The episode wraps up the events of the Taiping Revolution (1850-1864) and also deals with the events and outcome of the Second Opium War (1856-1860). The Qing Dynasty is weakened and the British, French, American and Russian powers extract new unequal treaties. Then the British help the Qing to put down a peasant-based revolution.
Welcome to the People’s History of Ideas Podcast, episode 4. In this episode we’ll conclude the story of the Taiping Revolution, and also discuss the Second Opium War.
We left off our last episode talking about the tension between traditional Chinese ideas of governance and ideas that represented more of a radical break, either reflecting the Christian ideology of the Taiping or the peasant revolutionary and Chinese nationalist nature of the insurgency.
When we left the Taiping, they had just established Nanjing as their capital in March 1853. At this point, the Taiping divided their forces. One major expedition was launched to the north, in an attempt to take Beijing. Another major expedition was launched west, along the Yangzi River basin, to consolidate and re-take areas the Taiping had passed through on the way to Nanjing and to make new conquests in the region. A substantial force also remained behind to defend Nanjing.
The advance to the west was largely successful at first, but initially failed to capture one of its main objectives, Wuhan. This region would continue to see back and forth fighting until the end of the revolution in 1864, with some areas being traded between Taiping and Qing forces many times.
The expedition towards Beijing was initially very successful, with town after town falling with the aid of anti-Manchu uprisings in support of the Taiping advance, and the Taiping forces gained many recruits along the way. When the force of 100,000 reached Kaifeng on the Yellow River, a freak rain storm forced a delay in Taiping advance and the Qing loyalist forces were able to concentrate forces. While the Taiping pushed north and eventually threatened Tianjin, as the cold north China winter set in the southerners in the Taiping army were not prepared for the weather, and were forced to retreat. During the long withdrawal back south, their forces were constantly harried and eventually the whole northern expeditionary forces was destroyed.
It is quite likely that, had the Taiping not divided their forces and concentrated all of their efforts at continuing north from Nanjing to take Beijing, they would have toppled the Qing Dynasty in 1853.
Even so, in the mid-1850s the Taiping remained in control of some of China’s richest land, and the potential tax revenues of the areas under Taiping control were triple what the government in Beijing could count on. The Taiping still might have rallied and overthrown the Qing. However, in 1856 major infighting erupted within the Taiping ranks.
At the beginning of the Taiping movement, back before they took Nanjing, Hong Xiuquan had named himself as the Heavenly King. But he also named five other early God Worshippers who were capable leaders and early converts as kings who would serve just below him in the Taiping Hierarchy. They were the North King, the South King, the West King, the East King and the Wing King. The South King and the West King had been killed in battles along the way to conquering Nanjing.
Because Hong Xiuquan was mainly interested in questions of theology (one major project of his was going through the Bible and finding places where he felt that he was being referenced) and not in day-to-day administration, the East King, Yang Xiuqing, came to be the most powerful figure in Nanjing after defeating major Qing forces sent against the Taiping there and taking responsibility for keeping the government running. Yang eventually began to claim that he was having his own independent divine revelations, and seemed about to attempt to displace Hong Xiuquan as the supreme leader. Hong then enlisted the aid of the North King, Wei Changhui, to kill Yang in a palace coup, which was followed by the slaughter of all 20,000 men who comprised the East King’s forces.
However, in addition to attacking the usurper Yang, Wei Changhui also attacked the Wing King’s family and had them killed, with the Wing King (Shi Dakai) barely escaping the city in a basket sent over the city walls. Wei also attacked the Heavenly Palace, but the forces he sent were fought off by Hong Xiuquan’s wives long enough for some of Wei’s troops to mutiny in defense of the Hong Xiuquan. In this regard, the Hakka ethnicity of Hong and his wives played an important role, since one thing that distinguished Hakka Chinese from Han Chinese was that Hakka women did not bind their feet and women were not expected to be physically weak in Hakka culture. It is also noteworthy that Hong had enough wives to constitute a formidable small military unit, something that was frowned upon by the foreign missionaries who evaluated Hong’s claim to be Christian.
Eventually, Wei was defeated. But at the end of this incident, the Taiping had significantly weakened themselves. They had lost two of their kings and the forces those kings commanded. And Shi Dakai, the Wing King, while continuing to be loyal to Hong Xiuquan, took his own forces on a campaign to the west so that he could essentially fight on his own and not be subject to palace intrigues.
