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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Dec 19, 2022

Last time we spoke the Heavenly King established his new capital Tianjing, the heavenly kingdom. Dramatic reforms were made, soldiers were recruited and armies were made to perform grand campaigns. The Taiping performed the Northern expedition, but instead of throwing the kitchen sink and potentially taking the dragon throne, it failed. The western expedition proved more fruitful and soon large swathes of territory fell to the Taiping enlarging their new empire. Yet not all was well in the heavenly kingdom, Yang Xiuqing, the mouth of the heavenly father began to abuse the heavenly king and draw the god worshipers under his thumb. Alongside this Zeng Guofan was created a brand new type of army that could challenge the Taiping and quell China of their rebellion once and for all.


#27 This episode is The Taiping Rebellion part 4: Murder amongst the Taiping Kings


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 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.


While the Taiping at Nanjing were beginning to lose their political and military initiative to the Qing and Yung-ying forces, they were also losing something vitally important outside of China, western support. Western forces definitely would play a crucial role in the Taiping Qing war and western attitudes would shift dramatically from pro Taiping to anti Taiping. The first major rumblings about the Taiping came to westerners when they captured Nanjing. Overall the impression of the Taiping was quite favorable, reports indicated they were a well disciplined group of Christian character. There were many westerners who thought the Taiping might be a better alternative than the Manchu whose attitudes towards western missionaries and economic activities were aggravating. Western dissatisfaction with the Qing government really came down to their unwillingness to abide by the treaty of Nanjing in full. Thus as you can imagine quite a few missions were sent by Westerners to the new Taiping capital in Nanjing to evaluate the situation.


The first official mission that went to Nanjing was sent by the British. Sir George Bonham accompanied by Captain Fishbourne and T.T Meadows sailed to Nanjing aboard the Hermes. Bonham was egged into the mission by influential British merchants in Shanghai who were worried by the disruption in commerce. Most of the information on the Taiping that came to westerners was during the Yongan occupation and the information was quite vague and contradictory. Issachar Roberts who knew Hong Xiuquan wrote to local newspapers describing the man “ “He is a man of ordinary appearance, about five feet four or five inches high; well built, round faced, regular featured, rather handsome, about middle age, and gentlemanly in his manners.  he is trying to be something in the capacity of a prophet and appears to be struggling for religious liberty.” What the British really wanted to know, was about the trading interests and investments in SHanghai which amounted to around 25 million pounds sterling at the time. The foreigners in Shanghai wanted to know if the Taiping would offer greater chances for stability and trade expansion than their QIng counterpart. While enroute they ran into the Taiping leader named Lo Ta-kang in Chen-chiang in april of 1853. The man told him the Taiping were friendly to foreigners and would not interfere with any commercial relations. Yet when Bonham reached Nanjing he quickly found that the Taiping government like the Qing, regarded foreign governments as subordinates to their rule. While the Qing believed their mandate was that of heaven, likewise the Taiping assumed their heavenly king held an equal position within the globe. Yang Xiuqing sent a formal letter to the British and here is some of what it said and I am strongly paraphrases as its a very long letter. “Now that you distant English “have not deemed myriads of miles too far to come” and acknowledge our sovereignty; not only are the soldiers and officers of our Celestial dynasty delighted and gratified thereby, but even in high heaven itself Our Celestial Father and Elder Brother will also admire this manifestation of your fidelity and truth. We therefore issue this special decree, permitting you, the English Chief, to lead your brethren out or in, backwards or forwards, in full accordance with your own will or wish, whether to aid us in exterminating our impish foes, or to carry on your commercial operations as usual; and it is our earnest hope that you will, with us, earn the merit of diligently serving our royal master, and, with us, recompense the goodness of the Father of Spirits. Wherefore we promulgate this new decree of (our Sovereign) Taiping for the information of you English, so that all the human race may learn to worship Our Heavenly Father and Celestial Elder Brother, and that all may know that, wherever our royal master is, there men unite in congratulating him on having obtained the decree to rule


The implication was that the British were subordinates to the Taiping. Bonham rejected the document stating it was incredibly difficult to understand and that if the Taiping “presume to injure, in any manner, the persons or property of British subjects, immediate steps will be taken to resent the injury in the same manner as similar injuries were resented ten years ago, resulting in the capture of Chinkiang, Nanking, and the neighbouring cities.” So needless to say Bonham’s mind was made up. 


