What Was the Taiping Rebellion?

The Taiping Rebellion's leaders were beheaded in this stockade in 1865.

Henry Guttmann / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) was a millenarian uprising in southern China that began as a peasant rebellion and turned into an extremely bloody civil war. It broke out in 1851, a Han Chinese reaction against the Qing Dynasty, which was ethnically Manchu. The rebellion was sparked by a famine in Guangxi Province, and Qing government repression of the resulting peasant protests.

A would-be scholar named Hong Xiuquan, from the Hakka minority, had tried for years to pass the exacting imperial civil service examinations but had failed each time. While suffering from a fever, Hong learned from a vision that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ and that he had a mission to rid China of Manchu rule and of Confucian ideas. Hong was influenced by an eccentric Baptist missionary from the United States named Issachar Jacox Roberts.

Hong Xiuquan's teachings and the famine sparked a January 1851 uprising in Jintian (now called Guiping), which the government quashed. In response, a rebel army of 10,000 men and women marched to Jintian and overran the garrison of Qing troops stationed there; this marks the official start of the Taiping Rebellion.

Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

To celebrate the victory, Hong Xiuquan announced the formation of the "Taiping Heavenly Kingdom," with himself as king. His followers tied red cloths around their heads. The men also grew out their hair, which had been kept in the queue style as per Qing regulations. Growing long hair was a capital offense under Qing law.

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom had other policies that put it at odds with Beijing. It abolished private ownership of property, in an interesting foreshadowing of Mao's communist ideology. Also, like the communists, the Taiping Kingdom declared men and women equal and abolished social classes. However, based on Hong's understanding of Christianity, men and women were kept strictly segregated, and even married couples were prohibited from living together or having sex. This restriction did not apply to Hong himself, of course--as self-proclaimed king, he had a large number of concubines.

The Heavenly Kingdom also outlawed foot binding, based its civil service exams on the Bible instead of Confucian texts, used a lunar calendar rather than a solar one, and outlawed vices such as opium, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and prostitution.

The Rebels

The Taiping rebels' early military success made them quite popular with the peasants of Guangxi, but their efforts to attract support from the middle-class landowners and from Europeans failed. The leadership of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom began to fracture, as well, and Hong Xiuquan went into seclusion. He issued proclamations, mostly of a religious nature, while the Machiavellian rebel general Yang Xiuqing took over military and political operations for the rebellion. Hong Xiuquan's followers rose up against Yang in 1856, killing him, his family, and the rebel soldiers loyal to him.

The Taiping Rebellion began to fail in 1861 when the rebels proved unable to take Shanghai. A coalition of Qing troops and Chinese soldiers under European officers defended the city, then set out to crush the rebellion in the southern provinces. After three years of bloody fighting, the Qing government had retaken most of the rebel areas. Hong Xiuquan died of food poisoning in June of 1864, leaving his hapless 15-year-old son on the throne. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom's capital at Nanjing fell the following month after hard urban fighting, and the Qing troops executed the rebel leaders.

At its peak, the Taiping Heavenly Army likely fielded approximately 500,000 soldiers, male and female. It initiated the idea of "total war" - every citizen living within the boundaries of the Heavenly Kingdom was trained to fight, thus civilians on either side could expect no mercy from the opposing army. Both opponents used scorched earth tactics, as well as mass executions. As a result, the Taiping Rebellion was likely the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century, with an estimated 20 - 30 million casualties, mostly civilians. Around 600 entire cities in Guangxi, Anhui, Nanjing, and Guangdong Provinces were wiped from the map.

Despite this horrific outcome, and the founder's millennial Christian inspiration, the Taiping Rebellion proved motivational for Mao Zedong's Red Army during the Chinese Civil War the following century. The Jintian Uprising that started it all has a prominent place on the "Monument to the People's Heroes" that stands today in Tiananmen Square, central Beijing.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Taiping Rebellion?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-was-the-taiping-rebellion-195606. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 25). What Was the Taiping Rebellion? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-taiping-rebellion-195606 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Taiping Rebellion?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-taiping-rebellion-195606 (accessed March 21, 2023).