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The Taiping Rebellion was an unfinished revolution
Lau Guan Kim  Updated: 2004-09-03 10:12

The Taiping Rebellion, from the perception of its leader, could erroneously be regarded as a cult movement. In the events that followed, it became more a mass movement of the Chinese people akin to a gathering revolutionary storm to do away with a hated regime.

On a personal side, one just wonders if Hong Xiuquan had not failed his Imperial Exam, would there be a Taiping Rebellion? Certainly it originated from delusional genesis, and perhaps a personal grievance of a failed Imperial Exam candidate against the Qing, it nevertheless took on a mass revolution movement.

Mao Zedong regarded the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1862) as an unfinished revolution. It was truly a mass rebellion by the Chinese against the foreign Manchus. In that sense it was a revolution - the overthrow of a foreign house and the institution of a Chinese government.

What went wrong?

The quasi-Christian credo of Hong Xiuquan and the iconoclastic implementation of an alien creed, offended the Chinese. The destruction of ancestral tablets struck at the very core of Confucian filial piety. The later excesses, debauchery and hedonistic lifestyle of the rebels offended Confucian morality. It was the Qing's appeal to Confucian tradition that for once galvanised Confucian intellectuals against this 'scourge' of Chinese values.

If anything, the Taiping Rebellion should have succeeded in driving out a foreign house dynasty, as the Chinese were more inclined to welcome the restoration of a Chinese one.

Zeng Guofan, Chinese Confucian gentry, led the strike against Hong. This was helped further when Western powers decided to help the Qing to prevent a Taiping seizure of Shanghai which could neutralise the West's newly won treaty gains. A foreign mercenary army, the "Ever-victorious Army" led by an American adventurer Frederick Townsend Ward played a part.

After Ward's death, Charles "Chinese" Gordon took over.

So it was a clash of civilizations that brought about the downfall of the Taiping. Christianity versus Confucianism. Majority of Chinese associated Christianity with the hated West. Matters took a nasty turn when the Taiping interpreted Christianity with the destruction of Confucian values.

It was an attack on tradition and established Chinese values.

The Qing was quick to exploit the Chinese sense of outrage. It enlisted the aid of the Confucian Chinese gentry, appointing the able Hunanese Zeng Guofan to lead a Chinese army against the Taiping.

It was an unusual turn of event, as the Manchus never trusted the Chinese with arms before, or allowed the whole command to be in the hands of the Chinese.

Though the Taiping movement lay in waste, the Qing sealed their eventual destruction. The need to enlist the Chinese to bolster their rule showed the rot set in.

It is interesting why in the intervening period 1862-1900, following the collapse of the Taiping Rebellion, the Chinese failed to galvanise themselves to form a formidable front against the Qing. Certainly with the bannermen (qing military force) ineffective and more Chinese allowed into the militia, a coup would have been easy.

The Yi He Tuan (Boxer) tried, but was a disparate group of people with no outstanding leadership. Empress Dowager Cixi was shrewd to exploit their antichristian stance. In the end, the Boxer Uprising fizzled out. It never revived as a mass movement again.


The events after the Boxer destructions showed the Chinese disunited and fighting among themselves, as in the closing stage of the Taiping, wrecked by internecine wars.

The above content represents the view of the author only.
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