In 1853 a delusional and confused village teacher turned rebel leader led his army of peasant dissenters on the city of Nianjing and shortly captured it making the city their capital. Hong Xiuquan’s Taiping Revolution wasn’t the first spot of rebellion for the Qing Dynasty but it was certainly the most successful and well documented. Hong and his army of pseudo-Christian peasants had nearly fourteen years of cultural and military success against the Manchu rulers before the rebellion was finally put down by foreign assisted imperial forces. Poor management and a failed cultural program against Confucianism, the basis of Chinese law and culture, were influences for the demise of the rebellion. The single largest reason for the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion however, is the very man that started it.
Hong Xiuquan was born the younger son of a poor northern Cantonese farming family in 1814. He and his family belonged to the quasi-ethnic group known as Hakka, literally “guest people.” The Hakka had separate cultural and linguistic customs from their new neighbors and this likely only reinforced Hong’s later feelings of separation from his peers. Hong was a prospect for the civil service exams and his family, and probably most of his village, invested much time into his studies. Hong failed the exam four times and in time accepted the role of those that failed the exams. Hong returned home and taught at the village school.
At some point Hong fell deathly ill for several days. During his respite, Hong received visions of the heavenly father, mother and siblings. His heavenly family beseeched him to drive the demons from China and remove them from the earth by destructive force. Hong recovered form his illness and returned to his teaching duties, until a relative (another examinee failure) arrived and eagerly shared some poorly translated Christian tracts with him. Hong seized upon the tracts and used them to validate his visions. His heavenly father was obviously God, his heavenly brother Jesus, and the Demons must be their oppressive Manchu rulers.
Hong and his relative converted to Christianity and traveled to Canton to become baptized. The American Missionary they approached eventually denied them their baptism, no doubt due to Hong’s heretical claim to be the younger brother of Christ. Undaunted, the two traveled and began preaching. Often they found easy converts in the poor and nature ravaged mountain regions.
During the mid 1850’s China suffered from several natural disasters flooding and famine were common. These problems were only exasperated by the lack of Imperial concern for these issues. They were more concerned with the military defeats they faced at the hands of the western nations and the economic tension that those defeats brought with them. These factors, combined with a consequent anti-Manchu sentiment provided the perfect breeding ground for Hong to spread his dissent.
Although initially only a religious group with a mission of conversion, Hongs followers armed themselves against bandits, eventually forming a military organization and began to recruit from the secret societies. By 1850 Hong socialized his growing collection of 20,000 followers, calling upon them to sell their property and pool their resources into a common treasury. The next year he officially proclaimed himself the King of Taiping Tiangou, The Heavenly Kingdom of Peace.
Hong was particularly fond of the monotheistic and puritanical elements of the Old Testament. On his orders his army would destroy temples and idols in their wake. He preached abstinence of alcohol and opium and banned prostitution. His conservative preaching also contained fierce anti-Manchu lessons. The Manchu were the Demons to be forced from China. These themes proved popular with the peasants, who were tired of paying mandatory taxes during droughts and felt the restrictive cultural attitudes of the Manchu were too harsh. As his armies won victories and his movement gained support Hong distanced himself from the movement. Although he maintained his role as religious leader, Hong was not a tactician or especially gifted administrator, more and more frequently he gave beurocratic and military duties to others.
The Taiping rebellion was virtually unique in that it was a true rebellion of the working class. Unlike the colonial revolution in America and the peasant revolt in France, the Taiping had no outside funding or political support from wealthy land owners or foreigners with an interest in chaos. Hong was not only the spiritual leader of the Taiping, but the only motivating power. His groups of revolting peasants weren’t so much interested in the Taiping cause as they were in lashing out against an unduly harsh and unresponsive dynasty. The peasants that fought for Hong were held by the sheer charisma of the man and his ability to confuse the economic issues faced by the workers into a powerful religious fundamentalism against the Manchu’s and Confucianism.
Ultimately, despite many military and cultural victories, the Taiping realized its demise by the hand of Hong himself. In June of 1864 Hong succumbed to illness and died. In July of the same year, a force of 120,000 troops mustered from the Hunan province by Zen Goufan invaded Nianjing and without the powerful presence of Hong, the Taiping resistance crumpled. Many of his followers turned and fled at the approach of the army. Despite the lofty goals and morals of the Taiping, it was really nothing more than the personal agenda of one man, and when he passed so did his rebellion.
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Later Struggles of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom
Poon, Leon Emergence of Modern China II.
Spence, Jonathan D. Gods Chinese Son, the Paiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. Norton, 1996