Wars, Threats, and Rebellions

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The Taiping Rebellion in China (1850-1864)

The Taiping Rebellion, also known as the Taiping Civil War or the Taiping Revolution, was a massive rebellion or civil war that was waged in China from 1850 to 1864, between the established Qing dynasty and the theocratic Taiping Heavenly Kingdom – though following the fall of Nanjing the last rebel army was not wiped out until 1871. After fighting the bloodiest civil war in world history, with 20 to 30 million dead, the established Qing government won decisively, although the outcome is considered a pyrrhic victory.

The word pyrrihic comes from a reference to the Greek King Pyrrhus whose army suffered irreplaceable casualties in defeating the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC and the Battle of Asculum in 279 BC, during the Pyrrhic War. Even though he won, most of his forces were completely destroyed.

A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. It takes a heavy toll that negates any true sense of achievement or damages long-term progress.

The uprising was commanded by Hong Xiuquan, who claimed he was the brother of Jesus Christ.

The uprising’s goals were religious, nationalist, and political in nature; Hong sought the conversion of the Chinese people to the his own interpretation of Christianity, to overthrow the ruling Qing Dynasty, and a state transformation.

Note: There is a mild curse word in the following video:

Rather than replacing the ruling class, the Taipings sought to upend the moral and social order of China. They established what was called the Heavenly Kingdom, a state based in Tianjing (now Nanjing) and gained control of a significant part of southern China (as seen in the map below), eventually expanding to command a population base of nearly 30 million people.

This map is in French. The area in red was occupied by the Taiping. The striped area where the region where the rebellion originated but was later abandoned. The star shows the proclaimed capital of the Taiping area.
This map is in French. The area in red was occupied by the Taiping. The striped area where the region where the rebellion originated but was later abandoned. The star shows the proclaimed capital of the Taiping area.

The Taiping Rebellion ranks as one of the bloodiest wars in human history, the bloodiest civil war, and the largest conflict of the 19th century. In terms of deaths, the civil war is comparable to World War I. The Taiping were extremely intolerant: they carried out widespread massacres of Manchus (an ethnic minority who was ruling at the time), whom they believed to be demons, and forced strict religious mandates on their people.

The 14-year civil war greatly weakened the Qing dynasty, which would collapse less than 50 years after the end of the war.

Commodore Perry Forces the “Opening” of Japan (1854)

The arrival in 1853 of a fleet of American ships commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry threw Japan into turmoil during the end of the Edo period. For 214 years, Japan was under sakoku (鎖国 national isolation) where trade and relations between Japan and other countries was severely limited. The US government aimed to end these isolationist policies.

The shogunate had no defense against Perry’s gunboats and had to agree to his demands that American ships be permitted to acquire provisions and trade at Japanese ports. The Western powers imposed what became known as “unequal treaties” on Japan which stipulated that Japan must allow citizens of these countries to visit or reside on Japanese territory and must not levy tariffs (government tax) on their imports or try them in Japanese courts.

Matthew Perry
Matthew Perry
Perry's fleet
Perry’s fleet

The shogunate’s failure to oppose the Western powers angered many Japanese, particularly those of the southern domains of Chōshū and Satsuma. Many samurai there, inspired by the nationalist doctrines of the kokugaku school, adopted the slogan of sonnō jōi (“revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”).

Kokugaku was an academic movement and school of Japanese philosophy that worked to refocus Japanese scholarship away from the then-dominant study of Chinese, Confucian, and Buddhist texts in favor of research into the early Japanese classics.

Chōshū was based in the current day province of Nagato (highlighted in red). Satsuma was located on the island right below Chōshū.

The two domains went on to form an alliance. In August 1866, soon after becoming shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, struggled to maintain power as civil unrest continued. The Chōshū and Satsuma domains in 1868 convinced the young Emperor Meiji and his advisors to issue an official announcement calling for an end to the Tokugawa shogunate. The armies of Chōshū and Satsuma soon marched on Edo and the ensuing Boshin War.

The Boshin War (戊辰戦争, Boshin Sensō, literally “War of the Year of the Yang Earth Dragon”), sometimes known as the Japanese Revolution, was a civil war in Japan, fought from 1868 to 1869 between forces of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate and those seeking to return political power to the Imperial Court.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu
Tokugawa Yoshinobu

On November 9, 1867, the shōgun (military dictator) Yoshinobu, realizing the futility of his situation, tendered his resignation to the Emperor and formally stepped down ten days later, returning governing power to the Emperor.

Meiji Restoration(1868-1912)

The new government proceeded with unifying the country under a single, legitimate and powerful rule by the Imperial Court. The emperor’s residence was effectively transferred from Kyoto to Edo at the end of 1868, and the city renamed to Tokyo. The military and political power of the domains was progressively eliminated, and the domains themselves were transformed in 1871 into prefectures, whose governors were appointed by the emperor.

The fifteen-year-old Meiji Emperor, moving from Kyoto to Tokyo at the end of 1868, after the fall of Edo
The fifteen-year-old Meiji Emperor, moving from Kyoto to Tokyo at the end of 1868, after the fall of Edo

In a move critical for the consolidation of the new regime, most daimyōs (the feudal lords with hereditary land holdings) voluntarily surrendered their land and census records to the Emperor in the abolition of the Han system, symbolizing that the land and people were under the Emperor’s jurisdiction. The daimyo became governors, and the central government assumed their administrative expenses and paid samurai stipends.

In as much as the Meiji Restoration had sought to return the Emperor to a preeminent position, efforts were made to establish a Shinto-oriented state much like it was 1,000 years earlier. Buddhism and Shinto had been melded together in many ways, but now the official policy was to separate them. Buddhism had been closely connected with the shogunate, so Buddhist temples, images, and text were destroyed, and Buddhist monks were forced to return to secular life or forced to become Shinto priests.

The violence released pent-up popular anger at the Buddhists which had been brewing for centuries because of their close alliance with the Tokugawa in the danka system.

The danka system was made compulsory by the Tokugawa and required households to financially support Buddhist temples in exchange for the provision of their spiritual needs. It became a government-mandated and Buddhist temple-run system to monitor and control the population as a whole. Required duties for households were:

∘ Duty to visit the temple on several yearly occasion. Failure to make the visits could cause the removal of the household’s name from the registry (which could result in being listed as a non-person, which would result in discrimination, or a Christian, which would result in execution).
∘ Duty to perform two services on the day of the ancestor memorial service. Failure to provide adequate entertainment for the priest meant being branded as a Christian.
∘ Duty to make the family temple perform all memorial and funerary services.
∘ Duty of anyone capable of walking to be present at memorial services for ancestors.

Shinto was released from Buddhist administration and its properties restored. Although Buddhism suffered from state sponsorship of Shinto, it had its own resurgence. Christianity also was legalized, and Confucianism remained an important ethical doctrine.

One of the first acts of the government was to establish new ranks for the nobility. Five hundred people from the old court nobility, former daimyo, and samurai who had provided valuable service to the Emperor were organized into a new peerage, the Kazoku, consisting of five ranks: prince, marquis, count, viscount, and baron.

Rejecting the British model, the Japanese leadership borrowed heavily from the Prussian constitutional system. Itō Hirobumi (1841–1909), a Chōshū native long involved in government affairs, was charged with drafting Japan’s constitution. He led a constitutional study mission abroad in 1882, spending most of his time in Germany. He rejected the United States Constitution as “too liberal”, and the British system as too unwieldy, and having a parliament with too much control over the monarchy; the French and Spanish models were rejected as tending toward despotism. The Constitution of the Empire of Japan was enacted on November 29, 1890. It was a form of mixed constitutional and absolute monarchy.

The word despot comes from the Greek despotēs meaning absolute ruler.

Despotism is the exercise of absolute power, especially in a cruel and oppressive way.

Class distinctions were mostly eliminated create a representative democracy. The samurai lost their status as the only class with military privileges. However, during the Meiji period, most leaders in Japanese society (politics, business and military) were ex-samurai or descendants of samurai.

Japan quickly transformed from a feudal/medieval society to a modernized nation and moved from a system of monarchy to one with a constitution, parliament, Prime Minister, and cabinet where the emperor was the head of state, but the Prime Minister was the actual head of government. It took only 20 years to catapult into the modern age.

