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Heaven on EarthThe Varieties of the Millennial Experience$

Richard Landes

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199753598

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199753598.001.0001

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Bipolar Millennialism

Bipolar Millennialism

Taiping (The Great Peace, 1850–1864)

(p.185) 7 Bipolar Millennialism
Heaven on Earth

Richard Landes

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter treats the career of Hong Xiuquan, a brilliant peasant boy who failed four tries to pass the imperial exams, and almost died of shame at the failure, during which time he received a series of visions that led him to claim to be “God's Chinese Son,” the younger cousin of Jesus. Beginning as a profoundly demotic movement, and going through several phases of missionizing and iconoclasm, by 1850, his followers formed an army that conquered the entire south of China, including the ancient imperial capital of Nanjing. But rather than continue on to the Qing capital at Beijing, Hong became increasingly isolated in imperial splendor creating a uniquely bipolar millennialism that was at once radically egalitarian and hierarchical. By the time his kingdom fell in 1864, over 20–35 million Chinese had died, making their self-designation of Taiping—the “Great Peace” one of the most ironic terms in the history of millennialism.

Keywords:   Taiping, China, Mandarinate, millennial warfare, Nanjing, land reform, God's Chinese Son, Qing, megalomania, megadeath

At the height of the open-air revivals in the United States, known as the “Great Awakening” (1820s–40s), a charged encounter occurred between two men in the city of Canton in southern China. In 1836, a Chinese Christian, touched by missionaries carrying this wave of enthusiasm to China, met, spoke with, and gave a missionary pamphlet to a young man who had just failed the exams to enter the Mandarinate. Although it took several years of incubation, that encounter set Hong Xiuquan on a path to claiming the messianic titles “God's Chinese Son” and “Jesus’ Younger Brother.” Over the course of a decade of work (1840s), he gathered around him a small, loyal band of followers who pursued a highly disciplined, demotic religiosity, inspired by the biblical Ten Commandments. They called themselves the Bai shangdi hui (Society of God Worshippers) and denounced both Confucianism and local religious cults as idol worship.1

By 1850, conflict broke out between them and the administrative agents of the Manchu dynasty, the Qing. Setting off to war, they adopted the Daoist messianic title Taiping (“Great Peace”). Although the tide of battle shifted back and forth initially, the swelling number of recruits to the Taiping permitted them, by 1853, to march north from the southern reaches of Canton to Nanjing, the former imperial capital of the Ming Dynasty, and take the city. Once in possession of the city, Hong Xiuquan proclaimed himself messianic emperor and inaugurated the “Great Peace.” The land reform he enacted, which gave to every man and woman identical plots, may be the most egalitarian experiment on record up to that time.

The movement's spectacular success derived from its deep egalitarian appeal. Whenever they took a city or region, they carefully distinguished between the rich whom they plundered (and in some cases of especially hated men, executed) and the poor to whom they distributed some of the plunder and offered a three-year amnesty on taxes. As a contemporary British observer noted during the movement's most powerful moment (1856), their promise of “equality of (p.186) property or at least of a sufficiency for every man… won to their cause the best sinew and muscle of the country.”2 If the early demotic religiosity of the Taiping had won tens of thousands by 1850, the egalitarian social program that accompanied open rebellion swelled their ranks to possibly over a million by the time they took Nanjing.3

But in Nanjing heaven turned to hell. Hong, the messiah, withdrew to an imperial heaven of elaborate rituals, magnificence, and sexual excess. He failed to press on to Beijing and, instead, let the Qing bring the battle to him. War continued to eat away at the borders of the half-born empire for over a decade; megalomania and court intrigue plagued the inner circles to whom Hong had left the details of the revolutionary struggle; and expressions of disappointment brought on paranoid attacks of revolutionary terror. A dynamic familiar to all historians of revolutionary movements set in with vigor.

And yet, despite such exceptionally dysfunctional behavior, the millennial forest fire continued to rage. The Taiping held out against the Qing for another ten years of merciless war. Two years before the Xhosa began to kill their cattle, the Qing extinguished the last flames of this millennial revolt in a massive slaughter. Before the final resolution, however, some 20–35 million (!) Chinese lost their lives. This constitutes the most massive bloodletting in recorded history at the time, one that stands alongside the death tolls of Hitler, Stalin, or Mao a century later.

■ Comparison With Akhenaten

The differences between Hong Xiuquan and Akhenaten abound. Obviously, Xiuquan's death toll seems at opposite poles from the inwardly directed “pacifism” of Akhenaten, as do their sexual proclivities. The Taiping represent an egalitarian movement that arose from the margins and depths of the social hierarchy, while Akhenaten was born to the purple. Xiuquan hated the established authorities, especially the Mandarins who had turned him away, and his group represented a radical alternative to the accepted norms of social order. Akhenaten, on the other hand, carried his revolution out from above, using the very bureaucratic elite that Hong so radically rejected. The pharaoh had no need for violence precisely because he controlled the political structures of the time.

(p.187) Even the documentary record differs dramatically. Unlike Akhenaten, whose deeds took place almost three and a half millennia ago, and whose limited documentary record lay buried in the sands and under the subsequent building projects of hostile successors, the Taiping produced a profusion of documents that survive. Some of these came from their own side—decrees, legislation, religious texts, poetry, theology, even a highly edited translation of the Bible, all churned out at the printing presses of Nanjing. Some came from outsiders, whether the Qing police officials who worked to defeat and suppress them, or the Europeans (political and religious figures) who collected their documentation to figure out how to deal with them.4 We even have several eyewitness accounts including one voluminous memoir by a European disciple of the Taiping.5

Rare are the scholars of China who do not consider the Taiping a millennial movement. Egyptologists, on the other hand, have never thought of Akhetaten as a millennial experiment. The differences seem so obvious that no historian to my knowledge has ever thought to connect them.

Under these obvious differences, however, we find a host of similarities in these two movements that, despite occurring almost four millennia apart, both take place in agrarian empires. In particular, both messiahs, once they acquired power, followed a similar pattern. They shared the same conviction that the current generation stands in a unique and privileged position vis-à-vis a world at the brink of transformation. They both isolated themselves in a millennial capital whose sacred activity would somehow transform the entire world; and their same inward focus became so obsessive that the outside world collapsed. And last but certainly not least, they shared the same megalomanic tendencies, rendered all the more eccentric and self-destructive by the failure of apocalyptic expectations, and eventually alienated even their own following.

■ Origins In The Experience And Beliefsof Hong Xiuquan

Hong Xiuquan poses a paradox for us. On the one hand, he seems the least likely candidate for the role he played. A brilliant young man with a promising career in the Mandarin elite of China, he mastered the Confucian teachings, and even without success in the exams, he had a career as a teacher that he pursued from his earliest years (ca. 1830 when he was only sixteen) until the “conversion” experience of 1843. Why he would leave such a lifestyle for the extraordinary rigors of an apostolic mission leading to a total war with the Qing dynasty, raises important questions, and draws our attention to the frequent presence of aspiring and (p.188) failed “intellectuals” in the ideological ranks of millennial and revolutionary movements.6

The key to understanding his transformation seems to lie in the devastating humiliation he experienced when he failed multiple times to pass the exams and enter the Mandarinate. Hong was a Hakka peasant, an ethnic minority, living among the Han Chinese majority. Born to a family that, despite its peasant status, had a long history of scholars, Hong Xiuquan was a boy prodigy—the greatest of his line. Stories of his youth emphasize both how much his family sacrificed so that he might study and how proudly his father bragged about his son's accomplishments. Having mastered the recital of the Five Classics and the Four Books within a matter of years, he had first presented at these exams at the astonishing age of thirteen. Failure at that point, however disappointing and humiliating, was nonetheless understandable. But nine years later in 1836, at the age of the other candidates, the failure and the deep disappointment that it would inspire in his family and clan made the humiliation all the more intense. And each of the next two failures made it unbearable.

The Visit to Heaven: Compensatory Visions (1837)

We have an early account of the experiences that compelled Hong Xiuquan into his messianic career, a series of visions that came to him at the nadir of his humiliation. A close study of them offers valuable insights into the process whereby someone becomes a messiah. In particular, it sheds important light on the dichotomy between the psychocultural dynamics of honor-shame versus integrity-guilt; and these, in turn, relate directly to the difference between hierarchical and demotic religiosity. Since Hong's millennialism registers exceptionally high in both forms of religiosity—egalitarian fairness and imperial privilege—an understanding of these emotional issues should be particularly valuable.

