The strange story of Christian peasant revolutionaries in 19th century China. This episode is about the origins and early years of the Taiping Revolution (1850-1864). Both the early Nationalist revolutionaries, like Sun Yat-sen, and later Communists, like Mao Zedong, were inspired by the peasant war led by Hong Xiuquan. But the Taipings were more than just a very large peasant rebellion, as their leader, Hong, thought he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ.
Good resources for more information:
Jonathan Spence, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan
Stephen Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War
Welcome to episode three of the People’s History of Ideas. This week we’ll be discussing the Taiping Revolution, which took place in the middle of the 19th century.
First, a few words about the importance of the Taiping. It was the first major revolutionary challenge to the Qing Dynasty, and it went on to become an inspiration for both the Nationalist and Communist revolutionaries who followed. Many Nationalist revolutionaries from the 1911 revolution wore their hair long in imitation of the Taiping, and Sun Yat-sen, the main revolutionary leader of the Nationalists, was nicknamed by his friends after the leader of the Taiping, Hong Xiuquan. The Communists hailed the Taiping as a precursor peasant revolution and highlighted the egalitarian aspects of the Taiping revolution, retrospectively painting the revolution with a proto-socialist brush. However, there were some real contortions of historical interpretation in both cases, and some inconvenient things, such as the Christian religion that served as the Taiping’s guiding ideology, which are downplayed or ignored in both Nationalist and Communist narratives of the Taiping Revolution.
We’ll get into all that in a second here, but first, let’s just go over some basic facts about the revolution to help you get oriented, since I expect most listeners will not have heard much, if anything, about these events before listening to this podcast.
The Taiping Revolution, also known as the Taiping Rebellion, or somewhat more neutrally as the Taiping Civil War, took place between 1850 and 1864. So we’re picking up our narrative of Chinese history very soon after our last episode ended. You may also note that this Chinese Civil War coincided, at its end, with the Civil War in the United States (which was 1861 to 1865). The simultaneity of these civil wars invites comparison, but as violent as the US Civil War was, it was dwarfed by the war in China. During the Taiping war, at least 20 million people died of warfare, or warfare induced famine and disease. That’s over 30 times as many casualties as the US Civil War saw, with the US numbers estimated at around 620,000. To give an illustrative example of the qualitatively different levels of violence involved in these experiences: when Atlanta fell to General Sherman, the Union troops burned down infrastructure which could aid the Confederacy as it continued the war. When Zeng Guofan, the main general of the Qing counter-insurgency campaign, captured the city of Anqing, which the Taiping rebels had held for years, all 16,000 survivors of the siege were massacred. And this was a representative event, not an aberration.
Since I’ve given three different names for the Taiping events already, let’s just quickly understand what is implied by the different names. Foreigners writing at the time of the events tended to use the term Taiping Rebellion, because the Taiping were rebelling against the constituted and recognized authority of the Qing Dynasty. In general, this carried a negative connation, in that even if most of those foreigners had a fairly negative view of the Qing, they had a basic prejudice in favor of established authority. This name got established as the label for the Taiping movement at the time and carried forward into treatments by later writers. After the success of the Chinese Revolution, the term Taiping Revolution was used in the People’s Republic, because this was a more affirmative way of naming the movement, and also recognized its large scale and the way in which it was looked to as a historical forerunner of the peasant war which was involved in the victory of the revolution itself in 1949. The term Taiping Civil War has also been used by some historians, both because it’s a value neutral way of referring to the movement, and it recognizes the scale of the war and the fact that, at least at its height, the Taiping posed a major threat of overthrowing the Qing Dynasty.
Probably what most people will find most surprising about the Taiping revolution was that the Taiping were Christians. Their brand of Christianity was influenced by Protestant missionaries, but was different than any European or American version of Christianity. Christianity actually has a much longer history in China than most people realize. There had been Nestorian Christians all the way back in the 600s during the Tang Dynasty, and Catholic missionaries began to arrive during the Yuan Dynasty, in the 1200s. But it was the massive expansion of British trade with China in the 19th century which brought Protestant missionaries to China. And the Taiping Revolution was, at least in its ideological dimensions, a direct product of Protestant evangelizing, although as we’ll see, there were some aspects of Taiping theology that the missionaries just could not get behind.
The biggest of these deviations from Protestantism, what missionaries at the time called heresy but what scholars today mainly regard as Sinicization or localization of evangelical Protestantism, was that the leader of the Taiping, Hong Xiuquan, considered himself to be Jesus Christ’s younger brother. So let’s talk about how Hong Xiuquan came to think he was, in his own words, God’s Chinese Son.