Modernization wasn’t just limited to the government. In 1885, noted public intellectual Yukichi Fukuzawa wrote the influential essay “Leaving Asia”, arguing that Japan should orient itself at the “civilized countries of the West”, leaving behind the “hopelessly backward” Asian neighbors, namely Korea and China. This essay certainly encouraged the economic and technological rise of Japan in the Meiji era. There was also a flowering of public discourse on the direction of Japan. Japanese debated how best to blend the new influences coming from the West with local Japanese culture.

A quote from “Leaving Asia”:

We do not have time to wait for the enlightenment of our neighbors so that we can work together toward the development of Asia. It is better for us to leave the ranks of Asian nations and cast our lot with civilized nations of the West. Those [who] are intimate with bad friends are also regarded bad, therefore I will deny those bad Asian friends from my heart.

The elite class of the Meiji era adapted many aspects of Victorian taste, as seen in the construction of Western-style pavilions and reception rooms. Western-style fashion (yofuku) was introduced into the government, indicating a move to modernity. During the Meiji period, certain jobs required Western-style uniform, starting with the Japanese government in 1872. Western-style dress thus became associated with elitism, modernity, and money.

In 1873, the Empress stopped blackening her teeth and shaving her eyebrows which implied a governmental demand that all women stop as well. The emperor also cut off his top knot. By the end of the 1890s, the Japanese ideal female figure was the popular Western “s” shape, achieved by wearing a corset.

By this time also, some Japanese also believed Westernization had gone too far and promoted the wearing of kimonos (especially for women). Kimono designs such as chrysanthemums (the imperial flower) with the rising sun flag began to demonstrate patriotism. Even haori linings (a haori is a jacket worn over a kimono), collars, and children’s kimonos changed to this patriotic tune and started sporting cherry blossoms to reflect the samurai. During the time women started tying her obi (sash) in the back. Typically, the front-tied obi meant a girl had passed into adulthood, but now nobody was wearing it there, except prostitutes. Everything was being reassessed – even how a kimono was tied!

Court Ladies Sewing Western Clothing
Court Ladies Sewing Western Clothing 

The Industrial Revolution in Japan also occurred during the Meiji era as leaders decided to catch up with the west. Japan became the first Asian industrialized nation. The government built railroads, improved roads, and inaugurated a land reform program to prepare the country for further development. It inaugurated a new Western-based education system for all young people, sent thousands of students to the United States and Europe, and hired more than 3,000 Westerners to teach modern science, mathematics, technology, and foreign languages in Japan.

The fifth and last article of the constitution stated: ‘Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of Imperial rule.’ This process of modernization was closely monitored and heavily subsidized by the Meiji government.

In 1871, a group of Japanese politicians known as the Iwakura Mission toured Europe and the US to learn western ways. The result was a deliberate state led industrialization policy to enable Japan to quickly catch up. The Bank of Japan, founded in 1877, used taxes to fund model steel and textile factories. The economic structure became very mercantilistic, importing raw materials and exporting finished products—a reflection of Japan’s relative poverty in raw materials.

The changes in Japan during this period were profound – creating a unified, modern nation and advancing Japan’s position in the world.

Civil War in America (1861-1865)

The American Civil War (April 12, 1861 – May 9, 1865) was a civil war in the United States fought between northern and Pacific states (“the Union” or “the North”) and southern states that voted to secede and form the Confederate States of America (“the Confederacy” or “the South”). The focus of this book is not U.S. history (see our American History Curriculum for that), but I wanted to mention it here, so you can see it in the context of what was happening elsewhere.

Here’s a video as a refresher:

The Boxer Rebellion in China (1899-1901)

The Boxer Rebellion was an armed and violent, anti-Christian, and anti-imperialist insurrection in China between 1899 and 1901, towards the end of the Qing dynasty.

It was initiated by the Militia United in Righteousness, known in English as the Boxers because many of their members had practiced Chinese martial arts, also referred to in the Western world at the time as Chinese Boxing. Villagers in North China had been building resentment against Christian missionaries and the growth of foreign spheres of influence after the Sino-Japanese War of 1895.

In a severe drought, violence and murder spread across Shandong and the North China Plain, targetting foreign property, Christian missionaries, and Chinese Christians. In June 1900, Boxer fighters, convinced they were invulnerable to foreign weapons, converged on Beijing with the slogan “Support the Qing government and exterminate the foreigners.”

