Recently, I have been reading about the civil war in China which lasted from 1850 till 1864. Professor Stephen R. Platt has written an important and very readable history of the later stages of the rebellion called Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom. The Taiping Rebellion plays an important role in the story of Qiao’s Grand Courtyard and is one of the most important events in modern Chinese history.
In short, the Taiping rebellion started in the far south of China, fairly close to Hong Kong by a man named Hong Xiuquan, who, while he showed great promise as a scholar, failed to pass the Imperial exam after numerous attempts and despite his decades making a modest living as a teacher of the Confucian classics. His costly repeated failures caused him to suffer a mental breakdown. He saw visions, and later, after yet another failed exam attempt, he discovered a partial translation of the the Bible and decided that he was the spiritual brother of Jesus Christ, and that his visions came directly from the Christian god.
Coupled with this insane belief was the very real decline in the Manchu rule over China. The decline in the Qing goverment was multifaceted and far more noticeable in the periphery of China than it was close the capital. And Hong was living in the far periphery of China. Hong’s visions convinced him that China was ruled not by men (Manchus) but by devils, literally agents of Satan in human guise. This was a big lie, the Manchu were men with strengths and weaknesses common to all men, but Hong’s lie spread right alongside his debased and flagrantly heretical version of Christianity. Unfortunately, due to the very real problems with the Manchu-controlled government, Hong’s demented visions fell upon fertile soil and within a few years he had tens of thousands of followers.
The Manchu government slowly woke to the danger posed by this crazy and viciously racist scholar but their initial efforts to kill him and destroy his followers were not completely successful. The government forced him to retreat north, in a strange parallel to the Chinese Communist Party’s Long March, but ulike Mao, Hong went north and east, towards the very center of China. Hong gathered followers everywhere he went, and as he came closer to the Yangtze river, he found cities defended by little more than incompetent stupid Manchu and Chinese soldiers who were good for little more than extracting gate tolls from unarmed Chinese peasants.
Astonishingly Hong’s ragtag army of peasants captured the major Chinese city of Anqing, in early 1852 and then they headed downriver, toward the sea, toward the ancient capital of the Ming: Nanjing. Despite the massive walls 50 feet thick, and sixty feet tall, and the resident garrison of some 40,000 Manchu soldiers, not the mention the Chinese Green Standard army soldiers, the Taiping army captured Nanjing at a stroke, and immediately slaughtered the entire Manchu and Mongol population of Nanjing, men, women, and children.
This finally got the attention of the Manchu government but the government’s response was emblematic of Qing dysfunction, they failed to recapture Nanjing nor did they defend Wuhan. The only thing the Manchu managed to do was fend off an attack on the capital of Beijing and they managed to get an army dug in place near Nanjing. The Manchu government spent the next years antagonizing the British and the French while doing very little to put down the Taiping rebellion which had control over most of the lower Yangtze.
One could write an entire book about the failures of Qing government during this time but here is one example: Britain was the greatest power in the world in 1850 with the most powerful fleet, the most advanced weapons, and control over nearly 25% of the world’s land (including India). Yet, the Qing government had no ambassador in London, nor did any Qing delegation actually go to Europe to see what the Europeans were doing, building, and learning. The Qing were essentially ignorant about the nature of the world they were living in and they were proud of their army which featured soldiers clad in armor, mounted on horses, armed with bows and arrows and lances! Yet, not ten years earlier, the Qing had been beaten by the British and the French in the First Opium War.
One might have thought that being beaten by a nation from the other side of Earth might have caused a measure of self-reflection, of reassessment of the nature of power in the world. But no. The Qing decided that they were going to play tough with the British and ignore all evidence which suggested they were in grave trouble. In a fit of pique the Qing decided to attack an Anglo-French expedition which was marching to Beijing to install the ambassadors which the Qing had previously agreed to host in their capital. They staged an assault on the Anglo-French force just outside Tongzhou – September 21, 1860.
The destruction of the Manchu Army at Palikao should be better known because it represents one of the greatest mis-matches in military technology in the history of the world. The Qing government sent their very best forces against the British and the French. 50,000 elite Manchu and Mongol cavalry along with 10,000 of their elite infantry vs. an Anglo-French army of around 10,000 (including 4,000 colonial soldiers from India). Outnumbered six to one, less then a day’s march from the capital of China one might think the Manchu would have inflicted some losses on the British. The Qing had every possible advantage: knowledge of the terrain, knowledge of the Anglo-French military, its size, its destination. And yet… the Anglo-French army utterly annihilated the Manchu army. The Manchu-Mongol cavalry was completely incapable of killing any of the enemy. Instead their losses were nearly total, while Anglo-British lost five men. FIVE. The British artillery was state-of-the-art Armstrong rifled breach-loading cannon firing explosive shells.
The Chinese emperor, Xianfeng, fled Beijing the next day, and spent the rest of his miserable short life hiding in an old hunting lodge, now called the Chengde Mountain Resort. He died at the age of 30, a broken man, leaving a five-year-old son but he had no army, the Anglo-French army had looted and then destroyed his Summer palace and the Taiping were on the offensive.
This should have been the end of the Qing Dynasty. As the Japanese prime minister Ito Hirobumi said in 1909 “The greatest mistake you Western people, and more especially you English people, made in all your dealings with China, was to help the Manchu in putting down the Taiping Rebellion… There can be little doubt that the Manchu had reached the end of its proper tether when the Taiping Rebellion occurred, and by preventing it’s overthrow [the English] arrested a normal and healthy process of nature. Nothing that the Manchu have done since then affords the slightest evidence that they deserved to be saved.” (Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, pg. 362-63).
So, the Qing didn’t fall. And, to a large degree, the English helped save the Qing. Why? I’ll talk about that in my next post.