Essay / The Causes of the Nian Rebellion in Mid-19th Century, Northern China

by Michael Goldberg

edited by Jessica Zhang

The Nian[1] Rebellion was a mid-19th century peasant uprising in Northern China, characterized by loosely connected groups of bandits who organized to become instrumental in the downfall of the Qing. Unlike most other rebellions in late-imperial China, including the Taiping, which was occurring contemporaneously with the Nian Rebellion in Southern China, the Nian lacked a religious or ideological motivation (Perry 117). Rather, the Nian Rebellion developed relatively organically from disconnected and often feuding bands of peasants in Anhui province into a united rebellion against the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty, covering most of North China. From their beginnings around 1808[2] to the mid-1850s, the Nian were autonomous and geographically dispersed bandit groups, earning income largely through plunder and salt smuggling (Ti 49; Perry 113). In this paper, I will seek to answer how and why the Nian transformed over the 1850s from these autonomous bands into a violent rebellion movement in open war with the Qing. Indeed, it was a perfect storm of factors—calamitous natural disasters, government corruption and mismanagement, few economic prospects—that pushed the peasants in Anhui and Huaibei first towards destitution and then to rebellion. Furthermore, the Nian’s interaction with the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, beginning in 1853, propagated the large-scale rebellion that would define the next 15 years in Northern China and weaken the already fragile Qing state (Lund v). Therefore, the Nian Rebellion was caused by poor economic conditions in Northern China and exacerbated by contact with the Taiping movement. 

To understand the causes of the Nian Rebellion, it is pertinent to discuss the context of the Nian in the years before the rebellion (which lasted from 1853-1868). Chiang Ti refers to the early history of the Nian as a mass movement of peasants seeking to provide food, shelter and money for an increasingly impoverished and desperate populace (44-59). Centered around Huaibei in Northern Anhui, early Nian Society was made up of groups of peasants who, mostly out of a sheer lack of resources, took to robbery, kidnapping and extortion. The utter desperation during this period is exemplified by witness Chia Hsueh-yu, who reported that: using the corpses of those who died of famine in  “[Meng-ch’eng city], people sold steamed dumplings made of human flesh” (Liu 41). The famine in Northern Anhui was largely the result of bad soil and routine patterns of drought and flooding, leading to endemic poverty in the region (Perry 103). To provide for them and their families, many farmers took to banditry, a practice that had a long history in Northern China. 

Poverty and disaffection was not unique to Northern China at this time, but was endemic in the rapidly declining Qing empire of the 19th century. The first several emperors of the Manchu dynasty had been successful rulers, owing to their “untiring attention to maintaining order, peace and river conservation,” in the Qing empire (Teng 35). However, the history of Chinese empires followed a cyclical pattern of periods of relative stability followed by rebellion, which emerged in the Qing empire in the 1770s with the rise of secret societies, such as the White Lotus, who fought for an end to Manchu rule (Teng 36). Between the 1770s and the rise of the Nian in the mid-19th century, the Qing empire was fraught with conflict, corruption and a decline of its ideological underpinning (Teng 37). Notably, internal rebellions such as the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and foreign interference such as the First Opium War against the British, led to a destabilized Qing state. Thus, by the time of the Nian’s ascension, the Qing state was weak and ineffective, with prevailing conditions that millions of dissatisfied Chinese considered untenable (Teng 219). 

That being said, the Nian’s pre-rebellion activities had a distinctly Northern nature and were “inextricably linked to ongoing processes of adaptive competition within the [Huaibei] region” (Perry 97; Chiang 3). Following the tradition of “unruly” peasants in Huaibei, poor peasants and farmers banded together into semi-permanent gangs, ranging in size from a few members to several hundred, who would make an income through plunder and salt smuggling (Perry 100-104). Often, they returned to farming for part of the year or when conditions allowed it. The bands, which came to be known as Nian, were different from local bandits (and treated as such in official documentation) because they were well-organized and had a “formidable reputation in the Huai-pei countryside,” which was partially a reflection of their social banditry practices (Perry 117). Thus, the early history of the Nian was defined by economically motivated and well-organized groups of peasants conducting brigandage, with little self-conscious effort to supplant the Qing rulers. Nevertheless, the organizational structure and support amongst peasants laid the foundation for their future rebellion. As Chiang Ti summarized: “Nian society was the vanguard of the army and the army was an outgrowth of the society” (44). 

