The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) was the result of an accumulation of anti-Qing sentiment within China, building up over years due to many factors. These factors included ethnic conflicts, religious conflicts, and the incompetence of the Qing government to properly lead and protect the nation. This rebellion caused great damage to the Qing dynasty and accelerated its eventual downfall.
Hong Xiuquan is Introduced to Christianity
So our story begins with a man named Hong Xiuquan, a poor commoner from a village near Canton. He was very academically ambitious, and sought to get into the Chinese government via passing the Imperial Examinations, which was pretty much the coolest thing a Chinese male could do at the time. (Hint hint: women couldn’t participate.)
Anyhow, Hong studied very hard for the examinations, beginning his studies when he was just four years old. His first attempt at the Imperial Examination was in 1827, when he was only twelve. Naturally, he failed the examination, so he studied harder. In 1836, at age 22, Hong visited the nearby city of Canton and decided to take the test there. He failed again, but during his visit at Canton an Evangelical Christian missionary gave Hong a book titled the Quanshi Liangyan, which roughly means “good words admonishing the world.” He briefly read it but put it back in the shelf; he did not think much of it at the time, but that little booklet would change Chinese history.
In 1837, the year after the previous attempt, Hong took the Imperial Examination; and failed again!
This time Hong had a mental breakdown and collapsed, and was forced into a period of recovery. But during the recovery, Hong had a series of visions via dreams, in which he met two figures: a paternal elderly man and a brotherly middle-aged man. The former, with a golden beard, told Hong to turn away from his worship of demons and worship him instead, and the other encouraged him throughout his journeys to defeat said demons.
The God Worshippers’ Society
After reexamining the earlier Christian booklet, Hong realized that he could draw many parallels between the contents of the book and his own dreams. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that he was the second son of God, making him the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He began to believe that he had been sent by God to save the Chinese people from false idols such as Confucius as well as the ruling Manchus.
He was a teacher at the time, but he began to destroy Confucian works and he was fired in 1844. After this, he joined with Feng Yunshan, a fellow Christian convert, and began to preach Christianity together in the province of Guangxi. His teachings were very popular in Guangxi due to the large Hakka population: a group within the Han Chinese who speak the Hakka dialect and experienced discrimination. In fact, Hong was a Hakka himself. After a few months they returned to Guangdong, at which point they co-founded the God Worshippers’ Society.
The God Worshippers’ Society was very successful in the provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong, and in just a few months they collected two thousand followers. By 1850, Hong Xiuquan had nearly 30,000 followers. The God Worshippers’ Society not only preached Christianity but also advocated for some awesome stuff, like gender equality, abolishing the class system, and racial equality. Well, unless you were the Manchus. If you were a Manchu, you had to die. And of course, so did non-Christians, so religious freedom was not on the list of their Awesome Stuff.
The God Worshippers also took on the task of defeating local pirates and bandits. But the Qing government allowed little religious freedom and suppressed the Worshippers. The Worshippers were not happy at the Machus to begin with, and now they had more reasons to be angry. The idea of a revolt began to spread across the community.
Finally, on January 11, 1851, the God Worshippers started the Jintian Uprising at the town of Jintian in Guangxi. After killing hundreds of Qing soldiers, Hong Xiuquan declared the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.
The Taipings subsequently fled the province of Guangxi and traveled north, and they were defeated by Qing soldiers on the way multiple times. Nevertheless, the Taipings managed to capture Nanjing on March 19, 1853. Nanjing became the Heavenly Capital of Taiping.
The Taipings were mostly active around the Yangtze River, capturing several major cities along its length. However, their failure to capture Shanghai eventually resulted in loss of momentum for the Taipings.
Another factor for the Taipings’ downfall was internal strife. Yang Xiuqing, a young but influential military commander, had several disagreements with Hong Xiuquan. Yang essentially believed that some parts of Confucianism such as its moral codes were to be kept, while Hong wanted to eradicate them all. In 1856, Yang attempted a military coup but failed, weakening the government severely. Nevertheless, the 1850s was, in general, a good decade for the Taipings.
That all ended in 1862, when the Taipings failed to take Shanghai after more than a year of siege. Even western powers, primarily Britain and France, intervened on the side of the Chinese government.
After this defeat, the anti-Taiping alliance took away their territory rapidly. In spring of 1864, Hong Xiuquan abdicated the throne in favor of his son. Hong Xiuquan died of food poisoning in June later that year and Nanjing fell to the alliance a few days later.
Effects of the Rebellion
The Taiping Rebellion was a disaster. Over the span of fourteen years, it killed over twenty million people. That enormous death toll makes the rebellion the third most destructive war in recorded human history.
Fighting was not all the Taipings did, though. The Taiping government actually did implement some social reforms, some of which were awesome. Others were awful. Yet the rest I am afraid to share my opinion of due to potential flame wars.
Well, let’s start with the awesome ones. First of all, slavery was abolished. Second, gender equality was enforced, and women were allowed to take the Imperial Examinations for the first time in Chinese history. The class system was also abolished. They also banned foot binding, a barbaric practice in which girls’ feet were bound to keep them growing (that was supposed to be attractive or something).
And here are some of the awful stuff. First of all, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was an absolute monarchy and a theocracy. Evangelical Christianity was declared the state religion, and there was no religious freedom. There was also heavy segregation of the sexes, and up until 1855 not even married couples could live together or have sexual relations. And you know, all the killing was pretty awful too.
And then some other stuff that they did: first, the Bible became the primary subject of the Imperial Examinations, replacing Confucian classics. The traditional lunar calendar was replaced with the solar calendar, and the queue hairstyle of the Manchus was banned. The Taiping government also made opium, tobacco, alcohol, prostitution and polygamy illegal, all of which were punishable by death. Funny enough, Hong Xiuquan himself practiced polygamy.
Oh, and lastly, the Taipings abolished all private land ownership and had the government distribute all land. If this is starting to sound like Communism, well, Chairman Mao would agree! The Communist Party of China, which is to play a significant role in Chinese history in just a few decades, looked to the Taipings as their inspiration.
But at the time, the Qing government was not very inspired. To them, the Taipings were nothing but rebels who left had China in ruins. The Taiping Rebellion also contributed to the Qing losing another important war: The Second Opium War. If you want to learn more about the Second Opium War, please go to this page. Thank you for reading.