The Taiping rebellion (1851 – 1864) is one of the most important incidents in Chinese history and is considered the 19th century’s most gigantic man-made disaster. It was a peasant rebellion, led by disappointed candidate who failed the official examinations and uneducated men who took advantage of the economic misery and the deteriorating capability of the Manchurian rulers of the time.
The origins of the Taiping Rebellion can be found in the vision of the disappointed examination candidate, Hung Hsiu-ch’iian, from a peasant village near the great trading port of Canton. He strived to pass the examination exams that would allow him to gain access into the lower elite social circles, but failed. It is claimed that in 1837 he fell into a delirious state for 40 days, where he had visions of meeting a golden-bearded man (who was later believed to be Jehovah). This individual told Hung to go back to earth and cleanse the world of demons and bring China back to the true faith.
There has been some debate amongst scholars as to what the ‘demon’s of Hung’s vision were. According to one scholar “There is no indication whatever that they were symbols for the ruling Manchu regime (with which the Taipings later identified them). Rather they were the myriad gods and devils of China’s folk religions”(Kuhn, p.357).
The Taiping religious view was a reflection of Hebrew monotheism, and “involved a repudiation of the principle developments in Chinese thought since the Western Chou dynasty” (Boardman, p.118). The Buddhist, Taoist and Confucianism faiths were all prohibited. Indeed, the first acts of these Christian followers were to destroy all the ancestral shrines and temples.
Within the next decade, Hung changed dramatically. He believed that he was the second son of Jehovah and the younger brother of Jesus Christ (Kuhn, p.350); he travelled westwards to neighbouring Kwangsi province, where he made converts among the Hakkas.
By 1850, the Hakka Christian followers met at a place called Chin-t’ien. After triumphant battles with government troops, Hung announced in January 1851, the dawn of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (T’ai-p’ing t’ien-kuo) of which he was crowned Heavenly King Kuhn (Kuhn, p.351).
Within the next three years, the Taiping fought northwards to Nanking, where they established their Heavenly Capitol. By this establishment, the Taipings had already fashioned a highly structured imperial theocracy, a complex bureaucracy, a complex system of ranks, an economic program guaranteeing the complete deposing of the traditional administration of landed wealth, and a strict uncompromising Christian belief, complete with a canonical literature.
However, at Nanking, the new administrative regime failed to gain the support of the conservative and educated Chinese through the desiccation of the temples and shrines. Nonetheless, the Taiping army were able to threaten the existence of the Manchu government. By 1864, the Manchu government were able to defeat the Taiping army with the aid of the West.
At its height, the movement probably numbered about two million but it has been estimated to have cost 20 million lives (, p.258). In the course of a civil war that devastated China’s richest provinces, the reigning Manchu dynasty, aided by new armies led by provincial gentry, had by 1864 completely crushed the Taiping kingdom and slaughtered its fanatical adherent (Kuhn, p.351).
The Taiping is considered one of the most important rebellions in Chinese history, but at the same time it does not take the same pride of place as the Opium War in the story of the birth of modern China. Communist historiography confirms the Taipings as peasant revolutionaries, but also limits the comprehensive descriptions of distress on both sides.
The Taipings have left substantial marks; a physical inheritance different from that of other rebellions in two ways: their political organization has left many previous ‘false’ government offices in Jiangnan, and their religious beliefs resulted in the intentional devastation of temples. Unlike memoirs of dynastic collapses, or of rebellions which devastated the political capital, view of loss centre less on political symbols like ruined palaces, and more on the gardens and cities of Jiangnan. Thus in the aftermath the marks left by the rebellion cannot be avoided in most literati discussion of place.
Boardman, Eugene (1951) Christian Influence Upon the Ideology of the Taiping Rebellion, The Far Eastern Quarterly, Association for Asian Studies.
Kuhn, Philip A. (1977) Origins of the Taiping Vision: Cross-Cultural Dimensions of a Chinese Rebellion, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Cambridge University Press.