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Taiping Rebellion


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Date December 1850 – August 1864
Location Southern China
Result
  • Qing Dynasty victory
  • Fall of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom
  • Weakening of the Qing Dynasty

Taiping Rebellion

The Taiping Rebellion was a widespread civil war in southern China from 1850 to 1864, led by heterodox Christian convert Hong Xiuquan, who, having received visions, maintained that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, against the ruling Manchu-led Qing Dynasty. About 20 million people died, mainly civilians, in one of the deadliest military conflicts in history.
Hong established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom with its capital at Nanjing. The Kingdom's army controlled large parts of southern China, at its height containing about 30 million people. The rebels attempted social reforms believing in shared "property in common" and the replacement of Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion with a form of Christianity. The Taiping troops were nicknamed "Longhairs" (simplified Chinese: 长毛; traditional Chinese: 長毛; pinyin: Chángmáo) by the Qing government. The Taiping areas were besieged by Qing forces throughout most of the rebellion. The Qing government crushed the rebellion with the eventual aid of French and British forces.
In the 20th century, Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Nationalist Party, looked on the rebellion as an inspiration, and Chinese paramount leader Mao Zedong glorified the Taiping rebels as early heroic revolutionaries against a corrupt feudal system.



History of the rebellion

Origins

China, under the Qing Dynasty in the mid-19th century, suffered a series of natural disasters, economic problems and defeats at the hands of the Western powers; in particular, the humiliating defeat in 1842 by the United Kingdom in the First Opium War. The Qing government, ethnically Manchu, were seen by much of the Chinese population, who were mainly Han Chinese, as ineffective and corrupt foreign rulers. Anti-Manchu sentiment was strongest in the south among the laboring classes and it was these disaffected who flocked to join the charismatic visionary Hong Xiuquan, a member of the Hakka ethnic group which had emigrated to the south in the Song dynasty. Having arrived too late to acquire the best land, they were engaged in constant conflicts. Among these serious problems were the prevalence of female infanticide, creating massive imbalances with shortages of women being worst in the primary Taiping centers.

At the age of thirty-seven, after failing on multiple occasions to pass the imperial examinations (about 5 percent of those who attempted the examinations passed them), which would have allowed access to the ranks of the ruling scholarly elite, Hong experienced a lengthy illness. After spending many days in bed, he recovered with a changed personality. He had received a pamphlet from a Protestant Christian missionary in 1836 after his last failed attempt at the imperial examination, and his cousin Li Ching-fang noticed the pamphlet on a bookshelf inside Hong's house. After reading it Li suggested that Hong should read the material. After studying the material, Hong Xiuquan claimed that the illness he had following his imperial examinations was in fact a vision to the effect that he was the younger brother of Jesus, who was sent to rid China of the "devils," including both the corrupt Manchu rulers and Confucius. After this vision, he felt it was his duty to spread Christianity (in the form that he developed) and overthrow the foreign rule of the Qing government. Hong's associate Yang Xiuqing was a former firewood merchant from Guangxi, who claimed to be able to act as a voice of God, in order to direct the people and gain political power.
The sect's power grew in the late 1840s, initially by suppressing groups of bandits and pirates; persecution by Qing authorities spurred the movement into a guerrilla rebellion and then into widespread, bloody civil war.



Early years

The revolt began in Guangxi province. After a previous small-scale battle resulting in a rebel victory in late December 1850, in early January 1851, a ten thousand-strong rebel army organized by Feng Yunshan and Wei Changhui routed government troops stationed in the town of Jintian (present-day Guiping, Guangxi). Taiping forces successfully drove back the imperial reprisal against the Jintian Uprising.


battle of taiping

Middle years

In 1853 Hong Xiuquan withdrew from active control of policies and administration, ruling exclusively by written proclamations that often had religious content. Hong disagreed with Yang Xiuqing in certain matters of policy and became increasingly suspicious of Yang's ambitions, his extensive network and spies, and his declarations when "speaking as God". Yang and his family were put to death by Hong's followers in 1856, followed by the killing of troops loyal to Yang.
With their leader largely out of the picture, Taiping delegates tried to widen their popular support with the Chinese middle classes and forge alliances with European powers, but failed on both counts. The Europeans decided to stay neutral. Inside China the rebellion faced resistance from the traditionalist middle class because of the rebels' hostility to Chinese customs and Confucian values. The land-owning upper class, unsettled by the Taipings' peasant mannerisms and their policy of strict separation of the sexes, even for married couples, sided with government forces and their Western allies.
In 1859 Hong Rengan, a cousin of Hong Xiuquan, joined the Taiping forces in Nanjing and was given considerable power by Hong Xiuquan. He developed an ambitious plan to expand the Kingdom's boundaries. In 1860 the Taiping rebels were successful in taking Hangzhou and Suzhou to the east (see Second rout of the Jiangnan Daying), but failed to take Shanghai (Battle of Shanghai (1861)), which marked the beginning of the decline of the Kingdom.

Fall of the Kingdom

An attempt to take Shanghai in August 1860 was repulsed by a force of Qing imperial troops and European officers under the command of Frederick Townsend Ward. This army would later become the "Ever Victorious Army", led by "Chinese" Gordon, and would be instrumental in the defeat of the Taiping rebels. Imperial forces were reorganized under the command of Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang, and the imperial reconquest began in earnest. By early 1864 imperial control in most areas was well established.
Hong Xiuquan declared that God would defend Nanjing, but in June 1864, with Qing imperial forces approaching, he died of food poisoning as a consequence of eating wild vegetables when the city ran low on food supplies. A few days after his death Qing forces took the city. His body was buried in the former Ming Imperial Palace where it was later exhumed by Zeng Guofan to verify his death, and then cremated. Hong's ashes were later blasted out of a cannon in order to ensure that his remains have no resting place as eternal punishment for the uprising.
Four months before the fall of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, Hong Xiuquan abdicated in favour of Hong Tianguifu, his eldest son who was 15 years old. Hong Tianguifu was unable to do anything to restore the Kingdom, so the Kingdom was quickly destroyed when Nanjing fell in July 1864 to the imperial armies after vicious street-by-street fighting. Most of the princes were executed by Qing forces in Jinling, Nanjing.

Aftermath

Although the fall of Nanjing in 1864 marked the destruction of the Taiping regime, the fight was not yet over. There were still several hundred thousand Taiping rebel troops continuing the fight, with more than a quarter-million Taiping rebels fighting in the border regions of Jiangxi and Fujian alone. It would take more than half a decade to finally put down all remnants of the Taiping Rebellion: it was not until August 1871 that the last Taiping rebel army led by Shi Dakai's commander, General Li Fuzhong (李福忠) was completely wiped out by the governmental forces in the border region of Hunan, Guizhou and Guangxi.

Death toll

Most accurate sources put the total deaths during the 15 years of the rebellion at about 20-30 million civilians and soldiers. Most of the deaths were attributed to plague and famine. At the Third Battle of Nanking in 1864, more than 100,000 were killed in three days.
The rebellion happened at roughly the same time as the American Civil War. Though almost certainly the largest civil war of the 19th century (in terms of numbers under arms), it is debatable whether the Taiping Rebellion involved more soldiers than the Napoleonic Wars earlier in the century, and so it is uncertain whether it should be considered the largest war of the 19th century.

 

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