By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
Coinciding with the Western assault in the 19th century, a mounting agrarian crisis served to foster a peasant rebellion in China. Taken together, these two powerful forces—assault from abroad and rebellion from within—served to fatally weaken the Manchu dynasty.
Life in Rural China
In imperial China, the rural population lived in clustered villages. Peasants were economically dependent upon members of the landlord-gentry class.
The rural administrative authority was delegated by the imperial court to appointed magistrates. In order to bolster local social stability, the ideology of neo-Confucianism was vigorously employed by imperial scholar-officials to define the relationship between district magistrates and ordinary villagers.
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Social Equilibrium in Rural China
Unhappily for the peace and tranquility of the district magistrates, the normal social equilibrium in rural China was subject to a variety of imbalances and disturbances, both natural and man-made.
Such disturbances included catastrophic natural disasters; demographic instability; a rise in predatory behavior by landlords, money-lenders, or a magistrate’s local underlings; and the district government’s neglect of water works and public granaries.
Any one of these disruptions alone could adversely affect social order in the countryside. In combination, they could generate sharp, sudden, and sometimes devastating shocks to the rural social and political order.
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Rural Unrest in Early 19th Century
It was a combination of these conditions, compounded by the effects of Western commercial penetration that rendered China increasingly vulnerable to rural unrest in the first half of the 19th century.
As Western countries inflicted humiliation after humiliation upon the once-proud Chinese empire, there were simultaneous rumblings of disturbance deep in the rural interior.
After years of grumbling discontent, farmers in many provinces, driven deeper into debt by the progressive devaluation of copper coins relative to silver specie, and unable to pay their taxes, stood at the brink of a revolt. Beset by the worsening fiscal woes and discredited by their inability to put an end to Western bullying, the Manchus began losing their grip on the countryside.
Beginning of the Rebellion
The rebellion was sparked by a series of natural disasters that began in the early 1850s. Among the worst of these was massive flooding of the Yangzi River, which caused the collapse of dykes along hundreds of miles of the river’s densely populated middle reaches, from Chongqing in the west to Hankow in the east.
The Manchu government was slow to react, and when it did react, its flood relief efforts were meager and inadequate. Consequently, the government was widely blamed for the ensuing loss of life and for the deepening misery of the countryside. A peasant rebellion followed.
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Lasting 15 years, the Nian Rebellion, at its height, engulfed parts of 16 Chinese provinces. The rebels, whose actions were neither centrally directed nor particularly well-coordinated, launched frequent raids on rich merchants; they sacked the houses of landlords, executed local gentry and district officers, and opened up prison gates.
In the tradition of peasant brigands everywhere, they distributed confiscated goods to the poor; and they inscribed on their banners the words, “Kill the officials, kill the rich, spare the poor.”
Although the Nian rebels employed military tactics and a code of conduct that in some ways foreshadowed Mao Zedong’s strategy of ‘people’s war’, in the end their poorly organized, rag-tag peasant armies were unable to overcome the superior forces and firepower of the imperial army.
Still, the very magnitude and duration of the Nian Rebellion—fifteen years—and the enormous cost of suppressing it, took a major toll upon an already weakened Manchu dynasty.
However, the most serious internal threat to Manchu rule in the 19th century came not from the Nian rebels, but from the Taipings.
The Taiping Rebellion had its origins in the increasing impoverishment of the laobaixing, the common people, of southeast China, principally in the two provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi. In these provinces, which comprised Canton’s rural hinterland, the effects of the worsening fiscal and agrarian crises began to converge in the late 1840s as a mounting unemployment crisis hit the coastal ports.
Most severely affected were members of Canton’s newly marginalized lumpenproletariat. Consisting of hundreds of thousands of coolies, boatmen and porters, their jobs were threatened when Canton lost its status as China’s exclusive port of entry for foreign commerce. They were unemployed, and they were increasingly angry.
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Hong Xiuquan: Younger Brother of Jesus Christ?
The leader of the Taipings was a Guangdong native named Hong Xiuquan. Son of a Hakka peasant family near Canton, Hong Xiuquan was an educated young man who failed the imperial civil service examination four times.
After his fourth failure, in 1837, he experienced a nervous breakdown, in the course of which he had a series of visions in which, among other things, an old woman appeared, telling him that he was descended directly from God. He emerged from his delirium obsessed with the belief that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ.
Hong Xiuquan: Leader of the Taipings
Hong first encountered Protestant missionaries in Canton during his youth; and he was already familiar with Christian teachings. Now he was driven by his new obsession.
He set out to create his own church, with an eclectic blend of Judeo-Christian doctrine that combined elements of Old and New Testament gospel, seasoned with a generous helping of native Chinese mysticism.
In the mid-1840s, he began to preach his new faith in the remote mountains of Guangxi Province. Where other disillusioned scholars dreamed of restoring the glory of the Ming dynasty of old, the charismatic Hong Xiuquan aspired to find a new dynasty of his own—which he did, in 1851. He named it, ‘Taiping Tianguo’: the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.
His followers were drawn from the downtrodden masses of the southeast. With rural impoverishment growing steadily, Hong welcomed into his ‘flock’ increasing numbers of uprooted peasants, unemployed coolies, miners, demobilized soldiers, and other members of China’s burgeoning underclass.
Common Questions about the peasant rebellions in China
The Nian Rebellion lasted for 15 years.
Hong Xiuquan was the leader of the Taipings. He aspired to find a new dynasty of his own.
The Taiping Rebellion had its origin in the increasing impoverishment of the laobaixing, the common people, of southeast China, principally in the two provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi.