Hsien Feng came to the throne at the age of nineteen, and found himself in possession of a heritage which showed evident signs of going rapidly to pieces. His father, in the opinion of many competent Chinese, had been sincerely anxious for the welfare of his country; on the other hand, he had failed to learn anything from the lessons he had received at the hands of foreigners, towards whom his attitude to the last was of the bow-wow order. On one occasion, indeed, he borrowed a classical phrase, and referring to the intrusions of the barbarian, declared roundly that he would allow no man to snore alongside of his bed. Brought up in this spirit, Hsien Feng had already begun to exhibit an anti-foreign bias, when he found himself in the throes of a struggle which speedily reduced the European question to quite insignificant proportions.
A clever young Cantonese, named Hung Hsiu-ch`uan, from whom great things were expected, failed, in 1833, to secure the first degree at the usual public examination. Four years later, when twenty-four years of age, he made another attempt, only, however, to be once more rejected. Chagrin at this second failure brought on melancholia, and he began to see visions; and later on, while still in this depressed state of mind, he turned his attention to some Christian tracts which had been given to him on his first appearance at the examination, but which he had so far allowed to remain unread. In these he discovered what he thought were interpretations of his earlier dreams, and soon managed to persuade himself that he had been divinely chosen to bring to his countrymen a knowledge of the true God.
In one sense this would only have been reversion to a former condition, for in ancient times a simple monotheism formed the whole creed of the Chinese people; but Hung went much further, and after having become head of a Society of God, he started a sect of professing Christians, and set to work to collect followers, styling himself the Brother of Christ. Gradually, the authorities became aware of his existence, and also of the fact that he was drawing together a following on a scale which might prove dangerous to the public peace. It was then that force of circumstances changed his status from that of a religious reformer to that of a political adventurer; and almost simultaneously with the advent of Hsien Feng to the Imperial power, the long-smouldering discontent with Manchu rule, carefully fostered by the organization of the Triad society, broke into open rebellion. A sort of holy war was proclaimed against the Manchus, stigmatized as usurpers and idolaters, who were to be displaced by a native administration, called the T`ai P`ing (great peace) Heavenly Dynasty, at the head of which Hung placed himself, with the title of "Heavenly King," in allusion to the Christian principles on which this new departure was founded.
"Our Heavenly King," so ran the rebel proclamations, "has received a divine commission to exterminate the Manchus utterly, men, women, and children, with all idolaters, and to possess the empire as its true sovereign. For the empire and everything in it is his; its mountains and rivers, its broad lands and public treasuries; you and all that you have, your family, males and females alike, from yourself to your youngest child, and your property, from your patrimonial estates to the bracelet on your infant's arm. We command the services of all, and we take everything. All who resist us are rebels and idolatrous demons, and we kill them without sparing; but whoever acknowledges our Heavenly King and exerts himself in our service shall have full reward,--due honour and station in the armies and court of the Heavenly Dynasty."
The T`ai-p`ings now got rid of the chief outward sign of allegiance to the Manchus, by ceasing to shave the forepart of the head, and allowing all their hair to grow long, from which they were often spoken of at the time--and the name still survives--as the long-haired rebels. Their early successes were phenomenal; they captured city after city, moving northwards through Kuangsi into Hunan, whence, after a severe check at Ch`ang-sha, the provincial capital, the siege of which they were forced to raise, they reached and captured, among others, the important cities of Wu-ch`ang, Kiukiang, and An-ch`ing, on the Yangtsze. The next stage was to Nanking, a city occupying an important strategic position, and famous as the capital of the empire in the fourth and fourteenth centuries. Here the Manchu garrison offered but a feeble resistance, the only troops who fought at all being Chinese; within ten days (March, 1853) the city was in the hands of the T`ai-p`ings; all Manchus,--men, women, and children, said to number no fewer than twenty thousand,--were put to the sword; and in the same month, Hung was formally proclaimed first Emperor of the T`ai P`ing Heavenly Dynasty, Nanking from this date receiving the name of the Heavenly City. So far, the generals who had been sent to oppose his progress had effected nothing. One of these was Commissioner Lin, of opium fame, who had been banished and recalled, and was then living in retirement after having successfully held several high offices. His health was not equal to the effort, and he died on his way to take up his post.
