Hong Xiuquan

The Taiping rebellion was the world's bloodiest civil war. Lasting for 13 years from 1851 to 1864, it nearly toppled the Qing Dynasty and resulted in the death of 20 million people — more than the entire population of England at that time. The conflict began as an uprising and a rebellion but became ‘simply a descent into anarchy.” It is also viewed by many historians as a precursor to the Long March and the Cultural Revolution.

The Taiping sect was named after its leader, a deranged schoolteacher named Hong Xiuquan, who claimed he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ and the second son of God and referred to himself as T'ai-ping T'ien-Kuo ("Heavenly King of the Heavenly King of the Great Peace"). The cult's beliefs were forged by Hong from a blend of Protestant evangelism, Chinese philosophy, utopian thinking and Old Testament militancy. Some say that Hong suffered from disease-induced hallucinations. Even though he promoted the equality of women he kept 100 wives.

Hong did not succeed in carrying his reforms from the stage of sporadic action to a systematic reorganization of the country, and he also failed to enlist the elements needed for this as for all other administrative work, so that the good start soon degenerated into a terrorist regime. The rebellion began to unravel when Hong had his loyal assistant Yang Xiuqing assassinated and then ordered the execution of the assassin.

Many of the Taiping Rebellion leaders were Hakka, who migrated from northern China to southern China to escape war. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Hong gathered impoverished Hakka peasants round him as every peasant leader had done in the past. Very often the nucleus of these peasant movements had been a secret society with a particular religious tinge; this time the peasant revolutionaries came forward as at the same time the preachers of a new religion of their own. Hong had heard of Christianity from missionaries (1837), and he mixed up Christian ideas with those of ancient China and proclaimed to his followers a doctrine that promised the Kingdom of God on earth. He called himself "Christ's younger brother", and his kingdom was to be called Taiping ("Supreme Peace"). He made his first comrades, charcoal makers, local doctors, peddlers and farmers, into kings, and made himself emperor. At bottom the movement, like all similar ones before it, was not religious but social; and it produced a great response from the peasants. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Hong Xiuquan

Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864) was born to a Hakka farming family in present-day Guangzhou, After repeated failures to pass the imperial bureaucratic exam he came down with a severe feverm during which he said he had visions and heard voices from heaven. Preaching a message of equality mixed with Christian teachings he formed the God Worshiping Society and gained many followers in rural areas in Guangxi west of Guangzhou. In Guangxi there was not enough farmland for the people there and Hong’s message found fertile ground among poor farmers and the unemployed.

In the Jintian area of Guangxi, where much of the farmland, was owned by absentee landlords, Hong confronted wealthy families and proclaimed himself the Son of God. After a string of successes in Guangxi and the west his armed followers moved on and occupied Nanjing just two years later.

In Nanjing Hong lived a life of luxury and appointed his relatives to high positions. Eventually his followers turned against him. Hong’s and The Taiping Rebellion’s embrace of equality was praised by Sun Yatsen, who called Hong a pioneer national revolutionary, and Mao Zedong, who praised him for prowess in mobilizing the rural poor.

Hong Xiuquan’s Early life

Statue of Hong Xiuquan

Hong was a wannabe scholar. Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: “Originally, all Hong Xiuquan wanted was to be part of the establishment. A village schoolteacher, he immersed himself in Confucian scholarship for the civil service exam. Takahiro Suzuki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “His brilliance was recognized while he was young and inspired great hope among his relatives. Hong took the highly competitive imperial examinations to become a bureaucrat multiple times but failed every time. After his fourth failure, he gave up on a bureaucratic career. This experience apparently fostered antigovernment feelings in the young man. [Source: Takahiro Suzuki, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 2014]

Hong was the youngest son of four children in a poor but proud Hakka family. According to Encyclopedia Britannica: “The Hakkas were an industrious people who had migrated into South China from the north several centuries earlier and still retained their original customs. At an early age, Hong showed signs of great intelligence; his entire village sponsored him in his studies, hoping that he would eventually pass the Confucian civil service examination, enter the government bureaucracy, and bring wealth and honour to his family and friends. [Source: britannica.com +++]

“Hong took the government examination for the first time in 1827 and failed to obtain even the lowest official degree, an outcome not surprising in view of the great number of candidates competing. He took the test several times, each time traveling to the provincial capital in Guangzhou (Canton), which was also the centre for trade with the West. When he failed the exam for the third time in 1837, the strain was more than he could bear. He suffered an emotional collapse .During a delirium that lasted several days, he imagined himself to be in the presence of a venerable old man with a golden beard. The old man complained that the The old man complained that the world was overrun by evil demons, and he gave Hung a sword and seal to use in eradicating the bad spirits. +++

Hong Xiuquan’s Vision

Jonathan Fenby, who has written a history of modern China, told the BBC: "He fell into what I suppose was some kind of depressive fit and he had a vision. He imagined he'd gone up to the skies and there he had met a very tall man with a long beard and thick belt who had told him to come back to Earth and eradicate the demons on Earth." “Some time later he was given a Chinese translation of the New Testament by a Christian missionary. He decided on reading that, that the man he had seen up in the sky was the Christian God, that he, Hong, was the brother of Jesus, and that the devils he had to exterminate on Earth were the Qing dynasty, which was then ruling China and of course was not Chinese." [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, September 17, 2012 /]

Heroes Return to the Truth by Hong Rengan

An account of Hong's vision by one his followers goes: "Seeing that everyone in high heavens scolded him, Confucius escaped down to earth with the leader of the demons. The heavenly father then sent the angels to chase after Confucius, tie him up and bring him back to the heavenly father who was exceedingly angry and instructed the angels to whip him. There was plenty of whipping and Confucius asked for mercy repeatedly."

