The End of the Tai-ping Rebellion

In an earlier post, I mentioned the excellent old book The “Ever Victorious Army”: A History of the Chinese Campaign under Lt.-Col. C.G. Gordon, C.B., R.E., and of the Suppression of the Tai-Ping Rebellion by Andrew Wilson (1868). The author, Wilson, at key points in the book, reaches an almost poetic intensity in his prose.

The tragic story of the Tai-ping Rebellion is little known in the USA. Yet the wholesale devastation it inflicted on China, killing over 20 million people during 14 years of internal warfare and anarchy, makes it the largest military event of the 19th Century.

The founder and ruler of the Tai-ping movement, Hung Sew-tsuen, was exposed to foreign missionaries who showed him a Chinese translation of the Bible. After failing to pass the examination to enter the Mandarinate, he went into a trance, had a vision, and believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus. Conditions in China were disorderly, and he believed himself to be Heaven’s instrument to rectify the wrongs and bring peace and justice and prosperity back to China. He convinced others of his status and mission. He raised an army and overran many provinces and cities. But instead of restoring harmony in the Flowery Land, he and his rampaging subordinates (called wangs, or kings) brought only death, famine, destruction and chaos. In the closing years of the rebellion Hung Sew-tsuen was besieged in Nanjing by the Imperialist forces of the Manchu Emperor.

As dangers gathered round him, Hung Sew-tsuen, the Heavenly Monarch, became more cruel in his edicts, and ordered any of his people who might be found communicating with the enemy to be flayed alive or pounded to death; but even he could no longer conceal from himself the fact that the days of his reign and of his life had drawn to a close. It would be interesting to know what were the last thoughts of this extraordinary man when he found himself in these circumstances. Did he still believe that he was a favourite of heaven, and authorised representative of Deity on earth, or had he in his last hours some glimpse of the true nature of the terrible and cruel destiny which he had had to fulfil? Surely as his thoughts reverted to the simple Hakka village of his youth, he must have known that his path over the once peaceful and happy Flowery Land could be traced by flames and rapine and bloodshed, involving a sum of human wretchedness such as had never before lain to the account of the most ferocious scourge of mankind. Where there had been busy cities, he had left ruinous heaps; where fruitful fields, a desolate wilderness; “wild beasts, descending from their fastnesses in the mountains, roamed at large over the land, and made their dens in the ruins of deserted towns; the cry of the pheasant usurped the place of the hum of busy populations; no hands were left to till the soil, and noxious weeds covered the ground once tilled with patient industry.” Even, as has been remarked, the very physical features of the country, owing to neglect of the embankment of great rivers, had been largely changed by his destructive career. And, after all this ruin and misery, what had the Tai-ping movement come to at last but the restoration of Imperial rule in China, while a cloud of fear and wrath hung over the doomed city in which the king and priest and prophet of the Great Peace anticipated death in the midst of his trembling women and the remnant of his ferocious soldiery.

Garnet Wolseley visited the Tai-ping-occupied territory a few years before these events, before open conflict broke out between Britain and the Tai-pings. His observations were the same:

Wherever they go they plunder and destroy. Civilisation and even animal life seems to disappear before them, and their march may be tracked by the bodies of murdered peasants and the ruined habitations which they leave behind them. The country people, far and wide, fly from contact with them, transporting their little all to some place which they deem safer. On the banks of the river, beyond the territories thus laid waste, numbers of large, strawbuilt villages are now to be seen, hastily thrown up by the unfortunate refugees, who endeavour to support life by fishing, or by any other local employment which they can obtain. In all such places as we had an opportunity of visiting, the distress and misery of the inhabitants were beyond description. Large families were crowded together into low, small, tent-shaped wigwams, constructed of reeds, through the thin sides of which the cold wind whistled at every blast from the biting north. The denizens were clothed in rags of the most loathsome kind, and huddled together for the sake of warmth. The old looked cast down and unable to work from weakness, whilst that eager expression peculiar to starvation, never to be forgotten by those who have once witnessed it, was visible upon the emaciated features of the little children.

