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The Taiping Rebellion was a widespread civil war in Chinamarker from 1850 to 1864, led by heterodox Christian convert Hong Xiuquan, against the ruling Qing Dynastymarker. About 25 million people were killed, mainly civilians, in one of the deadliest military conflicts in history.

Hong established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom ( pinyin: Tàipíng Tiān Guó), officially the "Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace", with its capital at Nanjingmarker. The Kingdom's army controlled large parts of southern China, at its height containing about 30 million people. The rebels attempted social reforms and the replacement of Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion by a form of Christianity. Troops were nicknamed the Long hair (長毛, pinyin: cháng máo). The Taiping areas were besieged by Qing forces throughout most of the rebellion. The Qing government defeated the rebellion with the eventual aid of French and British forces.

In the twentieth century, China's communist leader Mao Zedong glorified the Taipings as early heroic revolutionaries against a corrupt feudal system.

History of the Rebellion


Hong Xiuquan

In the mid-19th century, China under the Qing Dynastymarker 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 United Kingdommarker in the First Opium War. The Qing, ethnically Manchu, were seen by much of the Chinese population, majority Han, as ineffective and corrupt foreign rulers. Anti-Manchu sentiment was strongest in the south among the laboring classes, and it was these disaffected who flocked to join the charismatic visionary Hong Xiuquan.

After Hong failed to pass the examinations that would make him one of the elite, he studied the Bible with the help of a Protestant missionary. One day he claimed to have had a vision to the effect that he was the brother of Jesus. After his vision, he felt it was his duty to spread Christianity and overthrow the foreign rule of the Qing. Hong's associate Yang Xiuqing was a former firewood salesman of Guangxi, who claimed to be able to act as a voice of God to direct the people and gain political power.

The sect's power grew in the late 1840s, initially suppressing groups of bandits and pirates, but persecution by Qing authorities spurred the movement into a guerrilla rebellion and then into civil war.

First years

The revolt began in Guangxi Province. After a previous small-scale battle resulting in the rebels' victory in the late December 1850, in early January 1851, a ten thousand-strong rebel army organized by Feng Yunshan and Wei Changhui routed Imperial troops stationed in the town of Jintian. Heavenly Kingdom forces successfully drove back the Imperial reprisal against the Jintian Uprising.

On January 11, 1851, his birthday, Hong Xiuquan declared himself "Heavenly King" (Tianwang) of a new dynasty, the "Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace" (Taiping Tianguo)

The revolt rapidly spread northward. In March 1853, between 700,000 and 800,000 Taiping soldiers directed by commander-in-chief Yang Xiuqing took Nanjingmarker, killing 30,000 Imperial soldiers and slaughtering thousands of civilians. The city became the movement's capital and was renamed Tianjing, "Heavenly Capital". Hong built his Palace of Heavenly Kingmarker there by converting the former residence of Qing officials.

At its height, the Heavenly Kingdom encompassed much of south and central China, centered on the fertile Yangtzemarker river valley. Control of the river meant that the Taipings could easily supply their capital at Nanjing. From there, the Taipings continued their assault. Two armies were sent west, to secure the upper reaches of the Yangtze. Two more armies were sent north to take the Imperial capital, Beijing. Potentially, these two expeditions could have acted as a giant pincer movement across the country. The western expedition met with some mixed success, but the attempt to take Beijing failed.

Middle years

Royal seal of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

In 1853 Hong withdrew from active control of policies and administration, ruling exclusively by written proclamations that often had religious content. Hong disagreed with Yang in certain matters of policy and became increasingly suspicious of Yang's ambitions, his extensive network and spies, and his declarations when "speaking as God". Yang and his family were put to death by Hong's followers in 1856, followed by the killing of troops loyal to Yang.

With their leader largely out of the picture, Taiping delegates tried to widen their popular support with the Chinese middle classes and forge alliances with European powers, but failed on both counts. The Europeans decided to stay neutral. Inside China, the rebellion faced resistance from the traditionalist middle class because of their hostility to Chinese customs and Confucian values. The land-owning upper class, unsettled by the Taipings' peasant mannerisms and their policy of strict separation of the sexes, even for married couples, sided with the Imperial forces and their Western allies.

In 1859 Hong Rengan, a cousin of Hong, joined the Taiping in Nanjing, and was given considerable power by Hong. He developed an ambitious plan to expand the Kingdom's boundaries. In 1860 the Taiping were successful in taking Hangzhoumarker and Suzhoumarker to the east(See also:Second rout the Army Group Jiangnan), but failed to take Shanghai(Battle of Shanghai ), which marked the beginning of the decline of the Kingdom.

The fall of the Kingdom

An attempt to take Shanghai in August 1860 was repulsed by a force of Chinese troops and western officers under the command of Frederick Townsend Ward. This army would later become the "Ever Victorious Army", led by "Chinese" Gordon, and would be instrumental in the defeat of the Taiping rebels. Imperial forces were reorganized under the command of Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang, and the Imperial reconquest began in earnest. By early 1864 Imperial control in most areas was well established.

