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.

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.