The French likewise would send a mission to Nanjing, concerned by news of maltreatment and killings of Catholic chinese by the Taiping. In December of 1853 the French minister Anton de Bourboulon made an official visit to Nanjing aboard the steamship Cassini. The Cassini found itself boarded by many Taiping emissaries, dressed in red and yellow robes with their long hair flowing freely. The French are eventually brought ashore and they find somethings that impress them, such as the severed heads of opium smokers; printing presses hard at work and examinations taking place based on religious texts. When the French are brought to an audience hall to meet with Taiping officials they are startled by the contrast between the rundown streets and palace. They see the officials wearing rich robes with fanciful gold. They call the frenchmen friends and brothers. Qin Rigang, a close confidant to Hong Xiuquan meets them, but he is placed on a single seat higher above the ones given to the french, something they note as a slight. Bourboulon enquires if the Taiping will guarantee the well being of Chinese catholics, reminding the man of Frances neutrality towards the civil war. In the end the French talked about the treaties they have with Emperor Xianfeng, and upon hearing the emperors name spoken the Taiping become livid. The Taiping say this to them “if the French revere the Qing ruler Xianfeng so much, they must be his friends; if they are Xianfeng’s friends, they must see the Taiping as rebels; if they see the Taiping as rebels, then they are the Taiping’s enemies; and so, in conclusion, “the better to help your friend you have come to spy on us, and to acquaint yourselves with the strengths and weaknesses of our position.” The Taiping follow this up with days of silence as the French sat aboard Cassini until a new message was brought on december 13th. The message “ordered” the French to visit the palace of the North King so they could receive his verbal instructions. De Bourboulon rejected this and simply left accepting the mission as a failure. De Bourboulon comes back with this to say about the Taiping “What stands out most for me from all that I have seen is the strength of this revolutionary movement, which promises nothing less than to accomplish a complete transformation, at once religious, social and political in this immense Empire, by tradition a land of custom and immobility. Whatever doubts may exist about its ultimate success, whatever obstacles the indifference of the masses and the resources of the Tartar dynasty may yet oppose to the rebellion’s triumph, it is clear to me that this revolt is one of formidable character and proportions; that it is led by men who, be they fanatical or ambitious, have faith in the success of their venture, and who, besides their audacity, have in their favour ideas, a strength of organisation, tactics, in short a moral force which gives them great superiority over their adversaries. . .

In May of 1854 the US sent commissioner Robert McLand, Captain Buchanan and E.C Bridgman to Nanjing aboard the Susquehanna and later in June the British sent representative Sir John Bowring to Nanjing. The American attempts at speaking with the Taiping does not go well, for one thing the Taiping dont recognize the US flag and fire upon their ships at first, pretty much ruining potential talks. Then the Taiping follow it up by sending similar letters they had sent the British and French indicating their stance on foreigners.  An american missionary, Dr. Charles Taylor also went to Chen-chiang in June of 1853 and spoke to Lo Ta-Kang whom told him the Taiping would favor commercial relations with the foreigners once they toppled the Manchu.