There is much debate among historians about the origins and meaning of the term Nian, all of which are revealing of their early history and motivations. One interpretation is that the name Nian referred to the organizational structure and place where people gathered. This is evidenced by Ch’a K’uei, who said “the places they gathered were known as nien-tzu” and T’ao Chu who, in 1814, said “they gather and commit improprieties in broad daylight. Each group is known as a nien” (Erh-kang 76-77). This demonstrates that Nian was already a term used to describe a specific set of autonomous groups of bandits in the North at least 40 years before the outbreak of the rebellion. A second interpretation put forward by several historians suggests that Nian refers to twisted paper strips or cloth that would be lit and used for torches while Nian bands were plundering at night (Perry 98; Chiang 7). A third explanation posits that Nian referred to the carts pulled by salt smugglers—a group that the Nian was intimately entwined with (Erh-kang 78). It is difficult to ascertain which is the most correct interpretation given a lack of primary texts directly relating to the Nian.  However, a source written by Liu T’ang, a merchant who was held captive by the Nian for several months, revealed that Nian leaders referred to themselves as “t’ang chu,” translating to sect leader, while landlords called them “nien bandits” (Erh-kang 79). This suggests, firstly, that Nian was not a self-appellation but a term used by outsiders to refer to these groups and, secondly, demonstrates the dynamic of conflict between the Nian bandits and local landlords.  

Whether or not it was the source of the term Nian, salt smuggling was of pivotal importance to the development and growth of the Nian and was an important force on their path to rebellion. Indeed, the salt trade was one of the most important industries in the Qing empire because salt was a necessity for daily life and production was dispersed across the empire. Following systems inherited from the Ming, the Qing heavily controlled and taxed the salt trade in an effort to generate government income (Chiang 218). One result of this heavy taxation was the formation of a salt smuggling industry that was as profitable as the legal trade, as smuggled salt was often cheaper for consumers and better quality (Chiang 209). The Huaibei region, which Nian rebels frequented, contained vast networks of rivers, lakes, and canals centered around the Yellow River and the Grand Canal, which connects the Yellow River to the Yangtze River (Teng 37). As a result, this region had long been an economic center, containing five of the eleven salt producing centers in China and fertile valleys for crop production (Teng 41). Salt-smuggling flourished in Nian-frequented regions because strict government control meant that only certain types of salt could legally be sold in certain districts. For instance, people in the Huai district preferred the better tasting salt from Anhui and so a large smuggling market emerged (Liu 37). 

One important Nian figure involved in the salt smuggling trade was Zhang Lexing, the leader who is largely credited with organizing and unifying the Nian into a systematic military organization beginning in 1853 (Jung-heng and Shou-I 265). As with most other early Nian activities, salt smuggling tended to be done as a way to supplement income and provide for one’s family and community during the agricultural off-season. Salt smuggling also set a precedent of peasant resistance to Qing authority in the region, though in a more subtle form than future peasant resistance. One way that salt smuggling influenced the Nian rebellion was through the formation of armed groups who protected smugglers from getting their salt confiscated by Qing authorities. Zhang was protected by one such group, known as the eighteen gunmen, which, being made up of “accurate marksmen and brave fighters”, prepared the foundations of Nian armed resistance against the Qing (Liu 37). These groups, often referred to as Red Beards (they dyed their beards red to avoid being identified) escorted the salt smugglers for a fee of two hundred coins per cartload of salt smuggled (Teng 41). When this did not make enough money or the salt got confiscated, Red Beards took to plunder to supplement their income, often robbing the rich to help the poor. This suggests that there was “a slight tinge of social revolution” in the early Nian movement (Teng 21). Salt smuggling was also instrumental in the rise and expansion of the Nian because smugglers developed connections and networks across the region that mobilized into rebel groups in later years (Liu 38).  Smugglers helped break down regional barriers and unify peasants in their resistance to the Qing state. 

Salt smuggling, like most of the key factors that caused the Nian Rebellion, can be understood as an unintended consequence of poor government planning and corruption of local officials. Indeed, by the 1850s the Qing state was severely weakened from several concurrent uprisings across the country and the failure of governments to provide for peasants left many with little choice but to resort to illegal livelihoods. Additionally, the Qing’s weak military apparatus in the Huaibei region allowed bandits to “roam over unchecked countryside, reaping profits from looting, kidnapping and extortion” and gaining adherents among the many peasants who had been forced off their land (Lund vi). The Nian salt smuggling industry must be understood as part of this pattern of corrupt governance and weak enforcement mechanisms in the late-Qing period. The Manchu’s strict regime for controlling and taxing salt created a market for smuggling by inflating prices and restricting which types of salt could be sold where. As T’ao Chu, a Qing official, wrote in 1815, “to clean up the bandits, it is first necessary to standardize the price of salt. All the bandits’ money for drinking, eating and gambling comes from this source [and] if it is not enough they go out to plunder” (Teng 41). There were also reports of Qing officials falsely accusing peasants of salt smuggling or arresting peasants to extort them, leading to the formation of Red Beard protection groups and further propagating the salt smuggling business (Liu 37). 

