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Taiping Rebellion - History

Taiping Rebellion - History

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The Taiping rebellion broke out in 1850. The rebellion was led by Hung Hsiu-ch'uan . He believed he was Gods' second son. His believed in Christianity, and his ideology called for communal land ownership and equality between men and women. The revolt against the Manchus lasted for ten years and ended in failure. The revolt cost the lives of 20 million Chinese peasants.

Chinese Learning as Substance, Western Learning for Application

The idea of "Chinese Learning as Substance, Western Learning for Application" (simplified Chinese: 中体西用 traditional Chinese: 中體西用 pinyin: zhōngtǐ xīyòng ) was initially proposed by Feng Guifen in his Xiaopinlu kangyi (Protests from the cottage of Feng Guifen), written in 1861 after the Second Opium War. [1] At the time, leading Chinese thinkers were interrogating how to approach the threat posed by encroaching Western states. Feng argued for China's self-strengthening and industrialization by borrowing Western technology and military systems, while retaining core Neo-Confucian principles. These ideas were further elaborated on by Zhang Zhidong in 1898 in his book Quanxue pian as "Traditional (Chinese) learning as substance, New (Western) learning as application" (“舊學為體,新學為用”). “Zhongti xiyong” became a popular slogan used in the late Qing Reforms, including the Self-Strengthening Movement and Hundred Days' Reform. [2] The concept was widespread among intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th century, and it remains relevant in the modern studies of China-West cultural relationship.

Total War

The Taiping Rebellion was a total war . Almost every citizen who had not fled the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was given military training and conscripted into the army in order to fight against Qing imperial forces. Under the Taiping household registration system, one adult male from each household was to be conscripted into the Army.

During this conflict, both sides tried to deprive each other of the resources which they needed in order to continue the war and it became standard practice for each side to destroy the opposing side’s agricultural areas, butcher the populations of cities, and generally exact a brutal price from the inhabitants of captured enemy lands in order to drastically weaken the opposition’s war effort.

This war was total in the sense that civilians on both sides participated in the war effort to a significant extent and the armies on both sides waged war against both the civilian population and military forces. Contemporary accounts describe the amount of desolation which befell rural areas as a result of the conflict.

In every area which they captured, the Taiping immediately exterminated the entire Manchu population. In the province of Hunan one Qing loyalist who observed the genocidal massacres which the Taiping forces committed against the Manchus wrote that the “pitiful Manchus”, the Manchu men, women and children were executed by the Taiping forces.

Taiping Rebellion Effects on Chinese History

The Taiping Rebellion was a bloody civil war in China which took place in the 19th century being led by Hong Xiuquan against the Qing’s government. Xiuquan was a Christian convert who supposedly had a vision of God who asked him to wipe out the idols in the land. He claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus and part of his quest was to convert many to the Christian faith and establish a kingdom of peace. This paper will endeavor to discuss the causes, challenges and the outcome of the rebellion highlighting also its adverse effect to China as a whole.

Hoing Xiuquan was born in 1813 to a farming family in Guangdong province. Xiuquan had two sisters and also two elderly brothers. He joined school at the age of seven where he learnt Chinese characters through the act of memorization. His teacher was called Ting-jin who apparently had not even qualified in civil exams (“TaipingRebellion.

Xiuquan dropped from school at the age due to lack of funds but due to his diligence and eminent desire to study, his relatives assisted him to resume studies with a local master. Four degrees were available at that time but in all, very few managed to pass them. Xiuquan time came for the test, but like many he too failed the test.

He married after the first test and in1833, he went back to try the test but again, he also failed. He later on met a native evangelist, Liang Afah who gave him religious track which after having read them, he shelved for about ten year probably because most of the religious ideologies and terms were hard to understand (“TaipingRebellion.com 1850-71,” par. 18).

In 1836, Xiuquan again attempted and again failed the tests but after these tests, he got a fever and no doctor could help him out and later on he fell into a comma. It was at this time that Xiuquan received his vision. In his vision, he saw a very large procession coming with music and banners, he was ushered into a palace and in the palace, an ancient surgeon Chin- Kwei removed his heart and after this, Xiuquan was allowed to appear before the lord of the palace who appeared as an old man venerable in years. He told him that all humanity is sustained by him but they continue to rebel against him and even use his gifts in worship for demon he was then cautioned not to imitate them. The master of the palace also gave Xiuquan a sword with which to fight the demons. As Xiuquan left the palace, he was escorted by a middle aged man whom he later on referred to as Jesus who was a brother to him. When his vision ended, he woke shouting “tsan jan” (slay the demons) many villagers knew as the mad man. It took another forty days for his health to be restored henceforth he proceeded to convert millions that were deep into slavery (“TaipingRebellion.com 1850-71,” par. 25)

One day, Li one of his relative found the books that Xiuquan had been given by the Christian missionary which he had shelved ten years ago. Li requested for permission to read them and in the long run, Li’s interest in these books prompted Xiuquan to revisit reading these books. This time round the content was not as hard to understand as the first time. However, what fascinated Xiuquan was the interrelation between these books and the vision he had.

Xiuquan understood the old man venerable in years to God and His escort to be Jesus and the demons were the idols which his fellow countrymen worshiped. He immediately confisticated the idols in the classroom and also encouraged his fellow student to the same. He then took a jar of water and baptized himself for purification and together with his family became converted (“TaipingRebellion.com 1850-71,” par. 26). Ever since that time Xiuquan embarked on travelling to different lands preaching the gospel. He however, seemed to misinterpret the old testament assuming that God chosen race meant China and he therefore made two sword with inscription “demon exterminating swords” wanting to play the role of Joshua (“TaipingRebellion.com 1850-71,” par. 27).

Preaching became a costly exercise but starvation and lack of money did not deter him. He travelled to many place doing missionary work and became very successful in converting people to Christianity. Many people perceived him to be immortal send to them to give them the new doctrine. People even began to listen to words of the missionary that had given Xiuquan the articles and many who had been hard hearted became converted many believe of the torments of hell.

The reasons why Taiping Rebellion took place

As Xiuquan continued to make progress selling his ideas of Christianity, he always had a secret idea in mind which he shared with nobody else other than Hung- Jin. Hung- Jin believed that God had separated all nations assigning boundaries to them and therefore failed to understand why the Manchus who had forcibly entered china and robbed them of their properties. At that time, the Manchu had in china and had secured for themselves the best estates and the principal positions in the military. The Manchus were descendants of Tungu Junchen people who founded the Jin dynasty which was founded by Jurchen. He formed a strong neutral army which occupied the North east territory. His army comprised of Chinese and Mongols. They conquered Beijing but also proceeded to take over the rest of China. The Manchu ruled China making use of Chinese countrymen especially those who had take part in the governance of the Ming dynasty. They relived the Chinese peasants from slavery and set very low taxes for them. It was also possible for any Chinese in any social background to attain the prestigious Qing official hierarchy through state examination which Xiuquan had kept on attempting to pass (“Chinese History – Qing Dynasty,” par. 1)

He therefore felt that he had the duty to secure Chinese boundaries and to teach nation to mind their own properties without robbing each other. These thoughts became later confirmed by a dream he had which propelled him to take the imitative to free his country. In the dream he saw a huge ball of fire on top of his head which he associated with the coming of the great king foretold to come after five hundred years by Mencius, he considered himself to be this great king (“TaipingRebellion.com 1850-71,” par. 32). This is how his quest to deliver Chinese people and establish the land of peace begun.