Hong had been reading books on Christianity at that point in his life, and they had a great influence on his thinking. According to the BBC: “The Qing emperors were Manchus from Manchuria in the north-east, so they were not ethnically Han Chinese. They had conquered China in the 17th Century, but their glory days were over and by the mid-19th Century they were losing to the British in the Opium Wars. The Europeans brought Christianity which, for Hong, was a convenient alternative to the Confucian creed which had rejected him. /

Hong Rengan

Hong Rengan, once a bookish assistant to European preachers, was the “prime minister” of the Taiping movement. Gordon G. Chang wrote in the New York Times: “Hong, also known as “the Shield King” to the multitude of Taiping rebels, was the younger cousin of Hong Xiuquan, an unpromising character who had failed imperial exams four times. In 1837, the elder Hong had, over the course of 40 days, been gripped by visions in which he ascended to a “beautiful and luminous place” where he was given a sword to kill demons. Six years later, after reading a tract on Christianity, Hong realized that the place he had visited in his dreams was heaven, that the Bible was explicitly written for him and that he was in fact the younger brother of Jesus Christ. [Source: Gordon G. Chang, New York Times, March 30, 2012, Gordon G. Chang is a columnist at Forbes.com and the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.”]

Soon, he converted his cousin Hong Rengan, established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and plunged his country into a war of liberation from foreign rulers. Hong Xiuquan, the unsuccessful exam-taker, was from a Hakka minority community and an unlikely leader. Hong Rengan made a perilous escape to Hong Kong in 1852 soon after the uprising began.

The Taiping were not, as The Times of London reported in May 1862, “the Thug of China, the desolator of cities, the provider of human carrion to the wild dogs, the pitiless exterminator, the useless butcher.” The rebels were modernizers, and Hong Rengan was perhaps the first in his country to set forth, “in a Chinese context, a vision of the country as a modern industrial power.” As Platt demonstrates, the Taiping were in favor of international commerce, unlike the Manchus,

Other central figures in the Taiping Rebellion include the commander of the Qing dynasty’s armies, Zeng Guofan, a Confucian scholar turned general, and colorful foreigners who affected the outcome, especially the British Bruce brothers, one of whom led troops that ransacked the Qing Summer Palace while the other helped save the failing dynasty.

Taiping Rebellion Followers

Li Xiucheng's mansion

In 1843 Hong Xiuquan, Feng Yunshan and Hong Rengan founded the God Worshipping Society, a heterodox Christian sect, in Hua County (present-day Huadu District, Guangdong). The following year they traveled to Guangxi to spread their teachings to the peasant population. After that, Hong Xiuquan returned to Guangdong to write about his beliefs, while Feng Yunshan remained in the Mount Zijing area to rally people like Yang Xiuqing and Xiao Chaogui to join their sect. [Source: Wikipedia]

Takahiro Suzuki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Hong made the assertion that all people were equal in front of God, formed the God Worshipping Society and started preaching. Although he found few sympathetic ears in Guangdong Province, he succeeded in gathering believers in the areas around Jintian in what is now Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.[Source: Takahiro Suzuki, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 2014]

Jonathan Fenby describes Hong’s “religion” as "a strange mixture of Christianity and a primitive kind of communism". Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: “The Europeans saw Hong's claim to be the brother of Christ as heresy, but he was not preaching for their benefit. He accompanied his spiritual message with a political one - a vision of equality and shared land ownership. This appealed to poor farmers, who were suffering from a sense of hopelessness, according to Guo Baogang of Dalton State college. "Peasants have a very miserable life in the middle of the 19th Century," he says. "There's a lot of famines and unemployment, most peasants have no land. So they're very vulnerable to the utopian thinkers prescribing a perfect society as a way to escape from the existing society." [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, September 17, 2012 /]

“Hong and his disciples took to the road, selling writing brushes and ink and spreading the good news about the heavenly kingdom as they went. The movement grew fast in south-west China. "When people of this earth keep nothing for their private use, but give all things to God for all to use in common, then every place shall have equal shares, and everyone be clothed and fed," Hong declared. As in these earlier rebellions, many of those who joined Hong's Heavenly Army had nothing to lose. Population growth had deprived them of a stake in society. The Qing empire was a victim of its own success. "Once you have a long peace, you see the rapid growth of the population," says Guo Baogang. /

"When the Manchus came into China, the population was about 100 million. By the 19th Century, after 200 years of economic growth, the population increased to something around 400 million. But arable land, that figure was only about 30 percent growth. So that added all the social stress." The promise of land for all soon brought hundreds of thousands to Hong's banner. /

