Economic Factors in Chinese Rebellions of the 19th Century

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Chung, Habin
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2005

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Economic Preconditions
III. Economic Effects of the Rebellions
IV. References

I. Introduction :
            The original topic of the research paper was "Rebellions in China in the 19th Century." This paper narrowed down its broad subject to the economic factors in the rebellions. The paper focusses on the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864), the Nian (or Nien) Rebellion (1853-1868), Muslim Rebellions in China, and the Boxer Rebellion (1900-1901).

II. Economic Preconditions
            Until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, china enjoyed a well-functioned political and economic order that there seemed no reason for any concern with foreign things. After about 1775, however, the traditional signs of dynastic decay began to appear. Most fundamental was the fact that in many parts of China the population had grown to such an extent that the peasant farms had been subdivided into small plots upon which a family could not produce enough to survive in a poor season while few landlords gathered immense wealth. Indebtedness then led to loss of ownership of the land, and the peasant debtors accumulated grievances burst out sporadically in violent rising. With the first serious rebellion beginning in 1774, revolts became increasingly widespread during the following century, building up toward the catastrophic series of rebellion.
            These internal strains were accompanied by troubles across the frontier. The increase in number of Opium addicts kept the flow of silver out of China. By the First Opium War (1839-1842) and the Treaty of Nanking (1842) that followed the war, economical, social and political changes occurred dramatically in China. The unfair treaties left China in weak position to the West, and opened China to Western influence. The Western Imperial Powers, which have been considered inferior by the Qing Dynasty Chinese, was recognized with power. Furthermore, the Opium war resulted in a major change in the economy and the social relationship between the people of the Qing Dynasty. China was left with internal struggles and warfare, increased crime, an economy downfall in Canton, once a major trading city of China, and the economic rise at Shanghai and Hong Kong. China's welfare and economy completely changed, leaving people without work and money.
            Unemployment was another issue. When Shanghai opened up to foreign trade, thousands of Hakkas, who used to transport goods to Canton, were now unemployed since the majority of trade moved from Canton to Shanghai. Directly after the opium war the feud between the Hakkas, Chinese from the North that had immigrated to Southern China, and Puntis, clan living south of the Hakksa, rose. The Hakkas were treated as ethnic minorities by the Cantonese natives, or Punti's, and this led to a competition between the two in farming and economy. In the 1850's the feuds and wars between these two clans resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. Punti's were even known to desert entire villages because of Hakkas. The dislike and contempt towards the Hakkas eventually led them into following the catastrophe, the Taiping movement.
            In addition, the country had suffered from a series of natural disasters, causing the whole production rate and eventually, the population to drop. The Nian Rebellion was provoked by an economic crisis, caused by a series of ecological disasters. When in 1851, the massive Huang He river burst its banks, flooding hundreds of thousands of square miles and causing immense loss of life and farmland, the Qing government could not provide effective aid as government finances for it¡¯s funds has been drained during a recent war with Great Britain and the ongoing war against the Taipang rebellion. Before the damaged had been repaired, the situation was worsened in 1855, when the river flooded again, drowning thousands and devastating the fertile province of Jiangsu, one of the most productive provinces of China. The Qing government was busy trying to negotiate with the European powers for their military aid, and as state finances had been so severely depleted, the government could again not provide any aid for the desperate survivors. In this desperate situation, the Nian movement, who blamed the Europeans for China¡¯s troubles, and viewed the Qing government as incompetent and cowardly in the face of Western powers, began.
            In these desperate situations, the social minorities became protesting by being involved in a rebellion. Numerous Islamic rebellions in China tried to promote equal working rights for both Muslim Chinese and non-Muslim Chinese. For example, the Rebellion at Yunnan was started by a dispute between Muslim and Chinese miners and was escalated into a full scale Muslim rebellion against Chinese rule, raging for almost 20 years. The Taiping rebellion was also consisted by mostly racial minorities who came almost exclusively from the lowest socio-economic classes. Many of the southern Taiping troops were former miners and very few Taipings, even in the leadership caste, came from the imperial bureaucracy. The yearning for stable and fair living of these social minorities was clearly indicated in the policy of the Taipings, which diminished the concept of personal property aimed towards redistribution of farmland without any discrimination of ethnicity or gender.

