The Taiping Rebellion
A Crisis Within
Hong Xiuquan Leading the Taiping Rebellion
Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Imperial Seal
Panic Button: Keep Calm ... or Press This!
The damaging defeats inflicted on China by the British during the first half of the nineteenth century were part cause and part consequence of China’s own growing domestic instability. Many of the elements of that instability have been discussed above: the growing population that put new pressures on the land, the difficulty the educated elite found in gaining official employment, the mounting incidences of opium addiction and the outflow of silver that widespread addiction entailed, the waning abilities of the regular banner armies, the demoralization in the bureaucracy caused by Heshen and his faction, the wide-scale suffering that accompanied the spread and eventual suppression of the White Lotus rebellion.
The Dynastyic Cycle
Other abuses, already apparent in the late eighteenth century, [such as neglect of the Yellow River dike works and the Grand Canal, as well as inefficiencies and corruption in the government monopoly on salt,] became more serious in the early nineteenth century. ... By the end of Daoguang’s reign [1821-1850], a series of popular uprisings began that were to last for twenty-three years and were almost to bring about the fall of the Qing dynasty. (SMC, 164-165)
Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Imperial Seal
Hong Xiuquan in his "Heavenly" Court
Hong [Xiuquan] was born in 1814, the fourth of five children in a hard-working rural family of Guangdong. His parents were from the Hakka minority (the so-called “guest peoples” who had migrated southward from central China), and they sacrificed to get Hong a decent education that would win him a place in the local elite. But even though he passed the initial examinations permitting him to quality for the licentiate’s shengyuan degree, in the early 1830s he failed at his first two attempts to obtain the degree, which would have given him the right to wear the scholars’ robes, to be exempt from physical punishment, and to receive a small stipend from the state.
Map of Canoton City (Guangzhou) in Canton Province (Guangdong)
Chinese Copy of "Good Words for Exhorting the Age" (qian shi liang yan)For any ambitious young Chinese, such failure was humiliating, but for Hong it seems to have been unusually so. He took solace in the chance to travel and study in Canton itself. In 1836 Hong was just about to enter the examination hall yet again in pursuit of the elusive degree when a Chinese Protestant evangelist pressed a collection of translated passages from the Bible called “Good Words for Exhorting the Age” [see DC, 114-118] into Hong’s hands. Such a moment was possible, and such tracts were available, because of many new historical circumstances that were to distinguish Hong’s uprising from all those that had come before. Western Protestant missionaries — mainly British and American — had been working since the early 1800s to translate the entire Bible into Chinese, and had printed numerous copies, which they distributed while traveling up the coast and in the interior. They and their Chinese converts also tried to distill the message of the scriptures into simple tracts like the “Good Words,” which reached even more readers.
       Hong Xiuquan neither studied the tracts nor threw them away. Instead he seems to have glanced at them quickly and then kept them at home. He initially made no connection between these tracts and a strange dream and delirium he experienced after a third examination failure in 1837. In those visions, Hong conversed with a bearded, golden-haired man who gave him a sword, and a younger man who instructed him on how to slay evil spirits and whom Hong addressed as “Elder Brother.”

