Hung Hsiu-ch'üan (1814-1864) was a Chinese religious leader and founder of the Taiping sect. His beliefs led to the Taiping Rebellion.
Hung Hsiu-ch'üan was born on Jan. 1, 1814, not far from Canton to a poor peasant family of the Hakka minority group. Because the young boy displayed some intelligence, his family pooled its resources in order to give him an education. In 1827 Hung participated in the official civil service examinations for the first time, and, although he passed the preliminary examination, he failed the district examination in Canton. Despite repeated attempts he was never successful and became one of those frustrated scholars who eked out a living as a low-paid teacher and who in times of crisis often provided the leaders and supporters of rebellious movements.
Birth of a Religion
In 1836, when in Canton for another unsuccessful attempt at the examinations, Hung heard a Christian missionary preach and was given some religious tracts. In the following year, after failing again, he suffered a nervous collapse. While in a coma he had visions of a fatherly old man who complained that men had forsaken him and were worshiping demons. A middle-aged man also appeared who instructed Hung in the slaying of demons. The true significance of his visions did not become apparent to Hung until 1843, when he took the trouble to read the Christian tracts he had been given 7 years earlier. Hung suddenly realized that the old man was God the Father and the middle-aged man, Jesus Christ, the Elder Brother and that Hung, as the Younger Brother, was commissioned to stamp out the worship of demons.
In 1844 Hung converted the members of his family to his new religion and then, because of local Chinese animosity, went to Kwangsi to preach among the Hakka. The religious group that Hung founded was known as the God Worshipers Society and was initially a purely religious organization, but government persecution and local opposition eventually forced it to assume a political role.
In July 1850 Hung and his followers decided to resist the government forces that had been sent to wipe them out, and the Taiping Rebellion began. As avowed rebels with dynastic aspirations, the God Worshipers changed their name to the T'ai-p'ing T'ien-kuo, "Celestial Kingdom of Peace," and Hung was declared T'ien-wang, or "Celestial King." The Taiping forces swept northward in the spring of 1852 and by March of 1853 had taken Nanking, which became the "Celestial Capital."
Thousands of desperate peasants joined Hung's theocratic state. Although his understanding of Christianity was rather limited, it did not prevent Hung from developing his own ideas, which were accepted by his followers as the word of God. Prostitution, foot-binding, and slaves were prohibited, as were opium smoking, adultery, gambling, and the use of wine and tobacco. All property belonged to the state, which in turn provided for the needs of the people. Women were allowed to hold land and serve in the army and administration, but the sexes were rigidly separated. Monogamy was the rule, and, contrary to the Chinese custom of religious tolerance, all followers had to believe in the one true God. The Manchus, whom Hung regarded as alien conquerors and the personification of evil, were slated to be eliminated, as were Confucian culture and the gentry-literati-official class.
The competent leadership, tight military organization, and fanatical devotion to the cause which had made the Taiping forces almost invincible was, however, dissipated by jealousy and intrigue. In 1856, after an attempted usurpation, Hung ordered a bloodbath of his closest advisers, withdrew to his harem, and left the governing of the Taiping kingdom, which encompassed most of central China, to his incompetent relatives.
Under the leadership of Tseng Kuo-fan, the imperial forces began to reverse the tide in 1860. With two new imperial armies in the field, one under Li Hung-chang in Kiangsu and the other under Tso Tsung-t'ang in Chekiang, Nanking was finally taken on July 19, 1864. Hung Hsiuch'üan, who had placed his trust in divine guidance, had committed suicide on June 1. The victors found his body wrapped in yellow satin embroidered with dragons in a sewer under his palace.
A full biography of Hung appears in Arthur W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, 1644-1912 (2 vols., 1943-1944). The most extensive study of the Taiping Rebellion in English is Franz H. Michael, The Taiping Rebellion, vol. 1 (1966). Vincent Yu-chung Shih, The Taiping Ideology (1967), discusses in depth the sources, interpretations, and influences of Taiping thought. □