China

"The Visions of Hong Xiuquan" – The Beginning of China’s Taiping Rebellion

On a day in the spring of 1852, Theodore Hamberg, a Swedish protestant missionary who had come to the British colony of Hong Kong in 1847 to spread the gospel among the people of Southern China, received an unusual and in many respects mysterious guest. One of his Chinese converts from the countryside brought with him a man named Hong Rengan (洪仁玕; pinyin: Hóng Réngān), a Hakka from Hua County (now part of Huadu District, Guangzhou), who claimed that the Qing government was chasing after him. He spoke of a heavenly prophet, of Hakka Christians whose numbers were growing, who fought against the Qing and destroyed the Chinese idols, of battles and insurrections. 

To Theodore Hamberg, these stories did not make much sense, but he was fascinated by the man’s narrative and by how much he knew about Christianity, although he came from a region of China with no missionary activities. He asked Hong Rengan to write down his story. Hamberg expected that his guest would stay in Hong Kong for some time, study the Christian religion and be baptized; but when he returned from a trip to China’s interior, Hong Rengan had already disappeared. 

It was only months later that Hamberg realised the importance of this brief and unusual encounter. In 1853, rebels who called themselves “God Worhippers” captured the city of Nanjing and founded the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. As Hamberg learnt, Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the insurgents, was none other than Hong Rengan’s cousin. The reason why the imperial government wanted him arrested now became clear; he was a relative of the man who had launched a revolution to overthrow the Qing dynasty and establish a new, Christian-inspired Chinese state (see Weller 1994, p. 33, and Platt 2012). 

The Taiping Rebellion, which lasted from 1850 to 1864, was the bloodiest single military conflict of the 19th century and one of the most catastrophic civil wars of all time. It is estimated that around 20 million people died during those 14 years of devastating struggle. By way of comparison, around 600,000-700,000 people died during the American Civil War, and around 16 million people died during World War I. The Chinese Civil War was in fact one of the major events in the history of the country, but, inexplicably, it is one that is little known in the West. The Civil War not only accelerated the downfall of the Qing Empire, but it brought indescribable suffering upon millions of people.  

Theodore Hamberg, who maintained friendly relations with many Christians involved in the Taiping Rebellion, decided to publish the story that Hong Rengan had written down. He entitled it: “The Visions of Hong Xiuquan and the Origin of the Guangxi Insurrection“. This is the first account of the life of the Taiping leader and the beginning of the Civil War. 

The following excerpt, written by Hamberg on the basis of Hong Rengan’s account, reconstructs the genesis of Hong Xiuquan’s peculiar Christian faith and his belief to be a prophet. Hong Xiuquan was a promising young man, and family made great sacrifices to give him a good education. They hoped he would pass the imperial examination and become a scholar-official. Yet he failed, and the shame he felt for disappointing his family brought him to the brink of madness; from a Confucian scholar and a filial son whose only aim was to serve the state and bring glory upon his parents, he turned into an anti-Confucian, anti-Manchu rebel who, in the course of the Civil War, came to control large areas of the vast empire, establishing a de facto parallel government.  

Note: Whenever possible, I have rendered personal names in pinyin, since Theodore Hamberg’s romanization was intuitive and often obscure

The Qing retake Suzhou from the Taiping



***


At an early period, when he was only about sixteen years of age, Hong [Xiuquan] commenced to visit the public examinations at Canton [Guangzhou], with the hope to realize the high expectations entertained in his family respecting his literary abilities. There are in China four literary degrees, which can be attained by every one who at the examination distinguishes himself by superior talent, elegance of composition, and fine handwriting. The first or lowest degree is called Siu-tshai, the second Keu-jin, the third Tsin-szu, and the fourth and highest Han-lin. In order to attain to the first of these degrees, every student must pass three different examinations, namely, first, the examination of the District, called Hsien-khau; then the examination of the Department called Fu-khau; and finally, the decisive examination before the Imperial Examiner, called the Thau-khau. At the examination of the district, by the Magistrate of Hwa-hien, there are collected about 500 students every time, being all candidates aspiring to gain the first literary degree of Siu-tshai [in this section, Hamberg’s romanization has been left unchanged as most terms he refers to are probably transliterated by him from Hakka or from Cantonese].
Every candidate must state his own name and the names of his ancestors during three previous generations, and besides procure evidence of a graduate in the district, that he really belongs to its jurisdiction, and is entitled to the right of attending the examination. When the names have been duly registered, every candidate receives a roll of white paper, marked with his number, upon which he has to write his essays. Upon the first day two passages from the Four Books are selected as themes for the essays, and one arbitrary theme for a piece of poetry. Afterwards all these essays are examined, and arranged according to their merits. All the names of the candidates are arranged accordingly in ten circles, every circle containing fifty names. After an interval of three or four days, the same process is repeated, until the candidates have been collected, and have written their essays and pieces of poetry seven different times …

