Late Qing Catastrophes: The Taiping Rebellion

By Tyler Parsons


Contemporary drawing of Hong Xiuquan, dating from around 1860

The middle decades of the nineteenth century were incredibly traumatic for China. For the West, the most noteworthy events of this period are the two Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860), in which China was forcibly opened to western trade.


However, the ailing Qing dynasty was also afflicted by a collection of sizable and lengthy rebellions at this time. Somewhat remarkably, despite massive unrest and a cumulative death toll well into the tens of millions, the Qing managed to survive this period of immense instability and would totter into the 20th century. History need not have gone this way.


The most serious threat faced by the Qing in this period was the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), which occupied some of China’s wealthiest and most populous provinces for over a decade. With a death toll of over twenty million, it is still widely regarded as the second bloodiest war in history- quite an achievement for what was mostly a domestic affair.


Its leader, Hong Xiuquan, was born in 1814 and grew up in the vicinity of Canton, in China’s south-eastern Guangdong province. Significantly, he belonged to the Hakka ethnic group, who were relative newcomers in southern China- their name meaning ‘’guest people’’- and often led a somewhat marginal existence. Academically gifted, young Hong was the great hope of his family, who invested heavily in his education in the hopes he would find his way into the imperial bureaucracy. Unfortunately, it was not to be. In 1827, 1836, and 1837, he failed the civil service examinations.


The third failure produced a nervous breakdown. Hong had a series of visions. An old man denounced Confucius for misleading the Chinese people, and gave Hong a flaming sword for slaying demons. Hong was whisked across the world, battling these demons alongside a brotherly figure.


Eventually, however, Hong returned to health, and seemed to put the experience behind him. Until, that is, he failed the examinations again, in 1843. It was in the aftermath of this that he stumbled upon a long-forgotten missionary pamphlet acquired in Canton, the centre of western activity in China. This document in hand, he was finally able to understand his visions- he was the son of God, and younger brother of Jesus Christ, and had been given a divine mission to destroy the Confucian and Buddhist idols that polluted China.


The movement, which came to be known as the Society of the God Worshippers, grew slowly throughout the following six years. The bulk of the converts came from Guangdong’s neighbouring Guangxi province, which Hong and one of his earliest converts, Feng Yunshan, had left their home village to proselytise in 1844. This period also saw Hong adopt an increasingly nationalistic line of thought that denounced the Manchu Qing dynasty as foreign rulers.


Guangxi was wracked with instability, ravaged by drought, Triad activity, bandits, and pirates forced inland by British naval power. This led many of the poor and otherwise persecuted, especially Hakkas, to seek the God Worshippers’ aid. Hostility from local gentry-led militia groups gradually saw the Taiping adopt a more militant stance and establish a base around Jintian in 1850. It was here that Hong began assuming royal airs, whilst his followers- now numbering over 10 000- began arming themselves, organising into units, and developing an intricate communication system of signal flags. The Taiping’s draconian discipline also began to take shape in these early days, with public beatings administered to those who defied the Ten Commandments or otherwise showed an ignorance as to God’s purpose.


It was at this point that Qing officials began to take notice, probing Taiping bases in late 1850 and sending a much larger force towards Jintian in December. January 1851 marked the first major clash with Qing authorities. It was a victory for the Taiping, but they were harried severely in the following months. Nevertheless, Hong was emboldened enough to proclaim the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. In these early days this unique political entity adopted such ceremonies as Jesus and God themselves extolling the virtues of the Heavenly Kingdom- through their earthly vessels Xiao Chaogui and Yang Xiuqing, who relayed these divine encouragements via a trancelike state. Jesus-as-Xiao was also in the habit of giving out military orders and emphasising that disobedience was a crime against Heaven, as well as giving warnings about traitors in the ranks who needed to be executed. These early leaders were also exalted to kingship by Hong in this embattled period- Yang was to be ‘East King,’ Xiao ‘West King,’ Feng ‘South King,’ Wei Changhui ‘North King,’ and Shi Dakai ‘Wing King’. A hierarchy was implied by their secondary titles- Yang was ‘Lord of Nine Thousand Years,’ Xiao eight, Feng seven, Wei six, and Shi five. Hong himself was, of course, ‘Heavenly King and Lord of Ten Thousand Years’.