After the further capture of Chinkiang, a feat which created a considerable panic at Shanghai, a force was detached from the main body of the T`ai-p`ings, and dispatched north for no less a purpose than the capture of Peking. Apparently a fool-hardy project, it was one that came nearer to realization than the most sanguine outsider could possibly have expected. The army reached Tientsin, which is only eighty miles from the capital; but when there, a slight reverse, together with other unexplained reasons, resulted in a return (1855) of the troops without having accomplished their object. Meanwhile, the comparative ease with which the T`ai-p`ings had set the Manchus at defiance, and continued to hold their own, encouraged various outbreaks in other parts of the empire; until at length more systematic efforts were made to put a stop to the present impossible condition of affairs.
Opportunity just now was rather on the side of the Imperialists, as the futile expedition to Peking had left the rebels in a somewhat aimless state, not quite knowing what to do next. It is true that they were busy spreading the T`ai-p`ing conception of Christianity, in establishing schools, and preparing an educational literature to meet the exigencies of the time. They achieved the latter object by building anew on the lines, but not in the spirit, of the old. Thus the Trimetrical Classic, the famous schoolboy's handbook, a veritable guide to knowledge in which a variety of subjects are lightly touched upon, was entirely rewritten. The form, rhyming stanzas with three words to each line, was preserved; but instead of beginning with the familiar Confucian dogma that man's nature is entirely good at his birth and only becomes depraved by later environment, we find the story of the Creation, taken from the first chapter of Genesis.
By 1857, Imperialist troops were drawing close lines around the rebels, who had begun to lose rather than to gain ground. An-ch`ing and Nanking, the only two cities which remained to them, were blockaded, and the Manchu plan was simply to starve the enemy out. During this period we hear little of the Emperor, Hsien Feng; and what we do hear is not to his advantage. He had become a confirmed debauchee, in the hands of a degraded clique, whose only contribution to the crisis was a suggested issue of paper money and debasement of the popular coinage. Among his generals, however, there was now one, whose name is still a household word all over the empire, and who initiated the first checks which led to the ultimate suppression of the rebellion. Tseng Kuo-fan had been already employed in high offices, when, in 1853, he was first ordered to take up arms against the T`ai-p`ings. After some reverses, he entered upon a long course of victories by which the rebels were driven from most of their strongholds; and in 1859, he submitted a plan for an advance on Nanking, which was approved and ultimately carried out. Meanwhile, the plight of the besieged rebels in Nanking had become so unbearable that something had to be done. A sortie on a large scale was accordingly organized, and so successful was it that the T`ai-p`ings not only routed the besieging army, but were able to regain large tracts of territory, capturing at the same time huge stores of arms and munitions of war. These victories were in reality the death-blow to the rebel cause, for the brutal cruelty then displayed to the people at large was of such a character as to alienate completely the sympathy of thousands who might otherwise have been glad to see the end of the Manchus. Among other acts of desolation, the large and beautiful city of Soochow was burnt and looted, an outrage for which the T`ai-p`ings were held responsible, and regarding which there is a pathetic tale told by an eye-witness of the ruins; in this instance, however, if indeed in no others, the acts of vandalism in question were committed by Imperialist soldiers.
It is with the T`ai-p`ing rebellion that we associate likin, a tax which has for years past been the bugbear of the foreign merchant in China. The term means "thousandth-part money," that is, the thousandth part of a tael or Chinese ounce of silver, say one cash; and it was originally applied to a tax of one cash per tael on all sales, said to have been voluntarily imposed on themselves by the people, as a temporary measure, with a view to make up the deficiency in the land-tax caused by the rebellion. It was to be set apart for military purposes only--hence its common name, "war-tax"; but it soon drifted into the general body of taxation, and became a serious impost on foreign trade. We first hear of it in 1852, as collected by the Governor of Shantung; to hear the last of it has long been the dream of those who wish to see the expansion of trade with China.
Tseng Kuo-fan was now (1860) appointed Imperial War Commissioner as well as Viceroy of the Two Kiang (= provinces of Kiangsi and Kiangsu + Anhui). He had already been made a bataru, a kind of order instituted by the first Manchu Emperor Shun Chih, as a reward for military prowess; and had also received the Yellow Riding Jacket from the Emperor Hsien Feng, who drew off the jacket he was himself wearing at the time, and placed it on the shoulders of the loyal and successful general. In 1861 he succeeded in recapturing An-ch`ing and other places; and with this city as his headquarters, siege was forthwith laid to Nanking.
