During the years 1851 to 1864 a central feature of the Chinese political scene was the Taiping rebellion. This was a peasant movement led by disappointed candidates in the official examinations and unlettered men of native military and organizational genius who capitalized upon the economic distress of the time and the declining ability of the Manchu rulers to take the principal cities of the Yangtze valley and at one point to threaten Peking itself. The rebels maintained their capital in Nanking from 1853 until 1864. From this point they waged intermittent campaigns in the provinces from Hunan and Hupeh east to the sea and thus denied the ruling dynasty the rich lower-Yangtze revenue for more than a decade. The rebellion was active at one time or another in fourteen of the eighteen provinces of the empire. Antidynastic societies not part of the Taiping movement used the embarrassment of the dynasty to disrupt areas which the Taipings did not reach. From the military point of view the Ch'ing dynasty was probably threatened most seriously in 1853 when the rebels got to within thirty miles of Tientsin. But if the Taiping troops were never again able to invade Chihli, neither were the imperial soldiers capable of regaining the Yangtze basin. After 1853 it required eleven years of punitive expeditions, the training of a new type of provincial militia, and incidental foreign aid to put down the rebellion.

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