Among the many rebellions that enveloped China in the mid-19th century, the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64) caused most devastation and posed the greatest danger to the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty. The rebellions had many causes, the most serious being the population explosion, the result of prolonged peace and the introduction of new and better yielding crops.
By the early 19th century, the available land could no longer sustain the burgeoning population, and there were no industries to absorb the surplus labor force. Natural disasters in the 1840s along the Yellow and Yangzi (Yangtse) River valleys further devastated the economy.
Politically, the Qing dynasty was in decline, evident in the pervasive corruption among the bureaucracy. Defeat by Great Britain in the First Anglo-Chinese Opium war further discredited the dynasty and brought to the fore latent anti-Manchu sentiments among the majority Han Chinese.
The Taiping Rebellion was led by Hong Xiuquan (Hung Hsisu-chuan), whose ambition to pass the state examinations and thus join the elite bureaucracy had been quashed by repeated failures. While in Canton waiting for the exams, he had met Protestant Christian missionaries who gave him religious tracts.
He later equated their messages with visions he experienced while in a delirium during an illness after failing the exams for the fourth time. He claimed to be the second son of God and younger brother of Jesus and further stated that God had entrusted him with a mission to rid the world of demons and establish a heavenly kingdom on Earth.
Hong studied briefly with an American missionary, gaining some knowledge of the Old Testament, but was not baptized. In 1844 he founded the Society of God Worshippers and began preaching his version of Christianity among poor people in Guangxi (Kwangsi) province in southern China.
An unsuccessful attempt by the Qing government to suppress the movement in 1850 ignited the rebellion. Hong then proclaimed himself the Heavenly King and his movement the Taiping Tianguo (Taiping t’ienkuo), or Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.
His foremost lieutenant Yang Xiuqing (Yang Hsiu-ch’ing), who claimed to be the third son of God and the Holy Spirit, became the Eastern King, while other supporters were given ranks as lesser kings and nobles. The Taiping army enjoyed tremendous success as it marched northward, culminating in the capture of Nanjing (Nanking) in 1853; it was renamed Tianjin, or the Heavenly capital, but the movement failed to gain headway north of the Yangzi Valley.
Early Taiping success is attributable to the appeal of its messianic message, the prevalence of anti-Manchu sentiments in southern China, strict military discipline among its troops, and promise of social and economic reforms.
The reforms, on paper, included nationalization of land and its distribution to men and women, a new calendar, equality between the sexes, revamping of the examination system to allow more candidates to succeed, and various modernization measures.
However, most of the promised reforms were unrealized because the Taiping leaders showed a lack of ability to govern and evidenced a great interest in giving themselves perks and privileges. Moreover, the leaders began quarreling among themselves.
Both Hong and Yang claimed to receive messages from God, and their rivalry degenerated into a bloody conflict in which Yang was defeated and killed. Hong thereafter trusted no one except his mediocre relatives and retired to a life of hedonism among his women.
Western nations that were initially interested in the Taiping government because of its Christian trappings were quickly disillusioned by its bogus Christianity and its theocratic and universal claims. Finding the Qing government easier to deal with, they then proclaimed their neutrality in the conflict.
The Qing government also found in Zeng Guofan (Tseng kuo-fan) a committed Confucian scholar-official of great ability and integrity. Zeng organized a militia among men of his home province (Hunan). They first cleared Hong’s men from Hunan and then expanded the anti-Taiping forces with the aid of Zeng’s able colleagues and lieutenants, including Westerners and their modern arms.
They reformed the administration in areas that they reconquered and ultimately gave the people a better alternative to the failed Taiping model. Nanjing was captured in July 1864; Hong died; and the rebellion ended.
Some historians claim the Taiping movement as revolutionary but others dispute this claim on the basis that the Taiping leaders showed no real revolutionary spirit or wish to introduce fundamental changes to society. While the Taiping ideology showed some revolutionary elements, in practice the regime did not change social relations or better the lot of peasants. Rather, the Taiping leaders regarded their success as a way to attain elite status.
The rebellion ultimately failed due to inconsistencies in the policies of the movement, strategic mistakes, internal dissension, and refusal to cooperate with other rebel movements for not following their brand of Christianity.
Conversely, the anti-Taiping forces led by Zeng Guofan demonstrated integrity and ability, and their commitment to Confucian ideology was more in tune with the temper of the time. The rebellion devastated a huge area in southern China and caused upward of 20 million in lost lives.
It also resulted in a shifting in the internal balance of power in China from the central government in Beijing (Peking), whose banner army had not been able to handle the rebellion, to Han Chinese loyalists who defeated the rebellion by raising local forces. The defeat of the Taiping and other mid-19th century rebellions and the domestic reforms and modernizing measures called the Tongzhi (T’ung-chih) Restoration gave the Qing dynasty a new lease of life.