After these visits the British paper, North China Herald wrote about the Taiping attitudes towards foreigners and their treaties and it sort of summarizes the feelings of western nations towards them. “That whatever mingling of Christianity there might be among the leaders of the great insurrectionary movement and their followers they would be found veritably Chinese in their relations with foreigners; and that whenever the time came for seriously engaging in negotiations, we should encounter precisely the same difficulties we have always before experienced with the government and officials of the Tartar dynasty. In regard to the Taiping respecting existing treaties, most assuredly they will not, except on compulsion, or unless they willingly descend from their high position. Their ‘second son’ of the most high God, and his royal associates, they and they alone are to be the dispensers of all authority and all instruction”


Thus the years between 1854-1856 marked a decisive turning point for the fate of the Taiping on multiple fronts. The northern expedition against Beijing was a failure; the western expedition only met nominal success, but was turned back putting them on a defensive footing. Now those like Zeng Guofan were creating private armies that were proving effective against them and were turning Chinese society against the Taiping based on traditional order. The chance at receiving support from the west was largely being missed. The Taipings main political and military leader Yang Xiuqing had been a brilliant organizer and strategist. He attempted to assume the role of ideological leader as well, but the way in which he did so was not very effective. Humiliating the Heavenly King and degrading his fellow kings and princes aroused a fear and hostility that would eventually cause a violent power struggle.


The Taiping capital was slowly being surrounded by two Yung-Ying army encampments that had been established by Qing government forces near Nanjing. These were a northern and southern encampment; with one at Chiang-nan and the other in Chiang-pei. The Taiping supply began to be threatened, leading a large number of non-combatants in september of 1854 to leave Nanjing searching for food. Then in march of 1855 to deal with the growing desertions, Yang Xiuqing reversed the policy of separating men and women, permitting marriages among the Taiping. The pressure of the Nanjing blockade by the northern and southern encampments forced Yang Xiuqing to withdraw many of his forces from the battle against Zeng Guofans forces to break the blockade. Thus the Taiping commander Qin Rigang was ordered to turn back from his battles against the Xiang army and to hit the northern encampment at Chiang-nan. Qin Rigang ended up defeating their forces while Shi Dakai who had also been recalled from his offensives in Jiangxi to attack the southern encampment at Chiang-pei in June of 1856. The battles were an overwhelming Taiping victory, the southern camp routed with its commander, the Taipings infamous rival Xiang Rong becoming wounded and he would die of the wounds several days later. Honestly this guy Xiang Rong from basically day one, chased the Taiping all the way to Nanjing and never stopped fighting. The poor guy just kept getting smashed. 


Now back within Nanjing, the leadership system of the Taiping had been over complex and quite ambiguous from the start. The loose structure, sort of a quasi collective leadership left the door open to power struggle. There were two main principals to the leadership system: 1) the leadership was sanctioned by a divine mandate. Hong Xiuquan had received the Taiping mission as he claimed, from heaven under orders from God the father to fight the demons to establish the heavenly kingdom on earth. Yang Xiuqing claimed to derive his own authority from the fact that he had suffered for mankind and that God the father spoke through him in the form of the holy ghost. Before his death Xiao Chaogui claimed to represent the voice of Jesus Christ, thus now there were only 2 claimants to hold divine authority. There was no clear defined relationship between the 2 claimants, the Heavenly King was himself the son of God, a younger brother to Jesus Christ while Yang Xiuqing was nothing of that kind, he was just the instrument for gods voice. Yang Xiuqing could only maintain this role however under his trances when he needed to exceed the authority of Hong Xiuquan. 2) was the system of brotherhood amongst the Taiping. The Taiping held a concept that all of them were brothers and sisters, but they made a distinction amongst those followers who had been around at the very beginning versus newcomers. Put simply, those who shared the dangers of the rebellion reaped the rewards. 


At first Hong Xiuquan held a special and exalted position, but it seems pressure from Yang Xiuqing and a few others eventually forced him to give up that concentrated holiness, and now the Taiping drew a distinction between God the father and Jesus christ who alone were holy, and Hong was just a sovereign head of the movement of brothers. Every leadership brother had associated staff. And Even though Hong Xiuquan and his staff were the sovereign and in theory handled all things at the highest level, in practice it was actually Yang Xiuqing and his staff that became the real central bureaucracy who were making the decisions and channeling them through Hong Xiuquan and his staff. The administrative structure abided by the brotherhood system and its equality amongst the top leaders. Yang Xiuqing just kept using his trance voice ability to undermine and interfere with the personal life of Hong Xiuquan. Once Xiang Rong and his blockade forces were defeated, it seems Yang Xiuqing saw the opportunity to finally seize control of Tianjing.