China at that time was an extensive manufacturing country and in most cases it did not require cotton and its products from the west. The British merchants made their living through smuggling of opium into china which had banned importation of the product due to the adverse addiction and unethical effects the drug had. Opium imports also weakened china’s currency because all of Chinese export could not cover the enormous cost of opium imports in their country. To overt this situation, Lin Zexu, a governor in Guangzhou confisticated opium products and at the same time confronted the British merchants. Britain retaliated by helping its merchant something that led to a series of china’s defeat resulting to numerous treaties that ashamed the Qing’s government. These sequences of defeats provoked a lot of discontent against the Qing’s government something that may have helped the Taiping Rebels to gunner support from Chinese citizens. At the same time the Qing’s economic might was weak during the 19th century due to the extensive weakening of the copper coins. Corruption during this time was also eminent during this time and together with poverty, landlessness and unemployment, the Qing’s government was not popular especially with the middle and lower class. This oppression was part of what Taiping rebels were trying liberating themselves and their countrymen from.

Moreover, historians speculated that the rebel movement may have succeeded to recruit many of its followers due to the drought in 1840’s. At that time the movement provided food and took care of its followers something may have led many to join it as the only escape from the drought (Hines, “The Taiping Rebellion,” Par. 4)

Taiping rebels tried to forge assistance from their Christian brothers in the west but the Europeans decided to stay neutral their main concern at that time was trade relations and they did not want to risk loosing either side as trading partners supposing that either side might win. Taiping rebels also attempted to forge support with the middle class but many had a problem with the anti Confucianism that advocated for their religious traditions (McGuigan, “What was the Taiping Rebellion,” par 4).

When the rebels invaded Guanxi and drove off Qing’s forces, government efforts to try and suppress these rebels bore not fruits so these prompted for the Qing’s government to seek external assistance to suppress the rebellion. When the rebels tried to capture Beijing, local governors and rich merchants hired western forces to assist in the resistance and they ended up forming the ever victorious army and this army eventually drove back the Taiping rebels and massacred their remnant in Nanjing. (“Chinese History – Qing Dynasty,” Par 4)

One would expect the western troops to support the Taiping rebels in their quest to wipe out idols in china the rich Christian background in the west. This was however not the case something which baffled the Taiping armies. One of the reasons is perhaps that Hong Xiuquan Christian beliefs may have been considered by many Christians in the west more of a cult that had gone out of the prescribed Christian doctrines. Hong lived in his palace having about two thousand women and as a king people had to kneel down and not look up failure to which they were executed (Penn, “Chinese history: The Taiping Rebellion,” par 1). So his doctrine advocated the existence of a second messiah in which case he called himself Jesus younger brother. Li Xiucheng being aware of this is recorded to have told them that Taiping Christian faith unlike that in western Christianity was still young requiring time to mature but both shared the same faith (“TaipingRebellion.com 1850-71,” par. 63).

At the same time the main reason that may have led to the western forces opting to support the Qing’s government is because they considered the Taiping a threat to their opium trade and business investment since at that time western nations had hugely invested a lot of resources through the establishment of factories, banks and other manufacturing companies. China was an appropriate market for their product and it also provided cheap labor to their industries.

Taiping Rebellion (Structure – Organization History)

The Taiping were organized in such a way that each Taiping prince control about 100, 000 people and he also had an army. We had ministers of various state departments under the princes who were in control of numerous civil affairs (“TaipingRebellion.com 1850-71,” par.53). From ministers, next in ranks were the army generals (keungshwae). The Taiping general was very disciplined mostly be because of the numerous rituals they undertook. Every army comprised of about 13125 soldiers and was divided into five positional divisions of about 1225 soldiers under the control of a general. These divisions comprised of three army brigades. The first was for that who had been in the army for over six years, the second brigade comprised of soldiers loyal to the army for about three to six years and finally, the last brigade was for soldiers that had been in the Taiping army for less than tree years. These divisions were further divided into positional regiments of about 525 soldiers under a colonel. Again this was regiment were broken down further into companies of about 104 men who were under the command of captain followed by four lieutenants (“TaipingRebellion.com 1850-71,” par.54 &55).

Rising in ranks in the Taiping army was done only on merit which was not the case for Qing’s army. Many soldiers in Qing’s army were addict of opium, therefore, many soldier bribed their way up the ladder creating a lot of in efficiency in the commanding wing. This however, later changed and commanding officers were now being appointed in terms of qualifications (“TaipingRebellion.com 1850-71,” par. 56).

Where and how The Rebellion ended

The Taiping rebellion took place in Guanxi province in the year in 1851 whereby more than ten thousands rebel troops invade the town driving off Qing’s troop out of the town of Jintia. This town was immediately declared the capital of what they called the kingdom of the heavenly peace with Hong Xiuquan becoming the absolute ruler. Qing’s armies later tried to recapture the town but they were strongly repulsed by the rebels (McGuigan, “What was the Taiping Rebellion,” par 4).

Taiping Wang settled in this region until the time they felt that they had become powerful enough to advance further. They advanced to Hunan and besieged it with over 120 000 troops but they were unable to capture it (“TaipingRebellion.com 1850-71” par 18). As they advanced, they never held any of the cities they captured. They took Yochow and its armory and as they advanced, they threatened to kill the monks found in their temple and at the same time destroyed their idle and gave the loot the poor (“TaipingRebellion.com 1850-71” par 18).

When the rebels tried to capture Beijing, local governors and rich merchants hired western forces to assist in the resistance and they ended up driving off the rebels who later utterly suppressed after the death of their leader. The Taiping success at the beginning of the war could be attributed to so many factors one of which was the kind of support they had at first from their fellow countrymen. However, due to the immense devastating effects of the war to the people and the strict Taiping rules such as the complete separation of the sexes, the initial support diminished with time and people begun to shift their support to the Qing’s government.

There was leadership wrangles at the top of Taiping army. Yang, the former charcoal burner who had raised the ranks to on of Hong’s top general had planned to assassinate him. Wei the northern territory leader was ordered to assassinate yang, Wei was also assassinated when it was considered that he had become too powerful (Dowling, “The Taiping Rebellion,” par. 4).

Westerners support for the Qing’s army and the reorganization of the Qing’s army strengthened the might of the ever victorious army against the Taiping Wang. Presence of foreigners boosted the supply of ammunition for the Qing’s army but the final blow to the Taiping army was the death of their leader who eventually died of food poisoning.

Effects on Chinese History

The Taiping Rebellion is one of the bloodiest civil war in the world history with over 30 million lives being lost. Taiping Rebellion greatly influenced the spread of Christianity into china and the aim was to completely wipe out idols in China and to establish a heavenly kingdom of peace. Taiping Rebellion impacted greatly in ending china’s isolationism image. Earlier on china had so much been rooted to the old traditions of their fore father following the Confucian system. Taiping Rebellion was based Marjory on Xiuquan vision which he based with Christian values. Christianity which was part of the western culture began therefore to take root in China. Many people sided with the foreigners and Qing against the Taiping forces Marjory because the Taiping ideologies advocated for complete separation of the sexes even those of married couples and also due to their strict stand on abolishing feet binding (Franz, “Taiping Rebellion,” par. 3).

