The Taiping Rebellion: a pre-Communist, radical Christian plot.
Chinese history, like so many others, is soaked in blood. In the 20th Century it faced its greatest upheaval: Communism. That Marxist theory of class warfare where the enlightened poor rise up and abolish capitalism.
But, would you know this wasn’t the first time China had gone to war over Communism, or rather Communist principles? Nearly a century earlier a civil war took place, led by a man with no connection to Marx or his writings, yet enlightened by very similar principles.
This was the Taiping Rebellion, lasting from 1851 to 1864. It embroiled China in a deadly civil war that cost the lives of 20 to 40 million people, making the American Civil War look small by comparison.
At the time the Qing dynasty was the ruling family of China, its emperors being Manchurian (from the northeast). They had conquered China in the 17th Century, but their power was waning now. The Europeans had made their corporate, colonial mark on the eastern world, and after suffering defeat to Great Britain in the First Opium War (1842), the dynasty had taken a heavy blow.
Two similarities between China and Russia put the situation in context. Like Russia, on the verge of its revolution, the Imperial Chinese Court was a massive bureaucracy, extending to every corner of the country. Contrasted with this wealthy power elite were the peasants who, like the Russians, lived in extreme poverty. With a population surge that far exceeded the growth and availability of farmlands, resources were spread thin.
China’s population saw corruption and impotence at the highest levels. And in the 1840s, both the Yellow and Yangtze rivers overflowed, resulting in widespread flooding and starvation.
This made China the perfect breeding ground for a Communist-style rebellion. That rebellion was born in the mind of a man named Hong Xiuquan. Originally born Hong Huoxiu in the Guangdong Province in 1814, he was from a family of ethnic “Hakkas”, “people who had emigrated to China centuries before, but who spoke a different dialect” (Cummins 182). These Hakkas were effectively “outsiders”, looked down on by the rest of the population.
Hong proved to be an intelligent student, passing his test to become an imperial clerk. With hopes high he went to Guangzhou in 1836 to take the Confucian state exam. Unfortunately those hopes were short-lived: Hong failed his exam-two years in a row.
The shame left him deeply humiliated. It was during this period of personal distress that he began to experience “holy visions”. Hong dreamed that he was the son of God and that it was his divine calling to rid China of its “demons” oppressing the people. As a result, he changed his name to Hong Xiuquan, which means “Son of Heaven” (Cummins 182).
Some sources say that Hong was likely disillusioned with Confucianism due to his perceived rejection by it. Since the 16th Century, Christianity had made its way into China by way of European colonialism. Bible translations made its text more accessible to the Chinese, whose traditional religions included Buddhism, Taoism, and the more humanistic Confucianism.
In Hong’s bizarre vision, Confucius escapes heaven with the leader of demons (aka. Satan), prompting God to send down a league of angels after him. After being tied up Confucius is brought back to heaven and whipped repeatedly for his sins (Gracie, BBC News).
While “enlightened” by his vision, Hong proceeded to live a quiet life for the next 7 years, marrying, and twice more failing his state exam. He made in his living in the village as a schoolteacher. He began to embroil himself in Christian teachings and, after reading a treatise from a Christian missionary, re-imagined his vision. His dream had a new meaning now: Hong was the second son of God, Jesus Christ’s brother. In the face of contrary Christian doctrine he amended his vision, rather than relinquishing it.
Hong’s mission began to take on a political tone. He saw the oppression around him: starvation, poverty. He realized that the “demon” he had been called to destroy was the corrupt Qing dynasty. His philosophy held that nothing on earth is for private use: that ALL things should go to God for common use so that EVERYONE is provided for.
Sound familiar? Take Marxist theory and add a touch of radical Christianity. Marx (an atheist) saw religion as an opiate for the masses (I can be lazy and not cite that, since the quote/paraphrase is pretty much common knowledge now): a way for poor people to drug themselves into complacency. Rather than facing the ills of this world, he argued, religion only focuses on the next, diverting and ultimately diminishing human resolve. Communism, on the other hand, is an earthly means to address an earthly problem: dissolving the class system.
But Hong took the central values of Christianity and gave them a very similar approach: God’s earth is for all people, as the message of Christ preached. Therefore it should not be hoarded by bureaucrats and wealthy elites. But he combined the Marxist message of taking back by force.
