Tuesday, May 21, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China: Part 20: The Taiping Rebellion of 1851-1864 (2 of 2)

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7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff concludes his two-part series on China’s Taiping Rebellion, the bloodiest civil war in history with a body count exceeded only by World Wars I and II.

The siege of Nanjing (1864)
Before finishing the story of the great Taiping Rebellion, the Economics Correspondent would like to recommend two sources.

First, for those who missed the opening of the greatest Chinese civil war and its early battles, you can go back to Part 1 at:


Second, for anyone interested in a much more detailed account of the Taiping Rebellion the Correspondent can recommend a fantastic book.

Stephen R. Platt’s “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom”(2012) is not only a magnificent account of the Taiping Rebellion’s final years, it’s also one of the best books on Chinese history the Correspondent has ever read and in his opinion the most beautifully written.

With those two suggestions out of the way let’s continue with the conclusion of the civil war that from 1851 to 1864 killed at least 20-30 million Chinese.


As fighting raged between the bizarre, erratically-led Taiping rebels and the equally corrupt, unsteady Qing dynasty many top imperial generals were killed in battle. As replacement the Qing court elevated a competent commander who had previously languished behind the Taiping’s lesser flanks in a remote province.

Zeng Guofan (pronounced “zuhng gwoh fahn”), one of the classic Confucian scholar-soldiers of that age, was a frail ethnic Han Chinese from Hunan province. Making a name for himself with several small victories in southern China, he was called upon by the Xianfeng emperor himself to assume a leading role in the war. 

Zeng had little love for the alien Manchus and hesitated at the offer. Should he go down in history as the Chinese general who squelched a rebellion of his own Chinese countrymen?

But after seeing the animalistic slaughter launched by the Taipings, their indifference to the death and destruction laying China to waste, and their bizarre religion, economics, and politics, Zeng concluded China would descend into utter chaos under Taiping rule. Zeng was particularly alarmed to see the Taipings sweep away thousands of years of Chinese tradition replaced with their freakish society, in contrast to the Qing who embraced and promoted Confucianism. He made the thorny choice to side with stability over chaos and agreed to the promotion.

The incorruptible Zeng’s reform of the dilapidated military became legend in 19th century Chinese lore, and soon his “Standard Green Army” was winning major victories against increasingly confused Taiping forces. The emperor was pleased although his advisors fretted that a powerful army under non-Manchu leadership might pose a threat to Qing rule after the war.

On a side note Zeng’s protégé, the younger general Li Hongzhang who outlived Zeng by nearly thirty years and inherited his top command, had a major impact on post-Qing China. Although we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves, as the post-Taiping Qing fell further into disarray—losing more territory to foreign powers while hopelessly plagued by corruption—the central government lost its ability to rule China’s outer provinces. Li’s military hierarchy filled the gap when he installed regional military governors who reported directly to him.

In the chaos of the Qing's swift and unexpected 1912 collapse, eleven years after Li’s death, regional military governors exerted greater authority over their provinces and China descended into the so-called “Warlord Era.”

Known well to Chinese historians, the Warlord Era’s precursors hail all the way back to the Taiping Rebellion when, at war’s end, a fully retired Zeng handed his generalship to Li Hongzhang who in turn unwittingly molded the order that would split China into bickering fiefdoms half a century later.


Britain and her allies fought the brief “Second Opium War” against China from 1856 to 1860, the middle two years being quiet while peace negotiations dragged on. An ultimate allied victory awarded Britain new trading ports, the territory of Kowloon, the legalization of Christianity throughout all of China, and new rounds of war reparation payments.

With the new treaty signed British attitudes began to side with the Qing.

As we noted in the first installment, both the British public and Parliament quickly learned they had little in common with the allegedly “Christian” Taipings whose bizarre version of the religion more resembled the early Ottoman Empire. The Taiping’s communist economics and wholesale slaughter of civilians won them no adoration from the west either.

(Unsurprisingly Karl Marx, exiled by Germany to London at the time, wrote in the newspapers that the Taipings were fighting for revolutionary class struggle and their victory would trigger the inevitable final collapse of British capitalism—two more things he got wrong) 

Moreover Britain worried about the security of both their old and newly won treaty ports, several of which Taiping armies were menacingly close to overrunning on the eastern Yangtze.

And lastly, the Qing government had just committed to years of monetary reparations for the Second Opium War giving Britain another reason to side with the incumbent rulers. Parliament feared a new Taiping government might not honor compensation agreements made by a defunct Qing dynasty.

Britain didn’t declare outright war on the Taipings, nor did it commit large numbers of troops, but Parliament did approve material aid including the sale of modern riverfaring warships and western guns. Most famous of all was battlefield leadership under British Major Charles Gordon, the very same Gordon who had partaken in and witnessed the looting and burning of the emperor’s Summer Palace in 1860.

