Qing Dynasty Confronts the Nian Rebellion

The Nian Rebellion was one of a series of mid-nineteenth rebellions against China’s Qing Dynasty. Bands of outlaws called nian were organized by Zhang Luoxing into a coherent revolutionary force, the Nian. Several attempts to subjugate the Nian failed, mostly because the government was more concerned with other foreign and domestic military challenges to its power. Once these other issues were resolved, however, the Nian Rebellion was crushed.

Summary of Event

During the mid-nineteenth century, China was an empire in decline. Not only was the Manchu, or Qing, Dynasty (1644-1911) suffering from both internal corruption and a succession of weak emperors, but China was also suffering from a prolonged period of poor harvests, drought, Droughts;Chinese and famine. Famines;Chinese These problems were exacerbated by the imperialistic designs of the Western powers, which found in China a source of raw materials and markets for their goods. China;Nian Rebellion
Nian Rebellion (1853-1868)
Qing Dynasty
China;Qing Dynasty
[kw]Qing Dynasty Confronts the Nian Rebellion (1853-1868)
[kw]Dynasty Confronts the Nian Rebellion, Qing (1853-1868)
[kw]Confronts the Nian Rebellion, Qing Dynasty (1853-1868)
[kw]Nian Rebellion, Qing Dynasty Confronts the (1853-1868)
[kw]Rebellion, Qing Dynasty Confronts the Nian (1853-1868)
China;Nian Rebellion
Nian Rebellion (1853-1868)
Qing Dynasty
China;Qing Dynasty
[g]China;1853-1868: Qing Dynasty Confronts the Nian Rebellion[2900]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1853-1868: Qing Dynasty Confronts the Nian Rebellion[2900]
[c]Government and politics;1853-1868: Qing Dynasty Confronts the Nian Rebellion[2900]
Zhang Luoxing
Li Hongzhang
Zeng Guofan
Zuo Zongtang

The weakness of the Manchu Dynasty had been graphically exhibited to the world by China’s defeat by the British in the First Opium War Opium Wars (1839-1842), which had cost the dynasty both money and power. The reparations required by the British had further bankrupted the empire, as had the cost of maintaining the imperial household in Beijing. Beijing;imperial household As the strength of the central government weakened and as the demands on the local peasants for taxes increased, a number of rebellions broke out in China. The most threatening and successful of these were the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) and the Nian Rebellion.

The origin of the Nian Rebellion lay in the White Lotus White Lotus movement
China;White Lotus movement religion of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although the White Lotus movement was destroyed in 1790, survivors of the movement remained in north central China, and much of their Philosophy;Chinese philosophy and organization evolved into the Nian movement in the middle of the nineteenth century. The term nian itself came from the remnants of the White Lotus movement, who used this term to identify a group of men under the leadership of one person. The size of a nian did not change the name of the group, so a nian could be composed of six men or two hundred men. In 1853, while the central government was busy with the Taiping Rebellion Qing Dynasty;and Taiping Rebellion[Taiping Rebellion]
Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864)
China;Taiping Rebellion , the disparate nians were organized into a single Nian movement under the leadership of Zhang Luoxing, Zhang Luoxing who thereby created an effective fighting force.

The Nian movement inherited much of the philosophy of the White Lotus movement, as well as its basic organizational structure. Units and their leaders were given names corresponding to colors and banners. Thus, the organization the Nian movement inherited from the White Lotus movement provided it with an inherently military structure. This was not coincidental, since the White Lotus philosophy had been a militaristic form of Buddhism. The Nian movement’s peculiar mixture of Buddhist philosophy Philosophy;Chinese with sound military and political tactics enabled its members to consolidate their control over a local area to use as a secure base. They conducted raids against other cities that were loyal to the imperial government and shared the spoils of these raids with all those living in their home region. Thus, they brought a measure of stability and prosperity to a land overburdened with taxation, suffering from natural disasters, and ignored by the central government.

Li Hongzhang.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

Although the Nian were referred to as “bandits” by the rulers in Beijing, to the local populace they represented an alternative to the ineffectual efforts of the central government to maintain order. Indeed, the power of the Nian was rooted in the peasants and minor gentry of the Yellow River Valley. Because of the demands of the central government for taxes and the lack of support it provided to solve local problems, most of the local people saw no benefit in supporting the Qing Dynasty and felt that the local government, represented by the Nian, presented a better alternative. Those local leaders who preferred to remain loyal to the Qing were conquered by the Nian during their rise to power.

