplomatic overtures to the European powers for assistance overthrowing the Qing.

Hong Rengan envisioned a modern Chinese state with western institutions, capital markets, railroads, foreign investment, and permanent diplomatic ties to the European and American powers.

Unfortunately the Taiping Kingdom reflected little in practice of this progressive vision. Once settled in Nanjing, “God’s son” Hong Xiuquan constructed a cultish, dictatorial state based on mysticism and proto-communism. Men and women were kept separate with most contact harshly punished, even between husband and wife, while the Chinese Messiah and his highest officials secluded deep inside the imperial palace, retreating into bizarre rituals that usually involved orgies with countless servant women.

Land and property were seized from private citizens for the alleged equal betterment of all, yet Hong lived in splendor while the average Taiping citizen was no better off than under the corrupt Qing. In many respects the proto-communist Taiping presaged the twentieth century Marxist dictatorships with poor masses living under the iron boot of a police state while the political elite lived out a regal “some animals are more equal than others” existence.

Initially word got back to Britain of heroic Chinese Christians rising up against their corrupt and alien Qing conquerors. Most Parliamentary and public sentiment sympathized with the rebels and there was debate over whether Britain should intervene on the Taiping’s behalf.

However once firsthand reports began flowing in describing Taiping society in detail—their merciless massacre of civilians, their medieval dictatorship over men-women relations, their very uncapitalistic state seizure of private property, and their bizarre religious rituals that bore no resemblance whatsoever to western Christianity—public sympathy waned. The British began to feel they had far less in common with these “Christian” Chinese than originally thought.

Meanwhile the Qing, who had always treated Europeans as primitive “hairy, big-nosed barbarians,” began appealing to the western powers for some help of their own. Facing the very real prospect of their dynasty’s end, the Qing court even solicited help from American politicians in the early 1860’s, framing their struggle with insurrectionists as common cause with the Union government. 

The now-late Xianfeng emperor’s half-brother Prince Gong told U.S. minister to China Anson Burlingame:

“It appears from this… …that by the rebellion of the southern parts of the United States against their government, your country is placed very much in the same position that China is, whose seditious subjects are now in revolt against her.”

In a bid to win Abraham Lincoln’s favor the Qing even closed off ports to ships flying the confederate flag but ultimately received no military support from the U.S. government, only private volunteers and professional mercenaries.

Britain, however, wrestled with which side, if any, to take. There was no love lost for the Qing government, whose high-browed dismissal of white “barbarians” had kept them out of Chinese markets for decades and even led to the First Opium War. But London found it impossible to support the Taipings either, with their bizarre version of Christianity, brutal and wholesale slaughter of all Manchus, and communist seizure of private property.

The Second Opium War would inform their final decision which we’ll save for the concluding installment.

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