Eventually the Taiping managed to escape the encroaching Qing forces by breaking out northwards. On this great trek they took what cities they could to serve as temporary bases, bypassing those they could not, evading encroaching Qing armies, and confounding their enemies by rapidly switching between land and waterborne movement. Along the way, too, they attracted further followers by handing out spoils seized from fleeing landlords, or propagating anti-Manchu propaganda, accreting further followers ranging from the rural poor to unemployed miners to Secret Society members. Another Taiping trademark emerged during these years, when the population of the city of Quanzhou was slaughtered because one of its garrison severely wounded Feng Yunshan. He would die sometime later in mid-1852, the first of the original generation of Taiping leaders to perish, joined shortly thereafter by Jesus’ erstwhile mouthpiece Xiao Chaogui. Eventually, the Taiping reached the Yangtze, taking the capital of Hubei province, Wuchang, and its neighbouring cities of Hankou and Hanyang (the three would later conglomerate into a little place called Wuhan) in January 1853.


This was, by any means, a great prize- especially for men who had battled for survival in the foothills of Guangxi only two years previously- but it was not enough. The Taiping flooded out of Wuchang and descended the Yangtze, a horde supposedly 500 000-strong, and in just a month covered 400 miles to reach China’s second city of Nanjing. It was taken in a massive assault on 19th March 1853, and would thereafter be the capital of the Heavenly Kingdom. The Manchu soldiers and their families, numbering in the tens of thousands, were alternately massacred or committed suicide.

Map of the Taiping Rebellion from Ti-ping tien-kwoh: The History of the Ti-Ping Revolution (1866) by Augustus Frederick Lindley

Much was done to renovate the heavenly capital in a fevered burst of activity after this victory. Buddhist and Taoist temples were destroyed, their priests humiliated or killed. The small Catholic community were also condemned to death for their refusal to adhere to Taiping rites, though a reprieve was granted. Nanjing’s printers were put to work, and began publishing the Bible- though the Taiping saw fit to excise the incestuous climax of Lot’s story. A census was also carried out, so the locals could properly contribute to the military effort, though many hid from Taiping officials or fled to the abandoned parts of the city. Language reform also took place- the Chinese characters for certain significant terms, such as ‘Heaven,’ ‘holy,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘elder brother,’ were too sacred to be used for mundane or profane purposes, so new alternatives had to be adopted.


Many other policies adopted on the march were also codified in this new centre of government, as the Taiping began to construct their unorthodox, puritanical, utopia. Resources were to be aggregated in public treasuries, to be distributed according to need. Various vices such as wine, opium, and tobacco were banned. Genders were strictly segregated, with even married couples barred from cohabiting for a time. An attempt to stamp out prostitution also occurred, relying heavily on the theory of group punishment- not only were prostitutes and their clients to be executed, but their families also. Foot-binding was outlawed, and some other tentative moves to improve the status of women followed- they were allowed in some military and bureaucratic positions- as did an expansive programme of land reform. However, the puritanical strictures gradually fell away, and many of the other reform programmes never really left the ground. The Taiping lacked the level of local control necessary to institute significant land reform, and foot-binding was deeply ingrained in Chinese culture- it had, indeed, survived Qing attempts to ban it in the 17th century.


