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TitleTaiping Rebellion
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Page 1

Advent of Western Imperialism

The scenario was aggravated by the entry of
western capitalism. From the beginning of the
nineteenth century, the import of goods from
abroad, especially opium, had risen steeply com-
pared to exports. Thus the balance of trade went
against China. The import hike was met by the
export of large quantities of silver from China
to other countries. Before the beginning of the
nineteenth century, tael (1 ounce of silver) was
equal to 1,000 copper coins; in 1835, the rate of
exchange was 1 ounce to 2,000 coins. The great
majority of the population usually used copper
coins to pay for goods including agricultural
products. But the problem was that peasants
had to pay their taxes not in copper but in
silver. Therefore, for the peasants, taxes were
doubled simply by the alteration in the rate of
exchange. Moreover, a series of natural disasters
from 1826 to 1850 drove the peasants below
subsistence level and they were no longer in a
position to pay taxes.

The political and social crises were accelerated
by the First Opium War (1840–2) and the Treaty
of Nanking (1842), the first in a series unequal
treaties that, along with subsequent develop-
ments, transformed China from a feudal country
into a semi-feudal and semi-colonial one. The
Manchu state became totally discredited, politic-
ally weak and subservient to foreign powers.
Before the Opium War, foreign trade was lim-
ited to the port city of Canton. A great number
of porters were regularly employed in trans-
porting goods between Canton and the Yangzi
provinces. After the war, the British intruders
demanded that other ports such as Amoy,
Shanghai, Ningpo, and Foochow also be opened
to trade. Decline in the importance of the
Cantonese monopoly threw hundreds of thou-
sands of boatmen and porters in central and
southern China out of work. These unemployed
masses swelled the ranks of the Taiping and
furnished many of their leaders. The influx of
cheap foreign textiles ruined millions of weavers
and other handicraftsmen through direct com-
petition in the market. This was known as dein-
dustrialization, a phenomenon noticeable also in
contemporary colonial India. Indigenous mer-
chants and moneylenders, who used to finance
artisans, now invested in foreign goods.

Proto-nationalist feelings gave these long-
standing and diverse socioeconomic grievances a

Taiping Rebellion,

Amit Bhattacharyya

One of the greatest Chinese peasant rebellions,
the Taiping (Great Peace) Rebellion was directed
primarily against the feudal rule of the Manchu
dynasty and secondarily against foreign capital-
ism, which had been making steady inroads into
the economy, society, and politics of China ever
since the country’s defeat in the first Opium War
and the signing of the Treaty of Nanking.

Crises of the Manchu Rule

Manchu rule was the rule of a conquering
dynasty named the Ch’ing or Qing that had
overthrown the indigenous Ming dynasty. They
were a Tungusic people, considered foreigners
by the mainland Chinese. Manchu rule was torn
by crises, mismanagement, and corruption in the
late eighteenth century, at both the central and
provincial levels. Government encouragement
of the sale of official positions created a vicious
cycle of corruption. Taxes were arbitrarily
enhanced by local officials and landlords, who also
acted as tax collectors. Political decline led to
economic failure. The great majority of the
peasants had no protection against exploitation by
officials and various feudal elements. As in all
feudal societies, land was concentrated in the
hands of a handful of gentry officials and the peas-
ants were subjected to all forms of oppression and
exploitation. Factors such as these caused peas-
ant rebellions in the earlier periods of the history
of China. However, in the mid-nineteenth cen-
tury, social crisis assumed a new dimension by
the unexpected population explosion. In fact,
China’s population increased from 180 million in
1751 to 430 million in 1851 without any corres-
ponding expansion of the area of arable land. In
the absence of any industry to absorb the surplus
population and territory to which they could
migrate, land was further fragmented. This not
only disrupted the balance of the rural economic
sector but also crippled the peasantry by lower-
ing their standard of living.

