Date March 20, 1853
Location Nanjing (Nanking), on the lower Yangzi River in east central China
Opponents (* winner)
*Taipings Hong Xiuquan (Hung Hsiuch’üan)
Manzhus Lu Jianying
Approx. # Troops
*Taipings Up to 500,000
Manzhus 40,000–60,000 men, plus assistance from the city population of some 750,000
Importance The Taipings make Nanjing their capital and proclaim a new dynasty, the Taiping Tianguo (The Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace)
The Battle of Nanjing (Nanking) in Jiangsu (Kiangsu) Province in March 1853 ended in the first great military victory for the Taiping (T’ai-p’ing) Rebellion in China, which began in 1851. The rebellion occurred because of agrarian unrest under the emperors Daoguang (Tao-kuang; r. 1821–1850) and Xianfeng (Hsienfeng; r. 1851–1861) caused by heavy taxation, natural disasters, and absentee landlordism. Hong Xiuquan (Hung Hsiu-ch’üan), a mystic from Guangdong (Kwangtung) Province, led the revolt.
Hong claimed that the Manzhus (Manchus) had lost the Mandate of Heaven following the defeat of Chinese forces by Britain in the Opium War of 1840–1842. Hong vowed to destroy all forms of evil, including Manzhu rule. A self-proclaimed Christian, he emphasized the Ten Commandments and borrowed certain Protestant doctrines but rejected the Trinity. In the Taiping religious hierarchy, God was first, Jesus Christ was second, and Hong was third with authority to regulate all earthly affairs. One interesting aspect of Taiping ideology was their equal treatment of women, who could even be soldiers. The Taipings prohibited gambling and the consumption of alcohol and opium. Since the latter was a major element of Western trade with China, this stance eventually led to Western support of the Imperial government’s efforts to overthrow the Taiping regime.
In January 1851 Hong assumed the title of “Heavenly King” and proclaimed a revolt against the Manzhus. The revolt began in Guangxi (Kwangsi) Province and extended into Hubei (Hupei) and Hunan provinces. Soon the Taipings had a well-trained army of 50,000 men and women. Later it grew to upwards of a half million. Its strengths were high morale, strict discipline (the troops had to obey a set of 62 rules), and religious conformity. The Taipings also had effective military commanders, especially Yang Hsiuqing (Hsiu-ch’ing), who led rebel military forces against the Imperial Army in the Yangzi (Yangtze) River Valley. In late December 1852 Taiping forces laid siege to the city of Wuchang in Hubei, taking it on January 12, 1853, after a 20-day siege. The Taipings now controlled the upper Yangzi River and its trade, cutting off the interior from the coast.
The Taipings then made their most serious strategic error. Instead of heading for Beijing (Peking), which they might have taken easily, they moved down the Yangzi to Nanjing. This cost them their best chance of taking the imperial capital and overthrowing the Manzhus. The Taiping leadership apparently took this decision because of reports that a large imperial force protected the capital.
In early February 1853 some 500,000 Taipings departed Wuchang, crossed the Yangzi, and burned their floating bridges behind them to delay an advancing imperial force. While part of the army moved by land on the north side of the river, the majority moved downriver in some 20,000 requisitioned river craft toward Nanjing. The Taipings easily took Jiujiang (Kiukiang) in western Jiangxi Province and Anqing (Anking), the capital of Anhui (Anhwei) Province.
After reprovisioning from storehouses there, they continued on to Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province. The Taipings arrived before Nanjing on March 6, 1853. Prior to their arrival, the city population had swelled to three-quarters of a million people. Although ill-prepared, the defenders managed to hold the Taipings at bay for 13 days. On March 19 the Taipings employed hundreds of horses carrying effigies of soldiers bearing torches before the west wall. Expecting an attack from that quarter, defending soldiers crowded onto the wall. Too late they realized that it was a ruse to draw as many of them there as possible; two great explosions from Taiping mines then breached the wall. Although a third mine exploded late, killing many of the attacking troops, the Taipings secured access to the city.
