Lessons from the Taiping Rebellion

History is a reflection of past events from which we can learn valuable lessons; lessons which can guide us to avoid certain pitfalls that befell those in the past. That is why although I was in Science stream, I read  widely on history.

One of the countries with the longest recorded history is  China. By reading CHinese history, many valuable lessons can be learned. If many of our present days politicians care to read a bit about the history of this particular country and remember the lessons of its history, they would have equipped themselves well as a first step to become a wise and great leader.

During the 17th until early 20th century, China was ruled by the Manchu, a tribe from the clan of Aisin Gioro from the present day Manchuria. The dynasty was known as Qing .(1644 to 1912)

Some of the earlier emperors of this Dyansty were great rulers. Under the rules of the second emperor Kangxi, thrid Yong Zhen and fourth Qianlong (the first emperor was Shunzhiwho was rumoured to become a monk), the empire reached its zenith and ruled over a vast territory, extending from Xinjiang to present day Mongolia.

However, beginning from the later part of the reign of Qianlong, Qing rule was beginning to see rampant corruption, self gratifications among the officials as well as among royalty. This resulted in social unrest and deprivation.

The Manchus practised a dual appointment system in which a Han and a Manchu would be appointed to almost every position in the Central government. The Han would do the work, and the Manchu would oversee the Han.

In the 19th century, because of rampant corruption, economy stagnation resulted in social strife, decrease in food productions and starvation of the people. Many of those in the coastal regions, like Provinces of Fu Jian and Guangdong , left the country to seek life overseas, in South East Asia and in AMerica. They  became the forefathers of many of the present day Overseas Chinese.

Foreign powers, sensing an opportunity to sell their goods in exchange of goods made in China such as ceramics  and silk, wanted China to open its ports to allow trade. Chinese merchants however would only sell their goods in exchange of silver, whereas the West  sought to have alternative payment schemes such as opium trade  in exchange for Chinese products.

AT that time there was no such organisation like the present day WTO or GATT or FTA. When there was no agreement, force would be used. So when China started to ban opium in early 19th century, the British sent in their gunboats.

The First Opium War resulted in China signing an unequal treaty (The Treaty of Nanking)  allowing opium trade and ceding Hong Kong to Great Britain, besides having to pay huge amount of ‘compensation’.

Opium did  great harm to China. Many of its people ranging from royalty to high officials to ordinary merchants were addicted, resulting in even more rampant corruption and a very inefficient system of government since everyone would spend a great deal of time each day smoking and enjoying opium..

There were unimaginable poverty and many peasants died. Social strife eventually led to the rise of a rebellion, led by a Christian Chinese Hong Xiuquan.

This rebellion began with the promise of a better life for peasants  and its egalitarian ideology promised that all lands would be shared by peasants. ( The rebellion started in 1850 and Karl Marx wrote his book Communist Manifesto in 1848, almost the same time).

The rebellion, with popular support against a regime that was tyrannical, discriminatory and corrupt, quickly spread . The rebels also used ethnic card and adopted the slogan of ‘Banishing the Manchus and restoring Ming (Han) rule”.

At its height, the rebellion  occupied many provinces South of the Yangtse river. In fact, many of the richer parts of China, especially Jiang Nan including Suzhou  and Hangzhou, were under their rule. They occupied Nanjing for 10 years. The leadership proclaimed the formation of a kingdom called ” Kingdom of Heavenly Peace or Tai Ping Tian Guo”ad Hong became the first emperor or Heavenly King, when the objective of throwing the Manchus out was not even half achieved.

under taiping rebellion land under Tai Ping’s control (click to enlarge)

Initially the leaders of this rebellion adopted certain reforms such as dismantling of Landlord system .All arable lands were confiscated from landlords and distributed to peasants to be shared. Funds taken from the rich were also shared among the poor. Foot binding was banned

However, after the initial success, complacency set in. Many of its leaders were given title of ‘huang’ meaning ‘king’. There were South King, East King , West King, NOrth King  and so on. Each became a regional warlord and conflicts among these leaders were common.

