The Chinese Messiah and his Heavenly Kingdom

Hong's "Poem on Executing the Evil and Preserving the Righteous"
Photo editing courtesy of the author
   In the 19th century, the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty was ruling a troubled China. The ruling dynasty was challenged both from within and without. In the external realm, the Qing was challenged by the expanding foreign powers. Internally, the challenge came from the hundreds of rebellions that were launched throughout China. These are not only challenges against the dynasty in particular, but also to the very state China had long been operating. While the foreign powers, in particular the European powers, had been dealing serious blows against China as they did in, for example, the Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1857-1860), they were mainly interested in building up their markets in China. Thus, instead of making the weakened dynasty fall with their apparent superiority and bristling weaponry in such conflicts as the Opium Wars, they concerned their efforts in giving limited aid to the Qing in order to ensure what kind of government suited their interests. It was internal challenge that sent the ruling dynasty to their corner, almost putting them in a quandary.

   The rebellion with the most gravity was the Taiping Rebellion (T’ai-p’ing, 1850-1864). It is considered as one of the most important movements not only in the history of China, but also in the history of mankind. Led by the self-proclaimed younger brother of Jesus, Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864), he was proclaimed “Heavenly King” on his thirty-seventh (37th) birthday on January 1, 1851 (in contrast with "Heavenly Emperor", which he reserved for God the Father). Hong derived his authority from a vision he received during a 40-day illness, wherein he was tasked to save the world and was given a sword to purge the world of all demons (he would later have a real sword made for himself). While the consequences of the rebellion were blunted due to its eventual failure, it is not correct to say that the Taiping Rebellion had no effect at all, especially in the case of China’s transition from empire to nation-state.

Thrust of the Taiping Rebellion

Factors that led to the rebellion were the following:
  • restiveness of the Hakka
  • prevailing image of a weak empire
  • eventual adoption of Christianity
  • prevailing circumstances in Guangxi.
   The first factor recognizes the fight for autonomy of minority tribes in the empire. There were the Miao and Yao tribes, but their contribution in the Taiping Rebellion was insignificant. The Miao tribe had their own rebellion launched in 1854. It was the Hakka tribe that played an important role in the T’ai-p’ing Rebellion. Since the Qin Dynasty, the Hakka migrated from Northern to Southern China, wherein they settled in parts of Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, and Taiwan. They were recognized as “revolutionary in character,” and were said to be the last to surrender to the Qing when they assumed leadership in China in 1662. It is also of note that the founder of the Taiping, Hong Xiuquan, was part of the Hakka. The second factor emphasizes the defeat and decline being experienced by the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century. While the peak of Qing rule was displayed during the reign of Qianlong (1736-1795), corruption reduced government effectiveness and increased expenses. Institutional deterioration was also evident, as Manchus in the government began to increase in numbers and rapid promotions were given to favorites. Qianlong’s successors proved to be incapable of revitalizing a weakening economy and a disintegrating society. China’s defeat in the Opium War revealed the weakness of the empire. Despite the numerical superiority of Chinese forces, Britain won easily on all fronts.

   The third factor saw a new religious inspiration influencing the Taiping leaders. They adopted their own form of Christianity, discarding Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist beliefs that once helped instigating mass action. Hong Xiuquan both had a background in Christianity and visions of seeing God. Even if his background in Christianity is elementary, studying briefly under the Baptist missionary Issachar Jacox Roberts, his message resonated with thousands of Chinese. The final factor takes into view the environment Hong had in his home province of Guangxi. The province was one of the poorest and most corrupt in China. Pirates, smugglers, bandits, and unemployed sailors from Guangdong were forced by the government to move to neighboring Guangxi. These people would later join the T’ai-p’ing cause.

Taiping vision of a Heavenly Kingdom

   Apart from consequences effected in the course of China’s transition from empire to nation-state in general, another aspect of the Taiping Rebellion that is to be explored would be the policies and programs that its leaders had carried out within the boundaries of the Taiping tianguo (Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace) for the duration of 14 years. While it is difficult to find substantial proof of the influence of the Taiping system on the following generations other than the destruction it had brought, enough evidence had remained to show what the Taiping vision was. What is in the ideas and concepts of the Taipings that earned admiration and respect in the decades to follow? The first would be the land system which would gain the impression of being a type of “primitive communism.” The system promoted abolition of private ownership and equal distribution of land. Every person aged 16 and above, men and women alike, shall receive one share of the land. If the person is younger, one-half share of the land shall be given. All land was classified into nine grades, in accordance to the land’s capacity for rice production. If production in one field is bad, the person shall be transferred to a more productive field.

