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Taiping Rebellion

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December 1850

145,000 killed
243,000 killed

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Qing dynasty, United Kingdom, France, Second French Empire

Opium Wars, Boxer Rebellion, Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, Second Opium War, First Opium War

Taiping rebellion 3 minute history

The Taiping Rebellion or Taiping Civil War (simplified Chinese: 太平天国运动; traditional Chinese: 太平天國運動; pinyin: Taìpíng Tīanguó Yùndòng, literally "Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Movement") was a massive rebellion or civil war in China that lasted from 1850 to 1864 fought between the established Manchu-led Qing dynasty and the millenarian movement of the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace. The Taiping Rebellion began in the southern province of Guangxi when local officials launched a campaign of persecution against a millenarian sect known as the God Worshipping Society led by Hong Xiuquan, who believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. The war was mostly fought in the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Jiangxi and Hubei, but over 14 years of war the Taiping Army had marched through every province of China proper except Gansu. The war was the largest in China since the Qing conquest in 1644, and ranks as one of the bloodiest wars in human history, the bloodiest civil war and the largest conflict of the 19th century, with estimates of war dead ranging from 20-70 million to as much as 100 million, with millions more displaced.


Hostilities began on January 1, 1851, when the Qing Green Standard Army launched an attack against the God Worshipping Society at the town of Jintian, Guangxi. Hong declared himself the Heavenly King of the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace (or Taiping Heavenly Kingdom), from which comes the term "Taipings" that has often been applied to them in the English language. The Taipings began marching north in September 1851 to escape Qing forces closing in on them. On March 19, 1853, the Taipings captured the city of Nanjing and Hong declared it the Heavenly Capital of his kingdom.

For a decade the Taiping occupied and fought across much of the mid and lower Yangzi valley, some of the wealthiest and most productive lands in the Qing empire. The Taiping nearly managed to capture the Qing capital of Beijing with a northern expedition launched in May 1853, and were successful in capturing large parts of Anhui, Jiangxi and Hubei provinces with a western expedition launched in June 1853. Qing imperial troops proved to be largely ineffective in halting Taiping advances, focusing on a perpetually stalemated siege of Nanjing. In Hunan Province a local irregular army called the Xiang Army or Hunan Army, under the personal leadership of Zeng Guofan, became the main armed force fighting for the Qing against the Taiping. Zeng's Xiang Army proved effective in gradually turning back the Taiping advance in the western theater of the war.

In 1856 the Taiping were weakened after infighting following an attempted coup led by the East King, Yang Xiuqing. During this time the Xiang Army managed to gradually retake much of Hubei and Jiangxi province. In May 1860 the Taiping defeated the imperial forces that had been besieging Nanjing since 1853, eliminating them from the region and opening the way for a successful invasion of southern Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, the wealthiest region of the Qing Empire. While Taiping forces were preoccupied in Jiangsu, Zeng's forces moved down the Yangzi River, capturing Anqing on September 5, 1861.

In May 1862 the Xiang Army began directly besieging Nanjing and managed to hold firm despite numerous attempts by the numerically superior Taiping Army to dislodge them. Hong died on June 1, 1864, and Nanjing fell shortly after, on July 19. After the fall of Nanjing Zeng Guofan and many of his protégés, such as Li Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang, were celebrated as saviors of the Qing empire and became some of the most powerful men in late-19th-century China. A small remainder of loyal Taiping forces continued to fight in northern Zhejiang, rallying behind Hong's teenage son Tianguifu, but after Tianguifu's capture on October 25, 1864, Taiping resistance was gradually pushed into the highlands of Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Fujian and finally Guangdong, where the last Taiping loyalist, Wang Haiyang, was defeated on January 29, 1866.

Taiping rebellion modern east asia 2


The terms used for the movement often reflect the viewpoint of the writer. In modern Chinese the war is often referred to as the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Movement, reflecting both a Nationalist and Communist point of view that the Taiping represented a popular ideological movement of either Han nationalism or proto-communist values. In the 19th century the Qing did not label the conflict a civil war or movement--since that would lend the Taiping credibility--but instead referred to the tumultuous civil war as a period of chaos (乱), rebellion (逆) or military ascendency (军兴). The Qing referred to the Taiping as Yue Bandits (粤匪 or 粤贼) in official sources, a reference to their origins in the southeastern province of Guangdong. At other times it was referred to as the Hong-Yang Rebellion (洪杨之乱), pointing to the two most prominent leaders, Hong Xiuquan and Yang Xiuqing, and was also referred to dismissively as the Red Sheep Rebellion (红羊之乱), because "Hong-Yang" sounds like "Red Sheep" in Chinese. More colloquially, Chinese called the Taiping some variant of Long-Hairs (长毛鬼、长髪鬼、髪逆、髪贼), because they did not shave their foreheads and braid their hair into a queue as Qing subjects were obligated to do, allowing their hair to grow long.