There was also no proper system of government, and in fact the whole region was ruled mainly through its army. Governing was often through proclamation of certain orders containing religious connotation, proclaiming Christianity over the entrenched Buddhist-Taoist-confucianist philosophy.

Internal conflicts led to purge of capable leaders, factionalism and corruption. There was no attempt to rule with an organised government and in the words of the renowned Chinese Historian Qian Mu, “no government institution was set up in their 10 years of rule in Nanjing”.

The leaders themselves, including Hong Xiuquan, retreated to a life of pleasure and luxury, and forgotten about what they had set up to do initially.

In the end, Qing Government adopted certain reforms and its army was able to turn the tide and slowly recovered all the lost territory and the rebellion was put down.

Why had this rebellion failed when initially it was able to garner such big support and became an almost unstoppable force?

Well, for one thing, once the leaders tasted a little victory, they stopped their advance and forgot about their mission. Instead,  they tried to stab each other in the back, quarrelled among themselves, and sidelined those who were capable. Their administration skill was at best mediocre.

 The initial gimmick of having a fair and egalitarian society quickly became rhetoric only when they indulged in self gratifications and lived in luxuries and comfort, instead of consolidating their forces and conquered the rest of China.

 They became as corrupt as the government they set out to replace. Even worse, they failed to put in a reasonable form of government.

All these sound familiar to us Malaysians?  After 308, a coalition of forces was swept to power in many of the states in Peninsular Malaysia, where they even won the popular votes. Their momentum would be unstoppable if only they consolidate and try to rule the States under their administration well.

Instead, after tasting initial victories, complacency has set in. The administration after a year plus is at best mediocre. But people are still willing to wait and give them a chance.  What is beginning to put some people off is their internal rife, among members of the same party as well as among leaders of the different parties that made up the coalition.

After winning many by elections in the past year, their great momentum has finally been stopped at Manei Urai where the win is only marginal.

Instead of thrashing out their differences internally and consolidating their gains, and concentrate on how  to run their administration, they are seen to be bogged down in disagreement over  petty matters.

Instead of strengthening their cooperation based on common agenda, and plan to expand their sphere of influence to those parts where their support was not so strong, they bicker like the heavenly kings of the Taiping rebellion, thereby driving wedges into cracks and making them bigger.

I spend the last hour writing about this so that hopefully, those leaders in Pakatan government who had tasted the sweetness of victory and now living a life of pleasure should not forget about their aim of trying to build up a credible opposition force so that ultimately a 2 party system can emerge. When there is a real 2 party system, either side would be able to achieve the aim of check and balance if the other side comes to power.

History is for us to learn to avoid past mistakes. Only fools will fail to learn from history. Sometimes, however, when blinded by power and the trappings of positions, a clever person can behave like a fool. And when that happens, history is bound to repeat itself.


This post is also available in the Malaysian Insider here


32 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The lessons from the Taiping Rebellion | Work from home India
  2. Nick
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 15:34:24

    The problems faced by PR is always surmountable. After all, the coalition just came together and these are early birth pangs. We live in a democracy. We preached accountability and transparency. We can agree to disagree. We can debate openly and let the public judge. If someone challenges us on an issue, it is only right to respond to the challenge i/o hiding. For example, if Ng challenged Toyo to reveal his income source and his property valuation, Toyo should accept this challenge. Why does he need to sue anyone for libel? After all Toyo is a public figure and the perception of the public at large is that he seemed to be living beyond his wealth. There are enough reports about his squandering public funds on Disney jaunts. Until today, the reasons he gave are all laughable. Where is the MACC? A second example, PKFZ. If Ong is so sincere, why not answer LKS even if he doesn’t have all the answers. A third example is the english for maths & science. Why didn’t the cabinet allow for public feedback and debates? Coming back to PAS internal problems, my question is so what? This is a family problem. The two factions have every right to slog it out. This is not a weakness but a strength. We can’t behave like the BN where every impt issue is swept under the carpet. The public has a right to judge whether our representative in state assemblies or in parliament are men and women of integrity and repute. Let the debates and differences air out. I welcome it.


  3. chabalang
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 16:26:20

    Excellent analogy – the PR leaders should read your article. At least the “MU” by-election serve a “warning shot” to the PR camp…


  4. klm
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 16:28:18

    It happened to Gerakan and it will happen to PR.
    It is not entrenched in PR yet. So there is still hope.
    We need to put the fear of men, god and devil into them.


  5. A true Malaysian
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 17:35:00

    To me, once a politician is “unprincipled”, the history of the Taiping Rebellion will be repeating over and over.

    “Unprincipled” act of the politicians can happen in both directions. Take for example, politician from one side can entice another politician of the other side to make trouble in the opposing side. The enticing act of the politician of course is “unprincipled” but the politician enticed is “unprincipled” as well. It takes both hands to clap.

    Politician in the position of power should realise that he or she is in the position of “trust” and not of “privileged”. While politician in the position of power should not abuse the power entrusted, politician of the opposing camp should not succumb to any “enticement”.

    A principled politician will not be succumbed to “enticement” but, it is definitely not easy in cases involving “threat” of livelihood. We can see all these things happening in Malaysia.

    Cilipadi is right. Morality is important in politics. Just imagine if these things can happen in PAS, a party that run on Islamic principles, I don’t see why this cannot happens in other party. It is time for PAS to clean up their house.


  6. mccann105
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 18:30:18

    my teacher told us once, history repeat itself….


  7. Justin Choo
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 18:45:48

    Dr Hsu,

    I didn’t get to learn the underlying facts of the fall of Taiping Rebellion. Thanks for the update. But that’s not your purpose.

    ” Only fools will fail to learn from history. Sometimes, however, when blinded by power and the trappings of positions, a clever person can behave like a fool. And when that happens, history is bound to repeat itself.”

    Most are fools, including the undersigned. That’s why we fail miserably. Unfortunately this is the plain truth.

    Only once in a blue moon, a Real Leader is born!

    Dr Hsu, please do us a favour! You know what I mean.


  8. cilipadi
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 19:04:32

    A True Malaysian,

    Thank you for buying my “morality” argument, but “principled” person won’t be a politician, that is for sure, so? Just look at Dr. Hsu, he does not regard himself as a politician though he is a political party member.

    In Manek Urai by-election, apart from “unprincipled” politicians of both sides, many voters there also “unprincipled”. PAS still wins even this happened. Karmic effect was at play, I believe.

    Read Malaysia Today, you know more what I mean.

    Can politics clean? Monk?

    Voters makan cili, “unprincipled” voters rasa pedas


  9. anon
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 02:09:18

    An interesting site for tracking the spread of H1N1

    “Tracking the progress of H1N1 swine flu ”



  10. Meng
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 02:16:37

    I do not think this would happen within the BN.

    Do you think for once MCA or Gerakan would bring out the wrong doings of umno. I bet you .. NO.

    Nick is right, let them sort it out openly.
    Good for us.


  11. Rhan
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 08:24:27

    A few more lessons we could learn from Taiping Rebellion from various angles:

    1. Religion is bad and bewared of the converted.

    2. Politicians make use of god / religion for their own benefit.

    3. Don’t ever trust the drug pusher, as long as they can continue to sell drug, the put god aside.

    4. 石达开 was one of the most outstanding and devoted general that was deemed as traitors, being outstanding while you are not at the top is always bad.

    The most valuable lesson if of course what was written by Hsu. I think another one is we should realise that most revolution to overthrow any corrupted regime cost millions of life and lead to huge destruction on economy. However under a democracy system, what you need to do is to put a check on a piece of paper in a sunny morning or a rainy afternoon. If such a simple thing still this people not willing to do or do it not using his / her brain, you deserve what you get.


