The Taiping Rebellion—mass murder in the name of Jesus’s crazy little brother

A number of years ago, I saw an older physician reading a book with an intriguing title—God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan Spence. Like most Americans, I know very little about Chinese history. I certainly had no idea that there was a massive civil war in 19th century China that by most estimates killed around 20 million people.

Twenty. Million. People.

By comparison, the American Civil War, which took place in roughly the same time period, took around 700,000 lives (military, disease, civilian, etc.). I’m not a historian, and I read the book a long time ago, but this story sticks with you.

The leader of the Rebellion, Hong Xiuquan, was a failed civil service aspirant, from a non-dominant ethnic group. After failing his civil service exam multiple times and listening to some Christian missionaries, he had a vision that he was the younger brother of Jesus, and somehow used his insanity to capitalize on existing ethnic and economic tensions. He amassed a remarkably large, brutal, and fanatical army, replace existing religious restrictions with his own, and enforced morality where he held control.

This maniac took over most of south and central China. His “Heavenly Kingdom” ruled millions of people, and had it’s capital in Nanjing. In one battle for Nanjing 100,000 people were killed.

So, basically in modern times, out of the minds of most Westerners (who were admittedly preoccupied with killing each other), a wacko religious visionary managed to take over most of China, causing the deaths of millions of people. How do we not know about that?

Like many theocracies led by charismatic rulers, when he died, things fell apart. Military support from the West helped the Qing dynasty recapture most of the country.

The Qing re-instituted their brand of oppression (which was probably marginally better than Hong’s) and things went back to “normal” after a decade or so.


A middle-class guy declares himself Jesus’s brother, takes over the biggest country in the world, millions die. He also declared women equal, stopped foot binding, and women served in his army. Traditional Confucianism relied strongly on subjugation of women, and one thing this nut-job saw clearly was that half the population was available for recruitment.

It makes you wonder—where else are there large, poor, oppressed populations waiting for a delusional theocrat to come along and harness their power?