Hong Xiuquan in Heaven with God and Jesus
Demon-Slayer Zhong Kui with Golden TalismanIn his visions he was taken up to Heaven. In the dazzling light he was received by beautiful maidens, but cast no sidelong glances at them. He was washed to cleanse him of the filth of the world. His belly was cut open and his internal organs replaced by new, clean ones. Then he was led before a magnificent divine figure with a long golden beard, who lamented that the people of the world had lost their “original hearts” and were deluded by malicious demons. They no longer worshipped him, and they drank wine, smoked opium, and lived lives of debauchery and worldly vanity. Hong was eager to assist in chastising the demons and soon was allowed to do so, driving from Heaven the Dragon Demon of the Eastern Sea. Hong belonged in Heaven and had his own beautiful palace. It now was clear that the gold-bearded figure was his heavenly father, and he had a heavenly elder brother who assisted him in some of his battles. His heavenly mother and heavenly younger sisters brought him beautiful fruit to eat, and the younger sisters sometimes chanted sacred texts with him or joined him in his attacks on the demons. He was given a demon-slaying sword and a golden seal that forced demons to flee. Once he watched his father and elder brother chastise Confucius as one who had done the most to delude the people of the world. ( Mountain of Fame, 265)
For six years after his visions, Hong worked as a village schoolteacher, and tried once again to pass the examinations. But after he failed the shengyuan examinations for the fourth time, he opened the Christian tracts and read them fully. In a sudden shock of realization, Hong saw that the two men in his vision must have been the God and Jesus of the tracts, and that therefore he, Hong, must also be the Son of God, younger brother to Jesus Christ. (SMC, 168-169)
Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Imperial Seal
Taiping Rebellion: Retaking Anqing
The Rebellion
In December 1850, Qing government forces sent to oust Hong from the Thistle Mountain area [in Eastern Guangxi province] were badly defeated, and their Manchu commander killed. On January 11, 1851, Hong Xiuquan assembled his God worshipers and declared himself the Heavenly King of the Taiping Tianguo, “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace” (commonly abbreviated to Taiping). Forced out of their base by larger government armies, the Taiping campaigned on the Guangxi-Guangdong border until autumn 1851, when they swung north and seized the city of Yongan along with great stores of cash, food, and new recruits, who swelled their numbers to 60,000 or more. ...
Map of the Taiping Rebellion Route and Area Controlled c. 1861
A breakthrough came in December 1852, when almost unopposed the Taiping army entered Yuezhou on the east side of Dongting Lake. Yuezhou was a wealthy, long settled town, unlike the poorer areas through which the Taiping had hitherto ranged, and here they seized vast amounts of booty, 5,000 boats, and stockpiles of arms and gunpowder. ... Thereafter an incredible string of successes followed: Hankou fell in December and Wuchang in January 1853, bringing Hong a further large fleet of boats and 1.6 million taels from the provincial treasury. Anqing fell almost without opposition in February 1853, bringing 300,000 taels more, 100 large cannon, and huge stores of food. In March the great center of Nanjing, defended by only a small force, its walls undermined by explosive charges, its center bombarded by artillery, its streets infiltrated by Taiping soldiers disguised as Buddhist or Daoist priests, fell to the rebels.
Model of the Hong Xiuquan's Heavenly Palace
Nanjing’s Manchu population of some 40,000, of whom about 5,000 were combat troops, retreated into the city’s inner citadel, but were overwhelmed by the charges of wave after wave of Taiping troops. All Manchus who did not die in the battle — men, women, and children — were rounded up and systematically killed by burning, stabbing, or drowning. It was Hong’s way of showing that the devils would be driven from the face of China. At the end of March, wearing a crown and an embroidered dragon robe, Hong was carried into the city in a golden palanquin on the backs of sixteen men, and took up residence in a former Ming dynasty imperial palace. (SMC, 170-171)
Nationalism Icon on top of Qing dynasty flag
Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Imperial Seal
Hong Xiuquan as the "Son of Heaven"
The Heavenly Kingdom
Female General in the Taiping ArmyThe Taiping ruled their Nanjing-based Heavenly Kingdom for eleven years (1853-1864) under the formal authority of Hong Xiuquan as Heavenly King. The policies of the Taiping remained, on paper and often in practice, startlingly radical. One facet of their rule was an asceticism that required segregation of the sexes and absolute bans on opium smoking, prostitution, dancing, and drinking of alcohol. Money was held in a common treasury, theoretically to be shared by all; and since the Taiping had acquired more than 18 million taels along their route of march and within Nanjing itself, their prosperity seemed assured. Examinations were reinstituted, based now on Chinese translations of the Bible and on the transcribed versions of Hong Xiuquan’s religious revelations and literary works. Women, organized into special residential and administrative units, were allowed to hold supervisory offices in the bureaucracy and to sit for their own special examinations.
       Most remarkable was the Taiping land law, which, linked to a local system of military recruitment, constituted perhaps the most utopian, comprehensive, and authoritarian scheme for human organization ever seen in China up to that time. All land was to be divided among all families of the Taiping and their supporters according to family size, with men and women receiving equal shares. After keeping the produce they needed for their own sustenance, each family would place the rest in great common granaries. (SMC, 171-172)
Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Imperial Seal
The Second Commandment
Thou shalt not worship corrupt spirits (gods).
The great God says, Thou shalt have no other spirits (gods) besides me. Therefore all besides the great God are corrupt spirits (gods), deceiving and destroying mankind; they must on no account be worshipped: whoever worships the whole class of corrupt spirits (gods) offends against the commands of Heaven. (DC, 123)
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The Sixth Commandment
Thou shalt not kill or injure men.

He who kills another kills himself, and he who injures another injures himself. Whoever does either of these breaks the above command. (DC, 124)
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The Seventh Commandment
Thou shalt not commit adultery or any thing unclean.