Ideology of the Taiping Rebellion

The new order envisioned by the Taiping Rebellion was to reconstitute a legendary ancient state in which the peasantry owned and tilled the land in common; slavery, concubinage, arranged marriage, opium smoking, footbinding, judicial torture, and the worship of idols were all to be eliminated. The Taiping tolerance of the esoteric rituals and quasi-religious societies of south China — themselves a threat to Qing stability — and their relentless attacks on Confucianism — still widely accepted as the moral foundation of Chinese behavior — contributed to the ultimate defeat of the rebellion. [Source: Library of Congress]

Its advocacy of radical social reforms alienated the Han Chinese scholar-gentry class. The Taiping army, although it had captured Nanjing and driven as far north as Tianjin, failed to establish stable base areas. The movement's leaders found themselves in a net of internal feuds, defections, and corruption. Additionally, British and French forces, being more willing to deal with the weak Qing administration than contend with the uncertainties of a Taiping regime, came to the assistance of the imperial army. Before the Chinese army succeeded in crushing the revolt, however, 14 years had passed, and well over 30 million people were reported killed. [Ibid]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The program of the Taiping, in some points influenced by Christian ideas but more so by traditional Chinese thought, was in many points revolutionary: (a) all property was communal property; (b) land was classified into categories according to its fertility and equally distributed among men and women. Every producer kept of the produce as much as he and his family needed and delivered the rest into the communal granary; (c) administration and tax systems were revised; (d) women were given equal rights: they fought together with men in the army and had access to official position. They had to marry, but monogamy was requested; (e) the use of opium, tobacco and alcohol was prohibited, prostitution was illegal; (f) foreigners were regarded as equals, capitulations as the Manchus had accepted were not recognized. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Fighting at Wangjiakou in 1854

“Taiping Economic Program"

The The Land System of the Heavenly Kingdom (Tianchao tianmu zhidu) in the “The Taiping Economic Program”, by unknown authors, outlines forth parts of the Taiping economic program. Although this program was not implemented (the Taipings were not known for their administrative capabilities) it does show the the publicly stated ideals and goals of the movement. It begins: “The distribution of all land is to be based on the number of persons in each family regardless of sex. A large family is entitled to more land, a small one to less. The land distributed should not be all of one grade but mixed. Thus for a family of six, for instance, three are to have fertile land and three barren land — half and half of each. During harvest season, the Group Officer1 should direct [the grain collection by] the sergeants. Deducting the amount needed to feed the twenty-five families until the next harvest season, he should collect the rest of the produce for storage in the state granaries. … all people The liang sima, official in charge of each twenty-five-family group.

“All the land in the country is to be cultivated by the whole population together. If there is an insufficiency [of land] in this place, move some of the people to another place. If there is an insufficiency in another place, move them to this one. All lands in the country are also to be mutually supporting with respect to abundance and scarcity. If this place has a drought, then draw upon the abundant harvest elsewhere in order to relieve the distress here. If there is a drought there, draw upon the abundant harvest here in order to relieve the distress there. Thus all the people of the country may enjoy the great blessings of the Heavenly Father, Supreme Ruler and Lord God-on-High. The land is for all to till, the food for all to eat, the clothes for all to wear, and money for all to spend. Inequality shall exist nowhere; none shall suffer from hunger or cold.

“Nobody should keep private property. All things should be presented to the Supreme Ruler, so that He will be enabled to make use of them and distribute them equally to all members of his great world.family. Thus all will be sufficiently fed and clothed. The Group Officer must keep a record of the amount of grain and cash he has collected and report them to the Treasurers and Receiving and Disbursing Tellers. A state treasury and a church are to be established among every twenty-five families, under the direct administration of the Group Officer. All expenditures of the twenty-five families for weddings, births, or other festival occasions are to be paid for out of the state treasury. But there is to be a fixed limit; not a penny is to be spent beyond that. … Thus, throughout the land in the contracting of marriages wealth need be no consideration.

Map of the Heavenly Kingdom City

“Ode for Youth”: Taiping Rebellion Family Guidelines

“In the document below, unknown authors outline, in verse form, the Taipings’ fundamental principles governing family relationships. [Source: “Taiping Rebellion: History and Documents,” by Franz Michael and Chung.Li Chang (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1971); Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu

As grain is stored against a day of need
So men bring up children to tend their old age.
A filial son begets filial children;,
The reward here is truly wonderful.

On The Fathers’ Way: When the ridgepole is straight, nothing will be irregular below;
When the father is strict, the Way will be formed.
Let him not provoke his children to wrath
And the whole dwelling will be filled with harmony.

On The Mothers’ Way: Mothers, beware of partiality;
Tenderly instruct your children in virtue.
When a mother’s demeanor is worthy of her daughter in-law’s imitation
The happy feeling will reach high heaven.
On The Sons’ Way: Sons, be patterns to your wives;
Obedience to parents is your natural duty.
To the tattle of women never listen
And you will not be estranged from your own flesh.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Ohio State University, Columbia University, Taipinng map, St Martins edu.

Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last Updated: August 2021

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