Despite the Taiping Army having seized half of China almost unopposed, its leaders failed to seize the momentum to strike at Beijing and began to fight among themselves, an act that ultimately doomed the rebellion.
Hong Xiuquan (洪秀全) claimed to be the “second son of God” while Yang Xiuqing (楊秀清), another leader of the God Worshipping Society (拜上帝會), once pretended to channel “God” into his own body. This occurred prior to the launch of the rebellion when Feng Yunshan (馮雲山) was arrested and Hong left to rescue him from the Qing government. In Hong’s absence, Yang did this to stabilise the agitated followers. From then on Yang became known as the “spokesperson of God”. However, after Tianjing (天京) became the new capital of the Kingdom, the tension between Hong and Yang began to surface. Claiming that he was on behalf of “God”, Yang, the Eastern King, not only demanded to be called Wansui (Ten Thousand Years Old), but also punished Hong and other high-ranking members at will.
In September 1856 (the sixth year of Emperor Xianfeng’s﹝咸豐﹞reign), Wei Changhui (韋昌輝), the Northern King, returned to the capital on the Heavenly King’s orders, promptly launched a sudden attack on the Eastern King’s mansion. Yang, his family members and subordinates of a total of around 30,000 people were killed. Later, Hong gave the order to kill Wei and summoned Assistant King Shi Dakai (石達開) back to the capital to act as the steward for state affairs. Yet after the riots of Yang and Wei, Hong suspected Shi’s loyalty. In June 1857, Shi fled the capital with 100,000 of his followers, heading west through the provinces of Yunnan (雲南), Guizhou (貴州), and Sichuan (四川). In 1863 (the second year of Emperor Tongzhi’s ﹝同治﹞reign), the Qing army defeated him near the Dadu River (大渡河) in Sichuan. Shi was captured in the battle and finally killed.
Since the turmoil in Tianjing, Hong redistributed all positions of power to his own family members, relying on them to safeguard the yet-to-be-secured Hong’s family regime.
After making Tianjing the Kingdom’s capital, power struggles broke out among Hong Xiuquan, the Heavenly King, and the other kings.
The study room of Hong Xiuquan, the Heavenly King of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (太平天國). Once he settled in Tianjing, he sequestered himself in his own palace and rarely appeared to manage state affairs.
A Proclamation (gaoyu ﹝誥諭﹞) to Placate the Four Groups of People (《安撫天京四民誥諭》) delivered in 1853. Missives issued by the Heavenly King, Eastern King, Northern King, and Assistant King were called zhaozhi (詔旨), gaoyu (誥諭), jieyu (誡諭), and xunyu (訓諭) respectively. In actual practice, the Eastern King who issued the gaoyu could exercise his authority to override the Heavenly King’s own zhaozhi.
The Eastern King’s mansion of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace was constructed based on historic documents. In the early days of Tianjing’s occupation, the Kingdom’s military rule was mostly directed by the Eastern King. He often ordered Hong Xiuquan and the others around using the authority of “God” he claimed to channel. In 1856, speaking on behalf of “God” again, he forced the Heavenly King to change the Eastern King’s title from Jiuqiansui (Nine Thousand Years Old) to Wansui (Ten Thousand Years Old). This was regarded as an attempt to usurp the throne, and further escalated the tension between the two kings.
Although Wei Changhui, the Northern King, was only slightly behind the Eastern King in rank, he was a frequent victim of the latter’s overbearing attitude. He was disciplined and humiliated on numerous occasions. However, Wei hid his growing grievances, showing outward respect and awe as he plotted his revenge in secret. In September 1856, Wei’s army launched a sudden attack on the Eastern King’s mansion. This was the prelude to the later bloodbath in Tianjing.
Caught off guard by the Northern King’s sudden attack, the Eastern King was killed in his mansion.
Still unsatisfied, Wei Changhui slaughtered Yang Xiuqing’s family members, his subordinates, and their family members. The death toll was estimated at around 30,000.
Having received word of Wei Changhui’s indiscriminate massacre, the Assistant King, Shi Dakai, who stationed outside the capital with his army, hurried back to Tianjing to stop the atrocity. In response, Wei plotted to have Shi killed. Shi was forced to flee Tianjing at night, leaving his family and subordinates to be massacred by Wei. Mobilising his troops, Shi launched a campaign that was widely supported by civilians and military alike to eradicate Wei. In a panic, Wei decided to attack the Heavenly King’s palace. However, he failed and was killed. Following the turmoil, Hong Xiuquan appointed Shi as steward to stabilise the situation. Pictured is a statue of Shi located in Shimian County (石棉縣), Sichuan.
After the turmoil caused by Yang Xiuqing and Wei Changhui, Hong Xiuquan began to question Shi Dakai’s loyalty as well. This, in 1857, led to Shi’s departure from Tianjing with 100,000 of his followers to conquer Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan. Pictured is a xunyu or proclamation issued by Shi in Fuzhou (涪州), Sichuan. Good-natured, generous and, imbued with a sense of loyalty and righteousness, Shi was a capable and charismatic commander served by numerous outstanding generals and soldiers. Thus, his departure was a grave loss to the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.
The modern-day Dadu River (大渡河) in Sichuan. In 1863, Shi Dakai was captured and shortly thereafter killed after his army’s defeat near the Dadu River. Historians commonly considered the bloodbath in Tianjing and the subsequent departure of the Assistant King to be the turning point that embarked the Kingdom’s decline and ultimate demise.
Source of most photos used in this feature piece: Fotoe