Friday, June 13, 2014

The Nian Rebellion: In the Shadows of Taiping

Rebellion, war, and incursion, these what describe China during the tumultuous latter half of the 19th century. The Manchu led Qing Dynasty was in its final chapters. It faced the strong and powerful imperialistic agendas of the West. Its Empire was being carved into several sphere of influences among the Europeans. Domestic affairs was as bleak as its foreign relations. Rebellions of discontent erupted in various regions of Imperial China. The largest was the Taiping Rebellion. Simultaneously, other minor rebellions gave headaches to the Forbidden City. Among these obscure rebellion was the Nian Rebellion.

The Nian Rebellion was against the ruling Qing Dynasty from 1851 to 1868. Their area of activities was Northern China. They raided the regions of Northern Anhui, Northern Shandong Provinces as well as Northern Henan Province. The name Nian, meaning twisted, was said to had been based on the twisted paper that rebels used as light during night raids. The rebels were initially composed of brigands. However, as the central government lose further control, more and more joined. Clan leaders, local militia deserters, triads, and smugglers joined the bandits and formed the bulk of the NIan. Also remnants of the suppressed White Lotus Society joined as well. But what truly increased the membership of Nian rebels were the misery and desperate conditions of peasants. In 1851 and 1855, devastating floods of China’s Tears, the Yellow River, caused destruction of properties and harvests. Famine and poverty stricken further the already depressing state of the peasants. To sound their concerns and anger to the Qing government, they joined the NIan Rebels.

The Nian Rebels were formidable but, initially, disorganized. From its start in 1851, no central leader emerged. By 1856, 18 Nian rebel groups had already existed and moved independently from each other. However, on the same year, a conference of all Nian leaders was held in Zhi He in Anhui Province. There, they decided to establish a new state, independent from Qing China. The state was called Da Han or The Great Han. From the meetings, a new leader emerge. Zhang Luoxing emerged as the main leader of the whole Nian Rebellion. He was given the title “Lord of the Alliance.” He was also given the title Da Han Ming-ming Wang or the Great Han Prince with the Mandate of Heaven.

The Nian used guerrilla tactics. The Nians operated similar to the Manchus Banner System. 5 banner groups with their own colors were formed. Each banner could operate autonomously from the other banner groups. Each banner also occupied towns and villages and in charge of its defense. Most of the bases of Nians were towns and villages with earth made walls for protections. Some Nian rebels wored as farmers during the planting and harvest seasons. However, if the supplies were not enough, they raided government held villages for supplies. They relied heavily on fast mobile cavalry in order to execute raids. They also used hit and run tactics to fend off Qing forces.

The suppression of the rebellion proved to be a challenged for the Qing government. Their resources were mostly tied to suppress the even bigger threat of the Taiping Rebellion in Central China. And so they appointed a Mongolian general, Senggelinqin, in 1860 to suppress the rebellion. Senggelinqin’s forces were composed of Mongol and Manchu cavalry. His forces matched the NIan cavalry with the famous impeccability of Mongolian and Manchu horsemanship. They managed to break the Nian forces in Anhui province. But the greatest success of Senggelinqin’s campaign was the capture and execution of the Nian Rebel leader, Zhang Luoxing, in 1863. But Senggelinqin’s efforts was not strong enough to crush the rebellion. His troops were proven to be corrupt and abusive of the locals, which caused more dissatisfaction and breeding ground for NIan recruitment.

The death of Zhang Luoxing did not weaken the Nian Rebellion. Zhang was replaced by his nephew, Zhang Zongyu. The Nians then intensified their fight against the Qing. In 1864, the Nian scored a victory against Senggelinqin. Furthermore, in 1865, a Nian ambushed took the life of Senggelinqin himself a year later. After the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion in 1864, survivors of the rebellion fled to the north under the command of Lai Wengguang. They joined forces with the Nian Rebels.

After the fatal demise of Senggeliqin, Zeng Guofan succeeded him and began to lead the efforts against the Nian Rebellion. Zeng was veteran of the Taiping Rebellion. And with the defeat of the rebels in Central China, the Qing government could then focus to the minor rebellions, including the Nian. Zeng began his efforts by rooting out the NIans. He surrounded every single bases the NIans had. However, the strategy proved to be expensive in both money and manpower. It took a large amount of money to erect the numerous fortification. It also burdensome to pay more soldiers needed to man each fortification. But the strategy weakened the rebels. In 1866, Zeng was recalled to the Forbidden City to accept his post in Nanjing. Meanwhile, his lieutenant, Li Hongzhang took the responsibility to crash the revolt. Li used his newly established Huai Army to eradicate the rebellion. The Huai Army was one of the modern units within the Chinese army. They used modern European weaponry, as well as new organization and tactics. The weakened rebels were no match. In 1868, Zhang drowned while evading the Imperial forces and in the same year, the Nian Rebellion finally collapsed.

The Nian Rebellion was overshadowed by the larger scale rebellion of the Taiping. But the Nian Rebellion showed the discontent of the people to the incompetence and mismanagement of the Qing Emperors. The rebellion contributed to the further weakening of the imperial system which would eventually collapse in 1911.

See also:
Hundred Days Reform
King Chulalongkorn: Reform and Rebellions

Li, Xiaobing. China at War: An Encyclopedia. California: ABC-CLIO, 2012. 

Lone, S. (ed.). Daily Lives of Civilians: From Taiping Rebellion to the Vietnam War. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007. 

Perkins, D. Encyclopedia of China: An Essential Reference to China, Its History and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013. 

Pletcher, Kenneth. The History of China. New York: Britannica Educational Publishing, 2011. 

Roberts, John. A History of China. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 

Rossabi, M. A History of China. UK: Willey-Blackwell, 2014. 

Walker, H. East Asia: A New History. Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2012.

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