How the Taiping Rebellion Worked

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Katie Lambert: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy. And for our subject today, Katie and I both started our outlines with some pretty amazing superlatives. I had that our subject, the Taiping Rebellion, was the largest war of the 19th Century.

Katie Lambert: And I had read that it was the most important event in 19th Century China. But the crazy thing is that neither of us had ever really heard anything about this.

Sarah Dowdy: So it really is something we missed in history class.

Katie Lambert: We definitely missed it. We just found out about it a few weeks ago when we did our podcast on the opium war. And it's - those are pretty amazing figures, aren't they?

Sarah Dowdy: Right.

Katie Lambert: 20 million dead in the Taiping Rebellion.

Sarah Dowdy: Which we both thought must be a mistake when we first read it too. We looked, you know, okay, I gotta get another source for this, 20 million is way too many people, right. But it's what everybody has.

Katie Lambert: And this rebellion changed the Ching Dynasty, which began in 1644, forever and also the Imperial System. So it's a pretty big deal.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And fortunately for us and for our story, something that ends up so broad and so important starts with one man.

Katie Lambert: And this man's name is Hong Xiuquan. And let me go ahead and say that I have no idea if I said that correctly or not. But as most of you know, I do a wrap-up blog at the end of the week every single Friday talking about the podcast that published this week, so if you'd like to learn more about it and see how these things are actually spelled, please check out the blog. Hong was a poor farm boy whose biggest hope was to pass the civil service examinations and get a good post somewhere in Canton. And these were a huge deal. You first passed the qualifying exams in your section and then he went -

Sarah Dowdy: Which he passed that part.

Katie Lambert: Right, he did, and then he went to Canton for the State exam, and thousands of people showed up, but only a few would make it.

Sarah Dowdy: And this - if he passes, it would change your class and your entire future. It - basically everything is hanging off of this one exam for poor young Hong and he fails it four times.

Katie Lambert: Yes, again and again and again. So his dreams are thwarted forevermore. But after one of his failures he meets a Christian missionary and starts reading religious texts.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, he reads the tract of an early Chinese Christian, Liang Afa, and when he reads the tract he remembers a dream that he had several years before and everything sort of comes together for Hong. He had dreamt that he was the son of God, not Jesus, actually Jesus' younger brother, and he's been ordered to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth.

Katie Lambert: Right and he has to get rid of the demon Manchu's and reform China. So it's not only a religious goal, it's also somewhat of a political goal.

Sarah Dowdy: And when Hong discovers the Christian tracts and Christianity, he starts to feel that the Confucian classics, which of course he's been studying for 20 years trying to pass this civil service exam, seem vain and not - they seem what's wro- to be what's wrong with China? And the Christian tracts seem like they give him something to do, and that evil is around us and it can be slayed and he can be the one to do it.

Katie Lambert: So his friend, Feng Yunshan, hears his ideas and things they're pretty good and sets up a religious group called the God Worshipper Society with a bunch of poor peasants in the Guangxi Province. And around 1847 Hong, Feng and the Worshippers all come together. And in 1815 Hong becomes the leader of the rebellion.

Sarah Dowdy: And by January 1st, 1851, they've started a new dynasty called the Taiping Tianguo, which is the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, and Hong would be in charge as the Tianwang, or the Heavenly King, of this new dynasty for China.

Katie Lambert: Right, and their shining beginning is when they capture Nanjing in March of 1853, which they renamed Tianjing, their Heavenly Capital. So this is pretty crazy. This rebellion starts off as a bunch of raggedy poor peasants and ends up being more than a million disciplined religious fanatic soldiers.

Sarah Dowdy: And their style is just to pick people up as they go along and, you know, why are people so into it? What did they have to offer? What are they all about?

Katie Lambert: Well their beliefs were a mix of Christianity and the Classical Chinese religion, and the Taipings were more of the Old Testament type.

Sarah Dowdy: The wrathful God.

Katie Lambert: Right. Beware thy wrathful God. And, you know, someone who required obedience and in general had a bit of a temper if you're up on your Old Testament stories.

Sarah Dowdy: They were pretty puritanical, actually.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, they were anti-prostitution, foot binding, slavery, opium smoking, adultery, gambling, tobacco, arranged marriage, idol worship and alcohol. So they really weren't kidding around.

Sarah Dowdy: But on the more progressive front, they deemed men and women equal and they wanted to simplify the Chinese language and they believed that all property would be held in common, which that's a little foreboding for what's to come later in China, it's an interesting predecessor here. And that they believed in the equal distribution of land.

