Monday, 28 November 2016

Stories of the Taiping Rebellion

by Alfie Perry-Ward

If you wanted to enter the Civil service in 19th century China then you would have had to take the ‘civil service examinations’ which were a series of gruelling papers that assessed your knowledge of the classical Confucian texts. Passing these examinations would secure you a comfortable and prestigious job working for the government of the Qing Dynasty, the ruling dynastic order of China from 1644-1912. If you failed these examinations on the other hand, then you would have to go home and admit to your family that you dishonoured the ancestors by not studding hard enough. The extraordinary pressure put on individuals by their family drove several candidates to the periphery of insanity and this was the fate of several young people who brought shame to their familial ties (a not so dissimilar situation to the current Chinese education system, notorious for being one of the toughest in the world).

Hong Xiuquan
One victim of the Civil service examinations was Hong Xiuquan, a young candidate from the Hakka tribe born in the province of Guangdong in Southern China. By his fifth retake of the examinations in 1836, he was mentally exhausted and had a traumatic breakdown. This mental collapse caused him to fall ill for many weeks, during which he had several delusions and visions. A strange character appeared to him in the deep depths of his dreams, whispering nonsensical instructions, often in long parables and poems. After the intense period of recovery, life continued as normal until, some years later in 1843, he rediscovered some Christian texts that he was given by a missionary from London almost a decade before. After rampant study of this religious literature, he began to make sense of his vivid delusions and dreams. He concluded that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ and that the man who had been appearing to him was in fact the mighty ruler of heaven.

Hong Xiuquan thus became the Godly manifestation on Earth, sent by his brother to conquer and destroy the Qing dynasty, who were a false representation of God’s will. Hong saw it as his duty to lead a divinely approved revolution that would sweep away old institutions of the autocratic Chinese state and bring about a Christian nirvana, otherwise named Taiping Heavenly Kingdom or Taiping Kingdom of Heaven. Hong became the leader of the Taipings, a group that would start the biggest civil conflict in Chinese history. The Taiping Civil War (1850-1864) eventually resulted in the death of 20-30 million individuals (at the most conservative estimate- others go right up to 100 million). Although the Taipings eventually lost the war as a result of Western intervention on the side of the Qing, their story altered the course of modern Chinese history. One should be careful not to glorify their regime because there are many horrific stories of rape, pillage, slavery, incarceration and disfigurement. However, the legacy of the Taiping war has such strength that its history and contribution to history at large cannot be ignored. We have already explored the story of Hong Xiuquan, but below are just a further two stories of one known individual and one unknown individual. Their stories seek to capture the essence of the Taiping Civil war from the perspective of two very ordinary people caught up in this horrific event.

An Unknown Irishman living in Taiping occupied Zhengjiang

This figure is a nameless travelling worker who can barely read or write. It is unknown how he came to be in China and for what reasons he was there, but the most appropriate guess would be that he arrived as a mercantile assistant at a trading port in Shanghai, which was the epicentre of Sino-Western trade. The western imposition on the Chinese markets had been accumulating throughout the 19th century. In this rapidly globalising context, the Irishmen’s presence in China is therefore not abnormal. The Irishman’s loyalty is utterly fluid, for a brief period of time he fights with rebels against the Western imposition in Shanghai. Shortly after, he enlists into the Qing regiments but due to his involvement with the rebels, decides to leave before arousing suspicion. He makes his way to Zhengjiang in April 1856, a province in the East of China, as a homeless beggar who speaks no Chinese. However, he is able to demonstrate his loyalty to Taiping nobility by kneeling at their feet. He attends religious meetings and shows enthusiasm at services, taking advantage of the community meals that religious groups give to the homeless. His willingness to serve is recognized and he is assigned to overseeing rice supplies that arrive from Yangzhou. He is now accompanied by an American from Boston called Charles Thompson, who joins him and several thousand people in this labour.

When the distribution of rice supplies no longer requires them both westerners are assigned to a body of one hundred cavalry that are involved in the construction of Earthworks and other defence structures against the Qing. They are joined by a further two Europeans in May and all four westerners fight under the commandment of Qin Rengan who was a Taiping General that served the Eastern King (the Taipings had an unusual command system. First you had Hong Xiuquan, then you had the several other ‘Kings’ below him all given unusual names like the North/South/East/West King as well as the ‘assistant’ or ‘wing’ Kings. Below that you had the Generals and the Taiping nobility (eg. Family of the Kings) and finally you had the soldiers and the people).