Like in Communist philosophy, Hong endeavored to create a classless “heaven on earth”. He envisioned for China a “new way of life, a ‘Human Fellowship’ in which men and women would be equal, and wealth would be shared” (Cummins 176).
Hong took his vision to an extreme: he began burning all the Confucian and Buddha books/statues in his house. He recruited others to destroy holy statues, attracting the notice of local authorities. In 1844 he was expelled from his village by Confucian officials.
With a small band of followers Hong began to travel abroad, preaching his plan for a Taiping Tianguo, or “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace” (Cummins 176). Poor peasants found solace in his teachings. Shared land meant they would no longer be deprived, as they were under the Qing dynasty. As the message spread, thousands began to flock to his banners.
After settling in the Guangxi Province, Hong amassed an army of Hakka peasants, which numbered up to 40,000 by 1850 (Cummins 176). Naturally this alarmed the powers that be.
In January 1851, the Qing rulers sent out an army to attack the Taiping forces. They were driven back by Hong’ trained peasant army. After their first victory the Taiping started northeast from the Guangxi mountains, sweeping through the Yangtze River Valley, and conquering Qing forces at Yong’an and Quanzhou.
In 1853, they captured the city of Nanjing with an army of 500,000 (Cummins 177). Hong renamed it his “Heavenly Capital”. His forces grew to over a million men and women.
In addition to establishing a bureaucracy, Hong initiated a series of new reforms including the outlaw of opium use, expanded rights for women, trade suppression, communal land distribution, and a few less progressive measures, such as gender segregation.
Unfortunately, it all goes downhill from there. While Hong was able to hold Nanjing for 11 years, staving off Qing forces, his sanity diminished. While the war raged on he lingered away in his palace, spending most of his time writing poetry, issuing edicts, and giving orders for his 2,000 female servants. Hong kept a pretty sizable harem, too: eighty-eight concubines (Cummins 179).
In addition, he became increasingly paranoid. He became suspicious of followers, questioning their loyalties, which led to purges of followers, along with their families. In modern terms, Siberia came to China: long before Mao.
It was only a matter of time before Hong’s ambitions would catch up with him, spelling death for the movement. During the war both disease and starvation had continued to ravage the country.
It was only foreign support that gave Qing armies the upper hand. The Europeans saw the Taiping as a threat to their “free trade” and commercial interests. So they decided to throw in with the opposition.
The Qings had a decisive ally in the form of the “Ever-Victorious Army” created and trained by Frederick Townsend Ward. Ward, an American born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1831, was a military adventurer who’s big dream was to overthrow foreign governments or else make his living as a mercenary.
Like Hong, he had high ambitions. Ward managed to see firsthand action in the Crimean War, after which he found his way to China, in 1860, and worked as a trader for a family business. He got his big break when the Chinese “Pirate Suppression Bureau” gave him command of an armed steamboat, aptly named “Confucius” (Cummins 184).
Armed with his steamboat, Ward protected fleets traveling on the Yangtze River from Taiping pirates. Later, the Shanghai authorities gave him command of a small band of foreign mercenaries. Unlike the musket-wielding Taiping they were armed with modern Colt pistols and rifles.
The “Shanghai Foreign Army Corps”, under Ward, defeated a Taiping-guarded town in 1860. Soon after, they began to recruit Chinese soldiers and train them in western war tactics. These tactics, along with superior firepower, led Ward’s “Ever-Victorious Army” of 5,000 to victory against the Taiping in 1862 (Cummins 183). In the September battle of Cixi he was mortally wounded. After Ward’s death, the mantle of his Victorious Army was taken up by British commander Charles Gordon.
The Taiping rebel army, under command of General Li Xiucheng, began to wane under pressure. After failing to take Shanghai in 1862 they were routed by Qing forces, with the help of Gordon.
By now the Imperial noose was tightening. 80,000 Qing troops were supported by foreign mercenaries. Using French and British steamships, they began capturing Taiping towns, one by one. The Qings were merciless when they encountered them: initially promising to spare the population if they surrendered, and then slaughtering everyone. The destruction was wholesale, and not limited to women and children who were bludgeoned, shot, and even beheaded.