The missionary Theodore Hamberg, the greatest Western expert on Hakka culture and language, composed a document of exceptional interest for our purposes with lengthy descriptions of Hong's early visions. In 1852, he met Hong's cousin Hong Ren'gan, an active participant in the early part of Hong's messianic career as well as a witness to the events in question. Ren'gan had become separated from the movement and spent much of the 1850s in Hong Kong, where he recounted a great deal of the information Hamberg wrote down.7 This account of Hong's life-changing encounter with a Christian on the occasion of his taking his second examination in 1836 is remarkably free of either the piety or bitterness that characterizes later accounts of his early career.8

(p.189) Of course, that still does not mean that the account is accurate. Visions/dreams are notoriously difficult to remember and record, especially when one does not understand them. And according to Hong himself, this vision did not make any sense at the time, and neither he nor any in his circle initially paid it any mind.9 Indeed, it would not take on its meaning for another seven years, when Xiuquan failed the exam for a fourth and last time. So on one level, it is hard to know what stage of the process of retrospectively creating a coherent narrative of Hong's “calling” this account represents. Furthermore, since this vision constituted the charter of the Taiping movement, it was too important to survive unadulterated by retrospective narrations, even the ones that Ren'gan retained. But even taken as a self-conscious statement by Hong Xiuquan, it reveals a great deal.

Let us take the biographical text piece by piece (italics mine).10

Near the examination hall he saw a man dressed in the custom of the Ming dynasty without a pigtail, but tied his hair in a knot upon his head. It seemed that the man could not understand or speak Cantonese because he employed a Chinese as his interpreter. The stranger was surrounded by group of people. Hong Xiuquan heard him telling the people through the interpreter about the fulfillment of their wishes. Hong Xiuquan approached the stranger and asked him through the interpreter if he could attain a literary degree. The stranger told him that “You will attain the highest rank, but do not be grieved, for grief will make you sick. I congratulate your virtuous father.” Hong Xiuquan thought it was strange to hear that.

The next day Hong Xiuquan again met these two men in the street. One of them had in his possession a parcel of books consisting of nine small volumes, which were a complete set of work entitled, Good words for exhorting the age. When Hong Xiuquan came out from the examination hall, the man gave him the whole set. Hong Xiuquan took them home and after glancing through their contents he placed them in his bookcase thinking that they were unimportant.

The author of the texts Hong received was the Christian Liang A-Fa, and according to some accounts, the figure in the story is Liang.11 Whoever he was, this Chinese convert had clearly had done several things that Hong Xiuquan had not:

  • he had broken with the mimetic and legal demands of the Confucian culture of the day in both hairstyle and clothing;

  • (p.190) he had separated himself from the exam system: so while others, filled with anxiety, entered the halls to undergo the exacting exams and almost surely fail, he sat calm and untroubled;

  • he had a following, companions who cared about what he said;

  • he dispensed opaque (and to judge by his comments to Xiuquan, largely optimistic) prophetic advice about the fulfillment of people's wishes.

According to later (retrospective, although not ex post defectu) accounts, this conversation was short and Xiuquan put the pamphlet away without reading it.12 But the following year, he failed the exam again, and this time the burden of failure became unbearable. He became so ill on the way home that he could not even travel, racked with a fever, passing into delirium for forty days and almost dying.

The following year in 1837 Hong Xiuquan again attended the public examination at the provincial city Guangzhou. When the results were out Hong Xiuquan saw his name placed high upon the board, but afterwards it was lowered to the bottom. Deeply grieved, disappointed and discontented, Hong Xiuquan had to go home with his ambition dashed. Shortly afterwards he felt very ill, he engaged a sedan chair with two stout men, who carried him back to his village. That day was the first day of the third moon in the 17th year of Emperor Daoguang. He confined himself to bed. During this period he had a succession of dreams or visions.

The detail about his name on the board being high and then lowered is of utmost importance, whether or not it happened. Public results of the examinations are, of course, major occasions of both honor and humiliation.13 For Xiuquan to fail this third time was personally catastrophic. But if he had passed and then had his results changed, that would contribute to a rage that could easily spill over into hostility to the entire system of Confucian exams. Certainly, he believed he had been cheated.14 In any case, with no chance to appeal, this third failure left Xiuquan a broken man, sick, incapable of making it home where his family awaited eagerly the news of his success. He was literally dying of shame. And in his fevered collapse, the vision came.

He first saw a great number of people welcoming him to an unknown place. When he woke up he thought it was a strange dream. He presumed that the place arrived at was the (p.191) palace of Yan Luo Wang [the king of the underworld] and he was going to die soon. So he called his parents and other relatives to assemble at his bedside. He told them in the following terms:

My days are counted, and my life will soon be closed. O my parents! How badly have I returned the favor of your love to me! I shall never attain a name that may reflect its luster upon you.

After saying this Hong Xiuquan closed his eyes and was in coma.

So far, both the vision and the interpretation show no sign of Christianity. His resignation at his coming death prompts his “final words”—shame for having let his parents down. “I shall never attain a name that may reflect its luster… ” As the Chinese expression goes, “a man needs face like a tree needs bark.”15

Those, standing next to his bed, thought he was going to die, but as soon as Hong Xiuquan closed his eyes he saw a dragon, a tiger, and a cock entering his room. Soon after he observed a great number of people playing musical instruments. They approached with a beautiful sedan chair inviting him to be seated. Once he was seated on the sedan chair they carried him away. He was astonished at the honor and distinction bestowed upon him. He did not know what to do. They soon arrived at a beautiful and luminous place, where on both sides were assembled a multitude of fine men and women who saluted him with expressions of great joy. As he left the sedan chair, an old woman took him down to the river and said, “Thou dirty man, why hast kept company with yonder people, and defiled thyself? I must now wash thee clean.”

The dragon, tiger, and cock are all Chinese symbols of power and dominion. The enormous—bewildering—honors shown to him replace in this alternative reality the shame and humiliation he felt in the real world.16 The beautiful sedan chair replaces and transforms the sedan chair he took home, paralyzed by the examination failure. The cleansing specifically removes him from the world of corruption and defilement—the shame—of the “real” world.

After the washing ceremony, Hong Xiuquan, in company with a great number of old virtuous and venerable men, among whom he remarked many of the ancient sages, entered a large building where they opened his body with a knife, took out his heart and other parts, and put in their place others new and of a red color. Instantly when this was done, the wound closed, and he could see no trace of the incision which had been made. Upon the walls surrounding this place, Hong Xiuquan remarked a number of tablets with inscriptions exhorting to virtue, which he one by one examined. Afterwards they entered another large hall the beauty and splendor of which were beyond description. (p.192) A man, venerable in age, with golden beard and dressed in a black robe, was sitting in an imposing attitude upon the highest place. As soon as he saw Hong Xiuquan, the old man began to shed tears, and said,

“All human beings in the whole world are produced and sustained by me; they eat my food and wear my clothing, but not a single one among them has a heart to remember and venerate me; the worse is that they take my gifts and they worship demons; they purposely rebel against me, and arouse my anger. Do thou not imitate them.”

This surgery, conducted by “ancient sages,” makes him a new man, inside as well as out. It has parallels in shamanistic cultures the world over.17 Hong is prepared for his meeting with the chief figure who appears to have the features—like everyone in this vision—of Chinese court figures. On one level, a father figure, on another, the all-powerful emperor, this bearded man's emotive response to the visionary again restores the “order” that the “real world” had so grievously violated: Xiuquan was specially chosen. The words of this figure represent the first, possibly retrospective, hint of monotheistic beliefs: this imperial figure produced and sustains “all human beings in the whole world.” Here Hong's anger with the world appears in the mouth of a cosmic father figure, who at once condemns them for rebelling against him and warns Hong not to follow them—that is, not to pursue his efforts to join the Mandarinate.

After saying this the old man gave Hong Xiuquan a sword, commanding him to exterminate the demons, but to spare his brothers and sisters. He also gave Hong Xiuquan a seal and said it was for him to overcome the evil spirits. After that he gave Hong a yellow fruit to eat and Hong said it was very sweet. After having received the sword and the seal from the old man Hong Xiuquan began to exhort to those people waiting in the hall and to perform the duties for old man. Some replied to his exhortations,

  • “We have indeed forgotten our duties towards the venerable.”
  • Others said,
  • “Why should we venerate him? Let us only be merry, and drink together with our friends.”
  • Hong Xiuquan continued his admonitions with tears. The old man said to him,
  • “Take courage and do the work; I will assist you in every difficulty.”
  • Shortly after this the old man told the people in the hall that,
  • Hong Xiuquan is competent to this charge.”

The imagery remains profoundly Chinese. The sword to exterminate demons and the seal to overcome evil spirits are both classic Taoist images.18 Hong Xiuquan (p.193) leaps into his newly assigned role—in this world he is worthy—only to meet with the resistance of the self-indulgent courtiers. He alone, on heaven and earth, has the courage and drive to purify the world.