Yang Xiuqing went into one of his classic stances and summoned Hong Xiuquan to his palace. Yang said to Hong "You and the East King are both my sons. The East King has made significant contributions, so why is he still being hailed as *'Long Live for Nine Thousand Years' instead of 'Long Live for Ten Thousand Years'?" Hong Xiuquan replied, "The East King has indeed made significant contributions by conquering an empire, so he should be hailed as 'Long Live for Ten Thousand Years'." Yang Xiuqing then went into another trance and said "Should the East King's son be hailed as 'Long Live for Ten Thousand Years'?" Hong Xiuquan replied, "Since the East King is hailed as 'Long Live for Ten Thousand Years', his son and his descendants should also be hailed as 'Long Live for Ten Thousand Years' as well." To all of this Yang went into another stance and proclaimed "I'm returning to heaven."


Obviously Hong Xiuquan opposed the challenged to his role, but there was also opposition from the two remaining kings, the North king Wei Changhui and the flank king Shi Dakai. They had gradually been forced to submit to the directions of Yang and no longer played any real part in policy making. There were a ton of personal attacks as well. Once Yang had Wei flogged after one of his subordinates offended him. Another time a relative of Wei had a property dispute with one of Yang’s relatives pissing off Yang and he called upon Wei to decide the punishment for Wei’s relative together. Wei’s reply apparently was that his own relative should be torn into five parts, wow. Another time Shi Dakai’s father in law, Huang Yukun offended Yang and received 300 flogs, had his title removed and was demoted. The major issue for these 2 was unlike Yang they never claimed any divine inspiration, they had no trances or voices to fall upon. All they could really do to challenge Yang was straight up old violence, ie: assasination. Thus a conspiracy against Yang was brewing. It also seems by 1856, Yang Xiuqing was becoming unpopular with the Taiping forces. He was ruthless and mistreated officers of the other kings or anyone who did not kowtow to him. There was an air of fear and disrespect. His harem was allegedly the largest of any of the Taiping leaders and in the words of one Taiping government informant “people laugh behind his back”.


Now before Yang Xiuqing pulled his maneuver to receive the Ten Thousand Years title, he dispatched Wei Changhui, Shi Dakai and Qin Rigang to 3 separate provinces. Hong rightfully saw Yang’s requests as blatant treasons and he sent word alerting the 3 generals to return at once. Qin Rigang was the first to arrive followed by Wei Changhui by September 1st of 1856 alongside 3000 troops. The 2 men met with Hong Xiuquan and they decided to act before Shi Dakai arrived and before Yang Xiuqing can rally more than 6000 troops in the city who were believed to be loyal to him. On september 2nd, Wei and Qin led the troops to storm Yangs residence where they slaughtered every member of his family and followers, male and female, and of any rank or age. Yang was cut down trying to flee and his severed head was hung on a pole in the street. It is unknown whether Hong Xiuquan gave the order to kill Yang or Wei Changhui just went ahead with it. There is one version of the tale that indicates Hong Xiuquan ordered Wei only to kill Yang and to leave the others unmolested. Regardless of the versions, Wei Changhui was pinned for being the decision maker. 