Little is known about how the Taiping referred to the war, but the Taiping often referred to the Qing in general and Manchus in particular as some variant of demons or monsters (妖), reflecting Hong's proclamation that they were fighting a holy war to rid the world of demons and establish paradise on earth. The scholar Jian Youwen is among those who refer to the "Taiping Revolutionary Movement" on the grounds that it worked towards a complete change of the political and social system rather than the replacement of one dynasty by another. In English, the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace has often been shortened to simply the Taipings, from the word "Peace" in the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace, but this was never a term the Taipings or their enemies used to refer to them. In the 19th century Western observers, depending on their ideological position, referred to the Taiping as the "revolutionaries", "insurgents" or "rebels". The conflict in general has been called the "Taiping Rebellion" by many Western historians. Recently, scholars such as Tobie Meyer-Fong and Stephen Platt have argued that the term "Taiping Rebellion" is biased because it insinuates that the Qing were the legitimate government fighting against illegitimate Taiping rebels. They argue, instead, that the conflict should be called a "civil war".


Qing-dynasty China in the mid-19th century suffered a series of natural disasters, economic problems and defeats at the hands of the Western powers, in particular the humiliating defeat in 1842 by the British Empire in the First Opium War. The government, led by ethnic Manchus, was seen by many Han Chinese as ineffective and corrupt. Anti-Manchu sentiments were strongest in southern China among the Hakka community, a Han Chinese subgroup.

In 1837 Hong Xiuquan, a Hakka from a poor mountain village, once again failed the imperial examination, frustrating his ambition to become a scholar-official in the civil service. He returned home, fell sick and was bedridden for several days, during which he experienced mystical visions. In 1842, after more carefully reading a pamphlet he had received years before from a Protestant Christian missionary, Hong declared that he now understood that his vision meant that he was the younger brother of Jesus and that he had been sent to rid China of the "devils", including the corrupt Qing government and Confucian teachings. It was his duty to spread his message and overthrow the Qing dynasty. One of Hong's associates, Yang Xiuqing--a firewood merchant from Guangxi--also declared that he directly heard the voice of God. In 1847 Hong went to Guangzhou, where he studied the Bible with Issachar Jacox Roberts, an American Baptist missionary. Roberts refused to baptize him and later stated that Hong's followers were "bent on making their burlesque religious pretensions serve their political purpose."

In 1843 Hong and his followers founded the God Worshipping Society, a movement that combined elements of Christianity, Daoism, Confucianism and indigenous millenarianism. The Taiping faith, says one historian, "developed into a dynamic new Chinese religion . . . Taiping Christianity". Hong presented this religion as a revival and a restoration of the ancient classical faith in Shangdi, an authentic Chinese faith that had been displaced by Confucianism due to the efforts of the various Chinese dynastic imperial regimes. The movement at first grew by suppressing groups of bandits and pirates in southern China in the late 1840s, then suppression by Qing authorities led it to evolve into guerrilla warfare and subsequently a widespread civil war.

Early years

The revolt began in Guangxi. In early January 1851, after a small-scale battle resulted in a victory in late December 1850, a 10,000-strong rebel army organized by Feng Yunshan and Wei Changhui routed Qing forces stationed in Jintian (present-day Guiping, Guangxi). Taiping forces successfully repulsed an attempted imperial reprisal against the Jintian Uprising.

Middle years

In 1853 Taiping forces captured Nanjing, making it their capital and renaming it Tianjing ("Heavenly Capital"). Since the Taipings considered the Manchus to be demons, they first killed all the Manchu men, then forced the Manchu women outside the city and burned them to death.

In 1853 Hong Xiuquan withdrew from active control of policies and administration to rule exclusively by written proclamations. He lived in luxury and had many women in his inner chamber, and often issued religious strictures. He clashed with Yang Xiuqing, who challenged his often impractical policies, and became suspicious of Yang's ambitions, his extensive network of spies and his claims of authority when "speaking as God". Yang and his entire family were put to death by Hong's followers in 1856, and the purge was followed by the killing of others loyal to Yang.

With Hong withdrawn from view and Yang out of the picture, remaining Taiping leaders tried to widen their popular support and forge alliances with European powers, but failed on both counts. The Europeans decided to stay officially neutral, though European military advisors served with the Qing army.

