UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Taiping 太平 Movement Bohr, P. Richard; Hamm, Matthew


The Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) was a Christian-inspired and cataclysmic millenarian uprising during the Qing dynasty that claimed the lives of between 20 to 40 million people. This entry takes a slightly broader view of the rebellion by examining the Taiping movement behind it from 1837 to 1866.// The Taiping movement can be said to have begun in 1837 when its founder, Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全 - a failed civil service examination candidate who belonged to the Hakka sub-ethnic minority in Guangdong - experienced a series of dreams in which he was taken to Heaven to meet the one true deity and emperor of China, the Heavenly Father. He was told that China had originally existed as a monotheistic utopia before Qinshi Huangdi and subsequent emperors had been seduced by Satan into worshipping heterodox traditions such as Buddhism and Daoism. The Heavenly Father further proclaimed Hong to be a "Heavenly King" (tianwang 天王) and charging him with restoring China to its utopian state as part of the transformation of the world into a new global order of Christian nations that would be united in their worship of the Heavenly Father and subordinate to China under Hong's rulership.// Understanding himself as Jesus' younger brother, Hong began preaching his new message and was driven out of his village to Thistle Mountain in Guangxi. There he became the leader of a religious group called the God Worshippers. The majority of its members were of the Hakka sub-ethnic minority. Literally meaning "guest people" (kejia 客 家), Hakka were Han Chinese people who had been pushed out of the north by invasion and faced frequent conflict with the earlier Han Chinese settlers of Guangdong and Guangxi, known as the Bendi 本 地, who resented their intrusion and pushed them to marginal lands. Hakka people formed the core of the Taiping movement and many of their practices, such as monogamy, mutual dependence, and a resistance to foot-binding, became features of the Taiping movement as a whole.// Between 1848 and 1849, Hong Xiuquan was absent from the God Worshippers. During that time, several shamans and spirit mediums, most notably Yang Xiuqing 楊秀清, became prominent within the group and initiated practices in which Jesus and the Heavenly Father would descend into spirit mediums and perform miracles such as speaking in tongues or faith healing. Although hesitant to endorse these practices, Hong did so upon his return and Yang Xiuqing acquired a place of prominence within the group as the voice of God.// The descents of Jesus and the Heavenly Father also resulted in iconoclastic attacks by the God Worshippers on local temples and other religious sites on Thistle Mountain, which intensified tensions between the God Worshippers and Bendi militias, resulting in numerous battles. Alarmed by the God Worshippers' clashes with the Bendi, Hong's denouncement of corrupt officials, and the loyalty of the God Worshippers to a transcendent deity over the emperor, the Qing state attacked them as a rebel threat in the winter of 1850.// Shortly thereafter, at the beginning of 1851, Hong Xiuquan proclaimed the inauguration of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace and Equality (Taiping Tianguo 太平天國) and launched an all out rebellion against the Qing. The God Worshippers, now better referred to as the Taipings, invaded the central Yangzi river valley and succeeded in capturing the former imperial capital of Nanjing in 1853.// Hong proclaimed Nanjing to be the "New Jerusalem" and from it the Taiping movement created a theocratic state that, at its height in 1856, governed 30 million people. The Taipings were organized into specialty groups of 25 families that each provided a specific service for the state. Men and women, including spouses, lived separately and all property was held in common by the state through the institution of the Sacred Treasury. A particularly notable feature was the egalitarian treatment of men and women. Hong banned practices such as prostitution, concubinage, foot-binding, and widow suicide and insisted that women have equal access to the military, government service, education, and property ownership.// Plans to reform the Taiping state into an even more utopian mode were cut short when, in 1856, Hong moved against Yang Xiuqing, who had come to refer to himself as "holy" and Hong as merely "eminent." Hong's attack on Yang Xiuqing resulted in the deaths of 20,000 people, ended the practice of mediumship, and fractured the Taiping movement, turning its commanders away from utopian visions and a united campaign against the Qing toward preserving their own regional power bases.// Despite efforts by Hong Ren'gan 洪仁玕, appointed prime minister by Hong Xiuquan in 1859, to reform the Taiping state according to a Protestant vision Christian material civilization, Hong increasingly reverted to the Confucian style of government that he had previously renounced. As Hong increasingly withdrew from government affairs, Qing troops besieged Nanjing, cutting off its food supply and eventually taking the city in 1864. Hong died at the same time, possibly by suicide, and the rebellion was declared put down that same year. Imperial mop-up operations continued, however, until 1866.// The Taiping movement's radical utopian vision and the devasting impact of its cataclysmic uprising left behind a complex legacy for late imperial and 20th-century China, foreshadowing and, in some instances, even helping to inspire the movements and uprisings of the 20th century.

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