What was the Taiping Rebellion?

Above: an 1884 painting of the Taiping Rebellion.


As you learned in the exhibit, the 1840s were a tumultuous time for China. From droughts to floods to social inequality, unrest at home gave many Chinese a reason to immigrate. The unrest ultimately led to the Taiping Rebellion, a peasant-led revolt against the Qing dynasty that lasted from 1850 to 1864. 


It all began in 1837 when Hong Xiuquan, a schoolteacher from a small village in the Guangzhou province, claimed that during a fever he had been able to visit the heavens. When he recovered from his fever, he felt more connected to his spirituality. Then, in 1843, after reading the Christian text “Good Words to Admonish the Age,” he reasoned that the heavenly father he had encountered in his dreams was the Christian God, and that the demons he had fought were the Confucian and Buddhist idols being worshiped in China. Thus, Xiuquan baptized himself and decided to start presenting himself as Jesus’s younger brother.  


He began preaching against the Qing dynasty, which he viewed as rife with sin. His words resonated with some; by 1850, he had attracted a following which called itself the Society of God Worshippers. Xiuquan then wrote “Exhortation to Worship the One True God,” where he combined Christian philosophy with early communist ideas, such as shared property. Xiuquan promised free land to his followers — an attractive prospect for many after the famines that had been affecting the country during the 1840s. 


In 1851, the Qing government cracked down on Xiuquan’s followers, leading to several battles with imperial troops. Later that year, Xiuquan founded the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and began making plans to invade Nanjing, where the God Worshippers already had some two million followers. In 1853, they successfully captured Nanjing and the God Worshippers made the city their capital. The movement appealed to poor laborers and ethnic minorities like the Hakka, who had not been treated well by the Qing Dynasty. 


The Qing Dynasty was able to recapture Nanjing in 1864, and Xiuquan is believed to have been killed during this siege. His death marked the end of the Taiping Rebellion, which ended up costing more than 20 million lives. It was in the context of this political unrest that many decided to immigrate to places all over the globe, including the U.S. 


Want to learn more? Check out these resources: 


— History.com – Taiping Rebellion: Causes, Definitions, and Death Toll 

— National Geographic – “This religious revolt nearly toppled China’s last imperial dynasty” 

— Facts and Details – The Taiping Rebellion