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2 Taiping Rebellion, 1851–1864

common vocabulary of protest. Followers of
the Ming dynasty, overthrown by the Manchus,
had prepared a literary battle against the foreign
rulers at the end of the seventeenth century that
profoundly inspired the leaders of the Taiping
Rebellion and other risings. Supporters of the
Ming dynasty formed a secret society called
the Heaven and Earth Society, whose slogan was
“Overthrow the Ch’ing and restore the Ming.”

Hong Xiuquan

The beginning of the Taiping Rebellion almost
coincided with the revolutionary outbreaks that
shook Europe in 1848. Starting off in Tzu-chin
shan in the province of Kwangsi, near the
Vietnam border, it cut across China like a sword,
approaching Peking in the north, Shanghai in the
east, and the Tibetan mountains in the west.
The rebels made Nanking their capital and set up
the revolutionary state of the oppressed people
known as the Taiping Tien-kuo or the Heavenly
Kingdom of the Great Peace.

Hong Xiuquan, the supreme leader of the
rebellion, was a poverty-stricken schoolteacher
who had been ill treated by the corrupt Con-
fucian scholar gentry that served the Manchus.
He was born in the province of Kwangtung
(capital Canton), which gave birth to many a
Chinese revolutionary including Sun Yat-sen.
Witnessing the persecution of his own people by
the landlords, Hong was deeply influenced by the
heroic battles of the Cantonese peasant detach-
ments against the British invaders during the
Opium War. At the same time, he came into con-
tact with the Christianity preached, but rarely
practiced, by the missionaries.

This rebellion brought within its fold a num-
ber of people from different walks of life. In fact,
Hong’s earliest colleagues such as Yang (charcoal-
burner), Feng (village schoolteacher), Hsiao (poor
peasant and woodcutter), Wei (trader), and Shih
(rich peasant) reflected the class basis of the move-
ment. There were also representatives of small
sections of relatively well-to-do scholar gentry
who were opposed to the Manchus for national,
not social, reasons. Their followers consisted of
the Hakka, Yao, and Miao tribes, several hundred
charcoal-burners, a large number of miners, and
former pirates who had been driven from the
seashores by foreign warships. Moreover, there
were a few traders and well-to-do peasants as well
as deserters from the government troops and

porters from Canton. The peasantry constituted
the main fighting force of the movement.

Dynamics and Defeat

As the revolutionary situation was conducive
to their growth, the Taiping rebels quickly grew
in strength. In the summer of 1852, they left
their original base in Kwangsi and marched
northwards toward Hunan, where they were
joined by a huge body of rebels from other
movements. From Hunan they proceeded through
Hupei and then occupied Nanking, the southern
capital of the Ming dynasty in the spring of 1853.
Nanking became the seat of rebel power and Hong
Xiuquan set up his court there. An army was
dispatched northwards with the aim of cap-
turing Peking. However, because of inadequate
military preparations and the inability of the
southern soldiers to adjust to the northern food
habits and cold winter climate, the thrust to the
north came to nothing.

The rebels could not keep their revolutionary
fervor intact for long for a number of reasons.
In 1856, the rebels fell out among themselves
in the city of Nanking itself, and the treachery
of a commander named Wei Chang-hui resulted
in a confrontation in which some of the most
important leaders lost their lives. This brought
the revolutionary offensive to an end and its con-
tinuance in the following years turned out to be
purely defensive. Along with this, other internal
contradictions developed within the rebel order.
The Taipings began by conducting mobile war-
fare, all the way from the mountains of Kwangsi
to the rebel capital of Nanking. Undoubtedly
this was a spontaneous people’s war against the
feudal order. However, as Chesneaux (1973)
points out, after establishing a government and
a state in Nanking, the leaders soon became a priv-
ileged class. In order to make the governmental
machinery work, they had to make increasing
demands on the peasantry. This marked the
transition point for the peasantry, who were trans-
formed from active agents participating in the
decision to create a new political formation to
passive subjects of a government. They had to
pay taxes, suffer requisitions, and supply unpaid
labor: the system they had sought to change. This
was why the peasantry became increasingly dis-
affected in the last years of the Heavenly Kingdom.
The rebel state was thus in the process of being
weakened by these internal contradictions.