Hong Xiuquan in an angry edict denounces the slaying of Yangs family and followers and the bloodbath and looting that occurred. He has Wei and Qin arrested and forces them to kneel with chains around their necks in front of his palace gate. Hong’s female servants then issue a huge proclamation written in vermillion ink on a large piece of yellow silk 7-8 feet long. The edict sentence the 2 men to a savage punishment of 500 blows, the same punishment dealt to traitors during the Thistle mountain days. All of Yang’s surviving followers are invited to witness the beatings, which are administered inside the walls of Hong's enormous palace. It is said Yang’s surviving followers make their way through the crowd, get to the gate where they leave their arms and enter the palace ground to get a closer look. Once all of them enter, the doors and gates are shut, the beatings stop and Yangs followers are all trapped. Amongst those who witnessed this event were some western mercenaries believe it or not, one Irishman had this to tell 


Next morning at daylight the doors and windows of these prisons were opened, and several powder bags thrown in on the prisoners, while the entrance was strongly guarded. In one house the soldiers entered with little resistance and massacred the whole, but in the other the prisoners fought with the bricks from the walls and partitions, most desperately for upwards of six hours before they were got under. In addition to musketry, a two pounder discharged grape at them.—These poor devils then stripped themselves, and many were seen to fall from sheer exhaustion. At last [Wei and Qin] called upon their men to draw their right arms from their sleeves, so as to distinguish them from No. 2’s men; they then rushed in and massacred the remainder— We shortly after entered, and, good heavens! such a scene, the dead bodies were in some places five and six deep; some had hung themselves and others were severely scorched from the explosions of the powder bags thrown in.—These bodies were removed from this to a field and remained uncovered.—After this every master of a house in the city had to give an account of how many men, women and children were residing under his roof, to every one of whom was given a small chop [seal imprint] which they wore on their breast, and if they found any of No. 2’s men they were to secure them—For several weeks these people were brought to the execution ground in parcels of fives, tens, hundreds, and thousands, who were all beheaded. All the women and children also, any one who had eaten of No. 2’s rice suffered.


Wei and Qin are apparently unsatisfied and continue killing people for over 3 months, with estimates being in the thousands, including 500 of Yang’s former palace women and female retainers. Now at the time of the assasination, Shi Dakai was fighting a campaign in Hubei and had far more to travel than Wei or Qin to reach Nanjing. He was far up the Yangtze river, near Wuchang and despite leaving immediately upon hearing the news only managed to get to Nanjing by early October. He was informing on the way of the slaughter and was revolted and furious. Shi met with Wei whom he blamed for the killing and warned him that such actions could only lead to a Qing victory over their cause. Wei was furious in turn and suggested that perhaps Shi was in league with Yang Xiuqing, or perhaps a traitor to the Qing. Sources vary, but some claim Wei sought to make a sweep of it all before Shi even made it to Nanjing, electing to assassinate him. Afterall Shi Dakai’s army was still in the field. Regardless, Shi Dakai was warned by mutual friends that he too might be assassinated and upon finding gates closed against him, Shi secretly broke out of the city the same day he had returned to it.

 Late within that night both Wei and Qin surrounded Shi’s palace, the same way they had done to Yang’s, they forced their way past some of his guards but Shi has already given them the slip. One source claims Shi cleverly escaped by being lowered over the city wall in a basket. Wei and Qin thus turned their attention on his poor wife and children whom they murdered.


Shi Dakai moved upriver west of Nanjing, rallying troops loyal to him alongside all those who were dissatisfied with the current Taiping leadership clique. It should be noted many of these dissatisfied forces were in fact Triad organizations. Shi Dakai proved to be the most popular of the Taiping commanders and consolidated close to 100,000 men. With such a huge force he returned by river back to Nanjing sending word to Hong Xiuquan that only the heads of Wei and Qin could satisfy his revenge. Alerted to the danger, Wei dispatched General Qin to block Shi’s march and ends up blowing up the hallowed porcelain tower to deny Shi’s artillery a commanding height to fire shells into the city. Some sources claim Wei simultaneously had plans to imprison Hong Xiuquan, but before this could unfold Hong Xiuquan assembled his loyal and elite bodyguard killing Wei Changhui and sends his head to Shi. Likewise Hong Xiuquan uses a clever ploy to lure General Qin back into the city and has him killed. Thus Shi Dakai and his army march into Nanjing, not as slaughterers, but as heroes, welcomed by Hong Xiuquan with open arms.


