The Taiping Rebellion: The Bloodiest Civil War You’ve Never Heard of

The Taiping Rebellion against the Chinese Qing Dynasty was the bloodiest civil war in history. Yet, unlike the Chinese Civil War of 1927-1949, it is hardly remembered in the West.

Apr 11, 2021By James Newman, BA Politics & Modern History
taiping rebellion
Contemporary Drawing of Hong Xiuquan, about 1860 by unknown artist, via Britannica; with The Taiping Rebellion – A Set of Ten Battle Scenes by the Chinese School, after 1864, via Christie’s


The Taiping Rebellion, which broke out in 1850, would come to be the bloodiest civil war in human history. Historians estimate it may have claimed up to 30 million lives. Yet, unlike the Chinese Civil War, it is largely forgotten in the West, despite the involvement of French, British, and American officers. The great Qing dynasty fell into civil war after decades of social discontent, economic strain, and increasing subjugation by the West. This war would last for fifteen years and devastate the empire, setting it on the path to collapse. 


The Qing Dynasty Before The Taiping Rebellion

qianlong emperor xu yang
The Qianlong Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Six: Entering Suzhou along the Grand Canal by Xu Yang, 1770, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The Qing dynasty was established in the mid-seventeenth century when an alliance of rebels seized power from the Ming dynasty, conquering Beijing in 1644. After consolidating their power, the Qing undertook a campaign of expansion and development. 


By the eighteenth century, the Qing dynasty was at the height of its power. The emperors Yongzheng (r. 1723-1735) and Qianlong (r. 1735-1796) extended imperial power across 13 million square kilometers. The economy also grew rapidly. China exported products such as tea, silk, and its famous blue and white porcelain, which was in high demand in the West. These goods were paid for in silver, giving China control over a large share of the world’s silver supply and a positive trade balance with the West. The population also grew rapidly, doubling from about 178 million in 1749 to almost 432 million in 1851. China’s cities grew, and new crops such as potatoes, corn, and peanuts were introduced from the New World. This period between 1683 and 1839 is known as the “High Qing.”  


qing dynasty china porcelain
Plates, Ginger Jar, and Vase owned by Whistler and Rossetti, manufacturer unknown, 1662-1772, via The Victoria & Albert Museum, London


Despite these successes, the country became increasingly unstable towards the end of the High Qing period. In economic terms, the significant population boom became a burden. New World crops initially helped support this growth; however, their cultivation and the massive irrigation required eroded and degraded the arable land. Not only did large sections of the population begin to go hungry, but with such population growth came a labor surplus. More and more people found themselves unemployed yet were still subject to the Qing state’s high taxes. These troubles were only worsened by opium addictions, which were endemic amongst China’s population following the drug’s wide-scale introduction into the country by the British East India Company. 

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 The Roots Of The Taiping Rebellion

chinese opium smokers engraving
Chinese Opium Smokers by unknown artist, late 19th century, via The Wellcome Collection, London



While life worsened for the average person, the Qing bureaucrats and the imperial court became increasingly opulent and corrupt. Qing bureaucrats stole and hoarded tax revenue and public funds and extorted the population. In the Imperial Court, the emperor’s favorite subjects, such as Qianlong’s Grand Councillor Heshen, were showered with favors and gifts and used their position to amass great fortunes. 


As well as domestic issues, China was also increasingly dominated by the Western powers, particularly the British. After the First Opium War (1839-1842), in which the Chinese military’s backwardness revealed itself in its decisive defeat by the British Empire, the Qing signed the Treaty of Nanking. This, the first of the “Unequal Treaties,” ceded Hong Kong to Britain and stipulated that China would pay reparations of $21 million and open itself up to free trade with the West. Over the next few years, similar treaties would be signed with the French and the Americans. 


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The Taking of the Island of Chusan by the British, 5th July 1840 after Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Harry Darell, 1852, via National Army Museum, London



These newly-emerged factors of corruption, economic and social difficulties, and Western humiliation only added to the resentment that large sections of the population had always felt towards the Qing. The Han, an ethnic group that made up the majority of the population, had always resented the Qing, a Manchu dynasty hailing from Northeastern China, for overthrowing the Han Chinese Ming dynasty. The Han were aggrieved at what they saw as the suppression of their traditional culture by foreign invaders. 


