Nov 28, 2022
Last time we spoke the entire Second Opium War of 1856-1860. The forces of Britain and France brought the Qing dynasty to its knees, forcing yet again unequal treaties and humiliation. While the opium wars were certainly a large contributor to the century of humiliation, the story we are about to talk about is arguably a lot more significant. During that five part series there was an ongoing and much more significant event occurring within China, that being one of if not the deadliest civil wars in human history, the Taiping Rebellion. Both the Taiping Rebellion and Second Opium War are intertwined, they influenced another greatly and together they are a large reason for the eventual downfall of the Qing dynasty. Buckle up folks because we are taking an extra long dive into an event that killed an estimated 20-30 million people.
#24 This episode is The Taiping Rebellion part 1: Hong Xiuquan the self proclaimed brother of Jesus
Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on history of asia and much more so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.
I first need to take a moment to explain something. I am literally writing this down after finishing the last page of my first draft of the entire series and without the last final touches I can tell it will be a whopping 10-12 episodes long gasp. I in no way expected this, I thought hell it would be the longest for sure, but maybe 6 episodes, not 12! But what really drove me to write so much, 99 pages to be exact cough, was fantastic sources I had not read until recently. One source looked at the event from a religious point of view, another was much older from the 1970’s which simply explained the events in a large picture, the old school way of history. Then a third source, which is a much more recent book tied up everything quite nicely with a lot of primary sources and feelings of the people from nobility to the commoners. I could not bring myself to cut down as a result and I do apologize if its a long venture, but for all of you who can rough it out I ensure it will be worth it. This is an incredible story filled with hardship, dramatic change, religion and insanity, and since the Qing dynasty is involved a hell of a lot of corruption. Stating all of that thank you so much to all those who have been listening you guys are awesome I greatly appreciate you all. If you want to reach out to suggest anything for the future, have critique and so on, please reach out to me by commenting at my Youtube channel the Pacific War Channel or if your are on the Kings and Generals discord shout out to me there! Please enjoy the Taiping Rebellion.
In 1852, Theodore Hamberg, a young Swedish Protestant missionary with a thin chinstrap beard was in Hong Kong. He was one of the first Europeans of his generation to brave the Chinese countryside, as he left the relative safety of Hong Kong, which was by this time a british colony to preach in a village 100 miles up the Pearl River. Hamburg was one of the first non chinese to learn and speak the dialect of the Hakka people. These were as described by one of my sources “a gypsy minority that thickly populate south CHina. They are sometimes referred to as the “guest people””. All of this amounted to nothing of too much importance, save for one short, round-faced Hakka, Hamburg converted named Hong Rengan. Hong Rengan had a incredible story to tell it seems.
Hamburg was surprised and found it a bit odd, that a lot of the Hakka he met already knew about God and Jesus despite these people being well beyond the narrow reach of the Hong Kong missionaries. Hamburg listened to Hong Rengan recount stories of battles, armies and congregations of christian believers all being led by a heavenly prophet, a Hakka one no less. This prophet claimed to be hunted by agents of the Qing dynasty and lived in disguise under an assumed name. He was once kidnapped, but escaped and lived in a forest for 4 days and a cave for 6. Hamburg confessed the stories this man told him were confusing “I could form no clear conception of the whole matter”. Hamburg did not know what to make of it all, so he asked Hong Rengan to write the stories down for him. Hamburg thought little of any of this for nearly a year, then in the spring of 1853 news came that Nanjing had fallen in a torrent of blood. Hamberg then realized Hong Rengan’s stories were very real.
News of the great upheaval in China reached those like Hamberg in Hong Kong and along the coast where foreigners did business. Reports of local uprisings and small scale banditry in the countryside were never anything of much importance, it was just the same old news in China. Then Catholic missionaries deep within the interior began to spread rumors of a larger movement led by a man known as “Tian de” or “heavenly virtue”. Some said the man was actually dead, killed by Qing forces, others questioned his very existence. Without any concrete news, little attention was paid to any of it, just bandits disrupting the production of silk and tea, a common problem. But when Nanjing, the southern capital of China fell in 1853, well this suddenly brought attention to foreigners that a very real and very large civil war was occuring in China. Those in Shanghai were alarmed, and rightful so, Nanjing was very close to what was now called “The Taiping Tianguo - The heavenly kingdom of Great peace”. A million rebels were flooding down from central China on a grand flotilla of commandeered ships to what was formerly called Nanjing. A ton of cities were emptied and Qing defenses lay in rubble as these small local bandits were a grand rebel army on the march. Fear gripped the city of Shanghai, communications with Nanjing were cut, rumors spread that Shanghai would be attacked.
