China's Story - William Griffis

Tai Pings and Trade War

In 1834 the East India Company's charter expired. The British government, assuming control, sent out Lord Napier as King George's representative, supposing that he would be welcomed, and that China would feel it an honor. The Peking mandarins refused him audience, insisting that they would not open diplomatic relations with any outside nation. Such a proceeding would also spoil the lucrative trade of the Cohong, or company of native merchants and mandarins who had charge of the systematic "squeezing," without which no business in China, from viceroy to laborer, is done. The Chinese, conceited as they then were, could not conceive of treating with any other nation on equal terms, or with their representative. At one time, the Japanese were as inhospitable. Lord Napier, after many rebuffs, insulted, and kept a virtual prisoner in the factory at Canton, lost health, retired to Macao, and died there in 1834.

It seemed necessary to force open the gates of the hermit nation with gunpowder. Matters having become acute, two British frigates had anchored in the Canton River to protect the foreign factories. In 1836 Captain Charles Elliot was sent out, and ordered to ignore the Cohong and deal directly with the authorities. He also was unsuccessful, and retired to Macao. The Chinese now took high-handed measures against the import of opium, which had proved itself to be a curse to their people and country. When the Peking government demanded that the sale of the "filthy drug" should be restricted, smuggling became the order of the day. The Chinese then determined to stop the importation of the stupefying juice of the poppy, even at the cost of war, and the court appointed as imperial commissioner the stalwart Lin. This conservative and determined man at once surrounded the foreign factory on the land side, and prepared to blockade the island and thus shut off the aliens. He ordered all opium from the ships to be put on shore, and Captain Elliot yielded.

When a Chinese was killed by some foreign sailors, the demand of Lin for the particular murderer was for good reason refused. Lin gave ten days to have the culprit ferreted out and handed over to be dealt with according to Chinese law. This, as to methods of trial, prisons, and punishment, was at that time as barbarous as had been that of medieval Europe. War now broke out, and some Chinese junks were sunk by British cannon. On one of them, then or later, a Chinese mandarin was found dead, sitting in his bloodstained silk robes. He had been reading a Chinese version of the Four Gospels, to discover what there was in the teachings of Jesus that made Christians seem so murderous.

Although this is called the Opium War, it was really a collision between the ideas of hermits and those of international law, between the standard of a local civilization and the growing conscience of the world. To these, China and all nations must in time yield fully. The forcing of opium upon China by the British cannot be justified, but the opium was the occasion and not the cause of the hostilities, which lasted from 1840 to 1843.

Basket shop


River battles were fought at Canton and Amoy, and some Chinese ports were blockaded. The British ships appeared in the north at the mouth of the Pei-ho River, threatening Peking. The forts on the Canton River were again attacked. Terms of peace were proposed and refused. The Bogue forts were taken. There were intervals of peace and fighting, and an attack on the city of Canton. Again negotiations were attempted, but after their failure, war was carried to the north. Ning-po, Shanghai, and several forts were captured. The Chinese with obsolete weapons were beaten.

The lack of unity in the China of the Manchus and the low state of patriotism were shown at one place when Chinese mandarins entertained the British soldiers while the Manchu garrisons were fighting them. On August 9, 1842, the British army reached Nanking. Here the fleets carrying tribute rice to the capital could be intercepted. The imperial government therefore sent high commissioners, Manchus, and the first treaty between China and Great Britain was concluded August 29, 1842, a pivotal date in the empire's history. Its chief points were the opening of five ports—Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo, and Shanghai—to foreign trade, the payment of an indemnity of twenty-one million dollars, and the cession of the Island of Hong Kong, now a part of the British Empire and one of the greatest centres of commerce in the world. Other nations shared in the triumph, the Americans among the first, President Polk having sent out the Hon. Caleb Cushing, who made a treaty with China. At the treaty ports settlements were made and missionaries began their Christian labors. Shanghai became one of the model cities of the Far East.

Imposed by force, these agreements were unpopular, and the first business of the Chinese mandarins was to nullify them as far as possible. Riots broke out among the people and several Englishmen were murdered.

In every old country, the entrance of new ideas, whether commercial, religious, political, or social, causes ferment. The first results are not encouraging, because these new ideas lead either to unbalanced enthusiasm or to indignation and hatred. In a protectorate or on conquered territory, they fill the native students with the notion of immediate but impossible independence. In China, the Tai Ping rebellion broke out.