He then led Hong Xiuquan out and told him to look down and said,

  • Behold the people upon this earth!
  • Hundredfold is the perverseness of their hearts.

Hong Xiuquan looked down and saw such a degree of depravity and vice that he was flabbergasted.

This view of the mass of humankind will be a key element in all of Hong's career (indeed of any messiah's or eschatological thinker's). The degree to which the apocalyptic enthusiast believes his or her fellow humans to be corrupt—still worse, irredeemably corrupt19—correlates directly to the intensity of the cataclysm that must precede the earthly redemption. The angrier and more unforgiving the messiah, the more destruction necessary to purify the world of sin; and the more divine assistance fails, the more he will feel fully justified in raining down vengeance on the world. In subsequent visions, this issue will become still more pronounced.

He then woke up in trance and he felt the very hairs of his head raise themselves. Suddenly, seized by a violent anger and forgetting his feeble state he put on his clothes and left his bedroom. When he saw his father he bowed to him and said,

“The venerable old man above has commanded that all men shall turn to me and all treasures shall flow to me.”

When his father saw him speaking in this manner, he did not know what to think, but [was filled] with joy and fear.

Reentry to the world of failure after such compensatory visionary experiences is always difficult. Hong's report to his father expresses none of the salvific dimension of his experience, only the personal vindication. He was now a full-fledged megalomaniac, as suits any angry messianic pretender. The father's mixed response (as reported years later after Xiuquan had come out of the experience successfully), suggests that he was more terrified than overjoyed, a painful reminder to his son (p.194) that whatever the joys of his visions, in the real world he has no “face”; he is still a failure even to his father. He returns to the world where he can breathe.

The sickness and visions of Hong Xiuquan continued about forty days. In these visions he often met a middle-age man whom he called elder brother who instructed him how to act. This elder brother of his went with him wandering to the uttermost regions in search of evil spirits. Together they slew and exterminated the evil spirits. Hong Xiuquan also heard the venerable old man with the black robe reprove Confucius for having omitted in his books to expound clearly the true doctrine. Confucius seemed much ashamed, and confessed his guilt.

Later, Xiuquan will identify this elder brother as Jesus. For the time being, there is no hint of that. This incident, which recurs several times and eventually leads to Confucius’ beating, represents the ideal reversal: he who failed to pass the Confucian exams receives favor from the cosmic figure who orders Confucius’ punishment. He gets to see the man who inspired those who failed him, repeatedly admonished, ashamed, beaten. Not Hong, but Confucius “eats the cane.”

Hong Xiuquan, during his sickness, often, as his mind was wandering, used to run about his room, leaping and fighting like a soldier engaged in battle. His constant cry was,

  • Tianzhu, tianzhu, tianzhu, tianzhu; [Jesuit term for “master of heaven” (God)]
  • Slay the demons! Slay the demons! Slay, slay:
  • There is one and there is another;
  • Many, many cannot withstand one single blow of my sword.

His father felt very anxious about the state of his mind and attributed the calamity of his family to the fault of the geomancer who selected an unlucky spot of ground for the burial of their forefathers. He engaged conjurers to drive away evil spirits; but Hong Xiuquan said,

  • How could these imps dare to oppose me?
  • I must slay them, I must slay them!
  • Many, many cannot resist me.

In his imagination he pursued the demons who seemed to undergo many changes and transformations: one time flying as birds, and another time appearing as lions. In case he was not able to overcome them he held out his seal against them… at the sight of which they immediately fled away. He imagined himself pursuing them to the most remote places under heaven. Wherever he made war with them he destroyed them. Whenever he succeeded he laughed joyfully and said, “They can't withstand me.” He was constantly singing one passage of an old song, “The virtuous swain he travels over rivers and seas; he saves many friends and he kills enemies. During his exhortations he often burst into tears, saying, “You have no hearts to venerate the old father, but you are on good terms with the impish fiends; indeed, indeed, you have no hearts, no conscience more.”

The split here between his psychological elation and reality are nearly complete: he has retreated into a state of fantasy omnipotence. His father, understandably (p.195) concerned, assumes that the invisible forces of the world have been violated and seeks to repair the breach, redoubling his son's fury. Here we find the visionary, totally identified with his salvific “father,” reproaching those in the “real world” for their lack of heart, of conscience. Good and Evil have now been realigned in dangerous ways, and his apologetic shame before his family—O my parents! How badly have I returned the favor of your love to me!—has become reproach.

Hong Xiuquan's two brothers constantly kept his bedroom door shut and watched him because they did not want him to run out of the house. After Hong Xiuquan had tired himself by fighting, jumping about, singing, and exhorting, he lay down upon his bed and went to sleep. While he was asleep people would come and look at him. The news about his condition was spread far and wide. Soon the whole district knew that he was a madman.

Even as his fantasy world advances, his position in the “real world” retreats. He has now passed from “failure” to “madman” in the eyes of his community.  He is “beyond shame.”

Hong Xiuquan often said that he was an appointed emperor of China. He was highly gratified when someone called him the emperor of China. However, if any one called him mad, Hong Xiuquan would laugh at him and said, “You are indeed mad yourself, and do you call me mad?”

He has, by now, passed from utter humiliation, to megalomania, to some kind of genuine grounding in his new experience. He wants to be called—he believes he is—the emperor of China, but he is sufficiently aware of “the real world” to expect others not to accept his claims. His laughter—someone purely in the world of honor and shame would grow angry—suggests so great a level of confidence in his visions as revelations of his destiny that he can afford to ignore the “slings and arrows.” Indeed, he seems to have been filled with a sense of cosmic omnipotence, all expressed within a Chinese idiom.

When undesirable persons came to see him, he rebuked them and called them demons. All day long he sang, wept and exhorted. During his sickness he composed the following piece of poetry:

  • My hand now holds both in heaven and earth,
  • the power to punish and kill.
  • To slay the depraved, and spare the upright;
  • to relieve the people's distress.
  • My eyes survey from the North to the South
  • beyond the rivers and mountains;
  • My voice is heard from the East to the West
  • to the tracts of the sun and the moon.
  • The Dragon expands his claws,
  • as if the road in the clouds were too narrow;
  • And when he ascends,
  • (p.196)
  • why should he fear the bent of the milky way?
  • Then tempest and thunder as music attend,
  • and the foaming waves are excited.
  • The flying Dragon the Yik-king describes,
  • dwells surely in Heaven above.

One early morning when Hong Xiuquan was about to leave his bed, he heard the birds of the spring singing in the trees which surrounded the village. Instantly he recited the following ode:

  • The Birds in their flight all turn to the light,
  • In this resembling me;
  • For I'm now a King, and every thing
  • At will to do I'm free.
  • As the sun to the sight, my body shines bright
  • Calamities are gone;
  • The high Dragon and the Tiger rampant
  • Are helping me each one.

This poem suggests that as he returns to his embodied persona, he returns with an inner sense of certainty and even serenity. Without this, he never could have succeeded in gathering a following.

Hong Xiuquan's relatives engaged several physicians to cure his disease. They gave him medicines to take, but [this] was of no avail. One day his father noticed a slip of paper put into a crack of the doorpost, upon which were written the following characters in red:

  • The noble principles of the Heavenly King,
  • The Sovereign King Quan.

His father took the paper and showed it to the other members of the family, but they could not understand the meaning of these seven characters.

If the meaning is as clear in translation as in the original, than the family's incomprehension comes from the fact that the meaning so violates the possibilities of the “real world” that they could not allow themselves to acknowledge their son's claims. But, as the dynamics of millennialism will illustrate, apocalyptic time makes all things possible.

From that time onwards Hong Xiuquan gradually regained his health. Many of his friends and relatives came and visited him. They wanted to know and to hear from his own mouth what he had experienced during his disease. Hong Xiuquan related to them, without reservation, all that he could remember of his extraordinary visions. All his friends and relatives could say was that it was very strange indeed.

He reenters the social world as something of a new kind of prodigy, his tales at least worth the hearing. Like all messiahs, his needs for attention and admiration are strong, and apparently, if only in this opening period of his new career, he manages to satisfy them, if only minimally.

(p.197) At this point, according to sources, including above all his cousin Ren'gan, Hong's personality changed: from a fairly spontaneous and lively youth, he now became far more sober, poised and stately in his bearing, impressing some with the inner conviction with which he comported himself. And yet, he did not pursue the destiny offered him in his visions. For the next six years, he continued to teach, and some might have even thought that he had come to terms with his diminished, but still prestigious, social standing as a Confucian tutor. And at this point, the imagery in these retrospective accounts of his visions is still almost entirely Chinese: “It has, above all, nothing to do with Christianity or any knowledge of Christian teachings.”20

Fourth Examination Failure: Exegetical Arousal (1843)

Six years later, Hong Xiuquan attempted a final time to take the exam, and failed again. Such a move was exceptionally dangerous, particularly in that it risked the (inevitably) fragile persona he had reconstructed in the aftermath of his visions—his dignified self-possession. Why he chose to do so, we cannot know—Was he challenged? Did he grow weary of his low station? Did he have a sense that this time he could not fail? Certainly the willingness to do this suggests that he had yet to break with the Mandarinate no matter how much he had delighted to see how “the father” rebuked Confucius.

