The Biggest Forgotten War

Chris Winter
Mar 3, 2016 · 11 min read

Without looking it up or googling it, what do you think the second deadliest conflict in human history is? I am talking singular conflicts: the Mongolian Conquests or the European Colonization of the Americas do not count — these were a series of protracted conflicts over centuries. Include the deaths of civilians and soldiers. Obviously, World War 2 is the deadliest with anything from 60 to 80 million dead.

Are you having trouble deciding what the second was? I’ll give you some hints. It was in the last 200 years. It was not the Great War. It featured steam-ships, total war, massive battles that would not be matched in scale until the later Great War, fundamentalism, and would draw in the Great Powers of the world at the time in a confusing web of alliances and intervention. It is also the deadliest civil war in history, occurring concurrently with the most famous civil war in history.

Give up? That’s okay — it’s also perhaps one of the most overlooked wars in history, given its scale and important to the shape of the world today. I personally had heard of the name of the conflict, but I had no idea as to its scale, drama or importance. And I’m a history major.

It’s the Taiping Rebellion — the civil war that tore China in half from 1850 to 1864. It was fought largely between two sides: the decaying Qing Dynasty — a dynasty headed by the Manchu minority, whom had ruled over China for around 200 years, and the colourfully named Taiping Heavenly Kingdom — a Christian theocracy, ruled by the self-declared son of God and brother to Jesus. The war between these two powers would result in a (very conservative) death estimate of 20 million people — the vast majority being civilians. A contemporary account by the European residents of the treaty ports (which were coastal cities that had been forced open to European inhabitation and trade) estimated that between 20 and 30 million people died during the war from all causes. Of course, these estimates were made by Europeans who rarely ventured outside their walled off legation areas, and were relying on what reporting they could get their hands on. There were no central government statistics to refer to — the Imperial government was concerned with holding back the massive Taiping armies, not changes in population. The Taiping themselves were in a life or death struggle with the Imperial government, so neither side really had the opportunity to perform any kind of census. So we will never know how many people actually died during this period. There exist estimates that go as high as 100 million dead, though these seem to be largely unsourced. So, for arguments sake, let’s assume 25 million people died — an average of the European estimates.

The Battle of Anqing. The Taiping held city was strategically crucial in maintaining control of the region’s waterways. Wu Youru —

That’s a 39% more deaths than even the highest estimates of the Great War (18 million soldiers and civilians). Think about that for a minute. The Great War bled an entire generation of men, and resulted in demographic shifts in France that would take decades to recover. True, China during this time had a much larger population, being the most populous country in the world. However, consider that most of these deaths happened in six or so provinces that were (very roughly) the size of modern Germany put together. These provinces were utterly devastated by over a decade of warfare — towns and cities were regularly sacked, and the countryside totally despoiled. Imperial general Bao Chao described an almost moon-like landscape in 1862 in Anhui province; he hadn’t seen a blade of grass or a tree for hundreds of miles.
What caused this level of destruction? Like most wars, the actual reasons for the outburst of the Taiping Rebellion are complex. Most scholarship around the conflict focuses closely on the role of Hong Xiuquen, the self-professed son of God. Hong was from the Hakka ethnic minority, widespread in southern China. After a breakdown relating to his failure in taking the examinations required to enter the imperial civil service, he had a dream in which Confucius was punished for misleading the Chinese people away from the true god, which he identified to be the God of Christianity. Ultimately, the government’s persecution of this group, which attracted large numbers of fellow disaffected Hakkas, led to outright warfare. War broke out in 1851 after Hong’s followers beheaded a Manchu commander. Two years later, the rebels captured the former imperial capital of Nanking. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, as Hong named it, would soon be fielding massive armies of hundreds of thousands of people. So far, no author I’ve encountered has identified the Taiping Rebellion as having the features of what we would now call an insurgency. Explaining the conflict through an overly narrow focus on Hong and Qing government inefficiency fails to explain the level of support enjoyed by the Taiping. I believe examination of the war though the lens of insurgency/counter-insurgency may be more fruitful.

