Monday, 20 July 2015

What Caused China's Horrendous Taiping Rebellion? (1850 - 1864)

Prelude to China's Heterodox  Christian Movement and Huge Rebellion



Sometimes grand achievements are blighted by dreadful origins. I suppose we sometimes look back at the Roman Empire, or any other, and think of its wonders but don't take into account the suffering of the many that succumbed to such power of a grand empire - the many people that are caught up in its suffering. I think this is often so of the British Empire. Sometimes something grand comes out of dreadful and ominous beginnings. It's no consolation to those who suffered the horrendous beginning, however.

Model of H.E.I.C. Nemesis
In the late 1830s, Great Britain was full of private overseas companies searching the orient for trade. These British run companies would often use the vast Royal Navy to protect their trade interests. When looking at the vast areas of land, that Great Britain was beginning to rule; the empty areas of Australia, Canada and Africa paled when compared to the vast oceans used to gain access to the ageing civilisations of China and India.

Technology wise, the old and ancient civilisations of Asia had become stagnant but their produce of food and other materials offered vast bounties for the entrepreneurs of Europe – especially the British who had gained an enormous advantage with the growth of its Navy and developing industrial abilities.

The rulers of China had become over confident in their old and, once mighty, territory. In reality, the nation of China was less of a match for the more unscrupulous trade companies and adventurers of Great Britain then realised. Sometimes the vast and very great Empire of Great Britain is seen in a perspective of grand achievement, but it is also fair to look at it in another light – the one which shows immoral civilian profiteers using evil methods of acquiring the trade.

The British business companies of the time wanted Chinese tea, which was now very popular in Great Britain and other parts of the Empire. Instead of using the money to trade for tea, the British transported and used opium as a currency for China's tea and caused a terrible drug problem.

When the Chinese rulers witnessed the apathy and degradation that opium caused among its population they tried to halt the trade of opium. The British companies would not oblige by the Chinese rulers’ demands and attempted to continue trading in opium. Therefore, China excluded Great Britain from trading in their ports.

The British industrialists called upon the British government to employ the Royal Navy to protect their interests and in 1839 began to attack Chinese ports and occupy them with land forces.
H.E.I.C. Nemesis destroying Chinese Junks in 1841

During one of the prominent events of the First Opium War, in 1841, a state of the art ship owned by the East India Company called H.E.I.C. Nemesis went up the River Yangtze after Canton was captured by the British. Chinese junk ships were sent to confront the huge paddle steamer but the fire power of the East India company, British ship, was devastating and the fleet of junks was destroyed or dispersed. The British continued up the river and captured the tax barges, which denied the Chinese government huge revenue. It was the major blow to China’s Qing authority – the war lasted until 1842 when Chinese Qing authorities in Peking were forced to sue for peace. The Treaty of Nanking was signed and Great Britain gained Hong Kong as a foothold into China – a deep water port, and a way of trusting imperial China to stick to its part of the bargain.

The British continued to trade opium for tea. Hong Kong developed into a huge industrial powerhouse, becoming a place of prominent trade and commerce until this day. The British remained in Hong Kong until 1997, but the blighted Opium Wars brought about this legacy.




Christian Missionaries and Hong Xiuquan


Hong Xiuquan
After the first opium war, Britain and France, plus other western nations, tried to make inroads into China. Protestant missionaries from Britain tried to Christianise many of the Chinese race, but this was largely unsuccessful because of Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion.

However, one Chinese convert did corrupt and take on a form of heterodox Christianity that would shake China and the western traders to the core. It brought about the Taiping Rebellion - a civil war that would last for 14 years with a mopping up campaign that would last further years. The death toll from this horrendous venture is estimated at 25 million people.

It all started when a young scholar, named Hong Xiuquan, had to quit his education because his parents could not afford to pay for his continued schooling. He took up teaching in his local town to pay for his continued studies. Then in 1836 at age 22 he passed an exam that offered an opportunity for him to go to Guangzhou and take the Civil Service Examination. This was a highly coveted award among China's elite, which was a gateway into the higher echelons of Qing dynastic power. However, this vexing examination had a pass rate of less than 5%.

Hong Xiuquan failed the examination and then several more attempts afterwards. Demoralised by the constant failure, Hong became embittered. He fell ill for some time and when he finally recovered he had changed. In his room, was a pamphlet of the local Protestant missionary church and he had been influenced by its teachings - misreading the doctrines and fashioning them to his way of thinking. 

Heavenly Kingdom soldiers
He told friends, that during his illness, he had seen a vision and in this, he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He was able to instil this belief in many followers and managed to assemble an army of converts. At first, they were small in numbers, fighting insurgents. They attacked small villages and found the minority population receptive to the idea of the new religion that promised them equality and salvation from the doctrines of the old imperial China. Hong had a blacksmith forge two huge swords that he welded as he rode into the villages. He became a symbol among the downtrodden peasants who were eager to destroy statues of Buddha and Confucius. 