The Qing commander was a man named Zeng Guoquan, well-known for his ruthless war tactics. He concentrated on Nanjing as the strategic point and, in 1863, began to form a perimeter around Hong’s “Heavenly Kingdom”. This consisted of building a moat 10 miles long around the southern region, which included the Yangtze River. This strategic point meant that the city had to seek relief from any direction that was occupied by troops.
In mid-December, Zeng began his first assault on Nanjing. His armies tunneled under the walls, filled them with gunpowder, and then exploded them, blowing away sections of the city’s enormous walls. The Taiping initially held their ground and repelled them.
After the first attack General Li approached his heavenly master with ill tidings: the supply routes were cut, and the city gates were blocked. Therefore, the heavenly capital was indefensible, and their best option was to flee for safety.
The heavenly ruler merely restated his holy mission: that he was here to lead God’s kingdom on earth. Why should he, the brother of Christ, “fear the demon Zeng?” (Cummins 179). Hong was no doubt a zealot: one’s whose sanity had deteriorated.
He remained in his pleasure palace while his armies waned under pressure. General Li, meanwhile, tried to stockpile supplies, but by February 1864, Zeng had captured all grain supplies beyond the wall. It didn’t help that all the city’s grain was being monopolized by Hong’s administration, aka his relatives, through outrageous bribes. This led to starvation among the people.
Meanwhile the Qings continued to surround the city with trenches, breastworks, and forts, each one manned by a garrison. As starvation within the city grew, the Qings offered food and provision to any deserters. Underground wars began to break out in the tunnels under the city as Qings went hand-to-hand with the Taiping. The holy warriors tried to flood their tunnels with water and waste, while the Qing laid traps, luring them in and then killing them with poisonous smoke.
As Qing forces hemmed in closer, Li once more went to Hong, asking his master how he should calm the people. His baffling answer: let them eat manna to stay alive. He attempted to improvise this by going to the courtyard, picking weeds, and making them into a ball. Hong handed this to his general saying “Everyone should eat accordingly” (Cummins 181). Whatever the hell that means.
Hong proceeded to eat the weeds he had picked from the courtyard and lived on a diet of this for the next month. His health waned, along with his body. Hong once more became delusional: he reported seeing ghosts and being possessed by a biblical prophet. As his mind became ravaged, he appointed his 13-year-old son as chief administrator.
On June 1, 1864, Hong Xiuquan died, presumably of illness. Some speculations include starvation, poison from the weeds, and even suicide. Hong was buried, aptly, within his heavenly palace, minus a coffin. Almost a month later the city fell.
On July 19, the Qing forces blasted their way through the wall and came charging in. Debauchery ensued as they went raping and murdering through the city. Hong’s family was caught and executed as they tried to flee. Only his son, the Young Monarch, managed to escape in the guise of a Qing soldier. But he too was captured and killed, weeks later.
No other Taiping surrendered, and the Qing killed an estimate of 80,000 to 100,000. General Li, defeated, retired to a Nanjing palace where he was captured the next morning by a Qing patrol. Before them he confessed to his role in the unholy rebellion and later beheaded.
Besides World War II, the Taiping Rebellion was the most costly war in history, mounting casualties anywhere between 20 and 40 million. English missionaries described the chaos to the western world: ruined houses, starving children, and rotted corpses piled in streets. Men were conscripted by force, women sold into concubinage. Surviving refugees managed to flee to Shanghai and resorted to eating the local dogs for food.
No doubt Hong Xiuquan was a madman ravaged by a grandiose vision. He paved the road to hell with his intention of equal rights and land-for-all distribution. The same dream was planted in Marx, albeit atheistically, and later germinated in the minds of some of history’s worst mass murderers. Hong was not Communist in name, but he might as well be considered almost-Communist in belief, though the philosophy had nearly a century yet to come to China. He embroiled his wild delusion with Christian teachings, ultimately misusing them, like thousands upon thousands of others in history.
But, through his militant class movement, he gave China a visceral sense of things to come.
Cummins, Joseph. (2013). History’s Greatest Wars: The Epic Conflicts that Shaped the Modern World. Edition published in New York, New York: Crestline, Book Sales inc.
Gracie, Carrie. “Hong Xiuquan: The rebel who thought he was Jesus’s brother”. BBC News, Shanghai. 18 Oct, 2012. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19977188
Hong Xiuquan, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Xiuquan