What began as the religious mission of one man became one of modern China’s most pivotal historical events. The Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) destabilised the Manchu Qing Dynasty, devastated the southern regions of China, saw the death of around 20,000,000 and would later act as inspiration for revolutionaries such as Sun Yat-Sen and Chairman Mao, shaping the modern China of today.
Since 1644 a mostly Han population was governed by the Manchu Qing Dynasty in a society based on traditional and Confucian ideology. However, by the mid-19th century, internal problems caused mass discontent as people began questioning the governing regime. A dramatic influx of population in the 18th century, doubling from 150 million to 300 million, resulted in a lack of land, work and food, especially in rural southern regions where labouring communities came under the strain of famine and drought. Meanwhile, the popularity of opium distorted Chinese trade; British goods became high demand while the Chinese market dwindled. Unemployment and crime spread which deepened internal tensions. The Qing’s defeat in the First Opium War (1839-42) against the British ‘barbarians’ caused national humiliation which, consequently, triggered mass disillusionment and catalysed the rebellion.
The leader of the rebellion, Hong Xiquan, began life as a poor Hakka (a sub-group of the Han) in the south. He focused on education, hoping to complete the tough civil servant examination with an exclusive pass rate of 1%. However, after five failed attempts he was driven into a state of dejection. After reading a pamphlet from a missionary, Hong claimed to have experienced visions proclaiming he was the Son of God sent to rid China of its ‘devils’. Many Hakka and other Han Chinese gathered to his cause, desperate to see change enacted in a deteriorating China, crippled by corrupt politics and poverty. From small revolts in the 1840s, the rebellion turned to a civil war. At its height, Hong established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom ruling over around 30 million people.
Despite the eventual defeat of the Taiping rebels, the 15 years of civil war led to irrevocable changes. Although Hong’s overtly religious campaign was driven by the ideology of the vengeful God of the Old Testament, the moral overtones disseminated social progression. The rebels fought for equality for women, the abolition of foot binding and slaves as well as the prohibition of alcohol, opium and adultery. Furthermore, its concept of communal property and redistributed land established primitive communism in China. While this ignited social change it also opened up China to the international stage as European forces aided the eventual crush of the rebellion. With the impact of the Opium Wars and unfair treaties, this marked the beginning of significant external influence in China. Thus, the rebellion paved the foundations of communism, instilled revolutionary ideas in the minds of the public and mobilised international intervention in China.