Taiping Rebellion

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The Taiping Rebellion (18511864) was one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, a clash between the forces of Imperial China and those inspired by a Hakka self-proclaimed mystic named Hong Xiuquan (洪秀全), who was also a Christian convert who had claimed that he was the new Messiah and younger brother of Jesus Christ. Most accurate sources put the total deaths at about 20 million civilians and army personnel, although some claim the death toll was much higher (as many as 40 million according to at least one source.[1]). There are reports that "Some historians have estimated that the combination of natural disasters combined with the political insurrections may have cost on the order of 200 million Chinese lives between 1850–1865 [2]". That figure would generally be considered out of the mainstream in historical circles though as it equals half the population of China in 1851.[3] The rebellion is named after the revolutionaries' name Kingdom of Heavenly Peace or Tàipíng Tiānguó (太平天國, Wade-Giles T'ai-p'ing t'ien-kuo), which lasted as long as the revolution.



Hong Xiuquan gathered his support in a time of considerable turmoil. The country had suffered a series of natural disasters, economic problems and defeats at the hands of the Western powers, problems that the ruling Qing dynasty did little to lessen. Anti-Manchu sentiment was strongest in the south, and it was these disaffected that joined Hong. The sect extended into militarism in the 1840s, initially against banditry. The persecution of the sect was the spur for the struggle to develop into guerrilla warfare and then into full-blown war.

The revolt began in Guangxi Province. In early January 1851, a ten-thousand-strong rebel army routed the Imperial troops at the town of Jintian (Jintian Uprising). The Imperial forces attacked but were driven back. In August 1851, Hong then declared the establishment of the Heavenly Kingdom of Taiping with himself as absolute ruler. The revolt spread northwards with great rapidity. 500,000 Taiping soldiers took Nanjing in March 1853, killing 30,000 Imperial soldiers and slaughtering thousands of civilians. The city became the movement's capital and was renamed Tiānjīng (天京, in Wade-Giles: T'ien-ching) (Heavenly Capital).


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 (長毛 Chángmáo). Large numbers of females serving in the army were also a unique feature amongst 19th century armies.

The fighting was always bloody and extremely brutal, with little artillery but huge forces equipped with small arms. By 1856, the Taiping armies numbered just over 1 million. Their main strategy of conquest was to take major cities, consolidate their hold on the cities, then march out into the surrounding countryside to battle Imperial forces. Although most modern estimates never put the Taiping Heavenly Army as numbering much more than a million in total, contemporary estimates placed its numbers far higher — indeed it was said that the main Taiping Armies in central China in 1860 numbered 2.5 million. Accepting this figure as accurate (which it most likely isn't,) it would be reasonable to assume a total of 3 million or more.

The organisation of a Taiping army corps was thus:

  • 1 general
  • 5 colonels
  • 25 captains
  • 125 lieutenants
  • 500 sergeants
  • 2,500 corporals
  • 10,000 privates
  • 13,156 men in total

These corps were placed into armies of varying sizes. In addition to the main Taiping forces organised along the above lines there were also many tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of pro-Taiping groups that fielded their own forces often not as well organised.

Ethnically the Taiping Heavenly army largely consisted of racial minorities — principally the Hakka and Zhuang. Hong Xiuquan and the other Taiping royals were Hakka. The second tier was a mixed group and included many Zhuang. Prominent at this level of command was Shi Dakai who was half-Hakka, half-Zhuang and spoke both languages fluently, making him quite a rare asset to the Taipings. Towards the later stages of the war the number of Han (the dominant majority ethnic group of China) in the army increased substantially, but minorities remained prominent the whole time. There were almost no prominent leaders amongst the Taipings who were Han. It is believed that Zhuang consituted as much as 25% of the Taiping army.

Socio-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 amongst the leadership caste, came from the imperial bureacracy. Almost none were landlords and in occupied territories landlords were often executed. In this sense the Taiping army was a prototype for the People's Liberation Army of the twentieth century.

Opposing these forces was an imperial army of more than 2 million (possibly as large as 5 million) with something on the order of 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). A particularly famous imperial force was the Xiang Army of Zeng Guofan.

From the above it is of course obvious that establishing reasonable figures for the sizes of the opposing armies is very difficult. Although keeping accurate records was something Imperial China traditionally did well (indeed much better than feudal Europe) the decentralised 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 possesed were destroyed. Thus figures range enormously. Whilst 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 thus whether or not it was the largest war of the nineteenth century is uncertain.

At the Third Battle of Nanking (1864) over 100,000 were killed in three days.

The Kingdom's policies

Within the land that they controlled, a theocratic and highly militarised rule was established.