Hong was a village schoolteacher in Guangdong province and sat several times for provincial level exams in Guangzhou. Passing these exams of classical Confucian scholarship was the ticket to getting a post in the imperial bureaucracy. He had placed first in a local preliminary examination, and his family had made many sacrifices for his education and placed their hopes on his ability to pass the exams. But these were brutally competitive exams, and only about 1% of those who took the exams passed. After failing the exam in for the third time, in 1837, Hong had something of a breakdown, got sick with a fever, and had a dream which he interpreted later as a holy vision.
In the dream, Hong spoke with a golden-haired man with a beard, who gave him a sword, and a younger man who he addressed as ‘Elder Brother’ who taught Hong how to slay evil spirits. It was only after Hong failed the exam a fourth time, in 1844, and entered into a renewed personal crisis that he interpreted this dream in light of a Protestant evangelical pamphlet that he had been given while in Guangzhou for the exams. Hong then understood that the two men in the vision were God and Jesus Christ, and that because he was addressing Jesus Christ as ‘Elder Brother,’ he must also be a Son of God. He understood his mission, of slaying evil spirits and casting out devils, to mean both destroying the idols in temples and ancestral shrines, and also to throw out the Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty.
At this point Hong began preaching Christianity as he understood it, with the important addition of his own personal revelation. He also started destroying Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist idols. This got him fired from his position as a local schoolteacher, not surprisingly, where, after all, he was supposed to teach the Confucian classics. And so he began preaching, alongside some of his relatives, who were his first converts. In 1847 he briefly went to study with the American Baptist missionary Issachar Roberts in Guangzhou. Roberts refused to baptize Hong because Hong didn’t understand enough Christianity in Roberts’s opinion, but Hong left and went right on preaching, forming a group of called the God Worshippers, which quickly grew in the Guangdong and Guangxi regions.
Hong Xiuquan’s preaching was particularly attractive to Hakka speaking Chinese, like himself, and the largest God Worshipper community formed among the Hakka of Northwestern Guangxi province. This was a hardscrabble region, where Hakka peasants worked poor land and were under pressure from local Cantonese speakers and where imperial authority had grown weak. The God Worshippers banded together to defend themselves from bandits and against depredations from militias formed by the Cantonese majority.
Historians have not been able to reconstruct the exact series of events which led up to the God Worshippers’ direct conflict with the Qing government, but to give you an idea, here are some representative events which pushed the God Worshippers onto a war footing, and helped to consolidate their forces as an armed mass.
In one incident, a Cantonese militia troop marched through a Hakka village. When the troops harassed the people as they marched through, the people fought back, and the incident resulted in the villagers losing their homes and running off to join the God Worshippers.
In another incident, a Hakka concubine was kidnapped, and the resulting conflict ended with another 200 Hakka villagers leaving, or being run off from, their homes to join up with the God Worshippers.
In a third incident, a rich landlord who belonged to the Zhuang ethnic group, which was the original ethnicity of the area and lived there before Cantonese and Hakka migrants moved to the area, had bought himself a military rank and his son had a tablet erected to commemorate the occasion. When the local Cantonese insulted the tablet, the Zhuang clan raided the Cantonese village, and then went off to join the God Worshippers before the Cantonese could retaliate.
So it was through the accumulation of incidents like these that, through the ethnic rivalries, ongoing economic crisis and weakness of the central authority, the God Worshippers grew not just as a religious group, but as a compact mass of people, many of whom were refugees, who were on a war footing.
Over the course of 1849 and 1850, the God Worshippers concentrated in the town of Jintian. By 1850, there were about 20,000 God Worshippers there. Echoing the communistic practices of the early Christians, they sold their possessions and deposited their valuables in a common treasury. Unlike the early Christians, they organized themselves into military units and began drilling. This was a good idea, because they had by then attracted the attention of the central authorities and imperial forces were sent to attack them, which they did at the end of 1950. The imperial forces were badly defeated, and their Manchu commander captured and beheaded. This is usually taken as the beginning of the revolution. Soon afterwards, in early 1851, Hong Xiuquan declared the founding of the Taiping Tianguo, or the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (which is why it’s called the Taiping Revolution). In setting up this new Kingdom, and by naming himself its Heavenly King, Hong declared his intention to overthrow the Qing Dynasty.
At this point, I want to introduce a topic which we will keep coming back to in this podcast, and which we will get into really fine detail with when we talk about different parts of the Chinese Revolution itself. The topic is the relationship between the material motivations that make people rebel, and the way in which people articulate those motivations and their goals in rebellion, that is, their ideology.
If look at how I have explained why people were drawn to join the God Worshippers, we can see that I’ve mentioned a few reasons:
1) There were the ethnic tensions between the Hakka, Zhuang and Cantonese peoples of the Guangxi region.
