1. HONG XIUQUAN AND THE TAIPING REBELLION
Regardless of place, culture, or skin color, Christian apocalypticism was sometimes enthusiastically absorbed as a solution to the local problems. Both the black Nat Turner and the Amerindian Wovoka used it as a weapon against the white exploiters. Transposing themselves into the role of God’s messengers, their wrath came to be mistaken for God’s wrath. In both cases the rebels and the casualties were numbered in a couple of hundreds at most. In 1897 in Brazil the outcome was far worse: the political and economic convulsions boosted the prophet Antonio Conselheiro at the head of an apocalyptic rebellion that claimed over 15,000 lives.1197 But when this kind of social and religious phenomenon occurred in China, things had an entirely different proportion. In the country with more riots than the rest of the world combined, the Taiping Rebellion holds a special place. It stretched over a period of 15 years, it covered 11 provinces of the Yangtze River and it cost over 20 million lives – most likely the biggest revolt of mankind. And it all began with a Bible and a man who suffered a breakdown.
At the beginning of the 19th century Europeans were heavily involved in the Asian maritime trade. The Chinese ports became fertile places for business, with British dealers making huge profits from the opium trade. The Qing Dynasty opened the gates of China for commercial and cultural exchange, so Christian preachers and missionaries of all kinds came to put into practice their skills. The streets of the port city of Guangzhou were packed with militia, workers, opportunists, prostitutes, explorers, foreigners and businessmen. This was the urban environment in 1836, when Hong Renkun, a 22-year-old poor teacher from the countryside, arrived in the city to take the civil service examination. But, as only about one percent of the applicants were passing, he failed not once, but four times over the coming years.1198
In 1837, after failing for the second time, Hong suffered a prolonged illness during which he passed in and out of consciousness. While he was unconscious he had all sorts of dreams. Once, he found himself in Heaven, speaking with two extraordinary beings, an old man with golden beard and a young man with golden hair. In another vision he saw Confucius punished for his misbelief, after which he repented. On another occasion a sword and a magical seal were given to him, and he was urged to purify China of demons and establish the Heavenly Kingdom. Upon regaining consciousness and gradually his health, Hong could not think of a rational explanation of his dreams and he returned to his studies.
The imperial examinations seem to have been a painful experience, which irremediably damaged Hong’s mind and his faith in the Chinese state. In the same year when Joseph Smith Jr. was ardently preaching the coming of Christ in America, a messiah was taking shape in China. In 1843, after failing the examinations for the fourth and final time, Hong read a Christian pamphlet given to him by a missionary seven years earlier. It was a revelation: Jesus Christ and God the Father had been the beings from his dreams and he, Hong Renkun, was God’s Chinese son, Jesus’s younger brother, sent to save China of demons – the Qing Dynasty and the false religions.1199
In the period following this delusional epiphany, Hong spent his time converting people to Christianity and building up support for his movement. The revelations seriously altered his personality: he became much more grave and authoritative and he changed his name from “Renkun” to “Xiuquan,” which means “elegant and perfect.” He also ordered a local craftsman to forge him two double-edged swords, of almost one meter in length and five kilograms in weight each, for exterminating demons.1200 His first two converts were his cousins, Feng Yunshan and Hong Rengan; they both played important roles in gaining followers and held powerful positions within the rebellion.
Revolts appear when there is a rupture between leaders and their subjects. In the first half of the 19th century the ruling Qing Dynasty had great political and economic problems, amplified by a humiliating defeat by the United Kingdom in the First Opium War in 1842. The British were dominating Hong Kong, the foreigners were trampling under foot the Chinese millenary traditions and the civil servants were inefficient and corrupt. These social disorders, alongside the natural ones (the Chinese were very superstitious), were questioning the competence and the legitimacy of the ruling class, while the common Chinese felt themselves betrayed by their own leaders. The anti-Qing sentiment was stronger than ever in Southern China, where Hong began his recruitment, and the discontented working classes were ready to join anyone who could bring them comfort and hope. So, a combination of poverty, an anti-Qing sentiment, a weakened ruling dynasty and the intrusion of the European powers allowed the charismatic Hong Xiuquan to rapidly gain power.
Christianity was a new and exotic religion for the Chinese people. Hong’s passion for Christianity is analogous to the appeal of Westerners for Oriental religions: both examples reflect the idea of ideological adventure, the tendency to ignore or to underrate the immediately accessible doctrines, and to search for overvalued truths in remote and inaccessible places. Christianity was accepted as an alternative to Confucianism. The traditional religion of Confucianism was enjoying the support of royalty, as the Catholic Church was supported by the French crown before the French Revolution. In this way Hong attempted to eliminate the traditional religion just like the French revolutionaries attempted to wipe out Christianity.
From 1844 until 1850 Hong and his lieutenants managed to gather tens of thousands of followers. Named …
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