The Boy Travelers - Japan and China by Thomas W. Knox The Boy Travelers by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 25: The Taiping Rebellion—Scenes on the Great River

The evidences of a large population along the Yangtze were easy to see, but, nevertheless, Frank and Fred were somewhat disappointed. They had read of the overcrowded condition of China, and they saw the great numbers of boats that navigated the river, and consequently they looked for a proportionately dense mass of people on shore.
Taiping Rebels

Sometimes, for two or three hours at a time, not a house could be seen, and at others the villages were strung along in a straggling sort of way, as though they were thinly inhabited, and wished to make as good a show as possible. There were many places where the land did not seem to be under cultivation at all, as it was covered with a dense growth of reeds and rushes. In some localities the country appeared so much like a wilderness that the boys half expected to see wild beasts running about undisturbed. They began to speculate as to the kind of beasts that were to be found there, and finally questioned Dr. Bronson on the subject.

The Doctor explained to them that this desolation was more apparent than real, and that if they should make a journey on shore, at almost any point, for a few miles back from the river, they would find all the people they wanted. "About thirty years ago," said he, "they had a rebellion in China. It lasted for a long time, and caused an immense destruction of life and property. The rebels had possession of the cities along the Yangtze, and at one period it looked as though they would succeed in destroying the government."

"Did they destroy the cities that we see in ruins?" Fred asked.

"Yes," answered the Doctor, "they destroyed several cities so completely that not a hundred inhabitants remained, where formerly there had been many thousands, and other cities were so greatly injured that the traces of the rebel occupation have not been removed. I believe there is not a city that escaped uninjured, and you have seen for yourselves how some of them have suffered.

"The rebellion," he continued, "is known in history as the Taiping insurrection. The words 'tae ping' mean 'general peace,' and were inscribed on the banners of the rebels. The avowed intention of the leader of the revolt was to overthrow the imperial power, and deliver the country from its oppressors. There were promises of a division of property, or, at all events, the rebels were to have free license to plunder wherever they went, and as there are always a great many people who have everything to gain and nothing to lose, the rebellion gathered strength as time went on. The leaders managed to convince the foreigners that they were inclined to look favorably on Christianity, and the idea went abroad that the Taipings were a sort of Chinese Protestants, who wanted to do away with old abuses, and were in favor of progress and of more intimate relations with foreign nations. Many of the missionaries in China were friendly to the rebellion, and so were some of the merchants and others established there.
General Ward

"So powerful did the rebels become that they had nearly a third of the best part of the empire under their control, and the imperial authorities became seriously alarmed. City after city had been captured by the rebels, and at one time the overthrow of the government appeared almost certain. The rebels were numerous and well officered, and they had the advantage of foreign instruction, and, to some extent, of foreign arms. The imperialists went to war after the old system, which consisted of sound rather than sense. They were accustomed to beat gongs, fire guns, and make a great noise to frighten the enemy, and as the enemy knew perfectly well what it was all about, it did not amount to much. The suppression of the rebellion was largely due to foreigners, and the most prominent of these was an American."

"What! an American leader for Chinese?"

"Yes, an American named Ward, who rose to be a high-class mandarin among the Chinese, and since his death temples have been erected to his honor. He came to Shanghai in 1860, and was looking around for something to do. The rebels were within forty miles of the city, and their appearance in front of it was hourly expected. They were holding the city of Songjiang, and Ward proposed to take this place by contract, as one might propose to build a house or a railway line."

The boys laughed at the idea of carrying on war by contract, but were reminded that they were in China, where things are done otherwise than in Europe and America.

"The conditions of the contract were that Ward should raise a force of fifty Malaysians, and undertake the capture of a walled city having a garrison of four thousand rebels. If he succeeded, he was to have a certain sum of money, I think it was ten thousand dollars, and was then to raise a force of one thousand Chinese with twenty-five foreign officers, and was to have command of this army for the purpose of suppressing the rebellion.
The Gate Which Ward Attacked

"Songjiang has four gates, and they were opened at a certain hour in the morning. Ward went there secretly one night, and sent fourteen of his men to each of three of the gates, while he himself went with the remaining eight men to the fourth gate. The rebels suspected nothing, and at the usual time the gates were opened. Ward's men rushed in simultaneously at the four gates, made a great noise, set fire to several buildings, killed everybody they met, and pushed on for the center of the town. In less than ten minutes the enemy had fled, and the battle was over. Ward was in full possession of the place, and a force of the imperial army, which was waiting nearby, was marched in, to make sure that the rebels would not return.

