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Taiping Rebellion

Britannica describes the Taiping Rebellion as an upheaval that:

... was probably the most important event in China in the 19th century. It lasted for some 14 years (1850–64), ravaged 17 provinces, took an estimated 20 million lives, and irrevocably altered the Qing dynasty.

The rebellion's leader, Hong Xiuquan, had been a bright child in a poor rural family who displayed interest in scholarship, so his family sacrificed financially to provide him an education. At the age of five he began primary school in his village, and after five or six years he took the local preliminary civil service examinations and placed first. A few years later, he traveled to the nearby city of Guangzhou to take the imperial examinations. Only about one percent passed those examinations, and Hong was not among them and was forced to return to agricultural work. He tried again at the age of 22 (in 1836), and while in Guangzhou he heard the preaching of a Congregationalist (accompanied by a translator) and received a set of pamphlets entitled "Good Words for Exhorting the Age." (Protestant missionaries had been in Macao — a Portuguese administered autonomous region in the Pearl River estuary near Guangzhou — since 1807.)

In 1837, Hong failed the imperial examinations for the third time and suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1843, at the age of 29 and having recovered somewhat, he failed the examinations again and then he took the time to carefully examine the Christian pamphlets he had received. Hong put what he read into his the context of the visions he had experienced during his breakdown. He took up the cause of destroying Confucian and Buddhist statues and books and began preaching to his town about his visions. Statue destructions annoyed local citizens and officials and, in April 1844, Hong and his associates left town to travel and preach. Five months later he returned home and devoted himself to writing religious tracts.

In 1847, Hong Xiuquan was invited to study with the American Southern Baptist missionary. He studied translations of the Old and New Testaments. He began his translation and adaptation of the Bible, and he presented it as a vision of the authentic religion that had existed in ancient China before it had been wiped out by Confucianists and China's emperors. He organized a society of God Worshippers (Bai Shangdi Hui) and gathered some membership from among impoverished peasants looking for relief. By the summer of 1849, Hong considered trances connected with speaking to God or Jesus Christ as genuine. Established in Guangxi Province (in the south about 200 miles east of Guangzhou), Hong began preaching at outdoor meetings said to resemble Baptist tent revivals, and in 1850 he had between 10,000 and 30,000 followers.

The authorities were alarmed by the rivalry from the growing size of Hong's sect. Perhaps Hong's hostility to the authorities and to their Confucian and maybe Buddhist traditions may also have been involved. At any rate, Hong's movement was ordered to disperse. The sect refused and resisted. It organized an effective defensive violence and routed the government troops sent against them, encouraged perhaps by their confidence that God was very much on their side.

In January 1851 the government came at them with a full-scale attack. Hong's movement defeated the attack and beheaded the government army's Manchu commander. A civil war was on the way, and Hong proclaimed a kingdom that rivaled Manchu rule, calling it the "Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace."

Hong's rebel force managed to break through a government blockade and fight their way to the town of Yongan (not to be confused with Yong'an), which fell to them on 25 September 1851. They remained there for three months, sustained by landowners hostile to the Manchu (Qing) dynasty. The rebels then surged northward while talking about sharing property, Britannica writing that this "attracted many famine-stricken peasants, workers, and miners, as did their propaganda against the foreign Manchu rulers." With their successes their ranks swelled. They defeated and slaughtered a large Manchu army, and in March 1853 they captured Nanjing and made that great city their capital. There they destroyed Buddhist and Taoist temples. They forbade opium, tobacco, drinking alcohol and gambling. Hong created a civil bureaucracy, reformed the calendar and introduced reforms designed to give women more equality.

Having succeeded so well, what was to prevent the movement from holding on and extending territorially against Manchu foreign rule? Perhaps contributing to their approaching failure was in-fighting among movement leaders. Yang Xiuqing, had led successful military campaigns for the movement and was hardly a man with the modesty needed as a follower. He often claimed to speak with the voice of God, and he had his network of aides — a rival authority that aroused Hong's suspicions. With rival voices of God, Hong felt his own authority threatened. Purges resulted, disrupting the Transcendent Peace. Yang Xiuqing, his family and thousands of his followers lost their lives.

In 1860, Hong's movement planned to regain its strength by expanding to Shanghai. In 1861, Emperor Xianfeng died and his former consort, Cixi, also a Manchu, began managing Manchu affairs. She maneuvered her way into the position of regent for her son and Xianfeng's five-year-old son and successor. She gained the title of Dowager Empress and was interested in appeasing the Western powers and interested in appeasing the Chinese by putting more Chinese rather than Manchus in positions of authority. Allied with the Dowager Empress was a Western-trained force led by an America and then a British officer, Charles Gordon. This force was joined by a Chinese army led by Zeng Guofan, a Chinese official of the Qing government who was taking advantage of those alienated by Hong's attacks on Confucianism, and maybe Buddhism.

Zeng's military force surrounded Nanjing, and by 1864 the city was and dangerously low on food supplies. For food, Hong gathered weeds from the grounds of his palace. He fell ill, and some say he committed suicide. (As usual there would those who believed he had been poisoned.) His death came in June 1864. Movement resistance continued elsewhere in China until 1868, but Hong's death effectively ended the movement and what is called the Taiping Rebellion.


The Taiping Rebellion was to be described as fundamentally an agrarian revolution — peasants fighting for relief influenced also by the idea of sharing that had been a part of Christianity's earliest years. It would leave an impression on Sun Yat-sen, China's pro-democracy revolutionary in the early 1900s. And according to Wikipedia, Mao Zedong was to view the Taiping Rebellion as a revolt against a corrupt feudal system. It has been said that China's current Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, has had the Taiping Rebellion "seared into his psyche" (thecipherbrief.com)

Today, China has 31 million practicing Christians, 2.3 percent of its population. Most of them, it seems, believe that Hong had distorted beliefs — Christians having accused other Christians of this for centuries. It has been reported that in China at least a few Christians see Hong as having been moved by a "true Christianity." China's Communist Party, at any rate, is said to be concerned about any rival religious ideology that could become a divisive force or engage in terrorist activities. Christians and other religious groupings in China are officially sanctioned by being registered with the government. Some Christians defy the government with informal networks and unregistered congregations.

CONTINUE READING: Industrialization, the Crimean War and US Civil War

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