Around the time of the bloody palace coup, counter-coup and counter-counter-coup in Nanjing, events were being set into motion for the beginning of the Second Opium War.
The main precipitating event of the Second Opium War was something called the Arrow Incident, which occurred just off the coast of Guangzhou. Now, if you will recall, before the first opium war, Guangzhou had been where all the trade between the British Empire and China had been concentrated, and had been where the precipitating events of the first Opium War, with the confiscation and destruction of all the opium that the British opium smugglers had took place. Then, during the First Opium War, it was where the only Chinese victory over the British took place, specifically at Sanyuanli, because of the efforts of the local people’s militia to defend against the British. It was also very near the island of Hong Kong, which had been taken from China as a result of the First Opium War. All of these factors contributed to a certain amount of hostility toward the British on the part of a lot of people in the Guangzhou area.
So, if you will recall the terms of the Treaty of Nanjing from two episodes ago, one of the things it did not do was actually to legalize the opium trade formally. Even though the amount of opium shipped from British India to China more than doubled, and it had already been a lot, between the end of the First Opium War in 1842 and 1856, and the vast majority of Chinese officials across the country ignored the fact that opium was illegal and tolerated the trade and use of opium, it was still technically illegal. And what this meant was that those Chinese officials who wanted to could use this technicality to attempt to enforce the law as a way of expressing that opposition to British imperialism.
In October 1856, this is precisely what happened. A ship named the Arrow, which was registered in Hong Kong and had a British captain, was anchored just off the coast of Guangzhou. The Chinese authorities boarded the ship because it was suspected of opium smuggling and had a history of piracy. The British captain was having breakfast on a nearby ship when the Arrow was boarded and its Chinese crew was detained. The British consul in Guangzhou, Harry Parkes, was told that British flag had been pulled down on the Arrow, and insisted that Governor-General Ye Mingshen issue an apology for insulting the British flag. While Governor Ye released the crew of the Arrow, the Chinese asserted that the Arrow had not been flying a flag at all, and this was part of what had aroused the suspicion of the authorities, and refused to issue an apology for insulting the British flag. Having failed to gain an apology from Governor Ye, the Governor of Hong Kong, John Bowring, ordered the British navy to bombard and occupy Guangzhou. Which they held until January, when they withdrew back to Hong Kong.
If you’re thinking that the British really over-reacted and that there must have been some ulterior motive to this massive escalation of hostilities, you get a gold star. The British, and other foreign powers, had been unhappy with the implementation of the Treaty of Nanjing, and wanted to force China to renegotiate the treaty. The Qing Empire’s approach to dealing with the British and other foreigners in the wake of the First Opium War is characterized well by the policy of the Six Nos articulated by Governor Ye. The Six Nos were: No resistance, no negotiation, no defense, no death, no surrender, and no exodus. Essentially, the idea was that the British were too powerful to fight, but that China could drag its feet in dealing with them and always obfuscate and obstruct, as a way of resisting the much stronger enemy. If the main purpose of the Treaty of Nanjing had been to force China to deal with England on the terms set by an international order centered on European norms of conduct between nations, then the British assessment was that it had failed and had to be renegotiated. The Arrow Incident provided the pretext that Britain needed to send a military force to China which could force the Qing to negotiate a new treaty, and more importantly to set terms whereby China would be forced to interact with foreign powers on the terms expected by those foreign powers, and by Britain in particular.
France also joined in the war against China. The French were particularly upset because a French priest who had gone to check on what remained of old Catholic congregations in Guangxi Province which had been left behind by Catholic missionaries in the 1600s was arrested and executed. Given the Taiping Revolution’s origins in Guangxi Province, it was probably not the best time for a Catholic priest to go there to re-establish contact with old congregations.
The original set of British troops sent to China got waylaid into suppressing the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and so it wasn’t until spring of 1858 that the British and French fleets arrived at the Dagu forts near Tianjin, joined by officially neutral Americans and Russians who would benefit from whatever new treaty the British signed with China. When the British easily took the Dagu forts and threatened to march on Beijing military, the Chinese had no choice but to sign the Treaty of Tianjin with the British, French, Americans and Russians. This new treaty allowed permanent foreign embassies in Beijing, added some new treaty port cities where foreigners could trade, allowed missionaries to proselytize anywhere in China, gave tax advantages to foreign traders, and of course made China pay the British and French costs of waging war. Russia also signed a separate treaty annexing a large part of Manchuria, which was pretty impressive for an allegedly neutral country.