2) These tensions took place in the context of an ongoing economic crisis in China that resulted in peasants being squeezed hard both by taxes and corrupt officials, as discussed in the last podcast.
3) Also related to this economic crisis, the ability of the central authorities to provide peace and stability in places like Guangxi had broken down, which meant that people had to band together for their own security. In placed with major ethnic tensions, like Guangxi, this had predictably bad outcomes with exacerbating those tensions.
There is a fourth reason for rebelling which we will get to in just a minute, which is Chinese nationalism.
What you may be wondering at this point is: What does any of this have to Christianity?
The answer is that, through some weird accident of history, the Taiping rebels, the God Worshippers to use their own name for their society, articulated their solution to these problems in the language of Christianity. They saw overthrowing the Manchus as a version of casting of devils and evil spirits, and they saw their other problems as either being solved in this way.
Hong Xiuquan didn’t say: We Hakkas need to band together against the Cantonese. He didn’t say, let’s lower taxes. He didn’t demand that the imperial administration be reorganized so as to better administrate poor rural areas. What he did do was say that he was the Christian God’s Chinese son, that he was Jesus Christ’s younger brother, and that he was on a mission to cast out devils. That he considered the Manchus to be devils coincided nicely with the Chinese nationalist aims that his revolt embodied, and which motivated many participants, but there is a disjunction between ideology and motivation here which is, I think, very interesting, and which we will come to grips with in one form or another, often in less obvious ways, as we move through Chinese and world history looking at the relationship between revolutionary events and the ideas that people articulate about revolutions.
So alright, let’s talk a little bit about Chinese nationalism, as it began to manifest itself in militant ways in the mid-19th century, and the Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty. Because we began the podcast with the last episode talking about British imperialism in China, and how that began a wave of foreign intervention in China by Europeans, Japanese and Americans that would last until the victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949, if you don’t know much Chinese history already (and my assumption here is that you don’t), you might be surprised to learn that even before the Opium War, China was experiencing a form of foreign domination of a qualitatively different nature than what came with the British.
Way back in 1644, the previous ruling dynasty, the Ming, were overthrown by nomadic warriors from Manchuria, in what is today Northeastern China. These were not Chinese people, they were Manchus. It wasn’t the first time that foreigners conquered China and set up a new dynasty. The Mongols had done it before, and ruled China from 1279-1368. But China is very large, and the Manchus (and the Mongols before them) were in comparison a very small group of people, with a much less sophisticated society overall. Essentially, the Manchus could only rule China by following the systems of rule that had been set up by the Chinese themselves, and could only rule by relying on an administrative systems staffed mainly by Chinese people. It used to be that historians explained this process as essentially the Manchus conquered China militarily, but that China conquered the Manchus culturally. It was an understandable thing to think, and it certainly looked that way from the outside. In the past few decades, historians have come to understand better how the Manchus preserved their culture among themselves at the top of the social pyramid. But for our purposes, what’s important to note is that back in the 1600s the Manchus essentially took the Chinese government structure and put themselves at the top of it, without changing a tremendous amount at lower levels.
But there was one major thing that the Manchus imposed on all Chinese men, in order to remind them that they lived in an empire ruled by the Manchus, and it was something fairly intrusive. The Manchus wore their hair in a style called the ‘queue,’ which involved shaving the front portion of the head and growing the rest of your hair long and braiding it. Chinese men were forced to wear their hair in this style, and the punishment for not doing so could include decapitation. It seems like the sort of personal imposition that is bound to create resentment and keep it festering, so it probably won’t surprise you that one of the ways anti-Manchu rebels, including the Taiping, would later demonstrate their opposition was by either cutting off their braids or by wearing their hair long, without a braid and without shaving in the front.
But during the first hundred years or so of Manchu rule, which goes by the name of the Qing Dynasty, there was not a lot of nationalist Chinese resistance once the remnant loyalist Ming forces were defeated. The Manchus had ended the chaos of the last years of the Ming Dynasty (indeed, when the Manchus took over Beijing they came at the invitation of a Chinese general who preferred Manchu conquest to conquest by a Chinese rebel leader). The early Manchu leaders were very competent, and brought renewed prosperity to China and increased China’s territorial conquests, pushing the empire’s boundaries to the west and consolidating control over Taiwan.
However, it is clear that Chinese nationalist resentment at rule by the Manchus was simmering below the surface, because as soon as the Manchus were made to look weak, first by the ongoing economic crisis and then when a bunch of foreign barbarians came and beat them in the Opium War, suddenly a wave of rebellions broke out, all of which articulated anti-Manchu sentiment on some level. We’re focusing on the Taiping, which was the largest rebellion. But there were other rebellions, some quite large, around the same time, and the Taiping were able to thrive based on this anti-Manchu sentiment after they launched their rebellion, so let’s go back to the Taiping.