The Imperialist force besieging Nanjing detonated enormous mines, breached the immense walls in several places, and stormed into the stronghold and capital of their enemy. The Götterdämmerung of the Tai-pings swiftly followed. Hung Sew-tsuen committed suicide. His palace was burnt to the ground. His Wangs were captured and beheaded. His son and heir was captured and beheaded. His scattered soldiers, fleeing the flaming ruins of Nanking were torn limb from limb by the outraged peasantry they had so long oppressed.

Wilson then reflects on the Providential meaning of these disastrous, world-shaking events:

It is a dreadful story, but chiefly interesting and solely valuable to us from the warning it gives as to the disorganisation and ruin which may swiftly overtake the human race, when it tries to avoid the constantly recurring necessity of facing the exigencies of its position; and as to the danger of allowing a man of powerful imaginative mind to become mad in the fire of his own repressed energy, and under a sense of his own sufferings and wrongs. Men like Rousseau and Hung Sew-tsuen are not to be held personally accountable for their destructive effect on the society in which they grow up. “They made themselves a fearful monument;” but in order to its being made, societty must have become ripe for ruin—the tree must be ready to fall; and there is no surer indication of such rottenness in any civilisation, than its inability or its unwillingness to find a fitting place for men of so remarkable powers. In the case of the Tai-ping chief, over-population, nominal submission to Tartar dominion, and unlooked-for contact with a different civilisation, at least as powerful as its own, had brought China to a condition in which it required a great purifying punishment. Striking indication of this fact was the sale of civil offices for money, because there was nothing on which the Chinese had so justly prided themselves, and in which they were so superior to other nations, as their committal of both power and wealth to men of regal qualities. “Virtue,” says the commentator in the ‘Great Learning,’ “is the root, wealth is the result;” and so long as the Chinese acted on this principle their empire flourished; when they departed from it, trouble came, as it has always come, and always will come, upon nations who value this result more than its root, and having first allowed the exercise of low qualities to determine the possession of wealth, proceed to the almost necessary consequence of allowing wealth to wield the chief power. It really required some such terrible affliction as the Taiping Rebellion to save China from the state of corruption and imbecility into which it was sinking; and when that rebellion had served its purpose, it too came to an end, and fell like a tree prepared to fall. In all this there was nothing but that benevolence of Heaven to which Confucius refers, terrible as its working may seem to human eyes; and so it becomes intelligible how the nation which required this punishment had not the privilege of meting out justice and inflicting retribution on the instrument of it.

I was struck in this passage by the statement that the greatest corruption of the Manchu Dynasty is the “sale of civil offices for money,” to enrich the possessors of those offices and those in league with them. It is like the corrupt, mercantilist reign of George III our Founders rebelled against, or the tax-farming of the Late Roman Empire. It also reminds me of the revolving door we now see between major businesses and banks, and political power in Washington.

Yet Hanoverian Britain was a robust and freedom-loving society, and the great Edmund Burke and many others, decried the corruption and called for restoration and reform. Britain was able to overcome the worst of its vices and its greatest age came with the century which followed, in Victoria’s long reign.

Rome, beset on all sides, weakened by epidemics, was overrun by its barbarian enemies. The corruption of its officialdom, and of its taxation, may not have been fatal, but it cannot have helped. Primitive and illiterate peoples made their campfires and built hovels in the stone and brick ruins the Romans left behind.

Manchu China was brittle, overwhelmed by new and previously unimagined challenges. The Tai-pings were one major episode as the Qing Dynasty broke apart. It hung on for two generations after the Tai-Pings. But it was ultimately unable to reform, and it disintegrated. Three generations of bloody anarchy, foreign conquest, civil war, and communist oppression and mass murder, ensued.

Fortunately, the USA, while in dire condition, holds many good cards.

We are more like Britain than like Rome or China.

We possess unusually good self-regenerative capacity.

We have been through waves of reform and political change and economic creative destruction in the past.

We face no meaningful risk of foreign conquest, and have not since the Cold War ended.

Overwhelming majorities of people of all political views support peaceful, lawful, orderly, Constitutional political change.

