China’s Taiping Rebellion

During China’s Taiping Rebellion, revolutionaries captured and held significant territories for several years, demonstrating the vulnerability of the Qing Dynasty. The rebels were a mixed group, including religious, nationalist, and social egalitarian elements, who, although ultimately defeated, demonstrated the need for reform and looked ahead to the Chinese revolution of 1911.

Summary of Event

The first century of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) represented a period of general prosperity in China, but after 1775 a decline known in Chinese tradition as the “dynastic cycle” China;dynastic cycle began to set in. The ruling dynasty was not ethnically Chinese, its rulers being of Manchu origin, and thus they never commanded the love and respect of their Chinese subjects. Beginning with the reign of the Qianlong Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796), the central government as well as the army suffered from widespread corruption and extravagance. Meanwhile, the population of China increased at a faster rate than did arable land acreage, leading to a decline in the standard of living. Additionally, society under Qing rule witnessed what appeared to many to be a significant intellectual decline. This decline was manifested in the supposed moral degradation of scholars and officials and the introduction of Western ideologies and religions into Chinese society. China;Taiping Rebellion
Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864)
Qing Dynasty;and Taiping Rebellion[Taiping Rebellion]
China;Qing Dynasty
[kw]China’s Taiping Rebellion (Jan. 11, 1851-late summer, 1864)
[kw]Taiping Rebellion, China’s (Jan. 11, 1851-late summer, 1864)
[kw]Rebellion, China’s Taiping (Jan. 11, 1851-late summer, 1864)
China;Taiping Rebellion
Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864)
Qing Dynasty;and Taiping Rebellion[Taiping Rebellion]
China;Qing Dynasty
[g]China;Jan. 11, 1851-late summer, 1864: China’s Taiping Rebellion[2810]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 11, 1851-late summer, 1864: China’s Taiping Rebellion[2810]
[c]Government and politics;Jan. 11, 1851-late summer, 1864: China’s Taiping Rebellion[2810]
Hong Xiuquan
Hong Rengan
Feng Yunshan
Zeng Guofan
Liang Afa
Roberts, Issachar J.
Stevens, Edwin

Taiping rebels.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

By the mid-nineteenth century, contact with the West had added to the social, economic, and political problems already faced by the Chinese people: China had become a vast market for opium, as well as for the Christian evangelization exported by Western merchants and missionaries Missionaries;in China[China] . The imperial government failed to deal with this Western influence satisfactorily, as was evidenced by the First Opium War Opium Wars (1840-1842), which ended with the humiliating, dictated Treaty of Nanjing Nanjing, Treaty of (1842) (1842). This war would be followed in 1856 by the Second Opium War, which would also end in a dictated treaty, the Convention of Beijing Beijing, Convention of (1860) (1860).

The Taiping Rebellion

Domestic decline and foreign attack destroyed the internal equilibrium that the central government wished to maintain. The resulting imbalance adversely affected the two southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi, which were inhabited by Punti, Hakka, Miao, Yao, and Lolo peoples. These diverse ethnic groups had formed various occupational communities, such as boat people, miners, and charcoal burners, and these occupational communities came under the influence of various secret societies. The Taiping Rebellion originated in this milieu.

The leader of the rebellion, Hong Xiuquan, Hong Xiuquan was born into a poor Hakka farming family in Guangdong in 1814. Although a gifted child, he had to quit school at fourteen because his parents could not afford the expense. He studied on his own thereafter and became a village schoolmaster. Four times between 1828 and 1843, Hong tried to pass the Confucian shengyuan examinations at Guangzhou in order to enter government service, but each time he failed. During his second attempt, in 1836, he met a famous Confucian scholar named Zhu Ciqi Zhu Ciqi who was lecturing on the Confucian ideal of li-yun (evolution of li) and datong (grand union). He also met two Protestant missionaries Missionaries;in China[China] in the streets of Guangzhou: Edwin Stevens Stevens, Edwin and his interpreter. The latter handed Hong a set of nine tracts called Quanshi liangyan
Quanshi liangyan (Liang Afa) (1832; good words exhorting the age), compiled by a Chinese convert named Liang Afa. Liang Afa

Following his third failure at the examination in 1837, Hong fell seriously ill and began to have visions of a blond, bearded, black-clad old man in heaven. In Hong’s visions, the old man adopted him as the younger brother of Jesus Christ and gave him a magic sword with which to extirpate devils before returning him to earth. Following this conversion experience, Hong became somber and serious, evincing great interest in local and national politics.

For the next six years, Hong worked as a village teacher. In 1843, he failed the civil service examination yet again. This time, along with his cousin Li Jingfan, he turned to studying the copy of Quanshi liangyan
Quanshi liangyan (Liang Afa) he had acquired seven years earlier. Li’s interpretation of the eschatological contents of this tract aligned them with Hong’s visions of 1837, which formed his mission henceforth. The two cousins baptized each other and began an evangelical mission, converting, among others, fellow schoolmasters Feng Yunshan Feng Yunshan and Hong Rengan. Hong Rengan They went about destroying Confucian tablets in schools and removing idols from temples. Consequently, they were fired from their teaching jobs, whereupon they relocated to the village of Kuixian in the Guangxi hills.

Hong returned to Guangdong in September, 1844, to continue to study Confucian li-yun and datong, as well as the Bible. In the same year, Feng Yunshan founded a formal organization to teach Hong’s new faith: the Bai Sangdi Hui (God Worshipers Society). The society was based at Zujingshan (Thistle Moutain), in southern Guangxi.

