The Taiping Rebellion

(2010-06-06 16:43:31) 下一个

The genesis of a new religion is almost always a tumultuous affair, both in the present and throughout history. When a fresh belief system emerges and receives robust public support, it frequently signifies a rejection of the establishment and discontentment with the status quo, not necessarily for solely theological reasons. Superficially, the appearance of a novel doctrine is a merely dogmatic conflict, but the undertones are much deeper: the schism is not just a religious break, but a sociopolitical break. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that the establishment, typically the existing government or dominant religious institution, would feel justifiably threatened by the challenge posed by the insurgent faith. Any change to an entity at the pinnacle of power is a downgrade, amplifying the human race’s inherent inertia and fear of change.

            Small fringe movements with limited appeal are usually quickly and relatively bloodlessly quashed. However, the combination of a weak establishment and a broadly popular religious uprising leads to long and destructive conflict. The most accessible example would be the rise of Protestantism in Renaissance Europe. The Roman Catholic Church, the supreme authority in central Europe for over a millennium, had been marred by allegations of corruption and deviation from Christian doctrine; initially, Protestants wanted to reform what they saw as a lavish and worldly clerical aristocracy. Although the Church accepted some reforms, it nevertheless distrusted the Protestants, leading to a series of religious wars in Europe. The Taiping Rebellion of China occurred under similar circumstances.

            In the fourteenth century, the Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun noted a persistent pattern in dynastic rule: each successive generation is less capable administratively and militarily than the previous. Although the Qing Dynasty of China outlasted the three-generation model predicted by Khaldun, its general trend was the same. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Qing China had virtually become a puppet state, due to its conservative rulers’ reluctance to industrialize. Every part of China was in the sphere of influence of Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, or Russia. The Qing regime was viewed by Chinese commoners as overly permissive toward foreign powers and insensitive toward the concerns of the citizenry, since it lived in opulence while the Chinese economy was stagnating and a population boom was stressing the food supply. Unrest spread among the populace; the stage was set for the Taiping Rebellion.

            Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the Taiping Rebellion, was born in 1814 to a Hakka farming family in Guangdong Province, in the southeast of China. He expected to enter government service through the prestigious civil examination system, but failed five times. During his travels to Guangzhou for the examinations, Hong received Christian pamphlets from proselytizers, but did not initially read them. It is reported that Hong experienced a nervous collapse after his second failure and several hallucinations during his recovery, including visions of an old man complaining of demon worship, of Confucius being tortured for heresy, and of a middle-aged man presenting a sword and a seal to destroy demons. These hallucinations would later become the basis of Hong’s theology.

            When Hong found the time to carefully analyze the Christian tracts that he had received, he developed a unique version of Christianity. He identified the old man in his hallucination as God, the middle-aged man as Jesus Christ, and himself as Jesus’s younger brother, sent to convert the Chinese from their “demon worship”. With a few of his family members, Hong began to preach his version of Christianity to his district’s mainly Confucian or Buddhist communities, but by destroying village icons he irritated officials in the district so much that he was forced to flee in 1844 to the minority-rich Guangxi Province, which was more welcoming.

            In 1847, Hong studied the Old Testament with American Southern Baptist minister Issachar Jacox Roberts, reconciling Christianity with Taiping beliefs. When he returned to Guangxi, Hong found that his lieutenant Feng Yunshan had gathered a reasonably large following, primarily among the Hakka, Hong’s own ethnic group. Guangxi was an especially fertile place for Hong’s religion because it contained many different ethnic groups that were disgruntled with the Manchu Qing monarchy. Called the “God Worshippers”, the group attracted the attention of local authorities, who began to sporadically act against the cult. In response to the harassment, Hong built a treasury by asking all his followers to relinquish their property and hoarded weaponry, establishing the foundation for the later rebellion. The Taiping army in particular was extremely effective, because its soldiers wholeheartedly devoted themselves to combat against demons; they were essentially the Chinese version of mujahideen.