"Ward raised the army that he had proposed, and from one thousand it soon grew to three thousand. It was armed with foreign rifles, and had a battery of European artillery. The officers were English, American, French, and of other foreign nationalities, and the men were drilled in the European fashion. So uniformly were they successful that they received the name of 'the Invincibles,' and retained it through all their career. The American adventurer became 'General' Ward, was naturalized as a Chinese subject, was made a red-button mandarin, and received from the government a present of a large tract of land and a fine house in Shanghai. He was several times wounded, and finally, in October, 1862, he was killed in an attack on one of the rebel strongholds.

"Ward was succeeded by an American named Burgevine, who had been one of his subordinates. Burgevine was quite as successful as Ward had been, and at one time with his army of 5000 trained Chinese he defeated 95,000 of the Taiping rebels. This made an end of the rebellion in that part of the country, but it was flourishing in other localities. Burgevine had some trouble with the authorities, which led to his retirement, and after that the Invincible army was commanded by an English officer named Gordon, who remained at the head of it until the downfall of the Taipings and the end of the rebellion. The success of this little army against the large force of the rebels shows the great advantages of discipline. In all time and in all countries this advantage has been apparent, but in none more so than in China. If the power of Ward and his men had been with the rebels instead of against them, it is highly probable that the government would have been overthrown. A few hundred well-trained soldiers could have decided the fate of an empire."
General Burgevine

The conversation about the Taiping rebellion and its termination occurred while the steamer was steadily making her way against the muddy waters of the Yangtze. The party were sitting on the forward deck of the boat, and just as the closing words of the Doctor's remarks were pronounced, there was a new and unexpected sensation.

The day was perfectly clear, but suddenly a cloud appeared to be forming like a thick mist. As they came nearer to it they discovered what it was, and made the discovery through their sense of feeling. It was a cloud of locusts moving from the southern to the northern bank of the river. They had devastated a large area, and were now hastening to fresh woods and pastures new. They filled the air so densely as to obscure the sun, and for more than an hour the steamer was enveloped in them. These locusts are the scourge of China, as they are of other countries. They are worse in some years than in others, and in several instances they have been the cause of local famines, or of great scarcity.

Of course, many of the locusts fell on the deck of the steamer, and found their way to the cabins. The flight of the cloud was from south to north, and Frank observed a remarkable peculiarity about the movements of individual members of the immense swarm. He captured several and placed them on the cabin table. No matter in what direction he turned their heads, they immediately faced about towards the north, and as long as they were in the cabin they continued to try to escape on the northern side. After the boat had passed through the swarm, the boys released several of the captives, and found that, no matter how they were directed at the moment of their release, they immediately turned and flew away to the north.

"They've one consolation," Fred remarked, "they have their compasses always about them, and have no need to figure up their reckoning with 'Bowditch's Navigator' to know which way to steer."

"Don't you remember," Frank retorted, "our old teacher used to tell us that instinct was often superior to reason. Birds and animals and fishes make their annual migrations, and know exactly where they are going, which is more than most men could begin to do. These locusts are guided by instinct, and they are obliged to be, as they would starve if they had to reason about their movements, and study to know where to go. Just think of a locust sitting down to a map of China, when there were millions of other locusts all doing the same thing. They wouldn't have maps enough to go around, and when they got to a place they wanted to reach, they would find that others had been there before them and eaten up all the grass."

Frank's practical argument about instinct received the approval of his friends, and then the topic of conversation was changed to something else.
Fishing with Cormorants

Both the boys were greatly interested in the various processes of work that were visible on shore. Groups of men were to be seen cutting reeds for fuel, or for the roofs of houses, where they make a warm thatch that keeps out the rain and snow. Other groups were gathering cotton, hemp, millet, and other products of the earth, and at several points there were men with blue hands, who were extracting indigo from the plant which produces it. The plant is bruised and soaked in water until the coloring-matter is drawn out. The indigo settles to the bottom of the tub, and the water is poured off, and after being dried in the sun, the cake forms the indigo of commerce. In many places there were little stages about thirty feet high, and just large enough at the top for one man, who worked there patiently and alone. Frank could not make out the employment of these men, and neither could Fred. After puzzling awhile over the matter, they referred it to Doctor Bronson.

