Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864)

Throughout history, China was plagued by internal revolts and rebellions. Often these revolts were movements that gave people hope for a different life and offered an end to their suffering. For this reason, the Chinese authorities were always suspicious and alert for the development of any group that challenged traditional beliefs in family and state. The 1800s were no different. What was striking, however, was the kind of rebellion that occurred and the extent of the upheavals.

No other event devastated China as much in the 19th century as the Taiping (pronounced tie-ping) Rebellion (1850-64). It was sparked by the leadership of one man, Hong Xiuquan (pronounced shiou-chuan), from the south of China, who in 1847 failed the imperial examinations for the third time and was delirious for 30 days. When he recovered, he believed that he and his band of believers had been chosen to conquer China, destroy the demon Manchu rulers, and establish the Taiping Tianguo — the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Harmony. Gathering followers first from the poor and outcast, he and his recruits gradually built up an army and political organization that swept across China. They made their way to central China and by the late 1850s controlled over a third of the country. Their movement was so strong and so popular that it took the central government millions of dollars and fifteen years to defeat them. Not until 1864 was the rebellion brutally put down. It is estimated that the entire rebellion cost more than twenty million lives (twice that of World War I). Even by the 1950s, some parts of central China had not yet fully recovered from the destruction of the Taiping era.

Taiping Beliefs

The Taipings took their beliefs from many different sources. Some of these beliefs reflected traditional Confucianism and some were from ancient writings that described ideal systems that had never been practiced. Other ideas were Western in origin. Clearly this blend of ideas was very powerful. Because they introduced ideas never discussed before, the Taipings could promise their followers a totally new system.

Their revolutionary program was very wide-ranging. It introduced notions of common property, land reform, equal position of women, abstinence from opium, tobacco and alcohol, calendar reform, literary reform, and above all, a new political-military organization of society.

Acknowledgment: The consultant for this unit was Dr. Sue Gronewold, a specialist in modern history.

Suggested Activities

  1. Investigating Rebellion

    The Chinese state was so vast and the government's control over its dominions so stretched out that local uprisings were always a problem. The nineteenth century saw an enormous increase in the number of uprisings and they posed a serious challenge to a state weakened by demographic disasters and foreign encroachment. Politics, society, and economic life were all disrupted. Furthermore, as with the Taiping Rebellion, many of these uprisings incorporated new ideas alongside traditional Chinese beliefs. Trace the changes both in these uprisings and in the Chinese government's response to them by creating and filling in the chart containing the following:

    On the horizontal axis:
    Characteristics: Leaders, Beliefs, Followers, Events, Response, and Outcome

    On the vertical axis:
    Uprisings: White Lotus (1774); 8 Trigrams (1813); Taiping (1850-1864); Nian (1851-1868); Miao (1850-1872); Triads (1840s); Southwest Muslims (1857-1873); Northwest Muslims (1862-1873); Boxers (1898-1900)

  2. Mapping Rebellion

    Locate a map which indicates the areas of China that were threatened with rebellion in the nineteenth century, or make your own with the information you found in your research for the above activity. [A good map which plainly indicates the areas under siege can be found online at: http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/images/lt19cmap.gif.]

      • Which rebellions threatened central China? Northern? Southern? Western? Southwestern?
      • Were any areas of China free of rebellion? Why was this so?
      • Combine the information on rebellions with foreign encroachment. What parts of China were most threatened? Least threatened? What are the implications of your findings for the government?