Katie Lambert: Right, a primitive communism.

Sarah Dowdy: Primitive sort of communism. And they also, again, were anti-Manchu. Wanted to get rid of the entire Imperial System! And wanted a restoration to the old ways in some respects! So we should probably talk a little bit about the Manchu's.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, the Manchu's - the Manchu Emperors had been in power for centuries with the Ching Dynasty. And the Chings had overturned the Mings, who were sort of regarded as the classic Chinese dynasty. But the Manchu's lasted so long because they maintained control over all aspects of the bureaucracy. They put Manchu's in all the key positions. And we should say too, the Manchu's are a minority in China.

Sarah Dowdy: Right.

Katie Lambert: So a lot of the Chinese are seeing them as foreign emperors almost. But I think the bureaucratic aspect is interesting here, considering that Hong couldn't become a bureaucrat, he couldn't pass his examination, and he ends up this enemy of the Manchu's. But by the 1950s the formerly impressive of the Manchu's and strong emperors have weakened and they have lost the Opium War, which, you know, they're held responsible for caving in to the West. But as we learned in our earlier podcast, there wasn't much that could be done about that.

Sarah Dowdy: No, but the Chinese were, again, very unhappy that the Treaty of Nanjing had been signed and felt that the Ching Dynasty had given in.

Katie Lambert: So there was plenty of opportunity for secret societies in the 1850s, not just these guys.

Sarah Dowdy: When the rebellion had swept some of them up with the Taipings if they were even remotely anti-Ching, the Nien Rebellion was also going on from around 1851 or 1853 to 1868. So the Ching Dynasty is fighting more than one rebellion at the same time, and there are also famines, droughts and floods going on.

Katie Lambert: The people are suffering and not very happy.

Sarah Dowdy: There's thought that perhaps the Ching Dynasty wasn't doing as much as they could to help the people, so of course there's going to be some sort of reaction to what's going on. And if things are bad, it must be the fault of the current rulers, the barbarian foreigner Manchu's.

Katie Lambert: So now that we've got some context, let's go back to the actual rebellion. The Taipings tried to capture Beijing, but failed. They had lots of victories in the Yangtze River Valley, but that capture of Nanjing was the only big city they ever managed to get. And this is why some people think they ended up not lasting. So there are some internal cracks as well. Yang Chu Ching, the Taiping Minister of State, has been trying to take over some of Hong's power. It doesn't go over well, and Yang and his followers, several thousand, are all killed by Hong. And he's not the only one killed. Even the person who killed Yang is killed by Hong. So we're already starting -

Sarah Dowdy: Internal struggles.

Katie Lambert: - to make a switch.

Sarah Dowdy: Right. Well and Hong is becoming more imperial as his reign goes on. Less about his early ideals and more about being in charge! You know, obviously if he's having all these people killed. But he's started up a huge bureaucracy of his own. He has 2000 women serving as ministers, bureaucrats, maids and attendants. His puritanical side has gotten even stronger and he's decreed that men and women, even those who are married, couldn't have sexual relations until the heavenly Kingdom triumphed. And if you know anything about human nature! So, yeah, it happens and sometimes violators are beheaded. But at the same time he's very hypocritical about this and he even keeps his own harem. So you can see how there would be a lot of internal disputes and anger and feuds and things are starting to fall apart.

Katie Lambert: And he's starting to alienate people. One of his top Generals, Shi Dakai, gets nervous about all the killing and defects and takes a lot of people with him.

Sarah Dowdy: Gets out of there, yeah.

Katie Lambert: Right. So the Ching Dynasty is fighting back this entire time against the Taipings, but their resources are stretched thin because, again, they're fighting the Nien Rebellion and there are also some Muslim rebellions going on in other parts of China. So they've got a lot on their plate. And at some point around this time, some accounts have Hong stepping back from leadership altogether. So he's -

Sarah Dowdy: Is it around the harem time?

Katie Lambert: Right. He's not doing the administrative stuff anymore, so you've lost that - you know that one person -

Sarah Dowdy: A charismatic leader.

Katie Lambert: Right, to centre your focus on.

Sarah Dowdy: Who's actually had the vision from God, which is inspiring everyone?

Katie Lambert: So he's just, you know, gone and taken a seat. Stepped back a little bit!

Sarah Dowdy: And in 1860 the Taipings try to take Shanghai, but again that doesn't work. These big city takeovers are just not happening for them.