The thing was, the Xianfeng Emperor decided that he couldn’t accept the treaty and ordered his officials to renegotiate it in Shanghai. But reopening negotiations from a position of weakness was a bad idea, and further concessions, including formally legalizing the opium trade, were wrung out of the negotiators. This time the British decided to make sure that the treaty would be ratified by sending a military force to Beijing to make sure that the emperor accepted it.
This second expedition couldn’t be got together, however, until the next year, and so it wasn’t until June 1859 that the British got back to the Dagu forts. By this time the Qing had had time to reinforce the forts and had learned something about British tactics. Several British ships were sunk by firing from the forts, and the American ship violated its alleged neutrality to come to the aid of the British. It was a major victory, but the British spent the next year taking revenge on various coastal Chinese cities, while waiting to put together a third expedition to attack the Dagu forts in summer of 1860.
The Dagu forts did fall this time, and the British and French marched on Beijing. In an ill-advised move, the Qing decided to take a British negotiating team hostage and tortured some of them to death. This move could hardly have helped an already basically hopeless military situation, and when the British and French reached the capital they burned and looted the Emperor’s Summer Palace in the Northwestern part of the city. The Xianfeng Emperor fled the city for the north, leaving his brother, Prince Gong, to negotiate with the invaders. But all he could do with Beijing occupied was to accede to a new set of additional demands, in addition to formally ratifying the Treaty of Tianjin. The new Convention of Beijing gave additional territory on the Chinese mainland (the Kowloon Peninsula) to the British colony of Hong Kong and more of Manchuria to Russia, in addition to giving the British and French a larger war indemnity and permitting the British to take Chinese laborers overseas as indentured servants.
So, looking at the state of the Qing Empire in 1860, one might assume that the dynasty was on the verge of collapse. After all, the capital had been occupied, albeit temporarily, by the British and French forces. Whatever army the Qing had in the north had been routed. And the richest region in the country, the middle and lower Yangzi, were either controlled by the Taiping or the site of ongoing warfare between the Qing and Taiping forces there. The natural question is, how did the Qing continue to survive and fight the Taiping even after the capital had been occupied by the British and French?
The answer to that question had to do with something new about the Qing loyalist forces that had arisen to fight the Taiping. When the Taiping marched through Hunan on the way to taking Nanjing in the early 1850s, they had left lawlessness in their wake. Local officials and gentry tried to compensate by forming militias, but the effects were uneven, and, except in the case of the provincial capital of Changsha, where the militia was able to fend off the Taiping with the aid of the city walls, the militias were barely capable of fighting off bandits, much less the Taiping army. Still, the militias had been formed, and with many of the Qing forces basically annihilated, there was a clear need to try and form these local militias into a more capable fighting force.
As luck would have it, there was a high level scholar-official with the confidence of the Qing court on hand in Hunan in 1853. Zeng Guofan had traveled to Hunan in order to perform the mourning rites for his mother, who had recently died. Although Zeng did not have any military training or expertise (Chinese scholar-officials did not, as a rule, study military matters, which were the purview of Manchus, not Chinese), he was well regarded, and he was present on the scene, which seems to have been the chief quality that recommended him for the task. The senior official who recommended Zeng for the role to the Emperor wrote that “He is good at recognizing talents and is capable of synthesizing people’s good points. If he is willing to use the wisdom of others as his own, he might make a fine leader.” And so, with the hope that Zeng Guofan would turn out to be a good listener, the Emperor gave him the task of organizing the militias of Hunan into a force capable of fighting the Taiping.
This move took the Chinese armed forces in a new direction, which would have fateful consequences. Previously, officials had not been allowed to serve in their home provinces. The idea was that if officials served in the home areas, then they would have divided loyalties, and they also would show favoritism to their own families and build up their own power bases independent of the imperial bureaucracy based in Beijing, or rather, coopting the local structures of that imperial bureaucracy in the service of their own and their families’ interests. Under normal circumstances, Zeng Guofan would not have returned to Hunan for anything other than the mourning periods required by Confucian custom, until he had retired. Instead, the extreme circumstances of the Taiping Revolution created a situation where he was called upon to forge the local militias into a new type of armed force.