News of the death of Lu Jianying (Chien-ying), the imperial commander in Nanjing, demoralized the defenders, and many fled. On March 20 the Taipings assaulted the Inner City, defended by 40,000 Manzhu troops. The Taipings took the city in costly human wave assaults, massacring some 30,000 of the defenders who had refused to surrender. The Taipings may have been aided in their success against Nanjing by spies. Reportedly they had sent some 3,000 of their number into the city disguised as Buddhist monks.
The rebels made Nanjing their capital and there proclaimed a new dynasty, the Taiping Tianguo (T’ien-kuo; Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace). Hong was the ruler. Although their promise of reform had been a major factor in Taiping success, their subsequent failure to carry it out doomed their regime.
The rapid collapse of imperial authority encouraged widespread unrest throughout China. During 1853–1868 Nian (Nien) rebels organized bandit bands to ravage Anhwei, northern Jiangsu, and Shandong (Shantung) provinces. There was also a Muslim government at Dali (Tali) in Yunnan (1855–1873), and the Miao tribe in Guizhou (Kweichow) were successful for an even longer period in their revolt against the central government (1855–1881).
The central government was handicapped by having to fight a two-front war against internal revolts but also against inroads in China by the Western powers led by Britain. In the First Opium War (1839–1842) against Britain, China had been forced to cede Hong King. The Second Opium War began in 1856 due to hostilities with Britain in the Arrow War (1856–1858) that expanded to include the French in 1860. Foreign forces took Beijing and sacked (and later burned) the old Summer Palace. Forced to sue for peace, the imperial government surrendered Kowloon opposite Hong Kong to the British as well as special rights to the French. The Russians also took advantage of China’s weakness to seize the left bank of the Amur River and the Maritime Provinces, establishing the port of Vladivostok. Western citizens residing in China, including those from the United States, also secured extraterritoriality from Chinese civil and criminal law.
With the wars against the European powers temporarily over in 1860, Imperial Viceroy Zeng Guofan (Tseng Kuo-fan) and Li Hongzhang (Hung-chang) worked to reform and revitalize the imperial government and subdue the Taiping regime to the south.
The Taiping regime had become increasingly repressive, and in 1860 wealthy Shanghai merchants financed an army under the command of Frederick Townsend Ward, an American merchant marine officer and soldier of fortune from Salem, Massachusetts. Ward led this force, which came to be known as the Ever Victorious Army, in a series of successful military campaigns. In 1861 he became a brigadier general in the Imperial Army. Over a four-month span, Ward and his army, assisted by British and French forces returning from their operations at Beijing, won 11 victories and cleared an area about 20 miles around Shanghai. However, on August 20, 1862, Ward was mortally wounded while leading an assault on the walled city of Cexi (Tzehsi) in Zhejiang (Chejiang).
In 1863 at the request of the Chinese imperial government, the British government assigned Captain Charles G. Gordon (thereafter known as “Chinese Gordon”) of the Royal Engineers to succeed Ward. Gordon led the Ever Victorious Army south along the Grand Canal, taking Suzhou (Souchow) in Jiangsu Province on December 4. He then laid siege to the Taiping capital of Nanjing. Disgusted by the imperial government’s execution of prisoners who had surrendered to him, Gordon gave up command of the army. Chinese imperial forces under Viceroy Zeng, however, ended the rebellion when they breached the Nanjing city walls on July 19, 1864. A few isolated Taiping detachments continued to resist, the last being destroyed in February 1866.
The Taiping Rebellion was the most destructive war of the entire 19th century. Most estimates place the number of dead from the rebellion directly or indirectly at 20 million people. This was not the end of fighting in China either. Suppression of the regional revolts extended into 1881, and China also fought an undeclared war with France during 1883–1885.
References Elleman, Bruce A. Modern Chinese Warfare, 1785–1989. New York: Routledge, 2001. Lindley, Augustus. Ti-Peng Tien-kwoh: The History of the Ti-Ping Revolution. New York: Praeger, 1970. The Taiping Revolution. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976. Teng Ssu-Yü. New Light on the History of the Taiping Rebellion. New York: Russell and Russell, 1966.