The 19th century had its fair share of wars that had high body counts. This includes the Napoleonic Wars, the Austro-Prussian War, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War. However, the bloodiest and deadliest war of the 19th was the Taiping Rebellion, which took place in China and it went from December 1850 to August 1864.
10. The First Opium War
An important event leading up to the Taiping Rebellion started back in the 1700s and early 1800s. At that time, the British loved exports from China like silk, porcelain, and tea. China, on the other hand, didn’t need a whole lot in the way of imports. They were fairly self-sufficient and Europeans weren’t allowed inside the borders. However, one thing that the people of China did like was opium, which the British transported from India to China. Of course, the Chinese rulers, the Qing Dynasty, didn’t love the fact that the British were shipping in drugs that made their citizens addicts.
In March 1839, some Chinese villagers destroyed 1,400 tons of British-imported Opium. The Qing Dynasty then refused to hand over the offending parties and this angered the British. A few months after the opium was destroyed, the British launched an offensive on China. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the British won after occupying the city of Nanjing. The war officially came to an end on August 29, 1842. As part of their loss, the British claimed possession of Hong Kong island, China also had to pay a large indemnity, and they were forced to open up five ports for British trade.
The defeat was a terrible embarrassment to the Qing dynasty and it was a huge motivator for the Taiping Rebellion who was led by a man who made an unusual claim about himself.
9. The Leader of the Rebellion Claimed He was the Younger Brother of Jesus
Hong Xiuquan, who was born in 1814, was a school teacher who studied Confucianism and tried to pass the civil service test, but he kept failing. After failing for the final time, Hong fell into a deep depression and experienced a vision where he visited a man in the sky who was tall, had a long beard, and a thick belt. The man in the sky told Hong to return to Earth to rid the world of demons. A short time after the vision, Hong was given a translated copy of the New Testament and thought that the man in the sky he visited was God. Hong then developed a system of belief based on Christianity, which also had a political component to it that was a primitive type of communism.
A friend of Hong, Feng Yunshan, used Hong’s idea and formed a religious group called the God Worshippers’ Society, which would later become the Taiping Tianguo dynasty (“Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace”). After studying with a Christian missionary for two years, Hong took the title of Tianwang (“Heavenly King”). Below him were four kings based on the cardinal directions. Feng was given the title of the South King; a man named Yang Xiuqing was the East King; Wei Changhui was given the title of the North King; and Xiao Chaogui was proclaimed the West King. There was also a special position for Shi Dakai, one of the most literate people of the movement; he was given the title of Assistant King.
8. Their Beliefs
The beliefs of the Taiping were based on the Old Testament, and God was to be obeyed and worshipped. Hong deemed that opium smoking, alcohol, gambling, and prostitution were all evil. As was anything from the Chinese culture; especially Confucianism.
One interesting rule the Taiping dynasty had, which may not have been the best idea in the long run for running a dynasty, is that men and women had to be kept separate and sexual intercourse was banned; even between married couples. However, the no-sex rule wasn’t an absolute. People who were higher up in the dynasty, like the kings, had large sexual harems. Essentially, their stance on sex was the reverse of modern day Catholicism.
When the Taiping movement got started, they consisted of poor peasants, so they didn’t have the best access to weapons. Instead, when they first got started they relied on their day jobs to create weapons. One valuable profession was miners because they could handle explosives and build bombs. One such bomb was called stinkpots. They were a primitive type of hand grenade that was either used as an incendiary weapon, or they could have been filled with poisonous gases that would suffocate the enemy. Miners were also helpful when the rebellion got to a city because they could make short work of the city’s walls.
Although access to firearms was difficult to come by for the Taiping movement, they did have access to guns like jingals, which were large muskets on stands. The problem was that they weren’t very accurate. That is why many soldiers still used a tartar bow and arrows, which was more accurate than even matchlock rifles.
Finally, the Taiping army developed strong defenses. This included traps of sharpened bamboo, and they would use fireworks to scare or distract their enemies.
6. Tianjing – The Heavenly Capital
Of course, there were other problems facing peasants living in southern China other than losing to the British. After all, people just don’t blindly follow a fanatic who spouts wild crap unless he or she is providing answers to serious problems they are experiencing. At the time, people in the south of China suffered through several famines and droughts, unemployment was high, and many peasants didn’t own land. The problem was that over 400 million people lived in China at the time, so there simply wasn’t enough land to go around. When Hong Xiuquan and his followers came along, their promise of equal land ownership looked pretty tempting. So despite their crazy rules, within four years, the movement amassed a million soldiers; this included men and women troops.
Now a massive army, they moved north and on March 10, 1853, they captured the eastern city of Nanjing and under their rule, they renamed the city Tianjing (“Heavenly Capital”). During the siege, 30,000 imperial soldiers and civilians were killed, but it was only the start of the mass deaths that happened during the rebellion.
After capturing the city, they tried to take over Beijing and failed, but they did manage to achieve several victories in the upper Yangtze valley.
5. The Rise of the East King – Yang Xiuqing
With a city and several small villages under their control, the people of the Taiping lived in a Utopian paradise, right? Well, since this was the deadliest war of the 19th century, it’s safe to assume it didn’t go well.
The problems started in the lead up to the siege of Nanjing. Hong’s second in command, Feng Yunshan, who was named South King, had been demoted and then killed by a city guard on May 24, 1852, as they marched by a city that they had no intention of invading. Moving into second-in-command was the East King, Yang Xiuqing. Yang was a former charcoal and firewood salesman with no military experience, yet he was made commander-in-chief and he strategized the troops for the successful invasion of Nanjing. After the invasion and the city was secured, Hong became less interested in politics and more interested in his harem.
Yang then tried to use Hong’s lack of leadership as a chance to usurp his power. However, Hong was becoming paranoid and realized what Yang was up to. This made Hong fear for his life, so he ordered walls to be built around his house with cannons to defend them. He also ordered one of his generals, the North King Wei Changhui, to return to Tianjing to kill Yang and his supporters.
On September 1, 1856, Wei and a thousand of his troops arrived at Tianjing. They went to Yang’s house, where one of the soldiers stabbed him and his father to death. They then went on to slaughter thousands of his supporters on that night and into the next day. The true number of victims has never been determined. However, the killings didn’t stop there and Wei continued to root out more followers of Yang, leading to another massacre where 20,000 to 30,000 more people were killed.
4. The Problem with Wei Changhui
After thousands of Yang’s supporters were slaughtered, Hong decided that too many innocent people had died, so he ordered a decree that Wei and his generals should be flogged 400 times in public. The lashing was a big public spectacle and since Wei and his generals were being punished for killing Yang supporters, Yang’s remaining 5,000 to 6,000 supporters came out to see the flogging unarmed. That’s when they were surprised by Hong’s guards who turned on them. Another massacre ensued, while Yang’s remaining followers were arrested and executed over the next three months.
After the lashing, Wei took over in the place of Yang as second-in-command, and surprise, he wasn’t a calm and reasonable leader. Wei was domineering and it didn’t take long for him to lose support among the population and in 1856, Hong had him executed. He was beheaded and dismembered. Wei’s body was also chopped up and hung around the city as a warning to not disobey Hong.
Wei was the last of the four kings to die. The one that we didn’t mention was the West King, Xiao Chaogui, and he was killed in battle in 1852 before the takes over the Nanjing.
Without anyone to help him rule, Hong sent Wei’s pickled head to the Assistant King, Shi Dakai, who left the city because he opposed the massacre of Yang’s people at the hands of Wei. Shi rejoined for a while, but in May 1857, Shi had become disillusioned with the Taiping movement, and he and his followers left Tianjing.
Shi was given an offer by the Qing dynasty to join them as a high ranking official, but he turned them down because he wanted to start his own kingdom in Western China. The Qing dynasty didn’t approve of that so he was captured and executed on June 25, 1863.
3. The Battle of Shanghai
In 1861, almost 10-years into the Rebellion. A second Opium War had just come to an end and the Qing government was defeated again. The British, and this time the French, were now more embedded in China than ever before and that wasn’t good news for the Taiping people. The Europeans did not like the fact that the Taiping belief system was a bastardized version of Christianity.
When the Taiping army started to advance on Shanghai in early 1861, it made the Chinese businessmen and Europeans uneasy. However, the Europeans weren’t all that interested in committing troops to fight the Taiping army despite their disdain. Instead, a group of businessmen hired American mercenary Frederick Townsend Ward, who gathered a group of 100 Westerners who lived in China at the time and called the group the Ever Victorious Army. They were able to head off the advancing Taiping Army and over the next three years, they cleared out their strongholds. Ultimately leading to…
2. The Downfall of Taiping
In March 1964, the Qing army advanced on Tianjing. They were successful in overtaking the city in July 1864. Inside the palace, they found the Heavenly King Hong Xiuquan’s decaying body. He apparently either died of natural causes or committed suicide by eating poisonous weeds on June 1, 1864.
The Third Battle of Nanjing concluded with something that was familiar to the city when it was Taijing, and that was another massacre. Over 100,000 people were killed over the course of three days after the city fell in July 1864. Apparently, the people who were massacred, which was nearly the entire city of Tianjing, chose death instead of living under the Qing Dynasty.
1. The Death Toll
As we mentioned in the title, the Taiping Rebellion was the deadliest war of the 18th century. An estimated 20 million people were killed. On the low end, it was about 10 million, but other estimates put it closer to 100 million.
Just for some perspective, the American Civil War, which started at the tail end of the Taiping Rebellion and was the war where most Americans lost their lives, the death toll was 620,000. In fact, if you add up all the American causalities across all their wars, it is 1.1 million; about almost 10 times less than the lowest projected death toll of the Taiping Army.
However, it’s important to point out that many of these deaths were not caused by war. While there were still an overwhelming amount stemming from fighting and the massacres, the millions were caused by famines. During the fighting, troops on both sides ruined the soil during their travels and battles, meaning there wasn’t enough land to grow food.