This rebellion led to the relinquishing of power from the Manchus that held prestigious offices in the military to Chinese war lords that were chosen on merit. This happened when the Taiping rebels were attacking Beijing and the Qing’s army had failed to properly resist them and therefore had to organize an army greater in might to resist the rebels by. Eventually the war generated a lot of anti-Manchu sentiments which resulted to the fall of the Qing’s dynasty and to the restoration of the Chinese nation (Penn, “Chinese history: The Taiping Rebellion,” par 1). This rebellion also made many to question the government’s ability to protect them. While the rebellion was on course, many lives were lost and property leaving many Chinese people in anguish. It also weakened china’s foreign policy and created the impression that china was weak and could not manage itself properly (Seiler, “The destruction of the Chinese culture,” par 6)

In conclusion, one can say that Hong Xiuquan and his efforts to wipe out idolatry and establish a kingdom of peace governed by Christian principle partly succeeded though from the discussion it appears that he himself may have eventually ended up walking contrary to his faith like the murders of his generals, at the same time the war caused loss of many lives and devastation of peoples property something that ended up working against his course and made many to opt for their original traditional religious practices. However, the Taiping rebellion instilled the much needed spirit of patriotism that set off the course for the Chinese people to liberate themselves from the grip of foreign rule.

Taiping Rebellion - History

TaipingRebellion.com 太平天囯 Tai Ping Tian Guo

Empire in the Balance

Life in the Heavenly Kingdom

T he Taiping Rebellion 1850-1871

The Taiping Rebellion referred to as the Tai Ping Tian Guo in Chinese 太平天囯 ( 太 Tai -'Great' ,平 Ping - 'Peace', 天 Tian -"Heaven', 囯 Guo -'Country or Kingdom' ) the 'Kingdom of Heavenly Peace', was one of the bloodiest civil wars in history between the Qing Dynasty and the Chinese 'Christian' rebels, led by Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全 ( old spelling Hung Hsiu-ch'uan ) a village teacher and unsuccessful imperial examination candidate. Hong formulated an eclectic ideology combining the ideals of pre-Confucian utopianism with Protestant beliefs. He soon had a following in the thousands who were heavily anti-Manchu and anti- establishment. On January 11,1851, on his 38th birthday, Hong Xiuquan initiated a peasant uprising in Jintian (金田) Village, Guiping County (桂平縣), in the present-day Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (廣西壯族自治區), and declared the establishment of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and the Taiping Dynasty . Hong's followers formed a military organization to protect against bandits and recruited troops not only among believers but also from among other armed peasant groups and secret societies. Hong believed he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, chosen by God to establish a heavenly kingdom upon earth and replace the corrupt Manchu Qing dynasty. How was this failed member of the scholar gentry, who believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ and, thus, "God's Chinese Son" able to gather armies and challenge the Qing Mandate of Heaven? Previous Christian missions had been rewarded with little success. Yet, Hong's version of the gospel was indigenous and was introduced during a period of enormous population growth, goading poverty, and extreme economic dislocation.

A detailed map animation of the various rebellions that occurred in China during the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s (notably the Taiping Rebellion, the main focus of the video), as well as the Second Opium War, the Anglo-Burmese War, and the Nepalese-Tibetan War.

In 1851 Hong Xiuquan and others launched an uprising in Guizhou Province. Hong proclaimed the He avenly Kingdom of Great Peace (Taiping Tianguo ) with himself as king. The new order was to reconstitute a legendary ancient slate, in which the peasantry owned and tilled the land in common slavery, concubinage, arranged marriage, opium smoking, footbinding, judicial torture, and the worship of idols were all to be eliminated. The Taiping tolerance of the esoteric rituals and quasi-religious societies of south China &mdash themselves a threat to Qing stability &mdash and their relentless attacks on Confucianism, still widely accepted as the moral foundation of Chinese behavior, contributed to the ultimate defeat of the rebellion. Its advocacy of radical ocial reforms alienated the Han Chinese scholar-gentry class. The Taiping army, although it had captured Nanjing (The Taiping changed the name of Nanjing to TianJing ( 天 京 ) ' Heavenly Capital 'after their capture ) and driven as far north as Tianjin . The Taipings failed to establish stable base areas. The movement's leaders found themselves in a net of internal feuds, defections, and corruption . Additionally, British and French forces, being more willing to deal with the weak Qing administration than contend with the uncertainties of a Taiping regime, came to the assistance of the imperial army. The Taipings banned opium in areas under their control, which worried the British with their la rge opium trade . There was an initial feeling of foreign missionary and general Western sympathy for the Taiping cause. But by 1856, the tide of opinion had turned against the Taipings . Their Christianity began to be widely denounced as an imposture and heresy.

The conflict, which took place mostly in south China , the Yangtze valley and in the Shanghai and Nanjing area, killed an estimated from 20,000,000 to 100,000,000 people killed (largely due to famine and wholesale slaughter of captured armies and cities which resisted ) . According to the census of 1851 there were 432 million in China. The next census of 1911 shows 375 to 400 million, which shows the staggering impact of the rebellions and natural disasters that beset China . There were other rebellions against the Qing such as the Nian and Muslim rebellions,but the Taiping rebellion was the largest in scale and came closest to toppling the Qing Dynasty.

Taiping soldiers, male and female, outside Shanghai

From: Twelve years in China the people, the rebels, and

The Taiping Rebellion arose from the general discontent of the Chinese population against their Manchu conquerors, who were seen as corrupt and ineffective against the 'foreign devils' and the opium they imported into China and the growth of lawlessness and secret societies in the countryside. Foreign contact also added a new catalyst, an alien religion, Christianity.

The Taiping Rebellion and why it failed to overthrow the Qing Dynasty.

The Taipings were also able to make great progress in the interior as the Manchus concentrated most of their forces against the invading British and French during the second Opium War of 1856-60 . Karl Marx had published his manifesto in 1848, but the proto-Communism of the Taipings comes from such ancient sources as the Rites of Chou 's 'common well' system' their own interpretation of how a 'Heaven Kingdom' where God owns all should work and the egalitarian ideas of the secret societies . The Taipings might not of heard of Karl Marx, but he heard of them, saying

Perhaps the next uprising in Europe may depend more on what is now taking place in the Celestial Empire than any other existing political cause .

In theory, all Taiping lands were to be shared in common, by 1850 members turned over all funds to the public treasury. In practice, the Taipings were too hard pressed to put this system into effect, and relied on the old landlord-tenant system . There was a strict, puritanical morality, opium, tobacco, gambling and foot binding were prohibited . In theory women were placed on an equal basis and to a remarkable extent in fact, with female solders and administrators . Women were also allowed to take civil service exams, unheard of in the Qing system.

Taiping Rebellion: Modern East Asia

In the early 1850s, the God worshiping society cut of their queues, a sign of subjugation to the Manchus, and declared themselves in rebellion . They refused to shave there foreheads as well and were referred to as 'chang mao' long hair rebels by the Qing .The millenarian beliefs, utopian egalitarianism, anti-Manchu message and moral righteousness were a powerful combination when combined with the good organization and administration provided by Yang Xiuqing and other early Taipings .

