1850 marked the beginning of a civil war in China unmatched in terms of death and destruction by any other internal conflict in history. The causes of this civil war, called the Taiping Rebellion, were numerous.
The conflict arose between the ruling Qing Dynasty and a fanatical group called the Taiping Tianguo. While there have been many rebellions and uprisings throughout the history of China, most were smaller in scale and contained to a specific province or region.
The Taiping Rebellion differed in size, geographic location, and longevity. The rebellion officially lasted 14 years (1850-1864), though it took another several years after to officially defeat the last resistance. The conflict also involved millions of people with battles fought all throughout China, though largely concentrated in the southern provinces.
Prior to the rebellion the Qing Dynasty had already been showing signs of weakness. The enormous financial costs of the civil war and desperate policy actions to quell the revolt further weakened the rulers.
Many scholars believe the Taiping Rebellion was the beginning of the end of the Qing Dynasty. With the world rapidly modernizing, Western influences would also lead to the inevitable end of the long list of dynasties in China.
What was the Taiping Rebellion?
The Taiping Rebellion was a large-scale uprising in China against the ruling Qing Dynasty that occurred from 1850-1864. Scholars consider it to be the deadliest civil war in the history of the world.
One man emerged as the leader of the Taiping Rebellion: Hong Xiuquan. Born into peasantry in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, Hong displayed a sharp mind. His parents sacrificed financially and enrolled him in formalized education with the hopes of one day passing the imperial civil service examinations.
The imperial civil service examinations were China’s system of ensuring a meritocracy – where civil servants could come from any class regardless of their birth status. This was one of the few ways that ordinary citizens and/or peasant farmers could improve their social status.
The examinations were notoriously difficult though, and very few passed despite years’ worth of studying.
Hong Xiuquan reportedly first took the exam at the age of 16 and failed. He would attempt the examination again three more times over the next 14 years. All ended in failure.
After one of these failures Hong reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown and became gravely ill. He reported seeing heavenly visions and was unsure what to make of them.
Eventually Hong would be exposed to Christian teachings via pamphlets from European missionaries working in the region. He became convinced that his visions placed him among God and Jesus, and that he was in fact, the brother of Jesus.1
Hong began preaching his visions around the province and eventually gained some converts. They called their new religion the “Society of God Worshipers,” which became popular among minority groups that were largely ignored in Chinese society at the time.
As Hong’s followers grew in number, so too did their militaristic capabilities.
The Causes of the Taiping Rebellion in China
There were many causes of the outbreak of the Taiping Rebellion including lingering animosity from the ethnic majority Han Chinese against the ruled Qing Dynasty that hailed from Manchuria. The humiliation during the First Opium War and and westernization that supplanted traditional values also were major causes of the Taiping Rebellion.
The rulers of the Qing Dynasty hailed from the Manchuria region in northeastern China and were an ethnic minority. The Qing took steps to solidify their power such as reserving the highest government offices solely for people of Manchu descent to prevent the gradual weakening of their rule.
Despite ruling for over two centuries there was much animosity from the ethnic majority Han Chinese that were especially prevalent in southern China. Some such as Hong Xiuquan saw the Manchus as ethnically inferior, “invaders,” and the source of their problems.
The mid-19th century was a period of extreme turbulence for China, and the Qing Dynasty did little to assuage the fears of the Chinese people that their way of life was being threatened.
China increasingly was being subjected to Westernization as the century progressed. Western ideas and religion challenged the long-dominant traditional culture in China.
This all came to a head during the First Opium War from 1839-1842. In it, Great Britain soundly defeated China and forced them to sign the first of what would later be called the “Unequal Treaties.” The terms stated that the opium trade was allowed to continue and the additional ports would be opened to free market trade.
The treaty humiliated the Chinese and had the simultaneous effect of increasing the number of opium addicts in the country while showing the declining power of the Qing Dynasty. In addition, with the opening of new ports, trade and commerce shifted from the south to the north.
