When Christian beliefs mixed with Chinese revolutionary activities

The snow-covered roof of the Imperial Hall in the Forbidden City, Beijing, China.(Photo: Getty/iStock)

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds Christians that they are surrounded by a great "cloud of witnesses." (NRSV) That "cloud" has continued to grow in size since then. In this monthly column we will be thinking about some of the people and events, over the past 2000 years, that have helped make up this "cloud." People and events that have helped build the community of the Christian church as it exists today.

The Taiping 'Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace'

During the 19th century, Western Christian missionaries had a significant impact on China. For example, James Hudson Taylor (1832–1905) was a hugely influential British Protestant Christian missionary to China, who founded the China Inland Mission (CIM) in 1865; which is now OMF International.

He was highly sensitive to Chinese culture (wearing traditional Chinese clothes), campaigned against the corrupting opium trade (which had been sponsored by British imperial policy and enforced by British force of arms), founded schools, and his team of missionaries had a huge positive impact on those with whom they worked.

This missionary work and its legacy is well known in the West among Christians who follow events in China and their complex roots. However, far less well known in the West is an aspect of 19th-century Chinese history which involved an interweaving of aspects of Christian beliefs with Chinese revolutionary activities, with catastrophic results.

It needs to be stated here that this was in no way connected with the positive work of men and women such as James Hudson Taylor. However, it is a salutary warning concerning how half-understood aspects of faith can sometimes be taken wildly out of context, distorted, and applied in the most alarming manner. It is an aspect of Christian history in China which still reverberates today.

The 'messianic mission' of Hong Xiuquan

At the centre of these events was a man named Hong Xiuquan (1814–64). He was a man who had failed to enter the Chinese imperial civil service through its demanding and extensive series of examinations. As well as experiencing severe personal disappointments, he was clearly influenced by Christian teachings (from the period before the activities of CIM in China), particularly those with an apocalyptic character.

While suffering from fever, in 1837, he claimed to have had a series of visions. In these 'visions' he allegedly travelled to a heavenly land, which was situated to the east. There it was revealed to him that demons were destroying humankind. He was given a sacred sword, and with the help of a heavenly brother, he battled against the demons and the king of hell. After this spiritual battle, Hong claimed that he remained in heaven, took a wife, and had a child with her. After this, Hong returned to earth, with the title: 'Heavenly King, Lord of the Kingly Way.'

Following these experiences, by 1843 he came to believe that he was a son of God, the younger brother of Jesus Christ. This was based on his reading of Christian missionary literature – but clearly hugely misunderstanding it. As a result of this, he reinterpreted the fevered vision as indicating that the father in his dream was Father God of Christianity, the older brother of the dream was Jesus, and the king of hell was the serpent in the garden of Eden (in Genesis). This then made Hong the younger brother of Jesus and placed on earth with a divine calling. With this messianic status, he claimed that he had been sent to reform China.

An associate of Hong, named Feng Yunshan, assisted in the organization of a new religious group based on Hong's claims. It was known as the Bai Shangdi Hui (God Worshippers' Society). The group rapidly gained followers among the poorest peasants living in Guangxi province.

This accompanied new spiritual claims by others who were accepted into the growing religious movement. In 1848 this included a charcoal burner by the name of Yang Xiuqing, who claimed to be a spiritual channel for God, and a peasant named Xiao Chaogui, who said he was a channel for Jesus.

Ecstatic followers claimed to be transported to heaven. Others recounted claims of angelic beings who saved local villages from crises. A movement that accelerated the desperate hopes of downtrodden people was beginning to gain real traction.

What emerged as Hong's religious movement was a strange mixture of distorted Christian beliefs (influenced by Protestant missionary theology), Chinese religious traditions, hatred of the ruling Qing dynasty, and opposition to Chinese cultural traditions which underpinned the Qing regime. There was little in the movement about forgiveness and compassion, but much that referenced theocratic government, worship and obedience.

In January 1851, Hong proclaimed the beginning of a new dynasty: the Taiping Tianguo (Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace). It was then that Hong openly took the title of Tianwang (Heavenly King). The movement was now entering a new phase in its extreme claims and, also, territorial expansion. Setting up the so-called 'Taiping Heavenly Kingdom' in Tianjing (present-day Nanjing) – in opposition to the ruling Manchu-led Qing dynasty – rebels led by Hong eventually controlled much of southern China, ruling a population of about twenty million people.

The causes and course of the Taiping Rebellion

The Qing dynasty (also called the Manchu dynasty), that was the target of this messianic rebellion, was the last of the imperial dynasties of China and lasted from 1644 to 1912 (there was a brief restoration of the dynasty in 1917). By the time of the Taiping Rebellion, the great days of the Qing dynasty were in the past and it was facing increasing disruption and turbulence.

