Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864: The Opium Conflicts & Early Western Military Influence in China

The Taiping Rebellion was one of the largest and bloodiest civil conflicts in modern world history; though seemingly forgotten today, in the 1850's-1860’s the small but prominent role played by many Westerners in the conflict was nearly a decisive factor. This conflict is remembered in China and Asia today as a bloody holy war inspired by the desire of some Chinese to escape the Imperial domination of the Manchu minority and to attain religious and cultural freedom.

Named for the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, an unrecognized state ruled from 1851-1864 by a charismatic peasant and former low ranking civil servant named Hong Xiuquan (b.1814-1864) who claimed to see visions from above and who also claimed to be the blood and spiritual brother of Jesus Christ. Support swelled for the rebellion of Xiuquan allowing for his forces to capture Nanjing in southern China as their capital in the year 1851, severely threatening the Qing Empire’s rule throughout China for the next ten years. The military of the Taiping rebels in the rebellion's later stages was led by General Li Hsiu-Ch'eng known commonly as the Chung Wang (Loyal Prince). Chung Wang won most of the Taiping's later victories in the years 1858-1860.

Hong Xiuquan

The roots of the Taiping Rebellion are grounded in the opening of China to Westerners for the first time to import and trade. By the mid to late 1840's Chinese port cities were flooded with Westerners, mostly British, French, and Americans. The Chinese absolutely hated the Westerners referring to them frequently as “barbarians”. Imperial China under the Qing emperors was dieing a slow death while the last royal family' of China rapidly lost control of its more than 400 million inhabitants. At least part of the Qing Empire's woes lay in the illicit opium trade which was gaining popularity worldwide since the British controlled the poppy grown in India and Pakistan and had control of the seas they willingly imported opium into China starting the Opium Wars.

The Opium Conflicts 1839-1860

China was first humiliated by the British and French in 1839–42 in the First Opium War which opened up general trade concessions to most of the port cities that the Europeans desired. This was the beginning Opium Wars sagas', critical to the both the prelude and to the beginning of the end of the Taiping Rebellion. It was during the Taiping civil war that an Anglo-French alliance won yet again defeating the Qing and its antiquated navy in the Second Opium War. After landing armies on the mainland and winning a quick and decisive land campaign from 1856–60, the West (France and Great Britain) opened China to greater economic and political exploitation. The Qing empire did win a victory over the French and British at the Taku Forts in June of 1859.

During the Second Opium War the Heavenly Kingdom's armies almost continuously defeated the Imperial Armies, consolidating power and cities throughout northern and southern China. The Opium Wars opened even more of China to Western trade interests and the poor performance of the Imperial Army ‘braves’ against the Taiping rebels until the early 1860’s was proof to the world that the Qing empire was in a steep decline.

The First Opium War

Western Military Influence in China 1855-1862

Despite the Western powers remaining officially neutral during the Taiping Rebellion a number of Western officers served with distinction on both sides during the conflict. Thousands of soldiers, sailors, and mercenaries served on both sides of the conflict in what was referred to by Thomas Taylor Meadows (b.1815-1868), British period author, consul in China, and Ward critic, as "foreign ruffianism". Two officers in particular are remembered to this day. Qing Imperial officials paid American Frederick Townsend Ward (b.1831-1862) and British officer Charles George Gordon (b.1833-1885) to their lead armies during the rebellion. Consequently both of these men would become legendary figures because of their service with the Imperial army corps which overtime came to be known as the Ever Victorious Army (EVA) between 1861-1864.

Charles George Gordon at the Battle of Changzhou 1864

For Gordon, it was the start of a legendary career which would end tragically in 1885 at Khartoum in the Sudan. For Ward the Taiping Rebellion would seal his legacy as a great military man and 19th century adventurer, who expired on the field of combat perhaps before the prime of his already remarkable career. With modern weapons like Colt's six shot pistols and Sharps rifles, the Chinese soldiers in the EVA became carbon copies of Western armies whose training Both of these men led diverse cadres of French and British sailors, Americans, Prussians, Chinese, Filipinos, and Indian Sepoys in service of the Qing Empire in 'anti-Pirate units and mercenary squadrons'. Ward in particular became a master of making traditional and well trained armed forces out of ranks comprised of levies and soldiers of fortune.

Ward leading his men from the front with two Colt revolvers in his hands. In reality he was almost never armed in battle in battle, preferring to wield his rattan cane opposed to a sabre or firearm

The Imperial Qing Army with the help of the EVA reversed its earlier retreat and embarrassments by smashing several larger rebel armies mostly without the use of artillery or cavalry, strategically strangling the Heavenly Kingdom with successful sieges and land battles before Hong Xiuquan committed suicide in 1864 as the Taiping Rebellion came to its conclusion. Ward’s background was complex but what is known about his early life is that he was a New England sailor and merchant by family blood and trade, he enjoyed brief stints as a French officer in the Crimea, a filibuster in Mexico, an anti-pirate auxiliary in China, and eventually a mercenary general in the Taiping conflict.