  12. klm
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 09:52:13

    1. Morality is not enough. How many man or woman has the moral strength to withstand all the temptations. Maybe one in a million. So morality don’t help.

    2. A politician do not have any morality bone in his or her body. How else to be a politician?

    3. The only way to check politicians is FEAR. Fear of getting caught. Fear of not getting elected. Fear of punishment. Fear of jail. Any kind of fear. When a politician get too strong and can remove the barrier of fear, that is when he or she start doing wrong. That is why strong democracy work. Strong democracy need active and committed voters to put fear in the heart of politicians. Strong democracy need a strong press to keep politicians in check.

    4.Morality has nothing to do with this. Morality is just a tool for politicians to control the citizens.


  13. cilipadi
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 10:32:03

    Morality is not important…klm

    I wonder how you educate your children…. what a disappointment, morality is not the problem?

    Are you a immoral person? Or you regard yourself as a moral person?

    someone makan cili, someone rasa pedas


  14. klm
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 10:56:22


    I did not say morality is not important. I said morality is not the answer to current problems.


  15. Dr Hsu
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 11:21:13

    cilipadi and klm,
    Both of you have a point.

    Morality is important, no doubt, I have been stressing on this. But looking at our policiticians from wither sides, there are not many with morality.

    People who are moral do not want to mix with politics. That is why, although some of us are party members, we do not consider ourselves as politicians simply because we do not do campaingning for the big brother as well as we do not seek elected positions or other kangdao..

    We are there just to voice out and input our views as well as those from the people.

    because of the corrupt culture , it is difficult to attract people of calibre as wellas people with morality to seek elected office.

    So to the present bunch of corrupt leaders, putting fear in them is important.

    We need the 2 party system where 2 sides are equally matched. So both sides would act as the watchdog and there will be check and balance, which will initally put fear into these corrupt politicians.

    After a while, when the 2 party system is entrenched and the political culture has turned to be accountable and more transparent, people with moral will start to come in. Just like in UK or USA, where there is strict check and balance, you do get people of integrity to come in as leaders, people like WInston Churchill .

    When people of moral starting to come in, there will be hope for the country, because whatever planned will be for the best of the country and not for self gratification.

    We need to ensure that our education system can churn out people with morality.

    I was once told by a very senior office bearer of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce that ” clean water will not support any fish”. I was aghast of course, but that is the thinking of many businessmen, who would prefer to be able to use money to influence to get contract, which is wrong. But that is the prevailing thinking of many CHinese tycoons and tauke.

    Also civil servants must have courses on morality and human rights. I suggested this to one important leader, and he just sneered at me .

    We need to overhaul the whole system. But we must have a 2 party system to provide check and balance… That is why I am alarmed by the cracks in opposition, which if split up, it will be back to square one for the country.


  16. Rhan
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 11:55:02

    To say morality is important is like saying cili is pedas or the world is not flat. I don’t see any superb polity that is morality base. The only one I can relate to in the modern era is perhaps New China under Mao ZeDong between 1949 to 1957.


  17. klm
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 12:16:21

    I like this part ” clean water will not support any fish”.
    It reminds me of the horse race. Some people dope a horse to win – the chemical advantage. Like using money to get contracts. But the problem is that so many people are doping horses that in the end no one knows which horse will win. So stronger and stronger doses will be used. In the end the horses die.


  18. klm
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 12:18:20

    By the way. Did you notice that all the political parties are on fire, except UMNO. The lastest fire is MCA – see today’s news. Wonder what is happening?


  19. cilipadi
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 12:28:47

    I know many men cheated their wives to have mistresses, and I know many women cheated their husbands as well.

    Anyone knows cili is pedas. Anyone of you cheated your spouse here? Many politicians did and are doing that.

    If these politicians can cheat their own spouses, I am surprised they can cheat the people as well.

    Morality is the problem, especially in Umno, MCA, Gerakan, MIC…. and of course to a lesser extent at the meantime PR parties.

