Opium and the Taiping Rebellion

Subhash Kak
11 min readMay 23, 2024
Chinese School painting (after 1864) depicting a scene from the Taiping Rebellion

The most important event in China in the 19th century was the Taiping Rebellion, one of the bloodiest in history with an estimated 20 to 30 million dead. Although it succeeded for only 14 years, it set in motion forces that led to the end of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), and also inspired the communist revolution.

During the 18th century, there was great demand for Chinese luxury goods (particularly silk, porcelain, and tea) in Europe, which created a trade imbalance quite like the one we have now. To counter this flow of European silver, the British East India Company began to grow opium in Bengal and U.P., allowing private British merchants to sell it to Chinese smugglers for illegal sale in China.

The idea of exporting opium to China started with Warren Hastings (the first governor general of British India) in 1780. It was difficult to sell it at first, but the British pushed it hard. The trade began to thrive and opium exports increased from 4,000 chests per year at the beginning of the 19th century to more than 60,000 chests by the 1880s. Narco-trade brought as much as one-fifth of all the revenue of British India.

The influx of narcotics reversed the Chinese trade surplus and increased the numbers of addicts inside the country, which worried Chinese officials and they banned opium trade. They seized private opium stocks from merchants at Guangzhou and threatened to impose the death penalty for future offenders.

Despite the opium ban in China, the British government supported the merchants’ demand for compensation for seized goods, and insisted on the principles of free trade. This was the origin of the First Opium War that consisted of a series of military engagements between the British Empire and China between 1839 and 1842.

The technologically superior ships and weapons of Britain defeated the Chinese who admitted defeat. In August 1842, the British imposed the Treaty of Nanking, which forced China to increase foreign trade, give compensation, and cede Hong Kong Island. The illicit opium trade continued. (Some see the current illicit export of fentanyl from China to USA as payback.)

The disastrous defeat in the First Opium War further weakened the power of the Qing dynasty already hit by the trade imbalance from the illicit opium trade. Farmers were overtaxed, rents rose dramatically, and peasants started to desert their lands, and numerous secret societies formed, all of which led to an increase in disorder and lawlessness.

The Chinese had depended on custom more than force to maintain their grip on the country. They did not either have desire of ability to wage war with the colonial powers who possessed superior weapons and ships. Living in the bubble of the court, the Chinese were blinded by a deep-rooted superiority complex into believing that they could assert their supremacy over Europeans (whom they called barbarians) by virtue of being the Middle Kingdom (they believed there were the most civilized nation). For example, Lord Amherst’s embassy to the Qing Court in 1816 was expelled the day it arrived for Amherst did not kowtow before the Jiaqing emperor.

Missionaries in China

Protestant missionaries from America and Europe began working from Macao, Pazhou, and Guangzhou. They employed Chinese converts to translate their texts for local readership. One of them was Liang Fa, whose nine-part, 500-page tome called Good Words to Admonish the Age, became an influential guide to the new converts.

Now arose the self-proclaimed prophet Hong Xiuquan (1814–1864), a Hakka, who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus, sent to earth spread Christianity.

Hong Xiuquan wished to succeed in life by becoming an officer of the empire. A village schoolteacher, he immersed himself in neo-Confucian texts for the imperial examination, but he just kept failing. It was perhaps not a verdict on his ability for the passing rate was less than 1%.

These texts provided a moral, ethical, and metaphysical framework influenced by Confucianism for the bureaucrat and served to ensure a common knowledge of writing, Chinese classics, and literary style among state officials. The idea of choosing bureaucrats by merit rather than by birth started early in China and it was a written examination that was used for more than a millennium until its abolition in 1905.

Hong Xiuquan took the imperial examination in the city of Guangzhou but was unsuccessful. He returned to the city in 1836 to retake the examination. While there, he heard the American Christian missionary Edwin Stevens and his assistant the Chinese convert Liang Fa. From them, he received Christian literature and Liang Fa’s book. These were used by Hong to preach his brand of Christianity that led to the Taiping Rebellion.