Government mismanagement was also the key factor in what was perhaps the most direct short-term cause of the Nian Rebellion: the flooding of the yellow river in the early 1850s (Teng 40). Indeed, “natural calamities and misgovernment of local authorities worked together to provoke the Nien uprising” (Chiang 12). As mentioned, flooding and drought were routine occurrences in the Huaibei region but, beginning in 1851, “the scope, severity and persistence of catastrophes dramatically increased” (Perry 118). Most notably, the Yellow River dike system collapsed in the early 1850s, flooding the entire Yellow River plain and preventing hundreds of thousands of peasants from being able to plant crops, store grain and make money for food. The flooding of the dikes—which had happened routinely throughout history—was largely a result of administrative neglect and inadequate maintenance (Teng 40). Lacking any relief from the government, this propagated a massive expansion of the Nian movement and, as Perry contends, “it was only around this time that the Nien assumed the character of a mass movement” (118). It was also around the time of the floods that the Nian formally raised the flag of rebellion and began uniting former feuding bands together against the Qing. For example, in 1853 Qing general Yuan Chia-san came up against a force of 3000 Nian plundering on the border between Fu-yang and Po counties, carrying with them a variety of banners, over 100 horses and comprising 58 formerly independent groups (Perry 117). Thus, the failure of the Yellow River dikes in 1852 directly led to the massive expansion and unification of the Nian into organized military movements. 

Peasants were also driven to rebellion by the corruption, oppression and exploitation at the hands of local elites, landowners and government officials. In Northern Anhui, peasants had little to no access to means of production and their labor was exploited by the few landlords who controlled much of the land (Liu 25). Landlords and elites colluded with the easily-bribed Yamen runners to avoid paying their taxes, shifting the burden for taxation to the already impoverished peasant class. Indeed, the Nian rebellion occurred at a time of massive discontentment and administrative decline across Chinese society, as “the outmoded imperial government neglected its duties of looking after its people” (Teng 218). As a natural response after decades of aggrievement, peasants, who had a numerical advantage, rose up against the bullying of the landlords. One such example can be seen in the story of Kung-Te, “a filial son” of a poor single mother who was inspired to join the Nian after a conflict with an old, rich landlord. As the story goes, a rich man’s ox went missing while Kung-Te was transporting smuggled salt. Hearing that Kung Te was not home and taking this to mean that he stole the ox, the rich man and his associates destroyed Kung-Te’s house and brutally beat his mother, threatening to come back later to arrest Kung-Te. Upon hearing this, Kung-Te went over to the rich man’s house with a sharp knife, stabbed the man to death as he lay in his bed, distributed the man’s possessions amongst peasants and then left to join the Nian (Lien-Chieh 101-105). Kung-Te’s story illustrates what is perhaps the closest the Nian came to ideological underpinnings of their rebellion: a pursuit of peasant justice and vengeance against elites. 

One area of disagreement among historians is the importance and impact that other rebellion movements—specifically the Taiping and White Lotus—had on the foundations of the Nian Rebellion. Evidence shows that the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, which marched through Anhui in 1853, had a powder-keg effect on the Nian, acting as the spark to light the already aggrieved and organized Nian into a full-blown rebellious force. Indeed, in Zhang Lexing’s 1862 confessions he claimed that only after the Taipings attacked Po county in 1853 did the city fall, “bandits arose all around [and I…] established banners and took to plunder to make a living” (Jung-heng and Shou-I 265). The entrance of the Taiping also pushed the Nian to develop more overtly anti-Qing rhetoric and to develop a national consciousness. For example, leaders of the Nian took Taiping-style anti-imperial titles, such as Zhang who began calling himself “Everlasting King of the Han” or the “Great Han Prince With the Heavenly Mandate,” both of which have a distinctly anti-Manchuist tone (Jung-heng and Shou I 265; Chiang 24). Interestingly, despite the Taiping War being one of the deadliest conflicts in history, a contemporary witness described the Nian as “even more ferocious than the Taiping” (Daye 113). Nevertheless, the relationship between the Taiping and the Nian became more important around 1856 when they entered into a formal alliance.