But the rule was remarkably ineffective, haphazard and brutal — all efforts were concentrated on the army, and civil administration was very poor. Rule was established in the major cities but the land outside the urban areas was little regarded. Even though polygamy was banned, it was believed that Hong Xiuquan had 88 concubines. Many high ranking Taiping officials kept concubines and lived as de-facto kings.

In its first year, the Heavenly Kingdom coined money that were 23 mm to 26 mm and around 4.1 grammes. The inscription 太平天囯 ("The Heavenly Kingdom of Taiping") was on the front, where "Kingdom" was written in a non-standard form of the character (囯, instead of 國/国), and 聖寶 ("Holy Treasure") on the back.


Ranked below the King of Heaven (天王), Hong Xiuquan (洪秀全), the territory was divided among provincial rulers called kings or princes, initially there were five — the Kings of the Four Quarters and the King of the Yi (meaning flanks). Of the original rulers, the West King and South King were killed in combat in 1852. During a coup d'etat in 1856, the East King was murdered by the North King, and the North King himself was subsequently killed. The kings' names are:

The later leaders of the movement were 'Princes':

  • Zhong Prince (忠王), Li Xiucheng (李秀成) (18231864, captured and executed by Qing Imperials)
  • Ying Prince (英王), Chen Yucheng (陳玉成) (18371862)
  • Gan Prince (干王), Hong Rengan (洪仁玕 Hóng Rēngān) (18221864, executed), younger brother of Hong Xiuquan
  • Fu Prince (福王), Hong Renda (洪仁達) (executed by Qing Imperials in 1864), Hong Xiuquan's second eldest brother
  • Tian Gui (Tien Kuei) (田貴?) (–1864, executed)

Other (minor?) princes include:

  • An Prince (安王), Hong Renfa (洪仁發), Hong Xiuquan's eldest brother
  • Yong Prince (勇王), Hong Rengui (洪仁貴)
  • Fu Prince (福王), Hong Renfu (洪仁富)


At its height, the Heavenly Kingdom encompassed much of south and central China, including Nanjing, with the northwards extent reaching Tianjing. But it did not include any major port, isolating the kingdom from external support. The capture of Nanjing marked something of a high-water mark for the kingdom. The Taipings marched on toward Beijing but were forced to turn back after stiff resistance from military forces.


The impetus of the movement suffered greatly as Hong withdrew from active control of policies and administration in 1853. He had become progressively less compos mentis and devoted himself to meditation, and allegedly more sensual pursuits. The failure of the movement to secure European support or that of the middle classes was another blow.

The Taipings failed to get unanimous support for their rebellion because of their hostility to many long-standing Chinese customs and certain Confucian values. This and their peasant mannerisms encouraged the gentry, the landed upper class, to side with the Imperial forces and their Western allies.

Following a setback near Beijing most expansion was thereafter westwards, with most fighting being to maintain their hold in the Yangtze valley. But from 1860 the kingdom's fall was rapid.

An attempt to take Shanghai in August 1860 was repulsed by forces under the command of Frederick Townsend Ward, a force that would later become the 'Ever Victorious Army' led by 'Chinese' Gordon. Imperial forces were reorganized under the command of Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang. The Imperial reconquest then began in earnest. By early 1864 Imperial control in most areas was well established, Hong declared that God would defend Tianjing, but as the Imperial forces approached in June he took poison. His body was discovered in a sewer.

Four months before the fall of the Heavenly Kingdom of Taiping, Hong Xiuquan passed the throne to Hong Tianguifu, his eldest son. However, Hong Tianguifu did nothing to restore the Kingdom, so the Kingdom was quickly destroyed when Nanjing fell to the Imperial armies after vicious street-by-street fighting.

Most of the princes were executed by Qing Imperials in Jingling Town (金陵城), Nanjing.

The Nian Rebellion (捻軍起義) (18531868), and several Muslim rebellions in the southwest (18551873) and the northwest (18621877) were led by the remants of the Taiping rebels.

The Heavenly Kingdom of Taiping, 18511864
Personal Name Period of Reign Era Names "Nian Hao 年號" (and their according range of years)
Hong Xiuquan - 洪秀全
August 1851 – May 1864
Yannian (元年 Yuánnián) 18511864
Hong Tianguifu - 洪天貴福
May 1864 – August 1864

Further reading

  • Jonathan Spence, God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (1996) ISBN 0393038440
  • Thomas H. Reilly, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire (2004) ISBN 0295984309

Taiping Rebellion in popular culture

  • Both China's CCTV and Hong Kong TVB made historical dramas about Taiping Rebellion. The series of CCTV ran for 50 episodes.
  • A strategy computer game based on Taiping Rebellion is made in China, the game can be bought in China and Taiwan mainly. The player can choose either the Qing government or the Taiping Rebells.

See also

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