(Gordon is such a colorful historical figure that Hollywood made a rather average action film about his adventures in Sudan, played by a very un-English sounding Charlton Heston)

American mercenary general Frederick Townsend Ward, a hothead alcoholic commanding the Qing “Ever Victorious Army,” was killed by a Taiping bullet in 1862. The Qing, who detested Ward’s drunkenness and temper, asked Britain for a more agreeable replacement leading to Gordon’s assignment.

Gordon himself had grown a deep personal affection for China and its culture, and he was heartbroken seeing the devastation, poverty and suffering of the Chinese people that only worsened during the war. Teaching Ward’s unruly troops discipline, well-honed fighting techniques, and enforcing strict ethics (which included, ironically, orders not to loot the local population) Gordon cemented the legendary Ever Victorious Army’s reputation, capturing hundreds of Taiping-controlled cities and reportedly never losing a battle.

Qing general Li Hongzhang, who we’ve already mentioned, extolled Gordon, writing…

”It is a direct blessing from Heaven, the coming of this British Gordon. ... He is superior in manner and bearing to any of the foreigners whom I have come into contact with, and does not show outwardly that conceit which makes most of them repugnant in my sight... What an elixir for a heavy heart to see this splendid Englishman fight! ...If there is anything that I admire nearly as much as the superb scholarship of Zeng Guofan, it is the military qualities of this fine officer. He is a glorious fellow!”

At war’s end the Qing government bestowed Gordon the equivalent rank of field marshal, dressed him in full mandarin regalia, and granted him the honorary “Imperial Yellow Jacket” reserved for only forty men in all of China—namely, the emperor’s ceremonial bodyguard.

Throughout his string of military victories Gordon was offered financial gifts from royalty and merchants alike but the incorruptible Englishman always refused, writing "I know I shall leave China as poor as I entered it, but with the knowledge that, through my weak instrumentality, upwards of eighty to one hundred thousand lives have been spared. I want no further satisfaction than this." Gordon’s achievements were widely reported in the British press where he gained the nickname “Chinese Gordon.”

Maj General Charles Gordon

Between Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang’s reinvigorated armies, British material assistance, Charles Gordon’s direction, and a little help from American mercenaries the Qing government finally got the upper hand on the Taiping. They also got help from the Taipings themselves whose top generals, coping poorly with their reversing fortunes, turned on one another. They also turned on Chinese peasants alongside the long-plundered landlords, alienating the masses through widespread looting, scorching and burning of villages and brutally massacring innocents.

Qing forces retook strategic cities on the Yangtze River and eventually laid siege to the Taiping capital of Nanjing. After several months of starvation and disease within the city walls, Nanjing finally fell. Hong Xiuquan’s body was found dead, poisoned either from eating noxious weeds or suicide. What few Taiping officials survived were interrogated by the Qing, then tortured and slowly killed, their remains finally blown out of cannons to prevent their entering heaven.

After fourteen years and 20-30 million deaths the Taiping Rebellion was officially over, but the Qing Dynasty was forever changed and weakened.


To conclude the Taiping Rebellion story, we’ll touch on how China regards two of its key figures today.

During the Chinese Communists’ years fighting Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, Mao Zedong openly revered Hong Xiuquan who he viewed as a fellow Marxist. Hong, like Mao, was also a peasant from the south fighting the hopelessly corrupt Qing dynasty, just as the CCP was rebelling against the corrupt Nationalist government.

Although Mao complimented Zeng Guofan’s military prowess, he nevertheless condemned the general as a traitor for siding with the alien Qing imperialists against his fellow Chinese who harbored primitive but virtuous communist ideals.

In the 21st century the CCP’s views on the Taiping Rebellion have “evolved.”

Zeng Guofan is now hailed as a hero. China, according to the modern version of history, would have fallen into chaos under the Taiping rebels and Zeng made the agonizing but correct decision to side with the government to “preserve stability.”

Hong Xiuquan, on the other hand, was a strange religious mystic similar to today’s Falun Gong. His attempt to usurp the government wrought widespread devastation which in turn invited further encroachment upon China by imperialistic foreigners. Now his legacy is “debated.”

(Never mind that Mao Zedong heaved China into his own destructive chaos during the Cultural Revolution, seeking to annihilate all vestiges of Chinese history and tradition just like the Taipings. Mao also preyed upon countless young women in his Zhongnanhai government compound, paralleling Hong’s bizarre orgies in his Nanjing palace.)

Now that the corrupt establishment is no longer Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists but rather the CCP, the new dynasty no longer condones troublesome insurgents. “Stability” is paramount to revolution. Hong, a hero when the communists were the rebels, is now ambiguous. Zeng, a traitor when the Nationalists were the establishment, is now a patriot.

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