A series of great famines, natural disasters, economic problems, and escalating defeats at the hands of colonial foreign powers in the 19th century, fed into what has become known as China's 'century of humiliation'. Deep resentment at this foreign interference still informs large parts of 21st-century Chinese national identity and attitudes towards outside 'interference' in Chinese affairs. It was during this 'century of humiliation' that the Taiping Rebellion added a new and unique form of mayhem to the cocktail of crises facing China.

As this revolutionary (largely peasant army) took new territory, it pulled in support from other armed groups, including members of Chinese secret-societies and outlaws. Taking Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province – now famous outside China as the place where the coronavirus Covid-19 was first identified in 2019 – they went on to push north through the Yangtze river-valley.

Reaching the eastern city of Nanjing, they captured it in March 1853, renaming it Tianjing (Heavenly Capital). It then became their territorial base. From there they mounted a northern expedition which aimed to seize the Qing capital, located at Beijing. Although this venture failed, another push – into the upper Yangtze valley – was highly successful and defeated several of the Qing imperial armies sent against it. The provinces in the Yangtze river-valley became the main theatre of conflict.

In July 1864, Nanjing was captured for the Qing. The fall of Nanjing signalled the end of one of the greatest civil wars that had ever occurred in world history. It was the end of the apocalyptic revolution. Hong – the erstwhile self-styled Tianwang (Heavenly King) – committed suicide. Taiping resistance continued in other parts of the country until 1868.

The impact of the rebellion

The death toll of the series of wars was enormous. As well as being caused by the fighting and disruption centred on the main regions involved, the chaos spread out into wider areas of China.

The Taiping armies, those who opposed them, and other groups who had risen up in arms, carried out acts of terrible brutality. Mass conscription was accompanied by the devastation of the land and populations in enemy areas. Tens of thousands were deliberately slaughtered. This was accompanied by famine and disease, which attended such widespread disruption of farming and trade, and the movement of war-related refugees.

Overall, it has been estimated that somewhere between 20 and 30 million people died due to this rebellion and related upheavals. Some figures have ranged as high as 50 million deaths. What is striking is that civilian deaths far outnumbered military casualties.

The long-term impact of this devastation was to further undermine the effectiveness and capability of Chinese government. Although the Qing had won, the dynasty was so weakened by the rebellion that it was never again able to establish an effective hold over the country that was officially under its rule. Outside powers made the most of this, to exploit China. The continuation of the 'century of humiliation' was further accelerated by the failed apocalyptic rebellion of the Taiping.

Anger at foreign governments' exploitation of China's increased weakness led to violence against not only foreigners, but also Christians (both Chinese and missionaries). During the so-called 'Boxer Rebellion' (1899–1901), the 'Righteous Harmony Society,' (called 'Boxers' by the British) murdered Christian missionaries and Chinese Christians; and destroyed churches and foreign property.

The Boxers entered the coastal city of Tianjin brandishing the heads of murdered missionaries. The China Inland Mission lost more of its members than any other missionary group: fifty-eight adults and twenty-one children were murdered. The overall death total included: 30,000 Chinese Roman Catholics; 2,000 Chinese Protestants; many Protestant missionaries and their families; and Catholic nuns and priests.

Foreign diplomats, Christian missionaries, foreign soldiers, and some Chinese Christians took refuge in the diplomatic Legation Quarter in Beijing. There they were besieged for fifty-five days by the Chinese Imperial Army and the Boxers. An eight-nation invasion of China broke the siege, defeated the Boxers, and forced major concessions from the Qing government.

The next year the allied nations demanded compensation from the Chinese government. However, Taylor refused to accept payment for loss of life or property. His aim was to win the Chinese to Christ, not demand reparations. It was an extraordinary act – but typical of the man and his work.

Another Chinese radical movement – but this time in support of the Qing dynasty – had ended in defeat and the further weakening of the Chinese state. In the long term, foreign imperialist intervention (which had so destabilised China) left a deep legacy there of distrust of outside influences. This remains the case in the 21st century.

However, regarding James Hudson Taylor and CIM, the terrible events of the Boxer Rebellion had demonstrated the extraordinary resilience and witness of their love for Christ and for the Chinese people. Despite their huge casualties, CIM remained in China and, through OMF, continues its gospel work there to this day.

Martyn Whittock is an evangelical historian and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. As an historian and author, or co-author, of fifty-four books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for a number of print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio shows exploring the interaction of faith and politics; and appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA. Recently, he has been interviewed on several news platforms concerning the war in Ukraine. His most recent books include: Trump and the Puritans (2020), The Secret History of Soviet Russia's Police State (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021), Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021), The End Times, Again? (2021) and The Story of the Cross (2021). He has recently completed Apocalyptic Politics (2022 forthcoming), which explores the connection between end-times beliefs and radicalized politics across religions, time, and cultures; including in China.