We are blessed with the cultural foundations, the resiliency, and the institutional and technical means, to restore our society peacefully to prosperity and, to use the old-fashioned Victorian term, to virtue.

That process of restoration, renewal and reform is underway even now.

Look for it. Find it. Then participate in it.

16 thoughts on “The End of the Tai-ping Rebellion”

  1. Interesting note: Hung Sew-tsuen is supposed to have killed himself by eating over a pound of gold leaf. I’m not sure how that would kill you in any way except intestinal blockage so he probably died in utter agony.

  2. “Look for it. Find it. Then participate in it.”
    Done it, found it, participated in it – in two different efforts. The local Tea Party was the splashier of the two, but writing historical novels in the setting of our shared past – that may have a longer-lasting effect. We need our history, we need our shared memories, our shared experiences. To live without them is to live in some kind of ghastly sensory-deprivation tank. We need to know who we are, where we came from, how we got to where we are. And that kind of knowledge is a range of sturdy pillars holding up our grand American experiment.

  3. Brava, Sgt. Mom. Bravissima.

    The key to our brilliant American future lies in understanding our past as it really was.

  4. May I make a general request as someone that spends a certain amount of time on Indian and Indian American diaspora websites?

    When appropriate, and when some of you feel like it, will you interact with and share some of this historical knowledge in those types of settings?

    This is important. Our diplomacy is awful, lots of people have a distorted picture of the United States, and the quality of historical discussion that you see here would be useful in some of those settings.

    A real dialogue. For instance, it was Republic Day and some sites and posts on the Indian constituion. What a nice way to talk both about the Indian constitution and the American constitution.

    Okay, this is just me fleshing out some ideas. Will have to make it into a post perhaps.

    Let’s explain “we” a little better to others, and in turn, learn a little bit more too.

    Knowledge is power and all of that.


    – Madhu

  5. Okay, maybe this will explain better: Don’t let the left rush in and shape narratives. Make a shared case for freedom, markets, etc.

    – Madhu

  6. “… Indian and Indian American diaspora websites?”

    Names? Links?

    “Don’t let the left rush in and shape narratives.”

    You may have to defend those fronts yourself.

    We are all stretched thin over here.

  7. LOL.

    Yes. You are correct. I suppose I will have to read and do my homework now, won’t I?

    Will put up a post sometime for links.

    – Madhu

  8. Madhu —

    I would be a big advance just to get Americans and Indians as individuals talking directly to each other. Even with people like Canadians or Brits we still take many wrong ideas about each other from media stereotypes, and from taking the words and actions of governments as indications of the attitudes and and desires of individuals of those nations. I wish there were two or three good books explaining America and American history that I could recommend to Indians but there are few generally good books that are also up to date and incorporate much of the recent scholarship, which has challenged many older understandings. For that matter, I would like to find a good, up to date book on Indian history.

    I am currently reading Ashley Jackson’s history of the British Empire in WWII. I am now reading the section on WWII in the Indian Ocean. I had no idea how much action had taken place there, for instance, that the Japanese had serious plans to invade Sri Lanka in 1942, or that the Vichy French forces in Madagascar put up a strong fight for half a year when the British and South African forces invaded the island. Japanese submarines launching seaplanes flying reconnaissance over South Africa. I never knew any of that. I hope somebody is reviewing all that action carefully, because it is the only example of modern war in that ocean, and we may need the lessons.

  9. I believe this is the same “Chinese” Gordon who was later killed in Khartoum by the Army of the Mahdi. This has interesting parallels with the current Bin Laden situation.

    I think the British never captured the Mahdi but later recovered his body after his death by natural causes and threw the remains in the Nile. I think there is still a mosque dedicated to the Mahdi in Omdurman across the river from Khartoum.

    Also, wasn’t Wolseley the one who was sent by the British to relieve Gordon at Khartoum?

  10. Tim, you are correct on all points.

    Wolseley led the unsuccessful Gordon Relief Expedition. Gordon was a close friend of his.

    The capture of Khartoum by Kitchener, including the despoiling of the Mahdi’s tomb, is well told by Churchill in The River War. Churchill was there.

