JANICE Y. LEUNG
University of Washington
The Taiping Rebellion led by a Christian convert named Hong Xiuquan (1814–1864) was a widespread civil war that started in southern China from 1850 to 1864. Hong claimed to have received visions in a dream and announced that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He believed that his mission was to fight against the Qing (1644–1912) government ruled by the Manchus. About 20 million people, mainly civilians died in this military conflict.
In 1853, Karl Marx argued in the New York Daily Tribune that the origins of Taiping rebellion were entirely based on external factors, mainly the opium war and European intrusion, and that the movement came forth with the Han peasant masses against the Manchu rule.1 Understandably, Marx’s views have been widely accepted in mainland China where the Communist Party still treats Marx as one of its patriarchs in both the theory and practice of revolution. Yet these two views seem to be too simplistic, as Marx overlooked the social causes that led many to become part of the movement and did not notice the key role played by the Hakka, a minority within the Han population, in the early development of the rebellion. Actually, the Taiping rebellion was considerably endogenous in origin, and was a result of the mobilization of the Hakka through Hong Xiuquan’s God-worshippers.
Marx believed that the origins of the Taiping Rebellion were purely exogenous, which were European intrusion, foreign trade and the opium war. In his understanding, because of the opium trade with Britain, China had lost a vast amount of silver and was virtually bankrupt. These caused national unrest and then resulted in a rebellion against the Qing government. Although the external factors cannot be ignored, causes of the Taiping Rebellion were considerably endogenous if we trace the start of the event. A Chinese Christian convert named Hong Xiuquan played a large part in mobilizing the Taiping movement under Christianity. Hong originated from the Hakka minority within the Han population and his parents sacrificed to get him a decent education so that he could pass the national examination and win a place in the local elite. However, Hong failed to pass the examination several times. Before he stepped into the examination hall once again in 1836, he received a collection of translated passages from the Bible called “Good Words for Exhorting the Age” by a Protestant evangelist named Liang A-fa. He kept it at home and after his third examination failure, he had a dream in which there was a bearded and golden-haired man who gave him a sword, and a younger man who instructed him on slaying the evil spirits. After his fourth examination failure, he opened the Christian tracts and studied them carefully. He then “realized” that the bearded and golden-haired man in his dream a year ago must have been God and the younger man was Jesus Christ.2
The content of Liang’s Good Words was calculated to evoke its readers’ commitment to believe in God and avoid hellfire. It highlighted the omnipotence of God, the distinction between its eventual salvation or damnation, and the moral degeneracy of the Chinese society.3 Specifically, Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism were represented as superstitions that blinded men to the true God. To typical Chinese readers at the time, the subjects of sin, divine vengeance and redemption in Liang’s tract were presented with historical-political meanings. In other words, the ultimate meanings of the content in his tract could be perceived in relation to a society or a political unit. It is likely that readers interpreted this tract in the way that China’s moral salvation required some form of societal action, as well as a specific political component, and that this might in fact require the embodiment of moral regeneration in a new dynastic regime.4 Hong received Liang’s version of Christian doctrine and altered it on his own, starting to organize the Society of God Worshippers. He then injected the transmuted version into the social environment that he was in. Hong’s actions suggest that origins of the Taiping Rebellion were largely endogenous rather than exogenous; his religious pursuits and political actions were basically results of an individual’s personal experience in 19th-century China that inherited institutional and social problems from its long history. Hong’s incidental failure in exams and encounters with Liang’s Good Words triggered the ensuing events.
