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the taiping revolution

Until 1860, no high-ranking official viewed the foreign adversaries along the coasts as a major threat to the survival of the Qing dynasty. T he trouble they caused could not be compared to the danger posed by internal adversaries.

Suppressing insurgencies could be enormously difficult. It took eight years, from 1796 to 1804, to defeat a rebellion of the millenarian White Lotus sect, well entrenched in the hilly frontier areas of Hubei, Sichuan, and Shaanxi provinces. Several hundred forts had to be constructed, the local people recruited into mili­tia, and the equivalent of five years' revenue expended. In 1813, 100,000 follow­ers of the millenarian Eight Trigrams sect rose not far from the capital itself, seizing several cities in the north China plain and even penetrating the Forbidden City in Beijing. Some seventy thousand people died before the rebellion was quashed. Most difficult of all to suppress was the massive Taiping rebellion (1850-64), which eventually spread over sixteen provinces and led to the destruc­tion of six hundred cities and the deaths of twenty million people.

The Taiping Rebellion is the best documented of any of the great peasant upris­ings in Chinese history. It got its start in south China, an area of secret societies, lineage feuds, and conflict between the locals and the Hakka or 'guest people', later migrants to the area with a distinct dialect and distinct customs (their women did not bind their feet, for instance, and were active in farm work). This region, in addition, had suffered the most disruption from the Opium War. Opium addiction was particularly pervasive in the area, as was resistance to allowing for­eigners to reside in Guangzhou. Added to that, huge numbers of porters were put out of work after new ports were open, obviating the need to transport tea across the hills of south China to the port at Guangzhou. The charismatic religious leader who mobilized the discontented of south China was a Hakka who had failed the civil service examinations, Hong Xiuquan. His career as a religious leader began with visions in which a golden-bearded old man and a middle-aged man who addressed him as younger brother told him toannihilate demons. After reading a Christian tract, Hong interpreted his visions to mean that he was Jesus' younger brother. He turned to a Christian missionary to learn how to baptise, pray, and sing hymns. Attracted especially to the monothe­ism of the Old Testament, and austerely puritanical, he instructed his followers to destroy idols and ancestral temples, give up opium and alcohol, and end foot­binding and prostitution. There was a virulent anti-Manchu strain to his teachings as well: these wicked oppressors were the devil incarnate whom God had com­manded him to destroy.

By 1850 Hong had 20,000 ardent followers at his base in Guangxi, armed to protect themselves against banditry, but sometimes coming into clashes with imperial forces. That year he instructed them to sell their property and pool the proceeds in a common treasury. Early the next year he raised the standard of anti­dynastic revolt and declared himself king of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (Taiping). Inspired by a militant commitment to throw off oppressors, Taiping soldiers proved brave warriors. Other discontents, including secret-society mem­bers, joined forces with the Taipings as they moved east and north, and large stores of government weapons and cash fell into their hands as they captured cities. By early 1853 they had reached Wuchang on the Yangzi River. They pro­ceeded to Nanjing, where they defeated a major Manchu banner force of about 5,000 combat soldiers and 35,000 dependants. All Manchus who did not die in battle, even the children, were rounded up by the victorious rebels and slaugh­tered by burning, stabbing, or drowning.

In Nanjing the Taipings set up a government and issued utopian calls for a new type of society based on the equalization of land holdings and the equality of men and women. Civil service examinations - open to women as well as men - were to be based on mastery of Hong's teachings and Chinese translations of the Bible.

The Taipings held on in Nanjing for a decade even though they never gained many gentry followers. Nor, despite their overtures, did they get aid from Christian Missionaries, who quickly concluded that the Christian elements in Taiping doctrines were heretical. When the Taipings tried to take Shanghai in 1860 and 1862 the westerners there organized a vigorous counterattack. Leadership prob­lems plagued the Taipings as well; Hong remained the religious leader, but he let other men run much of the government and army, and they sometimes manipu­lated him Dissension eventually led to assassination of several top leaders. Still, whatever the Taipings' weaknesses, the Qing court did not find them easy to sup­press. Only after the Chinese scholar-official Zeng Guofan built an army from his home base in Hunan did the situation begin to turn around. Zeng, personally appalled by the threat the Taipings posed to the Confucian order, recruited schol­ars to serve as officers, and these officers recruited peasants from their communi­ties to serve under them. It took Zeng and the 120,000 troops of his Hunan army 10years to destroy the Taipings. When Nanjing was finally captured, the death toll was enormous - Zeng claimed that the Taipings were so fanatical that they all took their lives, though systematic slaughter is at least as likely an explanation for the lack of survivors.


The Small Knife Society's control of the walled portion of Shanghai lasted until 1855 when Lao Lee-Chuen was killed in battle at Hongqiao, and the Qing, aided by Western forces, drove them out. The take over of Foshan lasted until January, 1855 when, following mistreatment at the hands of some of the rebels, the locals joined forces with the Qing to route them. Following a failed siege attempt of Guangzhou, the group moved to Guangxi and established the Dai Sing Kwok (Da Sheng Guo, Great Achievement Kingdom), before dispersing and fading.
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