It took some time, but over the next several years Zeng was able to use his considerable connections in the province, as well as his native intellect and, presumably, his ability to listen, to build up what became known as the Hunan Army. It became the principal fighting force against the Taiping, and Zeng was given command of the entire war effort. In 1860, his forces were besieging the Taiping stronghold on Anqing when he was called upon to divert forces to aid in the war against the British and French to the north. Zeng deployed a series of stalling tactics, writing back to Beijing asking for more direct guidance, and managed to avoid sending forces north. While this move may seem, and perhaps actually was on some level, treasonous, it allowed him to preserve his forces (and to keep up the ultimately successful siege of Anqing). The result was that once the Second Opium War was over, Zeng Guofan, with command over the Hunan Army, controlled the only significant intact armed force loyal to the Qing.
In the early 1860s, the Taiping were on the defensive to the west of Nanjing, but to the east had continued to advance in the wealthy lower Yangzi region surrounding Shanghai. Hong Rengan, a cousin of Hong Xiuquan and early God Worshipper who had lived in Hong Kong working with western missionaries for several years finally succeeded in joining the movement in Nanjing in 1859 and had been swiftly elevated to a leading role in the day-to-day workings of the Taiping movement, and was given the title of Shield King. Hong Rengan hoped both to use his experience with foreigners to win over British support for the Taiping, and simultaneously worked to more explicitly frame the war against the Qing as Chinese vs. Manchu, rather than as Christian vs. Confucian, which was the way that Zeng Guofan framed the war. Hong Rengan did this in part by explicitly supporting elements of Confucianism, and the Taiping began to include Confucian texts in their own examination system, where previously only knowledge of Christian texts had been emphasized.
Despite Hong Rengan’s hopes to parlay his experience with the British in Hong Kong into foreign support for the Taiping, it was at this time that the British began to throw their support to the Qing. Although some foreigners had fought for both the Qing and the Taiping, the British had maintained an official stance of neutrality in the civil war. This changed when the Taiping began to move to take Shanghai as part of their triumphant march across the lower Yangzi in the early 1860s. Following its establishment as a treaty port after the First Opium War, Shanghai became the center of British, French and American trade with China. This was because of its location at the mouth of the Yangzi River, in China’s most prosperous and economically dynamic region. British opposition to a Taiping takeover of Shanghai was based on a fear that the war would disrupt the trade relations which had been developed.
And so, the first force that the Taiping sent to Shanghai in 1860, unsure whether it would be opposed by the foreigners or not, ran straight into a deadly artillery barrage. The Taiping general, Li Xiucheng, wrote an angry letter to the British and American consuls in Shanghai after retreating, saying that “I came to Shanghai to make a treaty in order to see us connected together by trade and commerce. I did not come for the purpose of fighting with you.” Hong Rengan quickly intervened, hoping still to gain an alliance with his fellow Christians, and promised that the Taiping would not come back to take Shanghai for another year.
By the time another year had passed, the Taiping had spread across Zhejiang Province, taking the major cities of Hangzhou and Ningbo. They began a siege of Shanghai in January 1862, taking over the towns several miles out from the city in hopes of forcing the Qing to surrender the city without fighting and avoiding any engagement with British and French forces. Bad weather and unexpectedly competent resistance put up by a private army funded by the Shanghai gentry hampered the effectiveness of the Taiping siege, and at this point the British decided to help the Qing to defend Shanghai by sending their ships up the Yangzi River to pick up and transport Qing troops through territory controlled by the Taiping back down to Shanghai. The assumption was that the Taiping would not attack British ships, even ships transporting enemy troops, because the Taiping still hoped to avoid war with Britain, or even possibly to eventually win the British over to their side. The result was that suddenly the Taiping faced considerable Qing forces not only in the west, where the Taiping were losing ground, but also now in the east.