Katie Lambert: Interestingly, they're thwarted by an American, Frederick Townsend Ward and his army of foreign mercenaries, and the West is not pleased that Ward is getting involved in this. They want to be neutral and just maintain their trading interests, because that's what the West is interested in. Selling opium and keeping these Chinese ports open. So they're trying to stay neutral, and the British actually arrest Ward for getting mixed up in -

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, saying stay out of it.

Katie Lambert: - local politics. But he gets away and he ends up setting up the Ever Victorious Army, which was Chinese troops but western officers and arms, so they were western trained, but using Chinese people. And when he died, Charles George, known as Chinese, Gordon took over and - a side note, Gordon is really interesting. I might want to do a totally separate broadcast on him. He ends up being killed in Khartoum by modests.

Sarah Dowdy: Like Governor of Sudan, was all over the world here.

Katie Lambert: It's pretty cool.

Sarah Dowdy: So if the Ching Dynasty collapsed, foreign trade might go with it. The British have just fought the Opium War and have secured those ports and everything, and they don't want a regime change. So the West becomes anti-Taiping.

Katie Lambert: Right. Because they're so anti-foreign against the Manchu's, they think, well, they'll probably be even more anti-foreigner with Americans and the British.

Sarah Dowdy: Well the Taiping are adamantly anti-opium too.

Katie Lambert: Right, so it's really not going to work out with that whole selling opium thing.

Sarah Dowdy: And there are some other outside forces that are coming in here, because usually the gentry would get behind a successful rebellion. But since the Taipings were so anti-Confucianism, a lot of them felt like they were being threatened as well. That, you know, the Chinese gentry classes and the scholars and not the peasants! So they come together under a man named Zeng Guofan, a Chinese official in the Ching government, and he puts together a Hunan Army courtesy of their own local taxes and surrounds Nanjing.

Katie Lambert: And by this time Hong is sick and refuses to leave Nanjing or to escape and he kills himself or perhaps dies of food poisoning in June of 1964. But before he dies he makes his teenage son the Tianwang of the Heavenly King.

Sarah Dowdy: Which, again, he has a teenage son, but weren't people not supposed to be waiting?

Katie Lambert: He was supposed to be waiting for the Heavenly Kingdom there.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, I don't think he waited.

Katie Lambert: So Nanjing falls from the Taiping in July of 1864 and 100,000 Taiping preferred death to being captured.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, they were offered amnesty if they repented, but nobody did it basically. A lot of them would kill themselves by fire or just die at the hands of the Imperial Army.

Katie Lambert: Rather than renounce their beliefs.

Sarah Dowdy: So in this way, Zeng saved the Imperial Regime from total collapse. Although, since his success gave more power to the Han Chinese Elite -

Katie Lambert: The gentry?

Sarah Dowdy: Right. It weakened the Ching Dynasty after all even more.

Katie Lambert: So the Manchu's win but they give in to so much to win that it's sort of an empty victory for them.

Sarah Dowdy: And the rebellion didn't even really end them. Skirmishes went on for years and years. The Taiping did not want to fall. And the government was trying to squash them for quite a while afterward.

Katie Lambert: So they didn't want to fall, but they basically do. So why does that happen?

Sarah Dowdy: There is not really much consensus on this, and it might have been because they - because of their religious beliefs and because they were against Confucianism? And a lot of people consider that religion integral to being Chinese.

Katie Lambert: Right.

Sarah Dowdy: And then also on the religion side of it, people might have objected to having a theocracy.

Katie Lambert: Some of it could have been because they alienated so many people with those really radical social reforms. And they also didn't really have a stable base, you know, they only had that one big city that they'd gotten. But when they got there they never consolidated power in an effective way.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, the ragtag way that they formed isn't the most long-lasting model.

Katie Lambert: No, and they also had so much internal feuding, Hong changed so much. There was corruption of his own beliefs. And then also the West came in on the side Chings.

Sarah Dowdy: The West involvement. Yeah, that certainly turns the cards for them.

Katie Lambert: We put our money where we needed it.

Sarah Dowdy: But of course aspects of the rebellion last for decades after and a lot of people do see a form of primitive communism in the whole Taiping rebellion. There are even some interesting comparisons between Hong and Mao, both inspired by these outside Western ideas, Christianity or in Mao's case, by Marx. And setting up Utopian communities in remote areas and governing very strictly. So it's interesting to think about how something that neither of us had heard about before this and something that was such an important event for the 19th Century has interesting ramifications in the 20th Century.

Katie Lambert: Exactly. Well I think about wraps it up for today. But if you'd like to learn more about how communism works, check out our article and also check out the blog if you get a chance on our home page at

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