How one man’s crazed visions led to a huge rebellion and the death of millions…
What would you do if you woke up one day thinking you were the younger son of God, Jesus’ Chinese brother put on earth to slay demons? Right. You would probably wonder what the hell was in those “five RMB shots” that seemed like such a good idea the night before. But if you were Hong Xiuquan, Guangdong native, examination failure, and wannabe Messiah, you would see your visions as gospel, and lead a rebellion costing the lives of at least 15 million people and nearly topple an empire. That’s just the way he rolled.
Hong Xiuquan was born in 1813 in Fuyuanshu Village in what is today northern Guangdong. Though not from a rich family, they pooled money to send him to a good school: of his generation, he seemed the best bet to pass the intensely difficult official examinations which could bring honor (and wealth) to the family. It was great pressure for the young man and as would soon become catastrophically obvious Hong Xiuquan did not respond to stress well.
As exam success eluded him and the pressure mounted, Hong cracked. After one traumatic failure, he had a nervous breakdown lasting for nearly 40 days, where he had visions of being transported to Heaven and seeing an old man with a golden beard lamenting humanity’s wickedness. Hong also met the old man’s son and was told that it was his elder brother, and that this new bro would instruct Hong on how to exterminate the demons afflicting the world.
Suddenly everything made sense-at least to Hong. The old man in Hong’s vision was obviously God, the other guy was his brother, Jesus Christ, and Hong’s mission was to pick up his sword and slay demons.
Hong wasn’t sure what to make of the dream until six years later. In 1843, his earthly cousin was rummaging through some of Hong’s books and came across a pamphlet called “Good Words to Exhort the Age.” It had been written by a Chinese Christian named Liang Afa who preached on the streets of Guangzhou. In a moment that was to have a considerable impact on history, Hong’s cousin showed Hong the book. Suddenly everything made sense— at least to Hong. The old man in Hong’s vision was obviously God, the other guy was his brother, Jesus Christ, and Hong’s mission was to pick up his sword and slay demons.
He soon convinced a few family and friends to join him in his quest. Hong was a Hakka, and his outsider status made it easy for him to relate to — and convert — other outcast, including his fellow Hakkas, the Miao, low-status workers such as like miners and porters.
His gang became known as “the God Worshipping Society” and they ransacked Confucian temples and smashed idols while preaching the Gospel According to Hong Xiuquan.
Authorities took a dim view of Hong and his followers’ activities and soon the God Worshippers were branded outlaws. Around this time, Hong enlisted support from the anti-Manchu Triads. The Triads were, and still are, a powerful presence in Southeast China and they provided added muscle for Hong’s movement. The mix of Hong’s zealous hunt for demons and the Triad’s anti-dynastic rhetoric also gave the God Worshippers a new target. What better demons to slay than Manchu rulers who they thought were ruining China?
By 1850, Hong had nearly 100,000 followers—a mobile military force which swept out of Guangdong and Guangxi, northward toward central China. The imperial army, including the Manchu banner troops, had little success slowing their advance. In 1851, Hong Xiuquan declared himself the Heavenly King of the Taiping Kingdom, a new state in opposition to the Qing government.
Taiping armies stormed the Yangtze River valley and in 1851 turned the city of Nanjing into their capital. Hong Xiuquan proclaimed a new society in which men and women would be equal and live chaste lives, land and treasure would be shared, and vices such as opium and gambling forbidden.
Over the next decade, the Taiping fought off attempts by the Qing government and provincial military leaders to dislodge them from Nanjing. Meanwhile, Hong was taking his own brand of crazy to new levels. He would continually search the Bible for references to himself, took on dozens of consorts and his paranoia grew, especially when his closest allies started identifying themselves as “The Voice of God” and “The Holy Spirit.”
In the end, the Taiping faced economic hardship and a crisis of leadership which ultimately thwarted their attempt to carve a theocratic kingdom out of central China. With his enemies closing in, Hong died (some say committed suicide) in 1864. A few weeks later, government forces led by the famous Qing General Zeng Guofan stormed the city and ended the Taiping Rebellion.
Despite his idiosyncrasies and ultimate failure, Hong remained a heroic figure for many young Cantonese. Sun Yat-sen, a Cantonese revolutionary with a few idiosyncrasies of his own, idolized Hong Xiuquan as a young man. And Mao Zedong viewed Hong as a hero who organized a peasant rebellion against the reactionary feudal dynasty.
Jeremiah Jenne is a rogue Sinoligist and free range historian; he has lived in China 13 years and runs the Chinese history, culture, and travel blog, Jottings from a Granite Studio.