The End of the Taiping Rebellion

An 1884 painting of The Battle of Anqing (1861)

Detail from The Suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, ink on silk.

The extent of Taiping control in 1854 (in red)

When Zeng Guofan arrived to take control of Nanjing in July 1864, for the dynasty it was an occasion not just of triumph but of terror as well. For he was, at that moment, the most powerful man in all of China. The rebel capital was crushed. His army was transcendent. He exercised a de facto military dictatorship over eastern and central China. And he had never been fully under the dynasty’s control. Though his Hunan Army fought to uphold the rule of the Beijing government, his command fell largely outside of its direct influence, and even as the dynasty had relied almost entirely on him to prosecute its war against the rebels to its end, there wasn’t a moment when his actions weren’t watched from Beijing with a strong measure of dread. As it turned out, Frederick Bruce’s worry that Zeng Guofan would prove “a formidable competitor for power in the centre of China” grasped only a fragment of the real picture. For generations after the fall of the Taiping, the story would be told that several of Zeng Guofan’s top commanders—including his brother Zeng Guoquan—had counseled him that the time was nigh to abandon the faltering Qing dynasty to its fated end and take power in Nanjing for himself, as the new emperor of China.

But he did not do that. In truth, even as his campaign for Nanjing began to enter its final stages, he was already preparing to disband his personal army and relinquish his military power. He would hold on to his grand position as governor-general of Jiangxi, Jiangsu, and Anhui after the war, supervising the reconstruction of eastern China from his offices in Nanjing—a palatial complex of offices he ordered built right on top of the ruins of the Heavenly King’s own palace. But just at the point when watchers in China and abroad waited on tenterhooks to see whether the victorious general would now send his army northward to Beijing to overthrow the emperor of the Manchus and clean up the mess of the Qing Empire, he had already made up his mind to cede power, to send his soldiers home, and to live out the rest of his life as a mere civil official within the imperial bureaucracy—the most powerful of the civil officials, to be sure, but still just an official and still a loyal subject of the child emperor and his regent, the empress dowager.

Zeng Guofan’s seemingly paradoxical combination of power and submissiveness, which baffled those who knew him as a ruthless military leader, was a result of the sharp division of his inward and outward selves. The outward man was indeed a brilliant and merciless general, who, by the end of the war, was possessed of almost unlimited power. He wielded a battle-hardened army, the most fearsome in China, formed of soldiers from his own home province, loyal only to himself, who viewed him very much like a god. He accepted the death of multitudes with a calm equanimity (the same equanimity, to be sure, with which he had viewed the prospect of his own death in the war). This was the man Yung Wing had seen as “literally and practically the supreme power in China,” the man Frederick Bruce had worried would take over the central empire. This was the man the Qing government feared, because it could not control him and he followed their orders largely at his own pleasure.

But the inward Zeng Guofan, the man known only to his brothers, his sons, and a handful of close friends, was a man of deep reverence and quietude who was often wracked by uncertainty and depression. He was a general who had never asked to be one. He was never truly sure of his own command or certain of his power. He was a man who wanted most of all to go back to his books and lead a quiet life of moral scholarship. And for that man, a grasp for power at the end of the war was utterly unthinkable. Skeptical as he may have been of the corruption, greed, and incompetence of the government bureaucrats in Beijing, Zeng Guofan never questioned the legitimacy of the emperor himself. Zeng Guofan’s was, after its fashion, a religious kind of loyalty—a faith that Heaven had chosen the ruler of the empire, and whatever the court’s advisers and secretaries and counselors might say or do, Heaven’s choice must be followed.

Furthermore, those who later wondered why he didn’t take the throne for himself—and there would be many—assumed that the rulership of China was somehow a thing to be desired. But for Zeng Guofan, especially given the tumultuous era in which he lived, power was a fearful prospect. It conjured up the terror of failure, of falling short of the great responsibilities laid upon him—and, indeed, the nagging fear that as his power and influence grew beyond all precedent, it would bring down divine punishment to crush him for overstepping his bounds. He knew that a conscientious emperor lived his life in fear, with the full weight of the kingdom on his shoulders, and the keenly judgmental eye of Heaven fixed upon him for his entire existence from coronation until death. Zeng Guofan had gotten a taste of such responsibility on a smaller scale in Anhui during the final years of the war, and he had found it the most accursed existence he could imagine. The emperor of China was not a man to be envied; he was a man to be pitied.

