T: Taiping Rebellion
Religious wars have been rare in Chinese history. In the isolated cases where rebel leaders tried to rally support under a religious banner, they generally failed.
The Taiping Rebellion was different. Led by Hong Xiuquan – who designated himself as the younger brother of Christ – the revolt goes down in history as China’s deadliest civil war.
Who was Hong?
Many of the insurgent leaders who wreaked havoc during the late Qing Dynasty came from Guangdong, a province with a long history of interaction with foreign merchants.
Hong was born in Guangdong to a poor rural family in 1814. The Qing empire was already on the wane, but he hoped he could climb the social ladder by studying Confucian doctrine and acing the imperial exams.
He fluffed the test the first time he took it when he was 16. He failed again three years later, and had one final try in 1843, when he was almost 30. Two decades of study with nothing to show for it was a heavy blow, and Hong became extremely ill. He found comfort in Christianity (foreign missionaries were active in southern China after the Opium Wars). After spending more than 40 days in bed, Hong recovered and he began to tell others that he had ascended to heaven and met both God and Jesus. Next he started to preach his personal form of Christian faith in Guangxi, starting a cult that grew quickly to more than 3,000 members.
Why did Hong attract so many followers?
Hong was said to possess some form of supernatural power, including an ability to heal the illnesses of those who had faith in him. This claim was an extraordinary draw for poorer people in rural Guangxi, many of whom scratched out an existence transporting goods from Guangdong to northern China.
Many had lost their jobs as the local economy declined – a function of Guangzhou losing its status as the only port allowed to trade with foreign merchants (the Opium Wars opened up rival ‘treaty port’ locations). Many of these labourers, together with impoverished peasants from the famine-stricken region, were attracted by Hong’s teachings.
Initially Hong seemed satisfied enough with leading his little earthly kingdom. Yet as his following grew, his followers began to arm themselves and clash with local government forces.
In 1851, following unexpected victories over Qing armies, Hong’s followers took control of the city of Jiantian (present day Guiping in Guangxi). He proclaimed his kingdom to be the Taiping Tianguo (taiping translates loosely as ‘peace’ and tianguo means ‘heavenly kingdom’).
Hong’s devotees expanded quickly in number. But they were hardly peaceful. With nearly a million in their ranks, his zealous soldiers swept north through the affluent areas around the Yangtze River. And they marched onwards until they had seized control of Nanjing, one of China’s wealthiest cities, in 1853.
Why did the Heavenly Kingdom fall?
Throughout history the bulk of military campaigns that set out to unify China from the south failed. That was because of the logistical difficulties of maintaining supplies and morale as an army headed northwards (where it was colder and where there were fewer resources).
The Taiping rebels would fail as well, but not before they had terrified the Qing government. Ultimately the Taiping Rebellion lasted for some 14 years, ravaged 17 provinces and claimed between 20 to 30 million lives. It also weakened the Qing court to the point at which it could no longer maintain effective control over the entire country.
Hong’s undoing? One key factor: his kingdom soon became corrupted by ‘ungodlike’ behaviour. The ‘Heavenly King’ turned into another tyrant, with accounts suggesting he stocked up his palace with about 1,000 concubines, for instance. The Taiping rebels lost their fearless fighting edge as well and the Qing army finally overran Nanjing in 1864. Hong died a few days before the city fell – some say he committed suicide.
Why does the rebellion still resonate?
Hong’s rapid rise came at a time when Confucian values were collapsing. His twisted form of Christianity seemed to fill the spiritual void that opened up in the clash with Western culture.
Spiritual matters have always been a matter of some sensitivity for the Chinese Communist Party, and its attitude to Christianity remains suspicious.
However, the broader lesson of the Taiping Rebellion is the danger of disunity. In periods of centralised stability there have been notable advances in technology, culture and economic well-being. By contrast when the country splits up in civil war it becomes poorer and weaker. Colossal numbers of lives can also be lost, with the Taiping Rebellion a brutal example. The rebellion is remembered for the chaos it created. One message: would you rather have a strong central government or another period of anarchy and social instability?
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