The Imperialist forces were at this juncture greatly strengthened by the appointments, on Tseng's recommendation, of two notable men, Tso Tsung-t`ang and Li Hung-chang, as Governors of Chehkiang and Kiangsu respectively. Assistance, too, came from another and most unexpected quarter. An American adventurer, named Ward, a man of considerable military ability, organized a small force of foreigners, which he led to such purpose against the T`ai-p`ings, that he rapidly gathered into its ranks a large if motley crowd of foreigners and Chinese, all equally bent on plunder, and with that end in view submitting to the discipline necessary to success. A long run of victories gained for this force the title of the Ever Victorious Army; until at length Ward was killed in battle. He was buried at Sungkiang, near Shanghai, a city which he had retaken from the T`ai-p`ings, and there a shrine was erected to his memory, and for a long time--perhaps even now-- offerings were made to his departed spirit. An attempt was made to replace him by another American named Burgevine, who had been Ward's second in command. This man, however, was found to be incapable and was superceded; and in 1863 Major Gordon, R.E., was allowed by the British authorities to take over command of what was then an army of about five thousand men, and to act in co-operation with Tseng Kuo-fan and Li Hung-chang. Burgevine shortly afterwards went over to the rebels with about three hundred men, and finally came to a tragic end.
Gordon's appointment to the work which will always be associated with his name, was speedily followed by disastrous results to the T`ai- p`ings. The Ever Victorious troops, who had recently been worsted in more than one encounter with their now desperate enemies, began to retrieve their reputation, greatly stimulated by the regular pay which Gordon always insisted upon. Towards the close of the year, the siege of Soochow ended in a capitulation on terms which Gordon understood to include a pardon for the eight T`ai-p`ing "princes" engaged in its defence. These eight were hurriedly decapitated by order of Li Hung- chang, and Gordon immediately resigned, after having searched that same night, so the story goes, revolver in hand, for Li Hung-chang, whose brains he had determined to blow out on the spot. The Emperor sent him a medal and a present of about #3,000, both of which he declined; and Imperial affairs would again have been in a bad way, but that Gordon, yielding to a sense of duty, agreed to resume command. Foreign interests had begun to suffer badly; trade was paralysed; and something had to be done. Further successes under Gordon's leadership reduced the T`ai-p`ings to their last extremity. Only Nanking remained to be captured, and that was already fully invested by Tseng Kuo-fan. Gordon therefore laid down his command, and was rewarded with the title of Provincial Commander-in-Chief, and also with the bestowal of the Yellow Riding Jacket. A month or so later (July, 1864), Nanking was carried by storm, defended bravely to the last by the only remaining "prince," the Heavenly King himself having taken poison three weeks beforehand. This prince escaped with the new king, a boy of sixteen, who had just succeeded his father; but he was soon caught and executed, having first been allowed time to write a short history of the movement from the T`ai-p`ing point of view. The boy shared his fate. The Imperial edicts of this date show clearly what a sense of relief came over the Manchu court when once it could be said definitively that the great rebellion was over. On the other hand, there were not wanting some foreigners who would have liked to see the Manchus overthrown, and who severely blamed the British Government for helping to bolster up a dynasty already in the last stage of decay; for it seems to be an indubitable fact that but for British intervention, the rebellion would ultimately have succeeded in that particular direction.
During a great part of the last eight years described above, an ordinary observer would have said that the Manchus had already sufficient troubles on hand, and would be slow to provoke further causes of anxiety. It is none the less true, however, that at one of the most critical periods of the rebellion, China was actually at war with the very power which ultimately came to the rescue. In 1856 the Viceroy of Canton, known to foreigners as Governor Yeh, a man who had gained favour at the Manchu court by his wholesale butchery of real and suspected rebels, arrested twelve Chinese sailors on board the "Arrow," a Chinese-owned vessel lying at Canton, which had been licensed at Hongkong to sail under the British flag, and at the same time the flag was hauled down by Yeh's men. Had this been an isolated act, it is difficult to see why very grave circumstances need have followed, and perhaps Justin McCarthy's condemnation of our Consul, Mr (afterwards Sir Harry) Parkes, as "fussy," because he sent at once to Hongkong for armed assistance, might in such case be allowed to stand unchallenged; but it must be remembered that Yeh was all the time refusing to foreigners rights which had been already conceded under treaty, and that action such as Parkes took, against an adversary such as Yeh, was absolutely necessary either to mend or end the situation. Accordingly, his action led to what was at first an awkward state of reprisals, in which some American men-of-war joined for grievances of their own; forts being attacked and occupied, the foreign houses of business at Canton being burned down, and rewards offered for foreigners' heads. In January, 1857, an attempt was actually made in Hongkong to get rid of all foreigners at one fell stroke, in which plot there is no doubt that the local officials at Canton were deeply implicated. The bread was one day found to be poisoned with arsenic, but so heavily that little mischief was done. The only possible end to this tension was war; and by the end of the year a joint British and French force, with Lord Elgin and Baron Gros as plenipotentiaries, was on the spot. Canton was captured after a poor resistance; and Governor Yeh, whose enormous bulk made escape difficult, was captured and banished to Calcutta, where he died. On the voyage he sank into a kind of stupor, taking no interest whatever in his new surroundings; and when asked by Alabaster, who accompanied him as interpreter, why he did not read, he pointed to his stomach, the Chinese receptacle for learning, and said that there was nothing worth reading except the Confucian Canon, and that he had already got all that inside him. After his departure the government of the city was successfully directed by British and French authorities, acting in concert with two high Manchu officials.