The demobilization of Zeng Guofan’s army began in August 1864, less than a month after the fall of Nanjing, though his preparations were under way even before the city was taken. In May, he had put in for a sick leave—which, he explained to his brother Guoquan, was really just an excuse to go into hiding after the war ended, to escape critics who were growing suspicious of his power. He recommended that Guoquan do the same. “If by good fortune Nanjing should fall, we brothers will have to retire, and this can be our way to prepare,” he wrote. But Guoquan resented his elder brother’s advice, and Zeng Guofan sent him scathing letters, warning him to toe the line. He had already seen memorials from the Board of Revenue speculating that Guoquan was trying to expand his economic powers, and he admonished his younger brother not to invite the jealousies of others. “Military commanders who have usurped fiscal power have never brought anything but evil to the country and harm to their own families,” he wrote. “Even if you, my brother, are a complete idiot, surely you cannot be ignorant that you have to distance yourself from power to avoid being slandered.”

In spite of his efforts to recede from view, the attacks from the court would begin soon enough—first, charges of looting and mismanagement leveled at Zeng Guofan’s brother Guoquan and his subordinates, accusing them of corruption and usurpation, of failure to keep discipline among their troops. Then the critics in Beijing would turn on Zeng Guofan himself, accusing him of bringing misery to the people of eastern China in order to embezzle an enormous personal fortune, carping that he had gained his high offices not by talent but by mere luck. They would tear him down for his presumption and arrogance now that he had fulfilled his service and was no longer needed. For the scant eight years that remained of his life, they would give him no rest, would approve no retirement or pause in his duties, as his beard turned white and his eyesight dimmed into blindness. His diary in the years after the war was suffused with expressions of regret. His dream of returning to his scholarship, his home, his life of contemplation was deferred, and deferred again, until he found himself once again looking forward wistfully to the release that would come with death. “I would be happier there,” he wrote in a letter home in 1867, “than I am in this world.”

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The most widely accepted estimates put the death toll of China’s nineteenth-century civil war at somewhere between twenty million and thirty million people. The figure is necessarily impressionistic, for there are no reliable censuses to compare from the time, so it is typically based on demographic projections of what the Chinese population should otherwise have been in later generations. According to one American study published in 1969, by as late as 1913, nearly fifty years after the fall of Nanjing, China’s population had yet to recover to its pre-1850 level. A more recent study by a team of scholars in China, published in 1999, estimated that the five hardest-hit provinces—Jiangxi, Hubei, Anhui, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu—together suffered a population loss of some eighty-seven million people between 1851 and 1864: fifty-seven million of them dead from the war, and the rest never born due to depressed birthrates. Their projection for the full scale of the war in all provinces was seventy million dead, with a total population loss of more than one hundred million. Those higher numbers have recently gained wider circulation, but they are controversial; critics argue that there is no way to know how many of the vanished people died—from the war, from disease, from starvation—and how many took up lives elsewhere. Nevertheless, even the most subjective anecdotal reports from travelers on the lower Yangtze testified to the deep scars on China’s cities and countryside, which were still far from being healed even decades after the Taiping war, and those figures begin to give a sense of the unprecedented scale of destruction and social dislocation that consumed China in what is believed to be the deadliest civil war in all of human history.

Given the shocking scale of the chaos and violence, perhaps the most amazing outcome of all is that the Qing dynasty managed to remain in power afterward—and not just for a few limping years beyond the end of the Taiping but for nearly five decades, into the twentieth century, until a Chinese nationalist revolution finally brought it down in 1911. It can hardly be said, however, that the Qing dynasty won the war against the Taiping. Rather, it was saved—by a combination of Zeng Guofan’s provincial military, on the one hand, and the haphazard foreign intervention of the British, on the other. Those two independent forces—one internal and one external—were both deeply suspicious of the other, though their separate campaigns against the rebels appear strangely, in historical hindsight, to have played out as if they were somehow coordinated. Both fought to salvage the reign of the Qing because they believed, for very different reasons, that its endurance would bring the better outcome for their own futures: Zeng Guofan, by preserving the system of honors, recognitions, morals, and scholarship that had rewarded him so well before the war; and the British, because some of them—influential enough in aggregate—believed that the preservation of the Qing dynasty against collapse and the prevention of a Taiping regime in China were the only way to ensure the continued growth of their own trade and thereby make up for their heavy losses elsewhere in the world, particularly in the United States.

If the aftermath of the war was a disappointment for Zeng Guofan, the eventual payoff for the British was even more questionable. The predicted boom in commerce that was supposed to follow the suppression of the rebellion never materialized. On the contrary, the end of the war proved disastrous for Shanghai. Lord Palmerston, it turned out, had been quite correct to link Britain’s rising profits in China to her intervention against the Taiping—but not for the reasons he thought. It wasn’t the bringing of peace that helped British trade, but the continuance of war. By preventing the Taiping from capturing Shanghai and by prolonging the violence in the province surrounding it, the British intervention created a set of conditions under which Chinese traders, wealth, and goods all poured into the safe zone of Shanghai to escape the chaos the British themselves were helping to perpetuate. The wealthy who fled to Shanghai drove up land prices and flooded the foreign traders in Shanghai with goods for resale. Moreover, as long as the war raged along the Yangtze River, Chinese traders were willing to pay high premiums for the security of shipping their goods in foreign bottoms, under flags that would not draw fire. But once the Taiping were suppressed, those advantages evaporated. Foreign shippers lost much of their edge when the Yangtze became safe again, and departing refugees left the Shanghai real estate market to collapse behind them. The boom of the war years gave way to an extended slump in which two of the largest British firms went bankrupt. Ironically, what nobody—least of all Palmerston—had realized was that restoring peace to China had never actually been in Britain’s interests.

