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  • James Houser

January 1, 1814 - The Birth of Hong Xiuquan

Updated: Aug 19, 2023

This was the first post I did, obviously much shorter than the rest. I need to revisit the Taiping Rebellion someday. It was mind-numbingly colossal, possibly one of the deadliest wars in history, and deserves a better study on my part.

The seeds of the most destructive war in human history until the Second World War were sown with the birth of Hong Xiuquan, a Chinese peasant who in 1843 experienced a "divine revelation" that informed him that he was the second son of God and brother to Jesus Christ. Through an extremely warped understanding of Christianity, half-interpreted through Catholic missionaries, Hong led a rebellion that combined spiritual aspects with the native Chinese resistance to the foreign Qing Dynasty. The Taiping Rebellion would tear China apart for two decades, which greatly weakened the Empire, allowing Western powers to gain decisive advantages and hastening the end of Imperial China.

Hong and his movement are fascinating because they almost succeeded. If they had survived, we may face a very different world - one with a fourth great Judaic religion to add to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but based in China. Even though they failed to overthrow the Qing Emperors, the Taiping Rebellion was catastrophic for the Chinese state and caused the deaths of over 20 million from 1851 to 1864. In contrast, the American Civil War during the same period caused the deaths of 2 million. This little-known war is one of the most devastating events of modern history, and deserves far more attention than it has ever gotten.

Book recommendation: God's Chinese Son: The Heavenly Empire of Hong Xiuquan by Jonathan D. Spence (New York: Norton, 1996.) Available on paperback and Kindle. Note: this book IS in the present tense, so it may come off strange (Hong says, Yang walks over to...). For those that aren't about that, like me, Stephen R. Platt's Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (New York: Knopf, 2012) is your best bet. For general Chinese history, John Keay's China: A History (London: HarperPress, 2008) is a fun, engrossing read.

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