Nien Rebellion - An Epic Armed Uprising in Chinese History
The Nien Rebellion (Chinese: 捻军起义) was an epic armed uprising that took place in northern China from 1851 to 1868, contemporaneously with Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) in South China. The rebellion failed to topple the Qing dynasty, but caused immense economic devastation and loss of life that became one of the major long-term factors in the collapse of the Qing regime.
Nian is a North Hua dialect meaning one seed one assistant. The Nian movement was formed in the late 1840s by Zhang Lexing, and by 1851 numbered approximately 40,000. Unlike the Taiping Rebellion movement though, the Nien initially had no clear goals or objectives aside from criticism of the Qing government. However, the Nien were provoked into taking direct action against the Imperial regime following a series of environmental disasters. In 1851, the massive Huang He river burst its banks, flooding hundreds of thousands of square miles and causing immense loss of life. The Qing government slowly began cleaning up after the disaster, but were unable to provide effective aid as government finances had been drained during a recent war with Great Britain and the ongoing slaughter of the Taiping Rebellion. The damage created by the disaster had still not been repaired when, in 1855, the river burst its banks again, drowning thousands and devastating the fertile province of Jiangsu. At the time, the Qing government was trying to negotiate a deal with the European powers, and as state finances had been so severely depleted, the regime was again unable to provide effective relief. This enraged the Nien movement, which blamed the Europeans for contributing to China's troubles, and increasingly viewed the Qing government as incompetent and cowardly in the face of the Western powers.
Political scientists Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer suggest that the rebellion was fueled, at least in part, by decades of female infanticide caused by the floods and economic misery, leading to a large population of frustrated young men without any women to marry, perhaps as many as 25 percent of all young men in the area being in this category of "bare branches".
In 1855, Zhang Luoxing took direct action by launching attacks against government troops in central China. By the summer, the fast-moving Nien cavalry, well-trained and fully equipped with modern firearms, had cut the lines of communication between Beijing and the Qing armies fighting the Taiping rebels in the south. Qing forces were badly overstretched as rebellions broke out across China, allowing the Nien armies to conquer large tracts of land and gain control over economically vital areas. The Nien fortified their captured cities and used them as bases to launch cavalry attacks against Qing troops in the countryside, prompting local towns to fortify themselves against Nien raiding parties. This resulted in constant fighting which devastated the previously rich provinces of Jiangsu and Hunan.
In early 1856, the Qing government sent the Mongol General Senggelinqin, who had recently crushed a large Taiping army, to defeat the Nien. Senggelinquin's army captured several fortified cities and destroyed most of the Nien infantry, and killed Zhang Luoxing himself in an ambush. However in late 1864, the Nien movement survived as Taiping commanders Lai Wenkwok (1827–1868) and Fan Ruzeng (1840-1867） arrived to take control of the Nien forces, and the bulk of the Nien cavalry remained intact. Senggelinquin's infantry-based army could not stop the fast moving cavalry from devastating the countryside and launching surprise attacks on Imperial troops. In late 1865, Senggelinquin and his bodyguards were ambushed by Nien troops and killed, in the Battle of Goulawjai, depriving the government of its best military commander. The Qing regime sent General Zeng Guofan rapidly (in two days) to take command of Imperial forces protecting the capital Beijing, and provided him with modern artillery and weapons, purchased from the Europeans at exorbitant prices. Zeng's army set about building canals and trenches to hem in the Nien cavalry, an effective but slow and expensive method. General Zeng was relieved of command after Nien infantry broke through one of his defence fronts, and he was replaced by Generals Li Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang, equipped with more crushingly expensive European artillery and firearms. In late 1866, the remaining Nien forces split into two, with the Eastern Army, under command of Lai Wenkwok, stationed in central China whilst the Western Army advanced on Beijing. The Western Army, commanded by Zhang Zongyu, Zhang Lexing's brother's son, was defeated southwest of Beijing by Qing troops, leaving large swathes of Nien territory exposed to a Qing counter-attack. By late 1867, Li Hongzhang's and Zuo Zongtang's troops had recaptured most Nien territory, and in early 1868, the remnants were crushed by the combined forces of the government's troops and the Ever Victorious Army.
The Nien rebellion failed to topple the regime largely because it failed to make alliances with other rebels, especially the Taiping movement. Nien only symbolically supported Taiping by accepting the Taiping king's "appointments", but refusing to follow his orders. Had the Nien and Taipings joined forces, the Qing government would have been faced with a formidable threat, in spite of its alliances with Western powers. Despite the Niens' failure to seize power, the events of the rebellion dealt a severe blow to the Qing regime. The environmental disasters of 1851 and 1855 devastated the richest provinces of China, depriving the Qing regime of tax income and trade duties. The endless fighting between Nien troops and Qing forces, who made widespread use of scorched earth tactics, ruined the countryside and resulted in countless deaths. Although the Nien rebellion was smaller than that of the Taiping, it severely drained government finances, devastated the richest areas of China, and left China's economy in a very precarious state. In the long term, the Nien rebellion was to become one of the major factors in the collapse of Qing China.
The modern Chinese words Xin-Lai (信赖) and Xin-Ren (信任), meaning believe and trust, may come from Lai Wenkwok and Ren Zhu, leaders of the Nien Rebellion.