Critically analyze the nature of Taiping Movement. Is it correct to say that Taiping Movement was a revolution and not a rebellion? The Taiping Movement (1851-1864) is the biggest peasant uprising in Chinese history and one of the greatest peasant rebellions in world history. It was directed primarily against the feudal rule of the Manchu dynasty. Its impact was so great that it shook the Manchu Dynasty to its roots and the threats faced by Western Powers, seemed like a minor problem in comparison. Also, it stood at a juncture of two centuries.
In its origins, ideology, programmes as well as weaknesses, it contained elements of old social, political and culture order as well as ideas of new China. It had three major effects: it transferred the military power from the Manchu gentry to Chinese warlords because the Qing government had to mobilize local Chinese army to fight the Taiping; it decentralized China and gave more political and economic power to local authorities; it aroused anti-Manchu sentiment and led to the demise of Qing Dynasty and the restoration of the Chinese nation forty eight years after its failure.
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Also, a number of scholars both Chinese and western, have debated over nature of Taiping Movement and that whether it should be referred to as a Revolution or Rebellion. Jean Chesneaux characterizes The Taiping Movement in 3 ways: 1) Anti-Manchu as it attacked ruling dynasty and the Western Powers which were creeping in China after the Treaty of Nanking. 2) Anti-Confucius, as it combined popular Chinese cults and borrowed ideas from Christianity. 3) A social protest, for it not only shook Feudalism in China but also stood for emancipation of women.
Manchu rule was the rule of a conquering dynasty named the Ch’ing or Qing that had overthrown the indigenous Ming dynasty. After 150 years of Qing rule, symptoms of social, economic crisis, political disorder began to manifest itself in 19th century China. A familiar pattern of growing discontent, administrative corruption and ineptitude, natural disasters, uprising and foreign encroachments began to appear. Anti-Manchu sentiments were not new to South China. In the early 19th century, conditions which made life of common people hard and increasingly difficult were prevalent in South China.
Adding to this was dislocation caused by foreign presence and Opium wars, the tensions by presence of diverse ethnic communities, anarchic violence, all combined made situation in South China, specially Kwangsi and Kwangtung, worse. South China had been the most difficult region to control from the seat of administration at Peking. Also, it had been the last region to be fully subjugated. In Kwangsi and Kwangtung, a major source of social tension was the century long conflict between The Hakka community and original settlers of the land.
The Hakka had migrated into this region from North during 12th century and had continued to retain many of their distinctive characteristics and customs as well as their own dialect. Conflicts between them and other local people were numerous and often violent. The founder of The Taiping Movement emerged from this community itself known as, Hung Hsiu-chuan. The scenario was aggravated by the entry of western capitalism. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the import of goods from abroad, especially opium, had risen steeply compared to exports.
Thus the balance of trade went against China. The import hike was met by the export of large quantities of silver from China to other countries. The illicit opium trade generated underground smuggling and distribution network involving lot of local people. Following the war and Treaty of Nanking, much of the foreign trade shifted north to Shanghai. Thousands of local populations, who were employed because of the trade, were suddenly without jobs. Apart from Hakka people, the initial adherents of The Taiping Movement came from strata of these displaced people.
The political and social crises were accelerated by the First Opium War (1840–2) and the Treaty of Nanking (1842), the first in series unequal treaties that, along with subsequent developments, transformed China from a feudal country into a semi-feudal and semi-colonial one. The Manchu state became totally discredited, politically weak and subservient to foreign powers. The Treaty also affected the native handicraft industry. Foreign textiles captured the market and role of native cotton goods declined.
The Qing Government, in order to pay the war indemnity imposed many levies leading to an increased burden on the peasantry and soaring prices. Hong Hsiu-chuan, the supreme leader of the rebellion, was a poverty-stricken schoolteacher who had been ill treated by the corrupt Confucian scholar gentry that served the Manchus. He appeared unsuccessfully four times for the First Level of Examinations. During the period of his failures, he came in contact with Protestant missionaries and received a set of Christian tracts.
Following his third failure, he lapsed into deep depression in which he experienced hallucinations and also brought anti-establishment feelings. Hung was convinced that the visions he saw were a message that he was ‘Son of God’ and ‘Younger brother of Jesus’ who had the mission of spreading God’s word and save mankind. Hung attacked the practices of Confucianism and moved to neighboring province of Kwangsi to carry on with his missionary activities. Within a few years, he had won over thousands of converts, from among the poor peasants, miners and charcoal burners.
These converts were organized into society of God Worshippers who were characterized by fanatical zeal, religious fervor and pro-poor feelings to challenge the basis of Qing rule. The activities of the God-Worshippers plus high level of militarization in Kwangsi was a threat to the government. Very soon there were armed clashes between the army of God-Worshippers and imperial troops which ended in victory for the former. On January 11, 1851, the God-Worshippers issued a formal declaration on the establishment of their ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’ with Hung Hsiu-chuan himself as the ‘Heavenly King’.
The rebellion had begun, and for Hung and his followers there was no turning back thereafter. This small skirmish between the rebels and Qing troops soon turned out to be a massive uprising. It was no longer just a question of defeating the Qing forces or to do away with landlords, the Taipings in their minds had complete reorganization of the socio-political order. After the proclamation of the ‘Heavenly Kingdom’, the Taipings began their march to Peking, in North.
Up till, the great city of Nanking, the Taiping continued to March, fighting the imperial forces and capturing the towns and cities in the way. After capturing Nanking, the Taiping decided to make it their capital and therefore they renamed Nanking, the old capital of China, as Tienching i. e. Heavenly Capital. The military successes of the Taiping were based on the overwhelming support of the people. It was truly a people’s war that unleashed the initiative and creativity of the masses. The social and political program they adopted reflected the aspirations of the masses.
The main leadership of the movement was in hands of Hung Hsiu-chuan, who was the ‘Heavenly King’ but the power was shared between him and other ‘kings’- 4 of them named after the different directions and the fifth was known as the ‘Assistant King’. The Taiping Leaders not only led their followers in the battles, but were also responsible for all civil administration in economic, administrative, judicial as well as social and religious functions. This idea combined with many ancient ideas and did much to strengthen their revolutionary social program.