Stephen Platt on the Taiping Rebellion

Dr. Stephen R. Platt, a 2008-2010 fellow in the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations' Public Intellectuals Program, discusses his latest book, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, at the Luce Foundation office in New York. The book is a military history of the nineteenth-century Taiping Rebellion,

Stamp by the People's Republic of China on the

1951 centenary of the start of the Taiping Rebellion .

The Taipings are regarded favorably by the

mainland Chinese government, seen as a

proto communist movement fighting against

As the Taipings armies marched eastward out of Guangxi, they gained adherents and booty. Many of the early Taipings were coal miners from Guangxi, and they put this talent to use to dig tunnels under city walls . Sometimes double tunnels were used, after the Qing forces rushed to fill in a breach made by a blast and rushed in reinforcement, another explosion went off . It is estimated they reached one million by the time they reached Nanjing in 1853. The Taiping fortunes were at their height in 1856 . After taking Nanjing, they decided to halt and consolidate, instead of trying to topple the Manchus while they were reeling .Only after the conclusion of the second Opium War in 1860 was it possible for the Manchus to gather enough force and make military reforms to effectively fight the Taipings .

While the rebellion failed in the end, due to bloody internal fights for power leading to a purge of the more capable leaders in 1856,poor organization and administration, Hong Xiuquan's retreat into a life of pleasure after capturing Nanjing in 1853 , failure to win foreign support and failure to win over the Confucian literati and the wealthier classes, it signaled the imminent collapse of China's traditional order and the readiness of large parts of the common Chinese population to revolt against the traditional order . Where Hong Xiuquan would fail, Mao Zedong would succeed .The Chinese Communists came to regard the Taipings with their egalitarian aspects as heroic revolutionaries fighting against a corrupt feudal system. Mao Zedong and Hong Xiuquan both denounced Confucius . The founder of modern China, Sun Yat sin, was greatly influenced by the Taipings, listened to stories told by the Taiping survivor Lai hang-ying and nicknamed himself Hong Xiuquan the Second as a boy .

The Taiping Rebellion was one of the costliest civil wars in human history. Tens of millions of people lost their lives as Chinese rebels, imperial armies, and local militias clashed across the Yangzi Delta. Although the Rebellion has been studied from a variety of perspectives, we know little about how ordinary people coped with the enormous destruction. In What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in Nineteenth-Century China, Tobie Meyer-Fong draws on a rich array of primary sources .

A small foreign trained Chinese army was financed by rich Shanghai mer chants and bankers ,"The Ever Victorious Army." Led by European and American officers and started by the American Frederick Ward , it was kept small. Li HongZhang also started his own foreign trained army, the "Ever-Triumphant Army", led by the Frenchman Prosper Giquel . Li Hongzhang never entirely trusted the "The Ever Victorious Army." there were rumours that Ward planned to carve out his own warlord domain after the Taiping revolt was over . The American, Burgevine, who took over "The Ever Victorious Army" after Ward's death certainly planned to do this . This led the Qing to disbanded them before the sack of Nanjing in 1864. The "Ever-Triumphant Army"" was dissolved in Oct, 1864. While some i improvements to the imperial army remained, they were ill prepared to match the Japanese in the coming Sino Japanese War of 1894-95.

Taiping Rebellion

The Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) was the largest peasant rebellion in Chinese history and one of the bloodiest civil wars in the annals of human experience. The conflict ravaged the most cultivated parts of the Qing dynasty, encompassing eighteen of its most populous provinces, claiming the lives of at least 25 million. It also fundamentally changed China's political, social, economic, and military structures.

The Taiping Rebellion took place in the aftermath of Western powers' forced entrance into China's coastal areas after the Sino-British Treaty of Nanjing (Nanking) of 1842. The Western influence was particularly strong in the Pearl River Delta area where Western merchants, Christian missionaries, and adventurers congregated. This presence naturally brought about increased economic instability as a result of foreign competition, political tension as a result of nascent nationalism, and cultural and intellectual revolution as a result of the introduction of Christian tenets to a fundamentally Confucian society. The rebellion's leader, Hong Xiuquan, keenly felt these new forces that had been growing to challenge the Chinese state, society, and mindset. As a failed degree-seeking Confucian scholar, Hong accepted prototypical Christianity from roaming missionaries based in Hong Kong. Convinced he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, Hong in January 1851 announced the establishment of a Christianity-based state called Taiping Tianguo (Heavenly Kingdom of Grand Peace), which immediately attracted frenzy attacks organized by the ruling Qing dynasty.

Starting in the southern province of Guangxi, the Taiping rebels set out to obliterate what they believed were "demons" that would include the Manchu rulers, all Confucian icons, landed interests, and eventually the imperial court itself. Superb command structure with unparalleled leadership cohesion, plus rejuvenated energy and dedication from the rank and file of the Taiping Army—who were inspired by Hong's prototypical Christian socialism and Utopian egalitarianism—gave the Taiping rebels great victories in the first years of their relentless campaign. They swept most of China's southern provinces and in 1853 captured the metropolis Nanjing near the Yangtze Delta. Hong settled there and made Nanjing his capital.

Yet the efforts to storm into Beijing to destroy the Qing court, lasting from 1853 to 1855, failed miserably, despite the temporary victory of a westward military expedition to secure Taiping's left flank. A devastating blow befell the Taiping cause in 1856 when Hong went on a fanatic killing spree of his top lieutenants, forcing his remaining generals of the highest caliber to flee.

Seizing these opportunities, the Qing court took dramatic measures to strike back. An age-old ban on granting ethnic Chinese the power to command military units was lifted, opening the door to the rise of a gentry army system pioneered by the renowned court scholar Zeng Guofan. Zeng and his Hunan army represented the landed interests whose land and privileges had been the main targets of the Taiping rebels wherever they went. Contrary to the Taiping's puritanical and egalitarian principles of organizing and training, Zeng's Hunan army stressed the Confucian ideals of hierarchy, loyalty, and family. Following the example of Zeng's Hunan army, several of Zeng's protégés set up gentry armies in their own provinces, the most renowned of which was Li Hongzhang's Huai army in the eastern province of Anhui.

Westerners played an important role during the Taiping Rebellion. In the early years of the war, many westerners were hired by the Taiping rebels as mercenaries. The Qing court and Zeng Guofan, however, had even a larger number of mercenaries at their disposal. The best known is the Ever-Victorious Army, initiated by the American adventurer Frederick Ward, and after Ward's death in the battle, by the Royal Army officer Charles "Chinese" Gordon. When Hong decided to attack Shanghai and other treaty ports where foreign commercial interests concentrated, and when Hong showed strong signs of millenarian fanaticism, Western governments uniformly lent strong support to the government's counterinsurgent efforts against the Taiping rebels. In the summer of 1864, soon after Hong's sudden death, Zeng's Hunan army captured Nanjing, marking the end of the momentous Taiping Rebellion.

The Taiping Rebellion severely shattered the confidence of the ruling dynasty. Emerging from the rubbles of the devastation was a generation of Chinese scholar-generals who had learned the efficacy of modern weaponry imported from the West. Combined with a Confucian revival, these scholar-generals undertook concerted measures, collectively known as the Self-Strengthening movement, to upgrade China's military hardware. As a result, the scholar-generals became the harbingers of China's modern warlords.

