The Taiping Rebellion
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by Michael Hall
The Taiping Rebellion in China was one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. It was a “fourteen-year struggle to overthrow the Qing dynasty and establish a messianic Christian theocracy” (Newsinger par. 4). It was headed by a man named Hong Xiuquan who came to believe he was Jesus’ younger brother. The goal of these “God Worshippers” was to set up a Heavenly Kingdom on earth. But how did a “Christian revolution” come about in China? As we will see, there are a number of factors that planted the seeds for this revolution. Due to the unequal trade, administrative inefficiency, over-taxation, increasing population, and famine of nineteenth century China, the Chinese population, especially the Hakka, became increasingly receptive to new ideas from Christian missionaries which eventually led to insurrection.
One of the major causes of the Taiping Rebellion was the significant increase of foreign imports, especially that of opium. Western capitalistic powers, like Britain and America, were looking to China as a potential market to sell their goods. Due to this, China was under tremendous pressure to “change its policy from one of seclusion to one of participation in world economy” (Teng 24). However, China imported far more than it exported which damaged the nation’s economy. For example, “imported foreign textiles usurped the place of Chinese native-made cotton goods, and drove handicraft productions out of the market” (Compilation 3). Chinese vendors could not compete with the goods imported from overseas. And because the vendors could no longer sell their products, there was less demand for the resources to manufacture them. This resulted in a large percentage of the population either losing their jobs, or declaring bankruptcy (Compilation 4). But the import that did the greatest damage to the Chinese economy was opium. “In the nineteenth century [,] the imports of opium increased yearly [,] and between 1831 and 1834 the Chinese people spent over 20 million taels annually on opium. This was equal to nearly half of the total national revenue each year” (Teng 28). The little money the people did have was spent on a drug that created a strong addiction. And when the money ran out, people often resorted to violence to satisfy that addiction. So, the foreign traders were basically extorting the Chinese people by selling them an addictive drug during which time the Chinese were experiencing a financial disaster.
Another major cause of the Taiping Rebellion was the growing inefficiency of the Qing government. This period could be best described as a low point for the Qing in the Chinese dynastic cycle. For example, “by the first half of the nineteenth century [,] welfare policies, police surveillance, and popular indoctrination had all crumbled” (Teng 30). Although there may be several reasons for this, one major cause is the ineffectiveness and corruption of China’s revenue system. The methods used for tax collection amongst the populace were ineffective (Teng 26). So the government was not receiving their required funds from several sectors of the population. Corruption was also rampant in the Qing Government. “In the realm of public finance, China’s income was more than 40 million taels annually; but it was discovered in 1843 that more than 9,250,000 taels had been stolen from the public treasury” (Teng 21-22). So the Chinese treasury, already hard-pressed due to ineffective collections, also saw their reserve plummet due to increasing corruption. This resulted in a decrease in funding for vital government services. The Yellow River, for example, flooded several times which devastated the surrounding areas (Teng 21). So in addition to the trade imbalance, the Qing government’s inefficiency to collect taxes and control corruption contributed to China’s plummeting economy.
Over-taxation of the general population was also a factor that led to the Taiping Rebellion. Due to the provisions of the Treaty of Nanjing, China was responsible for a large indemnity. And, of course, the people were to be the main source from which this money would be extracted. “The land and poll tax …supplied three quarters of the total government revenue, and in the period between 1841 and 1849 it increased by more than three million silver taels” (Compilation 4-5). So instead of correcting the problem of revenue collection and corruption, the Qing government chose to increase taxes. However, it was not only the land and poll tax that was increased, but taxes were implemented on high-demand consumer products as well. In nineteenth century China it was salt, not oil, that was a “daily necessity.” And just like how we see the price of oil skyrocketing today, it was the price of salt that was increasing exponentially in China 150 years ago. “The official price for Changlu salt was fixed at between 16 and 24 copper cash per catty; by 1846 in places near the salt-producing areas, it cost 33 or 34 cash, while in more distant regions it was as much as 60 or 70 cash” (Compilation 5). These additional taxes only increased the burden that the Chinese people were carrying. And anyone who could not pay was severely punished or imprisoned (Compilation 5). So, needless to say, the Chinese population would have been more than ready for a change.
The effects of China’s increasing population also contributed to the rise of the Taiping Rebellion. China, then as now, had a population that was constantly expanding. The problem was that cultivatable land did not increase at the same rate as the population (Teng 27). So any sort of drought or natural disaster could put a significant percentage of the population into starvation. And the increased demand, and low supply of food, drove prices up. And “as the population increased, and poverty pressed harder and harder, the peasants would abandon their homes and become vagabonds and bandits” (Teng 31). So for many people, the only way to survive the conditions of the day was to resort to criminal activity. Rural China seemed to be descending into a state of anarchy.
