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Asia & Australia in World Affairs Essay

In as much as the unsuccessful Taiping Rebellion of 1850 played a significant role in ending China’s isolationist outlook, it also paralleled the socialist ideals put forth by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 to manifest itself in the communist seizure of power in China in the 20th century

Student: Ben McCosker

Teacher: Mr Hart

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Against the backdrop of a passive and inflexible Chinese state devastated by the foreign incursions of the 1840 Opium War, the Taiping emerged to overthrow the Confucian Qing Dynasty and establish an egalitarian community based on the quasi-Christian beliefs of its leader, Hong Xiuquan. In their struggle to “adopt institutions of equality and communism” (Newsinger, J, 2000), Hong and his followers paved the way for the formation of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949 by tapping into the passionate anti-Manchu nationalism among the peasantry. In as much as the unsuccessful Taiping rebellion of 1850 played a significant role in ending China’s isolationist outlook, it also paralleled the socialist ideals put forth by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 to manifest itself in the communist seizure of power in China in the 20th century.

While Hong’s dream for a ‘Kingdom of Heavenly Peace’ was not brought to fruition in his lifetime, his recognition and attacks upon dynastical weakness awakened an oppressed nation to rebellion and served as the catalyst for social and political reform in the 20th century. On the eve of the communist seizure of power in China, Mao Zedong spoke of the tireless efforts of Chinese reformists, including the Taiping, when he said that “I have witnessed the tremendous energy of the masses. On this foundation it is possible to accomplish any task whatsoever”. This essay will investigate the interconnection between the Taiping Rebellion of 1850 and the communist seizure of power in the 20th century against the backdrop of their shared socialist underpinnings.

The exploitation of the peasant class and unerring belief in China as ‘Zhongguo’, or the centre of existence, were the main criticisms that Hong held of the feudalist Qing dynasty, led by Dao Guan. Hong disapproved of the Chinese system of reform, which historically had encompassed a series of deteriorations and restorations of dynastic houses with the aim of perfecting systems of the past rather than instituting true change. As an unsuccessful scholar of the civil service, Hong came under the influence of Christian missionaries and after suffering from an intense fever in which he claimed to have been visited by God, he proclaimed himself as “God’s Chinese Son” and declared a mission against the Confucian ideals and incompetent rule of the Qing Dynasty. In the context of 19th century China, where revolt was endemic and hatred for the gentry class was widespread among the peasant population, Hong’s call for revolution quickly gathered support.

When rallying for the defeat of the Manchus, Hong would preach his distorted version of Christianity; “I have received the immediate command from God in his presence; the will of Heaven rests with me” (Xiuquan, H, 1850, quoted in Spence, 1996, p.67). Discontent with the unequal treaties and proliferation of Western activities among some sections of Chinese society, Hong and his Taiping rebels questioned not only traditional Confucian principles, but also the right of foreigners to rule, highlighting the powerful anti-Manchu theocracy that underpinned the revolution and encouraging the recognition of Chinese superiority. Spreading through the eastern valley of the Chang River, the Taiping movement captured Nanjing in 1853, before undergoing reform at the hands of Hong Rengan in 1859.

Rengan understood the problems of Chinese society far more profoundly than his contemporaries and played a vital role in bringing Hong Xiuquan’s original ideas to maturity. Under Rengan, the Taiping continued to dominate the Qing resistance, capturing the port of Ningpo in 1862, until the death of Hong in 1864 and the resulting fragmentation of Taiping units. Although a technical failure, the Taiping rebellion played an integral role in changing the way Chinese government functioned. Under the Manchu government, as one poor peasant woman argues, “we were vulnerable and exploited…our anger was a cause of our government’s lack of power and increase in corruption” (Kong, H, 1870). With the rise and fall of the Taiping Rebellion, China was forced to adopt a broader and less centralised world view and relax its foreign policy, thereby ending the reign of the indolent and corrupt nobility of the Qing Dynasty.

The egalitarian aspirations of the Taiping closely mirrored the ideals expressed by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels in their publication “The Communist Manifesto”. Marx and Engel’s seminal work also formed the ideological foundation for the communist seizure of power in 1949, clearly identifying the Taiping rebellion as the antecedent to the Chinese communist state. Marx began the Communist Manifesto with the words “A spectre is haunting Europe–the spectre of Communism”; little did he know that less than two years after writing these words, this ‘spectre of Communism’ would be spreading ferociously across the Chinese mainland. With the capture of Nanjing in 1853, Hong and his followers built an autonomous state based on the principles of laissez faire, supported by the twin pillars of communalism (essentially a debased form of communism) and equality.

This doctrine of ‘communalism’ involved the appropriation of all private property by the Taipings and its redistribution among the Chinese based on their needs, a concept that emerged in both the Communist Manifesto and the communist seizure of power almost a century later. Although it is almost certain that the Taiping rebels were oblivious to the socialist movement in the Western world, the similarities between the rebellion and the struggles of the proletariat in Europe are unmistakeable and are representative of the self-development of the Chinese people, culminating in the Communist seizure of power in 1949.