EPISODE 63: The Taiping Rebellion (Part 1): Drug Dealers and Visionaries

“They may not intend to harm others on purpose, but the fact remains that they are so obsessed with material gain that they have no concern whatever for the harm they can cause to others.” — Lin Zexu about British opium traders

“Heaven is furious with anger, and all the gods are moaning with pain. A murderer of one person is subject to the death sentence just imagine how many people opium has killed! This is the rationale behind the new law which says that any foreigner who brings opium to China will be sentenced to death by hanging or beheading.” — Lin Zexu

“… soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure.” — Queen Victoria about opium

If I were to ask you which is the deadliest conflict in history, you’d probably answer WW II. But if I were to ask you which is the second deadliest conflict ever—at least according to most historians—I’d bet the number of raised hands would shrink quickly. And I’d also bet that a good percentage of those taking their chances with an answer would probably be wrong. So, welcome to the wildest, weirdest, biggest conflict in history that few people have heard about (that is…unless you are quite knowledgeable about Chinese history). Millions of troops took part in this war. Something in the neighborhood of 600 cities changed hands over decade and half of fighting. Conservative estimates place the dead around 20-30 millions (some estimates go as high as 100 millions.) For frame of references, this is deadlier than the Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Spanish American War, the American Civil War and the American Revolution put together. We can also throw in the 7 Years War, all three Punic wars and all of the Crusades for good measure. In light of this, it may begin to make sense why several historians believe this is the bloodiest civil war of all time.

It all began with a Chinese man who, in the mid-1800s, dreamed of becoming a scholar and receive a government job. Seems like an innocent start, right? Well, our wannabe intellectual, a certain Hong Xiuquan, experienced a major crisis when he realized that no matter how much he studied, he would not succeed at passing the imperial exams, that were the prerequisite to getting the career he dreamed of. The fact that he failed was more than a personal tragedy for Hong. Rather, this failure would trigger a sequence of events leading to the death of millions. This was easily the most costly F in the history of education. Broken to the core, he had a mental breakdown, and began to experience visions. These visions revealed to him that he was God’s son, and Jesus’ younger brother, and he was tasked by his heavenly relatives to clean China off any demonic influences in order to create the Kingdom of Heavenly Peace. His efforts to create this Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace heralded a bloody civil war with a body count that would make most video gamers blush.

In this episode, we tackle ethnic conflicts in China, Christian missionaries in Canton, uber-difficult Imperial exams, the Pablo Escobar of the 1800s having the British navy on her side, foot binding, Great Britain solving a trade deficit by flooding China with drugs, the First Opium War, and much more.

EPISODE 65: The Taiping Rebellion (Part 3): A River of Death

“Infants but recently born were torn from their mother’s breasts, and disemboweled before their faces. Young strong men were disemboweled, mutilated, and the parts cut off thrust into their own mouths…” — A British testimony on the Qing treatment of POWs

If I were to ask you which is the deadliest conflict in history, you’d probably answer WW II. But if I were to ask you, which is the second deadliest conflict ever—at least according to most historians—I’d bet the number of raised hands would shrink quickly. And I’d also bet that a good percentage of those taking their chances with an answer would probably be wrong. So, welcome to the wildest, weirdest, biggest conflict in history that few people have heard about (that is…unless you are quite knowledgeable about Chinese history). Millions of troops took part in this war. Something in the neighborhood of 600 cities changed hands over decade and half of fighting. Conservative estimates place the dead around 20-30 millions (some estimates go as high as 100 millions.) For frame of references, this is deadlier than the Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Spanish American War, the American Civil War and the American Revolution put together. We can also throw in the 7 Years War, all three Punic wars and all of the Crusades for good measure. In light of this, it may begin to make sense why several historians believe this is the bloodiest civil war of all time.

It all began with a Chinese man who, in the mid-1800s, dreamed of becoming a scholar and receive a government job. Seems like an innocent start, right? Well, our wannabe intellectual, a certain Hong Xiuquan, experienced a major crisis when he realized that no matter how much he studied, he would not succeed at passing the imperial exams, that were the prerequisite to getting the career he dreamed of. The fact that he failed was more than a personal tragedy for Hong. Rather, this failure would trigger a sequence of events leading to the death of millions. This was easily the most costly F in the history of education. Broken to the core, he had a mental breakdown, and began to experience visions. These visions revealed to him that he was God’s son, and Jesus’ younger brother, and he was tasked by his heavenly relatives to clean China off any demonic influences in order to create the Kingdom of Heavenly Peace. His efforts to create this Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace heralded a bloody civil war with a body count that would make most video gamers blush.

In this episode, we run into Christian missionaries floating on a river of death, Hong’s descent into further layers of madness, the Second Opium War, Zeng Guofan’s comical pessimism, the wavering French-British policy, the Empress Dowager Cixi being a gangster, the battle for Shanghai, the Ever Victorious Army, a cholera outbreak, the asexual crusader Charles Gordon, the death of a Christian kingdom in China, and much more.

History of Taiping rebellion

The rebellion began under the leadership of Xiuquan, who through the Christian teachings he believed that he was the son of God and a younger brother to Jesus Christ and was sent to reform China from the corrupt government in the 19th century. Hong together with his friend Feng Yunshan organized God worshippers’ society and a group of the new religious group through songs idea which formed a reformed group of peasants of Guangxi province. Feng and Hong in 1847 joined the new group of worshippers and he led them in rebellion after three years. In 1851, he gained the title heavenly king in which Hong announced his new destination the Taiping Tianguo.

The Hong agenda was the common share of property and gender equality in women which attracted many people especially the peasant, miners and workers and he organized them into divisions of men and women. One of the hongs generals became naughty and he had him murdered. In 1860 their attempt to overthrow the government was stopped by western trained which was an ever victorious army but in1862, he had surrounded Nanjing where the city fell in 1864. Taiping resistance continued to other parts of the country china until 1868 whereby they emphasized ideas of New Testament of forgiveness, kindness and redemption.

General Charles Gordon [1833 - 1885]

General Charles George Gordon Pasha, Khartoum, Sudan. Available under a Creative Commons License ➚

The list of British heroes has changed greatly over a hundred years. Back in the early 20th century most British people would put &lsquoGeneral Gordon&rsquo at the head of the list'. But this &lsquoGordon of Khartoum&rsquo first came to fame for his exploits in China long before his ill-fated involvement in Sudan. General Charles Gordon came to epitomize all that was &lsquogood&rsquo and &lsquoheroic&rsquo about the British Empire but he now would be listed as an &lsquoanti-hero&rsquo who was involved in aggressive military campaigns to expand the Empire&rsquos borders ever wider. This modern view is just as faulty as that of 100 years ago. But why was he also known as&lsquoChinese Gordon&rsquo and why did he have amongst his possessions the throne of the Chinese Emperor and a gold medal struck especially in his honor by order of the Emperor?

If you look in books about Chinese history you will see Gordon mentioned as a mere footnote. Certainly something must have changed, as this man single-handedly brought down a British government and decided the fate of the Qing dynasty in China. This collective memory loss has elements of British shame at Imperial misrule and to Chinese eyes foreign humiliation. This article attempts to shed more light on this complex character.