And again he failed. And again he returned home in disgrace.

It was only then that his cousin Li Jingfang borrowed the religious tract by Liang A-Fa from him and told him how important it was that he reread it in 1843. This time, not only did the text have meaning, but it also unlocked the key to his wondrous vision of seven years earlier. The “old father” of his vision was, in fact, the God of the Bible, and his “elder brother” was Jesus.21

At that point, the tract, and particularly the extensive passages from the prophet Isaiah, seemed to describe the agony of China in this period of unprecedented crisis, with European imperialists imposing their will on a weak government, winning the Opium Wars, and flooding China with narcotics. The tract was truly a warning to “this age.”22 In it, Hong found out that long ago Jesus—his older brother—had come to earth to bring the “Great Peace.”

(p.198) The importance of this pamphlet, addressed to his entire generation, could not be understated. It confirmed Hong Xiuquan's sense of importance by linking him with people on the other side of the world. Nor was he alone in finding this missionary material inspiring. Hong's mission only had power because large numbers—millions—of this generation of Chinese were prepared to believe that they constituted “the chosen generation”—subject to unbearable suffering, destined to redemption.

From another angle, one can also argue that millennialism here serves as the means whereby Christianity finds a Chinese idiom. In concrete terms, the vision is so fundamentally Chinese in content, with its emphasis on family, its imperial tone, its imagery, that historians of the Taiping ideology identify all its sources in Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist conceptions. And yet this moment marks the beginning of a vast shift in Hong and in southern China's thinking about Christianity. The fusion of Hong's Chinese vision and millennial Christianity proved far more powerful than either force on its own. In particular, Hong's Christian millennialism would gain far more converts to the Christian “word,” Christian texts, and Christian demotic principles, than any other missionary effort before or after. Notes Rob Weller, “In a country where intensive missionary activity throughout the nineteenth century had only a tiny effect, and in a region of Guangxi so cut off it would not see its first missionaries for several decades, Taiping Christianity was new and radically different.”23 Like the charismatic (false) prophets of early medieval Europe (“False” Christ of Bourges, “Pseudoprophetess” Thiota, Adalbert the “eccentric”), the indigenous population showed far more enthusiasm for the millennial variant of Christianity than the ecclesiastical one.24

But, just as Peter Brown pointed out that the conversion of Rome to Christianity was also a conversion of Christianity to imperialism,25 so, via Hong, the spread of Christianity to large numbers of Chinese involved a transformation of European Christian monotheism into a Chinese idiom, with a heavenly family. The very term “Taiping” was part of a Chinese “millennial” tradition.26

Hong's movement gained from this syncretism one of its great strengths, but also an enduring and ultimately fatal conflict with Western Christians.27 On the one hand, this revolutionary movement made the first concerted effort to transform China according to Western principles—open to Western technology and to its demotic deployment (e.g., printing). On the other, Hong's commitment to (p.199) Christianity—he, like all true believers, thought his brand was the “true one”—left him open to accusations of heresy from more traditional Christians. And his megalomania encouraged just such a judgment. Indeed, the missionary Issachar Roberts refused to baptize him in 1845, precisely because he felt that the young man had not grasped some of the key elements of the religion he wished to join.28 Nonetheless, despite what we might call Confucian elements, Confucius himself and all his teachings received radical censure: the dream liberated Hong from the thrall of a tradition that had rejected him.

Incubation (later 1840s)

All things great start small. Initially, the movement consisted of Xiuquan and his cousin “Yunshan”: Feng Yunshan. They baptized each other. Eventually it involved the rest of the Hongs—immediate family and some clan. Over the years, the movement made headway, mostly in the Thistle Mountains, the back hills of the Penghua Mountains, the region around Sigu village, and the area to the south of the Xiang township.29 Its relatively modest success derived from its demotic emphasis: dignity of manual labor, brotherhood of all discipline, equality.30 The movement rejected the vices plaguing Chinese society at the time—gambling, opium, magic, banditry.31 Despite his megalomanic tendencies, Hong Xiuquan was a forthright man who spoke with all regardless of their outward importance and readily accepted criticism from his fellow believers.32

At the core lay Hong's understanding of the Ten Commandments whose text, by 1847 at the latest, he possessed. Its prominence in the religion of the Taiping became so distinctive that Western observers commented that it “was known among the common people as the ‘Ten Commandments religion.’ ”33 Most notably, (p.200) Hong's comments on the sixth commandment—“thou shalt not kill”—express a remarkable benevolence and nonviolence, so apparently odds with subsequent developments. The Sixth Heavenly Commandment: Thou shalt not kill or injure. He who kills another kills himself, and he who injures another injures himself. Whosoever kills and injures another breaks the Heavenly Command. A poem reads: ‘The world is one family and all men are brothers.… Let us all be at peace, enjoy the Taiping.’34

The strong inner discipline of the group—we might compare them with some of the lay apostolic movements of the Middle Ages, or the Salaf as-Saaleh (early companions) of Islam—provided solidarity, identity, purpose. It also permitted them to appear to the outside world as upstanding citizens,and to escape the hostility of the police force, which had its hands full of robber gangs, including the Triads, who dominated much of the rural terrain in the south (and created problems for Xiuquan's followers as well).

This period of the movement deserves close attention since it represents the earliest core from which the larger movement arose, and to some extent, its profile at this moment shows little of the future explosiveness which would mark the first case of total war and mega-death in modern times. Among the most important aspects of this period, we need to understand how a group that seemed to have so low and industrious a profile, with such strong egalitarian and peaceful commitments, could turn into one of the most murderous, imperialistic ventures in human history.

Rob Weller offers a particularly interesting analysis of this process by focusing on the role of spirit possession in the nascent movement. Spirit-possession cults were a distinctly Chinese form of religiosity, a kind of semiotic arousal that often spilled over into enthusiastic incoherence.35 Drawing on anthropological studies (including his own extensive work) on the role of spirit possession in China, he notes a proliferation of possessions within the movement in the late 1840s, which permitted a significant number of independent and new voices to emerge within the movement. This demotic surge of divine inspiration—“Would that all God's children were prophets!” (Numbers 11:29)—gave an enormous boost to bottom-up elements within the movement. Hong's benign neglect, a combination of tolerance and absence, allowed the phenomenon to gain great traction within the group. In addition to “speaking in tongues,” some of the charismatics proved capable of curing illness; in the case of someone like Yang Xiuqing, a farm laborer and charcoal (p.201) burner become incarnation of the Holy Spirit, his healing talents surpassed even those of Hong.36

This “surprising” reorientation toward traditional (even local) Chinese spirit-possession cults, which had no part in Hong's initial ideology, redefined the movement. The principal “possessed” were local (non-Hakka) commoners with little education, “men very different from the hopeful scholars like Hong, Feng and the other original converts.”37 Their rise within the movement intensified group dynamics, drawing much larger numbers and more agitated followers.

“Possession cults that do develop into social movements usually collapse in fairly short order; long-lived movements like the Taiping rebellion arise only rarely.”38 Most movements with such anarchic tendencies tend to either remain at fairly low levels of activity, to self-destruct, or to arouse the hostility of the authorities and get suppressed.39 By 1849, as Weller puts it, the movement was “saturated” with voices and interpretations.40 And it had, with its iconoclastic campaigns, aroused considerable hostility from both Qing officials and local magistrates.

Over the course 1849, the movement once again shifted focus. Hong Xiuquan retook the reins and redirected the energies of the faithful into a full-fledged—and successful—military revolt. He began by restricting legitimate prophetic speech to two leaders who spoke respectively for the Holy Spirit (Yang Xiuqing) and Jesus (Xiao Chaogui). And at the same time, Hong began to retaliate more boldly against the harassment of Qing and local authorities. It is at this point that the language of the demonization, “imps” or “demon officials,” becomes the common designation for the enemy, and they deserve nothing short of extermination. They fell outside the embrace of those human brethren whom it would be a sin to kill.