The communist seizure of power in 1949 was not in itself the embryonic Chinese interpretation of European socialism it was perceived to be, but rather a fulfilment of the ideals espoused by the proto-communist Taiping rebels almost a century earlier. When viewed objectively, the Heavenly Kingdom of the Taipings is not so distant from the classless egalitarianism that Mao Zedong instituted on 1 October 1949 with the seizure of power by the Chinese Communist Party. Indeed, the doctrinal pillars upon which Hong built his Heavenly Kingdom have been described as “a primitive form of communism” (Hooker, R, 1986) and some have gone as far as to say that “the communist revolution may have been but a realisation of an underground movement in China [The Taiping Rebellion] which began in the mid eighteen-hundreds” (Ny, G, 1991). Like the Taiping Rebellion, the communist seizure of power was an example of western ideals being adapted to the Chinese condition and similarly, both revolutions started in the agrarian centres of the South before moving north towards the political epicentre of the Chinese state, Beijing (Peking).

Both revolutions shared common egalitarian elements, the most notable of which was the immersion of women into society as the social and economic equals of men. Under Hong’s leadership, all members of Taiping society were seen as “brothers” and “sisters”, which both established equality among the sexes and discouraged the formation of relationships among those with administrative positions. This was a radical departure from the traditional Confucian philosophy promoted by the Qing Dynasty, which preached women’s inferiority and subservient role to men.

Indeed, under the Manchu government, the practice of foot binding was still widespread, as women had to bind their feet to be eligible for marriage in the eyes of the law. Like the Taiping rebels, the Chinese Communist Party realised that the liberation of women was integral to the true emancipation of the country as an egalitarian nation; so in a parallel for the Fun Yu-Lan, or ‘rules of the Heavenly Kingdom’ laid down by Hong Rengan, the communist government enacted legislation that revolved around the protection of women including the Chinese Marriage Law of 1950 and the Labour Insurance Regulations Law of 1951.

In their contextualisation of Western theologies, both the Taiping Rebellion and the communist seizure of power banished the traditional androcentric beliefs of their preceding governments, instituting systems of equality in their place. Sun Yat-Sen’s ‘Three People’s Principles’, as published in the Guomindang Manifesto of 1924, itself a forerunner to the ideals of the CCP, reflect the original motives of the Taiping rebels; increased power for the people (democracy), equality among the citizenry (people’s livelihood) and the development of a national identity for China (nationalism). The shared social institutions and egalitarian precepts of both uprisings serve only to illustrate the fact that the Taiping Rebellion of 1850 was the philosophical forerunner to the Communist seizure of power in the 20th century.

While the Taiping philosophy was sound in itself, a combination of inadequate military strategy, diplomatic incompetence, ideological inconsistencies and insufficient resources condemned the rebellion to failure while its latter-day counterpart, the Chinese Communist Party, thrived due to more consistent and efficient management. The very basis of the Taiping movement, Hong’s distorted version of Christianity, detracted from the authenticity of the rebellion in the eyes of foreign onlookers, which meant that the Taiping were unable to forge valuable alliances with more conventional Christian powers in the west. This oversight had fatal implications in the summer of 1864, when the Taiping looked to foreigners for support, but encountered the opposition of Westerners opposed to Hong’s bastardised version of Christianity. Mao Zedong, Li Dazhao and the other leaders of the CCP had the benefit of viewing revolutionary precedent through the failure of the Taiping Rebellion, thus it can be seen that the ‘lessons’ of the Taiping were able to be applied to CCP strategy, lessons which resulted in Mao’s inclusion of peasants against the Marxist model and drive for agrarian revolution over urban uprising.

Both conflicts arose from a strong desire from the proletariat for social and political reform, but it was the Chinese Communist Party that most effectively gathered the people’s support, while largely avoiding the corruption and poor foreign policy that plagued the Taipings. While the Chinese Communist Party remained a tightly-networked organisation in its struggle for power, the Taiping force was split into various factions before capturing Nanjing in 1852, which had the two-fold consequence of denying the rebels the opportunity to conquer Shanghai and also foregoing the continued pursuit of the Manchus after capturing Nanjing, which, as Larlee argues, “proved to be a fatal flaw in the rebellion” (Larlee, D, 2000). The failure to adequately support the Northern Expedition of 1852 resulted in Western Powers, already antagonised by the suppression of opium from Taiping-controlled China, to forge allegiances with the Qing Dynasty, a movement which ultimately ended the Taiping rebellion.

Like its communist progeny in the 20th century, concubinage amongst leaders was prevalent in the upper echelons of the Taiping leadership, which invoked doubt in the peoples’ minds over the capacity of the rebels to institute true change. Finally, in 1860, intervention by foreign powers came in the form of a British Envoy led by Frederick Bruce, who supported Prince Gong (the leader of the opposing Manchu government) in his quest to “purge the country of the sinful rebels” (Poon, 2000). After the death of over 25 million Chinese citizens (McEvedy, 1978) and the devastation of 16 provinces, The Taiping Rebellion was finally suppressed in 1864, ending 16 years of reform but paving the way for the Communist Seizure of Power in the 20th century.

Philosophically, the Taiping Rebellion of 1850 and the Communist Seizure of Power in the 20th century shared remarkable similarity in their egalitarian goals and quest to overthrow oppressive rule. Both were born out of a socioeconomic situation of deprivation and shame, with drought, famine, and overt foreign influence common to both uprisings.

The Rebellion cannot be judged objectively on its failure as a revolution alone, as its primitive implementation of socialist ideals and reformation of China’s isolationist outlook manifested itself in the communist seizure of power 100 years later. Its failure to institute permanent reform reflected not only the ideological flaws of Hong and his followers, but also the society’s resistance to change, a result of hundreds of years of dynastical rule. As “one of the early tremors of a communist earthquake” (Franz, M, 1999), the Taiping rebellion played an integral role in the Communist seizure of power in the 20th century.

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