Hong declared that God would defend Nanjing, but in June 1864, with Imperial forces approaching, he died of food poisoning as the result of eating wild vegetables as the city began to run out of food. He was sick for 20 days before the Imperial forces could take the city. Only a few days after his death did the Imperial forces take the city. His body was buried in the former Ming Imperial Palace where it was later exhumed by the conquering Zeng to verify his death, and 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 Heavenly Kingdom of Taiping, Hong Xiuquan abdicated in favour of Hong Tianguifu, his eldest son, fifteen years old. Hong Tianguifu was unable to do anything to restore the Kingdom, so the Kingdom was quickly destroyed when Nanjing fell in July 1864 to the Imperial armies after vicious street-by-street fighting. Most of the princes were executed by Qing Imperials in Jinling Town ( ), Nanjing.


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 rebel troops continuing the fight, with more than a quarter-million Taiping rebels fighting in the border regions of Jiangximarker and Fujianmarker alone. It would take more than half a decade to finally put down all remnants of the Taiping Rebellion: it was not until August 1871 that the last Taiping rebel army led by Shi Dakai's commander, General Li Fuzhong ( ) was completely wiped out by the governmental forces in the border region of Hunanmarker, Guizhoumarker and Guangxi.

Death toll

Most accurate sources put the total deaths during the fifteen years of the rebellion at about 20 million civilians and soldiers. Some historians estimate the combination of natural disasters together with the political insurrections may have cost as many as 200 million Chinese lives between 1850 and 1865. That figure is generally thought to be an exaggeration, as it is approximately half the estimated population of China in 1851. Modern estimates are that China’s population had been about 410 million in 1850 and, after the Taiping, Nien, Muslim, Panthay, Miao and other smaller rebellions, amounted to about 350 million in 1873. 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. Though almost certainly the largest civil war of the nineteenth 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, and so it is uncertain whether it should be considered the largest war of the nineteenth century.

Other rebellions

The Nien Rebellion (1853–1868), and several Muslim rebellions in the southwest (Du Wenxiu Rebellion, 1855–1873) and the northwest (Hui Rebellion in Gansu and Shaanxi, 1862–1877) continued to pose considerable problems for the Qing; some former Taiping rebels participated in these rebellions.

The Heavenly Kingdom's policies

Miniature of the Palace of Heavenly Kingdom in Nanjing
The Heavenly king's throne in Nanjing

The rebels announced social reforms, such as strict separation of the sexes, abolition of foot binding, land socialization, "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. Troops were nicknamed the Long hair (長毛, pinyin: cháng máo), as they sported a traditional Confucian hairstyle different from the queue of the Qing. Qing government papers refer to them as "hair rebels" (Chinese: 髮賊; pinyin: Fà Zéi).

Within the land it controlled, the Taiping Heavenly Army established a theocratic and highly militarized rule. However, the rule 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 but the land outside the urban areas was little regarded. Even though polygamy was banned, Hong Xiuquan had numerous concubines. Many high-ranking Taiping officials kept concubines as a matter of prerogative, and lived as de facto kings.

The armies

Taiping Heavenly Army

The rebellion's army was its 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—in Chinese they were known as Chángmáo ( , meaning "long hair"). The large numbers of women serving in the Taiping Heavenly Army also distinguished it from 19th century armies.

Combat was always bloody and extremely brutal , with little artillery but huge forces equipped with small arms. 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 Imperial forces. Estimates of the overall size of the Taiping Heavenly Army varied from 1,000,000 to 3,000,000.

The organization of a Taiping army corps was thus:

These corps were placed into armies of varying sizes. In addition to the main Taiping forces organized 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 Heavenly army was formed at the outset largely from two groups: the Hakka, a Han Chinese sub-group (客家 pinyin: kèjiā, literally “guest families” or “guest households”), and the Zhuang (a non-Han ethnic group), both of which were minority peoples as compared to the Han Chinese sub-groups that form dominant regional majorities across south China. It is no coincidence that Hong and the other Taiping royals were Hakka. As a Han sub-group, the Hakka were frequently marginalized economically and politically, having migrated to the regions they inhabit only after other Hàn groups were already established there. For example, when the Hakka settled in Guangdongmarker and parts of Guangxi, speakers of Cantonese were already the dominant regional Hàn group there and had been for some time, just as speakers of various dialects of Min (閩/闽) are locally dominant in Fujianmarker province. The Hakka settled throughout South China and beyond, but as latecomers they generally had to establish their communities on rugged, less fertile land scattered on the fringe 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 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 were the Zhuang ( ; ; pinyin: Zhuàngzú), 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). As Zhuang communities were integrating with the Han at different rates, a certain amount of friction between Han and Zhuang was inevitable, with Zhuang unrest on occasion leading to armed uprisings. 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 army

Socially and economically, the Taipings came almost exclusively from the lowest classes. Many of the southern Taiping troops were former miners, especially those coming from the Zhuang. Very few Taipings, even in the leadership caste, came from the imperial bureaucracy. Almost none were landlords and in occupied territories landlords were often executed. In this sense the Taiping army very much resembled the People's Liberation Army of the twentieth century.


