In 1853, the Taiping rebels captured Nanjing and for a while it seemed that Beijing would fall next; but the Taiping northern expedition was defeated and the situation stabilized. The Xianfeng Emperor dispatched several prominent mandarins, such as Zeng Guofan and the Mongol general Sengge Rinchen, to crush the rebellions, but they only obtained limited success. The biggest revolt of the Miao people against Chinese rule in history started in 1854, and ravaged the region until finally put down in 1873. In 1856, an attempt to regain Nanjing was defeated and the Panthay Rebellion broke out in Yunnan.
Meanwhile, an initially minor incident on the coasts triggered the Second Opium War. Anglo-French forces, after inciting a few battles (not all victories for them) on the coast near Tianjin, attempted “negotiation” with the Qing government. The Xianfeng Emperor, under the influence of his Noble Consort Yi (later Empress Dowager Cixi), believed in Chinese superiority and would not agree to any colonial demands. He delegated Prince Gong for several negotiations but relations broke down completely when a British diplomat, Sir Harry Parkes, was arrested during negotiations on 18 September.
The Anglo-French invasion clashed with Sengge Rinchen's Mongol cavalry on 18 September near Zhangjiawan before proceeding toward the outskirts of Beijing for a decisive battle in Tongzhou District, Beijing. On 21 September, at the Battle of Eight-Mile Bridge, Sengge Rinchen's 10,000 troops, including his elite Mongol cavalry, were completely annihilated after several doomed frontal charges against the concentrated firepower of the Anglo-French forces, which entered Beijing on 6 October.
On 18 October 1860, the British and French forces went on to loot and burn the Old Summer Palace and Summer Palace. Upon learning about this news, the Xianfeng Emperor's health quickly deteriorated.
During the Xianfeng Emperor's reign, China lost part of Manchuria to the Russian Empire. In 1858, according to the Treaty of Aigun, the territory between Stanovoy Mountains and Amur River was ceded to Russia, and in 1860, according to the Treaty of Beijing, the same thing happened also to the area east of Ussuri River. After that treaty, the Russians founded the city of Vladivostok in the area they had annexed.
While negotiations with the European powers were being held, the Xianfeng Emperor and his imperial entourage fled to Jehol province in the name of conducting the annual imperial hunting expedition. As his health worsened, the emperor's ability to govern also deteriorated, and competing ideologies in court led to the formation of two distinct factions — one led by the senior official Sushun and the princes Zaiyuan and Duanhua, and the other led by Noble Consort Yi, who was supported by the general Ronglu and the Bannermen of the Yehenara clan.
Jarek Szymanski (http://www.taiji-bg.com/articles/taijiquan/t35.htm) writes,
(A) Very interesting chapter related to history of Chen style Taijiquan can be found in Wu Wenhan's book “The Complete Book of the Essence and Applications of Wu (Yuxiang) style Taijiquan”. There are two official (i.e. government) documents related to the defense of Huaiqing County (where Chenjiagou is located) against Taiping rebelion army in 1853. One is called “Veritable Record of Taiping Army Attacking Huaiqing County” (Taiping Jun Gong Huaiqing Fu Shilu), and was written by Tian Guilin, who was responsible for “defending the western town” in Huaiqing. The other is called “Daily Records of Huaiqing Defense” (Shou Huai Rizhi) and was written by Ye Zhiji (teacher from government school in Huaiqing). Neither Tian nor Ye were Taijiquan practitioners, both were government officials, and hence their accounts can be considered objective descriptions of the events at that time.
According to the documents once Taiping army crossed Yellow River and attacked Huaiqing County, local militia was defeated and dispersed, while government troops escaped. Of all the villages only Chenjiagou resisted. In his “Veritable Record” under 29th day of 5th month Tian Guilin wrote:
“The head of the thieves (i.e. Taiping rebels) called Big Headed Ram (Da Tou Yang) invaded Chenjiagou. This thief was extremely brave and strong, he was able to carry two big canons under his arms and swiftly attack the town. The battles destroying whole town were conducted under the command of this thief. Fortunately Chen Zhongshen and Chen Jishen, two brothers from Chenjiagou, were very skilled in using spears and long poles, they used long poles to pull Big Headed Ram down from the horse, and then they cut his head off. (…) The thieves got very angry, and their whole group went to Zhaobao Jie (…) burning everything, then to Henei and villages around Baofeng, and there were no soldiers to come for rescue (of these areas), fortunately Chen Zhongshen and others managed to escape.”
According to the documents, only inhabitants of Chenjiagou took active part in the fights against Taiping rebels. This would suggest that other villages had less people practicing martial arts than Chenjiagou. Those taking part in battles were mainly disciples of Chen Youben and Chen Zhongshen, as well as militia (Xiang Yong) from Chenjiagou; only very few disciples of Chen Changxing took part in fights. This would indirectly indicate that Chen Youben's branch was then more popular than that of Chen Changxing.