Nian Rebellion

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Nian Rebellion
Date 1851–1868
Location Northern China
Result Qing victory

Qing dynasty Qing dynasty Supported by:
 United Kingdom

 United States
Nian militias
Commanders and leaders
Qing dynastyZeng Guofan
Qing dynastyLi Hongzhang
Qing dynastyZuo Zongtang
Qing dynastySengge Rinchen 
Zhang Lexing 
Lai Wenguang
Zhang Zongyu
Ren Zhu
Miao Peilin
Fan Ruzeng
Niu Hongsheng
~500,000 ~200,000
Casualties and losses
Over 100,000 soldiers and civilians killed

The Nian Rebellion (simplified Chinese: 捻军起义; traditional Chinese: 捻亂; Hanyu Pinyin: niǎn jūn qǐ yì; Tongyong Pinyin: nian luan; Wade–Giles: nien-chün ch'i-yi)[1] 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 the 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 Nian initially had no clear goals or objectives, aside from criticism of the Qing government. Their slogan was "'kill the rich and aid the poor'".[2] However, the Nian 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 Nian 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]

"Five Element Banner Army system" (Chinese: 五行旗軍制; pinyin: wǔxíng qí jūn zhì). There were banners in the Nian military numbering 5.[5][6] There were color codes for the banners.[7] The White Lotus were the origin of the structure of banners used by the Nian.[8] Poor peasants made up the majority of the Nian bands and upon their banners they inscribed "'Kill the officials, kill the rich, spare the poor!'"[9]

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 Hunan.

In early 1856, the Qing government sent the Mongol General Senggelinqin, who had recently crushed a large Taiping army, to defeat the Nian. Senggelinquin's army captured several fortified cities and destroyed most of the Nian infantry, and killed Zhang Lexing himself in an ambush. However, in late 1864, the Nian movement survived as skilled Taiping commanders Lai Wenguang (賴文光) (1827–1868) and Fan Ruzeng (1840–1867) arrived to take control of the 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 late 1865, Senggelinquin and his bodyguards were ambushed by Nian troops and killed, in the Battle of Goulawjai, depriving the government of its best military commander. The Qing regime sent General Zeng Guofan (曾国藩) 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 Nian cavalry, an effective but slow and expensive method. General Zeng was relieved of command after Nian 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 Nian 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 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.


The Nian rebellion failed to topple the Qing Dynasty largely because it failed to make alliances with other rebels, especially the Taiping movement. The Nian only symbolically supported Taiping efforts by accepting the Taiping 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 Qing 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. Although the Nian 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 Nian rebellion was to become one of the major factors in the collapse of Qing China.

See also[edit]


  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. ^ Pamela Kyle Crossley, The Wobbling Pivot: China Since 1800 108 (2010)
  3. ^ Hudson, Valerie M., Andrea Den Boer. "A Surplus of Men, A Deficit of Peace: Security and Sex Ratios in Asia's Largest States". Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. 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. ^ Michael Dillon (15 September 2012). China: A Modern History. I.B.Tauris. pp. 85–. ISBN 978-1-78076-381-1. 
  6. ^ Stewart Lone (January 2007). Daily Lives of Civilians in Wartime Asia: From the Taiping Rebellion to the Vietnam War. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 21–. ISBN 978-0-313-33684-3. 
  7. ^ Jonathan D. Spence (1991). The Search for Modern China. Norton. pp. 185–. ISBN 978-0-393-30780-1. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ Chesneaux, Jean. Peasant Revolts in China, 1840–1949 p.33 (C. A. Curwen trans. 1973)

References and further reading[edit]

  • Jiang,, Xiangze (1954). The Nien Rebellion. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 
  • 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 J. (1980). Approaches to the Nien Rebellion. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe. 
  • —— (1981). Chinese Perspectives on the Nien Rebellion. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe. ISBN 087332191X. 
  • —— (1980). Rebels and Revolutionaries in Northern China, 1845-1945. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP. 
  • Têng, Ssu-yü. The Nien Army and Their Guerrilla Warfare, 1851-1868. Paris: Mouton, 1961.