  11. Hi, Lex:

    This is a fascinating series of posts!

    The bio of Chinese Gordon on Victorian Web is an interesting one for me personally, particularly since Gordon dealt with two messianic movements, the Taping and Mahdist uprisings, and was himself a man of faith.

    We gather that Gordon’s eldest sister, Augusta, “was the first to point in the direction of saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and it was to her that he wrote about his new-found faith and zeal for the Lord”. It was not until 1853 however that he was “converted to faith in Christ” by a fellow soldier.

    The writer comments:

    This did not, however, prove to be a dramatic turning point in his spiritual life, and he remained rather indifferent to the need to spread the gospel at this time, but his letters to Augusta are full of his concerns about his soul and his desire to ‘subdue the flesh’. They also show a developing desire to die and be with the Lord. He did not have a death wish; rather it was a realisation that Heaven was to be preferred to Earth.

    That’s a remark that has curious resonances today…

    Gordon seems to have had a willingness to treat peaceably with his enemies in the Taiping rebellion:

    Soochow was captured by the EVA in 1864 after the Taipings surrendered to Gordon when he offered them safe conduct. Gordon was away on business when the Manchus had the Wangs, the leaders of the Taipings, executed. Gordon was furious and promptly resigned his command.

    We learn that the death of his father and a brother “had a profound effect on Gordon, who resolved to abandon superficial religion”:

    Gordon, who once said to the Catholic priest that ‘the church is like the British Army, one army but many regiments,’ never allied himself to any church or became a member of one; he was friends with the Presbyterian chaplain, the Church of England vicars in the area, the Methodist and Baptist pastors and the Catholic priest. He attended all of their churches at one time or another. Gordon became completely absorbed by his social work in Gravesend, to the exclusion of normal social contact. As the commander of the Engineers in Gravesend, he might have enjoyed a busy social life, but he shunned this in favour of what he saw as his God-given duty.
    These years in Gravesend were his happiest and, for him, his most fulfilling time. He paid a pension to a number of elderly people, it has been estimated that he gave away 90% of his Colonel’s pay of £3,000 a year, and he maintained this in the years after he left Gravesend.
    That bespeaks a very serious and genuine piety, but also a considerable theological openness.

    Then came his encounter with the Mahdi:

    Official records suggest he [Gordon] was captured and a ransom was asked for, and when it was refused, Gordon was killed. It is unlikely that Gordon would have allowed all of his men and the civilians in the city to be butchered. He may well have negotiated a surrender.

    The biographical entry closes with the words:

    Copies of his journals, personal reminiscences about him, biographies and copies of his only book, a mystical treatment on Palestine, sold in their millions right up until the first world war.

    It would be interesting to learn more about his own eschatological beliefs, and whether he wrote about the ingathering of the Jews or the return of Christ in his “mystical” book on Palestine – and indeed whether at any point he touched on the specifically messianic character of either the Taiping or Mahdist revolts.

  12. Charles, I would like to know more about Gordon. He was the victim of a posthumous campaign of mockery initiated by Lytton Strachey, a loathesome person. People who actually knew Gordon found him to be a sincerely good man, and even a great one.

    Garnet Wolseley, who was not easily impressed by anyone, was a close friend of Gordon, and wrote this touching passage about him. There is nothing else like it in Wolseley’s memoirs:

