The Taiping Palace, literally, the Palace of the Great Peace, was hidden behind a Communist-era looking, grey concrete building in an alley, near the number 167 of Yuanjiang Street (沅江路) in the ancient business town of Hongjiang (洪江) in Hunan (湖南) province.
The three Chinese characters － 太平宫 － were solemnly embossed in the middle of cartouche-like frame flanked with dragons. On each side, scenes from the Chinese classics are carved on rectangular frame. I could feel a sense of grandeur from this Palace of the Great Peace which long been transformed into residential housing.
In the depths of history
I found the name of ‘Taiping’ quite jarring, mainly because I associate ‘the Great Peace’ (or Taiping 太平) with the Taiping Rebellion which, with an estimated 20 million victims, is one of the deadliest military conflicts in human history. The rebellion started in the south of China, in Guangxi province and spread through Guangdong and the eastern provinces below the Yangtse River (长江).
The Taiping Rebellion started in the mid-19th century when Hong Xiuquan (洪秀全) convinced himself he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ after reading a pamphlet given to him by a Protestant missionary. The Taiping Rebellion set out to establish the ‘Heavenly Kingdom of the Great Peace’ (太平天国). Impoverished people were keen to become followers of this sect, and early persecutions of the movement by the Qing dynasty only contributed to transform it into a deadly rebellion.
I quickly realised that the Palace of the Great Peace was not linked to the Taiping Rebellion: I read from a wooden plate next on the building, that it was built a century earlier, during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (雍正), in 1723.
In this case, the term ‘Taiping Palace’ was somehow linked to the early Taoist concept of the Great Peace which describes an ideal government which policies foster a state of social harmony and political security.
But then, what was Hongjiang’s Taiping Palace’? …
The ‘Taiping Palace’ was built by business men from Shaoshan (韶山), a town near Hunan’s capital of Changsha, which is also Mao Zedong’s hometown.
Since Hongjiang has emerged as a business town in this corner of China, merchants from various towns and provinces naturally flock and set up guild halls (会馆). We may compare ancient China’s guild halls to a place-specific networking venue where people who grew up in the same province or town could meet and protect their interests. Through associations (会) and guild halls (会馆), migrants could connect with people from the same geographical area or town, build a network and access to business opportunities in their new hometown as well as speak in their own dialect.
There were ten powerful guild halls (十大会馆) in Hongjiang. Each guild hall was specific to one particular town or region of China. Merchants from Fujian province gathered in the Tianhou Palace (天后宫), named after the goddess who protects seafarers, those from Jiangxi province had built their own Wanshou Palace (万寿宫), or Palace of Longevity, people from the ‘Five Prefectures’ (五府)of eastern China (the Hui region 徽州, Suzhou (苏州), Huzhou (湖州), Hangzhou (杭州) and Chizhou (池州) ) met in the Xin’an Guild Hall (新安馆) and natives of Guizhou built the Chonglie Palace (忠烈宫) which means the ‘Palace of those loyal til death’.
Most of Hongjiang’s guild halls are long gone. Some are completely abandoned, slowly crumbling away whereas other have been transformed into residential housing shared by several households, like the Taiping Palace. A sign above the door reminds visitor of the historic nature of the building.
Scratching the surface
Taiping Palace was a fancy name to divert attention from their real business endeavours: opium trafficking.
Built a few decades before the dramatic surge of opium imports from British India that occurred between the end of of the 18th and the mid-19th centuries. Although opium had been used in China for medicinal purposes for several centuries, it’s under the impulse of foreigners who brought the practice of mixing it with tobacco from Southeast Asia that the demand for the drug exploded in China.
Opium smoking plagued China and all the repeated imperial edicts banning its importation since the 1730s were inefficient. There was too much money to be made and too many unscrupulous and corrupt people (foreigners and Chinese) to fuel opium trade. By the mid-19th century, quantities of China-grown opium surpassed the imported one on the domestic market.
It’s very likely that this clique of Shaoshan men at the Taiping Palace relied first on imported opium and then on domestic production transported via pre-existing trade routes. The Fuxing Chang opium house (福兴昌烟馆) and the Fuquan Tang apothecary (福全堂), which was marketing opium as ‘earth medicine’ to circumvent to ban, were probably their main clients.
Although Chinese literature about this era is keen to demonise British and other Europeans for plaguing Chinese society with opium, let’s not forget that the Republican government and also the revolutionary Communists relied on opium taxation for a major part of their revenue.