Late Qing Catastrophes: The Taiping (and Their Multitude of Foibles)

By Tyler Parsons


Flag of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

As the midpoint of the nineteenth century approached, the Qing dynasty was in dire straits. China was beset with problems. Population growth put increasing pressure on the land. The great social ill of opium addiction was increasing and leading to an outflow of silver in the trade with the west. A venal bureaucracy was riven with factionalism and clientelism, and had failed to properly maintain the rivers and canal systems so essential to China’s prosperity. Various forms of criminality blossomed in the countryside, under the aegis of bandits, pirates, and Secret Societies. Vast sections of the country had never truly recovered from the upheaval of the White Lotus Uprising at the turn of the century. The Qing rulers, in the form of the Daoguang (r. 1820-1850) and Xianfeng Emperors (r. 1850-1861), seemed unable to redress these many ills.


Then, a new rebellion had arisen in distant Guangdong, led by a man claiming to the son of the western God. These Taiping had stormed northwards, and taken China’s second city of Nanjing in 1853. Along the way they had repeatedly humiliated the Qing’s armies and attracted hundreds of thousands of followers. And yet, this new rebellion- seemingly of such great vitality- would fizzle, and ultimately be suppressed by the Qing in 1864. How was it that the ailing Qing managed to hold on, and defeat their Taiping adversaries?


Some potential military PODs were considered in the previous article, but even if blessed with better military luck or acumen, several features of the Taiping Rebellion meant it would always face an uphill battle in seeking to rule China. The first and foremost impediment was the Taiping’s leader, Hong Xiuquan.


Hong Xiuquan: More Prophet Than King.


Hong was, simply put, not a particularly effective leader. Indeed, he wasn’t particularly interested in being a leader- at least not a political one. For the most part, he spurned such Earthly concerns and instead focused his energies on the spiritual. Much of his time was spent on a different plane of existence, interpreting mythic portents and arcane spiritual symbolism. This is unsurprising. Hong was, at least by modern standards, mentally ill. The entire Taiping Rebellion was built on a delusion he had experienced in the midst of a nervous breakdown. The capacity of such a man, disinterested and irrational, to rule as a King on Earth would prove severely limited- regardless of his supposed Heavenly credentials.


The leadership issue is evident from the earliest days of the movement, before the outbreak of hostilities. Much of the early organisation of the Society of Godworshippers was undertaken by Hong’s disciple Feng Yunshan, rather than Hong himself. He also proved willing to cede spiritual authority at an early stage, accepting Yang Xiuqing and Xiao Chaogui’s claims to speak on behalf of God and Jesus, respectively. Nevertheless, the Hong of this period is a still an active figure- jotting off persuasive letters to magistrates when his followers were imprisoned, for instance. The precise internal wranglings that took place between Hong and his subordinate kings during the march north can never be known, but their end result is clear: the Hong who took up his place in the Heavenly Capital of Nanjing in 1853 made few attempts to exercise political or military authority, or otherwise direct the Taiping in the struggle against the Qing.


The vacuum of executive leadership that resulted was, in many ways, the downfall of the Taiping. Ultimately it manifested in the Tianjing Incident of 1856, a great whirlwind of bloodshed in the Heavenly Capital. Yang had managed to be an effective executive leader for a time, directing strategy from Nanjing and exercising virtually unlimited civic and military powers. Eventually, he grew powerful enough to contemplate usurpation. Unfortunately for him, his influence had been accrued at the expense of other Taiping commanders, whom Yang had marginalised and humiliated. Hong, briefly bestirring himself from spiritual matters at the prospect of being deposed, thus had many other subordinates to call upon. He managed to recall several of them, most prominently the North King Wei Changhui and Qin Rigang, who brought about Yang’s death. In the aftermath, Hong proved unwilling or unable to rein in Wei’s massacre of Yang’s followers, and let his capital be consumed by terror and bloodshed. Not even Wei’s assault on the compound of his fellow King Shi Dakai, and the subsequent slaughter of Shi’s followers, provoked action from the Heavenly King. Hong only acted to eliminate Wei when a vengeful Shi threatened to march on the capital. There is seemingly a pattern of behaviour here, with Hong tolerating all manner of disharmony amongst his subordinates and only rousing himself to action when he felt his own position threatened.


