Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom
The Taiping rebellion in mid-19th century China is largely forgotten in the West. But it was a huge event which, in terms of its duration, death rates and damage far outdid other conflicts of the time, including the American Civil War. It represented a crisis in which Chinese tradition was confronted with a new teaching from abroad – Christianity – and the possibility for the West, in this case Britain, to ally with a progressive cause when China’s 2,000-year-old empire was in dire straits.
Initially the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, whose rebel followers surged out of southern China in the early 1850s to take the imperial southern capital at Nanjing, appeared a highly attractive movement. It practised Christianity with Chinese characteristics and a form of Communism that promised equality for its supporters. Its troops overcame the poorly organised, often debauched, ‘banner’ troops of the Manchu emperors, who had conquered China two centuries earlier, and their Han Chinese mercenaries. Combining military success under some exceptional self-taught commanders, they seemed to offer a new hope for the ancient nation.
With its heavenly capital established in Nanjing, however, the movement quickly succumbed to the luxuries of power and to vicious internal feuding. Its leader, a former village teacher called Hong Xiuquan, who imagined himself the son of the Christian God entrusted with a divine mission to overthrow the Qing dynasty and eliminate Confucianism, turned out to be an ineffectual ruler, as he dallied with concubines and listened to an organ brought to his palace from a Nanjing church. Armies raised by rural gentry leaders, who came from the majority Han race rather than from Manchus like the Qing emperors, clawed back territory in a series of horrendous battles, eventually taking Nanjing in 1864, where Hong had died shortly before, probably from eating poisonous herbs as the besieged city starved.
In the end those who followed the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace were liquidated but in fact they left behind only a string of ‘what might have beens’ for a country that was embarking on a century of decline. The movement might have offered a new start but the forces of conservatism proved too strong and the exponents of change too amateurish, though the manner in which the Qing dynasty was forced to cede authority to the Han gentry to defeat the rebellion helped to pave the way to its fall half a century later. Today the rebels are seen through a double mirror – as prototype revolutionaries but also as a force that threatened the thing Chinese rulers, past and present, value most: stability.
Stephen Platt tells this epic story better than it has ever been told before. His book is a model blend of narrative and scholarship, combining sharp character sketches with clear accounts of battles. A major element he brings to the fore is the equivocal involvement of Britain and the international context of this Chinese power struggle, including the impact of the civil war across the Atlantic on British economic policy. Officially London was neutral towards both the Qing and the rebels, even though some of the missionaries who met the Taiping saw them as a force that might modernise China and open up relations with the West, a prospect encouraged by Hong Rengan, a far-sighted relation of the Taiping leader who plays a major role in Platt’s narrative. He had spent time in Hong Kong and got on well with foreigners and might have changed the course of Chinese history had he been able to turn their interest into material support. But the senior British diplomats in China disapproved of the rebels, who, indeed, gave plenty of reasons for disapproval with their odd behaviour and their strange interpretation of Christianity. So the British, including the mercenary British officer ‘Chinese’ Gordon, helped the gentry armies that gradually hemmed in Taiping in Nanjing, which fell to imperial forces with a massacre typical of the relentless blood-letting of the war.
The irony was that the British and French had launched a punitive military expedition against Beijing in the midst of all this, which forced the emperor to flee and included the destruction of the Summer Palace and imposition of onerous terms on China. So at the same time as attacking the Qing the British were helping to save it from its deadly enemy. This was yet another irony in a period when Europeans used force and muscular Christianity to get what they could from China but propped up the decaying empire because its very weakness suited them so well.
Jonathan Fenby’s latest book is Tiger Head, Snake Tails; China Today. He blogs on China at www.trustedsources.co.uk/blog/china