We left off with the Taiping having won a big victory of the Qing forces sent to crush them in their home base in Guangxi province. From this point forward, the Taiping advanced en masse, first up through Hunan province to the Yangzi River, and then down the Yangzi to Nanjing. Over the two years that the march to Nanjing lasted, the Taiping grew to over 300,000. Initially, they had trouble taking cities, and were repulsed from Guilin and Changsha. But eventually their ability to successfully breach city walls was developed, especially after they recruited Hunanese miners. (The importance of miners from Hunan to the Taiping prefigures the important role which miners played in the early days of Mao’s army.)
As the Taiping army grew on the advance to Nanjing, it’s clear that while Christianity remained central to the ideology of the Taiping leadership and to the initial group of God Worshippers from Guangxi and Guangdong, most people joined with the Taiping in response to the oppression of the gentry, the ongoing economic crisis and heavy tax burden that fell on the common people, the general lack of stability, and anti-Manchu nationalism. Even the enemies of the Taiping distinguished between what they called the “True Longhairs” from the south and those who entered the movement later.
And as in any armed horde advancing across the countryside, there were criminal and bandit elements which attached themselves to the Taiping. Formally, the Taiping had very strict discipline. Rapists and looters were beheaded, and their heads put on pikes next to placards enumerating their crimes. And near the Taiping generals, this discipline largely ruled. However, the fringes of the Taiping horde were less orderly, and terrible atrocities were regularly committed. One eyewitness gave an account from later in the revolution, when the Taiping were marching through the countryside west of Shanghai. He described how about 10,000 Taiping soldiers marched in orderly fashion through his town, led by their officers and marching with their banners and spears lining the road. They passed peacefully, causing no harm to anyone. But then, after they had passed, a few hundred Taiping came through and began breaking into people’s houses, looting, raping and murdering, and dragging off some young men as forced conscripts. Similarly, there were incidents where after a long siege, when walls had finally been breached, these bandit-like elements would push through and pillage before the more well-ordered parts of the Taiping army could march in and establish order. Clearly, the Taipings’ strict discipline and organization were not enforceable across the entire mass of their forces.
So, in March 1853 the Taiping captured Nanjing and set up a central administration there from which they attempted to govern the areas that they controlled, and from which they set out to conquer more territory.
The Taiping regime in Nanjing simultaneously represented a major break with traditional Chinese forms of government, while also embodying some traditional Chinese ideas.
A good illustration of this is the Taiping’s land reform system. Here’s a quote from the Heavenly Kingdom Land System, the document explaining the Taiping land policy:
“There being fields, let all cultivate them. There being food, let all eat it. There being clothing, let all wear it. There being money, let all use it, so that nowhere will inequality exist, and every person will be well fed and warm.
“When it comes to land allocation, distribute according to the number of people, no matter whether man or woman. See how many people the family has; if it has more people, then it gets more land, and less land if it has fewer people. They should be mixed with the nine-tier system. A family of six, for example, give good land to three and poor lands to the rest, good and poor are equally distributed.”
This system of land re-distribution, along with the institution of the holy treasury, which took agricultural surpluses and all other profits and was intended to re-distribute wealth according to need, effectively abolishing private property, were why Mao Zedong and other Chinese communists saw the Taiping as revolutionaries, as a kind of primitive form of communists.
On the other hand, it is clear that this system of land distribution was highly influenced by the ancient Chinese text the Rites of Zhou, included among the Confucian classics. The Rites of Zhou represented a utopian vision of ancient Chinese society, and called for all property to belong to the state and to be used to keep the people content.
Hong Xiuquan also adapted the core Confucian principle of filial piety to Christianity. He wrote:
“Obey your parents of the flesh, and you will enjoy longevity. Those who repay their source will certainly obtain blessings. Be filial to your parents and produce filial sons, the repayment is truly wonderful… To be filial to one’s parents is to be filial to the God of Heaven.”
This coexistence between revolutionary rupture and continuity with and adaptation of traditional ideas is not really too surprising. It’s something that every revolutionary movement and socialist state has seen, to one degree or another, and it’s a reflection of how every movement, however iconoclastic it may consider itself, is the product of the culture it arose in, and will reflect that culture, at times unintentionally, and at times in ways that only succeeding generations will see as ironic.
One other important thing to note about the Taiping land reform laws, is that they were not carried out to any great extent. The contradiction between a stated policy and the ability to carry out that policy is another theme that will continue to reappear in revolution after revolution, and as the Taiping administration was constantly operating under pressures of war and scarcity, many of their policies were only partially implemented, and remained more like wishes on paper than statements of social reality.
Next week we’ll conclude the story of the Taiping Revolution, and get into how it was tied in with the Second Opium War.