Hong’s sole takeaway from this disastrous turn of events, largely brought on by his inability to control his subordinates, was an increased sense of paranoia and a tendency to only trust his family members. This led to the promotion of his venal and untalented brothers Hong Renda and Hong Renfa, who proceeded to undermine Shi, which eventually led Shi to leave Nanjing. In subsequent years, these two unsavoury individuals would proceed to antagonise more of their brother’s most able subordinates, namely Li Xiucheng and their own distant cousin Hong Rengan. Rengan had briefly reinvigorated the Taiping and provided firm executive leadership, but the failure of his eastern campaign and the jealousy his rapid promotion provoked from other courtiers led to a swift downgrade in his authority.


Meanwhile, as his underlings continued to feud with each other, Hong withdrew ever further into his palace. Only his family, leading officials, and exclusively female staff were allowed to see him. He spent his grappling with theological issues, producing religious pamphlets, and tyrannising his servants- accidentally striking the Heavenly King whilst fanning away insects, or arriving late with his hot towels, could both provoke beatings. No one was safe from his rages, with Hong once kicking one of his pregnant concubines. It is probably safe to assume that no one pointed out the irony that anger and raised voices were not allowed in the palace.


The Heavenly King's throne in Nanjing. Photo taken by wikimedia user 'Gisling' and shared under the CC BY 3.0 licence.

Occasionally, Hong sought to formalise his complete divorce from earthly matters. In 1861 he announced his complete focus on spiritual matters, leaving mere ‘’common things’’ to his heir Hong Tianguifu. The Young Monarch, as he was known, was not yet a teenager. As the military situation of the Rebellion deteriorated, then, its erstwhile leader was thus busy poring over the Bible. Edits included inserting Jesus into the Old Testament (and identifying him as ‘’God’s eldest son’’), excising mentions of alcohol, and turning various Old Testament figures into moral exemplars- removing Noah’s drunkenness, Jacob’s supposed display of filial and fraternal disloyalty, and Judah’s tryst with his daughter-in-law.


Already delusional, living in complete isolation can hardly have helped Hong’s grasp of practical necessities. He reached his apotheosis in the closing days of the Rebellion, refusing Li Xiucheng’s entreaties to leave the capital on account of the hopeless military situation and instructing the starving populace to follow the Israelite’s example and eat ‘’manna.’’ One report of his death has Hong’s final sickness beginning after he had consumed such ‘’manna’’- i.e. weeds he had found growing in his palace.


Having this figure as the (nominal, at least) leader of the Taiping is why I have severe doubts about the long-term viability of a Heavenly Kingdom, even in the event of a Taiping military victory. It seems likely that any such polity would be beset by instability, with feuding Kings either engaging in vicious courtly intrigue to assume Yang’s position as the true power behind the throne or establishing regional powerbases for themselves with only token deference to Nanjing. Some hint towards the latter can perhaps already be gleaned from OTL, when Li Xiucheng was seemingly more concerned with establishing himself in the rich eastern provinces than fully dedicating himself to the strategically vital western campaign. As leaders arose who were not particularly spiritually committed to Hong, outright usurpation would become increasingly likely.


It should also be noted that there is no extremely capable and charismatic heir waiting in the wings, who would be able to assume full control of the Taiping if it just survived a few years longer. The Young Monarch is a shadowy figure, but what we do know is not entirely promising- he is reported to have been a self-indulgent and wilful child, playing in the rain and smashing presents given to him. His upbringing might also have taken its toll on his mental state- Hong was a generally indulgent father, but he did decide Tianguifu was too old to stay in the inner palace in 1857. Tianguifu was banished to the outer palace to preside over his own household, forbidden to see his mother and sisters, and had strict instructions imposed upon him. The effect this had on an eight year old boy’s mental state can only be imagined.


