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Taiping Rebellion - how did it fail?


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#1 General_Zhaoyun

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Posted 13 July 2004 - 09:44 AM

The Taiping rebellion occurred in 1851 after the opium war. It was led by Hong Xiuquan, who vowed to overthrow the Qing dynasty, and established a heavenly kingdom (Taiping Tianguo 太平天国).

Why then did it fail later on? Was it due to internal problems? Or simply because Zheng Guofan's Qing troops had more advantage than the Taiping troops.
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#2 Gweilo

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Posted 13 July 2004 - 10:45 AM

You may recall from the other thread on 'Frederick Townsend Ward', that I recently read Caleb Carr's book called The Devil Soldiers. Not only was this book an excellent biography of Ward, but it also had some well-researched analysis of why the Taipings lost. Here is what I absorbed from Carr's analysis:

1. The leader of the Taiping rebellion became more and more mentally unstable as the years of the conflict progressed. His unstable condition led to corruption, loss of command-and-control, and a general lack of discipline and skill among his generals (with some notable exceptions). This all added to the Taiping collapse.

2. In spite of their pro-Christian leanings, the Taiping leaders never cultivated friendship with the western powers in China, which could have won support for their cause.

3. As the years of the rebellion drug on, the western powers eventually turned against the Taipings, and eventually began direct military operations against them.
It should be noted that foreign mercenaries like Ward who served the Qings with distinction played a considerable role in influencing the western powers to support the ruling Qings, instead of the Taipings.
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#3 Sephodwyrm

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Posted 13 July 2004 - 11:29 AM

These 3 reasons are important, but friend Gweilo missed out on the most important reason of the collapse of the Taiping Movement.

The Greatest Reason, as agreed by most historical scholars of Chinese history:
Infighting.
After the great victory at Nanjing and the establishment of the heavenly capital, the various kings and the Great Heavenly King Hong Xiu Quan set themselves out to build opulent palaces and began to create a domestic government centered at the new capital. However, King of the East Yang Xiu Qing, who have previously entered into trances in which God was supposed to have melded with his soul, entered new trances that demanded that Hong Xiu Quan (the Son of God, the brother of Christ) to give him ever increasing power. Hong Xiu Quan can only agree to Yang Xiu Qing's demands since he is supposed to be the son of God. Not to mention that the subordinates of Yang felt empowered and bullied whoever they liked. These tensions eventually led to bloodshed. In a fell swoop, another king Wei Chang Hui killed Yang Xiu Qing and his entire family.

Yang's 5000 best soldiers thus demanded justice. The Great Heavenly king thus agreed to this, but Wei plotted away. Knowing that Yang's 5000 would be attending the hearing he is going to receive, Wei laid an ambush and slaughtered all these soldiers who went to the hearing unarmed. The Great Heavenly King thus issued a a criminal arrest on Wei and he was also killed soon after. Another king, Shi Da Kai, disgusted by this infighting, took his 100000 veterans and left the capital. This isolated and independent force was soon defeated and Shi Da Kai was executed in Beijing afterwards. This great turn of events allowed the Manchu government to destroy the revolt. We can say that the revolt is destroyed by itself.
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#4 General_Zhaoyun

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Posted 14 July 2004 - 09:52 AM

So, I guess, it was destroyed by internal problems..
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#5 thirdgumi

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Posted 14 July 2004 - 12:46 PM

I believe the Taipin rebellion was destinated to fail.
As Gweilo said in his first point, it is completely true.
Just to name one:
Hong Xiu Quan had his concubines boiled to death if one that does not please him, such a crue ruler surely didn't deserve the name of the "Son of the God".
The problem with Taipin rebellion was that the mentality of the rebels were only "redistributuion of the wealth", they were just happy to plunder. We can see this kind of mentality by seeing what happed just after the death of Yang Xiu Qing.
When Yang Xiu Qing was killed at his house, many Taipin rebles went into his house and sacked it. When those guys came out with all the plundered goods, there were more rebels waiting for them just out side and plundered the previous plunders. The whole situation became hilarious.
The Taipin had a religious cause, but they only shared that cause when things went into good direction, when the situation turned difficult, their true self turned out. They didn't have a long term plan or strategy to rule China, they were just happy to stick what they achieved.
Unlike Liu Bang and Zhu Yuan Zhang, Hong Xiu Quan didn't have a group of intelectuals working for him for a long term development of China (if Hong had any in his mind), and Hong Xiu Quan wasn't able to use the talents in he had. That was fatal to any rebel leaders.
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#6 Sephodwyrm

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Posted 15 July 2004 - 01:30 PM

There were actually a number of true revolutionaries in the Taiping Movement. After the great upheaval at the Heavenly Capital the Heavenly King actually appointed a number of talented junior officers who carried on the fight. These junior officers held tightly to their ideals but the movement eventually failed. The final fight at the heavenly capital was epic. Many refused to surrender and died to the last men and women.