All the men in the world are brethren, and all the women in the world are sisters. Among the sons and daughters of the celestial hall the males are on one side and the females on the other, and are not allowed to intermix. Should either men or women practice lewdness they are considered outcasts, as having offended against one of the chief commands of Heaven. The casting of amorous glances, the forbearing of boastful imaginations, the smoking of foreign tobacco (opium), or the singing of blasphemous songs must all be considered as breaches of this command. (DC, 124).
Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Imperial Seal
The Ever-Victorious Army
The Defeat
Zeng Guofan (1811-1872), born in Hunan, rose from a humble background to become one of the most influential officials of the mid-nineteenth century. He gained renown as the commander of the Hunan Army, which defeated the Taipings in 1864. In his later career, he promoted a series of forward-looking reforms on behalf of the Qing court. ... In both government service and private life, Confucian teachings and morality were central to Zeng Guofan’s view of the world. (DC, 128-9)
A Proclamation Against the Bandits of Guangdong and Guangxi
Zeng Guofan, 1854
Zeng GuofanIt has been five years since the rebels Hong Xiuquan and Yang Xiuqing started their rebellion. They have inflicted bitter sorrow upon millions of people and devastated more than 5000 li  of chou [regions] and xian [counties]. Wherever they pass, boats of all sizes, and people rich and poor alike, have all been plundering and stripped bare; not one inch of grass has been left standing. The clothing has been stripped from the bodies of those captured by these bandits, and their money has been seized. Anyone with five taels or more of silver who does not contribute it to the bandits is forthwith decapitated. Men are given one he [1/10th pint] of rice per day, and forced to march in the forefront in battle, to construct city walls, and dredge moats. Women are also given one he of rice per day, and forced to stand guard on the parapets at night, and to haul rice and carry coal. The feet of women who refuse to unbind them are cut off and shown to other women as a warning. The corpses of boatmen who secretly conspired to flee were hung upside down to show other boatmen as a warning. The Yue [i.e. Guangdong and Guangxi] bandits indulge themselves in luxury and high position, while the people in our own Yangtze provinces living under their coercion are treated worse than animals. This cruelty and brutality appalls anyone with blood in his veins.
       Ever since the times of Yao, Shun, and the Three Dynasties, sages, generation after generation, have upheld the Confucian teachings, stressing proper human relationships, between ruler and minister, father and son, superiors and subordinates, the high and the low, all in their proper place, just as hats and shoes are not interchangeable. ... Peasants are not allowed to till the land for themselves and pay taxes for they say that the fields all belong to the Tian Wang [Heavenly King]. Merchants are not allowed to trade for profit, for they say that all the goods belong to the Tian Wang. Scholars may not read the Confucian classics, for they have their so-called teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. In a single day several thousand years of Chinese ethical principles and proper human relationships, classical books, social institutions, and statutes have all been completely swept away. ...
Since ancient times, those with meritorious accomplishments during their lifetimes have become spirits after death; the Kingly Way governs the living and the Way of the Spirits governs among the dead. Even rebellious ministers and wicked sons of the most vicious and vile sort show respect and awe towards the spirits. When Li Zicheng reached Qufu [Confucius’ birthplace in Shandong province], he did not molest the Temple of the Sage. ...
Confucius Temple in Qufu (Confucius' Birthplace)
But the Yue bandits burned the school at Shen-chou, destroyed the wooden tablet of Confucius, and wildly scattered the tablets of the Ten Paragons in the two corridors all over the ground. Afterwards, wherever they have passed, in every district, the first thing they have done is to burn down the temples, defiling the shrines and maiming the statues even of loyal ministers and righteous heroes such as the awesome Kuan Yu and Yue Fei. Even Buddhist and Taoist temples, shrines of guardian deities and altars to local gods have all been burned, and every statue destroyed. The ghosts and spirits in the world of darkness are enraged at this, and want to avenge their resentment. (DC, 129-130)
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Under the Qing legal code, no crime (with the possible exception of patricide) was more serious than insurrection. Joining a rebellion was the ultimate political risk one could take under the imperial system, and rebels could expect no mercy from government forces sent to crush them. (DC, 119)
Execution of Taiping Rebels at Canton
French Account, 1851
In the course of the year 1851, more than 700 unfortunate persons were executed at Canton. The severity of the mandarins seems to increase in the same proportion as the extension of the insurrection; and every day some arrest took place, and some unhappy wretch, shut up in a bamboo cage, or shackled like a wild beast, was brought from the province of Guangxi or the revolted districts of the Guangdong. Generally they had not to wait for their sentence; since, in case of insurrection, the superior authority of the province has a right to inflict capital punishment, and makes abundant use of this sanguinary privilege. An execution is a horrible thing in any country, but in China its horror is doubled by its attendant circumstances. ...
Prisoners Awaiting Execution
“Then arrived the criminals. They were fifty-three in number, each shut up in a basket, with his hands tied behind his back, his legs chained, and a board inscribed with his sentence hanging from his neck. ... I examined these unfortunate wretches with attention: they were worn out with hunger, and looked more like skeletons than living beings. It was evident that they had suffered the most dreadful privations. ... Many of these unfortunate persons were very young: some were not sixteen years of age; while others had gray hair. ... A mandarin who closed the cortege, then entered the enclosure. He was adorned with the white ball, and held in his hand a board, inscribed with the order for execution. ... The execution of these fifty-three wretches only lasted some minutes. ...” (DC, 119-121)
Taiping Rebellion with the word "failure" stamped on top
Yet for all their military and ideological passion, and their utopian dreams of perfect governance, the Taiping failed to overthrow the Qing and were ultimately eliminated, with terrible slaughter. Why did the Taiping not succeed, after achieving so many triumphs with such speed in the name of such a utopian ideology? (SMC, 172)


