My life in China and America/11 Reflections on the Taiping Rebellion



Rebellions and revolutions in China are not new and rare historic occurrences. There have been at least twenty-four dynasties and as many attendant rebellions or revolutions. But with the exception of the Feudatory period, revolutions in China (since the consolidation of the three Kingdoms into one Empire under the Emperor Chin) meant only a change of hands in the government, without a change either of its form, or principles. Hence the history of China for at least two thousand years, like her civilization, bears the national impress of a monotonous dead level — jejune in character, wanting in versatility of genius, and almost devoid of historic inspiration.

The Taiping Rebellion differs from its predecessors in that in its embryo stage it had taken onto itself the religious element, which became the vital force that carried it from the defiles and wilds of Kwangsi province in the southwest to the city of Nanking in the northeast, and made it for a period of fifteen years a constantly impending danger to the Manchu Dynasty, whose corruption, weakness and maladministration were the main causes that evoked the existence of this great rebellion.

The religious element that gave it life and character was a foreign product, introduced into China by the early Protestant missionaries, of whom Dr. Robert Morrison was the first English pioneer sent out by the London Mission, followed a decade later by the Rev. Icabod J. Roberts, an American missionary. These two missionaries may properly claim the credit, if there is any, of having contributed (each in his particular sphere) in imparting to Hung Siu Chune a knowledge of Christianity. Dr. Morrison, on his part, had translated the Bible into Chinese, and the Emperor Khang Hsi's dictionary into English; both these achievements gave the missionary work in China a basis to go upon in prosecuting the work of revising and of bringing the Bible to the Chinese standard of literary taste, so as to commend it to the literary classes, and in making further improvements in perfecting the Chinese-English dictionary, which was subsequently done by such men as Dr. Medhurst, Bishop Boone, Dr. Legge, E. C. Bridgeman, and S. Wells Williams.

Besides these works of translation, which undoubtedly called for further revision and improvement, Dr. Morrison also gave China a native convert — Leang Alifah — who became afterwards a noted preacher and the author of some religious tracts.

Hung Siu Chune, in his quest after religious knowledge and truths, got hold of a copy of Dr. Morrison's Bible and the tracts of Leang Ahfah. He read and studied them, but he stood in need of a teacher to explain to him many points in the Bible, which appeared to him mysterious and obscure. He finally made the acquaintance of the Rev. Mr. Icabod J. Roberts, an American missionary from Missouri, who happened to make his headquarters in Canton. Hung Siu Chune called upon him often, till their acquaintance ripened into a close and lasting friendship, which was kept up till Hung Siu Chune succeeded in taking Nanking, when Mr. Roberts was invited to reside there in the double capacity of a religious teacher and a state adviser. This was undoubtedly done in recognition of Mr. Roberts' services as Hung's teacher and friend while in Canton. No one knew what had become of Mr. Roberts when Nanking fell and reverted to the imperialists in 1864.

It was about this time, when he was sedulously seeking Mr. Roberts' religious instructions at Canton, that Hung failed to pass his first competitive examination as a candidate to compete for official appointment, and he decided to devote himself exclusively to the work of preaching the Gospel to his own people, the Hakkas of Kwang Tung and Kwangsi. But as a colporter and native preacher. Hung had not reached the climax of his religious experience before taking up his stand as the leader of his people in open rebellion against the Manchu Dynasty.

We must go back to the time when, as a candidate for the literary competitive examinations, he was disappointed. This threw him into a fever, and when he was tossing about in delirium, he was supposed to have been translated to Heaven, where he was commanded by the Almighty to fill and execute the divine mission of his life, which was to destroy idolatry, to rectify all wrong, to teach the people a knowledge of the true God, and to preach redemption through Christ. In view of such a mission, and being called to the presence of God, he at once assumed himself to be the son of God, co-equal with Christ, whom he called his elder brother.

It was in such a state of mental hallucination that Hung Siu Chune appeared before his little congregation of Hakkas — migrating strangers — in the defiles and wilds of Kwangsi. Their novel and strange conduct as worshippers of Shangti — the Supreme Ruler — their daily religious exercises, their prayers, and their chanting of the doxology as taught and enjoined by him, had attracted a widespread attention throughout all the surrounding region of Kwangsi. Every day fresh accessions of new comers flocked to their fold and swelled their ranks, till their numerical force grew so that the local mandarins were baffled and at their wits' end to know what to do with these believers of Christianity. Such, in brief, was the origin, growth and character of the Christian element working among the simple and rustic mountaineers of Kwangsi and Kwang Tung.

