Nian Rebellion in China (1853 - 1868)

Nian Rebellion in China (1853 - 1868)
Nian Rebellion in China (1853 - 1868)

The word nian means “a band” and referred to the outlaw secret society bands or gangs along the lower Yellow and Huai River valleys in borderlands between Shandong (Shantung), Henan (Honan), Jiangsu (Kiangsu), and Anhui Provinces. This area had long harbored bandits and salt smugglers.

Although they existed since the 18th century, floods in the early 1850s and the famine that followed abetted their growth. In 1853 a man named Zhang Luoxing (Chang Lo-hsing) became leader of the Nian and titled himself the Great Han Heavenly mandated King. He organized his followers after the Manchu banner system and initiated them with pseudo-religious rites. At the peak of his power in the late 1850s the Nian controlled approximately 100,000 square miles of territory.

However, the Nian never developed a centralized government capable of administering cities or organizing a coordinated military action, resorting mainly to guerrilla warfare and fast but uncoordinated cavalry raids, seldom holding on to towns and cities, but retreating to their earthen-walled strongholds. They scorched the earth to deprive government forces of supplies.

The Nian also sporadically cooperated with the Taiping rebels in the Yangzi (Yangtze) River valley. Early Qing (Ch’ing) efforts to defeat the Nian met with failure, in part because of the hostility of many peasants toward the government. Even the capture of Nian leader Zhang in 1863 did not end the rebellion because in 1864 some followers of the defeated Taiping Rebellion joined their cause.

In 1865 the court appointed Zeng Guofan (Tseng Kuo-fan), the statesman-general who led the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion, to suppress the Nian. He approached the task by reforming the local government and winning over the population in contested areas. But the aging Zeng had disbanded most of the Hunan army that he had organized and led after the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion and pleaded to be allowed to retire.

The task was given to one of his lieutenants in 1867. He was Li Hongzhang (Li Hung-chang), the organizer and commander of the modern armed and well-disciplined Huai, or Anhui, Army. With the assistance of Zuo Zongtang (Tso Tsung-t’ang), another statesman-general who had contributed to defeating the Taiping Rebellion, Li ended the Nian Rebellion in 1868.

The suppression of the Nian and other rebellions in the 1860s and 1870s was the triumph of warfare and civil government by capable leaders who rallied to the Qing dynasty. It was a genuine pacification in the traditional manner by scholars-generals-administrators committed to Confucian moral principles, who stressed political and economic reforms in combination with hard fighting. They had to recruit the armies that they commanded because the Qing regular army had deteriorated to ineffectiveness.