CHAPTER XX. THE TAEPING REBELLION

We left the Taepings supreme at Nankin, but maintaining themselves there with some difficulty against two imperial armies raised by the loyal efforts of the inhabitants of the central provinces. This was at the beginning of 1857; and there is no doubt that if the government had avoided a conflict with the Europeans, and concentrated its efforts and power on the contest with the Taeping rebels, they would have speedily annihilated the tottering fabric of Tien Wang's authority. But the respite of four years secured by the attention of the central government being monopolized by the foreign question enabled the Taepings to consolidate their position, augment their fighting forces, and present a more formidable front to the imperial authorities. When Prince Kung learned from Lord Elgin the full extent of the success of the Taepings on the Yangtse, of which the officials at Pekin seemed to possess a very imperfect and inaccurate knowledge, the Manchu authorities realized that it was a vital question for them to reassert their authority without further delay, but on beginning to put their new resolve into practice they soon experienced that the position of the Taepings in 1861 differed materially from what it was in 1857.

The course of events during that period must be briefly summarized. In 1858 the imperialists under Tseng Kwofan and Chang Kwoliang renewed the siege of Nankin, but as the city was well supplied with provisions, and as the imperialists were well known to have no intention of delivering an assault, the Taepings did not feel any apprehension. After the investment had continued for nearly a year, Chung Wang, who had now risen to the supreme place among the rebels, insisted on quitting the city before it was completely surrounded, with the object of beating up levies and generally relieving the pressure caused by the besiegers. In this endeavor he more than once experienced the unkindness of fortune, for when he had collected 5,000 good troops he was defeated in a vigorous attempt to cut his way through a far larger imperial force. Such, however, was his reputation that the imperial commanders before Nankin sent many of their men to assist the officers operating against him, and Chung Wang, seizing the opportunity, made his way by forced marches back to Nankin, overcoming such resistance as the enfeebled besiegers were able to offer. The whole of the year 1859 was passed in practical inaction, but at its close the Taepings only retained possession of four towns, besides Nankin, on the Yangtse. It again became necessary for Chung Wang to sally forth and assume the offensive in the rear and on the line of supplies of the beleaguering imperialists. His main difficulty was in obtaining the consent of Tien Wang, who was at this time given over to religious pursuits or private excesses, and Chung Wang states that he only consented when he found that he could not stop him. In January, 1860, Chung Wang began what proved to be a very remarkable campaign. He put his men in good humor by distributing a large sum of money among them, and he succeeded in eluding the imperial commanders and in misleading them as to his intentions. While they thought he had gone off to relieve Ganking, he had really hastened to attack the important city of Hangchow, where much spoil and material for carrying on the war might be secured by the victor. He captured the city with little or no loss, on March 19, 1860, but the Tartar city held out until relieved by Chang Kwoliang, who hastened from Nankin for the purpose. Once again the imperial commanders in their anxiety to crush Chung Wang had reduced their force in front of Nankin to an excessively low condition, and the Taeping leader, placed in a desperate position, seized the only chance of safety by hastening from Hangchow to Nankin at full speed, and attacking the imperial lines. This battle was fought early in the morning of a cold snowy day - May 3, 1860 - and resulted in the loss of 5,000 imperialists, and the compulsory raising of the siege. The Taeping cause might have been resuscitated by this signal victory if Tien Wang had only shown himself able to act up to the great part he assumed, but not merely was he incapable of playing the part of either a warrior or a statesman, but his petty jealousy prevented his making use of the undoubted ability of his lieutenant Chung Wang, who after the greatest of his successes was forbidden to re-enter Nankin.