There was little for the British to celebrate on the diplomatic side, either. The intervention did not buy them the goodwill or favor of the Manchu government they had expected, nor did it gain them any kind of renewed openness to foreign trade. Frederick Bruce would soon be derided for his “Mandarin-worshipping policy,” which had turned the British government, as many saw it, into the lapdog of the Qing rulers. But in coming to terms with its role in the Chinese war, England’s pride depended on the constant repetition of Bruce’s version of events—to the point of nearly unanimous agreement—that it was the Taiping who had caused all the destruction in the war, that they were nothing more than a force of anarchy, that they were the enemy of all that was civilized or well governed. In that light, there was no question that Britain’s intervention in the war was humanitarian. Thanks to the canonization of this version of events, Charles Gordon and Frederick Townsend Ward would go down in history as the great foreign heroes of the China war, who saved the Chinese from destruction. Against the shame of the Opium War and the destruction of the Summer Palace, Gordon and Ward stood as hopeful (and even benevolent) symbols of cooperation between Chinese and foreigners. By the same logic, the war itself would be forever labeled in English not as a civil war but as the Taiping Rebellion—a name that takes the side of the Qing dynasty and renders the Taiping mere rebels against the proper and legitimate government, outlaws and sowers of disorder who bore sole responsibility for the chaos of the time.

Voices of dissent were few, but some who had questioned the basis of their country’s intervention at the time still managed to voice their continued disapproval afterward, even as they knew that such dissent was no longer welcome. Robert Forrest, the British consul who had traveled overland through the Taiping territories and who had lived for several months on a boat outside Nanjing, put it most poignantly in an article he wrote for the Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1867. In the article, Forrest disputed the conventional belief in Britain that the destruction of the Taiping had finally set the Chinese Empire right again but lamented that “facts, no matter how recorded, never overthrow prejudice,…and my experiences of Taiping rule, although the result of a long residence at the Capital, will never be favourably regarded, if in any way opposed to existing ideas.” Pointing to the slump in trade that had followed the suppression of the Taiping, he mused that for all of the hatred his people had shown to the rebels during the war, “if it went to the vote to-morrow how many foreigners would not wish them back again?”

Nevertheless, he knew that none of his countrymen wanted to hear the truth, as he had experienced it, which was that the Taiping had never really been the monsters or locusts they were made out to be. “But if I were to tell what order did really reign at Nanjing,” he wrote,

very much like the Warsaw article it is true, but still order—that there were some uncommonly clever generals among the Heavenly King’s officers … that in places not actually the seat of war the ground was well cultivated—that the conduct of the Taiping troops was not one bit worse than that of the Imperialists—and that the inhabitants of such towns as Shaoxing and Hangzhou have asserted that their lot under Taiping rule was infinitely better than their unhappy fate when those cities were recovered and fell for a time into the hands of barbarian officers;—if I stated these things, with every proof, I should be reviled as a rebel and a speaker of blasphemy against the brilliant political dawn now spreading over the empire.

When the end finally came for the Qing dynasty in 1911, it would come at the hands of a new generation of anti-Manchu revolutionaries who were well aware of their predecessors. Some cut their queues and wore their hair long to look like stylized Taiping rebels. Others wrote propaganda tracts condemning Zeng Guofan as the greatest traitor to his race who had ever lived, who butchered untold numbers of his fellow Chinese in order to uphold the racially alien dynasty of the Manchus. The most prominent leader of this new generation was a Cantonese named Sun Yatsen, who had grown up hearing stories of Taiping heroes and whose friends nicknamed him Hong Xiuquan.

China had continued to weaken in the decades following the fall of Nanjing, in spite of valiant efforts by Li Hongzhang, Zuo Zongtang, and other former generals and Chinese officials to introduce reforms that would revive the country. They achieved remarkable success internally, suppressing the Nian and Muslim rebellions after the Taiping were vanquished, and restoring domestic order to the once broken empire. But crushing indemnities from foreign wars bankrupted the treasury, and the ongoing corruption and conservatism of the Manchu court hampered their attempts to introduce broad-based reforms. And while there may have been peace within the country, externally China was simply left behind by the breathtaking rise of its smaller neighbor Japan. For once again the Japanese benefited from the negative example of China. As the Japanese government in the 1850s had avoided its own Opium War by signing foreign treaties without overt hostility, so did influential young samurai in the 1860s look to China at the end of its civil war as a warning of what their country might become without dramatic change. A revolution later that decade gave way to a rapid program of industrialization and social transformation that bore a remarkable similarity in spirit—if not in religion—to what Hong Rengan had envisioned for his own thwarted state. By the 1890s, Japan’s modernized navy would decisively overpower the Qing fleet, and Japan would take the island of Taiwan from China as its first major colony. By the early twentieth century, Chinese reformers would be looking to Japan as the model of what their own country must become if it were to have any chance of surviving into the future.