In fact, the military ability of the generals of the Taiping Rebellion was higher than that of the Qingmarker government's generals, for example:

Early (1851–1854): Xiao Chaogui, Wei Changhui, Shi Dakai, Qin Rigang, Lin Qirong (林啟榮), Lai Hanying (賴漢英), Zeng Tianyang (曾天養), Li Kaifang, Luo Dagang (羅大綱), Tang Zhengzai

Middle (1855–1859): Li Xiucheng, Chen Yucheng, Yang Fuqing, Wei Jun, Li Shixian, Ye Yunlai, Huang Chengzhong, Liu Chunlin (劉瑲琳)

Late (1860–1864): Li Ronfar, Lai Wenkwok, Chen Kunshu

Imperial Army

Opposing the rebellion was an imperial army with a size of 2 million to 5 million regulars along with hundreds of 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, Willoughbe & Ponsonby. A particularly famous imperial force was the Xiang Army of Zeng Guofan.

Although keeping accurate records was something Imperial China traditionally did very well, the decentralized 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 Heavenly Kingdom also meant that any records it possessed were destroyed.

Also of importance in putting down the rebellion was Zuo Zongtang, also known as General Tso, from Hunan Province.

In art and popular culture

In art

The rebellion is featured on Tian An Men squaremarker's Monument to the People's Heroesmarker and many other public places in Beijing and Nanjing.

In popular culture

  • Both Chinamarker's CCTV and Hong Kongmarker's TVB made historical dramas about the Taiping Rebellion. The series on CCTV ran for 48 episodes, and TVB's Twilight of a Nation had 40 episodes.
  • Hong Kong's TVB drama, Rosy Business made references to Taiping Rebellion.
  • A strategy computer game based on the Taiping Rebellion has been made in China, and is primarily available in mainland China and Taiwanmarker. The player can play as either the Qing government or the Taiping Rebels.
  • Robert Carter's historical novel Barbarians (Orion, 1998, ISBN 0-75281-339-0), deals in detail with the rebellion and the politics surrounding it.
  • Taiping society, in some sources the Heavenly King himself, is given credit for developing the popular Chinese game of Mahjong.
  • Flashman and the Dragon (1986)—A portion of the memoirs of the fictional Harry Paget Flashman recount his adventures during the Anglo-Chinese Second Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion.
  • The Consumer Goods' song "Taiping Riverboat" from their 2006 album "Pop Goes the Pigdog!" tells of the construction of Nanjing and the subsequent defense of the Heavenly Kingdom through a first-person narrative.
  • The Warlords is a 2007 movie with a setting based on the Taiping Rebellion.
  • Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom by Katherine Paterson is a fictional young adult novel set during the Taiping Rebellion (Puffin, 1995, ISBN 0140376100).
  • Lisa See's novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan takes place in China during the reign of Emperor Xianfeng; the title character is married to a man who lives in Jintian and the characters get caught up in the revolution.
  • Christopher West's novel The Third Messiah (2000) features a cult whose leader believes himself to be a reincarnation of Hong Xiuquan, leader of the Taiping rebels.
  • Amy Tan's novel The Hundred Secret Senses takes place in part during the time of the Taiping Rebellion.
  • Richard Berg's boardgame, Manchu, covers the entire rebellion.
  • Li Bo's Tienkuo The Heavenly Kingdom, an historical novel set during the Taiping period and written by a professional historian of China
  • Dean Barrett's novel, Mistress of the East, (Blue Moon Books, NY) in which one of Frederick Ward's lieutenants is captured by an all-female unit of Taipings and eventually falls in love with a Taiping woman warrior and joins them in their doomed struggle against the Manchus.

See also



  • Spence, Jonathan D. (1996) God's Chinese Son. New York: Norton.
  • Spence, Jonathan D. (1999) The Search for Modern China. New York: Norton.

Further reading

  • Jonathan Spence, God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (1996) ISBN 0-393-03844-0
  • Thomas H. Reilly, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire (2004) ISBN 0-295-98430-9
  • Lindley, Augustus, Ti-ping Tien-Kwoh: The History of the Ti-Ping Revolution (1866, reprinted 1970) Google books access
  • Hsiu-ch°êng Li, translator, The Autobiography of the Chung-Wang (Confession of the Loyal Prince) (reprinted 1970) ISBN 9780275027230
  • Carr, Caleb, The Devil Soldier: The American Soldier of Fortune Who Became a God in China (1994) ISBN 0-679-76128-4
  • Gray, Jack, Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to the 1980s (1990), ISBN 0-19-821576-2
  • Immanuel C. Y. Hsu, The Rise of Modern China (1999), ISBN 0-19-512504-5

Additional sources

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