Allied French and English troops storm through a breech in the fortifications of Canton (Guangzhou), China. The event occurred during the Tai Ping Rebellion, a war begun by a Kwangsi district schoolmaster and mystic Hong Xiuquan, who believed himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ. (Credit: Corbis/Getty Images)
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Introduction

The Taiping Rebellion was a revolt against the Qing dynasty in China, fought with religious conviction over regional economic conditions, and lasting from 1850 to 1864. The Taiping forces were run as a cult-like group called the God Worshipping Society by self-proclaimed prophet Hong Xiuquan, and resulted in the rebels seizing the city of Nanjing for a decade. The Taiping Rebellion eventually failed, however, and led to the deaths of more than 20 million people.

Hong Xiuquan, born in 1814 in Guanlubu, Guangdong, had failed multiple civil service exams when, in 1814, he returned home and went to bed, complaining of sickness.

In a feverish state, Hong hallucinated a journey to a heavenly land to the east where his father revealed that demons were destroying humankind. Wielding a special sword, Hong, with the help of his brother, fought the demons and the King of Hell.

Following the battle, Hong remained in heaven and took a wife, later having a child together. Eventually, Hong returned to Earth, receiving the title “Heavenly King, Lord of the Kingly Way.”

But from his family’s perspective, Hong was in bed for days, stricken by fever dreams and yelling about demons, claiming to be the Emperor of China, singing, and sometimes leaping out of bed and standing ready for combat.

When Hong finally did awake, he told his family about his experience and copied down poems he had written in heaven. The village believed he had gone insane.

Over time, Hong put the incident behind him and pursued civil service exams again.

Around the same time as his hallucination, while in the city of Canton for exams, Hong was given Christian literature, which he kept but never read. In 1843, a relative, Li Jingfang, borrowed the tract, Liang Afa’s “Good Words For Exhorting The Age” and convinced Hong to read it.

The tract portrayed an apocalyptic China that recalled recent events. The violent First Opium War against Great Britain, fought from 1839 to 1842, ended with the Treaty of Nanjing that damaged imperial prestige and allowed the British many advantages. It had the side effect of allowing an influx of Christian missionaries into the country.

In Liang’s tract, Hong encountered the words of Jesus, changing Hong’s view of Chinese society and Confucian values. Hong became convinced the father in his from his fever dream from years before was the God of Christianity, the older brother was Jesus and the King of Hell was the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Hong was now confident that he was the son of God.

Hong revealed his dream to relatives, and his message began to spread. Hong and some of his followers took to the road, selling writing ink and brushes to fund their travels.

During this journey, Hong wrote his own tract, “Exhortations to Worship the One True God,” to help win more converts.

Hong returned home to support his family and work on further tracts, but his disciples still traveled, vigorously spreading his ideas and forming a group known as Bai Shangi Hui or the God Worshipping Society.

Many of these followers were the Hakka people, who had fled the Mongols in the 13th century and become an enclave treated as separate from regular Chinese society. They were primarily destitute laborers who sought protection from oppression.

Hong preached an early form of communism that stressed sharing property, mixed with religious ideas and laws based on the 10 Commandments. His promise of free land would soon bring in thousands more followers.

In 1847, Hong went to Thistle Mountain to join local God Worshippers and conspire against religious traditions in the area. Numbering in the thousands, the God Worshipping Society grabbed the attention of local authorities who want to end the group’s teachings and arrest some of the leaders.

Religious visions were not confined to Hong. In 1848, Hong accepted as authentic a Thistle Mountain charcoal burner named Yang Xiuqing who claimed to channel God, and a peasant named Xiao Chaogui, who said he channeled Jesus.

Tales of angelic interventions from heaven to save local villagers abounded. Worshippers claimed to visit heaven physically during prayers.

By 1849, the God Worshipping Society had expanded into four areas of China, which Hong treated as strategic points in his upcoming battle against demons—demons that Hong soon unveiled as the Qing Dynasty itself.

Hong’s total control of his followers’ lives tightened. Calling himself “the Taiping King,” he decreed the separation of men and women, with beatings for anyone who defied him.

In 1850, alleging that Jesus had urged Hong to “fight for Heaven,” Hong began to arm his followers. Soon, the God Worshippers were buying gunpowder in bulk and becoming organized by military rankings.

Qing forces and the God Worshippers clashed at the end of 1851. Unexpectedly, the Taiping army was victorious in these first battles, but fighting continued over the following months as Hong proclaimed 1851 as the first year of “the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.”

Later that year Hong and his forces, now numbering 60,000, abandoned Thistle Mountain and seized the city of Yongan, again defeating Qing troops.

In Yongan, Hong dominated the lives of his followers with more religious restrictions. He also created royal titles for his family.

Hong declared that his followers should not “commit adultery or be licentious” and should reject “the cast of amorous glances, the harboring of lustful thoughts about others, the smoking of opium and the singing of libidinous songs” or be punished with beheadings.

In 1852, Taiping soldiers snuck out of Yongan and began a trail of bloodshed that resulted in their control of a significant portion of the land bordering the Yangzi River and the city of Tianjin, from which the Qing emperor was forced to flee.

Hong then took Nanjing, by which time he boasted some 2 million followers.

After an attempt to seize Beijing was repelled, Hong chose to cease conquest and concentrate on building an administration in Nanjing.

The Taiping held Nanjing for 11 years. Hong stepped back from most secular matters of governance, leaving that work to others who soon slipped into decadence that conflicted with Taiping religious ideals.

One of these, the channeler Yang Xiuqing, claimed that God wanted Hong dead. The plot was thwarted, Yang was beheaded and his family members slaughtered.

In 1856, a second Opium War broke out with the west, continuing until 1861.

Hong believed Western governments sympathized with his movement and he tried to make overtures to them, but European forces eventually aided the Qing government in seizing back what the Taiping had conquered.

Hong was found dead in May 1864, believed to have been poisoned, though it’s unknown whether it was suicide or assassination.

Nanjing was put under siege and fell several months later. (It’s believed that Qing soldiers created the popular game of mahjong to pass the time during the lengthy siege.) The Taiping occupiers were massacred, with some gathering in crowds and immolating themselves. Hong’s son was named the new King of Heaven, but was later executed.

Estimates vary, but the Taiping Rebellion is believed to have claimed between 20 million and 70 million lives, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.

God’s Chinese Son. Jonathan D. Spence.
The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Thomas H. Reilly.
The Great Big Book of Horrible Things. Matthew White.
Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Patricia Buckley Ebrey.