Whilst it is impossible to truly judge such a mysterious figure, it seems unlikely that he would emerge as a strong central leader if the Heavenly Kingdom were still in a healthy state in the mid-1860s. If anything, it seems likely that a victorious Heavenly Kingdom would fracture further upon Hong’s death, given Tianguifu would not possess his father’s spiritual authority or whatever personal ties of loyalty the generals still felt towards Hong. The Heavenly Capital’s ability to hold things together in such circumstances seems questionable, and a kind of centrifugal degeneration into an alternate ‘warlord era’ seems likely.


This is unfortunate, because a puritanical 20th Century theocratic China ruled by God’s alleged great-great-great-grandson would be an excellent hook for a story.


The Taiping: Quite Weird


The second major impediment faced by the Taiping was that they were so strange, espousing an ideology that alienated many Chinese. In particular, two core elements of the Taiping platform seemed perfectly designed to alienate the Chinese elite- scholars and gentry (who were often one and the same). It was this group that had the greatest ties to the imperial court, with gentry using their resources to do well in examinations and gain access to numerous academic honours and economic privileges. It is no coincidence that this class, personified by Zeng Guofan, would rally to the Qing and organise the military forces that defeated the Taiping.


The gentry were naturally alarmed at the Taiping’s avowed intention- never implemented- to engage in massive land redistribution, granting equal allotments to all men and women. In general, of course, the rich have reason to not be particularly enthused about being told they have to surrender all their wealth into a common ‘’Holy Treasury.’’ Even more serious was Hong’s denunciation of Confucianism, for so long the defining foundation of the Chinese state. For the literati, the Taiping examinations- based on the Bible and Hong’s spiritual pronouncements, and open to all regardless of social background- could be seen as nothing other than sick parodies. That the Taiping were so desperate with their examinations, throwing them open to all classes and making them quite easy to pass, also illustrates the desperation for literate talent that permeated the Taiping government. This desperation, of course, is evidence that few of the scholarly class came over to the Taiping.


Even if they hadn’t been so hostile to the Confucian precepts, the Taiping government would inevitably lack credibility in the eyes of the scholars- it was led, after all, by someone who couldn’t even pass the examinations necessary to be a minor magistrate. The same was true of Hong Rengan, whilst Yang Xiuqing was illiterate and Li Xiucheng self-taught. For the class of scholar bureaucrats, these were not appropriate men to rule the China.


Picture of bust of Li Xiucheng, general of Taiping Rebels. Bust is located in Suzhou. Photo taken by John Smith.

So, the elites are thoroughly alienated. This is not necessarily fatal- the Taiping did have some popular policies. Land redistribution had a major appeal to the poor, struggling to scratch out a living in land-poor rural China, and the anti-Manchu sentiments they espoused were also highly popular. It was these two policies that contributed to the groundswell of support the Taiping received on the march northward.


However, even amongst those disenchanted with the status quo and not particularly enamoured with the Qing, there was plenty about the Taiping to find off-putting. For many, the Taiping’s iconoclastic purges and tendency to burn down temples was already abhorrent, but once established in Nanjing the Taiping dedicated themselves to an unremitting assault on many of the rhythms of ordinary life and traditional social mores. They introduced a new calendar, which no longer acknowledged auspicious and inauspicious days, and eliminated traditional holidays and festivals. Funerary rites, ancestor worship, and assorted other ‘superstitions’ were banned in the Heavenly Kingdom. Breaking open coffins and smashing funerary objects- thus leaving the ancestors to hopelessly wander the Earth- was a rather untactful way to introduce yourself to your new subjects. Perhaps the most infamous and, for many, traumatising, Taiping reform was related to the role of women in society.