I’d like to add here a quick aside about the private army that the Shanghai gentry had sent against the Taiping. This was a force originally called the “Foreign Arms Corps” and later the “Ever-Victorious Army.” It had existed for several years before its significant victory outside Shanghai in 1862, and was led by an American adventurer named Frederick Ward. The Foreign Arms Corps started off years earlier with the idea that, given how badly the British had beat the Qing in the Opium War, that having a few white faces fighting for the Qing would be enough to strike fear into the hearts of the Taiping. So Ward, who had previously been a filibuster in Nicaragua with William Walker, the American who tried to conquer that country to set up what he hoped would become a new slave state for the United States, was hired to lead this new foreign armed force in service to the Qing, or rather, to serve local Shanghai gentry who were on the side of the Qing. He started off hiring American, European and Filipino deserters from trading ships. This early version of the Ever-Victorious Army was only really victorious in its conquest of copious amounts of alcohol, and bungled more than one battle through being blind drunk before the battle even started. That said, the whole premise of the original force was obviously flawed, and the lack of success in its early years proved that point. However, once Ward stopped focusing on recruiting foreign deserters and instead focused on creating a well-funded force of disciplined Chinese troops with modern military organization, the Ever-Victorious Army did quite well, and that’s the force that prevailed in its battles with the Taiping outside Shanghai. There is a tendency in the English-language literature to focus disproportionately on Ward, the Ever-Victorious Army, and on Charles Gordon, the Englishman who took over the command of the Ever-Victorious Army once Ward was killed. And while the Ever-Victorious Army and its story is interesting, the emphasis that gets put on it in some accounts of this period is more a reflection of a larger tendency of some Americans and Europeans to try to make themselves the center of any historical narrative whenever possible, even in someplace like China, rather than a reflection of the actual importance of the Ever-Victorious Army in the civil war.
That said, even though the importance of the Ever-Victorious Army was itself quite limited, the intervention of the British on behalf of the Qing did play an important role in how the Taiping Revolution ended. It might seem strange that, after having just fought a war against the Qing, the British would aid the Qing against the Taiping. However, from the perspective of the British government, the main issue was insuring the continuance and growth of trade, and the assessment of the British government was that, especially with the favorable unequal treaties which had been wrung out of the Qing through the two Opium Wars, the maintenance of the Qing Dynasty would be preferable to Taiping victory, or even Taiping control over Shanghai. It is worth noting that while this was the British government’s position, it was not the position of all British merchants. For example, the major opium barons Jardine Matheson opposed intervening against the Taiping (by the way, Jardine Matheson is today one of the top 200 publicly traded companies in the world, though they have since diversified some distance from opium smuggling). After transporting Qing troops to fight the Taiping outside of Shanghai, the British soon found a pretext to attack the Taiping in Ningbo, where the Taiping controlled city also had a foreign concession area which predated the Taiping conquest of the city.
Once the British entered the war, the tides turned decisively against the Taiping, and the Revolution was finally crushed after Zeng Guofan’s armies entered Nanjing after a long siege in 1864. Whether the British entry into the war was decisive in the loss of the Taiping is hard to say. Certainly, before the British intervention the tide had turned against the Taiping on their western front before the British intervened. Would Zeng Guofan’s forces have ultimately triumphed without British aid? Most historians of China seem to think so, but clearly the process was at the very least sped up by British intervention in the east, and I don’t think any historian is 100% certain that Zeng Guofan’s forces would have won.
Next episode we’ll be moving on to discuss the further development of imperialist encroachment in China and Chinese responses to imperialism during the years after the Taiping Revolution. If you’re listening to this episode in the summer of 2019, I’d like to give a little update on how the organization of this podcasting enterprise is developing. Right now, if you’re one of our regular listeners, you may have noticed that we’re on schedule to put out 2 to 3 episodes a month. The idea here, with this sort of slow, irregular schedule, has been to “learn podcasting through podcasting,” to paraphrase Mao. Later on, the idea is to have a more aggressive production schedule and come out with about one episode a week. But for right now, I have not really been letting people know that these podcasts are out there yet, and don’t plan to let even some of my close friends and colleagues know of the existence of this podcast until we’re around episode 10. But, it’s clear that some of you are finding the podcast and listening to it already, even though we don’t have our website up yet and have literally done zero promotion. So, if you’re listening to this in our early days here, I’d really be interested in hearing your comments, feedback, criticism, whatever you want to share that I could use to improve the podcast. You can write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course, if you’re listening to this in the future, I’d still love to hear from you, I’m sure. Also, if you like the podcast and could leave a review on itunes (or Apple podcasts, or whatever the app is called now), that would also be awesome.