"Those men," the Doctor explained, "are engaged in making ropes or cables out of the fibers of bamboo."

"Why don't they work on the ground instead of climbing up there?" Fred asked.

"Because," was the reply, "they want to keep the cable straight while they are braiding it. As fast as they braid it, it hangs down by its own weight, and coils on the ground beneath. No expensive machinery is needed, and the principal labor in the business is to carry the bamboo fiber to the platform where it is wanted. This cable is very strong and cheap, and takes the place of hemp rope in a great many ways. It is larger and rougher than a hempen rope of the same strength, but the Chinese are willing to sacrifice beauty for cheapness in the majority of practical things."

The Chinese have a way of catching fish which is peculiar to themselves, and much practiced along the Yangtze. A net several feet square hangs at the end of a long pole, and is lowered gently into the water and then suddenly raised. Any fish that happens to be swimming over the net at the time is liable to be taken in. He is lifted from the large net by means of a small scoop, and the raising and lowering process is resumed. Fred thought it was an excellent employment for a laid-back man, and Frank suggested that it would be better for two laid-back men than one, as they could keep each other company.

The boys were desirous of seeing how the Chinese catch fish with the aid of cormorants, and were somewhat disappointed when told that these birds were rarely used on the Yangtze, but must be looked for on some of the lakes and ponds away from the great stream, and particularly in the southern part of the empire. The Doctor thus described this novel mode of catching fish:
A Street in Wuhan

"Three or four cormorants and a raft are necessary in this way of fishing. The cormorants are birds about the size of geese, but are of a dark color, so that they cannot be readily seen by the fish. The raft is of bamboo logs bound together, and about three feet wide by twenty in length. The fisherman is armed with a paddle for propelling his raft and a scoop-net for taking the fish after they have been caught by the cormorant, and he has a large basket for holding the fish after they have been safely secured. Each cormorant has a cord or ring around his neck to prevent him from swallowing the fish he has taken, and it is so tight that he cannot get down any but the smallest fish.

"The birds dive off from the raft, and can swim under water with great rapidity. Sometimes they are not inclined to fish, and require to be pushed off, and, perhaps, beaten a little by their master. If they have been well trained, they swim directly towards the raft, when they rise to the surface, but sometimes a cormorant will go off the other way, in the hope of being able to swallow the fish he holds in his mouth. In such case the fisherman follows and captures the runaway, punishing him soundly for his misconduct. Whenever a bird catches a fish and brings it to the raft, he is rewarded with a mouthful of food. In this way he soon learns to associate his success with something to eat, and a cormorant that has been well trained has a good deal of fidelity in his composition. I am uncertain which to admire most, the dexterity of the fisherman in handling his raft, or the perseverance and celerity of the cormorants."

On her arrival at Wuhan, the steamer was tied up to the bank in front of the portion of the city occupied by the foreigners. Wuhan is on a broad tongue of land at the junction of the Han with the Yangtze. On the opposite side of the Han is the city of Hanyang, and over on the other bank of the Yangtze is Wuchang. Here is the brief description given by the Doctor in a letter to friends at home:

"A hill between Wuhan and Hanyang rises about six hundred feet, and affords one of the finest views in the world, and, in some respects, one of the most remarkable. We climbed there yesterday a little before sunset, and remained as long as the fading daylight and the exigencies of our return permitted. At our feet lay the Yangtze, rolling towards the sea after its junction with the Han, which we could trace afar, like a ribbon of silver winding through the green plain. Away to the west was a range of mountains, lighted by the setting sun, and overhung with golden and purple clouds. While to the south was an undulating country, whose foreground was filled with the walled city of Wuchang. The crenelated walls enclose an enormous space, much of which is so desolate that foreigners are accustomed to hunt pheasants and hares within the limits. They say that at one time all this space was covered with buildings, and that the buildings were crowded with occupants. The three cities suffered terribly during the rebellion, and more than three fourths of their edifices were levelled. Looking from the hill, it is easy to see the traces of the destruction, although twenty years have passed since the insurrection was suppressed. The population of the three cities was said to have been four or five million, but, even after making allowance for the density with which Chinese cities are crowded, I should think those figures were too high. However, there is no doubt that it was very great, and probably more people lived here than on any similar area anywhere else in the world."

