Hong Xiuquan came from a literate Hakka peasant family. He failed the imperial examinations four times. After his second attempt at the examinations in 1836, two preachers, one Chinese and one American (Edwin Stevens), gave him a set of nine pamphlets containing essays and biblical selections, titled Good Words for Exhorting the Age, written by Liang Fa and published in 1832. He laid them aside after a superficial reading. After his third unsuccessful attempt to succeed in the imperial examinations, Hong fell seriously ill and was plagued by visions. Upon recovery, he resumed work as a village teacher for five or six years.
In 1843, frustrated with his fourth failure at passing the examinations, his attention was drawn to Liang Fa’s pamphlets through his cousin, Li Jingfang (Ching-fang), who had borrowed them for his own reading and was fascinated by their content. Hong seemed to find illumination for his earlier visions from the pamphlets. He identified God the Father as the venerable old man in his dreams, Jesus as the middle-aged elder brother, and the idols as the demons he saw in his visions. He believed he had received a divine mandate to lead the people. He and Li baptized themselves. They destroyed the idols in Li’s home and embarked on their preaching mission. Hong was instrumental in the conversion of his family and two close friends: his cousin Hong Rengan (Jen-kan), nine years his junior, and Feng Yunshan. In 1844 Hong and Feng preached as far as Guangxi.
In 1847 Hong went to Guangzhou to study more Christian doctrine under a Baptist missionary, Issacher J. Roberts. After a few months, Roberts decided against baptizing Hong since he doubted Hong’s motives. Hong then proceeded to Guangxi, where he found that Feng, in just two years, had formed a syncretistic religious sect, the Bai Shangdi Hui (The Society of the Worshippers of Shangdi), with more than 3,000 followers. In addition to monotheism and baptism, the followers observed religious rites such as the burning of paper containing confessed sins, formal evening and morning prayers and grace, and the consumption of animals sacrificed as part of a marriage, burial, and New Year celebration. Hong was welcomed with reverence as “Master Hong.” The increase in Shangdi worshippers led to inevitable hostilities with the Confucian gentry and Manchu authorities.
In January 1851 Hong and his followers set up a new dynasty in Guangxi. Their kingdom was called the “Heavenly Kingdom of Eternal Peace and Prosperity” (Taiping Tianguo), and Hong was declared the “Heavenly King” (Tian Wang). In March 1853 Hong and his followers captured Nanjing and made it their capital, naming it Tianjing (Heavenly Capital). They held the city for more than a decade. Although Hong devoted much time to praying for his kingdom and his palace was run with strict discipline and an insistence on moral education, Hong himself reputedly had 88 wives. Each wife was considered a daughter-in-law of God and the younger sister of the queen. An attempt by Yang Xiuqing (Hsiu-ching), Hong’s “East King” (Dong Wang), to usurp the throne in 1856 resulted in the deaths of four leaders, which weakened the Taiping Tianguo. Hong died on 1 Jun 1864 during the siege of the city by the Manchu authorities. His 16-year-old son, Hong Tian-kuei-fu, succeeded him on 6 Jun 1864.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from A Dictionary of Asian Christianity, copyright © 2001 by Scott W. Sunquist, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
Jen Wu-Yen, The Taiping Revolutionary Movement (1973). Spence, Jonathan, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (1997).