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Throughout the last decades of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, scarcely a year passed without violent protest or armed rebellion. In this period of crisis the first major break with the past was brought on in the middle of the 19th century by the Taiping Rebellion. The Taiping Rebellion was in many respects the hinge between China’s pre-modern and modern histories. The impact that this movement had on China, not only highlighted the breakdown of the traditional order but is also, considered by many scholars, to have been more disastrous then the two Opium Wars.

This was a vast uprising which although was a new beginning in Chinese history, it arose in a setting that still contained the familiar elements characteristic of periods of ‘dynastic decline’ and rebellious uprisings in the past. This included grave corruption in government, heavy taxation of the farmers, high rent, desertion of the land by the peasantry, the increase in population, increasing insecurity, rise in the number of bandits, local self-defence units and increasing importance of secret societies. These were the conditions that existed even during the first half of the 19th century in China under the Manchu dynasty that created the environment conducive for a major uprising to take place. However, different scholars have given different reasons for the origins of the rebellion.

The earliest theory was propounded by Franz Micheals, who used the ‘Dynastic Decline’ theory to explain the rise of the Taiping movement.  He argued that the Taiping movement should be seen as part of the dynastic decline. In China, where the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ provided the legitimacy for each and every ruling dynasty, the rise and fall of each dynasty followed a cyclical pattern. The Chinese society witnessed a period of major decline, which saw the fall of a dynasty; it was followed by an interim period, wherein the various contenders for power competed with one another and ultimately a new dynasty emerged. This dynasty then underwent its own period of crisis, which ultimately led to its decline. According to him, this cycle was an unalterable process and irrespective of whatever one may do the dynasty was going to fall.

Micheals argues that by the 19th century Chinese society came to be characterised by grave corruption in government, heavy taxation of the farmers, high rent, desertion of the land by the peasantry, the increase in population, increasing insecurity, rise in the number of bandits, local self-defence units and increasing importance of secret societies. According to him, all these were features of a dynasty in decline and therefore created the conditions that were conducive for a rebellion.

However, this theory has been criticised by a number of scholars in recent years. It has been argued that this cyclical process, as described by Micheals, was in fact a historical coincidence and not an unalterable process. This theory fails to describe the reasons as to why the dynasty would fall. All the characteristics mentioned above by Micheals to describe a declining dynasty were seen as features of an inevitable process and not as causes for the decline. In fact, it was the same features that were mentioned as causes by other scholars for the Taiping rebellion. Finally, the ‘Dynastic Decline Theory’ has come to be looked upon as a western prejudice against Eastern civilisations. They wished to cement their notion of the east as comprising of essentially backward, decadent and stagnant societies that kept undergoing perpetual periods of crisis. Thus, in light of such arguements it is essential to look at some of the other factors that could have brought about the Taiping Rebellion.

A number of scholars have argued that the conditions in 19th century China provided favourable elements and a suitable setting for a rebellion to take place. Prominent among these scholars was Sayun Thang, who argued that the features of the dynastic decline prevailed in China and were the causes of the rebellion. Even Franz Micheals had admitted that the situation in China during this period was such that if a leader was to come about and exploit such a situation then he would surely be able to launch an organised rebellion against the Manchus.

Barrington Moore Jr. In his “Social Origins of Dictatorship” argued that the peasantry in China occupied a pitiful position in the feudal structure. Their lives revolved around the three Nos: No religion, No Family and No property. While, the last was due to the feudal structure prevailing in China, the first two were an outcome of the peasants poor condition. He had no time or inclination to indulge in religious activities nor did he have the means to support a family. Such a situation was worsened by conditions created by the Manchu government like over taxation.

Over taxation, according to Micheals, was an outcome of the limitations of the existing system. As the officials and Gentry were within a system that could not expand, they were forced to improve their position at the expense of others and through the process of over taxation. While, the limitations of the system as portrayed by Micheals can be questioned, there is no doubt that over taxation had become a menace in the Chinese countryside. This phenomenon forced many small peasants into debt as they borrowed money to be able to pay the tax on time and eventually caused them to lose their land. Moreover, the imbalance in the copper-silver exchange rate on account of the Opium War had further worsened the plight of the peasants as the value of copper-the most basic medium of exchange- fell. This seems to have further increased the tax burden on the peasantry. Moreover, the property bought by the officials and the gentry did not carry the same tax burden as that of the common farming population. This further increased the tax burden on the peasants in order to make up for the loss of revenue from this official land.