Wuhan is a great center of trade. Frequently the mouth of the Han is so crowded with junks that the river is entirely covered, and you may walk for hours by merely stepping from one boat to another. The upper Yangtze and the Han bring down large quantities of tea, furs, silk, wax, and other products, both for home use and for export. There are heavy exports of tea from Wuhan direct to England, and every year steamers go there to load with cargoes, which they take to London as rapidly as possible. Our friends were told that there was a large trade in brick tea, which was prepared for the Russian market, and as the boys were anxious to see the process of preparation, a visit to one of the factories was arranged. Frank made a note of what he saw and wrote it out as follows:

"The dry tea is weighed out into portions for single bricks, and each portion is wrapped in a cloth and placed over a steam-boiler. When it is thoroughly steamed, it is poured into a mold and placed beneath a machine, which presses it into the required shape and size. Some of the machines are worked by hand, and others by steam. Both kinds are very rapid and efficient, and we could not see that the steam had much advantage. Five men working a hand machine, and receiving twenty cents each for a day's labor, were able to press six bricks a minute, as we found by timing them with our watches. The steam press worked only a little faster, and the cost of fuel must have been about equal to that of human muscle.
The Governor-General and His Staff

"Only the poorest kind of tea is made into bricks, and each brick is about six inches wide, eight inches long, and one inch thick. After it has been pressed, it is dried in ovens, and when it is thoroughly dried and ready for packing, it is weighed, to make sure that it is up to the required standard. All bricks that are too light are thrown out, to be mixed up again and done over. Nearly all of this business is in Russian hands, for the reason that this kind of tea is sold only in Russia."

Doctor Bronson arranged that the party should visit Wuchang and see a famous pagoda that stood on the bank of the river. There was not a great deal to see after they got there, as the place was not in good repair, and contained very little in the way of statues and idols. The stairways were narrow and dark, and the climb to the top was not accomplished without difficulty. Afterwards they went through the principal streets, and visited the shops, which they found much like those of Shanghai and Zhenjiang. The people showed some curiosity in looking at the strangers, more than they had found farther down the river, for the reason, doubtless, that fewer foreigners go there.

Wuchang is the capital of the province of Hubei, and the governor-general resides there. Our friends were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of this high official as he was carried through the streets in a sedan chair, followed by several members of his staff. A Chinese governor never goes out without a numerous following, as he wishes the whole world to be impressed with a sense of his importance, and the rank and position of an official can generally be understood by a single glance at the number of his attendants, though the great man himself may be so shut up in his chair that his decorations and the button on his hat may not be visible.

In a couple of days the steamer was ready for the return to Shanghai. The time had been well employed in visiting the streets and shops and temples of Wuhan, and learning something of its importance as a center of trade. The return journey was begun with a feeling of satisfaction that they had taken the trouble and the time for the ascent of the Yangtze and made themselves acquainted with the internal life of the country.

    The Boy Travelers - Japan and China by Thomas W. Knox The Boy Travelers by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 25: The Taiping Rebellion—Scenes on the Great River


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the chapter.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.


Taiping: A member of the Taiping rebels during the mid-19th century.
Foreign Arms: Weapons obtained from foreign countries.
Gong: A percussion instrument consisting of a metal disk that emits a sonorous sound when struck with a soft hammer.
Garrison: A permanent military post or the troops stationed at that post.
Artillery: Large cannon-like weapons, transportable and usually operated by more than one person.
Cormorant: Any of various medium-large black seabirds.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • Narrate the events aloud in your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Chapter Pictures

  • Study the chapter pictures and describe how each relates to the story.

Activity 3: Observe the Modern Equivalent

Examine the chapter settings in modern times:

  • The city of Nanjing, China.
  • The city of Wuhan, China.

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

  • Find the country of China on the map of the world.
  • Find the Yangtze river and trace it to where it passes through Shanghai.
  • Trace the Yangtze river path taken by the boys from Nanjing to Wuhan on the map of China.

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

  • Repeat the mapwork from Activity 4 on a three-dimensional globe.

Activity 6: Listen to a Gong

  • In the chapter, the Doctor remarks that the imperialists beat gongs to frighten the enemy, although this mostly failed to scare off the rebels.
  • Play the video to listen to the sound of the gong.