Hong as Younger Brother to Jesus Christ

In 1837, Hong attempted and failed the imperial examinations for a third time, and he had to a nervous breakdown. When he recovered, Hong spoke of having visited heaven, where he discovered that he possessed a celestial family which included a heavenly father, mother, elder brother, sister-in-law, wife, and son. His heavenly father lamented that men were worshiping demons, and presented Hong with a sword and golden seal with which to slay the demons. In later retellings, Hong declared that he also saw Confucius being punished by Hong’s celestial father for leading the people astray.

In 1843, Hong failed the imperial examinations for the fourth and final time. Now he examined the Christian books he possessed and concluded that his celestial father was God the Father (in Chinese, Shangdi or Tian), the elder brother that he had seen was Jesus Christ, and he had been directed to rid the world of demon worship. He was sure that he was the literal son of God and younger brother to Jesus.

Hong began destroying idols and burning Confucian and Buddhist books, preaching Christianity, and speaking of his visions. To symbolically purge China of idolatry, he arranged for two giant demon-slaying swords to be forged. Two of the earliest converts to his new religion were distant relatives Feng Yunshan and Hong Rengan who had also failed their examinations. In his preaching he began to write his tract on Christianity titled Exhortations to Worship the One True God.

In 1847, Hong Xiuquan was invited to study with the American Southern Baptist Missionary Reverend Issachar Roberts and he traveled to Guangzhou with Hong Rengan. Once there, Hong studied Karl Gützlaff’s translations of the Old and New Testaments, and converted to Protestantism.

Hong left Guangzhou and reunited with his cousin Feng who had meanwhile founded the “Society of God-Worshippers” (Bai Shangdi Hui), to spread Christianity among the impoverished peasants of Guangxi province. He ministered to the faithful in outdoor meetings that resembleed the revivals he had witnessed with Issachar Roberts.

In 1847, Hong began his translation of the Bible, what came to be known as Authorized Taiping Version of the Bible, or The Taiping Bible, which was based on Gutzlaff’s translation. Hong preached a mixture of communism, evangelism, and gender equality. Men and women were segrgateed and the followers were to put their assets into a communal treasury.

Guangxi was a dangerous area with many bandit groups based in the mountains and river pirates. The authorities were largely tolerant of Hong and his followers. Due to the breakdown of law and order many people who came into conflict with the authorities joined Hong’s movement.

Founding of the Heavenly Kingdom

By 1850, Hong had between 10,000 and 30,000 followers. The authorities were alarmed at the growing size of the sect, and ordered them to disperse. A local force was sent to attack them but they refused and the imperial troops were routed. A bigger government forces was despatched in 1851, in what came to be known as the Jintian Uprising. Hong’s followers emerged victorious and beheaded the Manchu commander of the government army.

On January 1, 1851, Hong proclaimed his new dynasty, the “Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace” (Taiping Tianguo), and assumed the title of Tianwang, or “Heavenly King.” The local Army, which outnumbered the rebels ten to one, sought the help of the river pirates to limit the rebellion to Jintian. But after a month of preparation, the rebels broke through the blockade and fought their way to the town of Yongan, which fell to them on 25 September 1851.

Hong and his troops remained in Yongan for three months, and they were supported by local landowners who were hostile to the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty. The imperial army regrouped and launched another attack on the rebels. Hong’s followers fought their way out, and set out northwards, towards Hunan. After many setbacks, in March 1853, Hong’s forces managed to take Nanjing and turned it into the capital of their Kingdom.

After establishing his capital at Nanjing, Hong implemented an ambitious reform and modernization program. He created an elaborate civil bureaucracy, reformed the calendar used in his kingdom, outlawed opium use, and introduced reforms designed to make women more socially equal to men, and banned foot binding (foot binding had not been practiced by the Hakka). Polygamy was forbidden and men and women were separated, although Hong and other leaders maintained concubines.

Taiping Rule Expansion: light shading, to medium, to dark

Taiping Christianity

Following the imperial example, the Taipings held exams starting in 1851. They replaced the Confucian Classes with the Taiping Bible, and the Old and New Testaments. In 1853, women were for the first time in Chinese history able to become examination candidates.

Taiping Christianity demanded worship and obedience. Prostitution and slavery were prohibited, as were opium smoking, adultery, gambling, and use of tobacco and alcohol. The organization of the army was elaborate, with strict rules governing soldiers in camp and on the march.

