What is the history of the Taiping reforms in China?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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The Taiping Reforms, which are themselves the result of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), are best thought of as three or four attempts at the reform of Chinese government and society in the 19thC.

The first set of reforms derives from the Taiping Rebellion itself, an attempt by one man, Hung Hsiu-chuan (the last name is pronounced, she-ew chew-an), and his followers to overthrow the Chinese government and Emperor in order to create what they called the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Harmony (or, the Kingdom of Heavenly Peace).  This group. largely made up of peasants and the dispossessed, eventually controlled almost 35% of China and caused about 20 million deaths, one of the most destructive movement in Chinese history.  In addition to a complete reform of the government and military, the Taipings advocated what we would consider fairly enlightened social reforms: equality for women; the concept of property held in common by the people; the disuse of opium, tobacco, alcohol; and even reforms of literature.

Because the Taipings tended to capture territory quickly and move on without establishing the administrative infrastructure to control what they had just conquered, eventually the movement began to burn itself out simply because those who had been conquered did not see tangible benefits flowing from their new government.  In 1864, the Taiping Rebellion, which left a large part of China in tatters, was destroyed by the central Chinese government forces..

After the Rebellion, the Chinese government, which was now embarrassed by the British occupation of Beijing, created a program of reforms known as "Self Strengthening," which was designed to allow China to face the Western powers (chiefly, the British) on equal terms.  To that end, the Chinese government first encouraged citizens to adopt Western technology, learn important aspects of Western culture, and even learn Western languages (English, German, French, primarily).  A second reform, however, encouraged the Chinese to return to the Confucian ideal, loosely defined as the ideal of a man (or people) who exhibits the best traits of humanity--by extension, a people who demonstrate only the best of human virtues.  A third, but eventually disastrous, reform was the brain-child of a scholar named Wang Tao, who argued that the Chinese had to become completely westernized--that is, it was not enough to understand the West; China had to become like the West in thought and deed.

The last reform--total westernization--endangered and eventually destroyed the reforms of the Self-Strengthening movement. Some remnants of this movement, however--chiefly, the military and some civil government--began to use Western industry to modernize the military, communications, mining, and rail and road infrastructure.

The last attempt at reforms--known as the "One Hundred Days of Reform"--originated with K'ang Yu-Wei (pronounced, kung you-way) at the request of the Emperor Kuang-hsu (pronounced, kwawng shoe).  Kang's reforms were issued as imperial edicts (which had the force of law) and included the creation of public schools, democratic elections, creation of a parliamentary system of representatives, and the westernization of government functions.  As forward-looking as these reforms were, however, they did not appeal to those who still had power, especially in rural areas, and very few of these reforms were adopted.

In sum, then, the Taiping Reforms should be thought of as a series of reforms, all stemming from the Taiping Rebellion and tightly connected to each other.  In other words, the reforms are evolutionary attempts to stabilize a society that was unstable at its core and was unable to adopt any one set of reforms because its stability was always under attack by internal and external (Western) forces, especially during the latter half of the 19thC.

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