The most contentious historical debate over the causes of the Nian surrounds the influence that the White Lotus, a heterodox ‘secret society’ organization, had on the Nian. Some historians have pointed to similarities between the Nian and White Lotus, such as their fighting styles and base location, as evidence that the Nian formed out of the remnants of the White Lotus movement (Daye 111). Others disagree, describing the evidence of the Nian being a new expression of the White Lotus as “circumstantial, at best,” suggesting instead that the “White Lotus were one of many allies in the Nien’s continual search for support” (Perry 97). Nevertheless, it is likely that some members of the Nian, such as perhaps the Red Beards, had had some involvement with the White Lotus, even possibly fighting on the government side (Perry 98).  However, the Nian certainly did not have the same secret society structure and religious motivations as the White Lotus. Rather, the Nian were a pragmatic peasant rebellion movement, seeking to improve their economic prospects in the face of extreme poverty and oppression.  In summary, the Nian Rebellion developed out of autonomous groups of bandits who, lacking economic opportunities and lacking assistance from a weak and corrupt state, turned to rebellion. On balance, the key difference between the early peasant bands and later Nian rebellion was the emergence of an explicit anti-Qing element after encountering the Taiping rebels in 1853. The Nian Rebellion did not have one single cause, but rather a combination of factors—such as the flooding of the yellow river, the expansion of salt smuggling, and inequality between peasants and landlords—drove peasants to band together for plunder and allowed the Nian to expand in size and organization over time. The Nian Rebellion was also exacerbated and propagated by their interaction with other rebel movements such as the Taiping and White Lotus. That said, given the lack of direct sources on the Nian, it is difficult to ascertain the exact causes of the Nian Rebellion. Thus, while I have tried to present a comprehensive overview of the causes of the rebellion, I have but scratched the surface of the nuanced and fascinating historical debates surrounding the Nian. 

Michael Goldberg is a U3 student majoring in history and geography and minoring in political science. He is broadly interested in global politics and deepening his understanding of the dynamics affecting East Asia historically and contemporarily. Outside of his academic work, he enjoys canoeing, running, and hanging out with his dog and hamster. 


1. Note on spellings: Given that primary sources on this event were all written in Chinese, translations and scholarly sources on the Nian use a variety of different spellings for much of the key language relating to the events of the rebellion. For consistency, I will use the following English spellings unless directly quoting a source: Nian (instead of Nien), Huaibei (instead of Huai-pei), Qing (instead of Ch’ing), Zhang Lexing (instead of Chang Lo-hsing) etc.

2. Historians disagree on the exact date of the birth of the Nian, but “it is tentatively dated 1808 when its name first appeared in official documents” (Lund V). Other sources disagree, saying the Nian were first documented in 1815 while others argue that they go back to the K’ang-hsi period (1662-1772) or the Chia-ch’ing period (1796-1820).


Chiang, Siang Tseh.  The Nien Rebellion. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1954.

Chiang, Tao-Chang. “The Salt Trade in Ch’ing China.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol 17, No. 2, 1983, pp. 197-219. 

Erh-kang, L. “Interpretations of the Name of the Nien Army.” In Chinese Perspectives on the Nien Rebellion, edited by Elizabeth J. Perry, 76-82. Armonk, M.E. Sharpe Inc, 1980.

Jung-heng, M., & Shou-i, L. “Appendix A: Confession of Chang Lo-hsing.” In Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945, edited by Elizabeth J. Perry, 265-266. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1980.

Lien-chieh, K. “Kung Te Joins the Nien.” Edited by Niu Chia-k’um. In Chinese Perspectives on the Nien Rebellion, translated by Elizabeth J. Perry, 101-105. Armonk, M.E. Sharpe Inc, 1980.

Liu, H. “The Social Background of the Birth of the Nien Army.” In Chinese Perspectives on the Nien Rebellion, edited by Elizabeth J. Perry, 23-44. Armonk, M.E. Sharpe Inc, 1980.

Lund, Renville. “Preface.” In The Nian Rebellion, edited by Siang Tseh Chiang, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1954.

Perry, Elizabeth J. Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1980.

Teng, S.Y. The Nien Army and Their Guerilla Warfare 1851-1868. The Hague, Mouton & Co., 1961.

Ti, Chiang. “A Discussion of the Nien Society (1808-1853).” In Chinese Perspectives on the Nien Rebellion, edited by Elizabeth J. Perry, 44-59. Armonk, M.E. Sharpe Inc, 1980.

Daye, Zhang. The World of a Tiny Insect: A Memoir of the Taiping Rebellion and Its Aftermath. Translated by Xiaofei Tian. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2013.


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