Scholar Rana Mitter describes the history of the Taiping Rebellion(1850-1864).
A real turning point moment for the last dynasty of China, the Qing, was the Taiping War from the early 1850s up to 1864. It was, quite possibly, the single bloodiest civil war ever in history. We don't have exact figures, but we know that tens of millions of people were killed during the course of the decade and half of this war.
But even more than that, it was one of the most bizarre civil wars in history because it was based on the premise that a young, unemployed man from southern China was, in his own view, in fact, the younger brother of Jesus Christ. And on the basis of the slightly dubious premise, he managed to lead a whole army of supporters behind him in a war that came very close to toppling the last dynasty of China.
The story began in a very small-scale way in a village in southern China, in Guangdong province, where a young man named Hong Xiuquan had basically taken the exams to enter the imperial bureaucracy for the fourth time.
Now, let's just very briefly explain that this was part of the great tradition of upward mobility in Imperial China, probably from about the year 1,000 or so all the way until the very early 20th century. You would take the formal exams—very tough exams, very lengthy exams. And if you succeeded, if you're one of the small percentage of people who got through, you could make your way up the bureaucracy higher and higher, maybe, in the end, working at the Imperial Court and serving the emperor if he got to the really top echelon. Most people, of course, wouldn't get to do that.
But the sad fact is that most people who took those exams failed them. You could take them over and over again. But even so, there was no guarantee you would get through. And this young man was an example of a rather, sadly, typical sort of Chinese person who had studied hard but never quite made the grade. And his repeated attempts clearly seemed to have tipped him over the edge.
He saw a vision, it was a very particular vision, that in fact, he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and that he, Hong Xiuquan, this young, poor man from southern China, had been brought onto earth to destroy the demons. And who were the demons? They were the Manchus, the ethnically Manchu rulers who made up the Qing dynasty which ruled all of China.
He got a pretty unfriendly reaction, I have to say, until he reached a more remote part of the province, the border areas with Guangxi province in the west. He suddenly found his message was taking off because there he was amongst the Hakka, a sub-ethnicity of the Chinese people who had traditionally been discriminated against by their ethnic majority, as it were, compatriots. And because they had always had this economically slightly downtrodden position, they proved more receptive to this message of rebellion and change.
And on the back of this, he suddenly had 1,000 followers, 10,000 followers, and even more followers who not only wanted to hear his religious message, but also helped him to form an army. And between the mid-1850s and the early 1860s, one of the most remarkable things in modern Chinese history happened—an entire separate state was set up in Central China under the rule of this failed examination candidate from South China, from Hong Xiuquan. And he termed it the Taiping Tianguo—the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.
And quickly, the Taipings managed to take over some of China's most prime real estate, including the major city of Nanjing, the former capital of China, which they made their capital. And during the eight years or so that they were in power, they established an alternative regime, one based on Christianity, but a very odd sort of Christianity. Christianity which involved, first of all, acknowledging Hong Xiuquan as the younger brother of Jesus, and also some pretty terrible penalties. Various people had to learn the Ten Commandments, and if you didn't learn them right, you could actually be executed, so a certain kind of motivation for education.
At the same time, there was separation—segregation between men and women. But also—and this is one of the things that later got a young man named Mao Zedong very excited—a new social program. The idea that land and property should be made collective. And even way over in Europe, a man called Karl Marx heard about the Taiping and thought that this sounded like the death knell for the old Chinese empire and the beginning of what he would think of as communism.
But it did fall. Why? In the end, the foreigners were one of the factors. Foreign support did not come to the Taiping. But the Qing also took a somewhat desperate, but rather important, move to save themselves.
The dynasty took the initiative of allowing the leaders of the provinces to set up their own armies. Millions may well have died—well, millions did die in the course of the Civil War between the Taiping and the Qing dynasty-supported new armies. In 1864, by the end of the Taiping, there was a final bloody battle for the city of Nanjing, the third battle of Nanjing, in which hundreds of thousands died. And even the Qing dynasty themselves noted that there had rarely been rebels like this in history who fought so hard and so bloodily.
But in the end, the Taiping threat to the Qing was finally put down. But it was put down at great cost to the Qing because they had let a particular sort of genie out of the bottle. By allowing the provincial leaders of China to set up their own armies, they had set the seeds for an acknowledgment that the central government no longer had the power to control things from Beijing, from the capital.
And eventually, the emergence of these local armies would lead to a phenomenon that became associated with early 20th century China, what's often called "warlord-ism." In other words, the idea that each province of China might have its own strongman in charge—with his own army—who would pay very little attention to the central government, because he had plenty of men on horseback behind him.