Not coincidentally, the two major “possessed” voices that he still permitted had the singular virtue of supporting the idea of launching a military movement, the Taiping-Tien: the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace and Prosperity.41 As Hong put it in (p.202) 1850: “Too much patience and humility do not suit our present times, for therewith it would be impossible to manage this perverted generation.”42 When he first viewed humankind through the lens of a bountiful single God-creator back in 1837, he had felt rage at people's ingratitude and urged God to wipe them all out. Now, he had the means to slay the “demon officials.” He had an insurrectionary, anti-Manchu army.

This millennial notion of establishing God's kingdom on earth through the agency of his younger son, of conquering the land and ruling it for God in the place of the blasphemous Qing (Mongols, not Chinese!), now became the central focus of the movement. In quick order, visionary revelations led to solemn declarations and proclamations, military and civil legislation, a new calendar which began with year 1 in 1851… all under the new banners reading Taiping that rallied the troops.43 This millennial vision that borrowed from both Buddhist White Lotus and Christian millennialism galvanized the movement and solved all its problems: in mobilizing against the authorities and channeling the energies released by the possession cults, Hong could turn his faithful into fanatic soldiers prepared for the battle to come, willing to suffer the worst discomforts in order to bring on the millennial Taiping.

The turn to violence here seems over-determined by a combination of social dislocation and apocalyptic ideology. Certainly, the “times” confirmed the imminence of collapse of Chinese culture under the assault of the modern West, both commercial (Opium Wars), and religious (Protestant preaching).44 Ancient Taoist and Mohist doctrines explained this as one of many great cyclical catastrophes as part of the cosmic order that had regularly, in past centuries, produced messianic figures who, at such times, called for rebellion.45 Hong certainly had a receptive audience, in particular among some of the most marginal members of society, starting with his own ethnic group the Hakka, and including miners, charcoal-makers, peasants dislocated by sudden impoverishment, unemployed dockworkers and transporters. And Hong's peculiar brand of messianic Christianity had little difficulty accommodating native scenarios, which mapped nicely onto his revolutionary millennialism.46 In such conditions, Hong's original vision seems to have inspired (or justified) among believers a profound contempt for the lives of anyone deemed the apocalyptic “other”—all demon enemies of the “Great Peace.”

The language of demonization—present from the first (memories of the) 1836 vision—strengthened such attitudes. God had told Hong back in 1836 that he must (p.203) wait a while longer, thus putting a brief brake on a war that would, the apocalyptic moment arrived, explode onto the scene. Hong's sense of mission involved not a passive apocalyptic scenario, not the quiet transformation of some few (thousands of ) lives in anticipation of God's intervention in history (e.g., the Shakers). On the contrary, it was an active cataclysmic scenario, the violent destruction of the unjust government that ruled this world, the Qing dynasty, and then the inauguration of the millennial peace, the Taiping. The iconoclasm of the early movement, along with their discourse on demons, suggest that they were, from the earliest times, ready for a war with the enemies of the true religion, and only awaited the right moment to show their hand. In our terms, from an early point onward, this movement's apocalyptic scenario was active cataclysmic aiming at a demotic (egalitarian) millennium; and Hong Xiuquan was God's instrument, messiah, chosen to bring about the necessary cataclysm. Now, in 1850, the time had come.

Does this mean that the movement was inherently violent? Or could it have been what Catherine Wessinger calls a fragile or aggressed millennial group, whose violence and paranoia arise as a result of some combination of inner flaw—a failed prophecy, an anarchic visionary leadership—and an attack from outside authorities.47 Certainly, local authorities began to attack and arrest the followers of Hong Xiuquan, although it seems clear they were responding to an increasingly aggressive iconoclasm and anti-Confucianism that Hong began to preach. That led to open clashes with local authorities, both religious and civic.48 But for the authorities (local and imperial) not to oppose them might well have encouraged further defiance. Every time Hong and his disciples smashed idols without suffering retaliation, they struck one more blow at the strength of the existing order. Often enough, in the history of such movements, a distinct dance of defiance and response between the believers and the authorities spirals out of control. Apocalyptic time demands constant change; the belief rides the believer like a rider his horse.

■ The Advent Of Apocalyptic Time and Power

This is not the place to go over the extraordinary career of the Taiping armies, starting with the first battles in Jintian 1850 and culminating with the seizure of Nanjing in 1853.49 Some of the elements of their success, however, come clearly from the demotic elements of their religiosity, which prepared them to make the transition from a relatively stable agrarian lifestyle to that of an army. Their discipline, the initiative and creativity of their generals, the rapid deployment of earth (p.204) works that call for sustained manual labor, and their fanatic dedication suggest the kind of highly motivated behavior that, from the time of the ancient Israelites and Greeks, has allowed the few to defeat the (initially incompetent) many.

In particular the strict separation of men and women reflected the nature of apocalyptic time—until the millennial Taiping, for virtue's sake, they had to remain apart. This policy led to remarkable efforts to break up couples and families, and immensely increased the “inorganic” nature of this voluntary community. The result, not surprisingly, intensified the single-minded zeal of the warriors for God's millennium. As they swept through rural regions, giving the local peasantry the choice of death or membership in the salvific army, they managed to incorporate huge numbers of recruits—according to some counts, as many as two million by the time they reached Nanjing.

But what was sauce for the geese—the masses—at Nanjing, was not at all sauce for the gander—the leadership. If Lord Acton's dictum about power and corruption has validity, then the remarkable absolutism of millennial beliefs make millennial power the pinnacle of absolute corruption. What more unquestionable authority than that of the younger brother of Jesus, the son of the unique God? The period of power at Nanjing provides us with one of the most startling examples of the paradoxes of demotic millennialism come to power on the wings of revolutionary violence. Although its millennial ideal continues to promise a world of peace, equality, and plenty, the behavior of the leadership grows increasingly authoritarian.

Shortly after his arrival at Nanjing, Hong Xiuquan enacted two radically incompatible sets of policies. On the one hand, he pursued a land-reform program that represents the most radically egalitarian in recorded history—all property evenly distributed among all followers, men and women alike. On the other hand, he declared himself the emperor of the Taiping, and far from behaving in the “progressive” (anti-imperial, anti-Confucian) fashion with which he announced his millennial orientation, Hong began to behave like a restorationist Chinese emperor ruling from the last Chinese imperial capital, that of the Ming dynasty at Nanjing.

The shift to apocalyptic emperor, which represents the culmination of imperial millennialism, occurred rapidly and apparently without much opposition.50 The first use of such language came with the preparations for war, and the only opposition—at least in its surviving form—concerned when imperial titles were appropriate (not yet), rather than whether the Taiping would be an imperial or demotic regime. Hong had a court that became increasingly isolated from the world outside itself (much like Akhenaten's), with a harem, a vast proliferation of rules and regulations surrounding court etiquette, and a very strong hierarchical (p.205) emphasis of lines of authority and deference.51 The closer one got to the leader of this movement, the farther one retreated from demotic values. As Rob Weller notes, this represents a classic Chinese religious and political trope of the “receding center.”52

In addition to his own court, he permitted three other ones, each with their own kings. In this world of domineering alpha males we find all the themes of hierarchical culture proliferating. The ego-conflicts between them were driven by the classic concerns of honor and shame in the establishment of who was superior to whom.53 And these pervasive conflicts led to the deep and ultimately murderous hostilities that tore the movement apart. When the West King Xiao Chaogui (Jesus’ incarnation) cited the proverb about man's face and a tree's bark to describe the attitude of his rival, the East King Yang Xiuqing (the Holy Spirit's incarnation), he acknowledged indirectly that any demotic expectation that people in power can put aside their own cravings for honor long enough to assure the well-being of the people they serve goes against human nature.54

And yet, to whatever extent the court life in Nanjing had hierarchized (Sinified, Confucianized), the Taiping's social legislation suggests that they wanted to have the best of both worlds. Produced by the city's printing presses and made available publicly, this legislation represents the most egalitarian land distribution on record in world history to that time, and the first time that any Chinese ruler had ever taken so public and authoritative commitment to the egalitarian and free nature of his “subjects.”55 And so it seemed to sympathetic outsiders. Indeed, the disappointed but still-hopeful Karl Marx wrote enthusiastically about the movement for the International Herald Tribune in 1853, hailing the Taiping as the spark that would set off the international workers’ revolution.56

■ The Tension Between Imperial and Demotic in a Period of Apocalyptic Power

The Taiping offers a wide range of examples of the immense tension that builds up within a movement between its demotic roots and its imperial tendencies once it has power in its hands and, inevitably, its expectations are disappointed. (p.206)

  • Sex and the Millennium: Among the premillennial, apocalyptic demands that Hong made of his believers was the radical separation of the sexes and the renunciation of sexuality. He did this because under battle conditions, to mix the sexes was to invite the kind of immoral behavior that, by his understanding of the Ten Commandments, must not occur. The costs of such a process strike some of us as unbearable, but in the framework of an apocalyptic war, such sacrifices actually can galvanize rather than depress.57 Once arrived in Nanjing, however, the “theological” question with immense practical implications arose: has the millennium of Taiping begun? If yes, then the separation of men and women should end; if not, then it must continue until complete victory. Hong's choice was classic elitism: for the commoners, the disciplines of apocalyptic imminence; for the elite, especially for him, the delights of millennial immanence. Again, one could make a strong case that the failure of the Taiping to press on to Beijing and finish the job resulted from Hong's falling down the imperial and sexual rabbit hole, rendering him incapable of effective behavior in the world of real politics, whether it be fighting the Qing or keeping his own lieutenants in line.

