"Great Peaceful Kingdom of Heaven" - Hong Xiuqan

11 January 1851 in Nanjing, Hong Xiuqan, the leader and “Heavenly King” of the Taiping Rebellion, proclaimed the "Great Peaceful Kingdom of Heaven".

"In describing this as His Majesty's earthly residence, I do not imply any earthly term to his existence. He is, as you know, immortal, but a time will come when he decides to take up permanent abode in Paradise. As it is, he makes frequent visits there, in his Dragon Chariot, for discussions with God. Of late his wife has accompanied him on these excursions to Heaven, and conversed with the Heavenly Father and the Elder Brother Jesus."I wondered if I'd misheard, or if he was speaking symbolically or even with irony. But he wasn't. He went on, conversationally:"It is a gratifying demonstration of the ordained equality of the sexes in the Heavenly Kingdom that the Heavenly King's consort enters so fully on his affairs. It was she, you know, who received the divine command that henceforth the Tien Wang should devote himself to meditation—apart from such duties as annotating the Book of Revelation—so that he may be fully prepared to take his place with the Junior Lord, his son, in Paradise, and sit with God and the Elder Brother." (George MacDonald Fraser, “Flashman and the Dragon”)

An idealised likeness of Hong Xiuqan from a statue at TianWang Fu (now the Presidential Palace), Nanjing*

Exams of Confucian scholarship, a prerequisite to enter civil service in the Empire of the Great Qing, must have been exceedingly difficult and poor Hong Xiuqan was not among the fortunate 1% who passed the test. He was obviously one of the fellows who took things rather hard and after his bungled third attempt, Hong Xiuqan fell into a deep depression, began to hallucinate and found god. Speaking of failures, the mostly Protestant missionaries who wandered China after the end of the First Opium War in 1842 trying to make proselytes could not show a conversion rate to speak of as well – until Hong Xiuqan saw the light. In a rather peculiar way, admittedly. Believing himself to be God’s Chinese son and Jesus’ younger brother, he began to reinterpret the Scriptures, mixing elements of traditional local folk beliefs into it and saw his mission clear – to destroy the demons that had plagued him in his visions, i.e. the Qing Emperor and Confucianism.

A contemporary drawing of Hong Xiuqan (c 1860)

It is not far off the mark to view long periods of Chinese history as a succession of peasant revolts and it speaks volumes about how terrible conditions were for the common lot, since they flocked to the hosts of the “Heavenly King” Hong Xiuqan and his Taiping (Heavenly Peace) movement literally in their millions and in the 1850s, the Changmao rebels, the Longhairs who refused to wear the traditional Qing queue, ruled large parts of the southeast of China from Nanjing, the capital of the “Heavenly Kingdom”. The realm itself was organised after a quite novel fashion, a highly detailed administrative apparatus – the lessons in bureaucracy Hong Xiuqan had received must have stuck – equality of men and women, no private property and no trade. The ideology was sound, reality was, as usual, quite terrible and the supporters and subjects of the “Heavenly Kingdom” who did not serve in the highly effective and well organised army were by no means better off than their Qing counterparts, while the Taiping elite lived quite the high life and the economic sustenance of the “Heavenly Kingdom” was based primarily on loot.

Frederick le Breton Bedwell's (1837 - 1905) recollection of HMS "Cruizer" and other Royal Navy vessels fighting Tae-Ping Rebels at Nanking “on the 20th of November 1858, during their passage up the Yang-Tse-Kiang”

The “Heavenly Army” and the Qing forces who were not busy fighting the Europeans during the Second Opium War (1856 – 1860) soon had the region under the consequences of one of the first expressively led “Total Wars” in history and by the end of the 1850s, the casualties, especially among the non-combatants, already amounted to more than 10 million. And the Changmao still gained ground until the rebellion threatened Shanghai, a major European trade base. If the “Heavenly King” had believed that his fellow Christians would support him is rather not clear, the Westerners were in any case quite shocked and alienated by the atrocities of the Changmao, their twisted belief and their trade policy. Supporting the locals with Western equipment, training and leadership, most notably from the American mercenary Frederick T. Ward and Charles “Chinese” Gordon, the later Gordon of Khartoum, the new “Ever Victorious Army” fought back with a vengeance. In 1864, Nanjing fell to the Imperials and Hong Xiuqan died of either food poisoning, suicide of a surfeit of manna, the sources vary, and the Taiping Rebellion ended a few months later with a death toll of at least 25 million victims between 1850 and 1864. Largely forgotten in the West, the revolt was an inspiration for the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen as well as Mao Zedong who saw the Changmao as People’s Heroes fighting the corrupt Qing feudal system.

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