Marx also argued that the rebellion was stirred up by the Han peasant masses, joined with the Chinese intelligentsia, teachers, lower officials and craftsmen. In fact however, the Taiping movement emerged with key support from the Hakka, which is a cultural minority within the Han population. It did not begin as a desire of the Han to overthrow the Qing government. After realizing the connection between his dream and the Christian tracts, Hong was able to persuade people of his spiritual powers charismatically and through a strong religious conviction. He began to preach his message to the public and formed the Society of God Worshippers in an isolated area of eastern Guangxi province with one of his first converts in 1847. Hong’s movement then spread and drew converts from the Hakkas in the province. By 1849, he had attracted around 10,000 followers.5
The main question here is how the Society of God Worshippers, mainly the Hakka minority, evolved into the Taiping movement that encompassed a large number of the Chinese population, and later on a political unit opposing the Qing government. The movement began as the result of deliberate government action to relieve overcrowding in the Guangdong province by encouraging the Hakka to move into regions along the eastern Guangxi.6 The Hakka households “live among the fields, with no near neighbors,” thus they quickly assemble for joint defense in an emergency. The Guangxi province eventually became the Taiping stronghold. The Hakkas’ consciousness of ethnicity was probably sharpened by the endless conflicts with their Cantonese neighbors. It was these ethnic conflicts that enabled the Taiping movement to spread rapidly over large areas.7 This mobilization of the Hakkas by the God Worshipping Society was the immediate precondition to the uprising and the founding of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.
Marx was correct about how opium negatively affected China because it had gone bankrupt in the opium trade with Britain, and bribery connected with opium smuggling became widespread and demoralized Qing officers. However, these reasons related to the opium trade were not the trigger for the God Worshippers to oppose the state. They were only seen as a religious group by the Qing government at first, but not a rebellious group that needed military suppression. Nonetheless, their mobilization was still somewhat disruptive and destructive to the community. This angered some of the local elites and they also felt that the God Worshippers were obstructive to the fundamental Chinese moral values. Between 1847 and 1849, six God Worshippers were imprisoned, and although other members petitioned with arguments from international treaty law and even raised money for the release of the men, their quest ultimately failed. This was probably the decisive factor that drove the God Worshippers into a formal anti-government movement. Hong had been preaching against the “demon devils” since his dream in 1837, but he was always quite unclear of who these devils were. However, by the end of 1849 when he failed to set free the imprisoned God Worshippers, he began to identify the Qing officials as demons.8
Marx’s interpretation of the Taiping Rebellion is too simplistic because he only examined a few factors and ignored other major aspects that played a greater role in this movement. He gave his opinion soon after the rebellion occurred from 1850 in which he probably only had limited information. Nonetheless, this can also be viewed from another direction in which Marx really believed that the opium trade played a larger role in triggering the Taiping Rebellion compared to the Christian movement, and this would be related to his thoughts about how history is progressed. He believed that an outcome must be resulted from a series of chronological events from the past, and therefore deducing that the Taiping Rebellion was the product of opium trade would fit with his ideal. Because of the opium trade with the British, China not only lost great amounts of silver but also parts of its land. Corrupt officials took part in opium smuggling and the nation became demoralized. No advances were made in the country and the general population suffered from effects brought by the disorder. Under these circumstances, the Han Chinese population aimed at overthrowing the Manchu government. Nevertheless, without a guiding force to speak against the societal issues and corruption, rebellion would not have taken shape. Hong and the God-worshippers were not considered in Marx’s argument, but were a vital endogenous force in the origin of the Taiping Rebellion.
Janice Leung is a senior majoring in Political Science, minoring in History and Labor Studies. Her main academic interests are modern Chinese history and politics.
Janice Y. Leung, “A Critique of Marx’s View of the Taiping Rebellion and Its Origins,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 3, no.2 (April, 2013).
1. Karl Marx, “Revolution in China and in Europe,” The New York Daily Tribune, June 14, 1853. Note that Marx addressed the Taiping rebellion again nine years later in 1862 on a German newspaper, Die Presse, commenting that the movement was merely blind violence and destruction. The opinion of his second article, which is also problematic, will not be discussed in this essay.
2. Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W.W Norton & Company, 1990), 172.
3. Philip Kuhn, Origins of Taiping (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 352.
4. Ibid, 354–355.
5. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 172.
6. Kuhn, 361.
7. Ibid., 363, 365.
8. Jonathan D. Spence, God’s Chinese Son (New York: W.W Norton & Company, 1996), 113–114.