Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to the 1980s

By Jack Gray | Go to book overview

3
THE TAIPING REBELLION, 1850-1864

Disorder and Rebellion

Throughout the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth in China, scarcely a year passed without violent protest or armed rebellion. Some of this protest was scarcely distinguishable from banditry. Much was of the spontaneous rice-riot kind. On several occasions, however, small groups raised the banner of the Ming dynasty and marched against the foreign rulers. The Taiping Rebellion of 1850 was only the greatest of many outbreaks. A major rebellion broke out in 1796. Led by the White Lotus secret society, it began in the foothills of the middle Yangzi among migrant peasants whose maize monoculture on the hill slopes had disastrously accelerated the process oferosion. The rebellion, however, quickly spread far beyond the area in which such circumstances could account for it, lighting a train of explosive discontent which flashed across the whole of northern China, engulfing half of the provinces of the Empire in a decade of destructive war.

The White Lotus Rebellion was extinguished by 1806, but its embers continued to smoulder. Secret societies under other names, some of which were related to the White Lotus society itself, kept up sporadic resistance. In 1812 members of one such sect scaled the walls of the Forbidden City and were beaten off only through the courage of Prince Min-ning, the future Dao Guang Emperor. There were further attacks led by successors of the White Lotus in the 1820s and 1830s. In northern China, where the four provinces of Hebei, Henan, Shandong and Jiangsu meet, a group of mounted 'social bandits', the Nian, controlled most of the countryside; throughout the first half of the century it was a 'no-go' area for the officials of the Beijing government. In the early 1850s the Nian had gathered sufficient strength to launch a full rebellion, just when the Taiping rebels of the south were pouring down the Yangzi towards Nanjing.

The White Lotus society had spread its influence among the aborigines of central and south-west China, and in the 1830s the Miao rebelled. In 1836 the Yao of Hunan, under White Lotus preachers, started a fitful war of resistance which flared up once more in 1855 during the chaos of the Taiping Rebellion.

In 1853 the Triads (the southern anti-Manchu secret society) of the West River in Guangdong rose in a movement which flashed down the river from lodge to lodge, and put Canton under siege.

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