The Taiping Rebellion should have ended the Manchu rule over China in 1860. But it didn’t. The Qing Dynasty held on to power, through no effort on its part. Instead, the Qing retained power because other people helped it, specifically a Chinese official Zhen Goufan and the British government.
In my previous post I talked about the battle of Battle of Palikao, in which an Anglo-French military expedition annihilated the elite Manchu-Mongol cavalry army just outside the walls of Beijing, killing 10,000 while losing less than 10 men. Following the battle, the Manchu Emperor, Xiangfeng, fled the capital secretly and holed up in an old hunting lodge 150 miles northeast of Beijing. He did nothing more for the rest of his short, miserable life.
At this point, the British and the French could have taken over China. I mean this. Just as the British had taken over India in the previous 50 years, the British were so powerful and the Manchu were so weak, that the British could have marched into the Forbidden City and declared the Qing Dynasty was over and they were now in charge. But they didn’t. Instead, they contented themselves with with looting the Summer Palace (the Yuan Ming Yuan) and then destroying it. Quite a number of objects taken from the Summer Palace can still be seen at the Victorian and Albert Museum. Others have been recovered by the Chinese government in recent years (though very clever spy operations conducted against French and British museums).
At the very same time as the Manchu elite army was destroyed by the Anglo-French expedition, the Qing army around Nanjing was smashed by a successful military campaign by the Taiping military. This left the Taiping free to attack other parts of China, and they used this opportunity to conquer Suzhou and then Hangzhou, which gave the Taiping control over the wealthiest region of China. Thus, the Manchu had no significant military forces left, they had lost control over both the capital and the richest part of China near the mouth of the Yangtze river. Why did they survive?
First, the English really didn’t want to take over China. India had already put a massive strain on British resources, both material, and manpower. The famous Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 had been very expensive to put down, and resulted in the bankruptcy of the East India Company.
Second, the Taiping were considered to be both crazy and bloodthirsty. It is a fact that when they conquered cities with Manchu garrisons, they slaughtered all the Manchus and Mongols living in the cities – men, women, and children. To be fair, the Qing government did something similar when they retook the city of Anqing (in 1862) and again when they took Nanjing (in 1864), but both those events took place outside the view of the British. By contrast, when the Taiping took Suzhou, the British found the waterways surrounding this beautiful city were actually and horribly filled with the bodies of uncountable thousands of dead civilians.
Finally, while the British did not like the Qing government, they had a measure of respect for it. They understood that it had existed for a long time, and that it ruled over a huge territory. Almost no outsiders really knew what level of support the Manchu had. If the British took over, would they face a revolt by 300 million Chinese? No one knew. The fact is that the Qing government was saved by the Chinese. Zhen Guefan was Chinese, he led an exclusively Chinese army. Almost all of his generals were Chinese (with one exception, the Manchu cavalry general Duolonga, AKA Dorongga). Duolonga ended up leading his own cavalry force against the Moslims who staged their own rebellion in the Dungan Revolt (1862-1877).
Having destroyed the Manchu army near Beijing, the British then helped the Qing government with military operations around Shanghai and Anqing. The British played a truly strange role in this war, on the one hand destroying the military power and prestige of the Qing government, while helping it to maintain order elsewhere. The New York Times in 1860 published an editorial which ridiculed the British government for its irrational policy (Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, pg. 94). Several members of the English parliament did the same, with the future prime minster of England, Disraeli stating “[The government] who made war against the Tartar dynasty is now supporting the Tarter dynasty and making war against the [Taiping].” (Autumn, pg. 301).
If this all seems crazy, welcome to the real world. If you think current US foreign policy makes little sense, we have nothing on the policy of Great Britain in the 1800s.