Apart from the over taxation, high rents were another characteristic feature of the rural countryside. The non-payment of taxes led to a large number of peasants losing their land, which was then bought by officials and the gentry. These displaced farmers were reemployed as tenant farmers but were bogged down by high rents that further drove them into debt.

Another important feature in the countryside that further worsened the condition of the peasants was a rapid increase in population. This population growth increased the pressure on the already limited agricultural resources. The population had grown three-fold from the 18th to the 19th century, while, at the same time the square mileage of cultivated land and the quantity of agricultural production did not increase in the same proportion.  As a result, the per capita availability of land had decreased. The continuous shrinkage of individual landholdings could mean only increasing hardship for the peasant. When the yield of this small acreage could no longer sustain his life, he sold the land and became the tenant of the landlord. This along with the high rents and over taxation led to the concentration of land in the hands of the rich, which not only included the landlords, but merchants, usurers and pawnshop dealers. For eg, in Hunan province the landlords occupied 50-60% of the land, while, more than 60% of the population were mere tenants, who hardly had any land of their own. A similar situation prevailed in Kwangtung province as well.

This miserable condition that existed in the countryside led to a large-scale desertion by the peasants. Some migrated to the cities in search of alternative jobs but in the absence of the development of an alternative sector in China most people were unable to find jobs. This proved to be a major source of unrest and a large number of people took to banditry causing a great deal of damage and law and order problem in the rural countryside.

Thus, there was a general insecurity in the countryside and no adequate measures were taken by the officials to offer protection. In a situation like this the people of the towns and villages began to establish their own defence units. Although, this was against the policy of the dynastic government in the time of crisis when its own forces had failed the government had to allow the arming of such local forces to maintain law and order. They soon came to acquire a dominant place in local politics and they began to take up the fight for local issues in which their community was involved. Thus, there were frequent clashes between the various communities in the countryside as issues between villages over water rights, property, women, ethnic and religious controversies began to be settled through arms. Moreover, they began to levy duties on trade and commerce passing through their locality in order to fund their units and purchase weapons. The government officials in order to avoid a confrontation with these units ignored such activities. Finally, it became extremely difficult to draw the line between these recognised units and the bandit organisations as even the former resorted to the use of force at the drop off a hat in order to safeguard their interests. The government officials in all these cases preferred to maintain a position of neutrality as long as the warfare did not lead to large-scale problems. Thus, naturally there was a decline in official authority and it was the local leadership, which began to gain prominence.

The decline of imperial authority especially in the countryside also saw the rise of a number of secret societies, which led many of the uprisings that had occurred in the 19th century in China. The secret societies had a well defined political and military structure and on account of the secrecy of their memberships they were the ideal vehicle for conspiracy and political uprisings against the government. They formed underground political organisations, rival and potentially hostile to the existing state organisation. They became the centers of unrest and provided the framework necessary to unite all the local armed groups under one leadership.  Immediately preceding the Taiping upsure, during the 1840s, there were a number of uprisings led by peasants or displaced handicraft workers, etc. These struggles were waged against the payment of levies, high taxation and rents, and corrupt officials, etc.

The leadership was provided by the ranks of secret societies like the Tien Ti Hui etc. Some of the major struggles of the 1840s were the uprising on the Hunan-Kwangsi border in 1847 under the leadership of Lei Tsal-hao of Tien Ti Hui; the insurrections under the leadership of Chang Chia-hsiang, Chen Ya-Kuai and Li Yuan-fa between 1840-50 in the regions of Kwangtung-Kwangsi borders and Hunan, etc. Thus, these secret societies and local armed units and their insurrections against the Manchu government provided a model after which a rebellious organisation like that of the Taipings could be patterned. These groups had already helped in weakening imperial authority in the countryside and giving voice to the existing dissatisfaction but they also assisted the Taipings in one other way. They had realised that the lack of an ideology had prevented these organisations from becoming mass movements and this was something that the Taipings were able to rectify.