Shanghai’s citizens boarded up their homes, many of the Chinese fled into the countryside for safety. The foreign settlers called for defenses to be erected, for volunteers to take arms. British, French and American steamers began to bring men to defend the walls of Shanghai. Yet there was no attack, at least for the time being, apparently the Taiping rebels went to march upon Beijing if it was to be believed! The capital of the Manchu were under threat from these rebels who held Nanjing. A single British vessel went over to Nanjing in april of 1853 but brought back very conflicting news of what was occurring there. It became the opinion of the British plenipotentiary at the time that these so called Taiping were “nothing but superstition and nonsense”. Despite the scarcity of clear information, raw accounts of this apparent civil war in China began to get out of Shanghai and Hong Kong to the western world. Tales that the Chinese were fed up with their Manchu rulers and were rising up spread. The economist read “a social change or convulsion such as have of late afflicted europe. It is singular to find similar commotions at the same time in Asia and Europe”.
Karl Marx, yes the Karl Marx wrote in 1853 as the London correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune about the situation in China. He considered the rebellion to be a symptom of China’s integration into the global economy, as a result of Britain's opening up of CHina during the First Opium War. What was happening in China was not merely a rebellion, it was a “formidable revolution”, one that demonstrated the interconnectedness of the industrial world. Marx argued what was happening in China would come to Europe “the next uprising of the people of Europe, and their next movement for republican freedom and economy of Government, may depend more probably on what is now passing in the Celestial Empire—the very opposite of Europe—than on any other political cause that now exists.” The disorder that China faced was caused by the opium trade, and exposure to the world. The old was facing the new as they say and Marx believed “dissolution must follow as surely as that of any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetically sealed coffin, whenever it is brought into contact with the open air.” Marx argued the Qing dynasty may dissolve and that it would not be limited to just China. The whole Taiping revolution was for Marx, Britain's fault and now the effects of her actions overseas would go back to bite her ass at home “the question, is how that revolution will in time react on England, and through England on Europe.” Marx predicted the loss of the Chinese market because of the Taiping would undermine British exports, particularly textile. By the way as I pointed out in previous episodes that very much was not the case, textiles from Britain went up actually because of the Taiping rebellion killing the Chinese trade network internally resulting in foreigners making up the demand. But then again when has Marx ever been right, shots fired. Marx believed the Taiping revolution would cut off England's source of tea imports and that the price of tea would spike in England leading to economic downfall and further revolution. “It may be safely augured, that the Chinese revolution will throw the spark into the overloaded mine of the present industrial system and cause the explosion of the long-prepared general crisis, which, spreading abroad, will be closely followed by political revolutions on the Continent.” Many news outlets and intellectuals had differing accounts of what exactly the Taiping were and what was going on. Some made analogies to the African slaves rebeling in the United states to that of Chinese under the Manchus. Yet almost no one had any real explanation for the origin of the movement. Its rather funny to say, one of the very best accounts to explain it all could have been found in a desk in Hong Kong on some scribbled pieces of paper that Theodore Hamberg shoved in his desk.
Hong Rengan came back to Hamberg at a village outside Canton, but this time the Swedish missionary knew the man for who he was: he was the cousin and lifelong companion of the prophet of the Taiping, the Heavenly King. Hong Rengan was the only person to come into contact with a foreigner who had firsthand knowledge of the Taiping and that of their leader. Hamburg and Hong Rengan formed a close friendship, Hamburg even got to baptize Hong Rengan in september of 1853. Hamburg educated the man in Lutheran doctrine, preparing him to serve as an assistant to the foreign preachers and eventually to take their brand of Christianity over to the Taiping in Nanjing. As they worked together, Hamburg kept asking Hong Rengan about the movement, stories of the man who started it. And so here we can now learn about the famous Hong Xiuquan.
Hong Rengan told the story of his cousin, Hong Xiuquan who was 9 years older and had always been brilliant. They lived in neighboring villages roughly 30 miles away from Canton. Many of the villagers were relatives of their clan which back in the Song dynasty had been a grand one with countless high officials and imperial advisers amongst their ranks. Yet as time passed they had all become poor farmers. One thing they held with great esteem was a small schoolhouse where Hong Xiuquan began studying the confucian classics at the age of 7. He was extremely gifted and spent years memorizing the four books, the 5 classics and other necessary texts required for the civil service examinations. When Hong Xiuquan was a teen he was very well read on Chinese history and literature, he even read ancient texts without assistance. His family dreamed that he would restore their family to its former glory and several teachers worked without pay to provide him with the knowledge he would need to pass the exams to become a Qing official. As time went on his educative needs took him outside the village and his family got together all the money they could to support the 16 year old who at the point was already supporting himself as a schoolteacher with a small salary paid in lard, salt, rice and lamp oil.
