The Taiping Rebellion and Problems Memorialising Internal Conflicts Pose for Modern China

By Lewis Tatt

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The actions of the Japanese in Nanjing can, and arguably should, be placed on the same regional timeline as the Qing dynasty’s brutal suppression of the Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s. The Taiping Rebellion triggered a large scale civil war, with the death toll estimated to be in the tens of millions, yet the event does not recieve the same level of national or international attention as the actions of the Japanese in the 1930s. The Taiping Tianguo (literally meaning “Heavenly Kingdom of Peace”) was finally crushed in 1864 having failed to overthrow the Qing. A massacre was subsequently carried out against the population of the Taiping capital, Nanjing.

Within the current climate of Chinese patriotic education it is easy to overlook the fact that in the mid to late nineteenth century China’s ruling dynasty were largely considered a foreign elite – due to their Manchu ethnicity. This provides a contrast to the international narratives surrounding the Nanjing massacre, discussed in a previous article,  from a regional perspective Western powers and Japan were not the only “foreign” invaders that the city has suffered at the hands of.

In 1896 Han Chinese intellectual Tan Sitong wrote – “How were we able to allow the vile tribes of Mongolia and Manchuria, who knew nothing of China or Confucianism, to steal China through their barbarity and cruelty? After stealing China, they dominated the Chinese thanks to the system they had stolen, and shamelessly used Confucianism, which until then had been unknown to them, to oppress China, which until then was foreign to them.” Contemporary commentary such as this demonstrates that, in some circles, the Qing dynasty and its imperial armies were seen as foreign conquerors.

There are few memorials to these events despite their scale and historical importance. When I finally located such a site on the outskirts of Shanghai access was denied on the basis that it was undergoing refurbishment. It appeared that new information boards were being installed – perhaps an indication of changes in official historiography filtering through this site. The number of new apartment buildings in the area suggest the refurbished memorial will become the focal point of a new community, in line with the national policy of patriotic education.

Despite resulting in more deaths than the First World War, the Taiping Rebellion does not have the same psychological weight and association with brutality as the Nanjing massacre. Chinese historiography frames the Taiping Rebellion as a peasant rebellion and a precursor to the communist revolution, there are no statistics provided in Chinese university textbooks, it is not even stated that a large number of people died. In contrast, the war of resistance against Japan contains many statistics and graphic details of the events that took place.

One book, The Outline of Modern Chinese History, which is compulsory reading for university students of all subject majors in China, simply states with regard to the fall of Nanjing in 1864:

“In the spring-summer of 1864 the Taiping armies in Sunan, Zhejang and Wannan were completely defeated, [Nanjing] was surrounded with no food or relief force in sight. Li Xiucheng [the Taiping commander] recommended they flee the city and disperse, but Hong Xiuquan [the Taiping leader] was determined to fight to the death. In June 1864 Hong Xiuquan succumbed to disease and in July the Hunan army laying siege to Nanjing made a breakthrough. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom peasants’ war was defeated.”

It is worth noting that Hong Xiuquan is the only fatality detailed in this description of a conflict that resulted in tens of millions of deaths.

The desire to present this event as a peasant’s rebellion is evident at Nanjing’s Taiping Kingdom History Museum (太平天国历史博物馆). The emphasis is on the economic and social aspects of the Taiping, with information boards discussing agrarian reform and social policy. Once attention turns to the bloody collapse of the Taiping capital in 1864, an impressive diorama of post-siege Nanjing is displayed – missing from this scene are the graphic representations of death found at every opportunity at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Remarkable, given that the diorama depicts the final scene of one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history.

Playing down the horrors of the Taiping Rebellion is politically expedient for present day China. Chinese society has become increasingly depoliticised since the 1978 opening and reform policy was introduced, and even more so since 1989. The Chinese government desires stability and this involves not criticising or questioning its legitimacy. If the population were even indirectly encouraged to criticise a previous government then this could potential open the gate for criticism of present day China.

Furthermore, the overwhelmingly Han Chinese nature of the Taiping Rebellion would raise the issue of the foreignness and imperial expansionist nature of the Qing Dynasty, this would be a threat to a country that is fighting for its territorial integrity on the basis that it is the rightful successor of the Qing.

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