Foreigners and Chinese Christians sought refuge in the Legation Quarter – an area in Beijing where a number of foreign diplomatic representatives were located.

In response to reports of an invasion by the Eight Nation Alliance of American, Austro-Hungarian, British, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Russian troops to lift the siege, the initially hesitant Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi supported the Boxers and issued an Imperial Decree declaring war on the foreign powers. Diplomats, foreign civilians, and soldiers as well as Chinese Christians in the Legation Quarter were besieged for 55 days by the Imperial Army of China and the Boxers.

The Eight-Nation Alliance, after being initially turned back, brought 20,000 armed troops to China, defeated the Imperial Army, and arrived in Beijing on 14 August, relieving the siege of the Legations. Uncontrolled plunder of the capital and the surrounding countryside ensued, along with summary execution of those suspected of being Boxers.

The Boxer Protocol of September 1901 provided for the execution of government officials who had supported the Boxers, provisions for foreign troops to be stationed in Beijing, and 450 million taels of silver—approximately $10 billion at 2018 silver prices and more than the government’s annual tax revenue—to be paid as indemnity (compensation for the loss incurred to the foreigners by the Chinese) over the course of the next 39 years to the eight nations involved.

There is a great set of graphic novels about the Boxer Rebellion. If you are using Whirlwind History, see your weekly schedule!

In two volumes, Boxers & Saints tells two parallel stories. The first is of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy whose village is abused and plundered by Westerners claiming the role of missionaries. Little Bao, inspired by visions of the Chinese gods, joins a violent uprising against the Western interlopers. Against all odds, their grass-roots rebellion is successful.

But in the second volume, Yang lays out the opposite side of the conflict. A girl whose village has no place for her is taken in by Christian missionaries and finds, for the first time, a home with them. As the Boxer Rebellion gains momentum, Vibiana must decide whether to abandon her Christian friends or to commit herself fully to Christianity.

Boxers & Saints is one of the most ambitious graphic novels First Second has ever published. It offers a penetrating insight into not only one of the most controversial episodes of modern Chinese history, but into the very core of our human nature. Gene Luen Yang is rightly called a master of the comics form, and this book will cement that reputation.

Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature
One of Publishers Weekly‘s Best Comic Books and Best Children’s Books of 2013
New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Book of 2013 A Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Book of 2013
An NPR Best Book of 2013

We want to know what you thought of what you just read and watched! Leave us a comment! Please also let us know if a link or video isn’t working. 😊

Next: Imperialism (1870-1914)

Pyrrich victory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrrhic_victory


Court ladies with western clothing: By Yōshū (Hashimoto) Chikanobu – https://www.metmuseum.org/, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=104628425

Boxer Rebellion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boxer_Rebellion


15 year-old Meiji Emperor: By Unknown author – “Le Monde Illustre”, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1984326

Nagato Province: By Ash_Crow – Own work, based on Image:Provinces of Japan.svg, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1690735

Meiji: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meiji_(era)


Haibutsu kishaku: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haibutsu_kishaku

Perry’s fleet: By Unknown author – Antares Historia [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=616779

Tokugawa Yoshinobu: By Unknown author – http://www.geocities.jp/keratutuki/archive/syougun_no_photography/s_photgraphy_jpg/33-08ikan_.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5870073

Matthew Perry: By Alexander Beckers and Victor Piard – http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2012/photographs-n08885/lot.21.lotnum.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21372985

Sakoku: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sakoku

History of Japan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Japan

Taiping map: By Kalem000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86788181

Taiping Rebellion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiping_Rebellion

This text was adapted (with permission) from:

  • Western Civilization: A Concise History – Volumes 1-3
    by Dr. Christopher Brooks
  • World History Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500
    by Eugene Berger, Ph.D, George L. Israel, Ph.D., Charlotte Miller, Ph.D., Brian Parkinson, Ph.D., Andrew Reeves, Ph.D, and Nadejda Williams, Ph.D.
    CC BY-SA
  • Modern World History
    by Dan Allosso, Bemidji State University and Tom Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University

I’ve taken excerpts from the above-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for my intended audience. While I’ve received permission to use/adapt these books, none of the above endorses Guest Hollow or my use of their materials.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Jennifer Guest

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