Considering the Chinese civil wars and internal conflict, and given the precarious situation that the empire found itself in by the mid-nineteenth century, it is not surprising that the Taiping Rebellion broke out.


Hong Xiuquan, Leader Of The Taiping Rebellion 

hong xiuquan
Contemporary Drawing of Hong Xiuquan, about 1860 by unknown artist, via Britannica


The Taiping Rebellion would begin in fairly banal circumstances. In 1837, a young man named Hong Xiuquan failed the examinations to enter the imperial civil service. These exams were notoriously difficult and hugely oversubscribed due to the prestige of a civil service career. Less than one in one hundred candidates passed the exams. 


Hong had failed these exams twice previously, and with this third setback, he plunged into a nervous breakdown. He experienced delusions in which a heavenly father-figure appeared to him. At the time, he had little idea as to how to interpret these visions. However, in 1843, he was inspired after reading pamphlets from a Christian missionary. He concluded that he had witnessed God himself. He further came to the belief that he was God’s son, the brother of Jesus


Hong rejected Buddhism and Confucianism – the traditional belief system of China – and began preaching his interpretation of Christianity. Hong and his friend Feng Yunshan organized a new religious group called the God Worshipping Society. The Society proved highly popular with the peasants and laborers of Guangxi province. It was especially popular among the Hakka people, a sub-ethnicity of the Han, who had long felt marginalized economically and socially. The Qing authorities persecuted the nascent movement. In response, Hong and Feng became increasingly militant, with Hong describing the Manchus as demons who needed to be killed. From 2,000 followers in 1847, by 1850, the God Worshippers counted between 20,000 and 30,000. 


The Spark That Lit The Forgotten Chinese Civil War

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An Important Imperial Taiping Rebellion Painting, from the Set of Twenty Paintings of the Campaign of the Victories Over the Taiping by Qing Kuan et al., late 19th century, via Sotheby’s



The rebellion itself began in January 1851, following a series of smaller clashes between Taiping followers and Qing forces throughout 1850. On the 11th of January, in the city of Jiantian in Guangxi, Hong declared a new dynasty, the Taiping Tianguo or Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace. This state, often referred to as the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, would be a theocratic monarchy with Hong as the Heavenly King. The Kingdom built up an armed force up to a million strong. Notably, unlike the Qing imperial forces, there were a number of women fighting amongst them. 


The Taiping forces marched North, recruiting as they went until they reached Nanjing. Nanjing was one of China’s grandest cities and at the center of the wealthy Yangtze delta region. Taiping forces took the city in March 1853, and Hong declared it to be the capital of his Heavenly Kingdom. It was renamed Tianjin, or “Heavenly Capital.” While in control of the city, the Taiping sought to cleanse it of its Manchu “demons.” Manchu men and women were executed, burned, and expelled from the city.


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Taiping Rebellion No.2 by Song Zhengyin, 1951, via Mutual Art


Following the successful capture of Nanjing, the Taiping underwent an internal power struggle and a series of military setbacks as they attempted to expand. The Kingdom’s leadership was split, Hong often clashing with one of his lieutenants, Yang Xiuqing. In 1856, Hong resolved the problem by having Yang, and his followers massacred. 


Meanwhile, the Taiping military forces set out on the Northern Expedition in May 1853. This campaign aimed to capture the capital of Qing dynasty China: Beijing. The expedition was hampered by poor planning, unpreparedness for the cold winters of Northern China, and a determined Qing resistance. Taiping forces were severely weakened as they unsuccessfully laid siege to towns between Nanjing and Beijing. Qing forces launched a successful counterattack in early 1856, and Taiping forces were forced back to Nanjing. 


Despite the failure of the Northern Expedition, the Taiping Kingdom remained a force to be reckoned with. Qing imperial troops had encircled and besieged Nanjing since 1853. In 1860, the Taiping were able to decisively defeat these forces in the Battle of Jiangnan. This victory opened the door eastwards for a conquest of the Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. These coastal regions were the wealthiest provinces of Qing China and opened the door to Shanghai. 