The resulting job losses in the south led to even more discontent and lack of confidence in the Qing. Combined with a lackluster response to famine and natural disasters in the region, the south was a tinderbox waiting for a spark.2
The Revolt Underway
That spark came in the form of Hong Xiuquan’s Taiping Rebellion beginning in 1850. After amassing a large following in the south, his followers scored some major early victories, showing the weakness of the Qin forces.
In 1851 Hong would proclaim his new dynasty as the Taiping Tianguo or “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.” His armies marched north picking up followers in the form of discontented peasantry along the way.
The Taiping appealed to many of the peasantry for their promises of egalitarianism and land reform. Their caste-free society also gave many more rights to women; evenly distributed land; and they were strongly against opium, alcohol, and tobacco.
By 1853 the Taiping had captured the provincial center of Nanjing and established the city as their capital. Here Hong’s armies were besieged for years by Qing forces attempting to retake the city and their progress stalled.
Despite this the Taiping would launch invasions of their own in all directions to relieve the pressure on the city. A northern invasion of Beijing was a complete failure, though a western expedition was met with limited success.
In addition to the rebellion, the Qing were fighting the British and French in the Second Opium War (1856-1860), further dividing their resources.
After a major victory outside Nanjing in 1860, the Taiping marched east to capture the major port city of Shanghai from 1860-1862. Given the large Western presence in the city, the British and French provided aid to the Qing to help them defeat the approaching invaders.
This defeat and a string of other losses would prove to be a death blow for the Taiping Rebellion. Within two years Nanjing fell and with it, the last major resistance of the Taiping.
The Taiping Rebellion Death Toll
The Taiping Rebellion death toll was one of the highest in history. Historians do not know the official number, but estimates range between 20-30 million dead from the conflict.
The deadliness of both the Taiping Rebellion and the following Dungan Revolts caused the population of China to decline from a high of ~412 million in 1850 to ~358 million in 1870. It would not surpass 412 million again until nearly four decades later.
The Taiping Rebellion was an especially brutal conflict. Hong Xiuquan’s Taiping religion called for the cleansing of the Manchus from China. Whenever Taiping forces encountered Manchus, mass exterminations would follow.
In retaliation, the Qing Dynasty armies performed their own mass killings of Taipings. This was especially the case in the southern provinces where the rebellion began.
In a form of total war, both sides sought to deprive their enemies of as many resources as possible. This meant destroying infrastructure and burning crops in the fields. Millions of civilians would starve and perish of disease as a result of these tactics.
Why the Taiping Rebellion Failed
While the Taiping Rebellion made significant progress in the early years, they failed to replicate this success as the conflict drew on. Ultimately the Taiping were beset with internal strife, lack of coordination, and poor leadership.
While Hong Xiuquan led the movement, he allowed others to rule the armies and govern their conquered territories. These leaders gained considerable power and prestige among the Taiping populace.
This development led to the Tianjing Incident of 1856, during which Hong Xiuquan himself ordered the killing of several essential political and military leaders of the Taiping. Hong was unwilling to cede power and eliminated the threats these leaders posed.
The resulting gap in effective leadership was extremely detrimental to the Taiping Rebellion. Troops suffered lower morale and the rebellion lost its fervor. Many attribute this internal strife and loss in leadership as the beginning of a slow decline of the rebellion.3
Though the Qing Dynasty may have quelled the rebellion, they too were in the midst of decline. The Qing could not easily replace the resources it took to defeat the Taiping and the regional armies that put down the rebellion did not vanish after the conflict.
The resulting decentralized military further weakened the Qing and allowed European powers as well as a modernizing Japan to make further inroads in Chinese territory.
While the Taiping Rebellion ended in failure, the Qing Dynasty did not last much longer, with the last emperor abdicating in 1912.
1) Wu, Qingyun. Utopian Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, 1997, pp. 234–36. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20719667.
2) Lippit, Victor D. “The Development of Underdevelopment in China.” Modern China, vol. 4, no. 3, 1978, pp. 251–328. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/188946.
3) MEYER-FONG, TOBIE. “Where the War Ended: Violence, Community, and Commemoration in China’s Nineteenth-Century Civil War.” The American Historical Review, vol. 120, no. 5, 2015, pp. 1724–38. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43697073.