  • Women and the Taiping Millennium: In the same way that we find women play a prominent role in the popular millennialism of the Cattle-Slaying, we find them again here. The Taiping banned foot-binding, concubinage, bride-price, the seclusion of women, and their separation from men. Women served in the army, even as commanders, had access to education, sat at the civil service examinations and could hold high office. Outside observers expressed astonishment at seeing women walking the streets of Nanjing, mingling freely with men. It was the “rural ‘female barbarians with unbound feet’ of the Taiping movement who pulled back the curtains of modern history for Chinese women and allowed them on to the public stage.”58 As with Thiota in 847 and the Great Awakening of the early eighteenth century, apocalyptic time and demotic millennialism allow commoner women to mount the stage of history.

  • Politics and Religion of Honor: Honor mattered immensely for Taiping elites. One finds this not only in the murderous plottings that resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Taiping by their own fellow believers, but even in the religious thought of Hong Xiuquan. One notes, for example, in his new (p.207) translation of the Bible into Chinese, that he eliminates all those passages which might set a bad example, might bring “shame” to the proffered role models: Abraham lying about Sarah, Lot and his daughters, Judah and Tamar.59 Instead of making available a self-critical demotic text as a challenge to readers expected to be autonomous moral agents, Hong wanted a clean version that would serve as a model to impose on moral subjects. This attitude may be closely tied up with his lack of confidence in his “rank and file” (and therefore his separation of men and women).

  • Iconic and hierarchical religiosity: The relationship between images and imperial (iconic) religiosity comes across with particular poignancy in the exchange between the Taiping and some Englishmen to whom they pose some urgent theological questions, many of which betray the importance for Hong's theology that God have a body and be visible. Indeed, some of the questions specifically betray a concern for God's sumptuary habits—what kind of beard and clothing does he wear, a matter of great concern for the honor codes at courts as well.60 The religion that had banished Confucian icons invented “monotheist” icons, and in the process of Sinifying the God of the Bible, turned him into a patriarchal family man.61

  • Executions: The readiness with which the Taiping executed their own reflects the move away from demotic religiosity and the ensuing ravages of paranoia. The harshness with which discipline generally was enforced, the number of executions for violations of the rules, and the overriding concern with preventing sexual transgressions, all testify to the waxing power of coercive purity and its accompanying paranoia. Hong's cousin and early follower, Hong Ren'gan, rejoined the group in Nanjing and expressed horror at the ease with which Hong ordered executions. Reflecting demotic style that surely dated from the early years of the movement, he suggested that executions “should be left to God's divine judgment, according to the commandment that stipulates Thou shalt not kill.” Hong responded: “Our holy Father's sacred edict instructs us to behead the evildoers and sustain those who are upright. Thus killing demons and those who have committed crimes is something that cannot be avoided.”62 As with most coercive purity, the practitioners tended (p.208) toward paranoia, best illustrated by the successful deceit of Zhang, a captured Qing spy, who denounced the Taiping's most loyal and competent commanders as secret agents for the Qing. When Yang had them all executed (apparently without a very thorough investigation), he in fact decimated his own best people.63 As with the French Revolutionary Terror and the totalitarian developments in Soviet Russia and Mao's China, the victory of radical egalitarianism gave birth to the most horrific excesses of the paranoid imperative.64

One of the more revealing aspects of this incompatibility between demotic and imperialist tendencies within the movement comes from the comments of an outsider, a Confucian member of the gentry who raised and led the decisive forces against the Taiping. Observing their threatening posture and their demotic values, Zeng Guofan made a macro-historical argument that echoes eerily the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in its contrast between the good, hierarchical world of order and the subversive anarchy of egalitarianism.

Since the days of the T'ang, Yu, and the Three Dynasties, the sages of all ages have been sustaining the traditional culture and emphasizing the order of human relationships. Hence, ruler and officials, father and children, high and low, honored and humble, were as orderly in their respective positions as hat and shoes, which can never be placed upside down. Now, the Yueh [Taiping] bandits steal some dregs of foreign barbarians [the Bible] and adhere to the religion of god; from their fake king and fake ministers, down to the soldiers and menial servants, they address one another as brothers, alleging that only Heaven can be called father. [No king but God.] Aside from this, all the fathers of people are brothers and all the mothers are sisters… . In short, the moral system, ethical relationships, cultural inheritance, and social institutions and statutes of the past several thousand years in China are at once all swept away. This is not only a calamity in our great Qing dynasty but is, in fact, the most extraordinary calamity since the creation of the universe, and that is what Confucius and Mencius are crying bitterly about in the nether world.65

Here we see the horror that a demotic movement arouses in the eyes of someone raised within a profoundly hierarchical society.66 Demotic millennialism strikes this imperial owl as a catastrophe on a cosmic scale. Given how many people died (p.209) from this madness, it is hard not to empathize. But at the same time, two points seem noteworthy: (1) that this demotic zeal made it so attractive to the traditionally “inert” peasantry that they joined by the millions, and (2) that the movement became so violently destructive precisely as a result of the swiftness and zeal with which it abandoned its demotic principles and moved toward coercive hierarchy. We will find the same phenomenon with Communist millennialism, once come to power.67 Demotic religiosity may be attractive, but it is extremely hard to sustain.

Hong's turn to an Akhenaten-like isolation in his millennial city and palace doomed his movement, despite the pervasive incompetence of the Qing troops opposing him and the considerable talent of some of his generals. His followers, torn by often-murderous rivalries and largely abandoned by their leader, failed to coordinate strategies and either consolidate their hold on the areas they had conquered, or to push on to other major cities. In addition, their religious orientation, which might have, had it been capable of some compromise, won the support of the Western powers, actually repelled them. Hong's only Western missionary teacher, Issachar Roberts, visited the Nanjing capital in 1860 to assess the movement, and concluded that Hong had lost his mind.68 In the final years of the war, Western troops and generals fought for the Qing.69 In 1860, the Taiping's effort to take the key port city of Shanghai failed, and from that point on, in a horrific war of attrition, they steadily lost ground.

When the final siege of Nanjing starved the city in 1864, Hong died of food poisoning from eating rotten food. When the Qing troops took the city, they disinterred his body, cremated it, and shot the ashes from a canon lest anyone try and create a relic cult. Some 20–35 million (!) Chinese lay dead as a result of this millennial war. It had literally decimated the population of around three hundred million.

■ Subsequent Role In Chinese History

In the West, the Boxer Rebellion of 1896–1901 is far better known than the Taiping, despite the fact that the Boxer Rebellion only produced casualties in the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, a mere fraction of the fatalities caused a generation earlier by the Taiping.70 As a sad illustration of whose ox is gored, the West remembers the Boxer Rebellion—indeed the expression “Yellow Peril” (p.210) entered our vocabulary as a result—because among those casualties some hundred or so were Westerners, and the Boxers targeted both Manchus and Westerners. But in Chinese history, especially in the narratives of modern Chinese revolutionary movements, from Chiang Kai-shek to Mao Zedong, memory of the Taiping dominates, in particular among the Communists who saw themselves and presented themselves to the Chinese as the continuators of the egalitarian revolutionary struggle of the Taiping.71

The irony here lies in the double mistake committed by the Chinese Communists in making this connection. They were convinced that they had improved in a critical way over the Taiping by eliminating the religious fanaticism that drove them, thus purifying the revolutionary ideology and permitting them a success that had eluded Hong Xiuquan. And yet, they were victims of the same millennial zealotry that drove the Taiping to sacrifice tens of millions of lives for the sake of “Heaven on Earth.” The staggering contempt for human life,72 the compulsion to impose purity from above, the radical land-reform principles that destroyed the economic life of the country,73 all replicate the errors of the Taiping. Still more striking, we find in Mao's behavior as he came closer to taking power the same shift to imperialism that marked Hong Xiuquan's ascension. In part, this was a response to the [perceived] “needs” of the masses, but in part it was a response to the megalomanic dynamic of the messianic leader, including the imperial harem.74

So, having convinced themselves that they represented the best of the Taiping and had, with their renunciation of the obscurantist and superstitious religious element, learned their historical lesson, the Maoists used Taiping history to promote their cause and made the same mistakes that their earlier “criticized” heroes had made. This error, based on a perception that the critical difference (p.211) between modern revolutionary movements and millennialism lies in secularization, and that consequently secular revolutionary movements are not millennial and need not understand themselves in that framework, continues to dominate both scholarship and political rhetoric. The consequences of such superficial assumptions in the twentieth century, to which we shall turn in the next part of the book, have been nothing short of catastrophic, for China, for Russia, and for Europe. (p.212)


(1) The bibliography on the Taiping is immense. The works I will most frequently cite are: Robert Weller, Resistance, Chaos and Control in China: Taiping Rebels, Taiwanese Ghosts, and Tiananmen (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); Jonathan Spence, God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996); Vincent Y. C. Shih, The Taiping Ideology: Its Sources, Interpretations, and Influences (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967); Jen Yu-Wen, The Taiping Revolutionary Movement (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973); Stephen Hunt, “The Revolutionary Dimension of Millenarianism: The Case of the T'aiping Rebellion,” in Christian Millenarianism: From the Early Church to Waco, ed. Stephen Hunt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001) and Thomas H. Reilly, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004).

