On This Day: China's Christian kingdom falls 158 years ago

The Taiping Rebellion is one of the single bloodiest wars in the history of humanity when China crushed a Christian rebel state founded by "Jesus's younger brother."

 An artistic illustration of the Qing forces defeating the Taiping at the Battle of Nanking. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
An artistic illustration of the Qing forces defeating the Taiping at the Battle of Nanking.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

July 19, 2022 marks 158 years since the conclusion of the Third Battle of Nanking, the climactic final battle of the Taiping Rebellion in China.

The battle itself was a brutal four-month engagement that saw widespread atrocities in its conclusion alongside a death toll of at minimum, 119,000.

Further, it also brought an end to the war between the ruling Qing Dynasty and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a Christian theocratic rebel state, which had been raging for 14 years and is recognized as one of the single deadliest wars in human history.

The background

The Taiping Rebellion itself has a vastly complicated and interesting history, with legal and ethnic tensions along with European colonialism adding to a series of events that all kickstarted when a man who failed China's civil exams began to believe that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ.

The background itself technically begins in the 1600s, when the Qing Dynasty took over China. 

 Hong Xiuquan, the self-declared younger brother of Jesus Christ (Illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Hong Xiuquan, the self-declared younger brother of Jesus Christ (Illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

While the majority of China was and still is populated by the Han Chinese ethnic group, the Qing Dynasty themselves were Manchu, originating from Manchuria in what is now northeastern China. 

The problems for the Qing really began in the 19th century, due in part to famines, natural disasters and, most notably, a series of issues with European colonial powers. China was forced to sign a number of unequal treaties that heavily favored Europeans. This also saw a sharp increase in banditry.

This was all part of a period that has become known as the century of humiliation.

Meanwhile, the signing of the unequal treaties also allowed another manifestation of European colonial influence to work its way into China: Foreign Christian missionaries. At this time, in order to reach important figures, these Christian missionary pamphlets and tracts were often distributed outside the Chinese imperial examinations.

Also known as keju, these exams were incredibly important in China. In theory, Imperial-era China functioned as a meritocracy, where the officials that would make up China's vast network of bureaucrats would be chosen. 

The reason it was done by exam was simple: It allowed for only the best to be chosen, rather than simply those born into nobility. And, as such, it was the best and brightest of Chinese society that would go take these exams.

At least, this is how it was in theory.

While it did certainly have a role in keeping the nobility from being too powerful, in practice, it wasn't as meritocratic as it sounds. Only the rich were able to properly study for exams or pay for the needed commutes, and far more Manchus were admitted into positions of power than Han Chinese. 

The test itself was also incredibly difficult and very few test takers actually ended up passing.

But this is where the long background ends and where the immediate series of events begins, with ethnic and cultural tensions, economic issues, Christian missionaries, Chinese imperial exams and a period of national humiliations all coming together to fuel one man's unlikely rise.

Hong Xiuquan, the man who would lead the Heavenly Kingdom

Hong Xiuquan was born in Guangdong to a very minor elected official in 1814. An avid intellectual and aspiring scholar, Hong worked hard to study for the exams and showed significant promise.

After years of studying, he Hong left for Guangzhou to take the exams. And he failed.

Then he tried again. And he failed.

But it was at this time, while in Guangzhou, that he heard about Christianity. He first heard the words of a foreign missionary and then received a series of pamphlets about Christianity along with Bible excerpts. 

But he didn't pay it too much mind at the time.

A year later, Hong tried the test again. And he failed.

At this point, historians noted he suffered a complete nervous breakdown, and it was during this that Hong supposedly had a vision of visiting Heaven, meeting what he described as his heavenly family, not to be confused with his earthly family.

Hong woke up, and apparently became a far friendlier and careful person.

Years later, he tried the test again. And he failed.

And after this, he supposedly finally read those Christian tracts.

This, Hong believed, helped shed light on his beliefs in his heavenly family. His heavenly father was clearly God. His heavenly elder brother could only logically be concluded to be Jesus Christ.

This would mean that Hong Xiuquan was the son of God, a younger brother to Jesus Christ.

At least, that's what he claims — and notably, many historians seem to think that he genuinely believed all of this and wasn't simply using it as a pretext for what would follow.

For the next several years, Hong began preaching. He and his earliest converts burnt and destroyed Confucian and Buddhist texts and statues in different towns, sparking outrage, which led them to move away to Guangxi. And then he went back home after five months.

Then he studied with Christian missionaries, fully embraced Protestant Christianity and asked to be baptized.

He was refused, with the missionary possibly thinking this was part of a financial scam. Then he left and went to go look for his cousin, but he got mugged by bandits.

But he made it finally to Thistle Mountain in Guangxi and found out that his cousin had created a religious group, the Society of God-Worshippers.

Soon, this religious movement began to grow, and Hong even translated and adapted the Bible himself, claiming this to be the true Chinese religion before Confucius got rid of it. 

