Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945

By Elizabeth J. Perry | Go to book overview

4. Predators Turn Rebels: The Case of the Nien

Predatory activities of smuggling, feuds, and banditry were, we have seen, adaptive survival strategies for poor peasants in Huai-pei. An ongoing phenomenon, predation escalated during periods of natural calamity. Ad hoc bandit outfits grew first into semipermanent gangs and then into massive bandit armies that razed the countryside in search of a living.

Mid- nineteenth-century Huai-pei witnessed a dramatic rise in predatory aggression, a clear reflection of worsening ecological circumstances. Local militia and earthwall fortifications then sprang up in response to the growing threat. Competition might have remained at this parochial level had it not been for the involvement of outside actors: the central government and the Taiping rebels. These external forces merged predators and protectors in a common antagonism toward the state. What began as simple predation was pushed into a rebellious posture. But bandit origins could not be entirely overcome and, for most participants, the movement continued to be a means for securing household income rather than a self-conscious effort at toppling the dynasty.

The Nien Rebellion was a major peasant movement that effectively precluded government control in Huai-pei for more than a decade ( 1851-63). Although somewhat overshadowed by their contemporaries, the Taipings, the Nien are well known for their mobile warfare which decimated the Manchus' crack cavalry division and killed its commander, Prince Seng-ko-lin-ch'in. For years the entire North China Plain was subjected to periodic Nien incursions as hundreds of thousands of the mounted rebels darted from one plundering expedition to the next.

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