So the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom is established in Nanking. Over the next 11 years, they manage to hold off the Qing forces, routing a series of huge Imperial armies and killing their commanders. At one point, the Taiping manage to defeat every Qing army available in the whole empire — except one. This last army was under the leadership of Zeng Guofan, a sometimes melancholic (read: all the time) scholar and would ultimately be the key in defeating the Taiping. Zeng would ultimately be thrust into the position of controlling the most effective army in China and indeed, the most powerful man in China, threatening even the divine Emperor. But that would not be until 1864. Until then, the Qing would be locked in a desperate war with the Taiping.

Imperial forces attack the Taiping at Ruizhou - Wu Youru —

That’s another interesting point about this conflict — the Taiping almost managed to win. Can you imagine the southern half of China being a Christian theocratic state? The Taiping equivalent of a Prime Minister (the “Shield King”) was Hong Xiuquan’s cousin, Hong Rengan. Hong Rengan dreamed of an industrial, modern China — railroads, steamships and factories — just like Britain. He spent a great deal of time talking to foreign missionaries, and did everything he could to attract Western aid. For the most part, he was unsuccessful and failed to attract any serious interest on behalf of the West in supporting the Taiping despite the extremely antagonistic relationship between Europeans and the Qing. Despite this, it’s tempting to imagine a China that experienced an early industrialization.
While Hong was playing diplomat to missionaries, millions were dying. If we go by a total number of deaths for the war being 25 million, around 1.8 million people died every year for 14 years. If we go by Wikipedia’s numbers (I cannot easily find any specific numbers), only around 400,000 soldiers on either side died during the war. While this seems dramatically low from my reading, let’s assume it’s roughly true. This means the overwhelming majority of deaths during the conflict were civilian. How did they die?
Famine then was likely the greatest source of deaths — both as a result of the mass destruction of farmland and forced conscription of farmers but also as an intentional strategy of starvation. There are disturbingly numerous accounts of cannibalism during the war. Stephan Platt (in the chapter “Crossing the Mountain” of his book) refers to the diary of Zeng Guofan;

It was one of several notations on cannibalism in his diary, though in this instance the concern that drove him to mention it wasn’t so much that human meat was being consumed per se — for that was old news — but that it was becoming so expensive: the price per ounce had risen fourfold since the previous year, meaning that even this most dismal of sustenances was becoming unaffordable. There was cannibalism in Jiangsu province as well, he noted, east and south of Nanjing, though the price of human flesh there was reported to be lower.

Occurrences of cannibalism is just one indicator of the desperation of people to find something, anything to eat. Trade was often not possible, as much of the war revolved around the essential waterways in the region, which in more peaceful times were the primary method of moving food around. Soldiers from either side would take any food they found — depriving an already hungry village of its last meager scraps. Soldiers themselves often had to exist on a diet of grass, so poor and difficult were the logistics of the war. Famine then was the largest killer. Disease no doubt played its part, though large outbreaks were seemingly limited to a cholera epidemic in 1862
Many, many people died from widespread and brutal massacres — a common occurrence on both sides of the war, with newly captured cities and villages often being depopulated entirely by revenge killings. So terrible were the massacres associated with this war that it was not unusual for the population of a town for commit mass suicide, lest they die at far crueler hands. Suicide was a common form of death, seen as a way of escaping the dishonor and humiliation of being brutally murdered or raped by marauding soldiers. Janet Theiss notes that, for a woman, suicide in the face of dishonor was the pinnacle of virtue in Confucian values. Little reason was needed to commit what we would now see as massive atrocities — captured soldiers were beheaded as a rule. Similarly, one’s haircut was enough of a reason to be executed. Sympathizers of the Taiping grew their hair long., in defiance of the Manchu custom of wearing the queue. Thus, wearing one hair style or the other was seem as sympathizing with the Taiping or the Qing and grounds for summary execution.

I think one of the significant things about the extremely high number of deaths is that this was largely a pre-industrial war. Neither side’s armies were able to obtain large numbers of modern weapons, though they certainly tried. Warfare was conducted a curious mix of weapons from swords and spears, matchlock guns, locally produced cannons and larger muskets called “gingals”, carried by entire squads of men.

