The increasing militarization of the countryside: local village militia, anti-bandit groups, self protection groups, brotherhoods and secret societies.
By the late Qing period, martial arts were widely available and widely practiced in China. There were increasing number of military examination graduates in the rural areas and military Sheng-yaun were often influential men in their villages. The increasing militarization of the countryside included local village militia and anti-bandit groups as a means of protection for villages in increasingly unstable times. A 1716 Cao county, Shandong gazetteer noted: “The Yellow River repeatedly broke its banks, and bandits run amok.”
Martial arts attracted young peasant males and figured into a long Chinese tradition of ordinary peasants attempting to create organizations independent from orthodox gentry elites.
Fraternal organizations were groups of men brought together because they were from the same family or village. They were common throughout Southern China and Taiwan, serving as part social club, part social service and sometimes part criminal gang. They frequently sponsored martial arts training for their members.
They also figured into village to village disputes, clan wars and local revolts. The martial arts were everywhere, and violence was becoming the method of choice in Chinese politics. For example, in the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong clan wars were a well-established tradition. Martial artists found frequent employment either as clan instructors or outright mercenaries.
The Eight Trigrams rebellion of 1813 represented the merging of sectarian groups with groups whose original purpose had been the practice of martial arts. Feng Ke-Shan (aka “King of Earth”) was a martial artists with little religious interest but ability to recruit members of local martial arts groups. The martial arts groups had the necessary skills to undertake an uprising.
The Taiping Rebellion engulfed much of southern China from 1850 to 1864. It was led by heterodox Christian convert, Hong Xiuquan, who having received visions maintained that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Discontent had long been brewing due to a series of natural disasters, widespread economic problems and national humiliation after defeats at the hands of the Western powers; in particular the First Opium War of 1842. The Qing government were seen by much of the Chinese population as ineffective and corrupt foreign rulers.
Class divisions and ethnic rivalries figured prominently in the Taiping period. Hong Xiuquan was a member of the Hakka ethnic group which had emigrated to the south in the Song dynasty, arriving in the south far too late to acquire the best land and thus engaged in constant conflicts for expansion and survival. Among other serious problems effecting the regions were the prevalence of female infanticide, creating massive imbalances with shortages of women.