Seal of the Heavenly Kingdom
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
   This land system was guided by the principle that all are part of God’s family, and as members all are to be equally provided for since everything belonged to God. While the land system apparently portrayed an economic revolution in the offing, there is general consensus that it was never put into practice. The Taipings had to modify the land system later on since implementation proved impossible, especially during a period of constant warfare. Equality between sexes did not stop in land ownership alone. It also existed in economic, political, military and cultural aspects of Taiping society. This was unheard of in China at the time. Besides equality, the Taipings also showed signs of democracy as they made local government officials of all ranks elected by the public. This also was unheard of in China at the time. However, despite general consensus that such a system did exist in the Heavenly Kingdom, few researchers like Wang Tien-chiang saw that democracy did not actually exist in the Taiping local government.

In his argument that there is a continuum from empire to nation-state in the case of China, Lee points out three critical processes in the transformation from empire to nation-state:
  • imperial subjects to equal citizens
  • extensive frontiers to intensive borders, and
  • exclusive suzerainty to mutual sovereignty
   The first point meant the conversion of a vertical hierarchy to a horizontal equivalency, the latter pertaining to equality. In this light, the Heavenly Kingdom had showed one process of the transformation from empire to nation-state. Sun Yat-sen, who knew the inside stories of secret societies, was the first to praise the Taipings as fighters of nationalism in China. In The Three Principles of the People, Sun pointed out that equality cannot exist without democracy, and vice versa. Taking this into note, it is apparent that Sun also observed in the Taiping Rebellion the existence of both democracy and equality, which are elements that are to be evident in the transformation of empire to nation-state. Thus, his recognition of the Taipings as fighters of nationalism. This, however, is not the only factor which recognition of the Taipings as fighters of nationalism. Sun considered in his principle of nationalism. The Taipings were mainly a Hakka organization. The Hakka tribe was a subgroup of the Han. In his discussion of nationalism, Sun points out that the “Chinese race” was of the Han, and the Chinese race has only family and clan loyalties, but no national loyalty. In the emphasis with the Chinese race, which was identified as Han, Sun is evidently following the tradition of Giuseppe Mazzini: one nation in one state.

   It is also evident that the Taipings held the same conviction throughout the duration of the rebellion, which qualifies their struggle as an ethnic movement. While developing anti-Manchu sentiments, they failed to cooperate with most of the ongoing rebellions throughout China. Only the Nien fought alongside the Taipings (1857-1863), although they were not fully incorporated in the Heavenly Kingdom. Thus, there was only limited, if not unreliable, cooperation between them. Apparently, these other rebellions that did not cooperate with the Taipings also had their own ethnic origins like that of the Miao and Yao. Going back to the transformation from empire to nation-state, it can be said that the Heavenly Kingdom fell short to the status of nation-state. The Taipings failed in the second point mainly due to warfare that prevented any consolidation of borders. They lacked sufficient military to maintain garrisons in areas they already went through, causing the necessity of reconquest of these areas. They also lacked sufficient military to deal the final blow at the Qing capital of Beijing during their northern campaign. Progress of the Taipings in the third point is incomplete. While democracy did exist in the local level, the Heavenly Kingdom was still, essentially, a kingdom whose leaders are not even elected. That is, despite the Taiping theory of equality which encompasses even that of between officials and non-officials.

Collapse of the Heavenly Kingdom

   The Taiping Rebellion eventually collapsed after the fall of Nanjing and Hong’s death (he committed suicide) in 1864. Evidently, Hong did not resurrect like his supposedly elder brother Jesus. It caused enough destruction to ruin six hundred (600) cities and take at least twenty (20) million lives. The central government was weakened; making the dynasty increase again the proportion of Manchus in the government. Government expenditure for suppressing the T’ai-p’ing Rebellion alone amounted to 256 million taels (around 184 million yuan). Finally, the Taiping provided a bad impression of Christianity to many Chinese at the time. The religion founded by Hong vanished as soon as the rebellion was defeated.

Qing forces retake Nanjing
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
   After the Taiping Rebellion, renewed efforts were made to maintain the strong state as characterized by the subsequent Tongzhi Restoration and Self- Strengthening (ziqiang) Movement. However, reformers like Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang retained their belief that learning from the foreign nations are only instruments towards ziqiang. The framework for reform would still be based on the principles, particularly Confucian, that maintained not only the ruling dynasty, but the empire in general. Reform during this period, however, portrayed a stage in the continuum that Lee had argued. The continued reversals against the foreign powers in the following years, and the defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) stressed the insufficiency of reform based on the principles of empire.


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The Chinese Messiah and his Heavenly Kingdom The Chinese Messiah and his Heavenly Kingdom Reviewed by Al Raposas on Monday, January 25, 2016 Rating: 5

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