Inside China the rebellion faced resistance from the traditionalist rural classes because of hostility to Chinese customs and Confucian values. The landowning upper class, unsettled by the Taiping ideology and the policy of strict separation of the sexes, even for married couples, sided with government forces and their Western allies.

In 1859 Hong Rengan, Hong Xiuquan's cousin, joined the Taiping forces in Nanjing and was given considerable power by Hong. Hong Rengan developed an ambitious plan to expand the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom's boundaries. In 1860 the Taiping rebels were successful in taking Hangzhou and Suzhou to the east (see Second rout of the Jiangnan Daying), but failed to take Shanghai, a loss which marked the beginning of the decline of the kingdom.

Fall of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

An attempt to take Shanghai in August 1860 was repulsed by an army of Qing troops supported by European officers under the command of Frederick Townsend Ward. This army would become known as the "Ever Victorious Army", a seasoned and well trained Qing military force commanded by Charles George Gordon, and would be instrumental in the defeat of the Taiping rebels. The Ever-Victorious Army repulsed another attack on Shanghai in 1862 and helped to defend other treaty ports such as Ningbo. They also aided imperial troops in reconquering Taiping strongholds along the Yangtze River.

Qing forces were reorganised under the command of Zeng Guofan, Zuo Zongtang and Li Hongzhang, and the Qing reconquest began in earnest. By early 1864, Qing control in most areas was reestablished.

Hong Xiuquan declared that God would defend Nanjing, but in June 1864, with Qing forces approaching, he died of food poisoning as a consequence of eating wild vegetables when the city ran low on food supplies. He was sick for 20 days before succumbing and a few days after his death, Qing forces took the city. His body was buried in the former Ming Imperial Palace, and was later exhumed on orders of Zeng Guofan to verify his death, and then cremated. Hong's ashes were later blasted out of a cannon in order to ensure that his remains have no resting place as eternal punishment for the uprising.

Four months before the fall of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, Hong Xiuquan abdicated in favor of Hong Tianguifu, his eldest son, who was 15 years old. The younger Hong was inexperienced and powerless, so the kingdom was quickly destroyed when Nanjing fell in July 1864 to the imperial armies after protracted street-by-street fighting. Most of the Taiping princes were executed.


Although the fall of Nanjing in 1864 marked the destruction of the Taiping regime, the fight was not yet over. There were still several hundred thousand Taiping troops continuing the fight, with more than a quarter-million fighting in the border regions of Jiangxi and Fujian alone. It was not until August 1871 that the last Taiping army led by Shi Dakai's commander, Li Fuzhong (李福忠), was completely wiped out by government forces in the border region of Hunan, Guizhou and Guangxi.

In 1865, Liu Yongfu escaped in command of a splinter group known as the Black Flag Army (Chinese: 黑旗军; pinyin: Hēiqí Jūn; Vietnamese: Quân cờ đen), which mainly recruited soldiers of ethnic Zhuang background, and left Guangxi into Upper Tonkin in the Empire of Annam, where his forces engaged the French. He later became the second and last leader of the short-lived Republic of Formosa (5 June–21 October 1895).

Other "Flag Gangs" armed with the latest weapons, disintegrated into bandit groups that plundered remnants of the Lan Xang kingdom, and were then engaged in combat against the incompetent forces of King Rama V (r. 1868–1910) until 1890, when the last of the groups eventually disbanded. Their victims did not know where the bandits had come from and, when they plundered Buddhist temples, they were mistaken for Chinese Muslims from Yunnan called Hui in Mandarin and Haw in the Lao language (Thai: ฮ่อ,) which resulted in the protracted series of conflicts being misnamed the Haw wars.

Death toll

With no reliable census at the time, estimates are necessarily based on projections, but the most widely cited sources put the total number of deaths during the 15 years of the rebellion at about 20–30 million civilians and soldiers. Most of the deaths were attributed to plague and famine. At the Third Battle of Nanking in 1864, more than 100,000 were killed in three days.

The rebellion happened at roughly the same time as the American Civil War. Although almost certainly the largest civil war of the 19th century (in terms of numbers under arms), it is debatable whether the Taiping Rebellion involved more soldiers than the Napoleonic Wars earlier in the century.

Other rebellions

The Nian Rebellion (1853–68), and several Muslim rebellions in the southwest (Panthay Rebellion, 1855–73) and the northwest (Dungan revolt, 1862–77) continued to pose considerable problems for the Qing dynasty.

