In 1836, amid the hubbub of China’s imperial examinations in Guangzhou, the American Protestant missionary Edwin Stevens offered 22-year-old Hong Huoxiu a Christian tract: Good Words to Admonish the Age, by Chinese convert Liang Fa. Hong accepted it, gave it a cursory glance, and put it aside. Neither of these two men could know it, but they had just set the stage for what would become the bloodiest civil war in history, lasting 14 years and leaving 20 million dead.
Hong came from a family of farmers, members of the Hakka ethnic minority, in nearby Guanlubu. It was his second time taking the imperial exams; it would also be his second failure. He had been a talented scholar from a young age, ranking first in lower-level civil service exams and qualifying as a teacher.
Hong failed the exams yet again in 1837. Weak in the knees, he hired a palanquin to take him home. As soon as he got there, he collapsed into bed.
He dreamed of a crowd of people calling to him. They carried him off to the east, where attendants cured his ailments and gave him scrolls to read. He met a gold-bearded man who called himself his father. The bearded man bestowed upon him a golden seal, a greatsword, and a new name: Hong Xiuquan. He instructed Hong to rid the world of the demons who had infested it, granting succor to those they had beguiled. And so Hong did, with the help of a stranger who called himself his brother.
Hong made a miraculous recovery, jumping out of bed. He styled himself Heavenly King, writing his new title in red ink and posting it on his bedroom door. He denied familial relations, and spent hours penning poems about fighting demons. But with time, he calmed down, and his family grew accustomed to his eccentricities.
In 1843, Hong again journeyed to take the imperial exams and failed for the fourth time. Hong’s cousin Li Jingfang came to commiserate, and borrowed Liang’s tract. Li returned the book, strongly urging Hong to read it. He was shocked by what he read.
Through Liang’s text, Hong was finally able to interpret his dream. He determined that his golden-bearded father was none other than God, and his older brother was Jesus. He had needed to change his name because the syllable “Huo” was used in the Chinese transliteration of God’s name, which should not be spoken aloud. Hong had a mission: to rid China of demon worship, which he interpreted to mean Buddhism and Confucianism.
Hong and Li baptized each other as Liang had prescribed. They commissioned a blacksmith to make them three-foot, ten-pound blades inscribed with the words “demon slaying sword,” then proceeded to destroy their own collections of Confucian and Buddhist texts.
Hong began preaching to his family and neighbors. Some of his first converts, Hong Rengan and Feng Yunshan, were also teachers who had met with little success in the imperial exams. They destroyed the monuments to Confucius that stood in their schools, and were promptly fired.
Hong had still never laid eyes on the Bible—until 1847, when he received an invitation to visit Issachar Jacox Roberts, a Baptist missionary based in Guangzhou. He had baptized other converts, furnishing them with translated copies of the holy book, and offered to do the same for Hong.
Hong initially made a good impression on the notoriously temperamental Roberts, writing a sincere statement of faith. However, Roberts noted that he was apprehensive about Hong’s desire to use religion to suit his political agenda. Exactly what transpired between them is unknown, but Hong left Roberts’ home on July 12, 1847, unbaptized but with Bible in hand.
Hong traveled west from Guangzhou in search of Feng. He was accosted by bandits, who robbed him of his every earthly possession, including his demon slaying sword. But when he eventually found Feng in the Thistle Mountains, he was in for a surprise.
In his absence, Feng had established a community of believers he called the God Worshipping Society. No longer were his followers exclusively members of his family; now they came from all walks of life. The God Worshippers had made an impression on the locals by deterring bandits and pirates in the region. Two religious leaders emerged: Yang Xiuqing, who purported to channel the word of God, and Xiao Chaogui, who claimed he could speak for Jesus.
But the sect was growing, and it was getting harder and harder for the Qing dynasty establishment to look the other way. They sent the first of many military forces into the Thistle Mountains, where they provoked the God Worshippers and threatened them with death. After a minor skirmish, Feng and wealthy convert Wei Changhui resolved to raise an army of their own. In December of 1851, they gathered 10,000 believers in the city of Jintian where Qing forces were stationed, and drove them out. The Qing army attempted to strike back, but were routed.
Now Hong’s preaching took an anti-government stance. He publicly proclaimed himself Heavenly King of the Taiping Kingdom. He rewarded his most faithful subjects, like Yang, Feng, and Xiao, with similar titles, and promised those who served him well the same.
The king needed a palace. Jintian wouldn’t do; the enemy already knew that Hong and his followers were holed up there, and had more troops on the way. So the rebels slipped out, heading north along the Xiang River. They built up their numbers by stealing boats and baptizing new converts along the way. After a series of unsuccessful sieges and temporary occupations, they captured Nanjing in May 1860.
Conquest did not come without casualties. While morale was low during the doomed siege of Changsha, Xiao took to the field in his colorful kingly robes in order to raise spirits. A Qing gunner atop the walls noticed the bright target, and took the shot. Xiao soon succumbed to his wounds, leaving Hong without a direct line to his celestial brother.
Still, Nanjing was Hong’s, and he would make the most of it. He retreated from administrative duties, making a home of the Presidential Palace. He had all Nanjing’s Manchu people, to which ethnic group the Qing rulers also belonged, executed, and many of the city’s landmarks destroyed. He banned trends that were mainstays of Qing culture, like footbinding and the queue hairstyle. He greatly restricted trade. He outlawed alcohol and opium. He called for the strict segregation of men and women, even married couples. He had everyone’s personal property seized, so that his people could live communally. He rewrote the Bible, striking its bawdier passages and allowing for the possibility of his visionary trip to Heaven.
Despite his withdrawal, Hong’s power continued to grow. When Yang channeled God to demand a title equivalent to Hong’s, Hong called his generals to slaughter Yang and all his followers. Now the sole religious authority of the Taiping Kingdom, Hong of course had special privileges. He filled the Presidential Palace with women, requiring them to serve him and play music for him on command. Christian Westerners who attempted friendly visits to his capital were driven away by cannon fire, or insulted by demands to submit. Punishment for transgressions was severe, with public flogging a regular staple. And in 1860, the Taipings finally pushed the Qing out of the area surrounding Nanjing, paving the way for conquest of the richer provinces to the south.
Things changed when the Taipings tried to take Shanghai. The once nominally neutral Westerners had been provisioned by the Qing government to raise armies composed of both European and Chinese soldiers, and these successfully repelled the rebel army. Slowly, over the next few years, one Taiping territory after another fell to the Qing army, until they finally surrounded Nanjing in May of 1864.
The Qing army quickly cut off Nanjing’s food supply. Hong addressed his people, assuring them that God would protect them. What need was there for trade when God provided a bounty of wild vegetables? Hong demonstratively picked a handful and ate it before the crowd. He died of food poisoning 20 days later.
The Qing army seized Nanjing. They cremated Hong’s body and fired his ashes out of a cannon so he would have no permanent resting place. Hong’s son Tianguifu inherited the throne of the Heavenly King, but the 15-year-old was ill-equipped to rule. He managed to escape the city, but was captured and executed within months. Some Taiping strongholds remained, while others splintered off into distinct rebel factions, but none of them managed to gain a foothold.
The rebellion was over, but it left an enduring legacy. Some supporters of the Taiping way of life attempted to establish another Heavenly Kingdom in 1903, but their plot was discovered and foiled before it could get underway. The Taiping Rebellion also inspired later, more successful Chinese revolutionaries, like Sun Yat-Sen and Mao Zedong, who admired Hong’s efforts to create an egalitarian, communal society.