But perhaps it didn’t have to turn out that way. In an interview with a British reporter in 1909, Japan’s elder statesman Ito Hirobumi—four-time prime minister and chief architect of the nineteenth-century reform movement—looked to the violence just beginning to unfold in China in the run-up to the 1911 Revolution and declared it long overdue. In his opinion, the new Chinese revolutionaries were merely finishing the work that the Taiping had started fifty years earlier, and in which he firmly believed they would have been successful if left to their own devices. “The greatest mistake which you Western people, and more especially you English people, made in all your dealings with China,” he told the reporter, “was to help the Manchus in putting down the Taiping Rebellion.”

Ito echoed the many observers from the time of the war who had argued on behalf of neutrality, who had maintained—ultimately in vain—that Britain must stay out because the warfare in China was part of a natural process of dynastic change that had to follow through to its end. “There can be very little doubt that the Manchu Dynasty had reached the end of its proper tether when the Taiping Rebellion occurred,” he insisted, “and, by preventing its overthrow, Gordon and his ‘Ever-Victorious Army’ arrested a normal and healthy process of nature. Nothing that the Manchus have done since then affords the slightest evidence that they deserved to be saved. Rather the contrary. And when they fall, as fall they must and will before very long, the upheaval will be all the more violent and all the more protracted for having been so long and unduly postponed.”

Speaking with the benefit of hindsight more than forty years after the fall of Nanjing, Ito helped to vindicate the opinions of those British at the time—in Shanghai, in Parliament, in the papers—who had argued so strenuously that a foreign military intervention in the Chinese civil war to bring order back to the country would not, in the long run, be a boon for China but instead consign the Chinese to continued oppression by a corrupt power whose era of greatness and fair rule was long past. And his observation, looking back on the dynasty’s continued reign after the war, that “Nothing that the Manchus have done since then affords the slightest evidence that they deserved to be saved” was a statement with which a very large number of Chinese in his own time would have readily agreed.

From the standpoint of our own time, a hundred years later still, Ito Hirobumi’s prediction that when the Manchus were finally overthrown, “the upheaval [would] be all the more violent and all the more protracted for having been so long and unduly postponed” was unfortunately borne out as well. The Manchus fell two years after the interview, to be replaced by a republic that broke down almost immediately into civil war. Wracked by decades of internal violence, weakened and nearly helpless in the face of continued foreign encroachments, China would spend the following century trying to claw its way back to the position of power and prominence in the world it had held for so much of its earlier history. But by 1912, when the delayed process of reinvention finally began in earnest, the country was already so far behind its competitors that the thought of catching up seemed—until recently—to be all but impossible.

If there is any moral at all to be gleaned from the outcome of this war, which brought so little of lasting benefit to either its victors or the country in which it was waged, it is not likely to be of the encouraging sort. For in a certain sense, the blame for the war’s outcome might be laid at the feet of our intrepid preacher’s assistant, Hong Rengan. After a few years among the missionaries in Hong Kong, he believed that he knew the hearts of the British and could therefore be the one to build a bridge between his own country and theirs. This belief led him to advocate a policy of appeasement and openness toward foreigners that ultimately proved the ruin of his own people. By the same token, blame could also be laid with the shy British ambassador Frederick Bruce for imagining, after a short residence in Shanghai and Beijing, that the Qing dynasts were a force of civilized monarchy standing against a chaotic horde of rebels who had no king or governing vision—and, on that basis, persuading his home government that it was necessary to intervene on behalf of what he thought was the only viable power in China.

Hong Rengan and Frederick Bruce had in common that each thought himself uniquely blessed with insight into what was good and knowable in the other’s civilization, and they also had in common that they were both grievously wrong. So in the end, perhaps the tale of the foreign intervention and the fall of the Taiping is a tale of trust misplaced. It is a tale of how sometimes the connections we perceive across cultures and distances—our hopes for an underlying unity of human virtue, our belief that underneath it all we are somehow the same—can turn out to be nothing more than the fictions of our own imagination. And when we congratulate ourselves on seeing through the darkened window that separates us from another civilization, heartened to discover the familiar forms that lie hidden among the shadows on the other side, sometimes we do so without ever realizing that we are only gazing at our own reflection.

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