Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

A Great Christian Movement and Its Fate

The Chinese are a peculiar people, and have odd ideas of the power and duty of their monarchs and of their own rights and duties. In their country no son has the right to resist his father, even if he be treated with tyrannical cruelty. But in regard to the emperor, though they look upon him as the father of his people, they claim the right to depose him and put him to death if he plays the tyrant. So long as he rules with justice and wisdom both man and nature acknowledge his authority, but if he violates the principles of justice and goodness the Chinaman claims the right to rebel, while such evils of nature as pestilence and famine, destructive storms and earthquakes, are held as proofs that Heaven is withdrawing from the weak or wicked emperor the right to rule.

The history of the empire is full of instances of popular rebellions against offending rulers, some quelled, others hurling the monarch from his throne, and in this way most of the old dynasties ended and new ones began. The course of events brought about such a state of affairs in the nineteenth century. Though the Chinese have never been content with their Manchu rulers, they submitted to them as long as they were just and public-spirited. But in time this dynasty suffered the fate of all others, weak emperors following the strong ones, and in the reign of the incompetent Kea-king, who succeeded Keen Lung, rebellions broke out in a dozen quarters, pirates ravaged the coast, and the disaffection extended throughout the realm.

In 1820 this weak emperor died, and was succeeded by Taou-kwang, who proved even less fit to rule than his father, devoting himself to the pursuit of pleasure and leaving the empire to take care of itself. Soon new rebels were in the field, whom the armies proved unable to put down, and the disorganization of the empire made rapid progress. Even the Meaou-tsze, or hill-tribes, the descendants of the first inhabitants of the country, rose in arms and defeated an army of thirty thousand men. War with the English added to the discontent, which grew greater until 1850, when the emperor died and his son Heen-fung ascended the throne.

This was going from bad to worse. The new emperor was still more selfish and tyrannical than his father, and under the control of his craving for sensual pleasures paid no heed to the popular cry for reform. The discontent was now coming to a head. In the south broke out a revolt, whose leaders proclaimed as emperor a youth said to be a descendant of the Ming dynasty, who took the royal name of Teen-tih, or "Heavenly Virtue." But he and his followers soon vanished before another and abler aspirant to the throne, the first man with a genius for command who had headed any of these rebel outbreaks.

The leader of this remarkable movement sprang from the lowest ranks of the people, being the son of a peasant dwelling in a village near Canton. Hung Sew-tseuen was a man of ardent imagination and religious enthusiasm. Strange visions came to him, and held him captive for some forty days, in which the visitors of his dreaming fancy urged him to destroy the idols. Some years afterwards he read a Christian pamphlet containing chapters from the Scriptures, and found it to correspond closely with what he had seen and beard in his vision. Inspired by these various influences, he felt himself divinely commissioned to restore his country to the worship of the true God, and set out on a mission to convert the people to his new faith.

Fung-Yun-san, one of his first converts, ardently joined him, and the two traversed the country far and wide, preaching the religion of the Christian God. Their success was great, their converts all giving up the worship of Confucius and renouncing idolatry. Some of them were arrested for destroying idols, among them Fung-Yun-san, but on the way to prison he converted the soldiers of his guard, who set him free and followed him as disciples. Many of the converts were seized with convulsions, some professed to have the gift of healing, and the movement took on the phase of strong religious ecstasy and enthusiasm.

It was in 1850 that this effort assumed a political character. A large force of pirates had been driven by a British fleet from the sea, and on shore they joined the bandits of the south, and became rebels against the Manchu rule. Hung's converts were mostly among this people, who soon took a strong stand against the misrule of the Tartars. The movement grew rapidly. From all sides recruits came to the rebel ranks, among them two women chiefs, each at the head of about two thousand men. Hung now proclaimed himself as sent by Heaven to drive out the Tartars—whom he declared to be examples of all that was base and vile—and to place a Chinese emperor on his country's throne.

Putting his forces in march, Hung made a remarkable progress of about one thousand miles to Woo-chang on the Yang-tse-Kiang and down that stream, the army fighting its way through all opposition. When towns and cities submitted their people were spared. Slaughter awaited those who resisted. Food and clothing were obtained by requisition on the people. The imperial troops were hurled back in defeat wherever met. Before battle it was the custom of the insurgents to kneel down and invoke the protection of God, after which they would charge their enemies with resistless zeal. City after city fell before them, and the whole empire regarded their march with surprise and dismay.

The converts professed faith in the Christian Scriptures, of which an imperfect translation was distributed among them. Hung announced that in case of success the Bible would be substituted for the works of Confucius. The Sabbath was strictly observed among them, forms of prayer to the Supreme Being were in constant use, and Englishmen who came among them spoke in the highest terms of their pious devotion and their great kindliness of feeling. They welcomed Europeans as "brethren from across the sea" and as fellow-worshippers of " Yesu."

From Woo-chang Hung led his army in 1852 down the river towards Nanking, which he had fixed upon as the capital of his new empire. The disaffection of the people of Nanking was so great that little resistance was made except by the Tartar garrison, who were all put to death when the city fell. Being now in possession of the ancient capital of the kingdom, Hung proclaimed himself emperor under the name of Teen Wang, or "Heavenly King," giving to his dynasty the title of the Tai-ping.

And now for a number of years victory followed every movement of the Tai-ping army. Four leading cities of Central China were quickly occupied, and a brilliant march to the north was begun, in which, cutting loose from its base of supplies, the rebel host forced its way through all obstacles. The army penetrated as far north as Tien-tsin, and Peking itself was in imminent peril, being saved only by a severe repulse of the rebel forces. The advance of the British and French upon Peking aided the cause of the insurgents, and fear of them had much to do with the prompt surrender of the city to the foreign invaders.

After the war the tide of the insurrection turned and its decline began, mainly through the aid given by the English to the government forces. Ignoring the fact that the movement was a Christian one, and might have gone far towards establishing Christianity among the Chinese, and friendly relations with foreign peoples, the English seemed mainly governed by the circumstance that opium was prohibited by the Tai-ping government at Nanking, the trade in this pernicious drug proving a far stronger interest with them than the hopeful results from the missionary movement.

Operations against the insurgents took place through the treaty ports, and British and French troops aided the imperial forces. The British cruisers treated the Tai-ping junks as pirates, because they captured Chinese vessels, and the soldiers and sailors of Great Britain took part in forty-three battles and massacres in which over four hundred thousand of the Tai-pings were killed. More than two millions of them are said to have died of starvation in the famine caused by the operations of the Chinese, British, and French allies.

General Ward, an American, led a force of natives against them, but their final overthrow was due to the famous Colonel Gordon, "Chinese Gordon," as he was subsequently known. He was not long in organizing the imperial troops, the "Ever-Victorious Army," into a powerful force, and in taking the field against the rebels. From that day their fortunes declined. City after city was taken from their garrisons, and in July, 1864, Nanking was invested with an immense army. Its fall ended the hopes of the Tai-ping dynasty. For three days the slaughter continued in its streets, while the new emperor avoided the sword of the foe by suicide. Those who escaped fled to their former homes, where many of them joined bands of banditti.

Thus came to a disastrous end, through the aid of foreign arms, the most remarkable insurrectionary movement that China has ever known. What would have been its result had the Chinese been left to themselves it is not easy to say. The indications are strong that the Manchu dynasty would have fallen and the Chinese regained their own again. And the Christian faith and worship of the rebels, with their marked friendliness to foreigners, might have worked a moral and political revolution in the Chinese empire, and lifted that ancient land into a far higher position than it occupies to-day. But the interests of the opium trade were threatened, and before this all loftier considerations had to give way.

Bronze worker's shop