Popular Support in Nanjing and the Countryside?

Coordination with other rebel groups?

Western sympathy?

Prime Minister Palmerston addressing Sinophile Richard Cobden: "What can you say for your friends now, Richard?"
Foreigners, especially missionaries, had been initially excited by the prospect of a Christian revolutionary force that promised social reforms and the defeat of the moribund and intransigent Manchus. But the eccentricities of Hong Xiuquan’s Christianity eventually became apparent to the missionaries, and traders came to fear the Taiping’s zealous hatred of opium. Finally, the Western powers decided to back the Qing in order to prevent a Taiping seizure of Shanghai, which might threaten the West’s newly won treaty gains. (SMC, 173)
Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Imperial Seal
Battle in the Second Opium War
One of the many factors that helped the Qing overthrow the Taiping was the assistance of foreigners in the early 1860s. ... The reasons for that support had mainly to do with international affairs, in which, once again, the primary actors were the British. Disappointed at the results of the Nanjing treaty and frustrated by continued Qing intransigence, the British reacted with scant sympathy when the Qing were threatened by the spread of the Taiping rebellion. Instead the British made the highly legalistic decision to invoke the most-favored-nation clause in the Nanjing supplementary treaty of 1843 in response to the American treaty of 1844, which had stipulated that the treaty be renegotiated in twelve years. By applying that renewal stipulation to their own agreements with the Chinese, British authorities forced them to renegotiate in 1854. ...
Map of Tianjin
The British finally took advantage of an allegedly illegal Qing search of a ship formerly of Hong Kong registry, the Arrow, to recommence military actions at Canton in late 1856. ... Battle for the Dagu FortsSailing north in a near repeat of the 1840 campaign, they took the strategic Dagu forts in May 1858 and threatened to seize Tianjin. In June, with the way to Peking now open to the British forces, the Qing capitulated and agreed to sign a new treaty.
“Treaty of Tianjin” of 1858 imposed extraordinarily strict terms on China. A British ambassador was henceforth to reside in Peking, accompanied by family and staff, and housed in a fitting residence. The open preaching of Christianity was protected. Travel anywhere inside China was permitted to those with valid passports, and within thirty miles of treaty ports without passports. Once the rebellions currently raging in China were suppressed, trade was to be allowed up the Yangzi as far as Hankou, and four new Yangzi treaty ports (Hankou, Jiujiang, Nanjing, and Zhenjiang) would be opened. An additional six treaty ports were to be opened immediately: one in Manchuria, one in Shandong, two on Taiwan, one in Guangdong, and one on Hainan Island in the far south. ... A supplementary clause accompanying the various commercial agreements stated explicitly: “Opium will henceforth pay thirty taels per picul [approximately 130 pounds] Import Duty. The importer will sell it at the port. It will be carried into the interior by Chinese only, and only as Chinese property; the foreign trader will not be allowed to accompany it.” This condition was imposed despite the prohibition in the Chinese penal code on the sale and consumption of opium. Virtually the only British concession was to pull back from Tianjin and return the Dagu forts to Qing control.
Reconstruction of Yuanmingyuan  (the Old Summer Palace in Beijing)
The British evidently expected China’s rulers to abandon the struggle at this point, but the Qing would not, and showed no intention of following the treaty clause that permitted foreign ambassadors to live in Peking. ... Determined now to teach the Qing a lesson they could not ignore, Lord Elgin, Britain’s chief treaty negotiator, ordered his troops to march on Peking. On October 18, 1860, following Elgin’s orders, the British burnt to the ground the Yuan Ming Yuan the exquisite summer palace in the Peking suburbs built for Qianlong’s pleasure using the plans of Jesuit architects. The British, however, spared the Forbidden City palaces within Peking, calculating that destruction of those hallowed buildings would be a disgrace so profound that the Qing dynasty would inevitably fall. (SMC, 175-157)
Ruins of the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan)