What was the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century? Presented with that question, the average Westerner’s thoughts might turn to the many invasions mounted by Napoleon, or to the Crimean War, or to the American Civil War. Few are likely to think about the civil war that was fought in China between 1850 and 1864. That conflict was well-nigh cataclysmic, with a death toll on the order of twenty times or more that of the American war between the states. And yet it is all but forgotten in the West today; I know of at least one recently published popular history of China that literally doesn’t mention it at all. The Chinese themselves, however, remember it well, and their leaders continue to apply the lessons they believe it to have taught them.

The story begins in 1815 with a man named Liang Fa, who was 26 years old at the time and working as a printer in Guangzhou. He was hired by a Briton named William Milne, a Protestant Christian missionary in a land where proselytizing by foreigners was officially forbidden, to print parts of the Bible in Chinese for distribution among his people. Liang Fa took the job only for the money that came with it; he was a Buddhist, and was not looking to make a change. But over time the content of the texts he was typesetting and the evangelical zeal of his employer wore down his resistance. About eighteen months after joining Milne’s operation, he allowed himself to be baptized into the foreign faith. From that point forward, his ardor for spreading it throughout China grew by leaps and bounds.

The fact was that people like William Milne had great need of people like Liang Fa. Although the ban on proselytizing was enforced only spottily in most times and places, there remained many segments of Chinese society that a Westerner simply couldn’t penetrate, for linguistic and cultural reasons as well as legal ones. Displaying the sanguine confidence of the truly devout, the Western missionaries in China believed that all of the people there would surely come to recognize God’s truth for themselves if they were but given the opportunity. Their hope was to convert enough native Chinese to the faith to turn the process of Christianizing China into just such a self-sustaining inevitability. Liang Fa became a star among the missionary movement for his devotion and energy. In 1827, he was made an ordained minister.

Liang Fa felt that, although direct translations of the Bible were of course essential reading for already committed Christians, the cause of conversion could be aided enormously by a book that spoke to the curious in a more direct way, in a Chinese rather than a Western idiom. He accordingly set out to provide this book, which he finished at last in 1832. Called Good Words to Admonish the Age, it was a sort of Reader’s Digest version of the Old and New Testaments, written in vernacular Chinese, with only occasional direct quotations from the “real” Bible where Liang Fa deemed them indispensable. The author also made space to write of his personal experiences with the Christian God, and to share some of his own thoughts about grace and sin, faith and fate, the holy savior named Jesus Christ and the fork-tongued deceiver he considered China’s own foremost moral philosopher Confucius to be.

He printed tens or hundreds of thousands of copies of the finished book, and spread them throughout the country using a network that ironically resembled the one used to distribute the illicit drug of opium. A poor and remote village might wake up one morning to find a copy of Good Words sitting on the front stoop of each and every house. But the man who would turn this well-meaning book into a wellspring of all manner of evils discovered it much nearer to its source.

Every spring, Guangzhou was the site of a new round of regional examinations for the civil service, which attracted ambitious young men from hundreds of miles around who had spent years studying the Confucian classics in preparation. One of those who came in 1836 was the 22-year-old Hong Huoxiu, youngest son of a rural family of good breeding but little wealth from the nearby province of Guangxi. He was making his second attempt already to pass the examinations. Walking past the Western compounds outside the city walls one day, he encountered a white man — possibly an American missionary named Edwin Stevens, who would die of a fever just months later — and was silently handed a copy of Liang Fa’s book. Preoccupied as he was with the examinations, Hong Huoxiu gave the incident little thought, marking it down as just one more strange anecdote from this huge, bustling city that was so different in so many ways from the quiet village where he lived. Needing anything but another text to read, he barely even glanced at the book. Alas, he failed his examinations anyway, and returned to his village with the book amongst his baggage.

The following year, Hong Huoxiu went to Guangzhou to try again, and failed again. Back in his village, he was struck so severely ill that his family gathered around his bed, half-convinced they were witnessing his last hours. But while his external form thrashed and moaned in the throes of a scorching fever, his spirit went on an epic journey. He met a great Father of Heaven, who gave him a sword and entrusted him to slay a Devil King on behalf of righteousness. This he accomplished in the dream, whereupon the Heavenly Father told him that he must now return to earth to do the same thing there. And when he did so, he must take a new given name: instead of Huoxiu, which can be translated as “Beautiful Fire,” he must become Xiuquan, which means “Beautiful Completeness.”

The young man’s family was understandably nonplussed when his fever finally broke and he emerged from his delirium babbling excitedly about his new name; they suspected he had gone mad under the pressure of his illness and the shame of his failures in Guangzhou. In time, however, a degree of normality returned: Hong Xiuquan accepted an ordinary job in his village as a schoolteacher. Even then, though, he was a different man from the one he had been before: what had been a cheerful, happy-go-lucky disposition had become a grave and serious one, and he never failed to correct anyone who called him by his old name. In the evenings, he wrote disturbing poems about how he would “behead the evil ones” and “seize the evil demons.”

In the meantime, China suffered the humiliation of the Opium War, an event that had little obvious material impact on life in the village but which did profoundly affect the villagers’ psyches, as it did those of all Chinese. And then fate intervened in Hong Xiuquan’s life yet again. In 1843, he went to Guangzhou to take the examinations for a fourth time, and failed for a fourth time. Shortly after he returned home, a friend of his spotted the odd little book he had brought back with him from the same city seven years before. His curiosity fired, the friend asked to borrow it. He took it home and read it, then urged Hong Xiuquan to read it as well. He did so.

The fire-and-brimstone tales of the Old Testament, as filtered through the Chinese sensibilities of Liang Fa, chimed with the fever dream which Hong Xiuquan still so vividly remembered. Ditto Liang Fa’s contempt for Confucian scholarship — just the stuff for a man who had now been tested on four occasions via one of Confucianism’s most venerable metrics, and found wanting on each of them. “The practice of Confucian teaching often is full of vanity and absurdity,” Liang Fa had written. “These Confucian scholars are bewildered and obsessed by their ambitions, so they cling to their delusions and worship idols instead of with a humble mind worshiping the Ruler of Heaven and Earth, the God who rules the entire world and all its wealth and glory, in accordance with the sacred principles of the Great Way.”

On the strength of this one book, Hong Xiuquan elected to become a Christian, at least as far as he understood the meaning of that descriptor. He and the friend who had discovered the book on his shelf baptized one another into the faith. At first, his family, friends, and neighbors believed the madness of his illness had come upon him once again. Yet he preached with such passion that he soon began to convert them as well. Another conviction was coming upon him: that he was being called upon directly by God to do his work in China. For surely it was too much of a coincidence, he said, that both the book and the vision had come to him unbidden: “If I had received the book without having gone through the sickness, I should not have dared believe in it; if I had merely been sick but not also received the book, I should have had no further evidence of my vision. I have received the immediate command from God in his presence. The will of Heaven rests with me.” He began to imagine himself to be God’s second son, a brother to Jesus Christ, tasked with spreading the holy gospel in this, the most populous country in the world.

So, he and some of his disciples took to the road to preach, just as Jesus had done. Having never seen a complete Christian Bible, Hong Xiuquan’s version of the religion was almost hilariously garbled, reading rather like that of the monks in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s classic post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Yet Hong Xiuquan was by all indications an incredibly compelling speaker, able to sell his pidgin Christianity to hundreds, then thousands of people whom he met on peregrinations. Eventually word of this Chinese shepherd and his growing flock reached the Western missionaries in the big coastal cities, and the latter made some attempts to reach out to him and bring him into their fold. But they never got far; it seems that Hong Xiuquan was settling into his role as God’s second son quite happily, and felt no desire to be a subordinate to any mere mortal — not even to Liang Fa, the man who had written his holy text, who was still alive and well in Guangzhou. (Liang Fa wouldn’t die until 1855, leaving his opinion of the movement that sprang from his little book unrecorded.)

Nor did Hong Xiuquan show much interest in dramatically altering his teachings to correspond with those found in the complete Bible, once one was finally made available to him. Why should he? He had in effect created his own religion, with himself standing comfortably by God’s side at its center. By 1847 — four years after his Road to Damascus moment — he had begun referring to himself using the first-person honorific Zhen, normally reserved for emperors alone. “I [Zhen] the ruler, as commander of the Heavenly hosts, will show no mercy,” he said. His sermons took on a more aggressive tone. He particularly relished relating the fate awaiting Confucius, whose spirit had ruled China for so long — but no longer, according to Hong Xiuquan’s latest visions:

Confucius, seeing that everyone in the High Heaven pronounced him guilty, secretly fled down from Heaven, hoping to join up with the leader of the demon devils. The Heavenly Father, the Supreme Lord and Great God, thereupon dispatched Hong Xiuquan and a host of angels to pursue Confucius and to bring him, bound and tied, before the Heavenly Father. The Heavenly Father, in great anger, ordered the angels to flog him. Confucius knelt before the Heavenly Elder Brother, Christ, and repeatedly begged to be spared. Confucius was given many lashes, and his pitiful pleas were unceasing.

Such disparagement of the august sage and his teachings set Hong Xiuquan at odds with the laws of Qing China, even as his instinct for personal aggrandizement threatened to make him an antichrist in the eyes of the West’s religious gatekeepers. No matter; he paid little heed to either group. He spoke of a “Great Peace” (Taiping) and a “Heavenly Kingdom” that was soon to replace all of the existing social structures in China. And the people around him responded with enthusiasm, for they were as fed up with the corrupt ineffectuality of their Qing overlords as they were with the European barbarians who were constantly trying to force their drugs upon them. By 1850, it was becoming dangerous not to be an adherent of the new faith in those places where it was dominant, and Hong Xiuquan was talking of armies as much as scripture. He had taken to wearing a yellow robe — the uniform of a Chinese emperor, the clearest sign yet where his true ambition lay.

With the Taiping rebels now controlling virtually the entire province of Guangxi, with the people there refusing to pay their taxes or obey the duly appointed imperial authorities, the Qing government had to react. The opening skirmishes of the civil war to come took place in early December of 1850, when a small imperial army, sent on a probing and reconnaissance mission, was driven off resoundingly by the rebels. A larger army followed within a few weeks, and the war began in earnest.

The fighting quickly became almost unimaginably savage. According to Hong Xiuquan, the war was nothing less than a direct conflict between God and Satan, the Qing soldiers demons on earth fit only for extermination. On top of this apocalyptic foundation was laid a solid superstructure of ethnic animus.

We have carefully investigated the Manchu Tartars’ origins and have found that their first ancestors were a white fox and a red dog, who copulated together and from their seed produced this race of demons. As their numbers grew, they mated together since they had no proper human relationships nor civilization. Availing themselves of China’s lack of real men, they seized the country, established their own demon throne, and placed the wild fox upon it; in their court the monkeys bathed and dressed. We Chinese could not plow up their caves or dig up their dens; instead we fell in with their treacherous plots, bore their insults, and obeyed their commands. Moreover, our civil and military officials, coveting their awards, bowed and knelt in the midst of this pack of foxes and dogs. Now, a little child only three feet tall may be extremely ignorant, but point to a pig or a dog and tell him to bow down to it and he will redden with anger.

Slowly the war tipped in favor of the rebels, who fought with a fanatical fury which the underpaid, underfed conscripts of the Qing couldn’t match. Far from being put down, the rebellion extended its territory steadily, beginning to take on the trappings of a true rival empire in the heart of Inner China. On March 29, 1853, it achieved something which the rebels themselves would never have imagined possible just a few years earlier: the conquest of Nanjing, one of the largest, richest, and most storied cities in all of China, the same one the British had conquered to put a definitive end to the Opium War. Hong Xiuquan moved into the palace complex at its center, a place that had once been home to other Chinese emperors. It was now to be the nerve center of his own Heavenly Kingdom.

From this hub he sent more armies driving outward in several directions at once. The one moving north managed to cross the Qinling Mountains and get within 70 miles (110 kilometers) of Beijing. It was halted and gradually driven back over the mountains only at a huge cost in lives. The armies moving west were more successful; within a few years, almost all of Southern Inner China was in Taiping hands, excepting only Guangzhou and the other coastal cities and regions. China had been neatly divided into two, in much the same way as it had been during the late Song dynasty.

The deconstruction of Chinese society which Hong Xiuquan undertook in the lands he conquered was every bit as radical — and, in fact, every bit as communist — as the one Mao Zedong would attempt a century later. Communities were organized into groupings of 105 families each, with each grouping having a proven exemplar of the one true faith at its head, four zealous but slightly less proven lieutenants under him, and 25 ordinary families under each lieutenant. Each group was responsible for building and maintaining a granary for storing food in common and a chapel for worshiping in at strictly defined times and in strictly defined ways; children were required to attend church every single day in order to ensure that they were appropriately indoctrinated in the faith. All land too was held in common, the responsibility for working it parceled out on the basis of one share per adult, one half-share per child; each full share was given five chickens and two pigs. Money, commerce, and private ownership of anything whatsoever were forbidden. “All people on this earth are as the family of the Lord their God on High,” proclaimed Hong Xiuquan, “and when people of this earth keep nothing for their private use, but give all things to God for all to use in common, then in the whole land every place shall have equal shares, and everyone be clothed and fed.” For the first time in Chinese history, women were granted almost equal rights with men, to the extent that all-female armies were formed; these marched into battle as bloodthirstily as their male counterparts, much to the consternation of their opponents. The genders were held separate as much as possible to discourage the sin of lust, and sexual activity beyond that absolutely necessary for procreation was frowned upon even within the marriage bed. (Of course, in the way of cult leaders for time immemorial, Hong Xiuquan himself was exempt from any such strictures; he maintained a large harem in his palace.) Opium use was forbidden on pain of execution, as were countless other pleasures.

Anyone who broke the rules, or who dared to question the orthodoxy of the faith, was dealt with swiftly and brutally, their corpses left strung up in the center of town to serve as a warning to others. Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist shrines and temples were looted and desecrated as a matter of policy whenever the Taiping took control of a new area. Existing adherents to more Westernized strains of Christianity were executed or enslaved if they refused to accept Hong Xiuquan as a Christ co-equal with Jesus.

The new faith did slowly expand its body of scripture. Hong Xiuquan allowed some books of the real Christian Bible to be printed, but only after he had gone through each of them carefully, correcting “errors” in the version brought to China by the Europeans. Jesus, for instance, was now to be referred to as God’s eldest son — thus leaving room for Hong Xiuquan to be his younger son.

The Westerners who clustered at the big trading centers on the coast still weren’t sure what to make of the Taiping. Was this the long-sought mass Christianizing of China of which the missionaries had been dreaming for so long? One French sea captain who visited Nanjing wrote home to his mother how life there had

a family air which seems to justify the name of “brother” that they give to each other. Thus all their homes are shared in common, and their food and clothing are held in public storehouses. Gold, silver, and precious goods are all placed in the treasury. One can sell nothing, buy nothing. It is up to the leaders to see to all the different needs of the subordinates. Is it not admirable that a population of over 1 million can be thus clothed and fed in the midst of a civil war?

Other Westerners were less positively inclined. They saw the Taiping as “puritanical and even fanatic,” their vaunted religion founded upon a “spurious revelation,” “superadded thereto a tissue of superstition and nonsense.” For many of them, the really burning question was how the civil war in progress, and a potential new government in China if the Taiping should win out, would affect the all-important issue of trade. Granted, a government founded on the premises that money was a sin against God and opium use should be punished by execution didn’t sound overly promising for their priorities, but it remained hard for the Europeans to let go of the longstanding notion that anything that weakened Qing authority was good for their business.

Indeed, as the civil war dragged on and on, the Western nations, especially Britain, began to smell opportunity in the country’s suffering. The Whigs were back in power in London, with Lord Palmerston, the Qing dynasty’s crusty old bête noire, now ensconced as Prime Minister. He continued to nurse a host of grievances against China, rooted in the fact that the annual balance of trade between the two nations still came out in favor of China to the tune of some £9 million, despite all of the concessions forced upon the Qing after the Opium War. For, although the opium trade was still going apace, it couldn’t match a renewed craze in Britain for Chinese porcelain. Some of the reason for the Chinese disinterest in British goods other than opium was doubtless down to the cataclysmic civil war going on there, while much of the rest could be chalked up to a widespread loathing of all things British after the death and destruction that nation had so recently caused; this was one of the few things upon which both Qing and Taiping adherents could largely agree. But Palmerston and his ministers stubbornly refused to see it that way. They rather attributed the trade imbalance to a Chinese failure to live up to the letter of the Treaty of Nanjing. Their stooges in the press wrote that Britain must “enforce the right of civilised nations to free commerce and communications with every part of this vast territory.” Needless to say, this formulation was absurd on the face of it; absent a treaty to that effect, there existed no principle in international law of a “right” of the citizens of one nation to trade and travel wherever and whenever they wished within another sovereign nation’s borders. But it would have to do.

All that was now needed was a more proximate cause to justify war. This the Chinese governor of Guangdong province helpfully provided on October 8, 1856, when his coast guard seized a Chinese-owned and Chinese-crewed pirate ship which happened to be registered in the British port of Hong Kong. Declaring that “so gross an insult” must be “publicly atoned,” Lord Palmerston demanded that the House of Commons pass a resolution for war. It failed by sixteen votes.

But that wasn’t the end of the matter. A general election was held the following spring; this the incumbent government turned into a referendum on British dignity and Oriental chicanery, and the abject unwillingness of the opposition to uphold the former and punish the latter. “The war party’s rhetorical strategy was simple,” writes Julia Lovell: “to repeat loudly that violence against China was honourable and inevitable until, in the popular imagination, it became so. The focus of debate about the war was adeptly shifted from a nice point of international law to emotional questions of patriotism and national interest.” The populist gambit paid off magnificently: the Whigs were returned to power with an even larger majority, enough to rubber-stamp Lord Palmerston’s war. His government now convinced France and Russia to sign up for the war as well. From the British point of view, this gave the brewing second Western assault on Chinese sovereignty a veneer of international respectability; the new allies, for their part, signed on to avoid losing out on all of the spoils to Britain, as they had last time around. China had become the piñata that everyone was jockeying to have a whack at, just in case something tasty fell out.

The Second Opium War began for real on December 29, 1857, when a British fleet commenced shelling long-suffering Guangzhou, which had been too busy worrying about the Taiping rebels inland to its west to give much thought to attacks from its seaward side. The city fell after just over a week. The Qing navy and army, depleted by the ongoing civil war, were in even worse condition to fight this latest war against the West than the last one. Accordingly, the European allies did more or less whatever they liked on China’s coast, encountering resistance that was occasionally heroic but never effective. That they didn’t do more was largely down to the fact that all of the allies had expensive military commitments elsewhere, and were hopeful that the Qing government could be coerced relatively cheaply into meeting their demands for opening yet more ports to them and conforming to yet more rules about how the Chinese were allowed to manage their own economy. An odd sort of phony war developed; even as they were avowedly fighting one another, the two sides also continued to trade at ports like Guangzhou and Shanghai.

In the meanwhile, the Qing dynasty’s internal problems were multiplying. Having lost most of Southern Inner China to the Taiping rebels, it was now facing another insurgency in Northern Inner China, prompted by a recent string of natural disasters and poor harvests to which the government had responded feebly if at all. This Nian Rebellion was more typical of Chinese history than was the Taiping Rebellion, lacking the latter’s quality of Western religious fanaticism, but its closer proximity to the capital made it if anything even more of an existential threat. Surrounded by enemies foreign and domestic, in firm control of barely a third of Inner China, the Qing dynasty seemed not long for this world.

Showing an understanding of realpolitik belied by his rigid religiosity, Hong Xiuquan sent feelers to the Western allies, promising that he would give them everything they were currently demanding from the Qing — yes, even an unrestricted opium marketplace — if he should find himself in charge of all of China. He received only noncommittal responses; the West remained as unsure as ever about what to make of his movement. So, in August of 1860 he decided to force the issue by marching on Shanghai, by now the busiest port in all of China. Before doing so, he sent messages to the Westerners there saying that, as fellow believers in Jesus Christ, they were not the targets of his ire. They should fly yellow flags above their churches, dwellings, and places of business so that his troops could know them and leave them unharmed.

The plan backfired disastrously. Instead of welcoming the Taiping rebels, the Westerners made common cause with the very same Chinese in Shanghai with whom they were at war in other contexts. Their ships and heavy artillery shredded the Taiping ranks, sending them scurrying back to Nanjing after sustaining enormous losses. Hong Xiuquan had indeed forced the West to take a clear stand on his insurrection at long last, but its choice of sides had not been the one he had hoped for and expected. The contradictions between his promises and his radical current regime, with its community property and its execution of opium smokers, were just too large for the Europeans to trust him. A decree came down from them, establishing a zone of security 30 miles (50 kilometers) wide around Shanghai. Whatever future the West saw for China, it was now clear that it did not involve Hong Xiuquan sitting on a throne in Beijing.

In fact, rather than joining with either of the native rebellions, the Western allies had finally resolved to end the Second Opium War once and for all on their own terms. Even as the Taiping army was fleeing willy-nilly from the vicinity of Shanghai, a British and French fleet was making its way toward Beijing. That October, the soldiers it disgorged strolled through the gates of the capital, which had been left undefended by the exigencies of the civil wars. The current emperor, whose name was Xianfeng, had already fled ignominiously into the northern hinterlands of Manchuria.

The British and French troops romped through the Summer Palace, a favorite residence of the emperor that stood not far north of the city. They kowtowed to one another mockingly before the imperial throne, tossed the sacred paraphernalia of the Son of Heaven out of high windows, busted open every door to see what fresh fun might lie behind it. (Among the playthings the soldiers discovered were all of the sample trade goods — telescopes and clocks, carriages and a hot-air balloon — that had been brought to Beijing by George Macartney’s mission of 1793.) Feeling vindictive after learning of the capture and torture of one of their diplomatic delegations, the British commanders ordered the entirety of the Summer Palace, by all surviving accounts an architectural wonder for the ages, to be burned to the ground, over the objections of their French comrades-in-arms. Some of the British officers did have the grace to be appalled at this wanton act of vandalism. With an inadvertent nod to the rhetoric of Hong Xiuquan, one of them wrote how “the red flames gleaming on the faces of the troops made them appear like demons glorying in the destruction of what they could not replace.” But most considered it lenient not to have burnt the Forbidden City as well, or even more. “There are people,” wrote a French diplomat, “who would like to burn Peking and to torture every Chinese mandarin.”

An Italian photographer named Felice Beato traveled with the fleet that attacked Beijing in 1860, returning with some of the first photographs ever taken in China. Here we see the invasion force assembling in Hong Kong Harbor. (Public Domain)
The remnants of a Qing fort just outside Beijing. Julia Lovell writes that “an ecstatic Beato fussed about the carnage, pronouncing it ‘beautiful’ and insisting none of the corpses should be moved until he had captured them for posterity.” (Public Domain)
Beato took the only photographs of the Summer Palace before it was burnt to the ground by the British. (Public Domain)

Viewing the sad spectacle, one could all too easily assume it to mark the end of the Qing dynasty, possibly of an independent China altogether. But when they considered the matter, the Western allies realized that a cowed and supine Emperor Xianfeng, willing to agree to absolutely anything in order to be returned to his throne, actually suited their purposes quite well. All of the alternatives were far less appetizing: no Western nation wanted to take on the budget-draining responsibility of running this sprawling land as a full-fledged colony, even as none of them wanted to see a rival nation take over China either. And of course the rebels waging civil war were just too volatile and unpredictable to trust as puppet governments.

So, the allies agreed to allow Emperor Xianfeng to come back to Beijing. In return, he agreed to cede to Britain the Kowloon Peninsula, a small piece of the mainland near the island of Hong Kong, to add to its existing toehold of a colony; to open more ports for trade with all of the Western nations; to end the laws against Christian proselytizing and to cease all forms of persecution against Christians in China; to legalize opium throughout China; to allow Chinese citizens to emigrate to Western lands in unlimited numbers as indentured servants (this status made them little better than slaves; Chinese “coolies” would soon be used in many places as replacements for the cheap labor other slaves had once provided); to pay a huge indemnity for the cost of the war and all of the other trouble he had caused; and to cede a large chunk of territory in the far north of his empire to Russia. It was a humiliating pill to swallow, but swallow it he did. Alas, the indigestion killed him; he died a year later from a surfeit of food and drink and other over-indulgences, leaving the handlers of his successor, the five-year-old Emperor Tongzhi, to deal with the problem of China’s still-ongoing civil wars.

Fortunately for them, Hong Xiuquan’s Heavenly Kingdom was already starting to look wobbly. The draconian collectivism introduced by the Taiping worked no better here than it has in most times and places in history. As models of social organization that dated back centuries or millennia were indiscriminately dismantled, to be replaced by ones that functioned better in ideology than in practice, infrastructure decayed and harvests failed. Waves of famine swept across Southern Inner China, accompanied by floods as the structures and habits which kept water separate from land in this sodden region collapsed. The loss of life was staggering, literally incalculable today but running by most estimates into the tens of millions, dwarfing all of the combat losses from the civil war. In many places, the starving peasants rebelled against the same Taiping authorities whom they had welcomed with open arms just a few years earlier. The Taiping responded with violent force, leading to more disorder and yet more loss of life.

Undaunted, Hong Xiuquan made plans to continue his crusade. It was now more than obvious that the Westerners did not wish to join his cause. So be it. He gathered another army in Nanjing to assault Shanghai. This time, he would offer no quarter to the Westerners who lived there.

He inexplicably chose to launch the attack in the winter — in January of 1862, to be more specific. The army was caught in a blizzard well before it reached Shanghai, stopped in its tracks for weeks while the soldiers, who had been sent forth without adequate clothing, died by the thousands. Its slow progress gave the Qing enough time to send a large army of their own down from the north to meet the rebels. Some of its units were commanded by Western mercenaries, and it was also joined by some regular British and French brigades, who now had a vested interest in seeing the Qing win the civil war, thus preserving a highly favorable new status quo. A bloody stalemate wore right through the warmer months and into the following winter, while the civilians whose lives depended on the land that was being devastated — normally some of the best in all of Inner China — suffered and died en masse. One British officer’s report was typical:

In all places we had an opportunity of visiting, the distress and misery of the inhabitants were beyond description. Large families were crowded together into low, small, tent-shaped wigwams, constructed of reeds, through the thin sides of which the cold wind whistled at every blast from the biting north. The denizens were clothed in rags of the most loathsome kind, and huddled together for the sake of warmth. The old looked cast down and unable to work from weakness, whilst that eager expression peculiar to starvation, never to be forgotten by those who have once witnessed it, was visible upon the emaciated features of the little children.

Beginning in early 1863, the Qing pushed the Taiping back from the vicinity of Shanghai with the aid of European heavy artillery and other advanced weaponry. Meanwhile other campaigns were launched farther to the west, putting the squeeze on Nanjing itself. By that November, the Qing and their allies were fast converging on the Taiping capital from two separate directions. Hong Xiuquan refused his subordinates’ entreaties to flee. “I have received the sacred command of God, the sacred command of the Heavenly Brother Jesus, to come down into the world to become the only true Sovereign of the myriad countries under Heaven,” he said. “Why should I fear anything?”

