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The Taiping movement, an experimental revolution in China that struck a formidable blow to the Manchus in the mid 19th century, is widely debated and questions pertaining to its Ð''character', whether it was a Rebellion or a Revolution, remain largely unsettled. Some historians regard it as a full-fledged revolution, even to the extent of calling it the harbinger of the Communist Movement; while others believe that the former is a gross over-glorification, and that the Taiping Movement was no more than traditional Chinese peasant rebellion. Further, it is debated whether the Taiping movement was a Ð''peasant rebellion' at all. While a discussion of the various academic stances is imperative for an objective appraisal of the nature of the Taiping movement, it is first and foremost necessary to elaborate on the milieu that gave birth to the movement, as well as the very consciousness of the movement itself.
By the late 1840s the general condition of China was irreversibly conducive to imminent rebellion. The Taiping movement can basically be seen as an immediate reaction of the Chinese peasantry to the First Opium War and later the Second Opium War, and the Unequal Treaties following them. For two thousand years preceding the mid-nineteenth century the social structure and the mode of production in China had scarcely changed. In the mid-19th century, China witnessed severe internal crises and the resultant upheaval created widespread social, economic and political discontent. In the aftermath of the Opium Wars and the Unequal Treaty System, inhuman burdens were inflicted on the Chinese peasantry, as a result of which began in China a Ð''tradition of peasant rebellions', that were both political and social in character. Peasant movements like the Miao, Yao, Lolo, Moslem and Nin were precursors to the most significant and formidable peasant movement China had witnessed yet- The Taiping Rebellion, which lasted from 1850 uptil 1864.
Traditionally, Chinese subscribed to the Dynastic Cycle theory that domestic rebellion and foreign invasion were symptomatic of a steadily decaying central power. As for the validity of the Dynastic Cycle theory, Franz Michael treats even the specific events leading to the Taiping movement viz. population increase, administrative inefficiency, military failure, western trade and opium smuggling, the Opium Wars among others, as part of the Dynastic Cycle Theory and does not consider the Taiping uprising as a unique movement in Chinese history. Scholars like Ssu-yu Teng and Chesneaux give an analysis similar to that of Michael Ssu-yu Teng bases his analysis on the basic premise that the Manchu Dynasty had entered a stage of decline and the Taiping movement was a symptom of the decline. Most western scholars who favour the dynastic cycle theory believe that the Manchu period was a part of a continuing dynastic cycle and tend to view all socio-economic and political problems of the mid-nineteenth century as typical signs that preceded the fall of earlier dynasties. One the other hand scholars like Tan Chung have completely rejected the Dynastic Cycle Theory. While emphasizing the unique features of the Taiping movement, Tan chung argues that the DCT was based n an oversimplification of facts. It reduced the study of Chinese history to "simple geometry". Further, Tan Chung says that the DCT smacks of the long standing western prejudice about China's historical changelessness. Taiping rebellion was unprecedented in one very important respect, as Tan Chung points out, in that the Taiping army challenged a dynasty which still had a somewhat powerful image and vitality. Hence it would be correct to say that the Taiping movement was a cause of Manchu degeneration and not the other way round. There was more to the Taiping movement than what the Dynastic Cycle Theory could reckon
The Taiping movement has been categorized variously by scholars to the extent that an academic controversy has emerged regarding the appraisal and characterization of the movement. Many terms have been used to describe the Taiping movement, ranging from Ð''nothing less than a complete revolution', to Ð''a typical traditional rebellion'. The two main and opposing schools of thought are those represented by the Western scholars, and those represented by the Chinese communist historians. These two standpoints differ not only in their interpretation of the movement as a rebellion or revolution, but also of other aspects of the nature of the movement, such as whether or not the movement was a peasant movement and anti-feudal, anti-foreign and anti-imperialist or anti-imperialist and pro-foreign, its uniqueness vis-Ð" -vis all other peasant rebellions, and whether it can be considered a precursor to the Communist Revolution.
At the, it is essential to first understand what exactly these terms mean in the modern context. A rebellion can be described as an armed struggle, aimed at dethroning a particular dynasty, and substituting another in its place, without attempting to change the existing social, political, and economic order. Or more simply as Kung-chuan Hsiao puts it, rebellion is "open armed opposition to the established government." Whereas revolution symbolizes a mass movement having a concrete ideology and common aims, striving for fundamental change in the social, political and economic order. Its basic aim goes beyond the overthrow of a particular dynasty and its substitution by another. Or as Kung-chuan Hsiao puts it, revolution is "aimed not merely at a change of rulers but at an alteration of the form of government together with the principles on which it rests."
Chinese communist historians regard the Taiping uprising as "the first great tide of revolution in the history of modern China". The Taiping movement according to Mao was one of the eight major events in China's one hundred year history before the communist revolution. Communist historians emphasize he originality of the Taiping programme. Even though much of their theoretical programme wasn't fully implemented , the very fact that it was envisaged should, according to them merit the Taipings with the label of a "revolution".
Karl Marx called it a "formidable Revolution" and The Times hailed Taiping as "the greatest revolution the world as yet seen" and "one of the most important and remarkable movements of mass protest in modern history". The main argument in support of the Taiping being a peasant revolution was that it battered the superstructure of feudal society; the Taipings sought to transform the feudal society by building an ideal society where people were equal.