The Tae-Ping Rebellion
In 1853 a riot broke out in China ; in a very short time it grew into an insurrection, and threatened to expand into a revolution. Before order was restored millions of people had perished, and many thriving towns and villages had become blackened ruins. It brought into prominence Li Hung Chang, the man who often promoted the progress of China, and as often opposed it.
Siu-tshuen (see-oo tshoo-en) was born in 1813, in the Hwa (hwhah) district of Kwang-tung. It is situated in a level, fertile, rice-growing region near Canton, with the White Cloud Mountains on the south, and the Nan-ling range on the north.
The boy's family name was Hung. Every inhabitant of the village where he lived was a Hung, and the village might have been called Hungborough. Siu's father was a village elder.
Would you like to see Siu's house? It was of one story, built of mud in a wooden frame, and covered with tiles. A narrow door opened from the street into the hall, showing a kitchen and some sleeping rooms on either side. Opposite the door was a sitting room. The house was not more than thirty-five or forty feet deep, and twelve or fifteen wide. In it lived grandparents, parents, and children, a buffalo, a few pigs, some fowls and a couple of dogs. Still there was room enough for half-a-dozen idols, but there was no room left for the children to play.
Young Siu had all the fun he wished on the edge of a mud hole or small pond in front of the village, used by the ducks, dogs, pigs and other animals as a sort of common. When he had reached his fourth year, one of the older boys accidentally pushed him into the water, where it was beyond his depth, and he might have been drowned, had not another boy, seeing his queue floating, pulled him out. His father made him a sort of life-preserver, in the shape of a hollow gourd, which he fastened behind his son's back. When Siu showed himself in such an unusual article of dress, the boys shouted "Gourd boy! Gourd boy!" The child ran home, and pleaded with his father to be relieved of the gourd. His request was granted after a bamboo had been applied to his back. Siu never forgot that first whipping. He may not have liked it at the time, but in after years he always said that it did him good.
Siu was the youngest son. The other boys were helping their father in the field, but Siu was to be a scholar and an officer. When he was seven years old his father made a contract with the village schoolmaster, Ting-jin, to teach the boy for one year, whereby he agreed to pay two dollars in money, fifty pounds of rice, and one and one-third pounds of tea, salt, lard, and lamp oil. Ting-jin was to supply the necessary paper, ink, and brushes.
Ting-jin was one of the ten thousand who had passed the examination for the first degree, but could not advance beyond it. He was satisfied to make his living by teaching as he had been taught, using the bamboo cane not more than he thought necessary. Siu continued to go to school for three years, when his mother died.
After six months' mourning, the boy resumed his studies. When he was eleven years old, Ting began to tell him the meaning of the characters which he had committed to memory. Siu was kept at school until he was fifteen, when his father needed his help in the field.
In China everybody works, especially among the peasants, and Siu had to do his share. He was selected, however, to herd the cows and buffaloes of the village, and while engaged in this business he kept up his studies.
His evident desire to learn attracted the attention of the elders of the Hung clan. They met, and decided to give him an opportunity for further study. They subscribed a small sum of money, sufficient for Siu's expenses. So when he was sixteen years old, Siu left on foot for the chief town of the district where he resided, and presented himself for the first preparatory examination. After giving his name, his father's, and his grandfather's, as well as his place of residence, he was assigned a seat. There were four or five hundred boys and men in the hall. In the evening Siu handed in his compositions, and among the names of the approved writers he was proud to hear his own. He was now a "hien ming," which means having a name in the village.
Following up this success, Siu went to the chief city in the department, and came out a "fu ming," that is, he had a name in the department. But his luck left him at the provincial examination at Canton. He returned home with too much learning to earn his living by labor, and not enough to earn it with his brains.
Once again the Hung clan came to Siu's assistance, and started a school. Thus he passed some years, and his father procured a wife for him. After this he opened another school in a village about ten miles distant, but dutifully left his wife at home to assist his parents.
In 1833 Siu once more made his way to Canton to try to pass the examination. Arriving a few days before the time set, he was walking in the street, when, on passing a fortune teller's stand, he thought that he would consult him upon the result of his journey. He did so, and received the answer:—"You will succeed; you will be ill; my respects to your virtuous father."
This answer contained both sweet and bitter, but, on the whole, Siu felt happy. As he was strolling along the street he met Liang A-fah (leeahng ah-fah), a Christian Chinese who was distributing tracts. Siu was much surprised to see his friend employed in this way, but he took several of the tracts without paying anything for them.
Siu failed again in his examination, and returned home. He read the tracts, but not being able to understand them, put them on his shelf. There they remained for about ten years. Again Siu went to Canton, only to fail; and when he returned home, he fell ill.
Brain fever set in, and brought him to the brink of the grave. When he recovered, he had a vision or dream, which was deeply impressed upon his mind. He resumed school work in his own village, and in due time he presented himself again at the examination hall at Canton. But he was doomed to disappointment.
Soon after his return home, he was visited by a relative of the Li family, who, happening to see the tracts upon the bookshelf, asked leave to read them. When Li returned them he remarked that their teaching was quite different. from that of Confucius. This remark induced Siu to read them again, and he became convinced that he was chosen from heaven to destroy the idols, and to convert the people. Many believed in him, and he ordered a demon-killing sword to be made.
His unbelief in Confucius caused him to lose his pupils, and Siu made up his mind to visit some friends in Kwangsi. On his way he increased his number of believers, and after a year he returned home and published several essays. Upon being told that there was a white man at Canton preaching almost the same doctrine, Siu went to that city and introduced himself to Rev. I.J. Roberts, an American missionary. Siu was then about thirty-four years old. After studying for some time, he applied for a position as assistant to the missionary. This request was declined, and Siu decided to visit his relatives in Kwang-si. Upon his arrival he found the number of his followers increased to such an extent that he, with their help, began to destroy idols. When the officers prepared to punish him, he collected his men and began to march toward Kwang-tung.
The weakness of the governors added to his strength, and he declared war upon the Manchu, calling himself Tae-Ping Wang, or King of the Great Ping dynasty. He then moved northward, to the Yang-tsz', where he repeated his successes. After he had taken Nanking, he prepared to descend the river. An American named Ward offered to protect the trembling Chinese merchants at Shanghai against the Tae-Ping, if they would subscribe the necessary money. They agreed, and Ward engaged some one hundred and fifty foreigners, and went up the river to meet the rebels. Ward, who was recklessly daring, checked the advance of the Tae-Ping. With the assistance of Li Hung Chang, of whom you will hear later, he enlisted Chinese, and laid the foundation of the "Ever-Victorious Army." Always in the heat of the battle, he was severely wounded, and died. Major Gordon, a British officer, then took command of the imperial army, and gradually closed in on Siu. At last the Tae-Ping surrendered, and the leaders were beheaded by order of Li Hung Chang.
This rebellion cost China millions in men and money. It should have taught the value of discipline, but as soon as peace was restored the old careless order of things was continued.