In 1839, Chinese warships clashed with British merchants, triggering the Opium War. British gunboats, equipped with the latest in firepower, bombarded Chinese coastal and river ports. With outdated weapons and fighting methods, the Chinese were easily defeated.

Unequal Treaties

In 1842, Britain made China accept the Treaty of Nanjing (NAHN jing). It was the first of a series of “unequal treaties” that forced China to give up rights to Western powers. Under the Treaty of Nanjing, Britain received a huge indemnity, or payment for losses in the war. The British also gained the island of Hong Kong. China had to open five ports to foreign trade and grant British citizens in China extraterritoriality, the right to live under their own laws and be tried in their own courts.

Finally, the treaty included a “most favored nation” clause. It said that if the Chinese granted rights to another nation, Britain would automatically receive the same rights.

The Opium War was the first of a series of trading wars that set a pattern for later encounters between China and the West. France and the United States soon forced China to sign treaties, giving them rights similar to those the British had won. Western powers then continued to squeeze China to win additional rights, such as opening more ports to trade and letting Christian missionaries preach in China.

Illustration of a battlefield with soldiers in different companies marching in formation and surrounding a village with a smaller army

Troops from the Qing dynasty clash with peasant rebels during the Taiping Rebellion.

The Taiping Rebellion and a Weakened China

By the 1800s, the Qing dynasty was in decline. Irrigation systems and canals were poorly maintained, leading to massive flooding of the Yellow River valley. The population explosion that had begun a century earlier created great hardships for China's peasants as they tried to feed more and more people.

An extravagant imperial court, tax evasion by the rich, and widespread official corruption added to the peasants' burden. Even the honored civil service was rocked by bribery and cheating scandals. As poverty and misery increased, peasants rebelled.

The Taiping Rebellion

Throughout its long history, China was plagued by peasant uprisings, but the frequency and extent of revolts grew in the 1800s. The most shattering was the Taiping Rebellion (TY ping), which lasted from 1850 to 1864.

Its leader, Hong Xiuquan (shyoo CHWAHN), was a village teacher who had failed the civil service exams several times. Inspired by religious visions, he set himself up as a revolutionary prophet.

He wanted to topple the hated Qing dynasty and set up a “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace”—the Taiping. Hong, influenced by both Confucian and Christian teachings, called for radical change. He wanted land reform, community ownership of property, equality of women and men, and strict morality.

Hong won followers among the poor and outcast. At first, some Westerners sympathized with the rebels but then realized that if the Qing dynasty fell, their trading rights could be lost. As the powerful Taiping movement spread, rebels won control of large parts of China. It took the government 15 years and vast sums of money to defeat the rebellion.

The Taiping Rebellion almost toppled the Qing dynasty. It is estimated that more than 20 million Chinese died in the fighting. The Qing government survived, but it had to share power with regional commanders who had helped crush the rebellion.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments