Kuora: Revisiting the ‘Taiping Civil War’


We turn to history this week. This column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on October 14, 2018.

How could the Taiping have won the war against the Qing?

The outcome of the Taiping Civil War — as Stephen Platt, the author of the excellent book Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, calls it — could easily have been different. Platt argues quite convincingly that the major foreign power of the day, the British, were close to being persuaded either not to intercede on behalf of the Qing Dynasty or to actively support the Taiping.

A number of prominent Protestant missionaries during the time had grown quite close to Hong Rengan, the cousin of the Taiping “Heavenly King” Hong Xiuquan and a “king” of the Taiping — he was called the “Shield King” — himself. Hong Rengan had spent the earlier years of the civil war in Hong Kong, where he worked as an assistant to the eminent scholar and missionary James Legge. Later, after rejoining his cousin in Nanjing, he lobbied successfully to allow some missionaries into the Taiping capital there, where they proselytized and hoped to “correct” the supposedly erroneous theology of the Taipings.

The Taiping also made what were seen as threatening moves toward the treaty port of Shanghai, with its international settlement. In one incident — a misunderstanding over how an advancing Taiping force was to be treated — a militia within the international settlement ended up firing on the Taiping, causing bad blood.

It’s entirely possible that had the Taiping armies not threatened the international settlement in Shanghai, and had they been willing to make some compromises on points of theology, they would have gained the full-throated endorsement of the Protestant missionary community in China and, through their efforts, the support of the British — or at least its acquiescence. And it’s possible that without the support of the “Ever-Victorious Army” led by American adventurer Frederick Townsend Ward and later by the British officer Charles “Chinese” Gordon, the outcome might have been quite different.

Kuora is a weekly column.