(2) Thomas Taylor Meadows, The Chinese and Their Rebellions: Viewed in Connection with Their National Philosophy, Ethics, Legislation and Administration (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1856). He appropriately compared the early Taiping with the English revolutionaries of the 1640s, also millennialists, and he could just as well, and perhaps with more accuracy, given the violence that both of these movements engendered, have compared them with the Jacquerie and the other such, considerably bloodier rebellions of the Middle Ages.

(3) John Newsinger, “Taiping Revolutionary: Augustus Lindley in China,” Race and Class 42, no. 4 (2001): 59. The Qing sources of the time estimate two million members of the Taiping. It is hard to rely on such sources: alarmist figures might arouse an effective response, but such an enormous figure could also be discouraging. The population of China at the time was about 300 million.

(4) A brief collection of translated sources is available in J.C. Cheng, Chinese Sources for the Taiping Rebellion, 1850–1864 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963).

(5) A.F. Lindley (Lin-li), Ti-Ping Tien-Kwoh: The History of the Ti-Ping Revolution (London: Day & Son, 1866; reprint, New York: Prager Publishers, 1970).

(6) See discussion of Arab nationalism and al-Qaeda in chapter 14; Hitler, chapter 12; and Mendel, Vision and Violence, chap. 5.

(7) The year of his death, Theodore Hamberg published The Visions of Hung-Siu-tshuen, and Origin of the Kwang-si Insurrection (Hong Kong: China Mail Office, 1854). On these visions, see Weller, Resistance, Chaos and Control, 36–38; Spence, God's Chinese Son, chap. 4.

(8) P. M. Yap, “The Mental Illness of Hung Hsiu-Ch'uan, Leader of the Taiping Rebellion,” Far Eastern Quarterly 13, no. 3 (May 1954): 288–89.

(9) “… beyond interpretation, by common consent it can have no meaning.” Spence, God's Chinese Son, 50.

(10) This analysis, done from a translation, by someone with limited knowledge of Chinese culture, can only touch on specific aspects of the document, but it can, I hope, identify some of the apocalyptic dynamics. I am working with the translation provided by Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 213–15.

(11) Liang A-Fa was in Malaysia from 1834–39 (Spence, God's Chinese Son, 31–32). So if this encounter occurred during Xiuquan’ second exam (1836), then the person in question could not have been Liang (who was born in Guandong province and therefore spoke Cantonese). On the other hand, the man is probably not a Westerner.

(12) This account may be true, although it may represent a retrospective narrative that makes the tale more stark. What we can probably deduce from it is that Xiuquan did not “understand” what he read in any substantive way, although he may well have found both the conversation and the initial reading of the text intriguing. The elements of his subsequent vision suggest that he had been more deeply touched by this encounter both emotionally and substantively than his later account suggests.

(13) Only a tiny fraction of candidates passed. Public posting of exam results has long dominated most universities in Europe, although the “invasion of privacy” inherent in the practice has raised objections (see “Is There a Better Way to Get Exam Results?” bbc News, July 2, 2004, online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/3860119.stm, April 13, 2010.

(14) See the remarks of Augustus Lindley (Ti-Ping Tien Kwoh [1866]), who received the biographical narrative while with the Taiping in Nanjing. According to Lionel Jensen, Hong's writings do not suggest he had the kind of command of the classics to ensure success on the exams. As for the claim of precocity is a topos and does not necessarily mean that he was so brilliant he should have passed (personal communication).

(15) 人要臉,樹要皮 (ren yaolian, shu yao pi). See below, n. 55.

(16) For an interesting case of such a situation, in which the subject, a Christian monk who had been humiliated unbearably, created an alternative reality on parchment in which he triumphed gloriously, see R. Landes, Relics, Apocalypse, and the Deceits of History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), part III.

(17) For example, Philippine shamans, debunked by Philip Singer, “ ‘Psychic Surgery’: Close Observation of a Popular Healing Practice,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, n.s., 4 (1990): 443–51, online: http://www.jstor.org/pss/649226, April 13, 2010.

(18) “The seal and the sword are important exorcist objects of the Taoist priest. Exorcism normally plays no role in underworld iconography, except when Taoist priests visit the underworld ‘to destroy the fortress of hell’ and enable deceased souls to gain safe passage through the underworld toward a better incarnation. In Hakka culture in Guangdong province (Hong's culture of origin), it was the custom for adults to be initiated in a Taoist exorcist tradition. This custom lasted into the twentieth century,” Barend J. terHaar, “God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan [Book Review],” Journal of Social History 30, no. 4 (Summer 1997): 1007–08; see terHaar, “China's Inner Demons: The Political Impact of the Demonological Paradigm,” China Information 11, no. 2/3 (1996–97): 54–88; Rudolf Wagner, Reenacting the Heavenly Vision: The Role of Religion in the Taiping Rebellion (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies and Center for Chinese Studies, University of California–Berkeley, 1982).

(19) Augustine had a similar view of what he called the massa damnata, that vast majority of humankind condemned justly by original sin to eternal damnation, see Gerald Bonner, Freedom and Necessity: St. Augustine's Teaching on Divine Power and Human Freedom (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007).

(20) “Offensichtlich erwuchsen die Gesichte Hungs auf konfuzianischen, taoistichen und buddhistischen Vorstellungen; se hatten mit dem Christentum und einer Kenntnis der christlichen Lehre überhaupt nichts zu tun.” Georg Franz-Willing, “Die Ideologie der Taiping,” Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 24, no.4 (1972): 321. He cites Shih, Taiping Ideology, 277; see also Eugene Boardman, “Christian Influence upon the Ideology of the Taiping Rebellion,” Far Eastern Quarterly 10, no. 2 (1951): 115–24. online: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2049091, April 13, 2010.

(21) The source for this is a Taiping publication, the Taiping Heavenly Sun, in Cheng, Chinese Sources, 7–12.

(22) For a discussion of the way in which the tract and Isaiah's words seemed uncannily to describe the current situation, see Spence, God's Chinese Son, 51–65. The situation here is less dire than that of the Xhosa and the Native Americans who were faced with cultural extinction, but in the case of imperial China, we are dealing with a long cultural tradition that assumed dominion of surrounding cultures. The perception of decline, therefore, may have been significantly greater and more painful than the “objective” situation.

(23) Weller, Resistance, Chaos and Control, 34.

(24) See the examples of the “False Christ of Bourges,” Thiota and Aldabert, discussed above, Part I, chapters 13.

(25) Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 82–94.

(26) See Hunt, “Revolutionary Dimension of Millenarianism,” 123–27.

(27) See also the exchanges between Yang Xiuquan, The East King, and Captain Mellersh on what God wears, what his appearance is, and who his children are, Spence, God's Chinese Son, 230–31.

(28) See the deliberations of Issachar Roberts, the only Western Christian to give Hong Xiuquan instruction: Yuan Chung Teng, “Reverend Issachar Jacob Roberts and the Taiping Rebellion,” Journal of Asian Studies 23, no. 1 (1963): 55–67, online: http://www.jstor.org/pss/2050633, April 13, 2010. See also J.S. Gregory, “British Missionary Reaction to the Taiping Movement in China,” Journal of Religious History 2, no. 3 (2007): 204–18. For a full discussion, see S.Y. Teng, The Taiping Rebellion and the Western Powers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), part III.

(29) Spence, God's Chinese Son, 110–11.

(30) See the parallels with early Protestantism discussed in Reilly, Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, 130–35.

(31) Weller, Resistance, Chaos, and Control, 60–64.

