What the Taiping Rebellion Teaches Us About ISIS

on December 3 | in Asia-Pacific, Foreign Policy, War of Ideas

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Religious fanatics conquer the second largest city in the country, imposing a strict theocratic code of laws that is brutally enforced. The capital is menaced. The land is laid to waste. Both sides target civilians for ethnic and religious reasons. Despite superior manpower and weaponry, the central government is either too inept or too corrupt to properly suppress these fanatics.

The war goes on for years. Millions die.

Is this Iraq, circa 2015? No. It’s China, circa 1853.

Instead of Mosul, it was Nanjing, the “southern capital” of China, that was taken by the fanatics, the Taipings. Led by Hong Xiuquan, who proclaimed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, this rebellion lasted for over a decade (1851 – 1864.) But unlike the American civil war, which overlapped the rebellion by a few years and saw the rise of industrial warfare, the Taiping Rebellion was fought in a decidedly more medieval fashion, including terrible sieges of cities where the inhabitants were sometimes reduced to cannibalism.

It’s a bit odd to think that the most civil wars of over a century ago in another nation might have relevance to today’s fight against the Islamic State. However, there are certainly lessons to be learned from the bloodiest civil war in the 19th century, where some 20 million died. These include:

Ideologically-driven rebels, led by a charismatic leader, can take advantage of a weakened, corrupt, capricious central government. Prior to the Taiping rebellion, the decaying Qing Dynasty had fought and lost a disastrous war against the British during the First Opium War of 1839-1842 (which, as an aside, was perhaps the most unsavory conflict the United Kingdom has ever waged.) The central government was already in a weakened state, and its military had been roundly defeated. This was followed by the Second Opium War of 1856-1860, which occurred as the Taipings were fully in charge of Nanjing and one third of China, including much of its heartland.

Beijing couldn’t fight both the better-equipped foreigners and the religious rebels. By 1860, British and French troops were able to enter Beijing and demolish the imperial Summer Palace to avenge the torture and murder of an Anglo-French delegation to the Chinese. The Taipings only added to China’s national security distress.

Historically, China had always had rebellions—and the government has tried (with varying degrees of success) to stamp them out. However, this one was led by Hong, who had failed his imperial examinations a few years prior to leading the rebellion. Because he had a religious worldview supported by a number of marginalized ethnic groups, and because his group called for the overthrow of the entire imperial system, theoretically calling for a more egalitarian social order, his group was able to take power quickly. The Taipings conquered major urban areas within a few years of emerging from rural southern China.

But despite their Christian-tinged beliefs — inspired in part by the moral teachings of the American Baptist missionary, Issachar Jacox Roberts — the Taiping rebels were wildly brutal fanatics. Wherever they took a city, mass murder and rape followed in their wake. The Taipings were so feared that many besieged urban residents killed themselves and their families before their cities fell. In Suzhou in 1860, for example, some 50,000 Imperial degree holders and their families killed themselves before the Taipings arrived. In neighboring Hangzhou the following year, 60,000 to 70,000 people committed suicide.

It must be noted that whenever the Qings retook a city, human devastation followed. For instance, when the Taiping stronghold of Anqing fell after a protracted siege in early September 1861 — around the same time that newly-minted Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant was fighting his first battles in Kentucky — the Qing “liberators” murdered every male within the city walls and carted off 10,000 women as “war booty.”

In Iraq today, you see many similar strands—a relatively charismatic leader leading a religious outfit with utopian ideals forcibly taking land from a weakened, corrupt central government. ISIS’ fanaticism sees echoes in 19th century China, where those determined to be enemies of the organization—Shia and Kurdish civilians, religious minorities, non-compliant Sunni tribesmen—are all put to death or enslaved. One also sees how the Iraqi military, hollowed out by years of corruption, has trouble taking back cities from ISIS. Which leads to the next point:

When the central government fails, “friendly” militias do the fighting. Since Beijing was unable to effectively fight the Taipings, power effectively flowed down to sub-state militias and “village guards” which performed as localized self-defense units. Zeng Guofan, who in 1853 joined with an anti-Taiping group in Hunan province, commanded the most effective of these militias.

Over the next decade of incredibly vicious fighting, Zeng and his protégés Li Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang would lead the fight against the Taipings on behalf of the Qing Dynasty. By July 1864, they would finally retake Nanjing, where 100,000 Taiping supporters either committed suicide or were slaughtered by imperial troops. The cruelties of this conflict makes Gen. Sherman’s burning of Atlanta, Georgia and subsequent March to the Sea, which occurred in the U.S. several months later, look tame and peaceful by comparison.

What we see in today’s Iraq is a similar situation. Baghdad must rely upon proxy fighting units—Shia militias and “popular mobilization forces”—to take back areas lost to ISIS. These groups tend to be better armed, more disciplined and battle hungry than the average Iraqi military unit.

But these groups don’t just hand over control once the hard-fought battle is over—they sometimes want power once the shooting stops. This happened in 19th century China as well; following the Taiping defeat, Zeng’s and Li’s armies were not disbanded. China entered a long period of warlordism that would only be eradicated several decades later.

Foreign troops and firepower can make a difference. In 1860, after British and French troops were finished seizing the port city of Tianjin and sacking imperial Beijing, they also protected Shanghai from the Taipings despite being more or less surrounded. Of particular note were the efforts of British captain Charles “Chinese” Gordon, who in the late spring of 1862 made his way (along with two infantry regiments) to Shanghai to link up with the “Ever Victorious Army,” then led by an American, Frederick Townsend Ward.

Ward would be killed in September 1862, and Li Hongzhang would soon dismiss his successor, the American Henry Burgevine, because he had a tendency to commit cruelties such as strapping prisoners to cannons and then firing them. Burgevine would soon defect to the Taipings, and would later drown under suspicious circumstances.

Eventually, by 1863, China promoted Gordon to brevet major, who finally brought competent leadership to the struggling anti-Taiping forces in parts of the east. Working alongside the French-led “Ever Triumphant Army,” Gordon was able to liberate Suzhou from rebel hands. In fact, foreign-led forces eventually put so much pressure on Nanjing that Zeng was able to retake it in 1864– at great human cost — and more or less end the rebellion.

One sees similar patterns play out in today’s Iraq. The most competent forces are Iranian-led ones, especially those who are run by Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani. American warplanes pummel ISIS from the skies, while fighters from the Kurdish Regional Government are supplied from outside Iraq. U.S. special operations forces are actively fighting near Kirkuk, and are taking casualties. All in all, foreign assistance is providing much needed help to local forces, in some cases helping to tip the balance in favor of Baghdad (or Erbil).


The Taiping Rebellion was eventually crushed. ISIS may too one day be forced from its cities and its leaders put to death, but just like in China, it might come at tremendous financial and human sacrifice.

Yet the seeds for the eventual overthrow of Imperial China were nonetheless sown, as later revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong would look to the Taipings and see models for emulation. Some scholars even argue the Taiping Rebellion’s effects were still being felt a century later, as four provinces in 1957 had still not returned the population levels of 1851.

Will ISIS’ still remain a malevolent force into the mid 22nd century? If China’s past is any guide to Iraq’s future, then the answer is: it’s certainly possible.

photo: the 19th c. painting, “Destroying of the Bandit Lairs in Tianjiazhen and Regaining Qizhou.” 

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