How A Man Who Thought He Was Christ’s Younger Brother Led The Bloodiest Civil War in History

How A Man Who Thought He Was Christ’s Younger Brother Led The Bloodiest Civil War in History

Wyatt Redd - March 29, 2018

Hong Xiuquan always wanted to be a scholar. From a young age, his rural family had sacrificed to give him the chance to study. And within a few years, he could recite many of the classic Chinese texts from memory. Of course, this wasn’t just an interesting party trick. Memorizing Confucian texts was a vital part of the entrance exams for becoming a court bureaucrat in Imperial China. And his family hoped that passing the Imperial Exams would give Hong a better life. Unfortunately, less than 1% of those who took the test passed, and Hong wasn’t one of them. But Hong wasn’t giving up.

Hong traveled to the city of southern city of Guangzhou to retake the exams in 1836. The city was a thriving port and a center of culture in Qing Dynasty China. But there was a darker side to the city as well. Much of the trade with the West came through Guangzhou, especially the trade in opium. Opium was illegal in China, but the British still made huge amounts of money by bringing Opium grown in India to China and selling it. The result was a flood of addiction that helped destabilize Chinese society. And of course, opium wasn’t the only thing that Westerners imported to China.

How A Man Who Thought He Was Christ’s Younger Brother Led The Bloodiest Civil War in History
People using opium. Wikimedia Commons.

While walking through the streets of Guangzhou, Hong heard an American missionary speaking about Christianity through a Chinese interpreter. After listening for a moment, Hong was given a pamphlet on Christianity. Though Hong didn’t think much of it at the time, that chance meeting would end up being one of the most significant moments in Chinese history. Hong went on to take the exams, but once again he didn’t pass. Nor did he pass the third time he took the exam a year later. This last failure sent Hong into a nearly psychotic breakdown.

Hong spent days in a delirious state before collapsing into a fever. Over the next few days, he claimed to have had visions of heaven. There, he discovered that he had a new, heavenly family. His father, a man with a golden beard in a flowing black robe, handed Hong a magic sword and asked him to help drive out the demons that were infesting China. He then invited Hong to meet with the rest of his family, including a mysterious older brother. Hong quickly forgot the visions. But after failing the Imperial Exam a fourth time, he decided to take a closer look at the pamphlets he got from the missionaries.

How A Man Who Thought He Was Christ’s Younger Brother Led The Bloodiest Civil War in History
Hong Xiuquan. Wikimedia Commons.

After reading them closely, Hong realized that Jesus Christ mentioned in them was the older brother he saw in his vision, making him the son of God. Over the next few years, he began to gather followers and develop his ideas into a full-fledged religion, including his own version of the Bible. Many people who were angry at the increasingly-weak Qing dynasty flocked to Hong’s banner. And as the son of God and younger brother of Christ, Hong decided that he had a mission. He had to drive out the foreign influences destroying China and create a heavenly kingdom on Earth.

How A Man Who Thought He Was Christ’s Younger Brother Led The Bloodiest Civil War in History
A battle between the Qing and the Taiping. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1851, the Qing dynasty was becoming concerned about the number of followers that Hong was gathering. And in January, they launched an attack to crush the growing sect at the city of Jintian. But after a fierce battle, Hong’s forces came out on top, and the Qing’s commander was publicly beheaded. This early victory made Hong a symbol that everyone opposed to the Qing government could rally around. Many of his new followers came from the native Hakka ethnic group, which had always hated the Qing dynasty, which was founded by foreign Manchus.

Hong’s followers began to symbolically reject Manchu dominance. They began cutting off their queues, a traditional Manchu hairstyle where the front of the head is shaved and the hair in the back grown into a long ponytail. The Manchu had required their Han Chinese subjects to grow their hair this way, and it was always seen as a symbol of the Manchu rule over China. Now, Hong’s followers began to grow their hair out. Many also began wearing red turbans as a symbol of their allegiance to Hong. Hong, meanwhile, began preaching that the Manchu were demons and that it was the duty of his followers to kill all of them.

