The Taiping Rebellion (太平天國運動) was a massive revolt in China from 1850 to 1864 between the established Manchu-led Qing dynasty and the Hakka-led Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.
Between 1700 and 1800 numerous revolts against the central power, unable to resist the Western powers, took place all over China.
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The first riots
From 1774 with the beginning of the White Lotus revolt until 1873 with the end of the Hui and Miao revolts, China was, therefore, experiencing a century of internal struggles that broke out because of the strong discomfort of the population; the discomfort was often motivated by the demographic explosion, with consequent lack of food, and by the decay of the water maintenance system.
All these movements, however, end up in a bloodbath.
The high level of taxation, corrupt bureaucracy, and the process of concentration of land ownership had aggravated the situation, causing further impoverishment of the peasant masses.
This inconvenience led to the formation of secret societies on the model of the White Lotus and the Triads.
The impositions of Great Britain had further worsened an already serious situation: the decision to open new ports north of Canton was also damaging the local merchants, porters, boatmen, and the pirates themselves, to whom the western fleets had declared war.
Hong Xiuquan and the God Worshippers
Hong Xiuquan (Hung Hsiu-ch’uan, 洪秀全, 1 January 1814 – 1 June 1864) was the inspirer of the revolt. Coming from a family of small landowners of the Hakka minority, in 1837 he became seriously ill following a series of failures at the imperial examinations that threw him into despair.
In 1845 he had a mystical crisis after reading a book of evangelical propaganda.
In his dreams and visions, Hong ascended to Heaven where he met God and Jesus who revealed to him his true divine nature and his anti-Confucian mission.
From this moment on, he claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus and to have received the order to eliminate the demons: the Manchurian dynasty. Confucius, seen as the main culprit of human corruption, is also uninvited in Hong.
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His Christianity is syncretic, steeped in Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Manichaeism.
A “Christian” community was born around him, mostly made up of friends (Feng Yunshan) and relatives (such as his cousin Hong Rengan). Their first action was the destruction of the idols of the local temple.
Following this event, they were driven out of the village.
Thus begun their activity as missionaries, preaching for Guangxi.
Feng founded the God Worshippers, gathering numerous proselytes among the Hakkas and Miaos of the area.
1847 the two cousins Hong moved to Canton where they started to study Christianity under the guidance of the Presbyterian missionary I.J.Roberts, but without receiving baptism.
Hong left Canton and headed for the Thistle Mountain (紫荆山, in Guangxi province), meeting with the God Worshippers.
They were armed to defend themselves against the bandits who were infesting the area at the time.
Conflicts break out between the worshippers and the local Confucian nobles, worried about the sect’s vandalism against the idols kept in the temples.
Tension grew and the intervention of government troops was required.
Meanwhile, however, the ranks of Hong’s followers swell, and unexpectedly the worshippers of God manage to take over the military.
The Heavenly Kingdom of the Great Peace
In January 1851, after yet another victory against the imperialists, Hong proclaimed himself Heavenly King, founding the new dynasty of the “Heavenly Kingdom of the Great Peace” (Taiping Tianguo).
After the conquest of Yungan he created the structure of his government.
In the spring of the following year, pursued by the imperials, they passed through the Hunan, descending the valley of the Yangzi Jiang, conquering cities and villages and recruiting new followers.
In March 1853, in more than a million, they conquered Nanjing and made it the capital of their nascent empire.
The Taiping movement turned into a revolutionary regime.
The “agrarian system of the Chinese dynasty” was proclaimed.
Private commerce was suppressed and the communion of goods was promoted. The company was divided into Ku, groups of 25 families.
Hong Rengan promoted an opening towards Western innovations, seen as a means to strengthen Christian values in the community, and defended women’s rights. In this phase, he lost his mystical religious vision.
His reforms no longer reflected the ambitions of the peasant masses but were much closer to the “middle-class” classes.
In the period of maximum expansion, the Taipings occupied the Eastern Guangxi, the south-western Hunan, the Hubei, the Anhui, the Jiangxi, and the Zhejiang.
Sure of God’s protection, the Taiping prepared two military expeditions, one to the north, to conquer Beijing, and one to the west.
The first was defeated.
The second, after a series of encouraging victories, was forced to return to the capital to break the encirclement of the imperial troops.
In June 1856, the Taipings made their last great success against the Manchurian dynasty.
A series of bloody feuds and internal clashes between the various kings who controlled the various kingdom’s regions decreed the end of the dynasty.
Since 1852, the Eastern King, Yun Xiuqing, had increased his power against the Heavenly King himself, who exercised power in an increasingly despotic manner.
Hong then decided to dismiss the Eastern King, causing the Northern King, Wei Chang, to wage war against him.
Hong finally eliminated the Northern King as well.
In 1863 Hong died after having eliminated all kings, without having succeeded in establishing a kingdom capable of surviving his death.
The following year the imperial troops concluded the destruction of the Taiping entering also in Nanking after a long siege.
They were guided by the exponent of the small Manchurian nobility Zeng Guofeng, that for twelve years (from 1852, when he received the assignment to move towards the Hunan, until the final victory on the rebels) fought the Taiping with alternate results.
The early days were characterized by some major defeats to make him meditate on suicide.
Only in 1854, with the victories of his generals, Qibu and Peng Yulin, did he begin to believe in the real strength of his troops. Zeng Guofeng was considered the main architect of the victory and was awarded the honor of Marquis of the first rank.
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