Even during the following spring, with the people of the besieged city now starving all around him, he refused to countenance retreat or surrender. He ordered the people to eat weeds, saying God would magically transform them into “manna.” He fell ill soon after — according to some of his attendants, after partaking of too much of this manna himself. On June 1, 1864, he died quietly in his bed.

His fourteen-year-old son Hong Tianguifu then became the second and, as it would happen, the last monarch of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. The boy sat on his throne staring at the walls while his advisors and servants melted away in bids to save themselves. On July 19, the besiegers blew out a large span of Nanjing’s wall using European explosives which tunnelers had been methodically laying underneath it for weeks. Pouring through the breach, the attackers took Nanjing in short order. But, incredibly, the young Hong Tianguifu managed to slip out of the city amidst the confusion. He wasn’t captured until three months later, when he was discovered working on a farm as an ordinary peasant laborer. He pleaded his innocence to his captors: “The conquest of the empire was the ambition of the Heavenly King, and I had no part in it.” He told them that he no longer believed in his father’s religion, wished now to become a Confucian scholar. But he wasn’t given the chance. On November 18, 1864, he was executed.

Although pockets of resistance would persist for several years, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was more or less finished on that date. The Nian rebels met the same fate not long afterward, again with the support of the Western powers. Against all the odds, the Qing dynasty had survived. The old Western dream of a Christian China, on the other hand, was forever destroyed; public perceptions of Christianity in China remain sullied to this day by memories of the horrors of the Taiping era.

There are various ways of looking at the Taiping Rebellion, one of the more bizarre of all chapters in the history of China. A granular view might begin and end with the delusional narcissism of Hong Xiuquan himself, a classic cult leader in almost all the particulars. Indeed, this narrative is almost too neat. Surely it wasn’t by chance that he had his first visions after failing the Confucian examinations for the third time, then embarked on his quest for domination in earnest after doing so for an embarrassing fourth time. Obviously he must have channeled his personal disappointment and shame into resentment against China’s whole Confucian social structure; it was his sense of personal inadequacy that turned him into the monster he became. Too tidy by half though it may sound, such armchair psychology may very well be more or less correct.

But the Communist Chinese historians of today take a different message away from the Taiping Rebellion. To them, it is perhaps the most vivid illustration of all of the dangers that some sorts of ideas can present to Chinese social cohesion if allowed to run unchecked through the populace. To avoid chaos, goes the argument, the men in charge of China must diligently control access to them. A Great Wall remains essential, in other words, albeit one of a different stripe than those built from earth, brick, and stone during earlier centuries. A repressive movement by any standard, the Taiping Rebellion’s most enduring legacy may just be the repression that has since been applied in the name of preventing its recurrence. History is sometimes more black comedy than epic poetry.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

9 Comments for "Chapter 15: God’s Second Son"

  • Leo Vellés

    “It was now more than obvious that the Westerners did not wish to fight join his cause”.
    Being english not my first language, I might be wrong, but is “fight join” intended?
    Nice bit of history in this chapter, first time I heard of this Jesus little brother

    • Jimmy Maher

      Nope, extra word in there. Thanks!

  • morg

    I read recently accounts from Long March veterans who compared their crossing of the Tatu river in Sichuan with the destruction of Shih Ta-Kai, one of the Heavenly Kingdom’s leading generals, on the same banks. They managed to avoid a similar fate at the hands of the Kuomintang, and ascribe the collapse of the Taiping to their failure to build stable support among the people and “moreover…, its leading group committed many political and tactical errors”. I hadn’t known anything more specific about the earlier war or the Kingdom so this was neat!

  • Anton

    As always, thanks for the wonderful historic digest!

    Typo here: volitale should read volatile I guess.

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Pajeet

    This was a nice read

  • Michael+Waddell

    This is really great writing, and it’s about an important part of recent history that few Westerners know anything about. Thank you for this.

  • Will Moczarski

    “behead the evils ones”
    -> evil

    insisting none of the corpses should not be moved until he had capture
    -> should be moved? & captured

    died by the thousand
    -> thousands?

    • Jimmy Maher



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