Clash of empires

In the mid-nineteenth century Britain was starting to think of itself as an Empire rather than just an international hub of ever-burgeoning free trade. Up until the governments of Disraeli, Britain was a somewhat reluctant military power. The British Empire's period of growth (1840-1900) was matched by the decline of the Qing Empire. Indeed one more striking parallel is that Queen and Empress Victoria ruled Britain 1837-1901 while Dowager Empress Cixi ruled China 1861-1908. In fact neither directly &lsquoruled&rsquo as Victoria was a constitutional monarch, and Cixi ruled through others not in her own name.

The Opium Wars between Britain and China 1839-1842 and 1856-60 mark the start of Gordon&rsquos involvement. Many in Britain took the view that the wars were the concern of the English East India Company ➚ and not the government. People could conveniently hide behind this purely &lsquocommercial&rsquo arrangement. If China was to follow the model of India then great fortunes were there to be made. Others took a different view on the opium trade. None other than future Prime Minister William Gladstone ➚ was &lsquo in dread of the judgment of God upon England for our national iniquity towards China &rsquo. In one of his first great Commons speeches (1840) he spoke passionately against the enterprise:

It was at the tail end of the 2nd Opium War in 1860 that Captain Gordon at the age of 27 first set foot in China. Charles Edward Gordon was the fourth son of a Major General, and it was made clear to him that he must follow his father into the Army. However his prickly character showed through even at Sandhurst ➚ and he had to settle for a post with the Royal Engineers ➚ rather than the more prestigious Royal Artillery regiment. After brief service at the Crimea, serving with conspicuous gallantry, he was present at the looting and burning of the Old Summer Palace ( 原 明 园 Yuán míng yuán), Beijing - surely a low point in Anglo-Chinese relations. A chief culprit was Lord Elgin ➚ , High Commissioner to China, whose father had looted Greece of its treasures, had his eyes on richer prizes in China. In Lytton Strachey ➚ &rsquos words &lsquoan act by which Lord Elgin, in the name of European civilization, took vengeance upon the barbarism of the East&rsquo . Gordon sent back to England one of the Emperor&rsquos thrones, which was his share of the loot. As a junior officer he had little he could do about it in his diary he described it as &lsquo wretchedly demoralizing work &rsquo with troops &lsquo wild for plunder &rsquo.

The Jintian Uprising Site in the village of Jintian in Jintian Town, Guiping is where Hong Xiuquan and his followers officially launched the Jintian Uprising. 2019. Image by STW932 available under a Creative Commons License ➚

As if the Opium Wars were not sufficiently destabilizing, China was also embroiled with the Taiping rebellion (1850-1864). The rebellion was a strange mixture of peasant revolt nationalist feeling against Manchu rule and contorted Christianity. In Guangzhou, Hong Xiuquan, a lowly schoolteacher built an empire on revolutionary principles forbidding the wearing of the queue, foot-binding, prostitution, opium and promoting land reform (i.e. kicking out the landlords) and equal rights for women. A mystical experience during a probable dose of smallpox made him believe himself to be a follower of Jesus. To the masses it was the rebellion against Manchu rule and land reform that appealed. For eleven years most of southern China was in his control from the Taiping capital at Nanjing. This was one of the worst civil wars in human history with 20 million casualties. At one stage it looked like the rebels would rule all of China.

To the Western powers, the Taiping rebellion provided something of a quandary. Here was a &lsquoChristian&rsquo, reforming movement that already controlled southern China, should they support it? Alternatively should they support the faltering Qing dynasty that they knew would accede to any demand given sufficient pressure? It was not a clear-cut decision. Western mercenaries were employed on both sides. Indeed Henry Burgevine ➚ , an American adventurer, managed to earn his money by working first for the Qing, and when dismissed by them, their enemies the Taiping rebels.

Lord Elgin was once again involved at a pivotal moment when he sailed up the Yangzi in a gunboat. His attitude is evident from the diary entry for 20th November 1858.

British gunboat diplomacy meant destroy first and then explain afterwards that that there was no ill intent. Meanwhile Hong, the rebel leader, was eager for a meeting, and sent a curious message to his fellow Christian, Lord Elgin:

It is difficult to see what common ground two such people could find, and the invitation was not taken up. It was as an opportunity for diplomacy that might have led to a very different course of history.

Defender of Shanghai

General Charles George Gordon Statue in Gravesend. 2012. Image by Agw19666 available under a Creative Commons License ➚

What sealed the allegiance of the British forces was the threat to Shanghai. Shanghai was a flourishing port run by foreigners (mainly British), by 1852 it handled half of the trade between Britain and China. The Taipings sought to capture it. After witnessing the end of the second Opium War Captain Gordon toured China. He was then given the job (as a Royal Engineer) of building the defenses of Shanghai. Of course this really meant defending the foreign enclaves rather than the Chinese city. He saw acts of cruelty perpetrated by the Taipings, he found the use of captured boys as forced conscripts particularly distasteful. He took on the role somewhat unwillingly on the basis that it might curtail the misery of many millions of Chinese.

Shanghai was defended by a motley crew of mainly Chinese conscripts and foreign mercenaries called the &lsquoEver Victorious Army&rsquo ( 常 胜 军 cháng shèng jūn) although it did not live up to its name. Initially led by the American Frederick Ward until his death in action in 1862, the Chinese Governor Li Hongzhang ➚ then turned to Burgevine, who was found to be untrustworthy and finally to Captain Gordon on the recommendation of the British who had officially now backed the Qing government. Gordon struggled to gain the support of this gang of highly paid foreign mercenaries who wanted to fight as individuals not in co-ordinated action under strict discipline.

It was at this time that Shanghai was receiving a deluge of refugees from the areas controlled by the Taiping. Hong Xiuquan's land reforms were not working, he had been unable to deliver his promises and the ordinary people had turned against him, many fleeing to safe havens like Shanghai. The city boundaries were guarded and blocked to all non-residents, but even so people saw no choice but to seek food and sanctuary in the city. Hardened military men such as General Sir Garnet Wolseley ➚ found the condition of the refugees appalling:

In 1863 thirty years old Gordon was given the rank of General by the Chinese, focused his energies on the defense of the City and then took on the fight against the rebels. A driven man, who like Hong had had a religious experience, had an unbending Christian duty to all less fortunate than himself. Gordon was just the person that was needed to remodel the Army. Military discipline of the firmest kind was instilled into his soldiers, they were to be paid a salary in place of a share of the pillage. They were issued with uniforms and treated with respect not brutality - unlike the Qing. In the early days of his strict regime the whole Army mutinied against the changes he had instituted, but with summary execution for desertion and selfless leadership he gradually won them over.

Shanghai Illustration p.356 , 1867 available under a Creative Commons License ➚

To Governor Li Hongzhang, one of the key players at the Qing court in Beijing, Gordon was a revelation:

He admired Gordon&rsquos zeal to get on with the task.