Within two years, Hong’s followers captured the city of Nanjing. By now, the rebellion was hundreds of thousands strong. Soon, the rebels managed to capture the major city of Nanjing. With an earthly kingdom now established, Hong began trying to make it into a heavenly one. At first, Hong’s reforms were fairly normal as far as revolutionary governments go. He began by deciding to do everything differently than the hated Qing Dynasty. The calendar was changed, and the imperial bureaucracy in the city was stripped down and replaced by Hong’s followers. Opium was outlawed once again with strict penalties for selling or using it.

But Hong also claimed to speak for God on Earth. And “after speaking with God,” he began making proclamations about how the Almighty wanted Chinese society to change. First, all the traditional beliefs of the Chinese were banned. The Confucian texts Hong had once memorized were burned. Traditional statues of gods and spirits were destroyed. Women and men were to be strictly segregated. Hong and his closest followers, however, kept large numbers of the most beautiful women in their homes as concubines. As the younger brother of God, the rules didn’t apply to Hong.

How A Man Who Thought He Was Christ’s Younger Brother Led The Bloodiest Civil War in History
The Palace of the Heavenly Kingdom in Nanjing. Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, outside the city of Nanjing, the war continued. As Hong’s army attracted more followers, they managed to expand their kingdom to cover large parts of Southern China. Eventually, more than 30 million people lived inside the “Taiping Heavenly Kingdom,” as Hong’s followers began to call their new territory. If there was any doubt about the threat the Taiping Kingdom posed to the ruling Qing, it was now gone. And the Qing emperor began raising troops in a desperate fight for survival. The next stage of the war was about to begin. And it would prove to be one of the most deadly conflicts in history.

How A Man Who Thought He Was Christ’s Younger Brother Led The Bloodiest Civil War in History
The Qing ambushing the Taiping Army. Wikimedia Commons.

By 1860, the Taiping were at the height of their power, smashing Qing armies besieging Nanjing and capturing the cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou. In 1861, the same year that the Americans began their own civil war, the Taiping launched an attack on the major port city of Shanghai. But Shanghai had long been a center of trade with Western powers, and the British and French weren’t eager to see it fall into the hands of a rebel army. As the Taiping laid siege to the city, the Europeans began to bring in their own forces to protect the city.

Though the number of European troops was small, they had access to the latest military technology, and their cannons began tearing through the ranks of the Taiping rebels. At the same time, the Qing launched a major counterattack, eventually shattering the Taiping army and sending them into a retreat from the city. The Taiping suffered major losses and were forced onto the defensive. The Qing, now better organized and receiving support from the West, began pushing the borders of the Heavenly Kingdom back to Nanjing. Now the Taiping were fighting for survival.

Both the Qing and the Taiping were fighting a total war in one of the most densely populated areas of the planet. And the war quickly began to take a toll on the civilian population. The endless demands of an army for food meant that both sides began stripping the countryside of anything edible and seizing harvests. The people of China soon starved in massive numbers, and the competing armies began to massacre cities and villages that they captured from the enemy, assuming that the local population had been on the other side. Within a few years, this brutal combination led to millions of deaths.

Hong, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly unstable. He withdrew from actively running his kingdom and retreated into his palace in Nanjing, where he spent his days with his concubines and taking advantage of earthly pleasures. His competing generals began filling the vacuum of power like miniature kings, which quickly led to the fracturing of the kingdom. Despite the fanatical resistance of the rebels, by 1864 the Qing were at the gates of Nanjing. Hong’s general, Li Xiucheng, demanded that Hong abandon the city. Hong refused, saying that anyone who disagreed with him- and thus God- would be executed. But as the Qing cut off the supply of food to the city, people began to starve.

How A Man Who Thought He Was Christ’s Younger Brother Led The Bloodiest Civil War in History
Qing forces retaking Jinling. Wikimedia Commons.

Hong declared that the people of the city would eat manna from Heaven, which meant weeds plucked from the ground. To prove it, Hong publicly picked some weeds and ate them. Unfortunately, the weeds he picked were poisonous. Hong died soon after and was replaced by his teenage son. But within weeks of his death, the Qing broke into the city, and a massacre followed. The battle effectively brought an end to the Heavenly Kingdom but at a great cost. The final death toll for the war is estimated at 20-30 million dead, making it the bloodiest civil war in history.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Taiping Rebellion”. Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica. July 2017.

“Hong Xiuquan”. Lee Nathan Feigon, Encyclopedia Britannica. May 2015.

“Third Battle of Nanjing”. Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica. April 2017.