Few have heard of a bizarre religious war that inflicted perhaps similar slaughter to World War II. A delusional man who died this month a bit more than 150 years ago started it all.
China’s Taiping Rebellion in the mid-1800s was likely the bloodiest civil war in human history and possibly the worst conflict of any type, depending on whose casualty estimate you accept. Most historians tally the death toll at 20 million, but some speculate 50 million or even 100 million, largely stemming from war-caused famines and epidemics.
The weird uprising began because a Chinese villager, Hong Xiuquan, read Christian missionary pamphlets and then said that he experienced a vision in which God told him he was a younger brother of Jesus (apparently forming a Holy Quaternary: father, two sons and Holy Ghost). Hong said God commanded him to “destroy demons,” meaning officials and supporters of the reigning Qing Dynasty.
Hong proclaimed the “Heavenly Kingdom of Peace” (Taiping Tianguo) and began raising a volunteer army to wage the opposite of peace. Oppressed peasants in southern China flocked to him, partly because of his miracle message and partly because they felt bitterness against the ruthless northern Qing government.
Early rebel victories against Qing troops caused the Taiping army to swell beyond 700,000. One of Hong’s top aides — Yang Xiuqing, who claimed that his utterances were the voice of God speaking through him — became a secondary commander. Together, they mandated a puritanical society inflicting the death penalty for various vices and imposing strict separation of sexes. Although polygamy was supposedly banned, Hong, said to be Jesus’ younger sibling, had a harem of concubines.
In March 1853, the Taipings conquered Nanking, killing 30,000 imperial troops and civilians. Hong renamed the city “Heavenly Capital” and built his “Palace of Heavenly King” there. The rebellion mushroomed, and so did the horrendous death toll. The Taipings soon controlled much of southcentral China, about one-fourth of the nation and nearly half of the population. “Visionary” Hong partly withdrew as military commander — but he grew suspicious of aide Yang’s pronouncements as the voice of God. He ordered the execution of Yang and his family in 1856, along with the extermination of Taiping soldiers loyal to Yang.
Qing Dynasty rulers struggled to defeat the snowballing mutiny. Several local resistance militias were organized. The largest was the “Ever-Victorious Army” led by American commander Frederick Ward. After Ward was killed in 1862, command was taken by Briton Charles “Chinese” Gordon. Gradually, the Taipings were beaten backward. But many stubbornly fought to the end. Eventually, they were surrounded in their capital, Nanking. Hong relinquished power to his teenage son and died on June 1, 1864, of food poisoning from unclean vegetables in the starving city. As imperial troops overran Nanking in July 1864, many Taipings took poison and others suffered mass execution. The final battle killed 100,000 in three days.
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Hong’s body was exhumed and burned, and his ashes were blasted from a cannon, to deprive fanatical followers of a gravesite where he could be worshipped as a divine martyr. Hong’s demise largely ended the Taiping Rebellion, even though it took some more years for remnants of the resistance to be completely quelled.
It is hard to believe that one deranged religious-minded leader could have caused so much death and destruction.
This column has been adapted from a piece originally written for the October-November 2012 issue of Free Inquiry.