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Taiping Rebellion, 1851–1864 3

banned opium, were regarded as “international
law-breakers” in their own motherland.

The attitude of the foreign governments and
the press toward the rebels soon changed. They
were no longer regarded as religious brethren
but as “anarchists” and “blasphemers.” The
Manchu government, regarded previously as reac-
tionary, was now hailed as the guardian of
trade and legality and a force for stability. In fact,
by 1861–2, British and French troops started
participating in the armed conflicts on the side
of the Manchus in Shanghai.

Many progressive people in the western world
raised their voices against unwarranted western
interference in the internal affairs of China.
Marx and Engels denounced such aggression in
a series of articles. A number of foreigners fought
directly for the Taipings. Augustus Lindlay, a
British citizen, not only took up arms on the side
of the Taipings but also wrote a moving eyewit-
ness account of the rising. Moreover, several
former officials of the French army and at least
one Italian named Major Moreno played an
active part in it.

The last phase of the battle was the bloodiest
of all. The combined attacks of the Manchu and
foreign troops finally put an end to this greatest
peasant revolt in the history of modern China.
In the summer of 1864, the capital Nanking
fell to the Manchus.

Revolutionary Measures

The military successes of the Taiping were based
on the overwhelming support of the people. It
was truly a people’s war that unleashed the ini-
tiative and creativity of the masses. The social
and political program they adopted reflected the
aspirations of the masses. In fact, many of the
principles of the Taiping Rebellion served as
an inspiration and model for Sun Yat-sen and
the Kuomintang (National People’s Party) he
founded, as well as for the May 4 movement
of 1919 and the communists. Franke writes that
the Taiping took the idea of equality from
Christianity. This idea combined with many
ancient ideas and did much to strengthen their
revolutionary social program.

• Common property: Under the Taipings, unlike
in previous regimes, there were no private pos-
sessions. They established a common treasury
and granary from which provision was made

The defeat of the Taipings can be attributed
not only to internal factors, but also to external
ones. The foreign powers played a major role
in this. At the beginning, the rebellion received
much praise in the western press and even in gov-
ernment circles. The fact that the rebels were
Christian and stood against Manchu corruption
and backwardness was much acclaimed. That is
why the western powers maintained neutrality
in the initial years of the revolt. They wanted
to utilize the revolt to further their own gains
by exploiting the internal contradictions within
China. Some foreign leaders sought to transform
the rebel leaders into their stooges, who would
help them capture political power and gain con-
trol over China. Others wanted to see China
exhausted by internal turmoil and cease to exist.
However, the Taipings were never prepared to
allow foreigners to use them as they wished.
Through their revolutionary activities and their
program of action, they made it clear that the
civil war in China was the internal affair of the
Chinese people and that any offer from for-
eigners to mediate between the rebels and the
Manchu state was unacceptable to them. At the
same time, by imposing a ban on the opium trade
in areas controlled by the Taiping rebels, they
made their anti-western position perfectly clear.

Foreign Intervention

The Opium War and the treaties signed there-
after paved the way for the control of China’s
internal affairs by the foreign powers. Britain’s
declaration of war on China was followed by that
of France, culminating in the Second Opium War
in 1857–8 which also ended in China’s defeat and
the signing of another unequal and humiliating
treaty, known as the Treaty of Tientsin (1858).
By this treaty, the Manchus had to concede a
tremendous war indemnity, the legalization of
both opium and missionary activities, and the
perpetuation of foreign control of customs and
tariffs. The toiling people of China were trans-
ferred to different colonies to serve in Malay, US,
and New Caledonian plantations and mines as
nothing better than slaves. This marked the
beginning of the infamous “coolie trade” whereby
Chinese workers were forced to work in abysmal,
unhygienic conditions. Britain and France were
to provide military help to the Manchu govern-
ment to fight the Taiping rebels. Opium was
legalized by the treaty and the Taipings, who had

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4 Taiping Rebellion, 1851–1864

for individual weddings, births, funerals, and
so on.

