I'll come on to him later; first a little background:
At the time of the rebellion, China was ruled by the Manchurian Quing Dynasty which was regarded as foreign by the Han Chinese. The Manchus had invaded China from the north east in 1644 taking advantage of the disarray following the collapse of the Ming Dynasty during a peasants' revolt in Beijing.
China, under the Qing Dynasty in the mid-19th century, suffered a series of natural disasters, economic problems and defeats at the hands of the Western powers; in particular, the humiliating defeat in 1842 by the United Kingdom in the First Opium War. The Qing government, led by ethnic Manchus, were seen by much of the Chinese population, who were mainly Han Chinese, as an ineffective and corrupt foreign regime. Anti-Manchu sentiment was strongest in the south among the laboring classes and it was these disaffected who flocked to join the charismatic leader Hong Xiuquan, a member of the Hakka community, a Han-Chinese sub-group that inhabited southern China but traced their ancestries back to northerners in the Song Dynasty. Having arrived too late to acquire the best land, they were engaged in constant conflicts.5 Among these serious problems were the prevalence of female infanticide, creating massive imbalances with shortages of women being worst in the primary Taiping centers.
The Western Powers, including the United Kingdom, Portugal and France were then at the height of their imperial expansionist zeal and regarded China with the same superior, patronizing disdain that they had held for the rest of the non-European world, on the grounds that they were obviously mentally and culturally retarded what with having the wrong religion and being clearly marked by God with different colour skin so we could easily identify them as lesser peoples. We were naturally shouldering our Christian duty to teach these unfortunate people better ways - and of course relieving them of their wealth and natural resources by shipping them back to Europe where they could be put to better use.
In the eyes of Imperial Britain, the Opium Wars were the result of the disgraceful and ill-considered attempt by an upstart Chinese government to stop the lucrative trade in opium which Britain was them selling in vast quantities to Chinese peasants. They were, of course, swiftly put in their place by a few gunboats and made to see the good sense of allowing Britain to continue to exercise her God-given right to sell anything she wished to anyone, according the God-given laws of free trade, even signing over Hong Kong to Britain as a sign that they had seen the light.
Of course, as with the rest of the non-Christian world, Christian missionaries were leading this assault by softening up the population and telling them the Europeans were coming to save them from a fate worse than death and rescue them from the clutches of their satanic, demon-controlled governments and their satanic demon-worshipping religions; something which could be best avoided by abandoning their old customs and culture, handing over their land in return for Bibles, praying with their eyes closed, accepting the puppet governments we were installing and doing exactly what the Christian preachers told them to do - and no questions!
The Taiping Rebellion was lead by a disaffected Hakka Chinese named Hong Xiuquan (born Hong Renkun) who had started out with high hopes of progressing in the Imperial Chinese Civil Service but who had failed on two counts:
- He failed to pass the entry exam four times (the pass rate was only about 1%).
- His family were not wealthy enough to pay a large enough bribe.
In one of these dreams he met an old man and a 'brother-figure'. The old man complained that people were not worshipping him enough but were worshipping demons instead. In other dreams he saw Confucius being punished by the old man and being made to confess his sins, and again met the 'brother-figure' who gave him a magic sword and a seal and told him he had to purge China of demons. He also told Hong that his name was now Hong Xiuquan in recognition of this sacred role.
Some six years later Hong, still unable to see himself in anything other than a leadership role, and having tried his hand as a school teacher, managed to interpret these dreams by reference to the Bible tracts he had been given. He concluded that the old man was the Christian god and the brother-figure was Jesus, and therefore he must be another son of God, and so Jesus' younger brother - and he had been given the sacred task of cleansing China of demons by none other than his older brother, Jesus.
Provisions for mental health care were non-existent in China in the 1840's.
Together with a small band of equally disaffected Hakka who had also failed their Imperial Civil Service exams, he started vandalizing Buddhist and Confucian statues and symbols in the surrounding small towns and villages. They were promptly driven away by the enraged locals to the predominantly Hakka town of Guangxi, 300 miles away to the west. Here they found a people much more willing to join in a campaign to rid China of Confucianism, the religion of choice of the hated Manchus and the basic principles on which imperial government was founded - with its hard exams!
Gradually, Hong built up his following by preaching his own blend of communal utopianism and evangelical Christianity. He had studied briefly under the 'difficult' American Southern Baptist, Reverend Issachar Jacox Roberts and had formally studied the Old Testament, but he got most of his understanding of Christianity from the "Good Words to Admonish the Age" by the Chinese preacher, Liang Fa, assistant to the Christian missionary, Edwin Stevens, who had given Hong those pamphlets in Guangzhou in 1836.
By 1850 Hong's supporters were strong enough to fight off an attack by Manchu forces, decapitate the local army commander and declare the "Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace" in January 1851. Later that year they were able to break through a Manchu blockade and capture the town of Nanjing in Hunan province which Hong established as capital of his autocratic Christian theocracy which he ruled by decree from the "Heavenly Palace" demanding strict compliance, in the style of Biblical despots, to his moral and religious rules. Property was socialized (i.e. placed under Hong's control), trade was abolished (i.e. placed under Hong's control) and polygamy outlawed - apart from for Hong and a small band of elite who were of course permitted a harem of concubines.
To demonstrate the principles of brotherly Christian love in his theocracy, the commander of Hong's army, Yang Xiuqing, who had been a key figure in the Taiping Rebellion, who also claimed to speak with the 'voice of God' and had proclaimed himself the 'East King', was summarily murdered, along with his entire family, when Hong began to be suspicious of his ambitions.
In June 1864, the Manchus, aided by the western powers, were finally gaining the upper hand. Hong told his starving followers to eat the 'manna' which God would provide and died, probably of self-administered poison, or, as his cousin later claimed, through eating manna himself.
There doesn't appear to have been any reference to Kool-aid.
It was to take until 1871 for the scattered remnants of the Taiping rebels to be finally put down with the destruction of the last Taiping army in the borders of the Hunan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces in August of that year.
In all, some 20 million Chinese died in the rebellion precipitated by this fanatical Christian cult and its clearly deranged leader, and conducted in the name of the Christian god, making it one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history. Curiously, God had failed to provide support to the person whom he had commanded to cleanse China of demons, but some of the egalitarian, anti-property and above all anti-imperial sentiments Hong had espoused, and which he claimed to have been given by God or learnt from the Christian Bible, were later to influence and inspire the young Mao Zedong, leader of the Communist revolution and later Chairman of the People's Republic of China.