China's Black Death Event
How the Taiping Rebellion Changed Everything
In 1851, the Taiping Rebellion broke out. Over the next 14 years, a total war annihilated China's people, its society, and its economy. An estimated 20 million people died, making it one of the worst wars in world history.
War is cruel. Civil wars and wars of religion more so. But the 150 years since the Taiping Civil War sanitized its cruelty.
In this video, I want to illustrate just how deeply this war affected China. It is one of the defining events of the 19th century for China's economy, demography, and government.
Introducing the Taiping Rebellion
I have not done a proper video about the Taiping Rebellion. It deserves such a video but that will come in the future. For now, let me set it up for you here in a few minutes.
A Hakka Chinese in Guangdong named Hong Xiuquan had an insane, fevered vision - a revelation. His vision told him that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and that he would lead the world to revolution.
Hong gathered a band of followers and then proclaimed a new Christian state: the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, or 太平天國. They rebelled against the Qing. No, not just the Qing. Hong wanted more than to just take the Emperor's spot for himself. The 3 million people of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom rebelled against the very nature of Chinese society itself. No more private property. No more landlords. No more Confucian scholars. Sweep it all this corruption away!
Based in Nanjing, the Kingdom would eventually fall after a number of critical turning points. But the rebellion it fought would inflict lasting changes on Qing China.
The Taiping Kingdom started in what is now Guangxi province. Its capital was Nanjing of the Jiangsu province. But during the rebellion, the Taiping military marched into parts of some 18 Chinese provinces.
Traveler Ferdinand Von Richthofen in 1871 recalled that in some areas, just 3% of the population survived the fighting. A month's fighting in Yining County, Jiangxi saw over 100,000 people die.
For example in 1862, the Taiping bandits as they were called attacked Bao Village in the Zhejiang province. The people of Bao had been left to their own defenses by the Qing government. A man named Bao Lishen raised a resistance force to repel the Taiping.
For eight months, the bandits attacked Bao Village, attempting to sack it. Whenever they failed, they would take their anger out on smaller neighboring villages, slaughtering everyone. But Bao held on.
Over time, Bao's resistance attracted rich refugees from all over Zejiang, bringing several millions in cash. The infuriated Taiping cut the village's water supply and its residents had to drink contaminated water from a river full of corpses. They soon developed sores in their mouths.
But the Taiping could not be defied. Bao Lishen was eventually killed and the village fell. By then, a hundred thousand people huddled in Bao Village and the Taiping did not have the time or effort to kill them all with swords or cannon. So they herded men, women and children into houses, wrapped those houses in bamboo mats, and set them on fire. The fires raged for 11 days and nights.
Writings also recall major genocidal massacres by both sides. When capturing an area, the Taiping would exterminate all the Manchu living there. In return, the Qing forces slaughtered the Hakka by the thousands. A million Hakka were murdered upon the fall of the Taiping Kingdom and it is seen as one of the four great migrations of the Hakka people.
The Taiping War was the major demographic event of 19th century Chinese history, like how the Black Death was for 14th century Europe. With major economic, social and governmental changes that lasted for decades. More on that later.
The Qing ran their empire's finances quite crudely. The majority of the revenue came from a land tax and a rice tribute - a quota amount was imposed on the provincial administrators to collect each year.
During the Kangxi emperor's reign (1712), the land tax quota was frozen and did not move for many years. When revenues are static, thus so are expenditures and thus official salaries.
In addition, the country was horrifically unequal in terms of wealth. Prior to the war breaking out, some 40-80% of land was held by just 10% of its population. I detailed in detail how landlords can over time lock peasants into debt traps and take their lands in my video about Taiwanese land reform.
Officials realized that they could not squeeze the peasants much more so to make their financial quota to the Qing. So they tried to squeeze the lower-class landowners, generally unsuccessfully. This left the government bereft of cash ... and also with both the peasants and the landowners pissed off.
With revenues unable to adjust for economic circumstances (as well as the indemnities imposed on them by foreign regimes like the British after the disastrous Opium wars), it led to the Qing constantly falling into budget crunches. Quota collections often fell short, so the government had to resort to raising cash by selling government positions and titles for cash. Things like roads, bridges and river dykes were left to rot.
When the rebellion first broke out, the Qing government sent its own armies to fight and defeat the rebels. They were quickly defeated, in part due to a lack of resources, the size of the battlefield, and the general competence of the Taiping army. The provinces found themselves having to deal with Taiping bandits on their own.
The local gentry and landowners, alarmed by what they could potentially lose if the Taiping took over China, took matters into their own hands. They raised local militia of Han residents to fight back.
In order to raise an army, you have to raise government revenue to pay them. In 1853, a local official and militia leader named Lei Yixian in Yangzhou created a unique tax called the "lijin" 釐金. It was kind of like a province-level tariff for goods entering or exiting the province.
There’s a reason why such things aren’t allowed in the United States for example. Like any forbidden fruit, the Lijin turned out to have far-reaching consequences. It cut the budgetary cord between the provinces and the central Qing government. Combine that with the fact that the provinces had their own private armies now, and you have a direct path to China's warlord period.
Economy and Society
The war remade China's economy in interesting ways.
First, areas devastated by civil war remain laggards population-wise even a century and a half after the war took place. Shanghai, being one of the few cities to escape the war, grew into a dominant place in China's economy. This is in line with demographic effects found after Europe's Black Death.
Second, because so many people died in the war, it re-balanced the relationship between the landowner and the peasant. As you recall, the Taiping believed in a proto-Communist world where all land was held by the state. This was largely done by executing landlords.
Later on in Taiping history, the government began to implement a notably progressive land reform regime - giving de facto land rights to the cultivators of land (its peasants) rather than absent landlords. Such reform incentivized peasants to work harder on their land and take care of it. When the Qing retook this land, they largely respected the Taiping's changes - pretty remarkable to me.
The obliteration of human population and a release of capital set the foundation for a more modern economy. The population grew slower and a larger number of people grew slightly more richer - which meant that they could invest in their children. The aforementioned Lijin tax also allowed individual provinces to set up and fund schools for their kids. Scientists and entrepreneurs began to emerge.
So, the world's bloodiest civil war helped southern China escape a Malthusian trap. It allowed south China's economy to transition from a labor-intensive economy (largely, agricultural) to one largely capital-intensive - i.e. industrial. It helped set China's southern provinces on a path to being some of the richest in the country today.
The Taiping Rebellion took place roughly at the same time as the American Civil War. Like the Civil War, the war changed China in long-lasting, fundamental ways. The establishment Qing Empire in the end won, but the victory furthered the empire's decline - leaving the country more decentralized than ever and setting the stage for its eventual fall in 1911.
I don't want people watching this video to come away thinking that it was a good thing that 20 million people died during this war. That we should start wars to "cull" the human riff-raff. For one thing, life and governance is more than just economic growth and development. And also you can't directly tie the war's deaths to the region's eventual industrialization one to one. After all, the South stayed poor for decades after the American Civil War.
I want to write more about the Taiping Rebellion in the future. I've rarely been so fascinated by a historic event in China's history. I hope to have more on it shortly.