    In a future volume I shall have much to say about ” God’s friend,” Colonel Charles Gordon, in many ways the most remarkable man I ever knew. But as I met him first at the time of which I am here writing, when we were both doing duty in the trenches before Sebastopol, I shall at once say a little about him. We were friends, drawn together by ties never formulated in words. In a conversation I had with him the year he left England, never to return, he told me he prayed daily for two men, of whom I was one.
    In these material days of money grubbing, when the teaching of Christianity is little practised and the spirit of chivalry is well-nigh forgotten, I cling tenaciously to every remembrance of our intimacy, because he was one of the very few friends I ever had who came up to my estimate of the Christian hero. He absolutely ignored self in all he did, and only took in hand what he conceived to be God’s work. Life was to him but a Pilgrim’s Progress between the years of early manhood and the Heaven he now dwells in, the Home he always longed for.
    History tells of only one faultless Hero, and His story is set forth in the Gospels. The character of Christ as therein depicted was always uppermost in Gordon’s mind. When in any difficulty his first thought was, “What would my Master do were He now in my place?” It was this constant reliance upon his Maker, this spiritual communing with his Saviour upon every daily occurrence in life, that enabled him absolutely to ignore self and take no heed for what to-morrow might bring forth. It was because of this faith that he cheerfully gave up his life in the endeavour to do what he believed to be his Master’s work, the mission he willingly undertook to Khartoum. To understand that Master’s will in all the events of his splendid but curiously varied career, he studied the Bible in a way rarely practised since the early days of Christianity. He was mortal, and was not therefore perfect. But the more I study his noble life the more I am dazzled by its untarnished glory, as the eyes are by staring at the midday sun. To those who would belittle his memory, I can only say, “Go and do likewise.”

    Alas, Wolseley never wrote the third volume of his memoirs, which would have covered the failed Gordon Relief Expedition. What must it have been like to lead an army to rescue your friend, a man you believed to be a hero, even a saint, only to arrive to late to save him?

    From the Wilson book, you cannot tell if Gordon concerned himself overly much with the Tai-pings’ religion. By the time he got involved they seem to have been motivated by the desire for plunder, and survival. He helped to destroy them as a military exercise, in a just cause.

    His moral convictions did help him as a commander. His enemies knew they could surrender and not be murdered or otherwise abused. As a result, his opponents would give up when they were cornered. Ethical conduct saved lived and helped to defeat the enemy.

    Gordon’s faith apparently helped him to routinely take extreme physical risks in leading his Chinese troops, who required personal and visible leadership to be effective.

    It is noteworthy that people finding their societies disintegrating under the blows of an armed and overpowering modernity, like the Chinese at the time of the Tai-ping rebellion, or the Mahdists of Gordon’s day, or the Ghost Dancers of the American west, or like the Islamists of today, turn to apocalyptic religion and fanaticism to try to even the odds. That appears to be a pattern.

    The business about Gordon being held for ransom and it being refused is new to me. Refused by whom?

    The sale of millions of books is believable. Destroying the reputation of Gordon and other Victorian Christians was a conscious program of the Bloomsbury circle. The cynicism bred by World War I made that possible. We do not have to accept the judgment of that damaged and cynical generation as final.

    As to his eschatological beliefs, I am sure that there are good sources on this as well as everything else about him. The problem is that much of what was written at the time was hero worship, and much that was written after is probably tainted by the Strachey-type, dismissive view. I don’t know if anyone has written a fair and sympathetic biography.

    I will note that I read Roy Jenkins’ (excellent) biography of Gladstone, and I am currently reading Andrew Roberts’ (also excellent) biography of Lord Salisbury. These two antagonists were polar opposites politically and in many other ways, yet nonetheless both had a sincere and strong Christian faith. That was normal for the Mid-Victorians. They were different from us. They write in good English and they seem accessible, so we falsely think they are more like us than they were. But to read about them closely, especially to read their own memoirs, to spend time with them speaking in their own voices, is to see that they were very different.

  13. Ha! I went searching for something about the “ransom” and stumbled across a very interesting account of Gordon in The Catholic Presbyterian, Volume 6, p 166 and following, out of copyright and downloadable at no charge from Google Books.

    Gorden seems to have been almost theosophical (with a small t) in his religious views, believing in reincarnation, and writing:

    I think that this life is only one of a series of lives which our incarnated part has lived…

    And he was clearly impressed (and a littlke amused, perhaps) by the Muslims he met:

    You speak of Mohammedanism being imperilled. Not so. I find the Mussulman quite as good a Christian as many a Christian, and do not believe he is in any peril. All of us are more or less pagans. … I like the Mussulman; he is not ashamed of his God; his life is a fairly pure one. Certainly he gives himself a good margin in the wife line, but, at any rate, he never poaches upon others. Can our Christian people say the same?

    That reminds me of some of the comments the Cistercians of Tibhirine made about their Muslim neighbors.

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