|Nanjing's Zhan Yuan Gardens, former headquarters of the Taiping rebels|
During a recent trip to Nanjing I visited the Zhan Yuan Gardens, which date back to the Ming Dynasty. In the nineteenth century these gardens became one of the headquarters of the famed Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and they now contain an extensive museum on the Taiping rebellion. The visit inspired me to find out more about this fascinating chapter of China's past.
For those of you not too well-versed in Chinese history, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was an unrecognized state set up in 1851 as a result of a massive rebel movement known as the Taiping. The rebels, mostly disaffected peasants, were led by one Hong Xiuquan, a man who had convinced himself that he was the second son of God after having a nervous breakdown due to his failure to pass the imperial exams.
The Taiping Kingdom's capital was based in Nanjing, which was renamed Tianjing (the heavenly capital). This oppositional state managed to continue existing until 1864, when the weak and outdated imperial troops finally managed to defeat it (but only because the British and French decided to help). The Taiping ruled over a large swathe of Southern China at their peak.
The Taiping kingdom was run according to an egalitarian and pseudo-Christian ideology. The equality of the sexes and the equal sharing of resources were promoted, and the Taiping set up their own system of civil examinations, which were based on the Bible rather than the Confucian classics, and open to women. The rebel leaders however quickly slid into corruption an hypocrisy, keeping legions of concubines even though polygamy was banned.
The Taiping were finally defeated after years of warfare, which cost the incredible number of 20 million lives, especially since civilians were targeted by both sides. It is rather easy to see these peasant rebels, moved by egalitarian ideals and a half-understood Western religion, executing landlords in the areas they occupied, as a precursor of that other Chinese revolution a century later. Unsurprisingly the rebellion is now described positively in official Chinese accounts, and the museum I visited certainly made this clear.
There are some interesting but less commonly known facts about the Taiping rebellion: for one thing, it had an ethnic as well as a social dimension. A disproportionate number of the rebels were either Hakka or Zhuang. The Hakka are often compared to the Jews in Chinese history, since they are a minority who have been scattered across China, and often marginalized, but at the same time have produced a large number of famous politicians and revolutionaries. Deng Xiaoping, Sun Yat Sen and Lee Kuan Yew were all Hakkas. And so were Hong Xiu Quan and all the other leaders of the Taiping rebellion.
The Zhuang, on the other hand, are China's largest recognized minority, a people who speak a language related to Thai and live mostly in Guangxi province. The Taiping rebellion began in this province, although it did not in the end become part of the Heavenly Kingdom. An awful lot of Zhuang joined in, perhaps because of friction with the Han as well as general discontent. The Hakka, the Zhuang and other minorities continued to feature prominently throughout the rebellion.
Another not commonly known fact, which I found out thanks to the museum in Nanjing, is that quite a number of Westerners fought for the Taiping. They were often missionaries, or sometimes just adventurers and sympathizers. They included Brits and Americans, but more surprisingly also Italians. A Corsican and a Sardinian even became officers in the Taiping army. The museum displays a list of names of foreign Taiping soldiers, including an Italian named "Antouio" (supposedly Antonio) and a "Moreno" from France (probably the Corsican). It even claims that Antonio led the "Italians and the Blacks fighting for the Taiping army". That there were even black people fighting for them is really surprising. I wonder if this is actually true.