III. Economic Effects of the Rebellions
            The 19th century was a period of economic and social crisis in Chinese history. However, the rebellions, rising for hope to improve to situation, not only failed to reach a plausible solution to the social crisis, but also contributed in exacerbating the situation. During this period, numerous people died either by the direct or indirect influence of the resistance. It is estimated that about 20 million civilians and army personnel were killed by the direct effect of the Taiping rebellion, although according to Wikipedia, some sources even claim that the death toll was much higher, up to 50 million. In addition, as a consequence of the Islam rebellion in Yunnan, Chinese troops crushed the rebellion with great cruelty in 1873, committing massacres of Muslim men, women and children that Yunnan was nearly depopulated.
            The agricultural industry was also severely harmed by the battles. Although the Nian rebellion successfully conquered large tracts of land and gained control over economically vital areas, they worsened the burden of the agricultural industry by making widespread use of scorched earth tactics, ruining the countryside and causing countless deaths. This resulted in devastation of the previously rich provinces of Jiangsu and Hunan, abruptly reducing the amount of tax that could be collected by the government. The Nian rebellion was smaller than that of the Taiping, but it severely drained government finances and left China's economy in a very precarious state.
            Moreover, the Qing government often had to fight several rebellions at the same time. Nian rebellion was never in accordance with the Taiping rebellion, causing more deaths and confusion. Instability increased the dependency to the European Imperial forces and purchase of modern weapons. In addition, because the Qing armies have been overstretched fighting various rebellions, the government, which already was suffering from deficiency of funds, failed in concentrating its military powers and was defeated in external warfare, having to pay huge monetary reparation to compensate the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Second Opium War (1856-1860). The decision of the government to support the Boxers only exacerbated the situation, for only within a couple of months, an international force captured and occupied Beijing and forced the Imperial government to agree to the Boxer Protocol (1901) under humiliating terms. No individuals were ever charged with the murders, but the Imperial government was responsible to pay a huge indemnity to European powers for the losses they had suffered.
            The effect of the rebellions prevailed for a years, eventually weakening the power of the Qing government. Although it is true that the various rebellions tried to find the solution of the desperate economic situation of the early 19th century, the economic crisis was clearly worsened to a national status by the end of the century. The rebellions were one of the major reasons of the fall of the Qing Dynasty.

IV. Bibliography

Note : websites listed below were visited in May/June 2006.
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5.      Richard Hooker, The Taiping Rebellion, from World Civilizations,
6.      Franz Michael, Chinese Cultural Studies: The Taiping Rebellion, 1851-1864, The Taiping Rebellion: History and Documents, vol. 2, Documents and Comments, excerpt posted in Chinese Cultural Studies,
7.      Article : Taiping Rebellion, from Wikipedia,
8.      Article : Taiping Rebellion, from Columbia Encyclopedia 6th ed. 2005,
9.      The Course of the Taiping Rebellion, from UK Learning 2001,
10.      Effects of the Taiping Rebellion, from UK Learning 2001,
11.      J.M. Roberts, The Boxer Rebellion, from History of the World,
12.      Richard Hooker, Ch'ing China, from World Civilizations,
13.      National Archives and Records Administration, 1900 The Boxer Rebellion , The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, August 2nd 2005
14.      Chinese History, Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911), from Asian Studies Center of Michigan Univ.,
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17.      Richard Hooker, Ch'ing China : Self-Strengthening, from World Civilizations,
18.      Article : Nien Rebellion, from Wikipedia,
19.      Article : Islam in China : Qing Dynasty, from Wikipedia,
20.      Muslim Rebellion, from Yunnan China Governmental Homepage,
21.      Abdur Rauf, Islam in China, from The Modern Religion,
22.      Leslie R. Marchant, "The Potent Triangle: Empires, Islam and the Pamir Region", 2002, from The National Observer,
23.      History of Islam in China, from Los Angeles Chinese Learning Center,
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