            Finally, in December of 1850, government forces attacked Hong and his followers because of their growing size and their anti-Manchu rhetoric. The highly disciplined and fanatical Taiping army repelled the assault and Hong declared that the Taiping Kingdom (Kingdom of Heavenly Peace) had been formed, with himself as absolute monarch. Less powerful administrators responsible for segments of the kingdom were designated kings. The structure of the Taiping Kingdom was a mix of puritanical theocracy and socialism, the latter of which many supporters found appealing. Since Hong promised wealth redistribution and a classless, egalitarian society (though with strict separation of the sexes), the Taipings drew many poorer Chinese who were not necessarily interested in Hong’s religion, but did like his economic goals.

            In January of 1851, Hong declared the Jintian Uprising, in which the Taiping army routed an imperial Qing force and began its northeast drift from its origin in Guangxi. The Taiping sect’s first major accomplishment was the conquest of Nanjing in 1853, which Hong renamed Tianjing and made the capital of the kingdom. Generally, the peasantry supported the Taipings and the middle and upper classes, suspicious of the Taipings’ intentions, supported the Qing army. Although the Taiping Rebellion occurred in Britain’s sphere of influence, the British initially remained neutral, not wanting to embroil themselves in what they saw as a Chinese war. After 1853, Hong withdrew from public administration and Yang Xiuqing, the East King and commander of the Taiping army, became the most powerful Taiping leader. Another significant leader, Shi Dakai, was renowned for his genuine compassion for common people and his genius in battle.

            Yang Xiuqing’s brilliant military leadership coincided with the pinnacle of the Taiping Kingdom; at its peak, the Kingdom of Heavenly Peace ruled territory surrounding the Yangtze River containing 30 million people. Under Yang’s leadership, the Taipings extended their control up the Yangtze River Valley and made a strong attempt to capture Beijing, the Qing imperial capital. However, Yang’s religion was much more moderate than Hong’s, and for that reason Hong ordered the massacre of Yang, his family, and his followers in 1856, depriving the Taipings of their most effective leader and beginning the Taiping Kingdom’s decline. Hong would continue to rule from obscurity until 1864, when Nanjing was experiencing food shortage, and he died of food poisoning from eating wild vegetation.

            In 1859, Hong Rengan, a cousin of Hong Xiuquan, led another expansionist assault, capturing Hangzhou and Suzhou, but failing to capture Shanghai. By this time, the British had become convinced that a successful Taiping Rebellion or continuing instability in the Yangtze sphere of influence would harm British economic interests, and therefore joined the Qing imperial army. At the Battle of Shanghai in 1861, the Taipings’ second attempt to take the city, a union of Chinese soldiers and European officers led by Frederick Townsend Ward won decisively. By 1864, the Qing forces organized under Charles George “Chinese” Gordon and recaptured Nanjing, officially ending the Taiping Kingdom and the Taiping Rebellion. However, remnants of the rebellion remained until as late as 1871.

            The Taiping Rebellion started as a religious endeavor, but became more, as many religious uprisings do. It was a reflection of the decadence of the corrupt and incompetent Qing Dynasty and the discontent of the peasantry that would eventually overthrow the imperial system. Whether the Taiping Rebellion was the largest war of the nineteenth century is debatable, since the Napoleonic Wars in Europe may have mobilized more troops. However, it was the deadliest war in the nineteenth century and the second deadliest in all of history, after the Second World War. During the Taiping Rebellion, minimally 25 million people, primarily civilians, died, compared to one-half million in the American Civil War and 40-72 million the Second World War and the Sino-Japanese War.

            The legacy of the Taiping Rebellion is decidedly mixed. Karl Marx claimed that the result of the rebellion would dictate future uprisings in Europe, and Mao Zedong declared it a glorious attempt against a feudal state (though he dismissed the religious element). However, modern Chinese scholars deprecate the rebellion as a product of fanatical religion and emphasize the potential harm to China had it succeeded in toppling the Qing Dynasty.

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