Militarily, the situation ebbed and flowed in the years following the capture of Nanjing. For the most part, the Taiping and Qing traded control of various cities along the Yangtze, reducing some of them to ruined ghost-towns. The Taiping’s one great strategic offensive, a northern expedition dispatched towards Beijing after the capture of Nanjing, had been ravaged by winter weather, encircled, and drowned by a diversion of the Grand Canal in 1854. Nevertheless, the Taiping had many successes along the Yangtze and its surrounding provinces, helped by the ineffectiveness of the Qing’s regular troops- the ‘Green Standard Armies’. These were undertrained, underpaid, lacking in motivation, and led by corrupt officers who inflated the numbers they commanded so they could pocket the extra pay. Additionally, they were woefully decentralised, to prevent any general from being able to challenge the Emperor, and in many cases functioned more as a local constabulary than as an army. It would be a different form of military organisation that vanquished the Taiping.


Zeng Guofan was an accomplished scholar, having passed the civil service exams and been accepted into the prestigious Hanlin Academy in Beijing, where he rubbed shoulders with the elite of the empire. He happened to be in his home province of Hunan in 1852 for his mother’s funeral, at the same time the Taiping were protruding into the province on their great march northwards. Trusted by the capital, he was instructed to take command of the haphazard militia movements in Hunan in early 1853. Having no military experience, Zeng was only prevailed upon to accept the assignment by the pleas of his family members and the fall of nearby Wuchang.


He opted to build a new force from scratch, instituting strict recruitment standards and emphasising personal ties of loyalty. Officers picked their own subordinates- Zeng himself made use of his four brothers- and recruited foot soldiers from their own districts. The localised and personal nature of recruitment made desertion difficult, whilst it was further discourage by generous pay. He also began to develop a freshwater navy, bringing in experts from beyond landlocked Hunan.


Qing Dynasty official Zeng Guofan.

Nevertheless, the early years of this ‘Hunan Army’ were inauspicious. Zeng faced the unremitting hostility of local Green Standard troops, and had to compete with other local authorities for funds and supplies. The bankrupt, derelict, Qing left him responsible for sourcing his own weapons- either wringing them out of provincial authorities or manufacturing them himself- and organising his own finances by levying taxes.


On the battlefield, progress was halting. After suffering a string of defeats throughout 1854, he ultimately managed to secure Hunan and push north into neighbouring Hubei, where he retook Wuchang. Unfortunately, he suffered another disaster in early 1855, after which the Taiping stormed back up the Yangtze to retake Wuchang. Thereafter, Zeng idled for eighteen months, struggling to put together funds in the face of intransigent provincial officials. Disillusioned, he was given a year-long leave of absence in late 1857, to mourn the death of his father.


The middle years of the 1850s were, indeed, the height of the Taiping fortunes militarily. In mid-1856, they controlled a 400-mile stretch of the Yangtze from Wuchang in the west to Zhenjiang in the east, and had routed a Green Standard force outside Nanjing in June. Any hope they had of taking advantage of this success, however, was snatched away by a great internal convulsion.


The trouble arose from the voice of God, Yang Xiuqing. His prominence had been assured by the deaths of Feng Yunshan and Xiao Chaogui on the march northward, and after the seizure of Nanjing he had become effective leader of the Taiping government, due to the Heavenly King’s indifference to earthly matters. He further secured his position by marginalising and bullying other commanders, and continued to arrogate greater spiritual authority to himself at Hong’s expense- only the commands of God as relayed by Yang could be trusted, for the Bible contained numerous falsehoods. Yang, now styled the ‘Comforter and Wind of the Holy Spirit,’ periodically entered trances and denounced the Heavenly King as having grown harsh and indulgent with power.


