Last week, our Revolutions class discussed the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) As an instructor, I chose to focus on the rebellion’s beginnings — Hong Xioquan’s vision of a utopian world, his dedication to the equality of the sexes…not to forget that he taught his followers that he was Jesus Christ’s long lost brother and that Buddhism, traditional Chinese religions, and dragons were demonic! There are many angles to work with when discussing this massive rebellion (the body count hovers at around 50 million). But one of my students pointed out something: I didn’t discuss Frederick Townsend Ward.
This is true: in focusing so much on Hong Xioquan, I went right to the end and brought in Charles “Chinese” Gordon, and the demise of the Taiping Rebellion. But Frederick Townsend Ward, an American from Salem, Massachusetts, trained the army which won the war. His “Ever Victorious Army” was made up of not just the newly trained Chinese local soldiers, but the forgotten of Shanghai: former pirates, mercenaries, drunks, sailors, lost men, and refugees.
Frederick Townsend Ward was their leader in many ways. He dropped out of school at age 16 after many years of rebellion. His father named him second mate on a friend’s ship, but he was thrown overboard for his attitude. His life turned into many adventures, but never was he a follower of authority. For a period, he worked with William Walker in Mexico helping to train mercenaries to overthrow governments and set up American colonies throughout Latin America (Walker went on to buy the office of President of Nicaragua, but was sentenced to death in Honduras). Ward went to the Crimean War to serve with the French, but he was dismissed for insubordination.
His last stop was Shanghai, where he accepted a position in the Shanghai Pirate Suppression Bureau. The Taiping rebels were coming toward Shanghai, and he, with his mercenary army of anyone who could stay sober enough to fire a weapon, fought back. Ward was injured over a dozen times during the conflicts, and he finally died of a gunshot wound during the Battle of Cixi in 1862.
Frederick Townsend Ward does not deserve to be forgotten, and neither does his successor, “Chinese” Gordon, or the entire Taiping Rebellion. Most Americans have no frame of reference for the Taiping Rebellion whatsoever, and I would guess that hardly anyone outside of England knows Gordon and what he went on to do in the Sudan. Our history books, test designers, and curriculum planners choose what should be covered, and how it should be covered. In a collaborative class, a student has the power to stand up and say, “But what about…” and it may change the course of the class for the better. We need to listen to our students, respond to what they think shouldn’t be omitted, and create the curriculum as democratically as we can.
Here’s to Frederick Townsend Ward, who is far too interesting and important to be a footnote in history, and here’s to my student who read God’s Chinese Son by Jonathan D. Spence before joining our class, and felt empowered to demand his inclusion in the study on Taiping.