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.