In 1847, Hong and his cousin Hong Rengan went to Guangzhou for a formal baptism and instructions on the Bible by the Reverend Issachar J. Roberts Roberts, Issachar J. but returned to Guangxi after six months without being baptized formally. Meanwhile, the God Worshipers Society China;God Worshipers Society had gathered thousands of followers, mostly poor peasants from the Hakka and the non-Chinese Miao and Yao tribes. Other bands, among them members of anti-Manchu secret societies, such as the Triad (Sanhehui) and the Heaven and Earth (Tiandihui), had also formed in the same region. These groups joined Hong’s organization. Thus, Hong Xiuquan’s Hong Xiuquan revolutionary movement, by virtue of its diverse membership, combined Christian religious elements, anti-Manchu nationalist elements, and socioeconomic elements represented by discontent peasants seeking a better life.

The final catalyst of the Taiping Rebellion was a famine Famines;Chinese that occurred in 1849-1850. In the summer of 1850, all God Worshipers were called upon to rob the rich to aid the poor and to undertake armed resistance against government troops. To aid the poor, the rebels shared their movable goods in common with the people of their region, thereby gaining considerable support among the populace. On January 11, 1851, at Jintian, Hong and his followers made a formal declaration of revolution against the Qing Dynasty. The revolution would take its name from the titles given to its leader on that day: Hong was unanimously proclaimed heavenly king (tianwang) in the heavenly kingdom of great peace (taiping tianguo); five other leaders received the title of wang (king or vassal king). The term taiping was borrowed from Chinese tradition, while tianguo was taken from the Bible. Thus, the movement that had always melded Confucian and Christian teachings combined the two in the title of their leader. As they interpreted the phrase, taiping tianguo meant “a new heaven, a new earth, a new people, and a new world.”

All followers of the movement adopted pre-Manchu clothing and long hairstyles. (When the Manchus had invaded China, they had mandated changes in dress and hairstyle to resist Chinese nationalism and to make Chinese subjects resemble their Manchu rulers.) In the summer of 1852, the Taipings moved out of their base at Guangxi and traveled toward Hunan in the north and thence toward Hubei down the Yangtze River. After an eleven-day siege in the spring of 1853, they captured Nanjing, where the heavenly king established an egalitarian theocracy based on a constitution called Tianchao Tianmou Jitu (the land system of the heavenly kingdom). When the rebels moved an army further north to take Beijing Beijing , the imperial government relocated its capital to Jehol. In the same year, Taipings made common cause with the Nian, secret gangs comprising the victims of the Yangtze flood Floods;Chinese and the lawless elements of Shandong, Henan, Jiangsu, and Anhui. Taiping influence spread to six of the richest provinces in China.

The Taipings’ northward push failed, because they were insufficiently prepared. They became stalled in the area south of Tianjin. In 1856, a severe internal crisis developed in Nanjing. Yang Xiujing Yang Xiujing , one of the vassal kings, and his twenty thousand followers lost their lives in this crisis, and with this bloody purge the rebellion’s forward offensive ended. In the Second Opium War Opium Wars of the same year, the imperial government was defeated by joint British and French forces. When the Qing signed the Treaties of Tianjin Tianjin, Treaty of (1858) in 1858 and the Convention of Beijing Beijing, Convention of (1860) in 1860, they gave more concessions to the Europeans, who agreed to provide the dynasty with military assistance against their domestic rebellions.

In the 1860’s, the tottering Taipings confronted the imperial forces of Zeng Guofan, Zeng Guofan a stern Confucian and an expert military organizer. Zeng’s Hunan troops, the famous Xiangzhun, were commanded by his lieutenants, Li Hongzhang Li Hongzhang of Jiangsu (1823-1901) and Zuo Zongtang Zuo Zongtang of Zhejiang (1812-1885). The formidable force was further strengthened by the so-called Ever Victorious Army, a foreign legion financed by the merchants of Shanghai Shanghai in 1860. The foreign army defeated the besieging Taiping forces in 1862.

In 1864, Zeng’s imperial forces cut off all supply lines to Nanjing. Corralled by his enemies and trapped in his palace, Hong poisoned himself on June 1, 1864, after appointing his son Hongfu (b. 1849) as the young heavenly king. On July 19, Zeng’s army broke into Nanjing and carried out a merciless massacre. Hongfu fled Nanjing but was apprehended in Jianxi and executed. The Taiping Rebellion came to an end in the late summer of 1864.


Although the Taiping Rebellion ended in fiasco, the revolutionary experience itself had profound consequences in China. As a mass uprising inspired by millennial egalitarian dreams, it fostered a heroic tradition for future revolutions and signaled the beginning of the end of imperial and Confucian China. The rebellion registered the decline of the central power of the Qing Dynasty and the growing influence of provincial officials in national affairs. A corollary to this change was the rise of local warlords, who would plague China during the early years of the republic China;republic of (1912-1927).

Further Reading

  • Hsü, Immanuel C. Y. The Rise of Modern China. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. An elegantly produced textbook by a distinguished scholar. A must for beginners.
  • Michael, Franz. The Taiping Rebellion: History and Documents. 3 vols. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966-1971. A magisterial study—rich in scholarly details but easily comprehensible to specialists and lay readers alike—combined with important source documents of the rebellion.
  • Shih, Vincent Y. C., ed. The Taiping Ideology: Its Sources, Interpretations, and Influences. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972. Detailed but clear textual analysis of sources and interpretations by contemporary scholars and observers as well as modern historians and critics.
  • Spence, Jonathan D. God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. A masterly study by a distinguished historian, meant for advanced students and scholars.

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