The decade of the 1840s also witnessed a large number of natural calamities. Among the major ones were the severe drought in Hunan in 1847, the flooding of the Yangtze river over the four provinces of Hupei, Anhwei, Kiangsu, and Chekiang and famine in Kwangsi in 1849 and the flooding of the Yellow river in 1852. Millions of people were dislocated from their homes, thousands were killed and lots of property and assets were destroyed. The government relief in a situation like this was at the most perfunctory, with much of the funds being embezzled at the same time. According to Hsu, this had given rise to a great deal of disappointment among the masses, who began to believe that the government was no longer interested or capable of looking after their needs.

The rising tide of resentment against the government officials was also closely linked to the increasing phenomenon of political corruption. Sung Thang believes that, while economic factors may have been responsible, in case of China all rebellions and revolutions in the past were caused due to political corruption. It was political corruption, which according to him, led to economic misery, military weakness and cultural stagnancy- all the factors discussed above. It was the offshoot implications of political corruption, which in turn led to the rise of various organisations and intellectual currents that went on to oppose the Manchu government. He goes on to say that the government officials were characterised by superficiality, temporisation and irresponsibility. As was seen in the case of breakdown of law and order in the countryside or during the time of natural disasters, little or no attention was paid to the people’s welfare. Official irresponsibility was also evident from the fact that these offices could be sold easily. Since such offices had to be bought for 3,000 taels (a large amount), the new official tried to regain this sum by extorting the sum from the taxpayers in the form of over taxation or diverting the funds away from their intended use viz. to meet the public demand. As the Manchu authority was based on such officials, this increasing corruption highlights the breakdown of the political order.

The Opium War and the encroachment by foreigners into Chinese society was believed to be an essential factor that brought about rebellions during this period. IY Hsu has argued that taking advantage of the fact that no provision was made in the Treaty of Nanking against the import of Opium, the foreign traders intensified their activities in this illicit and lucrative trade. The Chinese government was in no position to stop this trade because of which it practically became unrestrained and the volume of import rose from 33,000 chests in 1842 to 46,000 chests in 1848 and to above 52,000 chests by the 1850s. This trade led to a huge outflow of silver (almost 20-30M taels of silver every year), which further worsened the already grave economic situation in China and the copper-silver exchange rate. There was an almost 100% rise in the exchange rate, which virtually reduced a man’s income by half as it was the copper coin that was the basic medium of exchange in the market.

Karl Marx also attributed the Taiping movement to the impact of the Opium War. In his article “Revolution in China and Europe” (1853) he argued that the war had shattered the invincible aura that had surrounded the Manchu dynasty. In his words “The English Cannon destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the Chinese.” The Manchus were completely exposed in the eyes of the people and this encouraged even the common peasant to rise up in rebellion against the imperial forces. Hsu has added to this viewpoint by saying that the Opium War had coincided with a general decline in the military prowess of the Manchus. The bannermen and the Green Standard Army, who had contributed to the founding o the dynasty had begun to show major weaknesses. This was reflected in their inability to suppress a number of popular rebellions due to which the crown had to depend on the local militia. The Opium War was the final straw, which not only exposed the military weakness of the Manchus but also made the people lose all respect and fear for the bannermen and the Green Standard Army.

Marx also described the economic effects of the war to be a factor behind the popular outburst. The war and the consequent treaty had led to the general influx of foreign goods in the Treaty port areas. Local household and traditional industries were completely ruined and the self-sufficient economy also suffered dislocation. He goes on to say that the people, who were adversely affected, became a potential source of trouble.

The Beijing Press published a monograph titled “The Taiping Revolution” that claimed that the movement was marked by the intensification of China’s internal contradictions caused by the Opium Wars. The Opium War had led to the increasing exploitation of the peasants, who already held a fractured position in the Chinese feudal society. As the War indemnity was huge it posed a severe financial constraint on the Manchu rulers. In order to pay the war damages they were forced to squeeze the peasants in order to extract more resources from them. This task was usually entrusted to the landlords, who already were known for their exploitative behaviour towards the peasants. Thus, it can be seen that the need for additional resources on account of the Opium War had led to a worsening of relations between the peasants and the landlords.

