Taiping Rebellion in 19th Century China

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A scene of the Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1864

During the middle of the 19th century, China was faced with the destructive capacity and decisiveness of civil war. This conflict became known as the Taiping Rebellion and took place between 1850 and 1864 between the First and Second Opium Wars with the British Empire. The Taiping Rebellion itself was essentially a conflict between the ruling power of the imperial government of the Qing Dynasty and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, an empire established by Christian converts in the South. Led by Hong Xiuquan, the attempted revolution was eventually brought to its knees by the combined forces of imperial China, assisted by French and British allied forces. Although the Qing government controlled much of the Taiping region throughout the conflict, the war became one of the deadliest in modern history, with the death of approximately 20 million people.

Causes of the Taiping Rebellion

The events leading up the Taiping Rebellion were both man-made and natural disasters, prompting much of the movement against the government to focus on the impact of religion. In addition to the major defeat in 1842 of the Chinese power at the hands of the British Empire in the First Opium War, the nation was faced with economic turmoil onset by the war and opium trade as well as droughts and flooding which devastated the countryside. In terms of the political dynamics within China, the Qing Dynasty had established itself as a supporter of the Manchu ethnic group, rivaling the majority Han. Additionally, the spread of Christianity throughout the southern regions was partly stimulated by the traditional practice of female infanticide, a policy that had detrimental effects on the population during the mid-19th century and also played strongly into the hands of religious observers.

Hong Xiuquan

Hong himself had once stood on the precipice of joining the Qing Dynasty in the early 1800s. He was considered one of the preeminent scholars of the era. Despite this fact, Hong failed the imperial examinations, a series of tests designed to chose the best candidates for administrative duties within the government. Hong failed these exams and broke down into illness in 1836. While in bed, he claims to have received a Protestant Christian vision based on information he had received from a missionary. In effect, Hong now believed he was the younger brother of Jesus, the messiah according to the Christian faith.

Fall of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

Over the course of the next decades, Hong developed a religious sect that ultimately grew to encompass roughly 30 million Chinese nationals. The conflict itself began with pirates and bandits striking Manchu citizens and Qing officials. Soon, it developed into guerrilla war and eventually into a full-scale military action. Han eventually died of food poisoning and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was brought to its knees in 1864 after 15 years of battle. Although the actual rebellion continued for another decade. According to historians, the Taiping Rebellion has the distinction of being one of the largest wars of the century, rivaling even the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War.