The incredibly simplistic take sometimes offered is that the Taiping were in favour of gender equality and upending traditional gender roles, thus provoked hostility from the forces of the patriarchal establishment. Whilst the Taiping tendency to employ women in official and, occasionally, military roles undoubtedly did perturb much of the Chinese population, the picture is considerably more complicated.


For example, by prescribing for gender segregation in captured Nanjing, the Taiping upended the nuclear family. That those in the ‘Women’s Institute’ were expected to perform physical labour was particularly shocking. The women of Nanjing, crippled with bound feet and unused to such labour, suffered terribly. The Taiping were probably in ignorance of the consequences of their orders here- they were mostly Hakkas, who did not practice foot binding and whose women worked in the fields. This extended to the Hakka women themselves, who served as officers in the Women’s Institute- and mercilessly drove and whipped their counterparts when overseeing physical labour. The Institute was closed in 1855 because of a shortage of rice during the siege, at a similar time that the ‘Old Brothers’ from Guangxi and Guangdong pressured Yang into rescinding the gender segregation order. Regardless, resentments remained. That the women of the Institute were then distributed to Taiping soldiers as wives should serve as ample evidence that the Taiping’s progressiveness regarding gender relations had some severe limits.


Notably, the Taiping managed to be so off-putting that they even alienated other groups actively fighting the Qing. In the early days of the Rebellion, many Triad leaders and their gangs joined the Taiping, but most were dissuaded by the Taiping’s puritanical strictures and rigid discipline. In later years, fundamental differences in outlook meant that collaborations with other Triad groups or the Nian Rebellion could never be more than alliances of convenience. The Triads and Nian were rebels in the traditional Chinese mould, there were certain things about Chinese life that they simply took for granted. The Taiping, with their unapologetically revolutionary outlook, were something very different.


So, the Taiping adopted a suite of policies that managed to alienate the elite of China, most ordinary Chinese, and even other rebel groups. As if this wasn’t enough, one of the genuinely popular elements of the Taiping platform- their anti-Manchu, nationalistic, stance- was also somewhat lacking in credibility. The Hakkas had their own patterns of speech, dress, and comportment, such that the Taiping leadership appeared just as alien as the Manchus to many of their subjects. One can imagine an ordinary Chinese person who is vehemently anti-Manchu facing a difficult decision- keeping their head down and accepting the ‘devil you know’ status quo of continued Qing rule, or risking their head by supporting an equally alien group who were spouting anti-Manchu platitudes whilst also making bizarre religious pronouncements, taking away the womenfolk, and insisting you put all your possessions into a ‘’Holy Treasury.’’ Most would have chosen the former.


The other popular plank of the Taiping, land redistribution, was never seriously attempted. It was always put off by the exigencies of war and the need to ensure cooperation from local powerbrokers. By the 1860s, the Taiping who had garnered waves of support along the Yangtze by promising land reform had metamorphosised into a conquering army concerned mainly with extracting the resources necessary to fuel the war effort. Peasants along the war-torn Yangtze learned to live in fear of both Taiping and Qing armies, and the various criminals who followed in their wake, with any popular enthusiasm for the Taiping long-forgotten.


Finally, it should be noted that the Taiping’s true believers, the ‘Old Brothers’, were not an inexhaustible resource. When the various groups of God Worshippers assembled at Jintian for the start of the uprising, they numbered fewer than 20 000. Those who joined later did receive rudimentary religious instruction, but their dedication must be doubted- many joined for their own reasons, such as opposition to rapacious landlords or the simple promise of a free meal. As the rebellion wore on, its coherence inevitably began to break down. The dedicated ‘Old Brothers’- disciplined and full of passion- died, to be replaced with masses of undisciplined and unenthusiastic conscripts. The apparent need to massacre thousands of Yang Xiuqing’s followers in 1856 hardly helped with this issue. Additionally, the ‘Old Brothers’ dominated the higher ranks of the Taiping and won special privileges, treating more recent recruits with suspicion or distaste. This left some unfortunate divisions among the Taiping, and seemingly demonstrated that the dream of equality had been forgotten. The ‘Old Brothers’ were also exclusively from the peripheral regions of Guangxi and Guangdong, whose occupants were often dismissed as country bumpkins by more sophisticated Chinese in the central provinces.