Men like Li Hongzhang had come into contact with only haughty, aristocratic diplomats of the Lord Elgin mold or merchant adventurers whose sole motive was pecuniary. Li even compared him favorably to his fellow General Zeng Guofan, which must have been a first in Anglo-Chinese relations:

Li's was not the only person to start changing his attitude to foreigners from &lsquodogs and goats only interested in money&rsquo to admiring their tenacity and perseverance. Wei Yuan ➚ wrote in 1844:

General Charles George Gordon Celestial Titus, Peking, China. Available under a Creative Commons License ➚

Gordon proved incorruptible, and that began to irritate Governor Li Hongzhang who used money to get his way out of almost any difficulty. Gordon took the unpopular step of stopping his troops looting, taking opium and drinking hard liquor. He banned the traditional leave given to Chinese troops to return home to help at harvest time. Mass mutiny and desertion followed with only 1700 out of 3900 remaining. Li's view became more qualified.

Gordon was, of course, after money not for himself but to pay his troops and buy military equipment. It was not just high moral fiber that made Gordon stand out, he knew how best to fight a campaign. He planned expeditions using every benefit that the countryside could afford him. He went on dangerous mapping sorties to reconnoiter enemy territory. He devised his own form of gunboat to navigate the shallow creeks of the Yangzi. The use of low draught paddle steamers proved effective - the boats were greatly feared by the Taiping troops. Like the Duke of Wellington ➚ , Gordon was a highly professional soldier. Looking after his troops he epitomizes the hardworking, selfless military life. Meticulous and daring he inspired idolatry among his men. He instilled courage, deportment and discipline together with superior deployment and organization.

Portrait of Li Hongzhang before 1901. Image by Unknown ➚ available under a Creative Commons License ➚

Characteristically, he led the troops from the front, clenching his swagger stick, treating with disdain the bullets that flew about him although he did have a concealed revolver but only used it once against a mutineer. Such brave (or stupid) behavior was bound to cause some degree of veneration, and it is said that the Taiping rebels were ordered not to shoot at the faintly smiling Englishman leading their enemies. The &lsquoEver Victorious Army&rsquo now lived up to its name, and the rebels were repeatedly beaten back towards Nanjing.

Gordon supported Li Hongzhang's larger army in their attack on Suzhou. The British guns and ammunition proved invaluable. Chinese Gordon began to see that both sides had there faults and the Taiping's abandonment of ancient rituals made them more amenable. He thought the Taiping generals were often braver and better leaders than the Qing especiallyZhōng Wáng ➚ 忠 王 (1823-1864).

When Gordon negotiated the surrender of Suzhou he agreed that the rebel leaders including Zhong Wang would go unharmed. But when he discovered that they had in fact been summarily beheaded he was furious, Gordon searched everywhere for Li Hongzhang with a loaded pistol in his hand. Li tried to placate him with a share of the loot and a medal, but that of course made matters worse, Gordon resigned his command. In one of the most bizarre of scenes to contemplate, a high-ranking Chinese leader was seeking to escape the clutches of a foreigner furious because Gordon's own enemies had been killed. Li eventually successfully pleaded with him to complete the task for the sake of the Chinese people and Gordon resumed his duties. Gordon considered Li the most forward looking and liberal of the Chinese leadership. More military action followed.

Taiping cannon fire against the Qing war junks that are assaulting the capital of the celestial kingdom. Early photograph c. 1860. Available under a Creative Commons License ➚

When offered the command, Gordon had said he would finish the &lsquobusiness&rsquo in eighteen months. He was true to his word. He left the inevitable final capture of Nanjing to Zeng and Li to complete. The job was done and the Qing Emperor was enormously grateful. Gordon was sent heaps of gold in bowls carried by the emperor's men. Believing this was some sort of bribe he sent them away but only after giving the bearers a flogging for the perceived insult he had received. Such was the Emperor's wish to reward that he was then given gifts he would accept: the highest possible military title of Field Marshal and the Imperial Yellow Jacket ( 黄 马 褂 Huáng mǎ guà) with a peacock feather. A special heavy gold medal was struck by imperial decree and presented to him.

On 10th May 1864 he wrote to his mother: "I shall leave China as poor as I entered it, but with the knowledge that through my weak instrumentality upwards of eighty to one hundred thousand lives have been spared. I want no further satisfaction than this." . He correctly marked his chief contribution as training Chinese troops in the Western military manner. He had learned how to treat them &lsquoif we drive the Chinese into sudden reforms, they will strike and resist with the greatest obstinacy&hellip but if we lead them we shall find them willing to a degree and most easy to manage. They like to have an option and hate having a course struck out for them as if they were of no account.&rsquo

On return to England he was fêted by the British Press who had portrayed him as a hero and &lsquoChinese Gordon&rsquo but his distaste for &lsquoshow&rsquo meant he quickly retreated into a fairly squalid, lonely existence at Gravesend ➚ building defenses along the Thames estuary. Who could use someone like Gordon in a military role? He had shown himself as an independent fiery spirit who was no-one but his own master - under God's guidance. His charitable work was unstinting, even the Emperor's gold medal was defaced so he could send it as an anonymous donation to a charitable appeal. An action that Gordon later admitted was one of the hardest he ever had had to do. He took some short foreign appointments but never settled down.

With his knowledge of China and close relations with leading Qing courtiers, Gordon was invited back to China in 1880 to aid the Qing in their negotiations with Russia. The Qing knew that the British feared expansion of Russian control into Afghanistan Siberia and Mongolia. Using Gordon might prove a useful diplomatic maneuver. He was welcomed back to China by Li Hongzhang, so it is certainly not correct to think China did not truly appreciate his previous achievements.

Gordon was no cautious diplomat. He spoke his mind. He expected his brash, non-diplomatic words to be translated for the Russians. The translator remained silent, choosing not to translate one of his outbursts. Gordon's fury at this caused the translator, visibly quaking, to spill his tea and left Gordon himself to translate the word himself by snatching a dictionary and pointing out the word &lsquoidiocy&rsquo to the terrified audience of mandarins and diplomats. With such a powerful but loose cannon at his disposal Li won the day and so war with Russia was averted. Gordon set off traveling throughout China much to the concern of the British government. They must have wondered what diplomatic damage he might inadvertently do. So he was recalled, and went somewhat reluctantly back to Britain.

That was the end of &lsquoChinese Gordon&rsquo as far as travel in China. He slipped back into a quiet life in England, all but forgotten by the British people.

Even though these events are based partly on the diaries of the Chinese, Gordon's influence is now considered unimportant in Chinese history. The greatly admired Hunanese General Zeng Guofan 1811-1872 and Li Hongzhang 1823-1901 take the credit for the defeat of the Taiping rebels, but it was Gordon who had provided the military training and tactics.

In the wider Chinese context, the Tongzhi restoration (1861-1874) brought some overdue reforms through the &lsquoSelf Strengthening Movement&rsquo to rejuvenate the Qing dynasty. This was considered not as a wholesale adoption of Western principles but rebuilding on sound Confucian doctrine: &lsquoWestern function and Chinese essence&rsquo. This included Zeng Guofen&rsquos use of European style military organization to build his unit of &lsquoHunan Braves&rsquo. Mao Zedong revered Zeng Guofan and Mao's military campaign against the Guomindang must surely have looked back to the exploits of Gordon.