Lord Elgin then decided to proceed forth, in the hope of being able to make satisfactory arrangements for future intercourse; but the obstructive policy of the officials on his arrival at the Peiho compelled him to attack and capture the Taku forts, and finally, to take up his residence in Tientsin. The lips, as the Chinese say, being now gone, the teeth began to feel cold; the court was in a state of panic, and within a few weeks a treaty was signed (June 26, 1858) containing, among other concessions to England, the right to have a diplomatic representative stationed in Peking, and permission to trade in the interior of China. It would naturally be supposed that Lord Elgin's mission was now ended, and indeed he went home; the Emperor, however, would not hear of ratifications of the treaty being exchanged in Peking, and in many other ways it was made plain that there was no intention of its stipulations being carried out. There was the example of Confucius, who had been captured by rebels and released on condition that he would not travel to the State of Wei. Thither, notwithstanding, he continued his route; and when asked by a disciple if it was right to violate his oath, he replied, "This was a forced oath; the spirits do not hear such."
By June, 1859, another Anglo-French force was at the mouth of the Peiho, only to find the Taku forts now strongly fortified, and the river staked and otherwise obstructed. The allied fleet, after suffering considerable damage, with much loss of life, was compelled to retire, greatly to the joy and relief of the Emperor, who at last saw the barbarian reduced to his proper status. It was on this occasion that Commander Tatnell of the U.S. navy, who was present, strictly speaking, as a spectator only, in complete violation of international law, of which luckily the Chinese knew nothing at that date, lent efficient aid by towing boat-loads of British marines into action, justifying his conduct by a saying which will always be gratefully associated with his name,--"Blood is thicker than water."
By August, 1860, thirteen thousand British troops, seven thousand French, and two thousand five hundred Cantonese coolies, were ready to make another attempt. This time there were no frontal attacks on the forts from the seaward; capture was effected, after a severe struggle, by land from the rear, a feat which was generally regarded by the Tartar soldiery as most unsportsmanlike. High Manchu officials were now hurriedly dispatched from Peking to Tientsin to stop by fair promises the further advance of the allies; but the British and French plenipotentiaries decided to move up to T`ung-chow, a dozen miles or so from the capital. It was on this march that Parkes, Loch, and others, while carrying out orders under a flag of truce, were treacherously seized by the soldiers of Seng-ko-lin-sin, the Manchu prince and general (familiar to the British troops as "Sam Collinson"), who had just experienced a severe defeat at the taking of the Taku forts. After being treated with every indignity, the prisoners, French and English, numbering over thirty in all, were forwarded to Peking. There they were miserably tortured, and many of them succumbed; but events were moving quickly now, and relief was at hand for those for whom it was not already too late. Seng-ko-lin-sin and his vaunted Tartar cavalry were completely routed in several encounters, and Peking lay at the mercy of the foreigner, the Emperor having fled to Jehol, where he died in less than a year. Only then did Prince Kung, a younger brother of Hsien Feng, who had been left to bear the brunt of foreign resentment, send back, in a state too terrible for words, fourteen prisoners, less than half the original number of those so recently captured. Something in the form of a punitive act now became necessary, to mark the horror with which this atrocious treatment of prisoners by the Manchu court was regarded among the countrymen of the victims. Accordingly, orders were given to burn down the Summer Palace, appropriately condemned as being the favourite residence of the Emperor, and also the scene of the unspeakable tortures inflicted. This palace was surrounded by a beautiful pleasance lying on the slope of the western hills, about nine miles to the north-west of Peking. Yuan-ming Yuan, or the "Bright Round Garden," to give it its proper name, had been laid out by the Jesuit fathers on the plan of the Trianon at Versailles, and was packed with valuable porcelain, old bronzes, and every conceivable kind of curio, most of which were looted or destroyed by the infuriated soldiery.
The ratification of the Treaty of Tientsin (1858) was now completed, and before the end of the year the allied forces were gone, save and except garrisons at Tientsin and Taku, which were to remain until the indemnity was paid.