Du Wenxiu, who led the Panthay Rebellion, was in contact with the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. He was not aiming his rebellion at Han Chinese, but was anti-Qing and wanted to destroy the Manchu government. Du's forces led multiple non-Muslim forces, including Han Chinese, Li, Bai, and Hani peoples. They were assisted by non-Muslim Shan and Kakhyen and other hill tribes in the revolt.

The other Muslim rebellion, the Dungan revolt, was the reverse: it was not aimed at overthrowing the Qing dynasty since its leader Ma Hualong accepted an imperial title. Rather, it erupted due to intersectional fighting between Muslim factions and Han Chinese. Various groups fought each other during the Dungan revolt without any coherent goal. According to modern researchers, the Dungan rebellion began in 1862 not as a planned uprising but as a coalescence of many local brawls and riots triggered by trivial causes, among these were false rumours that the Hui Muslims were aiding the Taiping rebels. However, the Hui Ma Xiaoshi claimed that the Shaanxi Muslim rebellion was connected to the Taiping.

Taiping Heavenly Kingdom's policies

The rebels announced social reforms, including strict separation of the sexes, abolition of foot binding, land socialisation, and "suppression" of private trade. In religion, the Kingdom tried to replace Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion with a form of Christianity, holding that Hong Xiuquan was the younger brother of Jesus. The libraries of the Buddhist monasteries were destroyed, almost completely in the case of the Yangtze Delta area.

Within the land it controlled, the Taiping Heavenly Army established a theocratic and highly militarised rule. Troops were nicknamed "long hair", because they sported a traditional Confucian hairstyle that was different from the queue, which was customary in the Qing dynasty. The Qing government referred to them in official documents as the "hair rebels" (simplified Chinese: 发贼; traditional Chinese: 髮賊; pinyin: fàzéi). Governance was remarkably ineffective, haphazard, and brutal. All efforts were concentrated on the army, and civil administration was non-existent. Rule was established in the major cities and the land outside the urban areas was little regarded.

Even though polygamy was banned, Hong Xiuquan had numerous concubines and frequently mistreated them. Many high-ranking Taiping officials kept concubines as a matter of prerogative, and lived as de facto kings.

Taiping forces

The Taiping army was the rebellion's key strength. It was marked by a high level of discipline and fanaticism. They typically wore a uniform of red jackets with blue trousers, and grew their hair long so in China they were nicknamed "long hair". The large numbers of women serving in the Taiping army also distinguished it from other 19th-century armies.

Combat was always bloody and extremely brutal, with little artillery but huge forces equipped with small arms. Both armies would attempt to push each other off of the battlefield, and though casualties were high, few battles were decisively won. The Taiping army's main strategy of conquest was to take major cities, consolidate their hold on the cities, then march out into the surrounding countryside to recruit local farmers and battle government forces. Estimates of the overall size of the Taiping army are around 500,000 soldiers.

The organisation of a Taiping army corps was thus:

  • 1 general
  • 5 colonels
  • 25 captains
  • 125 lieutenants
  • 500 sergeants
  • 2,500 corporals
  • 10,000 infantry
  • These corps were placed into armies of varying sizes. In addition to the main Taiping forces organised along the above lines, there were also thousands of pro-Taiping groups fielding their own forces of irregulars.

    Ethnic structure of the army

    Ethnically, the Taiping army was at the outset formed largely from these groups: the Hakka, a Han Chinese subgroup, the Cantonese, local residents of Guangdong province and the Zhuang (a non-Han ethnic group), which were minority groups as compared to the Han Chinese subgroups that form dominant regional majorities across south China. It is no coincidence that Hong Xiuquan and the other Taiping royals were Hakka.

    As a Han subgroup, the Hakka were frequently marginalised economically and politically, having migrated to the regions which their descendents presently inhabit only after other Han groups were already established there. For example, when the Hakka settled in Guangdong and parts of Guangxi, speakers of Yue Chinese (Cantonese) were already the dominant regional Han group there and they had been so for some time, just as speakers of various dialects of Min are locally dominant in Fujian province. The Hakka settled throughout southern China and beyond, but as latecomers they generally had to establish their communities on rugged, less fertile land scattered on the fringes of the local majority group's settlements. As their name ("guest households") suggests, the Hakka were generally treated as migrant newcomers, often subject to hostility and derision from the local majority Han populations. Consequently, the Hakka, to a greater extent than other Han Chinese, have been historically associated with popular unrest and rebellion.

