The horrors of war have affected nearly every part of the globe throughout history, but China has seen more than its share of bloody combat.
Of the 10 most damaging wars in history based on combatant and civilian deaths, five started in China. This does not even include the horrors that China faced during World War II, when parts of China suffered under an incredibly brutal Japanese occupation.
China wars often stemmed from internal revolts and might have influenced modern China’s heavy-handed approach to internal dissent. Indeed, Beijing’s heavy emphasis on order and societal peace in particular could shed light on the current tumult in Hong Kong, where protesters have demonstrated against the central government’s attempts to strip the territory’s autonomy.
Below are the five deadliest conflicts that started in China, in descending order of estimated death toll.
1. The Qing Dynasty Conquest Of The Ming Dynasty
1618 to 1683, with an estimated 25 million casualties
The Qing conquest of the Ming dynasty was a period of extreme political turmoil in China. The conquest started with a rebellion against Chinese imperial authority in Manchuria, in far northeastern China. As the rebellion gained speed and approached Beijing, a series of smaller peasant revolts broke out through the rest of China.
By 1644, the Qing were in control of Beijing. However, southern China and Taiwan rebelled against Qing authority and sided with Ming loyalists.
It took until 1683 — nearly another 40 years — for the Qing to establish their authority throughout China. During this time, almost 25 million people died in the hostilities.
2. The Taiping Rebellion
1850 to 1864, with an estimated 20 million casualties
The Taiping Rebellion was a Christian millenarian movement aimed at unseating the Qing Dynasty. The rebellion, led by Hong Xiuquan, took the major Chinese city of Nanjing as its capital. At the height of the rebellion, Hong and his Taiping Heavenly Kingdom ruled over 30 million people.
The rebellion focused on social reform, demanding the abolition of foot-binding and land socialisation and opposing strict gender separation. Hong also claimed he was Jesus’ little brother. His army, which was made of largely irregular forces, scored a number of victories through brutal methods and religious zeal.
The rebellion took an estimated 20 million lives, and the French and British eventually had to intervene to help the Qing restore order.
3. The An Lushan Rebellion
755 — 763, with casualties estimated at 13 million
The An Lushan Rebellion was sparked when General An Lushan declared himself emperor of Northern China, which was directly opposed to the leading Tang Dynasty.
This conflict lasted through the reigns of three Tang emperors before ending in 763 with the fall of the Yan Dynasty that An Lushan had created.
The war had a lasting impact on the economic and social systems, and a million people died from the mass starvation and diseases the conflict triggered.
4. The Dungan Revolt
1862-1877, with an estimated 10 million casualties
The Dungan Revolt, also referred to as the “Hui Minorities’ War” and the “Muslim Rebellion,” was a mainly religious uprising that overlapped with the Taiping Rebellion by two years.
The main goal of this war was to establish a Muslim country near the western bank of the Yellow River. When the revolt failed, there was a mass exodus of Dungan people into Imperial Russia.
5. The Chinese Civil War
1927 — 1950, with casualties estimated at 7.5 million
Without a signed peace treaty, there is still some debate about whether the Chinese Civil War between the Republic of China and the Communist Party of China ever legally ended because the nationalist forces fled to Taiwan and established a competing government.
Lasting more than 20 years, the conflict led to the creation of the Republic of China (in Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (in mainland China), with both claiming to be the sole legitimate government of China.
Meanwhile, as the US prepared to entered the Korean War, President Harry Truman announced goals for a “strong, united, and democratic China” and ordered the Navy’s Seventh Fleet into the region. But by 1954, opposing armies disbanded and the Chinese Civil War began to fade.
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