San José State University
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Thayer Watkins
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The Taiping Rebellion in China
1851-1864

Note: There are two system for writing Mandarin words in Latin letters. The Wade-Giles system, the older method, is misleading. The newer method, Pinyin, was developed by the mainland government of China. It is far simpler to understand. However the Wade-Giles system is still used in Taiwan and elsewhere outside of mainland China. Pinyin spellings are used wherever possible in the following with the Wade-Giles version given in parentheses.


In the first half of the nineteenth century the province of Guangdong (Kwangtung in the Wade-Giles romanization and known as Canton by Westerners) in South China was beset by social turmoil from factional and ethnic disputes as well as from the impact of Western contact. The government could not cope with the problems. The ethnic conflict was between the indigenous people and the Hakkas (guest settlers) who had emigrated into the area from north central China several centuries previously but maintain a separate identity. The Hakkas tended to be more adventuresome than the local population. They entered new occupations, engaged in trade, and migrated to new lands to a greater extent than other Chinese. A significant share of the Taiwanese and other overseas Chinese are Hakka. Two important Chinese leaders, Deng Xiaoping of the People's Republic and Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore are of Hakka background.

About 1850 Hong Xiu-quan (Hung Hsiu-ch'uan) had visions that led him to found a new religion. This religion had overtones of Christianity involving the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit but with the new element that he, Hong Xiu-quan (Hung Hsiu-ch'uan), was the younger son of God. An early convert, Feng Yun-shan, became the organizer for the movement and made many converts among mineworkers, charcoal burners, and poor peasants many of whom were Hakka. One convert, an illiterate orphaned charcoal maker, Yang Xiuquan, became a brilliant military tactician. A member of a wealthy clan, Shi Dakai, joined the movement and persuaded many of his family to join also.

In January of 1851 a new state was declared called the Celestial Kingdom of Great Peace Taiping Tianguo (Tai-p'ing T'ien-kuo) in Guangxi (Kwangsi) Province. Later that year the Taiping army was beseiged by the Imperial Army but it broke the siege and moved into Hunan. Later the Taiping army moved into the capital of Hubei province, Wuhan, and then in March of 1853 captured the southern capital of China, Nanjing.

The Taiping movement was a religious movement combined with an anti-Manchu Chinese nationalism. In addition, there was a spirit of communism. Followers gave all their property to the movement and shared in the property possessed by the theocratic state. Village administrators were appointed by the Taiping state. Taiping leaders intended to distribute the farmland under their control to the peasants. This was not accomplished because the land redistribution ended up being administered by former landlords who had become administrators.

The Taiping army attempted to conquer North China but failed. The Empire counterattacked using mercenaries equipped with modern weapons. The major battles took place in the Yangtze River basin area controlled by the Taiping. Finally in July of 1864 Nanjing, the capital of the Taiping state, fell and the Taiping movement disappeared.


For more on Chinese history see Economic History of China.


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