Changes were made to better fit Hong's own beliefs and agenda. For instance, the entire story of Judah sleeping with his son's widow Tamar. 

Soon, his own views became more established. Men and women were segregated but seen as equals and foot binding was abolished.

Surprisingly, despite the sheer oddity of all these factors with the religion, by 1850, just three years after the Society of God-Worshippers was founded, its ranks had swelled to the tens of thousands.

This may seem surprising but there were some actual reasons for this.

Guangxi was not a safe place. The massive rise in banditry and piracy over the years had seen the area become incredibly dangerous, and that meant that any law enforcement officials had more important things to do. 

Further, the Society of God-Worshippers, soon the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, became seen as a safe haven to escape the violence, and escape the attention of the authorities. 

The Taiping Rebellion, one of the bloodiest wars in history

But by 1850, their numbers couldn't be ignored, and soldiers were sent to disperse them. And they failed.

So the imperial forces tried again the next year with a full-scale assault. And they failed.

The imperial forces didn't give up though and tried to keep Hong's much smaller force contained. And they failed.

Hong and his troops burst through and began taking towns, getting support from anti-Manchu locals.

They continued onward. In 1853, they seized control of the major city of Nanjing (then known as Nanking), completely conquering it. And brutally murder 40,000 ethnic Manchus in the city.

At their peak, the Taiping controlled southern China.

Hong himself took a backseat for a lot of it, but the war with the Qing forces grew more intense. It saw the mass mobilization of forces, it saw battles taking place on land, in sieges and even naval clashes. At one point, Hong's forces even went to try and capture Beijing. And they failed.

Taiping diplomats tried to get more popular support in China, trying to win over the middle class. And they failed.

In 1860, the Taiping forces tried to seize Shanghai. And they failed. But not only did they fail, they failed catastrophically, as Shanghai had a lot of Europeans who established colonial claims in the city. This means that now, the Europeans were involved. 

Qing forces started to get organized and started taking back the land. Over the course of the next four years, Qing troops took back much of the South and attacked Nanjing.

The Third Battle of Nanking

At this time, Nanjing had just under 400,000 soldiers to defend it. Advancing on them was a large Qing army of over 500,000 called the Hunan army, a large underpaid and underfed militia.

At this time Hong was still in the city. He knew and hoped that God would protect his capital from the Qing forces. And then he died.

Defense of the city was now led by Li Xiucheng and he had a wide variety of plans to try and stop the advance of the Qing forces. But day by day, Qing took more and more ground as artillery fell on the city and the Qing forces worked to dig tunnels to let them place bombs under the city walls.

But Li had a plan. Disguise over a thousand defenders as the attacking Qing forces, sneak out and then destroy the tunnel. And they failed.

The explosions detonated early in the morning on July 19, destroying the wall. A massive force charged into the city, furiously fighting but the resistance was harsh. But ultimately, Qing forces won. 

What followed was the complete abandonment of any manner of discipline the Hunan army had, and soon a massive round of rape, murder, arson and looting began. And Hong's remains were shot from a cannon.

Finally, after 14 years, the fighting was over. Not counting the thousands of remnants that continued to plague China for several years.

The legacy

Several scholars have posited that despite its Christian nature - though it should be noted that most established mainstream Christian streams did not consider Hong's group as a valid Christian sect - the Taiping Rebellion was actually a sort of proto-Communist uprising.

At any rate, it reflected a wide discontentment towards the Qing Dynasty. They weren't alone in this either.

In fact, while the Taiping Rebellion was happening, there were no less than three other major rebellions. Had they all worked together, the outcome could have been very different - in fact, some historians claim that it was this lack of cooperation that spelled defeat for the Taiping.

The war also helped bring modern weaponry to the Chinese military, severely increasing its capabilities. Both sides increasingly innovated and made use of new tactics and technologies for the area, including new guns and new artillery.

Due to the Christian nature of the Taiping, a lasting impact was a negative perception of Christianity within China.

But another important aspect was this conflict's example of total war.

Almost everyone in the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was given training and conscripted. Resource management and targeting was a major part of the war, including human resources - which is why so many civilians were massacred. 

And of course, in every part the Taiping conquered, the Manchus were exterminated.

The death toll of the war is unknown. And due to the lack of censuses, it never can be. It is estimated that overall, the Taiping had 2 million soldiers, while the Qing had 3.4 million. The death toll has often been estimated to be between 20-30 million, though some claim that may be as high as 100 million. This would make it one of the deadliest wars in human history, second only to World War II.

But a lot also changed within China. The Manchu no longer had as much power with more Han Chinese being allowed into powerful positions. 

The Taiping also heavily inspired more revolutionary efforts. Sun Yat-sen, who would lead the downfall of the Qing and create the Republic of China, took inspiration from Taiping. Mao Zedong and Chinese Communists considered this a proto-communist rebellion.

Their impact left a lasting and enduring legacy on Chinese history that has helped define the course of progression, helping lead China to what it is today.