The key to gaining an official appointment in the Qing government was passing the Confucian civil service examinations and this was a goal shared by both Hong cousins. But the exams were extremely difficult and if you failed an attempt you had to wait years for another opportunity to take them. The exam process took 3 days in a small cubicle in Canton. Hong Rengan never had much success, but Hong Xiuquan ranked high on the first day of his first attempt in 1827. As the grueling exam went on, he began to slip through the ranks and by the end of the 3rd day he fell out of the winners circle. It was to be 9 more years before he could qualify again to take the exam in 1836. Wow and I thought it was brutal trying to gain entry to a graduate program at my university for Neurobehavioral science sheesh. Well Hong Xiuquan did not give up, he took the exam a second time and failed. Hong Rengan likewise failed, but unlike Hong Xiuquan he was not carrying the entire family’s hope upon his shoulders. Thus between the 2 cousins its was Hong Xiuquan that succumbed to a mental breakdown.
Hong Xiuquan had his first visions in 1837, right after failing the examination for a third time. He was greatly weakened by the ordeal and was carried home afterwards. When he got home he simply collapsed into bed and called for his family to crowd around him. He apologized to them all and said his life was over, he had let them all down. It is said he closed his eyes and lost all strength, many thought he was dead. Eventually he woke up and began telling his family about strange dreams. In his dreams, a dragon, a tiger and a cock entered his room, followed by musicians and a sedan chair. They all carried him away to a wondrous and beautiful place full of people who rejoiced when they saw him and an old woman washed him to remove all defilements from his body. Then a group of old men appeared and he recognized some of them to be sages of ancient China. They opened his body with a knife and removed his organs, replacing them with new healthier ones, before closing him up. Not a trace of incision could be found afterwards and he was escorted back to a grand hall where an old man in a black robe with a flowing golden beard sat upon a throne. The man said to him “they take of my gifts and therewith worship demons; they purposely rebel against me, and arouse my anger. DO not though imitate them”. The man then gave him a magical sword for which he said its purpose was to kill demons, but he told him to never use it on his brothers and sisters. Alongside this was a seal and a piece of yellow fruit which he ate. The old man led him to look upon the people of earth where they could both see defilement and perversions.
Hong’s visions continued for 40 days and Hong Rengan was one of those who stuck by his cousins side listening to his waking stories. There were other recurring characters in his dreams, one was a middle-aged man he referred to as ‘elder brother” who traveled with him to far regions of the world to slay demons with his magical sword. The old man in black at some points began berating Confucius for failing to teach proper doctrine to the Chinese people and Confucius confessed guilt and shame as such. Those around Hong Xiuquan say he often lept out of bed screaming “kill the demons” while he slashed wildly into thin air. His clear insanity drew at first curiosity and amusement of neighbors, who came to see the famous sleeping madman. At one point he woke up and claimed to be the emperor of China. Hong Rengan said to Hamberg “His friends and relatives only replied, that the whole was strange indeed, without thinking at the time that there was any reality in the matter.”
Eventually Hong Xiuquan recovered and he was a completely different person. He was taller, stronger, more intelligent. He seemed more handsome, fair skinned and his gaze had “become piercing and difficult to endure”. He seemed healthier and he quickly returned to his teaching and prepared for another attempt at the civil service exams. In 1843 he tried for a 4th time and failed yet again, this poor guy. That same year Hong Xiuquan found a Christian text that a missionary had given him years before in Canton and he decided to read it. Upon reading the text closely he came to an epiphany. The book seemed to unlock the secret of his dream-visions over the past 6 years. He suddenly realized the old man in black robes with a golden beard was God and the elder brother who helped him slay demons was none other than Jesus Christ. The demons were the idols worshiped by the Chinese that believed in Confucian and Buddhism, but Hong Xiuquans real brothers and sisters were that of the Christian Chinese people. Hong Xiuquan baptized himself and threw away the Confucian texts within his schoolroom.
