In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Taiping Civil War

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Modern Scholarly Translations of Taiping and Qing Documents
  • Reference Works
  • Source Studies
  • Bibliography and Historiography
  • Taiping Relations with Missionaries and Foreign Powers
  • Taiping Struggles with the Qing, Qing Mercenaries, and Their Local Opponents
  • Taiping Institutions
  • War Economy
  • Memory and Trauma
  • The Taiping and the Chinese Revolutions
  • Fictional and Film Treatments of the Taiping

Chinese Studies Taiping Civil War
Rudolf Wagner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0139


The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (Taiping tianguo, 1851–1864) presented a religious, ethnic and military challenge to the ruling ethnically Manchu Qing dynasty. It was part of a world of globalized and transcultural processes; it saw itself in this way, and it was seen so by its supporters and opponents. In the field of religion, its adoption and adaptation of Protestant Christianity interacted with the Second Great Awakening (1800–1850) that had brought many missionaries to China, who in turn saw the Taipings as the long-awaited outpouring of the Spirit among the heathen. Ethnically the Taipings defined the Manchu as dragons/demons/devils who were revering the devil and had invaded the heavenly land of China instead of staying in their hell, and it set out to liberate the Chinese brothers and sisters from this scourge and to bring them back to the true Chinese faith in one supreme god. This definition of the Manchu coincided with their perception by Westerners in Western media as “imperialists” or “Tartars” who had occupied China by force. Militarily the Heavenly Kingdom’s aim was to gain recognition by the Western powers on an equal footing as a friendly and Christian power while focusing on driving out the Manchu and winning back those Chinese who had sided with them. The ensuing civil war was fought with losses of life from direct and indirect effects of the war of up to 90 million, making it probably the most deadly episode of war not only in the 19th and 20th centuries but in human history altogether. It also resulted in the destruction of much of the cultural heritage (buildings, books, paintings) in the contested areas. On both sides of the conflict foreigners (missionaries, military men, diplomats) were involved. As a consequence of this global entanglement the Taiping and the civil war attracted international attention from the outset. Relevant printed and archival sources therefore come in many languages and are widely dispersed in China, Europe, and the United States. The end of the civil war was not the end of the history of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. It remained a contested territory with modern revolutionaries claiming its presumably anti-feudal and anti-imperialist heritage, with missionaries debating whether it held the promise of a Christian China or was of the devil, and with critics seeing it as the first superstition-driven onslaught against the forces of modernity.

General Overviews

The Taiping Civil War has prompted widely diverging histories. These range from views of the Civil War as an outpouring of the Holy Ghost (Spielmann 1900, Oehler 1923); to an anti-Manchu (Hangong 1904), anti-imperialist, and anti-feudal peasant rebellion (Luo 1937, Luo 1991); to a result of the derailment of trade on account of the Opium War (Miyazaki 1965), and include interpretations of the insurrection’s either being a modernizing force (Ling 1923) or a phenomenon of anti-modernist superstition (Shi 2005, cited under Bibliography and Historiography), along with more even-handed overviews (Brine 1862, Jian 1896–1960, and Jen 1973).

  • Brine, Lindesay. The Taiping Rebellion in China: A Narrative of Its Rise and Progress, Based upon Original Documents and Information Obtained in China. London: John Murray, 1862.

    Based on extensive reading of available early Western-language reports and translations of Taiping documents, this first systematic history of the Taiping excels through its sober and knowledgeable analysis that keeps its distance from all sides in the conflict.

  • Hangong漢公. Taiping tianguo zhanshi: Qian bian (太平天國戰史: 前編). Tokyo: Zuguo zazhishe, 1904.

    The first “history” of the Taiping civil war, written on the inspiration of Sun Yat-sen and published with a preface by him (who at the time referred to himself as “Hong Xiuquan the Second”). Although no Taiping sources were published in China at the time and the historical basis of the work was weak, it started a long career of the Taiping being mobilized for modern revolutionary (in this case anti-Manchu) propaganda purposes.

  • Jen Yu-wen (Jian Youwen) 簡又文. The Taiping Revolutionary Movement. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973.

    Summary translation of the author’s extensive earlier version (cited as Jian 1896–1960) charting a chronological trajectory from the war’s origins to its demise. The sections are cross-referenced to the Chinese work.

  • Jian Youwen 簡又文. Taiping Tianguo quanshi (太平天囯全史). 3 vols. Hong Kong: Jian shi mengjin shuwu, 1896–1960.

    The classic history of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, written with deep knowledge of the religious and institutional dimensions as well as the actual development of the Taiping Civil War.

  • Ling Shanqing (Guiqing) 淩善清 (桂清). Taiping tianguo yeshi (太平天國野史). Shanghai: Wenming shuju, 1923.

    Factual presentation of early Taiping history without the polemics of its source, the Hong Yang jishi 洪楊紀實, which was a version of the Zeiqing huizuan賊請匯纂, the Qing spy handbook for the Taiping. The Taiping are presented as the first modernizers. The preface claims that they prefigured many Republican institutions. Reprinted in 1936 under the name of the author of the first preface, Wang Wenru 王文濡.

  • Luo Ergang 羅爾綱. Taiping tianguo shigang (太平天囯史綱). Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1937.

    Classical account of the Taipings as a bona fide “revolutionary” force by the scholar who was to dominate Taiping scholarship in the PRC after 1949 and was able to draw on a deep familiarity with sources to make his points.

  • Luo Ergang 羅爾綱. Taiping tianguo shi (太平天囯史). 4 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1991.

    Using an arrangement taken from that of the Chinese dynastic histories, this work offers a systematic presentation of the author’s harvest from his lifelong Taiping tianguo studies. The work draws on a vast range of Chinese-language sources while staying within the PRC master narrative. It is unfamiliar with untranslated foreign language sources and scholarship.

  • Miyazaki, Ichisada. “The Nature of Taiping Rebellion.” Translated by Charles Peterson. Acta Asiatica 8 (1965): 1–39.

    Basing itself on Qing sources about the Taiping, this study argues against PRC assumptions about the Taiping as a peasant rebellion. It claims that the Taiping rebellion was the direct result of the Opium War and the ensuing shift of China’s international commerce from Canton to Shanghai. The Taiping leadership consisted of opium smugglers and Triad members who had lost their source of income through this shift and who mainly recruited Triads and landless vagrants.

  • Oehler, Wilhelm. Die Taiping Bewegung: Geschichte eines chinesisch-christlichen Gottesreiches. Gütersloh, Germany: Bertelsmann, 1923.

    Written from the perspective of revivalist missionaries, the work claims that the Christianization of China was prevented by British commercial interests. It highlights divisions in Taiping historiography along national as well as theological lines. China seemed to be a missionary field predestined for German workers and with Gützlaff and the broad support for his efforts he had organized in Germany a good beginning had been made.

  • Spielmann, Christian. Die Taiping-Revolution in China, 1850–1864: Ein Kapitel der menschlichen Tragokomödie. Nebst einem Überblick über die Geschichte und Entwickelung Chinas. 2d ed. Halle, Germany: Hermann Genesius, 1900.

    For this author Hong Xiuquan had the mettle in him to become a savior of mankind, but his efforts were thwarted by British commercial interests. Part of a reading of Taiping history in the context of German criticism of British imperial postures.

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