Xiuquan’s name was always among the first upon the board of the District Examinations, yet he never succeeded in attaining the degree of Siu-tshai. In the year 1836, when he was twenty-three years of age, he again visited Canton, to be present at the public examination. Just before the office of the Superintendant of Finances, he found a man dressed according to the custom of the Ming dynasty, in a coat with wide sleeves, and his hair tied in a knot upon his head. The man was unacquainted with the Chinese vernacular tongue, and employed a native as interpreter. A number of people kept gathering around the stranger, who used to tell them the fulfilment of their wishes, even without waiting for a question from their side. Xiuquan approached the man, intending to ask if he should attain a literary degree, but the man prevented him by saying, – “You will attain the highest rank, but do not be grieved, for grief will make you sick. I congratulate your virtuous father.” 

On the following day he again met with two men in the Liung-tsang street. One of these men had in his possession a parcel of books consisting of nine small volumes, being a complete set of a work entitled “Good words for exhorting the age”, the whole of which he gave to Hong Xiuquan, who, on his return from the examination, brought them home, and after a superficial glance at their contents, placed them in his bookcase, without at the time considering them of any particular importance. 

The following year, 1837, he again attended the public examination at the provincial city of Guangdong. In the commencement his name was placed high upon the board, but afterwards it was again put lower. Deeply grieved and discontented, he was obliged once more to return home without his hopes being realized, and at the same time feeling very ill, he engaged a sedan-chair with two stout men, who carried him to his native village, where he arrived on the first day of the third Chinese month in a very feeble state, and was for some time confined to his bed. 

During this period he had a succession of dreams or visions. He first saw a great number of people, bidding him welcome to their number, and thought his dream was to signify that he should soon die, and go to the presence of Yanluo Wang, the Chinese King of Hades. He therefore called his parents and other relatives to assemble at his bedside, and addressed 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 favour of your love to me! I shall never attain a name that may reflect its lustre upon you.”

After he had uttered these words, during which time his two elder brothers had supported him in a sitting posture upon his bed, he shut his eyes and lost all strength and command over his body. All present thought he was going to die, and his two brothers placed him quietly down upon the bed. 

Xiuquan became for some time unconscious of what was going on around him; his outward senses were inactive, and his body appeared as dead, lying upon the bed, but his soul was acted upon by a peculiar energy, so that he not only experienced things of a very extraordinary nature, but afterwards also retained in memory what had occurred to him. 

At first when his eyes were closed, he saw a dragon, a tiger, and a cock entering his room, and soon after he observed a great number of men, playing upon musical instruments, approaching with a beautiful sedan chair, in which they invited him to be seated, and then carried him away. Xiuquan felt greatly astonished at the honour and distinction bestowed upon him, and knew not what to think thereof. 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, an old woman took him down to a river and said, – “Thou dirty man, why hast thou kept company with yonder people, and defiled thyself? I must now wash thee clean.” After the washing was performed, 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 colour. 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, 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 splendour of which were beyond description. A man, venerable in years, with golden ears and dressed in a black robe, was sitting in an imposing attitude upon the highest place. 

As soon as he observed Xiuquan, he 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; what is however still worse than that, they take of my gifts, and therewith worship demons; they purposely rebel against me, and arouse my anger. Do thou not imitate them.” Thereupon he gave Xiuquan a sword, commanding him to exterminate the demons, but to spare his brothers and sisters; a seal by which he would overcome the evil spirits; and also a yellow fruit to eat, which Xiuquan found sweet to the taste. 

When he had received the ensigns of royalty from the hand of the old man, he instantly commenced to exhort those collected in the hall to return to their duties toward the venerable old man upon the high seat. Some replied to his exhortations, saying, “We have indeed forgotten our duties toward the venerable.” Others said, “Why should we venerate him? Let us only be merry, and drink together with our friends.” Xiuquan then, because of the hardness of their hearts, continued his admonitions with tears. The old man said to him, “Take courage and do the work; I will assist thee in every difficulty.”  