In addition to all of these factors, the country was experiencing the disastrous effects of a nationwide famine. This famine went on for several years before the Taiping revolt, and coincided with floods and drought (Teng 29). Due to the lack of farmable land, many people found themselves in starvation. It got so bad in some areas that people were literally fighting for “the slop intended for pigs” (Teng 29). While all of this was going on, the foreigners were still selling opium to the masses. The Qing government was still overtaxing its citizens. And public works continued to be neglected. The government appeared to be indifferent on the whole situation. In one instance, a governor from Kwangsi “ordered that troublesome, hungry people should be killed instantly” (Teng 29). The country was truly becoming anarchic. “Many people were forced to become salt or opium smugglers, roving beggars, or bandits” (Teng 27). The time was becoming ripe for insurrection.
The origin of the Taiping Rebellion was in the land of the Hakka. The Hakka were a people who had their base in the “hill country of Guangxi” (Spence 18). They were viewed as outsiders by the surrounding inhabitants. They had their own language which was different from the natives around them (Teng 18-19). The Hakka followed their own customs, and disagreed with many held by the Chinese, such as foot binding (Teng 19). “Most of them were compelled by the natives to live in the mountainous areas, and work hard for a bare livelihood. Many vocations despised by the natives were taken up by the Hakkas, who became barbers, tenant peasants, itinerant blacksmiths, stone-masons, and miners” (Teng 19). The Hakka were also known to be revolutionary in character. They were among the last to surrender when the Manchus took over China, and they desired to “restore China to the Chinese” (Teng 19). The Hakkas also experienced the effects of the famine and the economy just like the rest of the Chinese. These effects just added to their growing hatred of the Qing dynasty. There were growing numbers of the group who had become dissatisfied with the Manchu regime. If there was a cradle of revolution in China, it was here in Guangxi. And anyone who grew up around the Hakka surely would have been influenced by their revolutionary spirit.
While all of this was going on, Western missionaries were trying to spread the Christian faith. Unlike many of the other places missionaries went to preach, the religions of the Chinese had been there for thousands of years. Religions such as Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism were already well integrated into society. So it was rather difficult for Christian missionaries to change such ingrained beliefs. So rather than preaching the faith outright, missionaries to China tried to merge the teachings of Christianity and Confucianism so the population would more readily accept the faith (Horner par. 3). They did this by publishing shortened versions of the Bible with commentaries by Chinese converts. They then went on a rigorous campaign of distributing these texts. Some missionaries went as far as “emulating little Moses in the bulrushes by putting tracts in tiny rafts and floating them down the rivers so that a Chinese fisherman would pick them up” (Spence 20). Soon these missionaries had goals to convert some of the more intelligent Chinese. They had found the perfect place—the examination sites. The missionaries had continued to pass the pamphlets out to no avail. But one day the missionaries gave the pamphlet to a young Hakka from Guangxi. He eventually read the text and was so inspired by it that he started a revolution. This man’s name was Hong Xiuquan.
Overall, we have seen what the root causes were to the Taiping Rebellion, one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. We have seen how the unfavorable balance of trade created problems for the Chinese economy. In addition, we have examined the Qing government’s inefficiency when dealing with financial matters. We have also looked at how the population was being taxed far more than it should. Furthermore, we have looked into the effects of China’s growing population, but lack of cultivatable land, which eventually led to famine. And we have seen how a young man growing up around the Hakka community could have been influenced with revolutionary views, especially when confronted with revolutionary religious texts from Christian missionaries. So due to the unequal trade, administrative inefficiency, over-taxation, increasing population, and famine of nineteenth century China, the Chinese population, especially the Hakka, became increasingly receptive to new ideas from Christian missionaries which eventually led to insurrection.
Compilation Group for the “History of Modern China” Series. The Taiping Revolution. Peking
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Horner, Charles. “China’s Christian History.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life 75(1997): 36 pars. InfoTrac. Monroe County Community College Lib. Monroe, MI. 8 Oct. 2005.
Newsinger, John. “The Taiping Peasant Revolt.” Monthly Review Oct. 2000: 30 pars. InfoTrac. Monroe County Community College Lib. Monroe, MI. 8 Oct. 2005.
Spence, Jonathan D. The Taiping Vision of a Christian China 1836-1864. Waco: Markham P, 1996.
Teng, S. Y. The Taiping Rebellion and the Western Powers: A Comprehensive Survey. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.