A disappointed scholar named Hung, who had failed in the examinations, came into contact with Christian truths. Born near Canton in 1813, the son of an emigrant farmer who had come from the north, he devoted himself to study. China is the land of the free, where there is no permanent nobility except the descendants of Confucius, and where any boy in the land may become prime minister, promotion being by merit and not by rank or birth. The boy Hung devoted himself to study, and thrice attended the civil service examinations at Canton, to get the degree of Bachelor of Arts and later government employment. His disappointment so preyed upon his mind that he became ill and was apparently at the gates of death. He had a dream in which first a dragon, then a tiger, and finally a cock entered his room. He saw also happy men and women in shining robes, who led him into the palace of Heaven. Taken to a river, be was washed and made clean. His heart was taken out, and he was given a new one of a red color, his wound closing without a scar. A venerable being put a sword in his hand and commanded him to abolish the worship of evil spirits.

On recovering health Hung pondered the meaning of this dream, but could not at first interpret it. He took out the Christian tracts which he had received, and studied them. They seemed to furnish a key to the meaning of his dream. He put himself under the instruction of a missionary, and even asked for baptism, but it is not known that he was ever admitted into the church as a member. In a word, he was never, in any real sense, a Christian.

Thoroughly convinced of his divine call, Hung converted first his own household and then his neighbors, forming, in 1850, the Shang-ti Hwei, or Society [for the Worship of] Almighty God. Their first acts were to smash idols and to level temples to the ground. Starting out as a purely religious movement, this became, almost of necessity, political. When the Peking government, fearing that the movement might become revolutionary, sent two mandarins to suppress it with force, the followers of Hung declared open rebellion. Being southern Chinamen, they almost as a matter of course raised the cry, "Exterminate the Manchus!" When the rebels seized town after town, tens of thousands, incited by the hope of plunder, followed the banners inscribed with characters meaning Heavenly Father, Heavenly Elder Brother, Heavenly King of the Great Peace (Tai Ping), Dynasty of the Heavenly Kingdom (China), etc. When they gave up shaving the front part of their heads, cut off their queues, and let their hair grow, they were called the "Long-Haired Rebels."

It being difficult to feed so large an army, Hung marched north, capturing cities as he went. At Chang-sha he received his first severe check and lost eighty days in vainly trying to take this city. The rebels moved into the Yang-tse valley, taking four large cities by storm. In March, 1853, they captured Nanking, which, after a horrible massacre of its people, was made the capital of the new dynasty.

Hung, claiming to be the brother of Christ, having taken the personal title of Heavenly King and the name of Heavenly Virtue for his reign, sent forth a Book of Celestial Decrees, which he declared contained the revelations given to him by God the Heavenly Father and by Christ his Celestial Brother. Proclaimed as emperor of China, and surrounded by his army of eighty thousand men, which was ever increasing, he appointed four assistant "kings," of the North, South, East, and West, to help in ruling the empire. He depended upon his brave and able general Chung for success in the field of war.

Now came the reaction so often seen in the career of such men, who have risen high and fallen low. Leaving the actual direction of affairs in the hands of his subordinates, Hung, who probably never knew by any real experience of life what it is to be a Christian, gave himself up to unbridled license and apparently lost all energy. Some foreigners, including missionaries (with whom the writer has talked concerning their adventures), who cherished hopes that the movement promised a new and better life for China, visited Hung at his court. Their eyes were opened when they saw the disorder and fanaticism of the rebels. All ideas of the regeneration of China through the Tai Pings were dispelled.

In March, 1853, a rebel army tried to seize the city of Kai Feng and failed. Repulsed also from Tien Tsin, they retreated to Nanking. Li Hung Chang, afterwards known to the world, now appeared on the stage. Raising a regiment of militia, he harassed the rear-guard of the rebels, and for this success was introduced to imperial favor. The government troops regained their courage, retook several cities, and put a new face upon affairs. The Tai Pings were now confined to the Yang-tse valley.

Meanwhile the sixth Manchu Emperor, ruling from Peking, Tai Kwang, who had held the sceptre since 1821, died after a reign of thirty years and was succeeded by Hien Feng, who was to enjoy or suffer during eleven troublous years the duties of his high station.