Hong Xiuquan and the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864)


Although historically, China constantly saw peasant rebellions, the Taiping Rebellion was the largest in scope and most subversive in ideology during the Qing Dynasty. It was the result of a Chinese society in flux: with old and new problems compounded together. The old problems on the southern Chinese coast included bandits and pirates, and new problems included armed confrontations with foreign (British) troops in the 1830s-1840s. Social turmoils and the incoming new ideas such as Christianity provided venues for social and cultural changes. The life and ideology of Hong Xiuquan, the Taiping leader, attested to the changes in Chinese society after the Opium War.

1. Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864)'s life:

The early life of Hong followed the path of a regular Chinese boy: born from a prosperous country household, Hong, like his male peers, were expected to take the imperial examinations and upon succeeding, expect a job in the government civil service.  There were three levels of examinations, the county, provincial, and capital level.  Successful candidates at the county level were usually respected in their locality and could expect to land a teaching job as private tutors, as schools were few in traditional China.  Successful candidates at the provincial level could either become a member of the provincial government, or go on for a higher level of examinations at the imperial capital.  The successful candidates at the capital level were called Hanlin and would often receive very prominent government positions.  It was a system of civil service that emphasized book learning for practical political use, meritocracy versus hereditary rule, and political office over private businesses.  The ideas behind the system came from an ancient Chinese scholar called Confucius.  The system suited imperial Chinese governments that advocated a stratified society and central government rule while the state lacked the resources to reach deeply into society beyond the provincial level.  In a way, it ideally combined local self-rule with central government rule as government officials at all levels were staffed with Confucian scholars who mostly had passed at least one level of the imperial examinations.  Since the examinations could be repeated, some people would keep taking them until they were in their 70s.  Although he passed the district level examination which served as a qualifying examination for Hong to actually proceed to take the preliminary level of the imperial examinations at the prefectural level, the first of three levels of imperial examinations, he failed at the prefectural level three times.

Succeeding in these examinations was considered a glory not only to the individual but to the whole family including the ancestors, failing them was sometimes considered a humiliating experience, So one could imagine Hong Xiuquan was tormented when he failed the prefectural level of the examination the third time.

2. Secret societies in China

Hong's disappointment in his attempts at government office were turned away to political activities against the Manchu government., and Christian proselytization. His gradual development of Baishangdihui (God Worshipping Society) can be understood in the context of secret societies in Chinese history. Historically, in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and earlier, a civic society did not exist in China, and voluntary, grassroots social/political organizations were forbidden. The Qing government was also highhanded in treating any opposition or criticism to itself. Any opposition to the government, therefore, had to be organized clandestinely. Several important, regional clandestine organizations included Heaven and Earth Society, Triad Society, that had originally been formed to resist the conquest of China by the Manchus who established the Qing Dynasty. The word Hong was prominently used as a password for the former secret society because it was the first character in the title of the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Hong Wu. Because in Chinese history, the central government never managed to reach into the prefectural and village level of Chinese society, these secret societies, sometimes like the Mafia, regulated local security and economy, and plundered those who were not members of the society, besides organizing activities against the Qing government.

By mid-19th century, more organized anti-Qing activities were organized by these secret societies as they attributed the ills of the Chinese society, such as allowing foreigners to trade in China, and China's military defeats by foreigners, to the corruption and inability of the Qing government. It was against this background that Hong Xiuquan's God Worshipping Society was organized. Rather than joining the secret societies, Hong found an alternative route to treat the social ills of China, through Christianity, and achieve the traditional Chinese goal of Taiping, or great peace.

Hong's evangelism concentrated in Guangxi Province, a province west of the Guangdong Province where he came from. Guangxi was inland, hilly, and on average poorer than Guangdong, where the provincial capital was Canton. And most of Hong's converts were poor, or live on the fringe of society, such as the Hakkas. There were literate recruits like Hong himself, but they usually failed to succeed in the provincial level of the imperial examination. The legalization of Christianity after 1841 by the Treaty of Nanjing allowed Hong to justify his endeavors despite the discontent with him by local gentry or officials.

Social instability and the frequency of bandits/pirates in Guangxi also led to locally organized pacification groups--local militias. Their existence also provided models for Hong on how to build his own military organization.

3. Hong's Adaptation of Christianity

Hong Xiuquan's Christian society represented cultural changes in Chinese society in the wake of the First Opium War (1839-1842). While Hong introduced many new ideas into the Chinese society, including the destruction of idols, and the greater importance of loyalty to God than having a male heir (the latter being the cardinal definition of loyalty to one's parent), he also incorporated many traditional Chinese ideals into his vision of the Kingdom of Taiping. First, his vision of life in heaven consisted of an extended family, with him being the younger brother of Jesus, and owning a pair of heavenly parents, as well as a heavenly consort and children. Despite his destruction of idols on earth, his favorite idols such as the Bodhisattva, a Buddhist goddess specializing in kindness and love, were received in his Christian heaven as divinities. You will find several other examples in these chapters where Hong and his followers freely adapted Christianity to their own use.

The Taipings visualized a system of complete social and gender equality, based on their idea of the kingdom of heaven realized on earth. Their Earthly Pardise was closely patterned after the Judaic vision of heaven--where heaven and earth were so close that angels could climb up to heaven through a ladder, as reflected in Jacob's dreams. (Genesis 28) Indeed much of the Taiping interpretations of Christianity reflected emphases along Chinese cultural traditions. In this particular case, there was no systematic description of heaven or established religion in Chinese history, and Confucian learning was focused on activities in this world, which probably reinforced Hong's belief in a heaven on earth, rather than the kingdom of heaven of medieval European Christians.

Hong's adaptation of the Ten Commandments and his stipulations regarding the roles of men and women (Cheng, chap.8) all suggested the influence of Confucian learning. Still his teachings were subversive enough that Zeng Guofan, one of the military generals who was sent by the Qing government to suppress Hong Xiuquan, commented that suppression of the Taiping was to restore Confucian orthodoxy. (Spence, chap.8).