Matters reached their head after the victory outside Nanjing in mid-1856, when Yang sent the other Kings Shi Dakai and Wei Changhui away from the capital. Hong viewed this as the prelude to a regicide, and managed to recall the two. Wei arrived first, and was able storm Yang’s palace and slaughter its inhabitants- including Yang’s two sons, aged seven and three. The rest of Yang’s followers- thousands of veterans from the earliest days of the movement- were then lured into a massacre, and witch hunts followed for the following three months. Shi, arriving in the midst of this slaughter, was disgusted, prompting Wei to denounce him as a traitor. Shi quickly slipped out of the city, but an assault on his palace resulted in the massacre of his family and retinue. Once outside he assembled an army and made to march on Nanjing, whereupon Hong managed to contrive Wei’s execution. As the last King standing, Shi then took charge of the government for six months, but found his efforts frustrated by the Heavenly King’s growing paranoia and the antagonism of Hong’s incompetent, over-promoted, brothers. Ultimately, Shi Dakai- widely regarded as the most talented and charismatic of the Taiping commanders- gave up in frustration and marched westward with his followers, never to return. In this great conflagration, then, the Taiping had lost the last three of their initial echelon of Kings, in one way or another.


Having thus annihilated their own senior leadership and engulfed their capital in a whirlwind of bloodshed, the Taiping floundered in the following few years. Most notably, Wuchang was recaptured by the Qing in December 1856, thus changing hands for the fourth time in as many years- a fact that serves to illustrate the see-sawing nature of the conflict- and Nanjing was subjected to a fresh siege by Green Standard troops. Eventually a new generation of leaders emerged, most prominently Li Xiucheng (the ‘Loyal King’) and Chen Yucheng (the ‘Brave King’). Their combined efforts managed to break the siege of Nanjing in May 1860, routing the Green Standard Army and killing its commanders.


The Heavenly King’s cousin, Hong Rengan, also managed to return to the capital in 1859. He had been separated from the movement during the progress northward, and spent several years working as an assistant to western missionaries in Hong Kong. Swiftly promoted to overall leadership and named ‘Shield King’, Rengan briefly reinvigorated the Taiping with a new strategic vision. Having developed an affinity for the west during his time in Hong Kong, Rengan outlined a policy of wholesale westernisation- he extolled the benefits of steamships, free trade, trains, telescopes, patent rights, mines, banks and newspapers. Steamships were particularly important, given their potential to dominate the Yangtze. Rengan thus envisioned a plan where the Taiping would secure control over the wealthy eastern provinces between Nanjing and the sea, ultimately establishing relations with the foreigners in Shanghai to purchase weapons and technology.


After the victory outside Nanjing, therefore, Li Xiucheng was despatched east, and made rapid initial gains. Everything went awry, however, at Shanghai. The Taiping made effusive protestations of friendship and promised they would only seize the Chinese city, leaving the foreign settlements unmolested. They even refrained from advancing upon Shanghai with all their strength, instead only sending a small advance force. Nevertheless, in August, they were fired upon and driven back by western volunteers. Letters sent ahead by Hong Rengan and Li Xiucheng, explaining their friendly intentions, had been left unopened by the British representative in the city, Frederick Bruce, who had formed a negative opinion of the Taiping.


The reasoning of Bruce, and wider issues of European conceptions of the Taiping, will be explored in a future article, but for our present purposes it need only be known that it blunted the Taiping’s eastern campaign and their subsequent agreement to not approach within 30 miles of Shanghai provided the Qing a haven from which their forces could contest Taiping control of the eastern edges of the Yangtze. It additionally helped discredit Hong Rengan in Nanjing, and opened a fracture between him and Li Xiucheng, who was stung by the rebuff outside Shanghai and sceptical of western intentions.


In any case, the Taiping soon had to turn their attentions to the west, because Zeng Guofan and the Hunan Army had re-entered the fight. Indeed, after the rout of the Green Standard troops outside Nanjing, Zeng became the only figure on the Yangtze who could possibly defeat the Taiping, and was consequently bestowed with supreme military and civic powers in three key provinces by the court. His first target was the strategic city of Anqing- the furthest upriver Taiping stronghold and a bulwark defending Nanjing from the west and north. It also served as the Taiping’s gateway to the interior of China, potentially a base from which they could push back up the Yangtze to Wuchang or even link up with Shi Dakai, who was still roaming about even further inland.