• Land reform program: The makers of the new
order proclaimed an egalitarian Agrarian Law
according to which all the land under Heaven
was to be collectively cultivated by all the
people under Heaven. All land was divided
into nine categories according to its quality and
was allocated for the use of the population.
The peasants retained for themselves only
that part of the produce that was needed for
their subsistence. Taxes were reduced to a
level that was lower than that demanded by
the Manchu state. In a manifesto of Novem-
ber 2, 1860, Hong Xiuquan announced a
reduction of taxes in the southern counties of
Kiangsu. It read: “Now, seeing the suffering
of the people, and fulfilling the will of the
Most High, I and my youthful heir to the
throne intend to govern humanely and to
lower taxes in order to lighten the life of the
people and bring them relief. . . . As I have
learned from the report of Brother Li Hsiu-
cheng, in the past the population of Kiangsu
paid onerous taxes and extortionate duties to
the Manchu devils, who sucked your blood
and rebelled against Heaven” (Anon 1959).
The Soviet historian Tikhvinsky (1983)
has drawn attention to the limitations of the
measures of the Taiping. It is true that the
revolutionaries were thoroughly anti-feudal
and anti-Manchu and regarded all property,
including landed property, as the “property
of the Satan.” At the same time, as peasant
rebels they tended to reproduce structures
similar to what had existed before, relying on
gentry and bureaucrats for administration. As
a result, in many cases landlord-bureaucrats
failed to carry out demands for the reduc-
tion of sharecroppers’ rent and were able
to impose practically the whole burden of
taxation on the shoulders of the peasantry.

• Position of women: In traditional Chinese society,
the position of women was subordinate in
every respect to that of men. Women did not
have any right over property; they were sub-
jected to political, religious, clan-based, and
patriarchal exploitation. The Taipings marked
a qualitative departure from the past as they
sought to create a new society based on gen-
der equality. Their unhesitant declaration to
this effect was itself a revolutionary political
statement. In a feudal society where women

had no rights whatsoever, they forbade pros-
titution and the purchase and sale of women
in marriage. In the rebel order, women could
sit for state examinations and occupy the
same civil or military positions as men. One
unique fact is the presence of women soldiers
in special women’s contingents in the Taiping
army. Monogamy was made obligatory. Rape
was punishable by death.

• Temperance: Like tobacco and alcohol, opium
was also strictly prohibited and this was
enforced in practice.

• Attack on images: The Taipings were mon-
otheistic and their activities showed signs of
their intolerance toward other religious sects.
They were influenced by Christianity and
destroyed the images, statues, and temples of
Buddhism, Taoism, and particularly Confu-
cianism, which served as the ideological basis
of the feudal system in China. By directing
their attacks against images, the Taipings gave
their critics and opponents a powerful weapon
to use against them.

• Treatment of foreigners: The Taiping Rebellion
took place in the context of western capitalist
penetration when foreign trade and the opium
business had already extended their tentacles.
The Taipings recognized none of the priv-
ileges the foreign powers extracted from
the Manchus through unequal treaties. On
the other hand, they were prepared to esta-
blish commercial relations with them on the
basis of equality. As a result of the Christian
influence, they regarded all nations as having
equal rights; they did not deride foreigners
as “barbarians,” nor did they regard the
Chinese as people chosen by the Lord on
High. They were hostile to Catholics, but
fairly friendly to Protestants.

• Calendar reform: The traditional lunar Chinese
calendar was replaced by a completely new
lunisolar calendar with a seven-day week.

• Literary reform: The Taipings also introduced
important changes in the written language of
the people. The Chinese language does not
have an alphabet: it is ideographic. Moreover,
there was a wide variety in the dialects used
by people living in each province. Despite
such differences, the written language was
the same everywhere and it was this unity
that could hold the Chinese nation together,
regardless of disunity in other fields. The
problem was that the overwhelming majority

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Taiping Rebellion, 1851–1864 5

on the front part of the head – a longstanding
practice that was prohibited by the Manchu
rulers. It was this nationalistic element that
explains the participation of a large number of
educated and rich people whose anti-Manchu
patriotism gave them some sympathy for the
rebel cause.