The Heavenly Kindgom simplified the Chinese language. All property was to be held in common, and there was to be equal distribution of the land according to a primitive form of communism.

Meanwhile, there was trouble within Hong’s inner circle. Yang Xiuqing, the Taiping minister of state, attempted to usurp much of the Tianwang’s power, and, as a result, Yang and thousands of his followers were slain. Wei Changhui, the general who had killed Yang, then began to grow haughty, and Hong had him murdered as well.

After this, Hong ignored his ablest followers and entrusted affairs of state to his elder brothers. He withdrew from government matters for long periods, spending his time with his concubines or in religious meetings.

By 1860, Hong’s heavenly kingdom extended across huge swathes of China and his troops were preparing to march on Shanghai.

Second Opium War

Meanwhile the Second Opium War was waged by Britain and France against China from 1856 to 1860. French and British troops captured the Old Summer Palace in Beijing on 6 October 1860. Constructed throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, this palace was an architectural wonder and the main imperial residence of Qianlong Emperor and where he handled affairs of the state and formal ceremonies. According to Robert McGee, chaplain to the British forces. the palace was “arguably greatest concentration of historic treasures in the world, dating and representing a full 5,000 years of an ancient civilization.” The halls of the palace stored artwork and antiquities, along with unique copies of literary works and compilations

Old Summer Palace, Beijing

James Bruce, Earl of Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China ordered the looting and complete destruction of the palace on 18 October, which was done by 4,000 troops under his command. The palace was so large that it took three days to destroy it. Many exquisite pieces such as sculptures, porcelain, jade, silk robes, textiles, gold objects were looted. This is one of the most egregious examples of vandalism in modern history and a historic crime.

The French author Victor Hugo compared it to the looting of a museum by two robbers, one of whom (France) stole the art pieces, and the other (England) burnt the museum down.

The young British officer Charles George Gordon who was part of the British force said of the looting and pillaging: “You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.”

China had lost the war and it was forced to legalize opium. The British compelled China to cede the Kowloon Peninsula to the already ceded region of Hong Kong.

End of Hong’s Kingdom

Hong may have been a Christian, but the European powers decided he was a threat to the business of selling opium and they saw his claim to be the brother of Christ as heresy. They now joined forces with the Qing armies they themselves had just been fighting in the Second Opium War.

An attempt by the Taipings to regain their strength by taking Shanghai was stopped by the Western-trained “Ever-Victorious Army” commanded by the American adventurer and mercenary Frederick Townsend Ward and later by Charles George Gordon.

The old elite, alienated by the radical anti-Confucianism of the Taipings, organized under the leadership of Zeng Guofan, an official of the Qing government. By 1862 Zeng had managed to surround Nanjing to starve the city.

Hong refused requests to flee the city, committing suicide in June 1864, after installing his 14-year-old son, Hong Tianguifu, as the Tianwang. The city finally fell on July 19, 1864, and imperial troops initiated a terrible slaughter. The Taiping army commander in charge of defending the southern gate of the town, surrendered on 26 August 1864. Zeng Guofan was astonished when, after the capture of Nanjing, almost 100,000 of the Taiping followers preferred death to capture.

Hong Tianguifu, the boy-king, fled to the mountains. He was caught on 25 October 1864 by Qing soldiers searching for him. He was subsequently executed by slow slicing (lingchi) on 18 November 1864.

The Qing dynasty was so weakened by the rebellion that it never again was able to establish an effective hold over the country. In October of 1911, a group of revolutionaries in southern China led a successful revolt against the Qings, establishing in its place the Republic of China and ending the imperial system. the Chinese communists and the Chinese Nationalists trace their origin to the Taipings.

The forced sale of opium in China had set off a series of changes that weakened the Qing empire and led to conditions that gave birth to the Taiping Rebellion and the establishment of the Christian Heavenly Kindgom. One of the aims of the Heavenly Kingdom was to get the people out of opium addiction, but this objective was in conflict with the European Christian nations who wished to sell as much opium to the Chinese as they could. Defeating Qing China in the Second Opium War, not only did the Europeans make opium trade legal, they helped turn back the Kingdom in Shanghai, which opened the door to their eventual defeat in Nanjing.