    If people with morality act passively and do not want to challenge leaders without morality, then any hope we can hinge on the party?

    ….morality is not the answer to current problems….klm?

    klm makan cili, someone said cili rasa pedas


  20. cilipadi
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 14:18:20


    “1. Morality is not enough. How many man or woman has the moral strength to withstand all the temptations. Maybe one in a million. So morality don’t help.”….. I hope you can withstand all the temptations.

    “2. A politician do not have any morality bone in his or her body. How else to be a politician? “…..You mean a politician must has no morality bone?

    “3. The only way to check politicians is FEAR. Fear of getting caught. Fear of not getting elected. Fear of punishment. Fear of jail. Any kind of fear. When a politician get too strong and can remove the barrier of fear…….”

    ….I can tell you, a politician with morality has no FEAR simply because his or her actions are of clear conscience.

    “4.Morality has nothing to do with this. Morality is just a tool for politicians to control the citizens.”

    Politician, being a leader, should be of high morality so that their people or machai would follow…..should be led by good example, right?

    Come on “reader-thinker klm”. How come?

    siapa makan cili, dia rasa pedas


  21. klm
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 14:21:38

    Morality is voluntary. It is difficult to apply. It is on individual basis. There is no force behind it. Man or woman will not behave if there is no force behind it.

    Like Dr. Hsu, I like to go back to Ancient China for a lesson learned. In this case, the Spring and Autumn period. This was the time for the Hundred Schools of Thoughts. Wisemen (maybe like us 🙂 ?) sought to find ways to solve the incessant wars and tribulation that went on for several hundred years.

    There were many ideas – the reason why this period was called the hundred schools of thoughts.
    Master Kung with his ideas of morality, mysticism (Master Lao), universal love (Master Mo) and Legalism (rule by law).

    In the end it was Legalism and the force of law that build a stable and strong kingdom of Qin, that was free of corruption by the officials and practiced meritocracy. This culminated in the Qin unifying ancient China, a hundred year later. The person who started this path was Shang Yang. He was vilified and wrote off the Chines History by the confucionists.

    Mao Tze Dong was one of the admirer of Shang Yang and give him recognition for his achievement and contribution to the legacy of China. (And probably adopted some of the ideas of Shang Yang)

    Master Kung ideas were not adopted and used in those terrible time. It could not be put into practice. But his ideas were adopted by the later Han Dynasty as a mean of controlling the bureaucrats.

    This is a lesson from the dawn of history. Many ideas were put on the table, including morality. In the end it was rule by law and the force behind it that triumphed.

    This is why I say, morality wont solve the problems.


  22. Meng
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 15:36:11

    The Taiping rebellion leader Hong Xiuquan and his rebels were one complete entity by itself. Factionalism and corruption led to internal conflict.
    and purging of capable leaders…etc and eventually lost to the Qing.

    This scenerio cannot be equated with the present Pakatan problems….where Pakatan is made up of three different bodies and have their respective ideologies. Rightly there should be open challenges and queries on performances not seen as heading in the right direction or wrong doings.

    Whilst working as a complete entity in the form of a coalition, they must also perform inline with their respective ideology and to the expectation of their respective voters. This is check and balance to maintain the integrity of the coalition. Thrash out what is wrong and put things right for the good of all. If this is not done then it can be equated with the taiping rebel group.

    More infighting on issues that affect the population at large would strengthen Pakatan and in the eyes of the local populace their respective party is doing their job…. while others may see it as cracking

    I should say the rebellion scenerio is more applicable to umno where corruption and factions exist..warlord call the shots and cronies are nominated to head their respective division. In fighting and maneuvers led to Badawi and other umno strongmen downfall. .. proping up another corrupt leader utilizing the police and judiciary to fulfill his ambition. His word is yes, a command
    that must be followed and as such there is no check and balance..eventually loosing the hold on their supporters.

    On the 65 winning vote clearly showed a divided malay population. PAS won the seat and umno won more malays support… but it also showed clearly that the chinese and indian will call the shot in an election.