Hong Rengan became Hong Xiuquans first convert followed by a neighbor named Feng Yunshan. They all baptized themselves in a river and cast away the Confucian idols from their classrooms. The 3 men began to study together, gathering Christian texts where they could find them. Hong Xiuquan preached to them and soon others began to join the flock. Hong Xiuquan believed the bible was literally written for him. The converts first came from parents, siblings, extended family and such. It was not easy, for example Hong Rengans older brother beat him with a stick for losing students at the local school he taught after the Confucian tablets were cast away. Hong Xiuquan and Feng Yunshan both left their villages in 1844 to spread the gospel to other villages throughout the province of Guangxi. Hong Rengan desperately wanted to join them, but his relatives forced him to stay and remain a schoolteacher because he was only 20 years old. Hong Rengan was forced to bring back the Confucian texts and idols so that his students would return, but even so he simultaneously baptized at least 50 new converts.
So Hong and Feng preached from village to village throughout Guangxi and the movement spread. Autonomous congregations sprang up, numbering in hundreds who began to refer to themselves as the “god worshippers”. They took the man named Hong Xiuquan, whom many had not even met as their prophetic leader. Hong Xiuquan came back home in 1845, preaching the gospel while disparaging the Manchu, the Qing dynasty and Confucianism. He said things like “God has divided the kingdoms of the world, and made the Ocean to be a boundary for them, just as a father divides his estates among his sons, Why should these Manchus forcibly enter China and rob their brothers of their estate?” His religious movement thus was becoming a political one.
By 1847, the god worshippers grew to around 2000, mostly Hakka. They began to smash Buddhist idols and temples and all of this was driving iere from the Qing authorities. Then in 1850, a pestilence ravaged Guangxi and rumors spread that Hong Xiuquan’s prayers to the Christian God could heal those sick of the infliction. This exponentially increased their ranks and the passing of the disease gave credit to Hong Xiuquans religion. Yet despite all of this, they were no army. Then some small violence broke out amongst Hakka settlers in Guangxi province. The Hakka settlers were scrambling to find land and water rights and the long standing local families were unhappy with the encroachments. This led to a small scale war between Hakka and other villagers in the autumn of 1850. The non Hakka burned the homes of Hakka and this led them to turn to the God worshippers for protection and help. Local authorities had already been suspicious of the sect and now began to view them more so as troublemakers. According to Hong Rengan, Hong Xiuquan predicted all of this and was waiting patiently to make a move.
As the Hakka vs other villager violence spread, Qing officials placed blame squarely on the Hakka and sent a detachment of soldiers to arrest Hong Xiuquan and Feng Yunshan. The god worshippers heard of the incoming threat and began to arm themselves with swords and spears to defend their leader. For those of you who heard my podcast on the White Lotus rebellion, it is eerily similar. The Qing detachment was easily overwhelmed and routed. Hong Xiuquan sent word calling out for all the god worshippers to gather for the first time and prepare for what he called the next step of their great movement. Countless members sold their homes and lands and marched. The following days saw tens of thousands gathering. The god worshippers leaders told the converts to converge on the town of Jintian and soon a force of 10-30 thousand seized the town. In preparation for a rebellion, Hong Xiuquan began organizing the people into military formations, each led by commanders with military ranks. The Chtin “army corps” consisted of 13,156 men divided into 5 Shih regiments 2500 men with officers. Each shih was divided into 5 “leu” battalions of 500 men and each had 5 “tsu” companies of 100. Each tsu had 5 “liang” platoons of 25 men with a sergeant. A Liang was made up of 4 “wu” Squads of privates with a corporal. Now the Qing garrison of Guangxi was not particularly strong at this time as they were dealing with other uprisings, this is 19th century China afterall, not a year went by without a few.
The Qing commander at Xunzhou, Li Dianyuan led the Qing forces went attack Hong Xiuquans residences within the village of Huanzhoushanren in Pingnan county. It was a dangerous situation, but both Hong Xiuquan and Feng Yunshan were saved by reinforcements sent by Yang Xiuqing and the god worshippers retained Jintian. Then a Qing force led by Zhou Fengqi alongside his subordinate Li Dianyuan attacked Jintian and erected a siege of the town. The god worshippers anticipated this and ambushed the Qing forces along the way to the Jintian at a smaller village called Caijiang near Thistle mountain. The Qing forces were ambushed by the god worshipers both men and women wielding mostly pikes and halberds. The Qing forces were defeated and one of their high ranking officers was killed.
