Imperial China: The Rise and the Fall of the Taipings

From the lecture series: The Fall and Rise of China

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

The Taiping Rebellion had targeted the rich and powerful. The rebels had reached less than a hundred miles from Beijing, but, with the combined efforts of the imperial army and the western powers, they eventually got defeated. Read about their successes and final defeat.

A painting depicting the Taiping Rebellion; it shows soldiers of the fighting armies attacking each other.
The Taiping Rebellion had its origins in the increasing impoverishment of the common people of southeast China. (Image: Wu Youru/Public domain)

Hong Xiuquan: Leader of the Taipings

The most serious internal threat to Manchu rule in the 19th century came from the Taipings.

The leader of the Taipings was Hong Xiuquan, who found a new dynasty of his own in 1851. He named it, ‘Taiping Tianguo’: the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.

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The Taiping Rebellion

From the outset, the Taiping Rebellion targeted the rich and powerful— landlords, gentry, and imperial officials. When the rebels left their Guangxi mountain base and advanced northward toward the Yangzi valley, proselytizing as they went, they attracted a large following among the poor and disaffected.

Wearing their hair unbraided in defiance of the mandatory Manchu style of a single male pigtail, they vented their wrath against the wealthy and the influential. Rich merchants and landlords were put to death; tax registers, land deeds and loan records were burned, and government offices were sacked.

The Northward March of the Taiping Rebels

Marching northward through the south-central provinces of Hunan and Hupei, and thence down the Yangzi River, Hong Xiuquan established his ‘Heavenly Capital’ in Nanjing in 1853.

En route to Nanjing, Hong’s armies looted the key Yangzi River port of Hankow (today’s Wuhan), where they seized 10,000 naval vessels, a million taels of silver, and a huge supply of grain and other provisions.

The image shows the ships and boats fighting during the naval battle on the Yangzi river.
Hong’s armies looted the key Yangzi River port of Hankow on their way to Nanjing. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

By this time, Hong’s army numbered half a million men, and he effectively controlled a vast land area in central China that included most of Jiangxi, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Anhui provinces, as well as big chunks of Hunan, Hubei, and Jiangsu.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Hong Xiuquan: The Self-Declared Emperor

One of Hong Xiuquan’s first official decrees as self-declared emperor was the abolition of private land ownership.

A devout and obsessive Christian, he also mandated the destruction of traditional Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist idols. Ancestor worship was also outlawed, and men and women were decreed to be equal in all things.

Reportedly, up to 100,000 women served in the armed forces of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. After setting up his headquarters in Nanjing, Hong sent an army northward toward Beijing, the imperial capital.

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The Beginning of the Fall

By 1854, Hong’s forces had advanced as far as the outskirts of Tianjin, less than a hundred miles from Beijing. However, that was as far as the Taiping forces ever got. Overconfident, logistically overextended, and plagued by severe northern winter weather, they began to falter.

In 1855, the expedition’s top military commanders were captured and publicly executed by Manchu troops. And, by 1856, internal dissention had broken out among Hong’s allied military commanders in Nanjing. In the factional struggles that followed, the spirit and vigor of the Taiping movement were gradually sapped.

Hong Xiuquan himself, though victorious over his ambitious rival, began indulging in dissolute behavior to distract him from his growing troubles. As morale deteriorated, the government began to drift, rudderless. And by 1860, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom had run its course.

Zeng Guofan and the Defeat of the Taipings

In the end, the Taipings’ defeat was sealed by a particularly impressive imperial military officer by the name of Zeng Guofan.

Zeng commanded the imperial Hunan army; and he was put in charge of operations against the Taipings in the spring of 1860, at almost the same time the British and French were preparing to sack the Summer Palace in Beijing.

With a loyal, well-trained fighting force of 120,000 troops, Zeng and his chief lieutenant, Li Hongzhang, attacked the Taipings at Shanghai and Suzhou, near the mouth of the Yangzi. After scoring impressive victories, they controlled most of Jiangsu Province.

Next, they imposed an ever-tightening blockade around Nanjing itself, cutting off Hong Xiuquan’s sources of supply.

Toward the end of their campaign against the Taipings, Zeng Guofan and  Li Hongzhang received military assistance from an unexpected and unlikely source, the Western powers.

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The Help from Western Powers

Initially sympathetic toward Hong Xiuqua, the British, French, and Americans soon found the Taipings, with their grandiose religious pretensions and their puritanical opposition to the use of opium, not to their liking.

The Western powers had already tamed Manchu resistance by forcing upon them the humiliating ‘unequal treaties’ of the 1840s, ’50s and early ’60s. They also began to realize that their ability to extract further concessions from the Manchus depended largely on the continued survival of the weakened dynasty.

To assist the imperial forces of Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang to defeat the Taipings, an American ‘soldier of fortune’ named Frederick Townsend Ward was hired to recruit foreign mercenaries into a new military unit.

New Military to Counter the Taipings

Photograph of the members of the 'Ever-Victorius Army'.
The ‘Ever-Victorius Army’ helped the imperial forces to defeat the Taipings. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

With 100 demobilized European officers and 200 Filipino seamen making up the mainstay of his new army, Ward supervised the training of 4,000 Chinese recruits, drilling them in European military procedure and supplying them with Western rifles.

In 1861, the emperor bestowed on Ward’s troops the title of the ‘Ever-Victorious Army’. With that, the foreign-led mercenary forces joined the battle against the Taipings.

After ruling out the possibility of surrender to his enemies, Hong Xiuquan, committed suicide in his Nanjing capital on 1 June 1864. His Taiping Heavenly Kingdom collapsed shortly thereafter.

Common Questions about Taiping Rebellion

Q: Who was Hong Xiuquan?

Hong Xiuquan was the leader of the Taipings. He gave the most serious internal threat to Manchu rule in the 19th century

Q: What were some of the official decrees of Hong Xiuquan as self-declared emperor?

Hong Xiuquan abolished private land ownership. He also mandated the destruction of traditional Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist idols. Ancestor worship was also outlawed, and men and women were decreed to be equal in all things.

Q: Who was Zeng Guofan?

Zeng Guofan commanded the imperial Hunan army; and he was put in charge of operations against the Taipings in the spring of 1860.

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