All of this became known as the Tianjing incident, and perhaps surprisingly, the deceased Yang Xiuqing is given amnesty and acquitted of his crimes against the Taiping throne. Yangs death is literally marked as “the east king ascends to heaven”, Hong never fails to publicly revere him. In proclamations for the remaining years of the Taiping rebellion, Yang’s role as the voice of god is remembered, and one of Yang’s brothers who miraculously survived the slaughter is honored as a noble. All of Yang’s sons die, but Hong gives his second son, Tianyou to the east king posthumously as an adopted son, keeping Yang’s family line alive. This means that Jesus too can have his line maintained on earth as well as in heaven. Hong likewise names his eldest son, Tiangui, the Taiping heir apparent to be Jesus’s adopted son. 


Now the slaughter in the Nanjing removed 3 Taiping leaders and a large number of their followers. Only Hong Xiuquan, his family and Shi Dakai remain of the original Taiping leaders. Hong Xiuquan turns to his two eldest brothers, Hong Renfa and Hong Renda to fill some of the power vacuum. With Shi Dakai being the only survivor of the 5 kings, he begins promoting these brothers to make up for the lack of kings. Renfa becomes the Peace King and Renda becomes the blessings king, also known as the An Prince and Fu Prince. As for Shi Dakai, to make sure this did not look like some sort of slight against him, Hong raises his title from flank king to righteous king. Shi Dakai refuses the honor putting Hong in a surprising quandary. Thus Hong offers to add to his flank king title instead making it “lightning of the holy spirit” which matched the once held title of Yang. This compromise seems to have done nothing, Shi Dakai resents the power given to Hong’s family members, whom he believes are morons. Likewise the Hong brothers resent Shi Dakai’s status and do everything they can to undercut his power. Thus for nearly half a year in 1857, Shi Dakai rules most of the Nanjing region, and it is a sad and lonely existence. His family is dead, it is reported he lives in complete seclusion, not receiving oral messages, but only those in writing. He answers written messages during the night and has his staff bring them out in the morning. When he came back to the capital rumors spread in Nanjing that the people actually wanted Shi Dakai to rule the government, but it was Hong Xiuquan unpleased with him who employed his brothers to thwart this. The people at the Taiping court were displeased with Hong Xiuquan for this because the 2 brothers were neither talented, not well versed in heavenly doctrines. According to one General Li Xiucheng all of these variables, but most in particular the 2 brothers “suspicions and obstructions forced Shi Dakai to leave Nanjing, a defection that left no one in charge at court”.


And so Shi Dakai left Nanjing in the summer of 1857, peacefully with his most loyal troops by his side. Whatever his animosity towards the two Hong brothers may have been, he did not put it in clear words, and he seems to have remained loyal to Hong Xiuquan. He posted a manifesto throughout the cities he passes giving his reason for leaving as his desire to continue with the western expedition. This is part of the manifesto “Last year, amidst the disaster and turbulence, I hurried in anguish back to the Capital. Confident that my unwavering loyalty Would be clearly understood by my Holy Ruler. However, things were not quite so, And imperial edicts were issued one after another. Dark suspicions abounded on all sides, How can my own brush record them all? Because of this, I am determined to exert my utmost, To lead a military campaign and reemphasize my sincerity. I shall endeavor to reward those who walk with God, In order to repay the Sovereign’s grace and goodness”.


I would like to take this time to remind you all that this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Please go subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry after that, give my personal channel a look over at The Pacific War Channel at Youtube, it would mean a lot to me. 

Yang Xiuqing and Wei Changhui were killed, Shi Dakai left Nanjing in exile taking a large army of Taiping with him. Nanjing has lost its kings, Hong Xiuquan falls into a depression and isolates himself, who will really lead the movement now?