The White Lotus Rebellion (Chinese: 川楚白蓮教起义; pinyin: Chuān chŭ bái lián jiào qǐ yì, 1796–1804) was a rebellion initiated by followers of the White Lotus movement during the Qing dynasty of China. The rebellion began in 1794, when large groups of rebels claiming White Lotus affiliations rose up within the mountainous region that separated Sichuan province from Hubei and Shaanxi provinces. A smaller precursor to the main rebellion broke out in 1774, under the leadership of the martial-arts and herbal-healing expert Wang Lun in Shandong province of northern China.
Although the rebellion was finally crushed by the Qing government in 1804, it marked a turning point in the history of the Qing dynasty. Qing control weakened and prosperity diminished by the 19th century. The rebellion is estimated to have caused the deaths of some 100,000 rebels.
The White Lotus Rebellion was initiated as a tax protest led by the White Lotus Society, a secret religious society. The White Lotus Society is traditionally considered to have first appeared during the 14th century under the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. The Red Turban Rebellion which took place in 1352, was led by the White Lotus group. By 1387, after more than 30 years of war, their leader, Zhu Yuanzhang conquered the North China Plain and occupied the Yuan capital Khanbaliq (present-day Beijing). Having attained the Mandate of Heaven and the status of Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang named his period of reign "Hongwu" (thus he was known as the Hongwu Emperor) and founded a new dynasty – the Ming dynasty. The group later reemerged in the late 18th century in the form of an inspired Chinese movement.
Though many movements and rebellions were considered by imperial bureaucrats to have been led by White Lotus Society leaders, there is reason to doubt that the White Lotus Society had any organizational unity. BJ Ter Haar has argued that the term "White Lotus" was used primarily by Ming and Qing imperial bureaucrats to disparagingly explain a wide range of unconnected millenarian traditions, rebel movements, and popular religious practices. According to Ter Haar, it is clear that the "White Lotus" rebels of the uprisings that occurred between 1796 and 1804 did not voluntarily use the term "White Lotus" to refer to themselves or their movement. The term was only used by the millenarian rebels under intense pressure during government interrogations. It is only as historical sources look back upon these events do they began to summarize the various aspects of these uprisings as the "White Lotus rebellion."
In 1774, one instance of a derivative sect of the White Lotus, the Eight Trigrams arose in the form of underground meditation teachings and practice in Shandong province, not far from Beijing near the city of Linqing. The leader, herbalist and martial artist Wang Lun, led an uprising that captured three small cities and laid siege to the larger city of Linqing, a strategic location on the north-south Grand Canal transportation route.
Wang Lun likely failed because he did not make any attempts to raise wide public support. He did not distribute captured wealth or food supplies, nor did he promise to lessen the tax burden. Unable to build up a support base, he was forced to quickly flee all three cities that he attacked in order to evade government troops. Though he passed through an area inhabited by almost a million peasants, his army never measured more than 4,000 soldiers, many of whom had been forced into service.
In 1794, a similar movement arose in the mountainous region that separated Sichuan province from Hubei and Shaanxi provinces in central China, initially as a tax protest. The White Lotus led impoverished settlers into rebellion, promising personal salvation in return for their loyalty. Beginning as tax protests, the eventual rebellion gained growing support and sympathy from many ordinary people. The rebellion grew in number and power and eventually, into a serious concern for the government.
The Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–96) sent Helin and Fuk'anggan to quell the uprising. Surprisingly, the ill-organized rebels managed to defeat the inadequate and inefficient Qing imperial forces. After both died in battle in 1796, the Qing government sent new officials, but none were successful. Only after 1800 did the Qing government adopt new tactics that established local militias (tuan) to help surround and destroy the White Lotus. The Qianlong emperor ordered that Eight Banner armies, whether Manchu or Han banners were not to be used against internal uprisings so the Qing relied mainly on the Han Chinese Green Standard Army and Han militias to suppress rebellions such as the White Lotus.
The Qing commanders sent to repress the rebellion had a difficult time putting down the White Lotus. The White Lotus bands mainly used guerrilla tactics, and once they disbanded were virtually indistinguishable from the local population. As one Qing official complained:
The rebels are all our own subjects. They are not like some external tribe ... that can be demarcated by a territorial boundary and identified by its distinctive clothing and language ... When they congregate and oppose the government, they are rebels; when they disperse and depart, they are civilians once more.
Without any clear enemy to fight, brutality against civilians became more common. Because of the brutality of the Qing troops, however, the troops were soon nicknamed the "Red Lotus" Society.
A systematic program of pacification followed: resettling the populace in hundreds of stockaded villages and organizing them into militias. In its last stage, the Qing suppression policy combined pursuit and extermination of rebel guerrilla bands with a program of amnesty for deserters. The imperial authorities suppressed the White Lotus Rebellion in 1805 using a combination of military and social policies. Approximately 7,000 Banner troops were sent in from Manchuria in combination with Green Standard Army soldiers from Guizhou and Yunnan as well as tens of thousands of local mercenaries.
A decree from the Daoguang Emperor admitted, "it was extortion by local officials that goaded the people into rebellion..." Using the arrest of sectarian members as a threat, local officials and police extorted money from people. Actual participation in sect activities had no impact on an arrest; whether or not monetary demands were met, however, did.
Administrators also seized and destroyed sectarian scriptures used by the religious groups. One such official was Huang Yupian (黃育楩), who refuted the ideas found in the scriptures with orthodox Confucian and Buddhist views in A Detailed Refutation of Heresy (破邪詳辯 Pōxié Xiángbiàn), which was written in 1838. This book has since become an invaluable source in understanding the beliefs of these groups.
The end of the White Lotus Rebellion in 1804 also brought an end to the myth of the military invincibility of the Manchus, perhaps contributing to the greater frequency of rebellions in the 19th century. The White Lotus continued to be active, and might have influenced the next major domestic rebellion, the Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813.
Forty-eight years later, Zeng Guofan studied and was inspired by the Qing government's methods during the White Lotus Rebellion while considering ways to suppress the Taiping Rebellion.