A scene from the Taiping’s failed northern expedition. Note the variety of weapons in this painting - cannons, spears, muskets.

This means the violence was more personal and individualistic — it was not the mass artillery bombardment of the Great War, nor was it machine guns or the strategic bombing of World War 2. It was a soldier killing a woman with a spear, or a suspecting Taiping sympathizer being slashed with a sword. The relative amount of effort this requires verses killing someone with a modern rifle is much higher, meaning the numbers of people killed in these atrocities even more disturbing.

Consider one particular event. In the Imperial siege of the Taiping-held city of Anqing, the Imperial forces were successful in convincing the garrison of outlying fortification to surrender. 8000 Taiping troops gave up their arms willingly. With no better idea as to what to do with all these prisoners, the Imperial commander decided he could likely execute them all in half a day if he had them beheaded in small batches. And so, from sun up to sun down, 8000 men were beheaded in batches of 10. That’s what I mean about the amount of effort require. Shooting 8000 prisoners and beheading 8000 prisoners are both acts of extreme brutality, but the level of physical effort and contact for the latter is gruesome to say the least.

Scale is one element of the war which stands out. The ultimate battle of the war, the 3rd Battle of Nanking, saw almost a million troops involved. Half a million Qing troops cut off the Taiping capital, trapping 400,000 Taiping troops and what was left of the Taiping leadership, including Hong Xiuquan and Hong Rengan. For around three months, the Qing troops would dig in and wait for the walls to be breached by undermining the great city walls. In July 1864, a massive explosion levelled a section of the walls, creating a gap in the city’s defenses. Imperial troops flooded into the city, and over the next three days, Nanking would be almost entirely depopulated.
For contrast, the largest battle of the Napoleonic Wars (the Battle of Leipzig) saw close to 600,000 troops involved. This makes the 3rd Battle of Nanking the largest battle of the 19th century, and from some brief research, the largest battle in history until the Great War. And this was a war with large scale battles aplenty, dwarfing the contemporary battles of the US Civil War or the Crimean War.

Imperial troops storm Nanjing in July, 1864. Wu Youru —

And yet, the events of the Taiping Rebellion remain almost totally unknown in the West. It’s certainly not for the lack of drama or spectacle. Nor was the war ultimately unimportant — the Qing government was forced to hand off significant power to provincial governors like Zeng Goufan to defeat the Taiping. This devolution was one of the primary causes by the Qing’s eventual downfall in 1911. In a broader sense, the Taiping Rebellion marked the beginning of almost a century of internal collapse, civil war, invasions and turmoil. Sun Yat-sen, the great nationalist hero of China, wore his hair in the Taiping fashion, and seeing the commonality in the struggle against the Qing Dynasty, jokingly called himself Hong Xiuquan. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was as crucial to Chinese history as the Confederacy was to the US. I haven’t even really mentioned the foreign role in the war — the struggles in British parliament over the value on intervening to protect its interests in its second largest trading market, the foreign mercenaries who took advantage of the carnage, or the British officers “loaned” to the Qing. I haven’t mentioned a lot about this war.

Why don’t we know about it? Partially, it’s a general lack of education around Asian history in general. There is a general lack of interest in pre-20th century Chinese history in the West and a reluctance to really engage with why China is… China. Even the Wikipedia page on the war is surprisingly spartan. I wrote this little post to hopefully show that we often ignore massively important events in history through our own ignorance and cultural bias. Personally, I think that is a shame. Both for ourselves, and for those who went before us.

If you’re at all interested in this period of Chinese history, I’d recommend Stephan Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War. It’s what I based much of this post on, and he does an excellent job of providing insights into the minds of the men at the highest levels of the war, while providing a narrative that is relatively easy to follow. To be sure, I think he paints a perhaps overly rosy picture of the Taiping, and the overall narrative does feel a bit… disconnected. Despite these flaws, it’s an excellent book about one of the most epic and significant forgotten wars in history.

Chris Winter

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I write about terrorism, angry people, and whatever else interests me.