There were numerous rebellions by late 1700s to 1800s in China. In another movement the government troops had complete surrounded the rebel forces. The rebel leader thus had himself set up in a chair and did a self immolation. He did not shout out or twist in agony, but just simply sat in the chair as the fight was going on. A manchu officer described the scene as a display of utmost deviance and courage.
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#7 thirdgumi

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Posted 16 July 2004 - 03:05 AM

Yes, there were some talented people working with Taipin rebels, like Hong Xiu Quan's brother (forgot his name), he had been in Hong Kong and proposed a serie of political reforms to Hong Xiu Quan. These reforms were quite advanced, his brother took them from Europeans, but Hong just refused. The problem with Taipin was in the "decision makers", they only thought about wealthy and power and luxuary, and just sticked with what they had achieved. We can see this kind of mentality by the way how Hong treated his concubines. Even some of the rebles were revolutionaries or religious zealots, it didn't help the rebelion since the decision makers were corrupt. Shi Da Kai was such a religous zealot, when Hong Xiu Quan or Yang Xiu Qing entered supposed "trances", Shi Da Kai believed them blindly. Also Shi was also a talented military commander, but it didn't help Taipin rebelion since Hong made him leave the rebelion.
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#8 Yun

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Posted 16 July 2004 - 03:31 AM

The "brother" who came back from Hong Kong was Hong Ren'gan, and he was actually a cousin. He had been educated in both Shanghai and Hong Kong, and proposed the adoption of American political institutions, the building of railways, steamships, mines and factories, and the establishment of banks and scientific research.

The problem is that Hong Xiuquan's other brothers were all useless and corrupt, and undid the reforms that Ren'gan tried to introduce. Meanwhile, Hong Xiuquan didn't trust any of his subordinate Kings (the ones whom he was closer to, Feng Yunshan and Xiao Chaogui, had already died in battle), and used them to counter one another. He used Wei Changhui to destroy Yang Xiuqing, then eliminated Wei Changhui as well. Shi Dakai was disgusted by all the politics and backstabbing, and left with his followers to strike out on his own. He got as far as Sichuan, but was finally cornered, captured and executed by the Qing.

The Taiping had other talented young generals like Li Xiucheng and Chen Yucheng, but they were not put to good enough use in offensive operations. Only one Taiping expedition was mounted to take Beijing, and it was wiped out after getting as far as Tianjin because it received only half-hearted support from the Taiping leaders who were too comfortable in Nanjing.

Other military weaknesses: the Taiping had no real cavalry units (due to the lack of horses in the south), which limited their mobility. Their defense line was overstretched along the Yangzi River valley, forcing them to fight on several fronts and hampering any attempt to make a concerted strike northwards (Zeng Guofan pinned them down in Hunan and Li Hongzhang in Anhui). They took too long to form an alliance with the Nian Rebellion in north China, and they hesitated to support the Small Sword Rebellion in Shanghai because they didn't wish to offend the Western powers. In the end, they could not occupy Shanghai and benefit from its trade revenue, and the Western powers turned against them anyway.
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#9 thirdgumi

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Posted 16 July 2004 - 03:43 AM

Thanks Yun for correcting me.
Hong Xiu Quan could open the ports in ocuppied areas to favour free trade so he could gain the support of western powers, but he didn't, that's why the westerners were reluctant to support Taipin rebellion.
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#10 Yun

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Posted 16 July 2004 - 04:59 AM

A big reason why he couldn't do that is because he was firmly against the opium trade, but the Westerners were using the treaty ports to sell opium.
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#11 Sephodwyrm

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Posted 19 July 2004 - 06:25 PM

If anything, the western powers were loathe to see China becoming stronger or more unified. In the arena of realpolitik, a weak and divided China is of more value and immediate gain for them.
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#12 Prince of the South

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Posted 21 May 2006 - 05:57 AM

1. The leader of the Taiping rebellion became more and more mentally unstable as the years of the conflict progressed. His unstable condition led to corruption, loss of command-and-control, and a general lack of discipline and skill among his generals (with some notable exceptions). This all added to the Taiping collapse.

2. In spite of their pro-Christian leanings, the Taiping leaders never cultivated friendship with the western powers in China, which could have won support for their cause.

3. As the years of the rebellion drug on, the western powers eventually turned against the Taipings, and eventually began direct military operations against them.
It should be noted that foreign mercenaries like Ward who served the Qings with distinction played a considerable role in influencing the western powers to support the ruling Qings, instead of the Taipings.