Qin Rengan’s army fights a brutal conflict with Qing soldiers in encampments just outside Zhengjiang. The Taiping army is speedy and effective but also merciless. They encompass the Qing position with a ring of flammable material (furniture stolen from homes in a nearby village) then set fire to it, trapping the helpless imperial soldiers in a “blazing circle.” As the soldiers attempt to ruout of the ring of fire, they are cut down by the Taipings. Charles Thompson is fatally wounded and dies ten days later, but the Irishman and one of his European companions are summoned to meet their General who offers them a transfer to Nanjing, the ‘heavenly capital’. They ride on horseback to Nanjing and are greeted by the East King, who has a particular fascination in western armaments. The Irishman has long conversations, via an interpreter, with the East King about western military. By summer, he has won the admiration of the East King and he is put up in a mansion where he is served wine and god food on a regular basis. He effectively becomes a Taiping noble, being given tours around the city by a young Chinese polyglot. This idle life continues for a good three months.

However, the Irishman is surrounded a political struggle for power. The East king is quickly gaining power and assuming spiritual and political authority, much to the suspicion of Hong Xiuquan. The East King suddenly claims to be the Holy Ghost and attempts a coup to take over leadership of the Taiping Kingdom. Despite his efforts, he and his family are massacred while his head is displayed in the streets of Nanjing. After the massacre, there are several subsequent purges that result in an internal civil war. Around this time, the Irishman sees it best that he deserts his life of comfort for fear of being caught up in the treacherous leadership crisis. He and his European friend escape dressed in Chinese clothes. They head back to Shanghai on a risky journey, using a wheelbarrow, a boat and local peasant guides to see them through the landscape of rural China.  They enter Shanghai in mid December and live among many westerners. The Irishman meets ship Officer Reynolds, who knows China well. It is he whom the Irishman tells his Odyssey and being a literate man, Reynolds documents every last detail.

Yu Zhi (1809-1874)- a Schoolteacher and local community activist from the Jiangsu Province

Yu Zhi is representative of a class of local activist elites that attempted to mobilize the peasantry into militias to defend the Qing Dynasty. He was part of an order of scholars who had a commitment to the written word. Writing was a sacred art form in China and there is a long history of ‘spirit-writing’ which was a scriptural craft that channelled the common belief in spirit and divinity into poetry, parables, plays and stories. Spirit writing involved using scripture to urge moral transformation of individuals, often in favour of a particular agenda. Yu Zhi used his spirit writing in an effort to make sense of the atrocities of the civil war. He worked along the lines of divine reward and retribution i.e. if you do bad things you will be divinely punished and if you do good things you will be divinely rewarded. He saw the war as a condemnation of the peasantry and their disobedience. In his eyes, their failure to adhere to a moderate lifestyle of humility, study and service had clearly brought about a mass wave of divine retribution that was sweeping across China.

His theatrical speeches and orations called for people to mend their ways. He adopted an elite model of philanthropy that was used by organizations to deal with local issues that the war threw up, most notably famine. He played an unprecedented role in raising funds for Qing armies and restoring order to rioting villages. Among many things, he was a devout believer in the supremacy of the Emperor and the symbolic potency of the Imperial government. The class of philanthropists that Yu Zhi belonged to was one which believed in moral conservatism. He argued that knowing your place in the social order of the dynastic structure and leading a morally secure life was the fundamental priority.

He published “The precious Volume in which Mr Pan explains how to avoid catastrophe” which was a series of parable stories that used the character of Mr pan to exemplify what was morally correct activity, like paying taxes, reading classical texts and generating moral credit, and what was morally incorrect behaviour, like eating meat and sympathising with the Taipings. In much of his work he portrayed the Taipings as a vicious and heartless group that were the harbingers of apocalypse. His vision of the war was incredibly clear to begin with, but it became far more nuanced as the war progressed. With floods of refugees arriving from Taiping territory, Yu Zhi began to question his own belief in reward and retribution. Did these people really deserve to be punished? Was slavery a morally justifiable divine intervention? Are the concepts of good and evil really as black and white as moral conservatism suggests? The atrocities that he witnessed during the war only intensified his commitment to philanthropy and the betterment of society. He is truly an unsung hero for the Qing dynasty, as were the countless others of elite activists who believed in the power of the Emperor. Yu Zhi works call into question the nature of catastrophe and what the war meant on a local level, how it impacted the traditions that were thousands of years old.
A very brief Bibliography

What Remains: Coming to terms with civil war in mid 19th century civil war in China by Tobie Meyer-Fong (2013- deals very much with the socio-cultural legacy of the war)
God’s Chinese son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xuiquan by Jonathan Spence (1996- very much the standard history of the Taiping rebellion by the leading western authority on China)
The Taiping Rebellion podcast by ‘thehistorynetwork’ free to listen to on YouTube. 

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