Fredrick Wakeman in his work “strangers at the Gate” argues that the Opium war signified the merger of two processes- internal contradictions and the external pressure. While, he is not sure whether to call the Taiping rebellion a traditional movement sparked off by internal developments or part of the global process of human evolution. He, however, concluded by saying that the Taiping movement was conditioned by the larger western impact on China.

By the 19th century conditions existed in China, which according to Donald S. Zagoria were essential pre-requisites for a rebellion or revolution to take place. This included a large-class of landless peasants, heavy pressure on land, existence of rural intelligentsia and movements against the existing system to demand better status and condition of living and a loss of respect for the ruling elite. Zagoria believes that all these conditions prevailed in China.

In the early 19th century all the conditions which made the life of the common people increasingly hard and insecure were prevalent in South China. In addition, the dislocation caused by the foreign presence and the Opium wars, the tensions generated by the presence of diverse ethnic communities in this region, and a pattern of chronic lawlessness and anarchic violence, all combined to make the situation in South China and specifically in the provinces of Kwangsi and Kwangtung particularly explosive.  In these special local expressions of the overall problems can be found the immediate causes for the Taiping Rebellion.

For the Manchu rulers, South China had always been the most difficult region to control. After their conquest of China in the mid-17th century, it had been the last region to be fully subjugated. Even after the last major centres of resistance to Manchu rule had been snuffed out, the area continued be difficult to control. Partly, this was so because of its sheer distance from the seat of administration at Peking. This was particularly true of these hilly, semi-barren or border areas, such as in Kwangsi, which had been colonized only in the 18th century.

In fact the increasing pressure of population on the land had forced people to migrate from the more fertile lowland areas. In general, the presence of the police and administration was much less in such areas than in the earlier settled and more densely populated areas. These newly settled areas, because of migration from different areas, had a more mixed population. This had also generated considerable social friction. The hard conditions of frontier life contributed to a tendency for the different communities to group together in mutually warring, heavily armed groups. This contributed to the growth of secret societies like the Triads (Tien Ti Hui) which flourished under such conditions.

In Kwangtung and Kwangsi provinces, a major source of social tension was the centuries long conflict between the people known as the Hakka and the original settlers (known as penti). The Hakka were that group of people who had migrated into this region from the North during the 12th and 13th centuries. In spite of their many centuries of residence in the south, they continued to retain many of their distinctive characteristics, and customs as well as their own dialect. Conflicts between them and the other local people were numerous and often violent. A sense of alienation from their surroundings characterized this community from which emerged the founder of the Taiping Movement, Hung Hsiuchuan. The initial social base of the Taipings was from among the Hakkas.

The presence of the Western traders also contributed to the spreading of a climate of lawlessness along the South China coast and its hinterland, particularly from the early 19th century when opium became a major item of trade. The illicit opium trade generated a complex underground smuggling and distribution network involving thousands of local people. The Opium War itself was particularly disruptive.

Following the war and the Treaty of Nanking, much of the foreign trade which was formerly centred in this country shifted north to Shanghai. Thousands of coolies, boatmen and others in the Canton area, who were employed because of trade, were suddenly without jobs. As a source of livelihood, they now turned to banditry. Pirates driven inland by the British navy’s piracy suppression campaigns also contributed to the floating population of adventurers and desperadoes ready for any kind of action.

It is not without significance that, apart from the Hakka people, the initial adherents of the Taiping Movement came more from the strata of displaced peddlers, boatmen, coolies and others rather than from the ranks of the peasantry. The treaty of Nanking had adversely affected the native handicraft industry. For example foreign textiles now captured the market and the role of native cotton goods declined. Same was the case with handicrafts. A large number of handicraft workers were unemployed.

The Ch’ing government, in order to pay the war indemnity imposed many levies leading to an increased burden on the peasantry and soaring prices. For example by 1846 the price of salt had gone up by more than 100 per cent in certain areas. The landlord class continued to exploit the peasant. Most of the land was concentrated in hands of big landlords. The sufferings of the common people and the anti-ruling class sentiments were best reflected in the proclamation of the Tien Ti Hui (Triads) when this secret society rose in revolt.

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