I am increasingly drawn to the Taiping Revolution of 1850-1864, especially in light of Samir Amin’s observation: it was the ‘ancestor of the “anti-feudal, anti-imperialist popular revolution” as formulated later by Mao’. However, what no student of the revolution has yet examined is that the Taiping Revolution marks the moment when the revolutionary Christian tradition arrives in China. I will be speaking about this to some extent – as a way to deal with the question of Marxism and religion – in the Deutscher Lecture later this week. In the meantime, I have been tracking down some images, especially after visiting the Taiping museum in Nanjing last month.

This is Hong Xiuquan, the man with the vision and biblical interpretation:

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Central to Taiping practices was the weekly church service (alongside daily prayers and recitals from the Bible):

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They gave great attention to ensuring the Bible was reprinted and interpreted:

Taiping-Bible

Taiping Bible 02

Interpretation of the Bible led them to a revolutionary position and to practice forms of Christian communism. Their revolutionary armies (with both women and men) numbered up to a million and the innovative tactics saw them control the cradle of Chinese civilisation in the Yangze (Chang Jiang) basin:

Taiping battle 02

Taiping battle 03

Taiping - storming a fortress

This one is a battle flag held on behalf of a general:

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Their aim: to overthrow the whole Chinese imperial system and inaugurate the ‘heavenly kingdom’ (tainguo). This was part of the widespread appeal among peasants and miners. They abolished the Confucian examination system, replacing it with one based on the Bible and open to women and men. The women had their feet unbound and young women were not permitted to bind their feet. The men grew their hair long, without the queue and the shaved front insisted by the Qing rulers.

Taiping vs queue

Among many things, I am intrigued by the character used for ‘heaven’, tian. Usually in Chinese, it is written so:

The second stoke is longer than the upper stroke. However, the Taiping wrote the character in a different way:

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In this case, the upper stroke is the longest. The reason is not quite clear, but it may have something to do with the respect shown for heaven, and indeed that it was a different heaven from Chinese mythology.

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The Taiping were on the verge of crushing the Qing dynasty, shaking it to the foundations. Were it not for foreign intervention (the British Empire had lost much of North America and they certainly weren’t going to let the Chinese market opium slip away), the Taiping may well have done so. Meanwhile, in the space of 14 years they achieved an immense amount: rebuilding Nanjing, land reform, new forms of social organisation, the publication of an extraordinary collection of texts. And they had some seriously weighty coins:

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In many respects, the Taiping Revolution was the forerunner of the Republican Revolution of 1911. Sun Yatsen was known by the nickname of ‘Hong Xiuquan’ and some of the revolutionary wore their hair in the same way as the Taiping. And when Mao writes of revolutions in which the masses rose up against the international (imperialist) and national ruling class, he speaks of three: the taping Revolution, the Republican Revolution and the communist revolution.

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