Regaining the Provincial City of Anqing

Zeng put the city under siege in June 1860, whilst the Taiping were busy in the east- much of Anqing’s garrison, and its commander Chen Yucheng, had been sent eastward to assist the push against Shanghai. After licking their wounds, it thus became imperative for the Taiping to embark on a great western offensive to relieve Anqing. The plan took shape in September 1860, with it taking the form of a two pronged advance- Chen Yucheng north of the Yangtze, and Li Xiucheng to the south.


Chen Yucheng’s attempt to relieve Anqing from the north was foiled, and the initiative he gained from a rapid march further westward was wasted when a British representative dissuaded him from attacking poorly-defended Hankou, recently opened to the British by treaty. A golden opportunity to take Hankou and then move on to Wuchang and strangle the Hunan Army’s supply lines was thus squandered. South of the river a number of subordinate kings harassed Zeng’s headquarters and at one point cut him off entirely, but were ultimately driven off. Li Xiucheng himself probed Zeng’s defences for a time before embarking on a westward march that turned into a miserable slog. Forced to grind his way through Qing-held cities, he was two months late to a planned rendezvous- where he found that Chen had departed before he arrived. Their efforts had, in any case, been hampered by Zeng’s control of the river and their inability to effectively communicate.


Li Xiucheng subsequently returned to the east, with which he was much more familiar, whilst the noose around Anqing tightened ever further. A key event was Frederick Bruce banning western merchants from supplying the city with food, whilst militarily Chen Yucheng spent several further months desperately trying to relieve the city, without success. The Hunan Army occupied the shell of Anqing in September. Disgusted to find human meat for sale in the market, they massacred the city’s surviving population.


As 1862 dawned, then, the Rebellion entered its final stage. Zeng Guofan, now ensconced in Anqing, begin planning his siege of Nanjing, and authorised his former scholarly pupil Li Hongzhang to begin organising another provincial army in Anhui. Li Xiucheng, having returned to the east, attempted to take Shanghai by force. In January his attempts to encircle Shanghai were thwarted in part by highly irregular snow, and he also clashed with a European-trained Chinese militia, commanded by the mercurial American adventurer Frederick Townsend Ward.


Further overt foreign support for the Qing came in April, when British steamships carried Li Hongzhang and 9000 men downriver to Shanghai, with the Taiping not daring to fire on foreign vessels. Western gunships then embarked on combined arms exercises with Ward’s ‘Ever Victorious Army,’ grinding down Taiping strongholds around Shanghai. The collaboration would reach its apotheosis the following year, when British officer Charles Gordon replaced the deceased Ward as commander of the ‘Ever Victorious Army’.


Things were unravelling for the Taiping further inland, too, with Chen Yucheng being captured by a traitorous subordinate and handed over for execution in May. His army disintegrated after his death, resulting in the Taiping essentially ceding the northern and western approaches to Nanjing to the Hunan Army. Li Xiucheng was left to try and desperately defend the eastern front without weakening Nanjing. This was an impossible task, with isolated garrisons along the Yangtze gradually picked off and Zeng’s brother Guoquan beginning his siege of Nanjing’s outer lying fort of Yuhuatai in May.


Li Xiucheng would attempt to dislodge him with 45 consecutive days of attacks in October and November, without success. Yuhuatai ultimately fell in June 1863, effectively closing off the southern gate of the city. Fierce waterborne assaults took further forts shortly thereafter, and gave Zeng control of the western and northern approaches to the city. That same month Shi Dakai had been captured and executed in distant Sichuan- destroying Taiping hopes he would make a triumphant, heroic, return to save Nanjing. The besiegers continued to strangle the city through the second half of the year, with Li Xiucheng’s periodic dashes east to try and organise a relief of the city repeatedly foundering on an inability to gather supplies in the war-torn environs of the Yangtze and well-garrisoned imperial cities.


The English grew disenchanted with direct military cooperation with the Qing in December 1863, after Li Hongzhang brutally executed several Taiping kings who had furtively surrendered Suzhou. Gordon, who had promised the surrendering kings their safety, was outraged, as was much of the western community, but their help was no longer needed.


