Lecture Twenty-Nine

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

Scope: The stresses within Chinese society that were growing in the early 19th century led some Chinese to search for radical new ways to deal with the world around them. Christian missionaries from the West began to make greater headway in seeking Chinese converts. In this context, one of the more intriguing episodes in Chinese history unfolded. This lecture will trace the course of the Taiping Rebellion, in which a tiny cult begun by Hong Xiuquan, who believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, blossomed into a mass movement of tens of millions and nearly brought the Qing dynasty to an end. By the time imperial troops destroyed the last of the Taiping forces in the mid-1860s, some 20 million people had died as a result of war and related disasters. The dynasty survived but never fully recovered from this trauma.


I. The combination of internal and external problems gave rise in the mid-19th century to a profound challenge to the Qing dynasty.

A. In southern China, the negative impact of the opium trade and the results of the ensuing war caused widespread suffering.

1. By the 1840s, large numbers of people saw their lives disrupted by changing trade patterns and by the corrosive social effects of opium.

2. The Hakka people, a linguistic and cultural minority, were particularly affected.

3. Even members of the educated strata felt the tensions in social and economic life.

B. Hong Xiuquan was a failed examination candidate who founded a new religious movement.

1. Hong came from a Hakka village and was trying to lift his family’s fortunes through an official career.

2. He repeatedly took the entry-level exam and failed each time.

3. He was exposed to Christian missionary tracts during his visits to the examination site in Guangzhou.

4. During a stress-induced illness following one of his examination attempts, he saw visions that he later interpreted as visits from God and Jesus, who was his older brother.

5. He conceived the mission of creating a heavenly kingdom in China.

II. The Taiping Movement grew through the 1840s.

A. Hong first formed the Society of God Worshippers.

1. This group formed a kind of rural utopia.

2. Many of the original members were Hakka, but the movement grew beyond the Hakka community.

3. Hong had repeated visions and developed his self-centered theology.

B. As others joined his movement, Hong’s ambitions expanded, and he planned a campaign to overthrow the Qing.

1. Thousands of farmers and artisans flocked to Hong’s group.

2. The Taipings developed an ideology of radical egalitarianism and the communal ownership of land.

3. They were also extreme sexual puritans, breaking up families and living in single-sex dormitories.

4. By the end of the decade, they were ready to attack the dynasty.

III. In 1850, the Taipings launched a military campaign to overthrow the Qing.

A. They set out from Guangdong province and marched north through Hunan to the Yangzi valley.

1. As they fought their way north, they won repeated battles against the weak and demoralized Qing army.

2. The gained many converts along the way.

3. When they reached the Yangzi River, they headed east to Nanjing, where they set up their “Heavenly Capital.”

B. From 1854 to 1864, the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace controlled much of central and southern China, with a population of more than 100 million.

1. Although there were some efforts to conquer the north, the movement seems to have stalled out once it captured Nanjing.

2. Hong Xiuquan and his fellow leaders settled into palaces in Nanjing and led a rich life of indulgence while their followers lived in poverty and sexual segregation.

3. The Western powers, which had at first been intrigued with Hong’s professed Christianity, decided that he was not sane and declined to support the Taiping.

IV. The response of the Qing was slow in coming but eventually resulted in the defeat of the Taipings.

A. The established Qing military was in disarray.

1. Elite Manchu banner forces had fallen into decadence and neglect.

2. Chinese units were poorly paid and undisciplined.

3. The defeats by the British had demoralized the military.

B. In the face of early Taiping successes, the Qing turned to local Chinese leaders for help.

1. One such leader was Zeng Guofan, from Hunan.

2. Zeng built up a local defense force, funded from a new tax on trade within Hunan province.

3. The Hunan Army became an effective fighting force, with the latest weapons and decent pay.

4. Other local forces developed, and these played the decisive role in ending the Taiping Rebellion.

C. By 1864, the new provincial armies came together to destroy the Taiping regime.

1. Hong Xiuquan was killed and tens of thousands of Taiping followers were massacred in Nanjing.

2. The defeat of the Taipings saved the Qing rulers, but the sharing of power with local Chinese leaders changed the political landscape for the rest of the dynasty.

3. In the wake of defeat by the British and the narrow escape from the Taiping Rebellion, some Chinese leaders began to seek to reform the state, a process we will examine in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Jonathan Spence, God’s Chinese Son.

Supplemental Reading:

Elizabeth J. Perry, Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945.

Questions to Consider:

1. Hong Xiuquan’s claim to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ seems absurd to modern Westerners, yet it appealed to tens of millions of Chinese in the 1840s and 1850s. What might have been attractive in such a vision?

2. The Manchus had conquered China two centuries before the Taiping Rebellion and had lost much of their martial vigor, as indicated by the need to raise new armies from the Chinese provinces, yet Manchu rule persisted until the early 20th century. Why were the Manchus able to survive as an alien elite while earlier conquerors, such as the Mongols or the Jurchen, fell in much less time?

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