It is true that their knowledge of Christianity, as sifted through the medium of the early missionaries from the West, and the native converts and colporters, was at best crude and elementary, but still they were truths of great power, potential enough to turn simple men and religiously-inclined women into heroes and heroines who faced dangers and death with the utmost indifference, as was seen subsequently, when the government had decided to take the bull by the horns and resorted to persecution as the final means to break up this religious, fanatical community. In their conflicts with the imperial forces, they had neither guns nor ammunition, but fought with broomsticks, flails and pitchforks. With these rustic and farming implements they drove the imperialist hordes before them as chaff and stubble before a hurricane. Such was their pent-up religious enthusiasm and burning ardor.

Now this religious persecution was the side issue that had changed the resistance of Hung Siu Chune and his followers, in their religious capacity, into the character of a political rebellion. It is difficult to say whether or not, if persecution had not been resorted to, Hung Siu Chune and his followers would have remained peaceably in the heart of China and developed a religious community. We are inclined to think, however, that even if there had been no persecution, a rebellion would have taken place, from the very nature of the political situation.

Neither Christianity nor religious persecution was the immediate and logical cause of the rebellion of 1850. They might be taken as incidents or occasions that brought it about, but they were not the real causes of its existence. These may be found deeply seated in the vitals of the political constitution of the government. Foremost among them was the corruption of the the administrative government. The whole official organization, from head to foot, was honeycombed and tainted by a system of bribery, which passed under the polite and generic term of “presents,” similar in character to what is now known as “graft.” Next comes the exploitation of the people by the officials, who found an inexhaustible field to build up their fortunes. Finally comes the inevitable and logical corollary to official bribery and exploitation, namely, that the whole administrative government was founded on a gigantic system of fraud and falsehood.

This rebellion rose in the arena of China with an enigmatic character like that of the Sphinx, somewhat puzzling at the start. The Christian world throughout the whole West, on learning of its Christian tendencies, such as the worship of the true and living God; Christ the Savior of the world; the Holy Spirit, the purifier of the soul; the destruction of temples and idols that was found wherever their victorious arms carried them; the uncompromising prohibition of the opium habit; the observance of a Sabbath; the offering of prayers before and after meals; the invocation of divine aid before a battle — all these cardinal points of a Christian faith created a world-wide impression that China, through the instrumentality of the Taipings, was to be evan- gehzed; that the Manchu Dynasty was to be swept out of existence, and a “Celestial Empire of Universal Peace,” as it was named by Hung Siu Chune, was going to be established, and thus China, by this wonderful intervention of a wise Providence, would be brought within the pale of Christian nations. But Christendom was a little too credulous and impulsive in the belief. It did not stop to have the Christianity of the Taipings pass through the crucible of a searching analysis.

Their first victory over their persecutors undoubtedly gave Hung Siu Chune and his associates the first intimation of a possible overturning of the Manchu Dynasty and the establishment of a new one, which he named in his religious ecstasy “The Celestial Empire of Universal Peace.” To the accomplishment of this great object, they bent the full force of their iconoclastic enthusiasm and religious zeal.

En route from Kwang Si, their starting point, to Nanking, victory had perched on their standar all the way. They had despatched a division of their army to Peking, and, on its way to the northern capitol, it had met with a repulse and defeat at Tientsin from whence they had turned back to Nanking. In their victorious march through Hunan, Hupeh, Kiang Si and part of An Hwui, their depleted forces were replenished and reinforced by fresh and new accessions gathered from the people of those provinces. They were the riffraff and scum of their populations. This rabble element added no new strength to their fighting force, but proved to be an encumbrance and caused decided weakness. They knew no discipline, and had no restraining religious power to keep them from pillage, plunder and indiscriminate destruction. It was through such new accessions that the Taiping cause lost its prestige, and was defeated before Tientsin and forced to retreat to Nanking. After their defeat in the North, they began to decline in their religious character and their bravery. Their degeneracy was accelerated by the capture of Yang Chow, Suchau, and Hangchau, cities noted in Chinese history for their great wealth as well as for their beautiful women. The capture of these centers of a materialistic civilization poured into their laps untold wealth and luxury which tended to hasten their downfall.

The Taiping Rebellion, after fifteen years of incessant and desultory fighting, collapsed and passed into oblivion, without leaving any traces of its career worthy of historical commemoration beyond the fact that it was the outburst of a religious fanaticism which held the Christian world in doubt and bewilderment, by reason of its Christian origin. It left no trace of its Christian element behind either in Nanking, where it sojourned for nearly ten years, or in Kwang Si, where it had its birth. In China, neither new political ideas nor political theories or principles were discovered which would have constituted the basal facts of a new form of government. So that neither in the religious nor yet in the political world was mankind in China or out of China benefited by that movement. The only good that resulted from the Taiping Rebellion was that God made use of it as a dynamic power to break up the stagnancy of a great nation and wake up its consciousness for a new national life, as subsequent events in 1894, 1895, 1898, 1900, 1901, and 1904-5 fully demonstrated.