In the first half of 1864, the last of Nanjing’s external forts were taken, and on 19th July a massive mine was detonated, opening a major breach in the city’s walls that the Hunan Army swiftly stormed. The Heavenly King, who had grown increasingly paranoid and delusional with every military setback, had died some six weeks earlier, having refused all entreaties to flee the city. His teenaged heir, the Young Monarch, was extracted from the city and embarked on a 400 mile flight southwest with Hong Rengan, but the two were captured and executed in October. Li Xiucheng had been captured outside the city on 22nd July, and put to death. Other Taiping leaders continued the fight for some months or years, most notably the Heavenly King’s brother-in-law Lai Wenguang, but with the fall of Nanjing their Heavenly Kingdom had effectively been destroyed.


In the grand tradition of AH, it is possible to focus entirely on the military side of things, and change the outcome of a few battles to make things better for the Taiping. The easiest way to do this would be to decapitate or at least severely delegitimise the Qing regime by taking Beijing. Perhaps during their great roam northwards the Taiping point themselves at Beijing rather than Nanjing, or the Northern Expedition manages to take it in 1854. Indeed, some historians see this as the fatal failure of the Taiping- their enemies, though severely weakened and barely solvent, remained on the board. Provincial elites opposed to the Taiping thus always had an alternate source of authority to turn to and fight for.


Even in the absence of the Taiping landing such a knockout blow, however, other opportunities present themselves. Zeng Guofan was an entirely accidental general- if he hadn’t happened to be in Hunan in late 1852 his army may never have come to be. Even if someone does manage to organise an effective provincial force in place of Zeng, such a figure might not be as trusted by Beijing- Zeng had rubbed shoulders with the empire’s bureaucratic elite at the Hanlin Academy, and his patron Sushun was one of the Xianfeng Emperor’s closest confidantes. The string of governor-generalships and extraordinary powers granted to Zeng might not be extended to a less trusted figure. Indeed, even Zeng’s development of a private army caused trepidation in the imperial court IOTL, and such concerns will be multiplied if the private army is in the hands of a less well-connected figure. Alternately, such a figure might be sensitive to imperial concerns, and be overly deferential to the capital to prove his loyalty, in a way that is detrimental to his military effectiveness- Zeng, by contrast, was confident enough to ignore several imperial orders when they didn’t accord with his strategic worldview.


Zeng’s first few years in the field were also difficult ones- he twice attempted suicide after catastrophic defeats in 1854 and 1855. Had he been successful in either of these attempts his army, largely knit together by personal ties of loyalty, might not long survive him. Either of these scenarios, at minimum, removes a serious threat from the Taiping’s western flank- which is a significant boon, given the Taiping’s downfall in the 1860s come in part from their inability to prosecute a two-front war. Zeng could also have been defeated in the great Taiping western offensive of 1861. He gambled everything on Anqing, and could easily have lost. This, again, would allow the Taiping to move upriver and secure much of the Yangtze basin, as well as access potential recruits further in the interior. In such a scenario, the Taiping might secure a reasonably stable stretch of territory along the Yangtze, and it seems unlikely that the Qing could muster the resources to dislodge them, at least in the short term. A dramatic military victory might not even be needed- the war placed great strain on Zeng, with the hesitant general regularly consumed by stress and personal anguish at the loss of two brothers in his campaigns. It is not inconceivable that his health could collapse in the early 1860s, when the man had entered his fifties, and perhaps result in the unravelling of his army.


But is it that simple? Can the Taiping take Beijing, knock out the Qing, and rule a theocratic Christian China thereafter, or fend off Zeng Guofan and secure a ‘Heavenly Kingdom’ along the Yangtze that the Qing are too enfeebled to reconquer? It is possible, I suppose, but even a Taiping that wins a string of decisive military victories faces certain problems. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the Taiping, as they existed IOTL, were simply not built for stable long-term rule…

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