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The Taiping Rebellion: an Overview


The Taiping Rebellion was a massive peasant uprising led by Hong Xiuquan (洪秀全) during the mid-19th century. The banner and manifesto that he used to rally his followers were directly influenced by Protestantism introduced into China from the West. The rebellion had its beginnings in the provinces of Guangdong (廣東) and Guangxi (廣西) where Hong and his friend Feng Yunshan (馮雲山) started preaching in 1843. They later established the God Worshipping Society (拜上帝會), a religious group committed to overthrowing the Qing regime.

In January 1851, the God Worshippers massed in Jintian Village (金田村), Guangxi, to revolt. Shortly afterwards, they proclaimed the establishment of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (太平天國), literally “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace” under the rule of Hong, the Heavenly King (天王). They began to call themselves the Taiping Army (太平軍), the army of great peace. In March 1853, the Taiping Army took over Nanjing (南京), declared it the capital of their new kingdom, and renamed it Tianjing (天京), the “Heavenly Capital”. By then, the Taiping Rebellion seized south China, creating a North-South standoff with the Qing government who held north China.

After establishing its capital, the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace promulgated the Land System of the Heavenly Dynasty (《天朝田畝制度》), which pledged to distribute land equally and promote gender equality. The Kingdom also issued A New Treatise on Aids to Administration (《資政新篇》), a reform movement aiming to emulate Western approaches towards the economic development of the Kingdom. However, because of continuous battles, most of these new regulations and ideas failed to be implemented.

In the meantime, being complacent about ruling their allotted territories in the Jiangnan (江南) region, Hong and other rebel leaders lost the momentum they had created to strike at Beijing. Besides, a meagre northern expeditionary force sent by the Taiping rebels was decimated by the Qing army, while their western expedition ended with limited success. Moreover, internal power struggles developed into fierce fights among the rebel leaders. These factors shifted the rebellion’s position from one taking the offensive attacker to passive defender.

Since the rise of the Taiping Army, the Qing government worked hard to quash the rebellion by establishing the Jiangnan (江南) and Jiangbei (江北) camps to besiege Tianjing. However, the imperial military formed by the Eight Banners (八旗) and Green Standard (綠營) troops had become largely ineffective. As a result, the Qing government had no choice but to allow local Han officials and gentry to raise their own local militias such as the Xiang Army (湘軍) raised by Zeng Guofan (曾國藩) and the Huai Army (淮軍) raised by Li Hongzhang (李鴻章).

Later, the Qing government used the Foreign Gun Troop (洋槍隊, also known as the Ever-Victorious Army﹝常勝軍﹞), a mercenary force led by foreigners. As the crackdown on the rebellion intensified, Tianjing was beset on all fronts by a united assault. In 1864, the Taiping Rebellion ended with Hong’s death in June and Tianjing’s fall in July. The revolt lasted for some 14 years and impacted more than a dozen provinces.

After the fall of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, remnants of the Taiping rebels, the concurrent Nian Rebellion (捻軍), and uprisings by the Miao (苗族) and Hui (回族) ethnic groups continued to defy the Qing regime until they were finally defeated in the 1870s.


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