  23. cilipadi
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 15:50:45

    All ills originating from low emphasis on morality. Morality is a ‘must’, not ‘voluntary’.

    reader-thinker klm, think again.

    Don’t tell me you don’t emphasize morality on your own children?


  24. Dr Hsu
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 16:05:06

    The purpose of this article is not to compare Pakatan with Hong Xiu Quan, but rather to point out that history has often shown that when one side is winning the war, it should not rest on one’s laurels and enjoy the spoils of victory too early. If they do that, they will very quickly lose momentum and from victory , they will taste defeat.

    It is about sending a message to PR leaders that they should buck up and get their act together and treat the recent by election as a clarion call to consolidate and plan .

    WIth a strong opposition, BN will have to change or be changed . The recent reforms that BN has undertaken rose from the fact that it has lost all by elections in the past one year.

    When BN changes for the better, Pakatan has to change too, to show that it is the better alternative. . ANd BN will then have to better itself again. The cycle goes on, and the people will become the winner.

    This is how 2 party system can benefit the ordianry people. Let there be competition between these coalitions.. COmpetition gives rise to better govenrment and we as rakyat will be the true boss.

    History has shown often that complacency leads to defeats.


  25. klm
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 16:22:01


    1. We are not talking about little old me. Whether I have morality or not, I do not affect the world. I am too insignificant. I like to think I am a moral person but I am not sure.

    2. We are talking about the conduct and behavior of politicians. How can we imposed morality on them and enforce it? The only way is to make a law on morality.

    See. It is easy to say morality. But what is morality. How does one codify and define it. The only one I know is the 10 commandments. Is that sufficient?


  26. A true Malaysian
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 16:51:41

    I tend to agree more with cilipadi. Think of the scenarios as follows,

    If there is emphasis on morality, there will be:-

    no corruption
    no C4 of Altantuya
    no sex video scandal
    no Lingam tape
    no dirty politics
    no back stabbing
    no PKFZ scandal
    no High Chapparal land conflict
    no buying of votes
    no abusing of power
    no unfair judgement
    no if you vote me, you get new bridge
    no ….

    Of course, reality is different as human nature has its “animal” tendency of cannot resist temptation of sex favour, material wealth and so on…..but, if everyone of us start to put emphasis on ourselves and our offspring on morality, then things will be definitely better than what we see now in Malaysia.

    Many politicians dare not put a stand on this subject of “morality” because their own morality is questionable. Do you expect CSL, M, N, RM, L to give their stand on this?

    By the way, CSL, M, N, RM, L are just examples. I don’t specifically refer to any personality. It is all up to your interpretation.

    Why not start observing 5 precepts of Buddha’s teachings? You can be staunch Christian, Muslim, Catholics, Hindu, or Toaist, but observing 5 precepts don’t make you lesser Christian, Muslim, Catholics….and so on.

    Unless one is a devil, then…….


  27. Rhan
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 16:58:27

    I thought the formation of law is the result of dialectic from morality and community living? It is actually the same thing. Man live on earth and not heaven, thus law.


  28. cilipadi
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 17:15:21


    10 commandments too long, I prefer 5 precepts, straight to point, simple, clear cut, not imposing on us, just encourage one to observe.

    5 fingers on each palm represent 5 precepts

    10 fingers of 2 palms combine, become 10 commandments, perhaps.

    Morality is still the word, for quick reference.

    siapa makan cili, dia rasa pedas?


  29. A true Malaysian
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 17:55:09

    What a shock to read this news,

    Ean Yong’s political secretary dead at MACC HQ



  30. klm
    Jul 16, 2009 @ 20:42:44

    A true Malaysian. This is very sad. And very scary.
    Is a murderous force released? Is this one of Koh Tsu Koon KPI to reduce crime.?


  31. Trackback: Dirty wine in a new bottle « Dr. Hsu's forum
  32. Trackback: Politics is all about HOPE « Dr. Hsu's forum

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