General Gordon and the EVA

In mid to late August of 1860 when Shanghai was still besieged by Taiping rebels on all sides, a British national and member of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps described seeing a "slight" officer directing some foreign men in arms in the defense of grandstand overlooking a horse-racing track in the British quarter of the city. He described him as "a man of excellent address, mild and gentle in manner, and as kind and warm-hearted as possible. His long hair and slight mustache were dark, and he habitually wore a blue coat tightly buttoned." Ward and his small Imperial army corps won their first major battle on the night of 16-17 July 1860 with the capture of forts and the city of Sung-chiang.

Ever Victorious Army c.1861 (Osprey Publishing)

In the Second Battle of Sung-chiang outside Shanghai, Ward despite being injured in the shoulder by a Taiping musket ball (the first of fifteen times during his Chinese service), captured the city and occupied it. Following his victory, Colonel Ward and he was now known had hundreds of new Chinese and foreigners flocking to his expanding army. He was also paid a large bonus by his Qing handlers though he had been promised and was owed much more. In its second test of battle, the Foreign Arms Corps, as it was then officially known was defeated by the Taiping rebels outside the walls Ch'ing-p'u. A musket ball smashed through Col. Ward's jaw an exited his cheek, critically wounding Ward and forcing his defeated army to retreat back to Shanghai.

Ward in 1861

Ward's army had grown in considerable size from the summer heat of 1860 until the winter of 1861. His infantrymen wore light green tunics and khaki in the summer and his Western style Chinese artilleryman wore light blue tunics. As their headgear, Ward's corps all sported green Sepoy style turbans. He had two dozen or more artillery guns including eighteen and six pound guns. Col. Ward's most loyal soldiers and bodyguards were around 150-200 Spanish Filipinos who he commanded in Spanish and who would die for him on multiple occasions during Ward's service in Taiping conflict. Wards corps' was armed with a variety of factory new Western firearms purchased by his financiers and through his own credit including British Snider-Enfields, Prussian Dreyse needle rifles, and other assorted Western-made muskets. Locals and Western observers were shocked by the armies aptitude to learn military drill and discipline and for their loyalty to Ward and his officers during their time at the Sung-chiang drilling grounds from the summer of 1861 until June of 1862.


Above all, Col. Ward and Gordon were men of action and bravery in the face of combat. Ward was a particularly honest man and a stellar driller of soldiers most importantly. He disciplined all under his command fairly including his own European officers; who he flogged and even executed for a variety of military offenses. Upon his death in battle at Tzeki (Cixi) in September of 1862; he was succeeded by officer Charles Gordon after some debate amongst Wards' staff over who should succeed him directly.

What is known among several differing accounts from those who were there and were in regards to Col. Ward's death is that he was grievously wounded by a musket ball while overseeing the assault on the fortress walls of Tz'u-ch'i in the thick of the fighting. His mortally wounded body was taken aboard one of his ships, the Hardy, where he soon died from this wound though the battle was a decisive victory for his army and the Qing Empire. Rumors spread and persist to this day among scholars and popular historians of the period that he was killed by a European sharpshooter-for-hire or by his own men who had been paid off by his Imperial Qing handlers.

Frederick Townsend Ward, mortally wounded at the Battle of Cixi, September 1862

It is recounted by author Caleb Carr in his book on Ward, The Devil Soldier, that General Ward was indeed owed a considerable sum of 200,000 or more Chinese taels by his Imperial employers; equaling well over a million and half US dollars in 2015. Gordon, an officer in the Royal Engineers who became known as 'Chinese' Gordon for the rest of his life was a man of similar character; though he was most certainly a personally righteous and religious zealot of sorts opposed to the more pragmatic and professional mercenary demeanor of Ward.

The Taiping Rebellion was one of the longest, largest, and brutally fought wars in the the study of the 19th or early 20th century conflicts. It is the bloodiest Civil War ever and maybe even the deadliest conflict ever recorded in the modern era. The rebellion forever altered the Chinese diplomatic and political landscape though it ultimately ensured the survival of the Qing dynasty until the revolution of 1911-1912. The 'Great Rebellion' of China sent tens of thousands of Chinese to seek passage to America or Europe.

Related Posts

Suggested Further Readings
Devil Soldier: The American Soldier of Fortune Who Became a God in China By Caleb Carr (Random House, New York, 1991-1992).

The Chinese and their Rebellions by Thomas Taylor Meadows (1856)


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