Shortly after he returned to the assemblage of the old and virtuous saying. “Xiuquan is competent to this charge,” and thereupon he led Xiuquan out, told him to look down from above, and said, “Behold the people upon this earth! Hundredfold is the perverseness of their hearts.” Xiuquan looked and saw such a degree of depravity and vice, that his eyes could not endure the the sight, nor his mouth express their deeds. He then awoke from his trance, but still being under its influence, he felt the very hairs of his head raise themselves, and suddenly, seized by a violent anger, forgetting his feeble state, put on his clothes, left his bedroom, went into the presence of his father, and making a low bow said, “The venerable man above has commanded that all men shall turn to me, and all treasures shall flow to me.”

When his father saw him come out, and heard him speak in this manner, he did not know what to think, feeling at the same time both joy and fear. The sickness and visions of Xiuquan continued about forty days, and in these visions he often met with a man of middle age, whom he called his elder brother, who instructed him how to act, accompanied him upon his wanderings to the uttermost regions in search of evil spirits, and assisted him in slaying and exterminating them. Xiuquan also heard the venerable old man with the black robe reprove Confucius for having omitted in his books clearly to expound the true doctrine. Confucius seemed much ashamed, and confessed his guilt. 

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, “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 ascribed their present misfortune to the fault of the Geomancer in selecting an unlucky spot of ground for the burial of their forefathers. He invited therefore magicians, who by their secret art should drive away evil spirits; but Xiuquan said, “How could these imps dare to oppose me? I must slay them, I must slay them! Many cannot resist me” …

Xiuquan’s two brothers constantly kept his door shut, and watched him, to prevent him from running out of the house. After he had fatigued himself by fighting, jumping about, singing, and exhorting, he lay down again upon his bed. When he was asleep, many persons used to come and look at him, and he was soon known in the whole district as the madman. He often said that he was duly appointed Emperor of China, and was highly gratified when any one called him by that name; but if any one called him mad, he used to laugh at him and to reply, “You are indeed mad yourself, and do you call me mad?” When men of bad character came to see him, he often rebuked them and called them demons …

Xiuquan’s relatives asked the advice of several physicians, who tried to cure his disease by the aid of medicines, but without success. 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, 一天王大道君王全, “The Noble Principles of the Heavenly King, the Sovereign King Quan.” He took the paper and shewed [=showed] it to the other members of the family, who however could not understand the meaning of the seven characters. From this time Xiuquan gradually regained his health. Many of his friends and relatives now visited him, desirous to hear from his own mouth what he had experienced during his disease, and Xiuquan related to them without reserve all that he could remember of his extraordinary visions. His friends and relatives only replied, that the whole was very strange indeed, without thinking  at the time that there was any reality in the matter …

With the return of his health, Xiuquan’s whole person became gradually changed both in character and appearance. He was careful in his conduct, friendly and open in his demeanour, his body increased in height and size, his pace became firm and imposing, his views enlarged and liberal. His friend describes him as being, at a later period, a rather tall man, with oval face and fair complexion, high nose, small round ears, his eyes large and bright, his look piercing and difficult to endure, his voice clear and sonorous – when laughing, the whole house resounded; his hair black, his beard long and sandy, his strength of body extraordinary, his power of understanding rare … 


In the year 1843, he had a school in a village called “Water-lily,” about ten miles from his native place, being engaged as teacher by the Li family. In the 5th month, his cousin Li, whilst looking into his bookcase, happened to take out from among his books the work entitled “Good Words for exhorting the Age” [the author of the book, Liang Afah, was a Chinese Christian who told the story of his own conversion].

Xiuquan’s cousin Li, after having read the books, returned them to him, and said that their contents were very extraordinary, and differed greatly  from Chinese books. Xiuquan then took  the books and commenced reading them closely and carefully. He was greatly astonished to find in these books the key to his own visions, which he had had during his sickness six years before; he found their contents to correspond in a remarkable manner with what he had seen and heard at that time. He now understood the venerable old one who sat upon the highest place and whom all men ought to worship, to be God the heavenly Father; and the man of middle age, who had instructed him and assisted him in exterminating the demons, to be Jesus the Saviour of the world. The demons were the idols, his brothers and sisters were the men in the world. Xiuquan felt as if awakening from a long dream … 

Learning from the book the necessity of being baptized, Xiuquan and Li now, according to the manner described in the books, and as far as they understood the rite, administered baptism to themselves. They prayed to God, and promised not to worship evil spirits, not to practise evil things, but to keep the heavenly commands; they poured water upon their heads, saying, “Purification from all former sins, putting off the old, and regeneration” …

They thereupon cast away their idols, and removed the tablet of Confucius, which is generally found in the schools, and worshiped by the teacher as well as by the pupils. 

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