1. I think Hong Xiuquan was delusioned just as much as disillusioned. It is never conclusively proven that his lost his mind, or went mad

2. The Taipings did tried to invite foreigners and missionaries into the heavenly kingdom. There are well documentated westerners serving under the heavenly king. Most left with the thought that the heavenly course was not worth supporting. Taiping's form of christianity is a fusion of basic missionary propaganda and local shamanistic beliefs. Hong had limited knowledge of the bible and often interpreted the missionaries teachings in a confucianist mode of thought, being a failed confucian scholar himself. Although the Taipings were against traditional confucian practices ("zan yao chu mo" execute the devil and exterminate evil, "zan xie liu zheng" exterminate evil and preserve the righteous) and invariably destroyed temples and idols, the Taipings fundamental thought and influences are still very confucianist, as seen in their court etiquette, literatures (numerous edits and propaganda), customes, architecture and aristocracy. Taiping form of christianity was never to appeal to the western powers, and hong's claim to be the younger son of god and younger brother of jesus was deemed blasphemous. The westerners were quite aware of that after numerous encounters with the Taipings and i believe no amount of friendship cultivation via similar christian beliefs by the Taiping could have made the west to support them. The very crucial factor was Taipings' attitude to trade that concluded western support or non-support for the rebels. The Taipings were against the opium trade.

3. I think too much credit has been given to the few western mercenaries that served under the Qing. Prior to Ward and Gordon involvement in the ever victorious army and so on, the Qing and Taipings had fought countless epic battles on land and water that were very well documented. There were valiant generals on both sides and heroes on both sides.

foreign mercenaries like Ward who served the Qings with distinction played a considerable role in influencing the western powers to support the ruling Qings, instead of the Taipings

As far as i know, the western powers never really helped the Qing militarily to defeat the Taipings. I don't think Ward and Gordon roles in the Qing armies were direct support of the western powers, as they were called mercenaries anyway, with no allegiance to any powers. It must be noted that the Western powers did curtail and hamper Taiping expansion and invasion into Shanghai as that was were the western interests predominantly laid near the Taiping Sufu province. The combined western military presence in Shanghai therefore saw to it that Li Xiuxheng had no leeway into this area. support from the west could just mean no interference by the west. In fact that is what the west did, being somewhat neutral and let the 2 sick tigers fought amongst themselves, and the victor would always been too weakened to deal with them.

By saying Ward played a considerable role in Taipings' defeat would actually belittled the immense contribution of Zeng Guofan, the imperial commissioner to suppress the Taiping rebellion. It was the ability and preserverence of Zeng and his formation of the Xiang army which ultimately prevailed over the Taipings. Although it is noted that Zeng had western support in terms of ammunition and training, the Taipings had equal opportunities in procuring weapons because weapon sale is motivated by monies, which was what the west was after. Zeng instilled discipline in the army and nurtured a spirited army and combined with strategic planning and Taipings' failure to strengthen themselves but instead fell into chaotic internal suicide, ensured that Qing victory was an eventuality. Zeng also represented the Chinese gentry class that the middle class in china could relate to, the incorruptible, uprighteous scholar general. In fact he grew too powerful that the Qing were suspicious of Zeng and never conferred him the noble rank were promised to the person who quelled the rebellion. Zeng guofan's role should be one of the main reason why the Taipings eventually failed.

#13 Zorobabel

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Posted 28 August 2006 - 10:40 PM

Many people may disagree with what I have to say, but here we go.

I believe that the Taiping rebellion collapsed primarily because of the lack of control the Taiping authority was able to exert from Nanjing. The generals never made any attempt to implement the land system. By 1860 the regional rulers had essentially established their own militia fiefs and had no interest in the theological notion of the Heavenly Kingdom. Hong Rengan's reforms, which would have allied the Taipings with the West and at least buy the rebellion a few years, were never implemented outside Nanjing. In the later years Lix Xiucheng stopped taking orders all together. So yes, as many have already mentioned, the primary cause was infighting and lack of control.

Actually, here on this board someone has suggested a fairly ridiculous notion that the Western powers would have preferred the a Taiping victory over the Qing becuase they would have destroyed Chinese opium production (which at the time was substantial) and drive of the price of the commodity. That sort of belief stems from a basic misunderstanding of the Taiping legal system. If you broke the law, more often than not you would be executed. The only time you wouldn't be executed for a crime is if you had some way of generously recompensating the victim. Opium abuse does not fall in that category, and they did execute many opium addicts.

#14 TMPikachu

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Posted 02 September 2006 - 12:23 PM

My guidebook to China (I think Lonely Planet) written in England had a brief history section.

They put a very favorable light on the Taipings, stating how their enlightened Christian teachings and strong nationalism would've liberated China from the stagnation of the Qing.
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