The Battles Of Shanghai And Nanking

british naval artists with chinese taiping rebels
A series of paintings by depicting British naval battles with Chinese Taiping Rebels by unknown artist, c. 1853, via Christie’s



The advance on Shanghai would be the turning point in the story of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Shanghai was the center of Western political and commercial interest in China. Following the First Opium War and Treaty of Nanking, France, Britain, and America had established concessions, essentially small territorial enclaves, within the city. Seeing that their interests were under threat, the Western powers now joined forces with the Qing dynasty. The stage was set for a decisive battle.


The Taiping surrounded Shanghai in January of 1861 and made two attempts to take it. Attacking with 20,000 in March 1861, they were able to occupy the Pudong district of the city but were pushed back out by imperial forces aided by the British, French, and American officers. In September 1862, the Taiping made a second assault, this time with 80,000 men. They were able to reach within 5 kilometers of Shanghai, but once again, the Qing and their Western allies were again able to repulse this attack. By November, the Taiping had given up on any further attempts to capture Shanghai. 


Qing forces were reorganized by imperial command and began a reconquest of areas occupied by the Taiping. Crucial in this was the recruitment of a peasant army in Hunan province. This force, known as the Xiang Army, besieged the Taiping capital of Nanjing beginning in May 1862. The siege lasted almost two years, with the food situation becoming increasingly perilous. In early 1864, Hong commanded his citizens to eat wild weeds and grasses. He believed that these were manna provided by God. Following his own command, Hong gathered weeds and ate them but fell ill and died in June of 1864. Some speculate that he committed suicide by poison, but this cannot be proved. 


The End Of The Taiping Rebellion

taiping rebellion ten battle scenes
The Taiping Rebellion – A Set of Ten Battle Scenes by the Chinese School, after 1864, via Christie’s


Qing forces, meanwhile, had secured positions on the Purple Mountain, which allowed them to bombard the city with artillery. On the 19th of July, under cover of this artillery fire, the walls of Nanjing were breached with explosives, and 60,000 men flowed into the city. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting took place. Eventually, the Qing forces overwhelmed those of the Taiping and embarked on a campaign of looting and burning. The majority of the Taiping leaders were captured and executed, including Hong’s fifteen-year-old son, who had succeeded his father as Heavenly King.


In the course of this fifteen-year Chinese Civil War, between 20 and 30 million had died, the vast majority of them civilians. In one of the first total wars, both sides had attempted to deprive their military and civilian enemies of food and supplies. This resulted in widespread famine and disease. Moreover, both sides had a fanatical hatred of the other based partly on ethnic and linguistic differences. The Taiping massacred Manchu civilians in the cities they conquered while the Qing forces took revenge against the traitorous population of Guangxi, executing hundreds of thousands for the crime of living in the region where the rebellion had started.


Aftermath And Legacy Of The Taiping Rebellion

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The Qianlong Emperor in Ceremonial Armour on Horseback by unknown artist, 1739, via The Palace Museum, Beijing


The victory of the Qing over the Taiping was very much of the pyrrhic kind. It had demonstrated the weakness of Qing control over the country and had only increased the West’s influence in China due to the assistance that British, French, and American troops had provided to the dynasty. 


Moreover, it would inspire generations of Chinese revolutionaries from across the political spectrum and lead indirectly to the Chinese Civil War. The Qing dynasty would be successfully overthrown in 1911, with the establishment of the Republic of China. Sun Yat-Sen, the first President of the Republic and leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party, was inspired by the Revolution. Likewise, The Chinese Communist Party would look to the Taiping Rebellion as a proto-communist uprising after their defeat of the Chinese Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War.

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By James NewmanBA Politics & Modern HistoryJames holds a BA in Politics and Modern History from the University of Manchester, in the UK. His interests span from late imperial China through to the First and Second World Wars, and the Cold War. He hopes to undertake an MA in history soon.