Hong Xiuquan or Hung Hsiu-Ch’üan (1814-1864), leader of the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864). Hong initiated a Christian movement that inspired the rebellion, which cost millions of lives and weakened the authority of China’s imperial Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty.
Little in Hong’s childhood foreshadowed his later role as a rebel leader. Hong was born and raised in a village outside the southern city of Guangzhou (also known as Canton). He belonged to the Hakka, a minority group that was persecuted in some areas of China. In the hope that Hong could become a government official, his family sent him to school to prepare for national examinations. Hong took the examinations in 1828, 1836, 1837, and 1843—failing on each occasion. During this time, Hong worked as a teacher in his village. After learning of his failure in 1837 he became seriously ill. During his illness Hong had a vision in which he saw himself ascending to the heavens. There he met an elderly man with a long golden beard and the man’s son, who identified himself as Hong’s older brother. They gave Hong a new set of internal organs to replace his old, impure ones and ordered him to “slay the demons” with a sword they bestowed upon him. Hong awoke from the vision a changed man, calm and confident. In 1843, after failing the examinations a fourth time, Hong happened to glance through some Christian tracts that an American Protestant missionary had given him years before. With the information from the tracts, Hong quickly interpreted his vision: The old man was God, Hong himself was the second son of God and brother of Jesus Christ, and Hong’s mission was to save China.
Hong immediately tried to convert family and friends to his beliefs. He called for the destruction of traditional temples and idols, and denounced activities such as prostitution and the consumption of alcohol. Although he won some converts, he alienated many people and lost his teaching position. In 1844 Hong traveled west with his convert and friend Feng Yunshan to preach to the Hakkas in the adjacent province of Guangxi (now Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region). Hong stayed in Guangxi only a few months before returning home to continue his studies and writing. In 1847 he went to Guangzhou and studied the Bible for the first time, with American Baptist missionary Issachar J. Roberts. Hong’s writings from this period illustrate his efforts to understand his conversion within the context of Chinese cultural tradition.
The Taiping Rebellion, however, owed less to Hong’s Bible study than to local developments, especially a breakdown of government authority accompanied by a surge of local militias and bandits in Guangxi. During Hong’s absence, Feng had created a religious movement around Hong’s vision called the Bai Shangdi Hui (God-Worshipers’ Society). In the face of the chaos in Guangxi, the Hakkas there embraced the promise of salvation and security that the society offered. In 1848 Feng was detained by a local militia leader and deported to Guangdong, Hong and Feng’s home province. Hong traveled to Guangdong to speak in his defense, and the pair did not return to Guangxi until 1849. In their absence local leaders of the movement, who claimed they could communicate directly with God, created military units and added elements from Chinese popular religion to Hong’s original Christian vision. Although organization of the movement improved, the growing power of the local leaders implicitly challenged Hong’s authority and eventually contributed to the fall of the rebellion.
After Hong returned in 1849, the movement grew rapidly, reaching some 20,000 followers by 1850. Its members clashed frequently with other militarized groups in the Guangxi countryside. In January 1851, after his forces successfully defeated a government attempt to destroy the movement, Hong declared the establishment of a new state, the Taiping Tianguo (Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace). The rebellion was underway, and China’s Qing rulers took on the role of the demons that Hong had been instructed to slay in his original vision. The Taipings, as the rebels were called, moved northeast into central China.
Although Hong is remembered as the leader of the Taiping Rebellion, his greatest contributions occurred in the movement’s formative period. Hong wrote or oversaw the writing of thousands of pages that explain his vision and describe the paradise on earth that the Taipings hoped to create. After Taiping forces captured Nanjing in March 1853 and established it as their capital, Hong declared himself Tian Wang (Heavenly King). He adorned himself in regal attire and established lavish palaces. But as the rebellion continued, Hong gradually withdrew from active leadership. Abandoning the puritanism of his original vision—although he continued to demand it of his followers—he surrounded himself with courtesans and other sensual pleasures. Internal power struggles began to cost the Taipings their most talented leaders, but Hong was unable to provide direction. After 1862 Western powers assisted the Qing government in fighting the Taipings. Hong died, possibly by his own hand, in 1864 during the final government attack on Nanjing. In all, the rebellion cost at least 10 million lives and perhaps as many as 20 million. The Qing dynasty collapsed less than 50 years after rebellion ended.
Much about Hong’s remarkable life was the product of chance. Had he not kept the missionary literature given to him in 1836, his frustration would certainly have taken a different form. Had he not visited Guangxi with Feng in 1844, his vision almost certainly would not have inspired a rebellion. Yet the magnitude and popular appeal of the movement he launched illustrates the gravity of China’s social unrest at that time, the weakness of the central government, and the explosive potential of Western ideas.