During the mid-19th century in China, a series of revolts against the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) raged, devastating the landscape and claiming millions of lives. The Nian Rebellion (1851-1869) in the east and north of China had ties to a Buddhist sect, while the Taiping Rebellion in the south was led by a man who claimed to be the recipient of divine revelations. Hong Xiuquan (b. 1814), a schoolteacher from a small village in the Guangzhou province, led the Taiping Rebellion against the Qing Dynasty, nearly toppling the government and establishing himself as ruler.
In the context of economic strife and religious fervor, Xiuquan blended public need and radical spirituality into an appealing movement for change. Chinese commoners flocked to support Xiuquan, and once he established his Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, the country descended into civil strife that altered China's path in immeasurable ways.
Hong Xiuquan experienced visions during the late 1830s - ones that ultimately convinced him it was his divine duty to undo the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty in China. Empowered by the belief that he had been visited by God and was the younger sibling of Jesus Christ, Xiuquan set out to take down the government, which he believed was rife with sinful behavior and demon worshippers.
The Manchu-led Qing Dynasty had become woefully ineffective and the peasantry suffered as a result. Xiuquan saw the economic strife that surrounded him and his religious calling as an indication that he was supposed to take action. By 1850, Xiuquan had attracted followers, collectively known as the Society of God Worshippers (Baishangdihui), and mobilized troops.
Hong Xiuquan had humble origins as a schoolteacher but aspired to a position as a bureaucrat. In his efforts to earn a passing score on the civil service exams in China, Hong Xiuquan pushed himself so hard that he experienced an emotional breakdown. In 1837, after failing the exam for the third time, Xiuquan had dreams about a "beautiful and luminous place" where he was purified, given gifts, and tasked by an elderly man with eliminating demons on Earth. Xiuquan continued to have visions for 40 days, even spying Confucius himself on one occasion.
Once Xiuquan recovered from his delirium, his family and friends noticed he was a changed man. Xiuquan channeled his new-found spirituality into Christianity. After yet another failed attempt at the civil service exam in 1843, Xiuquan read Liang Afa's Good Words to Admonish the Age, a Christian text he'd found at his cousin's home.
The text led Xiuquan to believe his visions were divine revelations. Xiuquan thought he was commanded by God to eliminate demons, and that Jesus Christ himself appeared to him as an older brother figure. The demons he was supposed to cast out were the Confucian and Buddhist idols worshipped throughout China.
Once this all became clear to Xiuquan, he baptized himself and began identifying as the younger brother of Jesus.
The size of Xiuquan's forces led to a Manchu response in 1851, year one of Xiuquan's Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.
The Society of Worshippers of God and Qing forces fought one another numerous times in 1851 and 1852, with heavy losses on both sides. The Taiping forces had several victories, however, notably at Wauchang.
By early 1853, the Taiping set their sights on Nanjing. By this point, the Taiping effort had roughly two million followers in Nanjing. On March 19, 1853, Taiping forces captured Nanjing and the Society of Worshippers of God established their capital in the city.
After the victory at Nanjing, the Taiping forces split into three parts - one went west, one went north, and one stayed at Nanjing to defend their stronghold. Meanwhile, the Chinese emperor maintained his capital at Beijing. The Northern Expedition of the Taiping forces headed toward the imperial city.
In 1844, Hong Xiuquan and Feng Yunshan began spreading their message, preaching and attracting more followers as they went. By 1847, there were as many as 2,000 members of the Society of God Worshippers - the name Xiuquan's loyalists had given themselves. By the time the first hostilities between the Society of God Worshippers and the Qing government broke out in 1851, Xiuquan had 30,000 supporters.
One of the cornerstones of Xiuquan's teaching was fairly communist in nature. At first, he advocated for shared property and eventually offered free land to his followers. This brought out more and more peasants to support him, especially after famines struck the country in 1847 and 1849.
Historians estimate that Taiping forces neared one million members by 1853 - and were still on the rise.