Nian military power rested in two complementary elements: strongly fortified cities and fast-moving cavalry. Because their cities were protected against easy conquest by the Manchu, the soldiers of the Nian were free to range far from their homes on military campaigns. When the Manchu armies, nearly completely infantry, attempted to make contact with the largely cavalry Nian armies, the Nian armies simply outran the imperial forces.

When imperial forces attempted to invest a Nian city, the Nian, with their greater speed and mobility, could marshal their forces quickly to concentrate their power in that area. They would harass the imperial supply lines and isolated units, inflicting casualties in a typical guerrilla war until they could find an advantageous time and place to defeat the imperial force. By employing these tactics, the Nian were able to withstand any armies the Manchu, who were already hard-pressed to contain the Taiping Rebellion Qing Dynasty;and Taiping Rebellion[Taiping Rebellion]
Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864)
China;Taiping Rebellion in the south, were capable of sending into the Yellow River Valley.

As the war progressed, imperial generals finally realized that they needed to negate the advantages of the Nian if they were to have any hope of defeating them. They needed to increase the number of cavalry units within their armies, deny the Nian the security of their fortified cities, and finally bring the Nian to battle on the Manchus’ terms. The empire’s forces would then be able to destroy the Nian’s military and thus end the rebellion. Three imperial generals in succession developed and implemented this plan: Senggelinqin Senggelinqin , Zeng Zeng Guofan Guofan, and Li Hongzhang Li Hongzhang . These three men led the Manchu armies that finally destroyed the Nian.

The Manchu first developed a cavalry force that could match the Nian. They had also learned the value of modern European weaponry from their experience against the British in the First Opium Opium Wars War (1839-1842)—as well as in the Second Opium War, which they had fought while the Nian Rebellion raged. They therefore rearmed the imperial forces with these modern weapons. Although the Nian would also manage to gain significant numbers of such weapons, they were never able to match the imperial forces in their capacity to replace arms and ammunition. The addition of Western artillery to the imperial arsenal provided the weapons needed to subjugate the walled cities.

Perhaps the final blow to the Nian came with the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion Qing Dynasty;and Taiping Rebellion[Taiping Rebellion]
Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864)
China;Taiping Rebellion in 1864. Without that distraction, the imperial army was able to muster sufficient force to encircle and destroy the Nian. Also, as the threat from the Taiping was reduced, the government felt more confident in its own position. It was therefore willing to send its most capable generals from the Taiping front to the Nian front. It was the combined efforts of two such generals, Zuo Zongtang Zuo Zongtang and Li Hongzhang Li Hongzhang , that brought about the final defeat of the rebellion in 1868.


The Nian Rebellion was one of several local insurrections that plagued China in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was primarily a collaboration of the local leaders and population as a reaction to lackadaisical and oppressive policies of the Manchu central government coupled with the loss of face the Manchu suffered in the Opium Wars. Although the Nian Rebellion ultimately failed, it helped hasten the collapse of the Qing Dynasty by further weakening the support for the dynasty of the Chinese people.

Further Reading

  • Chaing, Siang-tseh. The Nien Rebellion. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1954. Doctoral dissertation that provides a wealth of information on the Nian Rebellion, its causes, and its consequenes.
  • Spence, Jonathan D. God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. Primarily a history of the Taiping Rebellion, this work’s interpretation of imperial policies and the interactions of the Nian and the Taiping are illuminating.
  • Perry, Elizabeth J., ed. Chinese Perspectives on the Nien Rebellion. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1981. A collection of essays by Chinese scholars on the Nian Rebellion and its place in Chinese history.
  • Graham, Gerald S. The China Station: War and Diplomacy, 1830-1860. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1978. An analysis of the interactions of China with England, this book provides insight into British actions and attitudes during the rebellion.
  • Teng, Ssu-yü. The Nien Army and Their Guerrilla Warfare. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984, 1961. An analysis of the Nian with emphasis on their military tactics.
  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A refreshing late twentieth century look at China that places the rebellion in its larger historical and cultural context.
  • Fairbanks, John King. China: A New History. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992. A general history of China providing scope and background on the subject.

First Opium War

China’s Taiping Rebellion

Muslim Rebellions in China

Second Opium War

China’s Self-Strengthening Movement Arises

Cixi’s Coup Preserves Qing Dynasty Power

Scramble for Chinese Concessions Begins

Boxer Rebellion

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