Last century China experienced one of its periodic mid-century blowouts, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong and tens of millions die in senseless slaughter. The Chinese Civil War of 1927-50: 2-8 million dead. The Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45: up to 26 million dead. The manmade Great Chinese Famine of 1958-62: 15-45 million dead. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-76: 1.5 million dead by the time the worst was over in 1969. The total from the conflicts over these 40 years ranges from a conservative 35 million to an upper estimate of 80 million. The true figures will never be known.
The mid-century blowout of the century before that, otherwise known as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), was not quite as bad or was even worse, depending on which sources you consult. The estimates range from 20 million to up to 100 million dead. If the latter figure is valid, it means one quarter of China’s population (at the time) was killed in the conflict. Once you realize the casualties took place over a narrower time frame, the destruction clearly looks proportionately more catastrophic than China’s 20th century (the only previous mid-century blowout of comparable scale was during the Qing conquest of the Ming 200 years earlier, with 25 million dead). Not to mention that it would count as the most destructive manmade event in recorded history; and it happened a mere century and a half ago.
The Taiping holocaust is so astounding in its magnitude that the psyche can’t deal with it. Its sheer incomprehensibility puts it beyond the pale of discourse, to be ignored or trivialized. Mainland Chinese high-school history textbooks devote no more than a page to it, much less than to the loose bookends to that event, the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), which the Communists found the perfect surrogate for shouldering the national burden of shame, China’s so-called “century of humiliation.” With casualty figures amounting to around 50,000, however, the violence at the hands of the Western powers does not even begin to merit the term negligible — in comparison to the nuclear war in slow-motion going on in the Chinese interior.