The confluence of these factors made Taiping governance rather volatile. It was a polity with an anaemic central government presided over by a disinterested lunatic, propagating polices and ideas that alienated much of the Chinese populace, and relying extensively on a small clique not particularly well-attuned to the masses. It is perhaps unsurprising that Taiping control did not really extend into the countryside, with local leaders usually left in place- the Taiping being too busy trying to supply their roaming armies to concern themselves with attempts to upend local power structures. The willingness of such local leaders to forward tax revenue on to the central government in Nanjing proved limited IOTL, and the central government seemingly proved unwilling to force the issue.


The Taiping can perhaps be better characterised as a collection of roaming armies operating out of a handful of fortified bases, rather than a functioning state. It is for this reason that a Taiping that is militarily victorious isn’t especially likely to rule over a stable China- there would be simmering discontent in the countryside, a multitude of gentry willing to form anti-Taiping militia groups, other rebels disinclined to be friendly towards the Taiping, disenchanted conscripts amongst the Taiping armies, and hopeless hordes of refugees from the war-torn countryside. Even if granted a modicum of ‘peace’ with the defeat of the Qing, the ability of the Taiping to transform themselves into an effective governing body must be questioned, given Hong’s inept leadership and the consequent factionalism.


Can the Taiping’s Internal Problems Be Fixed?


One can theoretically sand off some of the Taiping’s rougher edges. Some moderation is already evident IOTL, with the movement away from some of their more puritanical stances in the later 1850s and Hong Rengan’s reintroduction of Confucius into the Taiping exams. But, as long as the fundamental essence of the Taiping is there- a Christian movement with some radical undertones- it will alienate a sizeable proportion of the Chinese populace.


One might also play around with Hong Xiuquan’s personality to make him a more effective political leader. Let him be more pragmatic- willing to cut deals with other rebel groups, perhaps table some of the more controversial parts of the Taiping platform until victory has been won, and decisive enough to rein in his subordinates. You could make him a military genius, for good measure, capable of smashing Qing armies with dizzying tactical skill. But there a limits- you can’t change Hong too much, because it takes a person who has a rather particular mental state to start a rebellion premised on them being the Chinese brother of Christ. A cannier, more subtle, Hong who is capable of luring in in more traditional-minded supporters would also lead the Taiping to face even bigger divisions between the zealous true believers and the mere bandwagoners.


When it comes to the leadership problem, an alternate route would be for Hong to die (or ‘ascend to Heaven’) early in the Rebellion. If Hong died in the early 1850s and Yang managed to assert himself- as the ‘Voice of God’- as the new leader of the Taiping, then perhaps they would experience more success. Yang was undeniably talented, and if he becomes undisputed leader at an early stage perhaps he feels less of a need to humiliate and marginalise the other commanders.


One could also try and counterbalance Yang by, for example, keeping Feng Yunshan alive beyond 1852. Feng seemed personally loyal to Hong- a friend, relative, and neighbour- in a way that Yang never was, and could be a more reliable second-in-command. But giving Hong another subordinate might just add further instability, and frankly playing around with the subordinate Kings whilst keeping Hong in charge is a bit like shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic.


Fundamentally, the best way to get a successful overthrow of the Qing dynasty in the mid-19th century is probably to butterfly the Taiping entirely. A more traditional rebellion- one that can tap into the very real discontent and anti-Manchu sentiment the Taiping uncovered without alienating vast sections of Chinese society by smashing temples and advocating radical land reform- led by a non-insane individual who better fit the mould of a traditional Chinese emperor would have a far better shot at upending the Qing. But then again, a more traditional rebellion wouldn’t be as interesting, would it?

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