A scene of the Nien Rebellion (1851-1868). Probably represents the Battle of Inlon River,1867.
The very first expedition the Niens made after their formation of a league in 1855 was to invade the wealthy Honan market towns around the great city of Kuei-te. On their way home, their loot, including horses and goods in wagons, made a caravan that extended many miles. By the late 1850s, Nien expeditions penetrated central Honan and pressed towards the Yellow River. In October 1859, the ‘Anhwei rebels’ (Wan-fet), by which name the Niens were also known, were less than thirty miles from Kaifeng, the Honan capital. In September 1861, they approached the ancient metropolis of Loyang. These far-flung expeditions, chiefly mounted raids, in turn augmented the Nien cavalry by the capture (and even purchase) of government horses.
The Nien raids into Honan stimulated not only tax-resistance, but also banditry. Many local bandits also called themselves Niens, as a generic term, meaning essentially organized bands. In 1856 in the Chüeh-tzu mountains in south central Honan, astride six counties, a federation of five Nien bands was formed, at first with less than 250 members. Among their leaders were men with such colourful names as ‘Chang the Bat’, ‘Yu the Monk’ and ‘Li the Big Black Face’. They convoyed illicit salt, and often descended on the wealthy homes of the market towns to rob and to be feasted, sometimes in a half-friendly manner. Within a year, the federation totalled 10,000 men, with a base area of about 3,000 square miles. These peasant bandits were soon joined by some 800 illicit miners, who were being pursued by government troops for working silver mines that had been closed. But the Chüeh-tzu-shan brigands somehow failed to obtain the aid of the Niens from Anhwei. Government troops defeated them in 1858.
In 1860-1, a major Honan Nien movement arose under Ch’en Ta-hsi, a former petty officer of a government mercenary force. As leader of the local militia corps at his native Ju-yang, he fortified its earthwalls and began plundering nearby market towns. By mid-1861, several hundred earthwall communities in Ju-yang and three nearby counties had given him allegiance. Ch’en Ta-hsi survived all government attacks, thanks largely to his several thousand horsemen. He moved freely from prefecture to prefecture, and received help from the Anhwei Niens in Honan. He developed a firm friendship with Chang Tsung-yü, nephew of Chang Lo-hsing and the future great Nien leader, and joined up with him in 1863.
The Niens also rekindled dissidence of the White Lotus type that had lain underground. The first such revolt took place in 1858 in Ying-chou (present Fu-yang) near the Honan border in north-west Anhwei, where a certain Wang T’ing-chen styled himself ‘Military adviser obeying Heaven’, preached ‘supernatural doctrines’, and dressed his followers in ‘weird garments’. In the villages and market towns of east Honan, a sectarian force of some five thousand now arose, including mounted troops in bright red jackets, wielding ‘flying knives’ supposed to be invincible. But in April 1858, this rising, hardly five months old, was crushed by forces under the Ch’ing banner commander, Te-leng-o.
In 1861, a new sectarian revolt, of White Lotus heritage, arose in an earthwall stronghold some fifteen miles east of Kuei-te. The leader, Ku Yungch’ing, was from a sectarian family; both his father and grandfather had been executed for practising heterodoxy. He now prophesied an impending ‘great calamity’ (ta-chieh), but claimed he could help his followers to escape this fate, since in his person a new era was to be inaugurated. Among Ku’s devotees were some Honanese bandits, and the Anhwei Nien leader Liu Yü-yüan (Liu the Dog). Ku prepared to besiege Kuei-te, but instead, strong provincial forces broke into his fortified base, the famous Chin-lou-chai (Golden Chamber Fort), and Ku was killed. But the movement was carried on by the widow of Ku’s brother, ne’e Yao, in the White Lotus tradition. The Golden Chamber Fort was recovered and the revolt gained wider support, until suppressed with cannon fire in March 1862.
While the Niens had catalysed risings in Honan from 1855 on, they found it difficult to enter Shantung in force, owing to the concentration of Ch’ing troops under Yuan Chia-san and others in the Anhwei-Kiangsu-Shantung border area. However, in October 1860, a reported 70,000 men with perhaps more than 10,000 horses broke into Shantung in numerous bands, spreading out to four prefectures and pillaging twenty counties, from Ts’ao-hsien in the extreme south-west, to places almost as far north as the new course of the Yellow River. East of the Grand Canal, the Anhwei marauders met strong resistance at Ch’ü-fu, the ancient home of Confucius, but large numbers besieged Ning-yang and Yün-ch’eng, two vital cities flanking the metropolis of Chi-ning, the strategic bastion of the Grand Canal in south Shantung.
Earlier in 1860, the court had appointed Tu Ch’iao, a vice-president of the Board of Revenue, as commissioner of local defence in Shantung, just as Mao Ch’ang-hsi, a deputy mayor of Peking, had been given the same role in Honan. But the crisis in Shantung, as well as banditry in southern Chihli, prompted the throne on 5 November (even before the British troops had left Peking) to appoint Senggerinchin as imperial commissioner, to move with the greatest dispatch against the Niens in Shantung and Honan. In mid-December, the Mongol prince arrived at Chi-ning with 3,500 cavalry, 20,000 banner infantrymen and 5,000 Green Standard troops. But in his initial encounter on 26 December, his forces were routed some thirty miles west of Chi-ning. Other reverses followed. The Niens threatened Tsinan, the provincial capital, and moved eastward into the peninsular part of Shantung, reaching the vicinity of the treaty port of Chefoo. The imperial commissioner did not pursue them, because he had to cope with fast-growing local rebellions. Small landholders predominated in Shantung agriculture, the dissident tradition of heterodox sects and banditry was strong, and peasants who lived near mountain fastnesses or in the marshes created by the great shift of the Yellow River in the early 1850s were tactically mobile. Peasant discontent could be readily mobilized, since taxes had increased in Shantung, while crops were reduced by natural disasters.