Nien Rebellion

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Nien Rebellion
Date 1851 - 1868
Location Northern China
Result Qing Victory
Qing dynastyQing Empire Militia
Commanders and leaders
Qing dynastyZeng Guofan
Qing dynastyLi Hongzhang
Qing dynastyZuo Zongtang
Qing dynastySenggelinqin 
Zhang Lexing
Lai Wenguang
Zhang Zongyu
Ren Zhu
Mio Payling
Fan Ruzeng
Niu Hongsheng
~500,000 Troops ~200,000 Troops
Casualties and losses
Over 100,000 Troops and Civilians Killed

The Nian Rebellion (simplified Chinese: 捻军起义; traditional Chinese: 捻軍起義; pinyin: Niǎn Jūn Qǐyì; Wade–Giles: nien-chün ch'i-yi) was an armed uprising that took place in northern China from 1851 to 1868, at the same time as the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) in South China. The rebellion failed to topple the Qing dynasty, but caused immense economic devastation and loss of life such that it became one of the major long-term factors in the collapse of the Qing regime in the early 20th century.


Nian is a word borrowed from the Beihua dialect, where it was used to refer to loosely affiliated gangs or groups. The Nian movement was formed in the late 1840s by Zhang Lexing and, by 1851, numbered approximately 40,000. Unlike the Taiping rebels, the Nian had no clear initial goals or objectives, aside from criticism of the Qing government. However, they were provoked into taking direct action against the Imperial regime following a series of environmental disasters.

The 1851 Yellow River flood deluged hundreds of thousands of square miles and caused immense loss of life. The Qing government began a slow clean up operation after the disaster but could not provide effective aid as government finances had been drained by the First Opium War with Great Britain and the ongoing slaughter of the Taiping Rebellion. The damage created by the disaster had still not been repaired when, in 1855, the river burst its banks again, drowning thousands and devastating the fertile province of Jiangsu.

Political scientists Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer suggest that the rebellion was at least in part fueled by decades of female infanticide caused by the economic misery related to the floods, which led to a large population of frustrated young men without any women to marry. Perhaps as many as a quarter of all young men in the area fell into the category of "bare branches", i.e. without offspring.[1][2]

The conflict[edit]

In 1855, Zhang Lexing took direct action by launching attacks against government troops in central China. By the summer, the fast-moving Nian cavalry, well-trained and fully equipped with modern firearms, had cut the lines of communication between Beijing and the Qing armies fighting the Taiping rebels in the south. Qing forces were badly overstretched as rebellions broke out across China, allowing the Nian armies to conquer large tracts of land and gain control over economically vital areas. The Nian fortified their captured cities and used them as bases to launch cavalry attacks against Qing troops in the countryside, prompting local towns to fortify themselves against Nian raiding parties. This resulted in constant fighting which devastated the previously rich provinces of Jiangsu and Shandong.

In early 1856, the Qing government sent the Manchu General Senggelinqin, who had recently crushed a large Taiping army, to defeat the Nian. Senggelinquin's army captured several fortified cities, destroyed most of the Nian infantry and killed Zhang Lexing in an ambush. However in late 1864, the Nian movement survived as skilled Taiping commanders Lai Wenguang (1827–1868) and Fan Ruzeng (1840-1867) arrived to take control of Nian forces, and the bulk of the Nian cavalry remained intact. Senggelinquin's infantry-based army could not stop the fast moving cavalry from devastating the countryside and launching surprise attacks on Imperial troops. In 1864, to counter the Nian, 7,000 soldiers were transported to Tianjin via Shanghai.[3] In late 1865, Senggelinquin and his bodyguards were ambushed by Nian troops and killed at the Battle of Goulawjai thereby depriving the government of its best military commander. The Qing regime sent General Zeng Guofan to take command of Imperial forces protecting the capital Beijing, and provided him with modern artillery and weapons purchased from the Europeans at exorbitant prices. Zeng's army set about building canals and trenches to limit Nian cavalry activity, an effective but slow and expensive method. General Zeng was relieved of his command after Nian infantry broke through one of his defense lines, and he was replaced by Generals Li Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang.[citation needed] In late 1866, the remaining Nian forces split into two, with the Eastern Army, under the command of Lai Wenguang stationed in central China whilst the Western Army advanced on Beijing. The Western Army commanded by Zhang Zongyu, Zhang Lexing's nephew, was defeated southwest of Beijing by Qing troops leaving large swathes of Nian territory exposed to a Qing counter-attack. By late 1867, Li Hongzhang's and Zuo Zongtang's troops had recaptured most Nian territory, and in early 1868 the remnants were crushed by the combined forces of the government's troops and the Ever Victorious Army under "Chinese" Gordon.


The Nian rebellion failed to topple the Qing dynasty largely because it neglected to form alliances with other rebels, especially the Taiping movement. The Nian provided only symbolic support for the Taiping's efforts by accepting their king's "appointments", but refusing to follow his orders. Had the Nian and Taipings joined forces, the Qing government would have been faced with a formidable threat, in spite of its alliances with European powers. Despite the Nians' failure to seize power, the events of the rebellion dealt a severe blow to the Qing dynasty. The environmental disasters of 1851 and 1855 devastated the richest provinces of China, depriving the regime of tax income and trade duties. The endless fighting between Nian troops and Qing forces, who made widespread use of scorched earth tactics, ruined the countryside and resulted in countless deaths.

See also[edit]


  •  This article incorporates text from Alden's illustrated family miscellany [afterw.] record, and Oxford monthly advertiser, publ. by H. Alden, by Alden's illustrated family record, a publication from 1864 now in the public domain in the United States.
  1. ^ Hudson, Valerie M., Andrea Den Boer. "A Surplus of Men, A Deficit of Peace: Security and Sex Ratios in Asia's Largest States". Retrieved 2008-06-22. 
  2. ^ Hutton, Will (2007-03-24). "Shortage of women leaves surplus of disaffected men". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2008-06-22. 
  3. ^ Alden's illustrated family record (1864). Henry Alden, ed. Alden's illustrated family miscellany [afterw.] record, and Oxford monthly advertiser, publ. by H. Alden. Retrieved 2010-06-28. (Original from Oxford University)


  • Ownby, David. "Approximations of Chinese Bandits: Perverse Rebels or Frustrated Bachelors?" Chinese Masculinities/Femininities. Ed. Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Susan Brownell. Berkeley, CA: U of California P.
  • Perry, Elizabeth. Rebels and Revolutionaries in Northern China, 1845-1945 (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1980).
  • Têng, Ssu-yü. The Nien Army and Their Guerrilla Warfare, 1851-1868. Paris: Mouton, 1961.