Did you know that the bloodiest conflict of the 19th century did not take place in Europe or the Americas, but rather in China, and claimed the lives of over 20 million people?
Lasting for 14 long years, from 1850 to 1864, the war pitted the ruling Qing dynasty against the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. The rebellion sparked a massive wave of political, economic, social, and religious upheaval, leaving widespread devastation in its wake. The consequences of the conflict were far-reaching and severely weakened the Qing dynasty, which had ruled over China for centuries. Today, the Taiping Rebellion is considered one of the most significant historical events of 19th-century China, forever etched into the country’s rich and complex history.
Wu Youru. A scene of the Taiping Rebellion, 1886.
In 1850, a rebellion erupted in Guangxi, a southern province of China. This uprising was initiated by a subgroup of Han Chinese people known as the Hakkas, who were led by Hong Xiuquan, and were determined to challenge the authority of the ruling ethnic Manchu class.
Alleged drawing of Hong Xiuquan, dating from around early 1850s.
Born in 1814 in Guanlubu, Guangdong, Hong Xiuquan had failed multiple civil service exams before returning home in 1837. However, it was during this period that he experienced a remarkable fever dream that would shape the rest of his life.
In his dream, Hong journeyed to a heavenly land to the east, where he battled demons and the King of Hell with a special sword, aided by his brother. He then married and had a child in heaven before returning to Earth as the “Heavenly King, Lord of the Kingly Way.” Unfortunately, his family viewed this experience as an episode of feverish delirium, and the villagers believed he had gone insane.
Despite his profound spiritual experience, Hong Xiuquan eventually put the incident behind him and returned to his original goal of passing the civil service exams. In 1843, he was given a Christian tract called “Good Words for Exhorting the Age,” which portrayed an apocalyptic China and introduced him to the teachings of Jesus. This reading had a profound effect on him and changed his view of Chinese society and Confucian values.
Hong came to believe that the father in his fever dream was the God of Christianity, the older brother was Jesus, and the King of Hell was the serpent in the Garden of Eden. He became convinced that he was the son of God and began to preach to his followers, who came to be known as the God Worshippers’ Society, declaring an uprising against the Qing Dynasty and Confucian teachings.
The majority of Hong’s followers were the Hakka people, who escaped from the Mongols during the 13th century and formed their own distinct community, separated from mainstream Chinese society. This group was composed mainly of impoverished laborers who were seeking a safe haven from their oppressors.
Hong’s teachings emphasized communal property ownership through an early version of communism, blended with religious beliefs and rules derived from the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament Bible. His commitment to granting free land was a powerful draw and resulted in the influx of thousands of new followers.
Wu Youru. A scene of the Taiping Rebellion, 1884.
By 1851, the rebels had organized themselves into a ten thousand-strong army that defeated the Qing imperial army in Guangxi province and declared the formation of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom—a new dynasty headed by Hong Xiuquan.
Marching north, the Taiping army continued to attract followers among the peasant classes, and by the time it had reached the ancient city of Nanjing in eastern China in 1853, it was over a million strong. After his forces had taken control of Nanjing and brutally killed its residents, Hong Xiuquan renamed the city Tianjing and declared it the Heavenly Capital of his kingdom.
Territories of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Light brown: Held at various time during the rebellion. Medium brown: Early period. Dark brown: Late period.
The Taipings continued on their march, and as their well-organized troops swept across the country, they engaged in bloody battles with imperial forces who were unable to stop the fanatical soldiers from taking control of much of south and central China.
It took a reorganization of the Qing forces and help from American and European army officers before the uprising was finally quelled. After successfully defending Shanghai in 1860, the imperial army went about regaining control of Taiping-held territory. By July 1864, the rebel capital, Tianjing, had been retaken, and Hong Xiuquan was dead.
After 14 years of bloody conflict, the uprising was finally over. However, the defeat of the Taipings had come at a heavy price, both in economic and human terms. It is estimated that the uprising resulted in the deaths of over 20 million people, many of whom were civilians. Hundreds of cities were destroyed, and large areas of the countryside ravaged.
In addition, the uprising forced the Qing imperial family to request help from foreign nations—a move that provided their rivals with an opportunity to further their imperialist interests in the country.
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” —Confucious
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” —Lao Tzu
“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” —Confucius
“Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” —Lao Tzu
“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” —Sun Tzu
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War by Stephen R. Platt
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