(32) Spence, God's Chinese Son, 118.

(33) Reilly, Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, 97. Reilly argues that Hong did not get this emphasis from Liang A-Fa's tract, which rarely cites the “Old Testament,” but from his brief study with Issachar Roberts, and that (like many non-Western cultures) the Taiping's Christianity was “more of an Old Testament religion than a New Testament one” (98). Note that, according to Lindley, the Taiping celebrated the Sabbath on Saturday (Ti Ping Tien Kwoh, 315). For a contemporary example of this tribal attraction to the Ten Commandments, see the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Uganda (above, chapter 2, nn. 24 and 65).

(34) “The Book of Heavenly Commandments,” issued in Year 2 (1852); see Franz Michael, The Taiping Rebellion: History and Documents, 3 vols. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966–71), 2:121. Note that Hong is working with a Christian translation. The Hebrew reads “Thou shalt not murder”—with no mention of “or injure”.

(35) Weller, Resistance, Chaos and Control, 69–85; on the role of the “spirit” in charismatic movements, see the case of Montanus, who “talked in tongues” and added a third “testament” to the biblical corpus, as did the Taiping: see Trevett, Montanism.

(36) Weller, Resistance, Chaos and Control, 64–68.

(37) Ibid., 94–95.

(38) Ibid., 88.

(39) Weller cites the Watchtower movement in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and the Shakers in North America, ibid., 88–93.

(40) There is obviously a problem here in causal argumentation. We know the situation had reached saturation point because it precipitated a drastic shift away from this semiotic anarchy toward a hierarchy. But we know that other movements (Weller discusses a number of such millennial movements that do not become violent) do not make the shift, or made it “prematurely” as it were. So we should consider timing in these matters. It is possible that by tolerating the cacophony of visionary voices as long as they did, Hong and his inner core of disciples made the eventual shift to unifying violence all the sharper and more powerful. Weller remarks that the numbers increased from a few thousand to over ten thousand in the visionary period (1847–50); Weller, Resistance, Chaos and Control, 50.

(41) Perhaps the most militant figure was Yang Xiuqing, the future “East King,” and de facto ruler of Nanjing. Shih considers Yang's “most prominent contribution to the Taiping ideology… the subordination of everything else to the military, and eventually to the political success of the Taiping army” (Taiping Ideology, 109).

(42) Hamberg, Visions, 43, cited by Spence, God's Chinese Son, 115.

(43) For the documents produced as a result of the change, see Michael, History and Documents, vol. 2, part 2; on this period, Spence, God's Chinese Son, 110–25; Jen Yu-Wen, Taiping Revolutionary Movement, 52–70; Weller, Resistance, Chaos and Control, 86–110.

(44) Hunt, “Revolutionary Millenarianism,” 118–23.

(45) Both Hunt (ibid., 120), and C. K. Yang (Religion in Chinese Society [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961], 227) place Hong's wide appeal in this context.

(46) In his commentary on the book of Revelation 21, Hong identified the “New Jerusalem” as the Taiping “Heavenly Capital” (Cheng, Chinese Sources, 91). For an extensive analysis of the various strains of millennialism in Hong's Taiping ideology, see Reilly, Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, 104–16.

(47) Catherine Wessinger, Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 3–39. See also, Daniel L. Overmyer, Folk Buddhist Religion: Dissenting Sects in Late Traditional China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976).

(48) On the period from 1847–49, see Spence, God's Chinese Son, 96–109. On rewriting the visions to increase the anti-Confucian passages, see 98. On the first public act of iconoclastic vandalism, see 100.

(49) For a description, see Spence, God's Chinese Son, chap. 12.

(50) Of course, the opposition to such a move is generally among the most rapidly suppressed narratives, appearing only in the tales, largely demonizing, of internal groups of dissidents who betray the revolution (mostly to outside forces). For an example of such a narrative, see Gregory of Tours’ account of the “Vase of Soissons,” History of the Franks, 2.27, 139–40. Mao underwent the same transformation, on which see Jonathan Spence, Mao Zedong (New York: Penguin, 2006), 100–01.

(51) The model for this imperial administration was the Zhou-li,” the blueprint for the Zhou dynasty some three millennia earlier.

(52) Rob Weller, “Mountains and Valleys: Multiple Natures and their Consequences in China,” Paper delivered at Boston University, November 9, 2008.

(53) Michael, History and Documents, 2: 125–31.

(54) On the proverb, see above, n. 15.

(55) “The Land System of the Heavenly Dynasty” in Michael, History and Documents, 2:309–20. See also Spence, God's Chinese Son, 173–74; for a discussion of the failure of the Taiping's idealistic system, see Kathryn Bernhardt, “Elite and Peasant during the Taiping Occupation of the Jiangnan, 1860–1864,” Modern China 13, no. 4 (October 1987): 379–410.

(56) See below, chapter 10, n. 79.

(57) Joan of Arc demanded that the Dauphin's soldiers renounce the three key elements of a soldier's life—wenches, swearing, and gambling. Rather than create problems, it created a powerful sense of solidarity among them and devotion to her; Régine Pernoud, The Retrial of Joan of Arc: The Evidence at the Trial for Her Rehabilitation, 1450–1456, trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1955), 107, 132, 142, 158–59, 163–64.

(58) Fan Hong, Footbinding, Feminism and Freedom: The Liberation of Women's Bodies in Modern China (London: F. Cass, 1997), 30, cited by Newsinger, “Taiping Revolutionary,” 60; see also Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), chap. 2.

(59) Spence, God's Chinese Son, 254–61; for a collection of Hong's annotations to the Bible see Cheng, Chinese Sources, 81–91.

(60) Note that Yang's rise to highest power came from a demotic critique of Hong's sumptuous attire (Spence, God's Chinese Son, 223–24), testimony to Xiuquan's commitment to honest criticism; but Yang's own subsequent behavior suggests that, as Nietzsche would have us expect, when it came to his own imperial behavior, no forms of abasement for others was too much.

(61) For the extremely revealing and agitated corrections that Hong added to the theological response from Joseph Edkins, see Spence, God's Chinese Son, 288–89, and the illustration between 274–75.

(62) Ibid., 274. See also the proliferation of executions among the radical pacifist Anabaptists at Münster, in their brief moment of apocalyptic power, 1533–35, discussed in Middlefort, “Madness and the Millennium at Münster,” 115–34.

(63) Spence, God's Chinese Son, 228.

(64) Here I use the paranoid imperative both as Eli Sagan does, especially in Citizens and Cannibals: The French Revolution, the Struggle for Modernity and the Origins of Ideological Terror (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), where he investigates the French revolutionary dynamic, and as I distinguish it—exterminate or be exterminated—from its “normal time” formulation, the dominating imperative—“rule or be ruled” (see below, chapter 8).

(65) Spence, God's Chinese Son, 227–28.

(66) See Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

(67) For the most recent analysis of Mao's tendency toward imperialism, see Spence, Mao Zedong and Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (New York: Knopf, 2005).

(68) On Roberts’ visit to Nanjing, see Spence, God's Chinese Son, chap. 20.

(69) In particular, the “Ever Victorious Army” of Frederick Townsend Ward, who had set out for China with dreams of joining the Taiping and becoming one of their kings, but, upon realizing the opposition of the Western powers in Shanghai, offered his services to the Qing (see discussion in Jen Yu-wen, Taiping Revolutionary Movement, 89–93.)

(70) On the differences in memory, see Paul A. Cohen, History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 14–15.

(71) James P. Harrison, “Chinese Communist Interpretations of the Chinese Peasant Wars,” in History in Communist China, ed. Albert Feuerwerker (Boston: MIT Press, 1968), 189–215; Harrison, The Communists and Chinese Peasant Rebellions: A Study in the Rewriting of Chinese History (New York: Atheneum Press, 1971); Alex Volkoff and Edgar Wickberg, “New Directions in Chinese Historiography: Reappraising the Taiping: Notes and Comment,” Pacific Affairs 52, no. 3 (Autumn 1979): 479–90; Robert Weller, “Historians and Consciousness: The Modern Politics of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom,” Social Research 54, no. 4 (Winter 1987): 731–55.

(72) The Maoists did not discuss the death toll of the Taiping, whose memory they invoked so approvingly. They were equally averse to discussing the death toll of the “Great Leap Forward.”

(73) Zhang, quoted above, notes that “[t]he farmers cannot cultivate their own fields to pay taxes because it is said that all the land belongs to the Heavenly King. The merchants cannot do their own business to make profits, because it is said that all the commodities belong to the Heavenly King” (Spence, God's Chinese Son, 327).

(74) Mao, apparently, spent many long hours and days fornicating as often as he could; see the accounts of his doctor, Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao (New York: Random House, 1994).