The Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) was the largest peasant rebellion in Chinese history and one of the bloodiest civil wars in the annals of human experience. The conflict ravaged the most cultivated parts of the Qing dynasty, encompassing eighteen of its most populous provinces, claiming the lives of at least 25 million. It also fundamentally changed China's political, social, economic, and military structures.
The Taiping Rebellion took place in the aftermath of Western powers' forced entrance into China's coastal areas after the Sino-British Treaty of Nanjing (Nanking) of 1842. The Western influence was particularly strong in the Pearl River Delta area where Western merchants, Christian missionaries, and adventurers congregated. This presence naturally brought about increased economic instability as a result of foreign competition, political tension as a result of nascent nationalism, and cultural and intellectual revolution as a result of the introduction of Christian tenets to a fundamentally Confucian society. The rebellion's leader, Hong Xiuquan, keenly felt these new forces that had been growing to challenge the Chinese state, society, and mindset. As a failed degree-seeking Confucian scholar, Hong accepted prototypical Christianity from roaming missionaries based in Hong Kong. Convinced he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, Hong in January 1851 announced the establishment of a Christianity-based state called Taiping Tianguo (Heavenly Kingdom of Grand Peace), which immediately attracted frenzy attacks organized by the ruling Qing dynasty.
Starting in the southern province of Guangxi, the Taiping rebels set out to obliterate what they believed were "demons" that would include the Manchu rulers, all Confucian icons, landed interests, and eventually the imperial court itself. Superb command structure with unparalleled leadership cohesion, plus rejuvenated energy and dedication from the rank and file of the Taiping Army—who were inspired by Hong's prototypical Christian socialism and Utopian egalitarianism—gave the Taiping rebels great victories in the first years of their relentless campaign. They swept most of China's southern provinces and in 1853 captured the metropolis Nanjing near the Yangtze Delta. Hong settled there and made Nanjing his capital.
Yet the efforts to storm into Beijing to destroy the Qing court, lasting from 1853 to 1855, failed miserably, despite the temporary victory of a westward military expedition to secure Taiping's left flank. A devastating blow befell the Taiping cause in 1856 when Hong went on a fanatic killing spree of his top lieutenants, forcing his remaining generals of the highest caliber to flee.
Seizing these opportunities, the Qing court took dramatic measures to strike back. An age-old ban on granting ethnic Chinese the power to command military units was lifted, opening the door to the rise of a gentry army system pioneered by the renowned court scholar Zeng Guofan. Zeng and his Hunan army represented the landed interests whose land and privileges had been the main targets of the Taiping rebels wherever they went. Contrary to the Taiping's puritanical and egalitarian principles of organizing and training, Zeng's Hunan army stressed the Confucian ideals of hierarchy, loyalty, and family. Following the example of Zeng's Hunan army, several of Zeng's protégés set up gentry armies in their own provinces, the most renowned of which was Li Hongzhang's Huai army in the eastern province of Anhui.
Westerners played an important role during the Taiping Rebellion. In the early years of the war, many westerners were hired by the Taiping rebels as mercenaries. The Qing court and Zeng Guofan, however, had even a larger number of mercenaries at their disposal. The best known is the Ever-Victorious Army, initiated by the American adventurer Frederick Ward, and after Ward's death in the battle, by the Royal Army officer Charles "Chinese" Gordon. When Hong decided to attack Shanghai and other treaty ports where foreign commercial interests concentrated, and when Hong showed strong signs of millenarian fanaticism, Western governments uniformly lent strong support to the government's counterinsurgent efforts against the Taiping rebels. In the summer of 1864, soon after Hong's sudden death, Zeng's Hunan army captured Nanjing, marking the end of the momentous Taiping Rebellion.
The Taiping Rebellion severely shattered the confidence of the ruling dynasty. Emerging from the rubbles of the devastation was a generation of Chinese scholar-generals who had learned the efficacy of modern weaponry imported from the West. Combined with a Confucian revival, these scholar-generals undertook concerted measures, collectively known as the Self-Strengthening movement, to upgrade China's military hardware. As a result, the scholar-generals became the harbingers of China's modern warlords.
Michael, Franz H. The Taiping Revolution: History and Documents. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966.
Spence, Jonathan D. God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
The basic ‘programme’ of the rebellion is contained in T'ien-t'iao shu (Eng. tr., North China Herald, 14 May 1853), including a reapplied Ten Commandments.