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 dynastySengge Rinchen 
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 Nien Rebellion (simplified Chinese: 捻军起义; traditional Chinese: 捻軍起義; Hanyu Pinyin: niǎn jūn qǐ yì; Tongyong Pinyin: nian luan; Wade–Giles: nien-chün ch'i-yi[1][2]) was an armed uprising that took place in northern China from 1851 to 1868, contemporaneously with Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) in South China. The rebellion failed to topple the Qing dynasty, but caused immense economic devastation and loss of life that 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 Rebellion movement, the Nien initially had no clear goals or objectives, aside from criticism of the Qing government. However, the Nien 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 slowly began cleaning up after the disaster but could not provide effective aid, as government finances had been drained during a recent 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. At the time, the Qing government was trying to negotiate a deal with the European powers, and as state finances had been so severely depleted, the regime was again unable to provide effective relief. This enraged the Nien movement, which blamed the Europeans for contributing to China's troubles, and increasingly viewed the Qing government as incompetent and cowardly in the face of the Western powers.

Political scientists Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer suggest that the rebellion was fueled, at least in part, by decades of female infanticide caused by the floods related economic misery, leading 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 being in this category of "bare branches".[3][4]

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 Nien 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 Nien armies to conquer large tracts of land and gain control over economically vital areas. The Nien 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 Nien raiding parties. This resulted in constant fighting which devastated the previously rich provinces of Jiangsu and Hunan.

In early 1856, the Qing government sent the Mongol General Senggelinqin, who had recently crushed a large Taiping army, to defeat the Nien. Senggelinquin's army captured several fortified cities and destroyed most of the Nien infantry, and killed Zhang Lexing himself in an ambush. However in late 1864, the Nien movement survived as skilled Taiping commanders Lai Wenguang (賴文光) (1827–1868) and Fan Ruzeng (1840-1867) arrived to take control of the Nien forces, and the bulk of the Nien 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 battle the Nien, 7,000 soldiers were transported to Tianjin via Shanghai.[5] In late 1865, Senggelinquin and his bodyguards were ambushed by Nien troops and killed, in the Battle of Goulawjai, 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 hem in the Nien cavalry, an effective but slow and expensive method. General Zeng was relieved of command after Nien infantry broke through one of his defense lines, and he was replaced by Generals Li Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang equipped with more crushingly expensive European artillery and firearms.[citation needed] In late 1866, the remaining Nien forces split into two, with the Eastern Army, under 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 brother's son, was defeated southwest of Beijing by Qing troops, leaving large swathes of Nien territory exposed to a Qing counter-attack. By late 1867, Li Hongzhang's and Zuo Zongtang's troops had recaptured most Nien territory, and in early 1868, the remnants were crushed by the combined forces of the government's troops and the Ever Victorious Army.


The Nien rebellion failed to topple the Qing Dynasty largely because it failed to make alliances with other rebels, especially the Taiping movement. The Nien only symbolically supported Taiping efforts by accepting the Taiping king's "appointments", but refusing to follow his orders. Had the Nien 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 Niens' 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 Qing regime of tax income and trade duties. The endless fighting between Nien troops and Qing forces, who made widespread use of scorched earth tactics, ruined the countryside and resulted in countless deaths. Although the Nien rebellion was smaller than that of the Taiping, it severely drained government finances, devastated the richest areas of China, and left China's economy in a very precarious state. In the long term, the Nien rebellion was to become one of the major factors in the collapse of Qing China.

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. ^ 陳華. 捻亂之研究 (in Chinese). 國立臺灣大學出版中心. p. 8. OCLC 19479110. 
  2. ^ Note: Western historians have traditionally used the Wade-Giles transcription "Nien", rather than Hanyu Pinyin "Nian"
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ Hutton, Will (2007-03-24). "Shortage of women leaves surplus of disaffected men". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2008-06-22. 
  5. ^ 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.