A number of scholars, both Chinese and
western, have written on the nature and signi-
ficance of the Taiping Rebellion. Mao Zedong
(1939) pointed out that peasant risings and wars
constituted a unique feature of Chinese history.
According to him, class struggles between peas-
ants and feudal forces constituted the dynamic
element in the progress of China amidst the
changing fortunes of ruling dynasties. He argued
that in the absence of “correct leadership” by the
proletariat and the Communist Party, peasant
wars of the past were unable to liberate the peas-
antry from the feudal yoke. While speaking of the
Taiping Rebellion, Mao said that it was one of
the eight major events that occurred in the form-
ative period of China’s bourgeois-democratic

Mao’s observations inspired the historians
of modern China to engage in 11 years of debate
from 1950 to 1961. In 1952, the Chinese His-
torical Society published eight volumes of
source materials on Taiping from Shanghai.
During that period, Chinese journals published
400 research articles. However, as Tan Chung
(1985) argues, this important intellectual achieve-
ment has hardly been noticed outside China.
J. P. Harrison, who followed this debate with
interest, was critical of the communist historians’
attempts to put the peasant movements of the
past on a new pedestal.

Tan Chung argued that in earlier times the
gentry had suppressed information about the
importance of peasant rebellions in Chinese
history, an importance that was recovered only
after the aforementioned debates. These debates
helped Chinese scholars view their past as a con-
tinuous process of social evolution with peasant
movements acting as locomotives, having an
anti-feudal dynamic. A different view was that the
peasants attacked the regime, not feudalism as a
class system. Hou Wailu described the Taiping
revolt as the highest form of peasant war and a
very good beginning for modern revolution.
Another writer, Wu Shimo, asserted that Taiping
stood for political equality, economic equality, sex-
ual equality, and equality among nations.

of the Chinese did not know the written
language and so were not in a position to write.
The Taipings relaxed the heavily conven-
tional written style, which was quite different
from the spoken language, by approximating
it more closely to colloquial speech. In this
they were the forerunners of the great liter-
ary revolution that took place later on.

• Other reforms: Besides these reforms, the
Taipings envisaged other modern infrastruc-
tural reforms, such as the construction of a
network of railways, a postal service, hos-
pitals, and banks. They accepted the Ten
Commandments and the divinity of Christ.
In their opinion, Hong Xiuquan was the
second brother of Christ. They believed in
baptism, and the Old and New Testaments
were integral parts of their religious canons.
It can therefore be argued that the Taipings
created a complete politico-religious system
which combined spiritual salvation and
obedience to the will of God with the political
and military defense of the rebel state.

Nature and Significance

Although the Taipings did attempt to establish
an egalitarian utopian society, their reforms were
actually such as to pave the way to capitalism. But
peasant rebellions without the creation of new
productive forces through the participation of an
urban bourgeoisie could not achieve capitalist
development. In effect, the peasantry was used
by the landlords and the nobility as a lever to bring
about dynastic changes.

The Taiping Rebellion took place at a time
when Chinese society had been undergoing a
process of transition from a feudal society to a
semi-feudal and semi-colonial one. The process
of transition started roughly from the time of
the Opium Wars when Britain and other foreign
powers had already began making active encroa-
chments on Chinese soil. Epstein (1956) holds
that this rebellion was simultaneously the last of
China’s old-style peasant wars and the first great
democratic fight of its people in the modern
period. Chesneaux (1973) says that elements
of proto-nationalism in the Taiping movement
linked it with the peasant revolts of earlier days.
The rebels accused the Manchu dynasty of
wanting to drain the country of its wealth. It is
important to refer in this connection to an inter-
esting feature: they allowed their hair to grow

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