What would you do if a young unemployed man approached you, told you he was Jesus Christ’s younger brother, and asked you to help him overthrow the government? The answer for hundreds of thousands of Chinese in the 1800s was to agree enthusiastically and grab their weapons.
And that was how the Taiping Rebellion (sometimes called the Taiping Civil War) began.
How on Earth did this happen?
The Qing dynasty was deeply troubled in 1850. The British had just defeated them in the First Opium War, a series of natural disasters had struck the country, and the economy was collapsing. Bandits became common, and some civilians formed armed groups to oppose them.
The dynasty itself was ruled by Manchus, an ethnic minority in China which many members of other ethnic groups resented. A rebellion was practically inevitable.
A man named Hong Xiuquan had been gathering followers for his unique brand of Christianity for nearly two decades. (Note: in East Asian naming conventions the family name comes first, so Hong is his family name).
Hong had a series of visions in 1837 while he was severely ill. He had also repeatedly failed his imperial exams as he tried to become a government official.
In 1843, after reading a pamphlet from a Protestant preacher, he decided that he understood the visions. He believed that he was the brother of Jesus Christ (and the Son of God the Father) and that he was destined to overthrow the evil Qing government.
Hong soon began to gather followers for his new cult. He preached the overthrow of Confucianism as well as the government. His beliefs became an odd mix of local customs, Protestantism, millenarianism, prophesy, and Daoism.
Given the state of the county, perhaps it is not surprising that he soon gained a large number of adherents. He and his men also began to fight back against local bandits and pirates in Southern China, resulting in him gaining even more followers.
However, the Qing government became wary of a large armed cult calling for the overthrow of the government within their borders and decided to repress them.
This might seem like an incredible and absurd premise for the deadliest Civil War in history, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.
One might think that a rag-tag army of peasant zealots would be crushed quickly by the Qing military. However, that same military was unable to stop even bandits and pirates. The war raged on for a decade and a half.
On January 11, 1851, Hong’s birthday, he declared himself to be Heavenly King of the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace. This marked the beginning of the Jintian Uprising.
The Qing government sent an army of 7,000 soldiers to put down the rebellion. The soldiers ran into an ambush set by 10,000 – 20,000 rebels and were forced back, losing one of their commanders in the process.
Hong and his commanders were not satisfied with controlling part of Southern China and followed up on their victory by pushing into Central China. They took several significant cities, including Wuchang and Nanking.
The Heavenly Kingdom then began a genocide against ethnic Manchus, with about 40,000 killed in Nanking alone. After they took the city of Taiping, Hong declared it their capital.
Height of Power — and Division
In 1853, the Taiping Rebellion launched an assault northward designed to take the capital of Beijing. The Qing were so weak that they could not mount an adequate response, although they did delay the invasion for a while.
Manchu officials fled the city in fear as the Taiping Rebellion neared. However, Hong’s army hesitated and ultimately decided not to attack the city.
Meanwhile, within the Heavenly Kingdom, certain reforms were taking place. As part of the religion, everyone was required to acknowledge Hong as Jesus’s younger brother. They also had to memorize the Ten Commandments or face execution.
However, another program they implemented would have a more significant impact on world history: the Kingdom began to redistribute land. Karl Marx and Mao Zedong both later referenced this system in their writings.
Hong began living a life of luxury and hedonism in his new Kingdom. He frequently surrounded himself with numerous women in his inner chamber. Some of his followers began to realize that his motivations were impure and started secretly questioning his rule.
However, Hong somehow found out about this growing dissent and ordered them killed in what became known as the Taiping Incident. Ultimately, three kings serving under Hong and about 20,000 men died.
The Qing government eventually responded with a shocking and desperate move. They essentially admitted that they could not put down the rebellion or control all of China. Instead, they allowed provincial governments to form their own armies, leading to warlordism.
This strategy worked well in the short term, as warlord armies defeated the Heavenly Kingdom in Jiangxi province. The main Qing army began to have its first real success at this time and took back Wuchang.
Although the rebels launched several successful offensives in 1860, they soon began to fall apart in military terms. In June, the Taiping troops were routed in Jiangnan despite outnumbering the Qing army two to one. Foreign powers, including the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, began to intervene on behalf of the Qing.
In the Battle of Shanghai, 60,000 Qing troops, along with 7,000 Europeans, held off 120,000 rebels, inflicting horrible casualties in the process.
At this point, the Heavenly Kingdom’s days were numbered. British naval support allowed the Qing to take back coastal cities with ease, and another assault on Shanghai in 1862 ended in another lopsided victory for the Qing.
By June 1864, Hong found himself surrounded in Nanking. The rest of his Kingdom was under Qing control. Although he promised his men that God would defend the city, he died ingloriously after eating bad vegetables when the city ran low on food. A few days later, the city fell.
The Qing soon crushed the remaining rebel forces. They exhumed Hong’s body after the city fell to confirm his death. Then they burned the body and fired the ashes out of a cannon to avoid leaving a burial site.
When the war ended, as many as 30 million people were dead.
Read another story from us: Aggressive warrior emperor from China’s less well known period of disunion
If an author were to turn this story into a book, they would be panned for how unrealistic it is. Nonetheless, the bloodiest civil war in history really was caused by one man’s religious cult and his ability to take advantage of an unpopular government.
The story of the Taiping Rebellion stands as a shocking example of the dangers of religious extremism and cults. One can not help but wonder if a new cult could form today and gain such power.