    The other significant ethnic group in the Taiping army was the Zhuang, an indigenous people of Tai origin and China's largest non-Han ethnic minority group. Over the centuries, Zhuang communities had been adopting Han Chinese culture. This was possible because Han culture in the region accommodates a great deal of linguistic diversity, so the Zhuang could be absorbed as if the Zhuang language were just another Han Chinese dialect (which it is not). Because Zhuang communities were integrating with the Han at different rates, a certain amount of friction between the Han and the Zhuang was inevitable, with Zhuang unrest leading to armed uprisings on occasion. The second tier of the Taiping army was an ethnic mix that included many Zhuang. Prominent at this level was Shi Dakai, who was half-Hakka, half-Zhuang and spoke both languages fluently, making him quite a rare asset to the Taiping leadership.

    In the later stages of the Taiping Rebellion, the number of Han Chinese in the army from Han groups other than the Hakka increased substantially. However, the Hakka and the Zhuang (who constituted as much as 25% of the Taiping Army), as well as other non-Han ethnic minority groups (many of them of Tai origin related to the Zhuang), continued to feature prominently in the rebellion throughout its duration, with virtually no leaders emerging from any Han Chinese group other than the Hakka.

    Social structure of the Taiping Army

    Socially and economically, the Taiping rebels came almost exclusively from the lowest classes. Many of the southern Taiping troops were former miners, especially those coming from the Zhuang. Very few Taiping rebels, even in the leadership caste, came from the imperial bureaucracy. Almost none were landlords and in occupied territories landlords were often executed.

    Qing forces

    Opposing the rebellion was an imperial army with over a million regulars and unknown thousands of regional militias and foreign mercenaries operating in support. Among the imperial forces was the elite Ever Victorious Army, consisting of Chinese soldiers led by a European officer corps (see Frederick Townsend Ward and Charles Gordon), backed by British arms companies like Willoughbe & Ponsonby. A particularly famous imperial force was Zeng Guofan's Xiang Army.

    Although keeping accurate records was something imperial China traditionally did very well, the decentralised nature of the imperial war effort (relying on regional forces) and the fact that the war was a civil war and therefore very chaotic, meant that reliable figures are impossible to find. The destruction of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom also meant that any records it possessed were destroyed.

    Zuo Zongtang from Hunan province was another important Qing general who contributed in suppressing the Taiping Rebellion.

    The organisation of the Qing Imperial Army was thus:

  • Eight Banners Army: 250,000 soldiers
  • Green Standard Army: ~610,000 soldiers
  • Xiang (Hunan) Army: 130,000 soldiers
  • Huai (Anhui) Army: 70,000 soldiers
  • Chu Army: 40,000 soldiers
  • Ever Victorious Army: 5,000 soldiers
  • Village Militias: unknown thousands
  • Total war

    The Taiping Rebellion was a total war. Almost every citizen of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was given military training and conscripted into the army to fight against Qing imperial forces.

    During this conflict, both sides tried to deprive each other of the resources needed to continue the war and it became standard practice to destroy agricultural areas, butcher the population of cities, and in general exact a brutal price from captured enemy lands to drastically weaken the opposition's war effort. This war was total in the senses that civilians on both sides participated to a significant extent in the war effort and that armies on both sides waged war on the civilian population as well as military forces.

    This resulted in a massive civilian death toll with some 600 towns destroyed and other bloody policies resulting. Since the rebellion began in Guangxi, Qing forces allowed no rebels speaking its dialect to surrender. Reportedly in the province of Guangdong, it is written that 1,000,000 were executed. After the surrender of the Hakkas, the Chinese authorities committed enormous massacres against them, executing at least 30,000 Hakkas each day during the height of their operation. These policies of mass murder of civilians occurred elsewhere in China, including Anhui, and Nanjing.

    The Taiping Rebellion has been referenced in many artistic media. For instance, in novel form Robert Elegant's 1983 book Mandarin depicts the time of the Taiping Rebellion from the unusual point of view of a Jewish family living in Shanghai at the time. In Flashman and the Dragon, the fictional Harry Paget Flashman recounts his adventures during the Second Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion. Lisa See's novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan takes place in China during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor; the title character is married to a man who lives in Jintian and the characters get caught up in the revolution. Amy Tan's novel The Hundred Secret Senses takes place in part during the time of the Taiping Rebellion. Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom by Katherine Paterson is a young adult novel set during the Taiping Rebellion.

    The civil war has also been documented in various television shows and films. In 2000, CCTV produced The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a 46 episode television series about the Taiping Rebellion. In 1988, Hong Kong's TVB produced Twilight of a Nation, a 45 episode television drama about the Taiping Rebellion. The Warlords is a 2007 historical film set in the 1860s concerning the Taiping Rebellion showing that General Pang Qinyun, leader of the Shan Regiment, is the man responsible for the capture of Suzhou and Nanjing.


    Taiping Rebellion Wikipedia

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