The government Qing authorities tried to hunt these pirates and bandits as they called them. In an open battle, Hong's Taiping forces defeated the Qing government soldiers and from this moment in 1850, the fighting became a full blown war known as the Taiping Rebellion.

Hong's growing army drove back the government Qing forces all over Southern China and he used his generals to recruit more men and women from the surrounding farms and towns that fell to his forces. This was easy to do among many southern Chinese who were resentful of the unpopular Qing rulers of Manchu heritage.

The heterodox Christian rebels and their self-styled brother of Christ, Hong Xiuquan, formed an inner nation called the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Peace. They took Nanking as their major city and continued to expand deeper into China.

The fighting became horrendous as the heterodox Christians of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom took control of more territory. Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk law were abolished. Any who tried to resist or would not conform were put to death. Some of the new religion's doctrines were very harsh, including the separation of men and women, even among married couples.

As the war progressed over the years, Hong Xiuquan tried to court the Chinese middle classes and the European powers to his cause but was unsuccessful. He retired from fighting and ruled from Nanking as a prophet and spiritual leader. He charged his Generals to the Heavenly Kingdom's cause and endeavours. He did have one important associate (Yang Xiuqing) killed. This man had been with him from the beginning and Hong was worried that he was slowly trying to take control.



Eventually, the Qing government had to go to the European powers for help. Great Britain along with France responded positively to the request. The Heavenly Kingdom tried to take the city of Shanghai in 1860 but were stopped by Chinese soldiers commanded by European officers. Among them was a British soldier nicknamed Chinese Gordan. He would also be known as Gordan of Khartoum in later years.


Chinese Gordan
aka Gordan of Khartoum
The European-led Qing government forces were named the Ever Victorious Army in future. Gradually, they pushed the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom forces back over the next four years. Eventually, the remnants of the defeated Heavenly Kingdom army fortified Nanking, where Hong Xiuquan proclaimed that God would protect all within Nanking's walls. He died from food poisoning just days before the city fell to Qing government forces in 1864.

His buried body was exhumed and burnt. Then his ashes and remains were put into a cannon and blasted from the city walls, scattering his remains far and wide - denying him a final resting place.

Some defeated remnants of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom went into remote areas to try and continue the strange Christian cult's campaign, but they were mopped up or fizzled out over a period of years.

It was one of the 19th century's most costly civil wars in terms of life and it was the start of China beginning to look in at itself. It was a nation ruled by archaic dynasties and it was crying out for change. The Heavenly Kingdom of heterodox Christians was one rebellion that failed. There would follow others in the near future.


Ward and Gordon of The Ever Victorious Army (China Civil War 1850-1864)


The Ever Victorious Army
Dark Blue = Army
Light Blue = Artillery
White = Bodyguard
The Ever Victorious Army was the name given to an imperial army in China during the Taiping Rebellion. This force was led by foreign mercenaries that fought for the Imperial Qing Dynasty against the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace - the rebels of the Taiping Rebellion.

The Ever Victorious Army was led by an American, to begin with, and had many Chinese soldiers trained by European officers. This strange army was active from 1860 to 1864 and played an important role in destroying the Taiping Rebellion.

The Ever Victorious Army was formed by Frederick Townsend Ward in 1860. He was a young American sailor and soldier of fortune. Much of what he did during Taiping Rebellion was overshadowed by his own nation's civil war which was raging during his time. Ward was a robust young man with progressive ideas. He trained Chinese soldiers with new skills and weapons.

It is also believed that his Chinese Lieutenant and friend, Li Hongzhang was gifted in moulding the fighting force of the Ever Victorious Army to fight for the Empress Dowager and her Qing Dynasty. This radical new trained army was able to defeat larger forces of the heterodox Christian Taiping revolutionaries. The Ever Victorious Army quickly gained victories and the Qing Dynasty gave them the title of "Ever Victorious Army."

However, the dashing Frederick Townsend Ward was killed in September 1862 after the Battle of Cixi. The command of the Ever Victorious Army was eventually given to Charles George Gordon. He would become known as "Chinese" Gordon and later 'Gordon of Khartum,' where he would be killed in Sudan during the Mahdi War.

Gordon's China adventure was twenty years plus before Sudan and with other Chinese Imperial forces, the British officer would fight many of the last major battles bringing an end to the Taiping Rebellion. He got much credit for this and it is argued that Frederick Townsend Ward did not get the recognition he deserved. This was because he was unfortunately killed before the war was over and the American Civil War was more prominent than his endeavours at the time.

When Ward first formed the Ever Victorious Army, they only operated in an area of thirty miles radius of Shanghai. By the time the Taiping Rebellion was crushed with the downfall of Nanking, the Ever Victorious Army had gone much further afield. They were disbanded and paid off in May of 1864.


Post a Comment