Then on January the 11th of 1851, Hong Xiuquans birthday, the god worshipers proclaimed an uprising in Jintian and Hong Xiuquan declared the founding of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom with himself as its new emperor, or better said Heavenly King. Feng Yunshan alongside 3 other lt’s were appointed the kings of four directions: Feng Yunshan was the South King, Wei Changhui the North King, Xiao Chaogui the West King and Yang Xiuqing the East King. Eventually there was also an additional king, the flank king who was Shi Dakai. These men would go on to control roughly 100,000 people each including their own army. Hong Xiuquan ordered the god worshippers to cut their manchu queues as a universal symbol of severing their allegiance to the Qing dynasty. Many of the Taiping would go on to let their long hair grow leading to the nickname “chang mao tsei / long haired bandits”.
Now from 1851-1852 the Taiping army began to fight its way north, absorbing the poor, disenfranchised, the criminals and all those other groups who hated their manchu overlords. It was a blend of those seeking to be part of something, to join the religious aspect of it and those who simply hated the Qing dynasty and sought to overthrow it. Yes its very much like the White Lotus rebellion 2.0. Now I had mentioned there was another rebellion going on, in fact if you look up a list of how many rebellions take place in the 19th century for China its….just comical, its insane. One rebellion was led by the Tiandihui and a large reason the Taiping won at Jinian was because the Qing were too busy dealing with the Tiandihui. After the victory at Jinian many Tiandihui joined them bolstering their ranks. Meanwhile the Qing began tossing more and more forces at the growing Taiping menace.
General Xiang Rong led 3000 men and was aided by other Qing forces led by General Li Nengchen and General Zhou Fengqi. The idea was simple, the forces would converge on the rebels to encircle them. Their 3 armies attacked the Taiping at Dahuangjiangkou on February 18th. As they approached the town from the west and east they ran straight into minefields set up by the Taiping and were ambushed leading to hundreds of casualties. The Qing forces were eventually forced to stop their offensive and hunker down for a siege. Now something important to note is what exactly is the Qing forces I am speaking of. If you remember during my opium wars episodes I explained the difference between the Green Standard army and the Eight banner army. To brutally summarize, the manchu armies that conquered the Ming used the banner system, with each colored banner being a different group. Well the eight banner army by the turn of the 19th century had become sort of a ceremonial, guardsmen type force. They were extremely ineffective as a large standing force and thus the Green Standard army was formed as a need for a more…well standard army haha. The Green standard army can be seen more so as a police force, but when the White Lotus rebellion broke out they proved to be very ineffective and in decline. The major reasons for this was their pay did not rise with inflation requiring many of them to seek additional work: they were widely dispersed preventing centralized training; more often than naught their ranks came about only in times of conflict; rampant corruption from higher officials led to embezzlement and I mean insane levels, a lot of armies left their rosters unfilled so officers could simply pocket soldiers pay and pretend they were leading more men than they had; soldiers literally could hire substitutes, often poor people to train and fight in their place; overall lack of morale and discipline; and the ultimate culprit at the time, opium addiction. The reason I bring this up is much like the White Lotus Rebellion, the Qing officials would find the Eight banner army and Green Standard army unable to cope with the task of quelling a rebellion and would be forced to find new alternative ways to find armies. This very well became a major reason for the downfall of the Qing dynasty and why China would find itself in a warlord era from 1916-1928, something I am currently writing a seven part series about on my personal channel, the pacific war channel. Lame plug in I know forgive me, but the Warlord Era is fascinating and the Taiping period holds so much roots for it.
Now when the Qing began to strangle the Taiping, they yet again broke out at night on the 10th of March marching towards the East village in Wuxuan county. The Qing forces pursued them but every time they got near the Taiping ambushed them. The Taiping and Qing eventually found themselves in a stalemate near Sanli Dyke. In early april the governor of Guangxi province, Zhou Tianjue and General Xiang Rong rallied 6000 troops to attack East Village, but yet again the rebels repelled them. By May the Qing were losing more and more men when the Taiping broke out of another siege and marched towards Xiangzhou. General Xiang Rong decided to coordinate a net strategy and had the aid of General Wulantai stationed at Liangshan Village while his men struck out from Jie Ridge.
The Taiping fought the 2 Qing forces at the battle of Du’ao Ridge just due north of Liangshan village and General Wulantai’s force were smashed. Despite the major Qing losses, they still had managed to encircle the Taiping for the 4th time. The Taiping fought a war of attrition until july when they pulled out of Xiangzhou to a former base of operations at Mt. Zijing in Guiping. The path north was effectively blocked to the Taiping by the Qing forces, but the entire time and everywhere the Taiping went they converted more and more to their cause.
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And so the self proclaimed brother of Jesus Christ, Hong Xiuquan gathered his flock and chose to wage a war on the demon Manchu who sat upon the Dragon Throne. Hong Xiuquan and his kings now march forward to their destiny.