A scene of the Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1864. Regaining the Jinling suburb of Nanjing. Image by Wu Youru available under a Creative Commons License ➚

Gordon's Murderer

Death of General Gordon at Khartoum / J.L.G. Ferris, pinx. c. 1895. Image by The Granger Collection, New York available under a Creative Commons License ➚

When Gordon was invited by an Egyptian minister to take on the Governorship of the Sudan, this was just the sort of impossible job that Gordon relished. Sudan was prey to the slave trade via Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. He, characteristically, volunteered to take only a fifth of the salary he was offered. One of his first tasks (1874) was to put down a revolt in Darfur Province (how tragic it is that peace has never been fully achieved there). In typical selfless style he mounted a camel, rode alone across 85 miles of blazing desert direct to the enemy camp. His commanding presence and single-mindedness caused the whole rebel host to obey his command to disband and so Gordon returned triumphantly to Khartoum without having fired a shot.

He then toiled to end the slave trade in the Sudan but his Egyptian masters sought its continuance, and so after several hard fought attempts at reform he resigned and returned to Britain, Egypt had no use for this honest but peculiar Englishman.

Some years later in 1881 the position in the Sudan became critical. An Islamist extremist Muhammad Ahmed ➚ &lsquoThe Mad Madhi&rsquo led a well planned and supported rebellion and so the Egyptian rulers were seeking an honorable withdrawal from Sudan. Egypt was becoming an important country because of the newly opened Suez canal ➚ built jointly with France was considered strategic for trade with India and beyond. Events in Egypt and Sudan became important. An easy victory over Egypt at the battle of Tel-el-Kebir ➚ was achieved 13 September 1882 despite lukewarm support for the action in the UK parliament and the resignation of John Bright ➚ . Britain and France now controlled Egypt. British involvement in Sudan became a tricky decision. To withdraw and leave the Sudanese people to their fate or should they become involved militarily in their defense? Gladstone's Liberal party government was split on the issue. The Prime Minister hoped to hold his party together by taking a middle line of minimal involvement.

For some reason that still remains unclear, the Press and then the public turned to the forgotten Gordon as the one person whose knowledge and experience of the Sudan might save the day. Gladstone's government apparently agreed, although this was later denied. Gladstone's strong Christian faith and morals were somewhat in tune with that of Gordon's, but Gladstone sought compromise and negotiation where Gordon found confrontation and direct action. Gordon's instructions were too vague and these allowed him to take action rather than the intention which was just to report back on the situation.

Right Hon W. E. Gladstone. c. 1870. Image by Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru ➚ available under a Creative Commons License ➚

Gordon increasingly saw himself as the hand of God's purpose. The British view of Gordon was of a righteous, humble Christian man going beyond his duty to help the inhabitants of foreign lands. He was not lauded as a military genius and as he was not a British officer in either China at the time of the Taiping Rebellion or the siege of Khartoum it is not correct to pigeon hole him as the epitome of a British Army officer. He was a tormented man with a religious fervor and a strong sense of moral right and wrong. Young men idolized him and were encouraged to follow in his footsteps as an example of selfless service to others long after his death.

Gordon arrived at Khartoum in 1884 and found an impossible situation. His clear orders were to withdraw the Egyptian and British personnel back to Egypt. True to character, he refused to leave the native Sudanese to their likely massacre at the hands of the Madhi's men. He built up defenses and used the British Press to drum up support for a military contingent to aid him. It became the top political issue in the UK - whether Britain should rescue him and risk more lives. He astonished his troops by visiting the camp of the &lsquoMad Madhi&rsquo in disguise. Gladstone and his government dithered, since they did not want to get embroiled in war in Africa in a land with no perceived strategic or economic value.

The familiar heroic scene is now set, as anyone who has seen Charlton Heston's portrayal in the film &lsquoKhartoum ➚ &rsquo will recollect. General Gordon surveys the Nile desperately waiting for a sighting of General Wolseley ➚ 's relief force on the Nile. It arrives three days late. Gordon's body is never found in the ruin of Khartoum. The determination of Gordon to hang on at Khartoum and do his duty by the Sudanese people leads to not just his heroic death but to a revision to the concept of &lsquoBritish Empire&rsquo - saving the local people from tyranny and war.

So it was that Prime Minister Gladstone was widely portrayed, with some justification, as Gordon's murderer. In the Press &lsquoThe Spectator&rsquo thundered &ldquoa grave misfortune has fallen on civilization&rdquo . Amongst the strongest critics was Queen Victoria who deliberately sent Gladstone an un-encoded telegram so that all should know her displeasure &lsquoThese News from Khartoum are frightful and to think that all this might have been prevented and many precious lives saved by earlier action is too fearful&rsquo .

Gladstone's reply to her is a master class in diplomatic belittlement.

Gladstone's administration limped on for another four months in command of a mortally wounded government. Disraeli's view of an Empire spreading Enlightenment across the globe won the upper hand and jingoistic supporters sought to emulate Gordon's heroism.


Major Gen. Chas. George Gordon engraved by J.J. Cade, New York. c.1900. Image by MS Hyde 76, Houghton Library, Harvard University available under a Creative Commons License ➚

For the next fifty years Gordon was revered as a &lsquoChristian martyr&rsquo and a &lsquosoldier for enlightenment&rsquo. Dotted over the British Empire, schools and towns were named in his honor. Lytton Strachey ➚ &rsquos &lsquowarts and all&rsquo biography was the first to reveal the troubled spirit that underlay the overly heroic image. His dramatic end at Khartoum was hi-jacked for those whose political aims promoted Imperial conquest. But judging by his life, Gordon was no conquering nationalist, he did not conquer a single square mile of land for the Queen, and chiefly worked for foreign governments and not the British Army. Now that the Imperial era is viewed with regret and distaste, Gordon's exploits which have for so long been associated with Empire no longer receive any attention.

In China, Gordon is dismissed as yet another foreign mercenary who exploited the country's weakness at the time. But, surely all the people he came across must have revised their views of the &lsquoforeign devils&rsquo. Here indeed was a fiery spirit but not one that exploited for monetary gain. The lessons of his success with the &lsquoEver Victorious Army&rsquo influenced all subsequent military campaigns, as European military tactics and weaponry were adopted in China.

Although Gordon&rsquos (and by proxy Britain&rsquos) efforts may have clinched victory in the Taiping Rebellion, the effect on Chinese politics was far-reaching. Trade with China became dominated by Britain, about two thirds of all foreign trade was between these two countries from 1860 to 1900 (the chief commodities opium and cotton). Li Hongzhang now had a modern army and a southern power base at his disposal, he was a match even for the Qing emperors, Li became the first of many warlords whose divisiveness invited foreign exploitation. After the &lsquoSelf Strengthening Movement&rsquo faltered, Dowager Empress Cixi turned back to more traditional Chinese solutions. Li Hongzhang negotiated with the Japanese but as these talks led on to the disastrous Sino-Japanese War and the fall of the Qing, history marks him out as a villain who failed to modernize quickly enough to meet the foreign threats.

On the monument to the defenders of Shanghai, on the Bund, Gordon is not even mentioned although the other foreigners who served are commemorated. I know of no monument to Gordon in China. Perhaps it is now time that this oversight is rectified although from what we know of his character he would surely been affronted by this idea and wish that any money for such a monument should instead be given to charity.

See also

Learning the language

Foreigners in China

China's only female ruler Empress Wu Zetian of the early Tang

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Watch the video: Hong Xiuquan: The Taiping Rebellion (July 2022).


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