Today we remember how in 1860 the Taiping rebels succeeded in taking the city of Hangzhou in China, in what would become the bloodiest civil war in world history. Their leader was the self-proclaimed prophet Hong Xiuquan who believed he was the brother of Jesus Christ. The Taiping Rebellion lasted fourteen years and estimates of the dead range from 20 to 30 million, with a recent Chinese study estimating up to 70 million. Fought against the Qing dynasty, for 10 years it was contained to the Yangtze valley, ultimately spreading into almost every province of China and became the largest conflict in the world of the 19th century.
The rebels leader Hong Xiuquan, had attempted to become an imperial civil servant. The imperial examination as they were known, served to ensure a common knowledge of writing, the classics, and literary style among state officials. The rigorous exam was an attempt to give state bureaucrats a common culture that helped to unify the empire and give legitimacy to imperial rule. It gave rise to a gentry class of scholar-bureaucrats. China had about one civil licentiate per 1000 people and as many as three million men a year took the exams with about 99% failing. When Hong Xiuquan travelled to Guangzhou to attempt the exam a third time, by accident he heard Edwin Stevens, a foreign missionary, preaching about Christianity. Taking away some leaflets he thought nothing more of it. When failed the exam the third time, he had a nervous breakdown and started having visions of visiting Heaven, where he discovered that he possessed a celestial family. When he recovered, he became interested in the literature brought back from the encounter with Stevens and was convinced that his that in his visions his celestial father was God the Father, the elder brother that he had seen was Jesus Christ, and he was Christs younger brother and had been directed to rid the world of demon worship.
Hong burned all the Confucian and Buddhist statues and books in his house, and began preaching to his community about his visions. Invited back to Guangzhou to study with the American Southern Baptist missionary, Rev Issachar Roberts, he studied translations of the Old and New Testaments and requested baptism. This was refused, possibly due to Hong being tricked by the other converts into requesting monetary aid from Roberts. Returning home, he worked on his own translation of the Bible "The Taiping Bible", and started to present his followers with it as a vision of the authentic religion that had existed in ancient China before it was wiped out by Confucius and the imperial system. He made some minor changes, such as correcting misprints and improving the prose style, and adapted the meaning to fit his own theology and moral teachings. He preached a mixture of communal utopianism, evangelism, and Christianity. He had fertile ground to sow his seeds, with rising unemployment and growing dissatisfaction with the Qing dynasty, China had just been humiliated by the British in the Opium Wars, which lead to a loss of prestige and control, but also had the side effect of allowing an influx of Christian missionaries into the country.
Hong Xiuquan, soon gathered about 30.000 followers and established the Heavenly Kingdom as an oppositional state based in Nanjing. He stated that one of his inspirations was John Bunyan's ‘Pilgrims Progress’ (see pod of Feb 18 ) . The authorities unsuccessfully attempted to supress them and soon they gained control of a significant part of southern China, eventually expanding to command a population base of nearly 30 million people. In 1864, Xiuquan died and Nanking fell during the Third Battle of Nanking, a month later. In terms of deaths, the civil war is comparable to whole of the first World War
His legacy as you can imagine is mixed, communists under Mao Zedong generally admired him and his movement as a legitimate peasant uprising that anticipated their own .There has been an active academic debate about whether Hong is similar or dissimilar to the Falun Gong founder. It may also help to explain why the Chinese Communist party seems so careful to control Christianity presently in China.