Historical awareness is woefully spotty. Everyone knows that World War II killed perhaps forty million people. But few have ever heard of a bizarre religious war that inflicted similar slaughter.
China’s Taiping Rebellion in the mid-1800s was the bloodiest civil war in human history and possibly the worst conflict of any type, depending on whose casualty estimate you accept. Most historians tally the death toll at twenty million, but some speculate that fifty million or one hundred million people perished, largely from war-caused famines and epidemics.
The weird uprising began because a Chinese man named Hong Xiuquan read Christian missionary pamphlets, then said he experienced a vision in which God told him he was a younger brother of Jesus (apparently forming a Holy Quaternary: father, two sons, and Holy Ghost). Hong said God commanded him to “destroy demons,” meaning officials and supporters of the reigning Qing Dynasty.
Hong proclaimed the “Heavenly Kingdom of Peace” (Taiping Tianguo) and began raising a volunteer army to wage the opposite of peace. Oppressed peasants in southern China flocked to him, partly because of his miracle message and partly because they felt bitterness against the ruthless northern Qing government.
Early rebel victories against Qing troops in 1850 caused the Taiping army to swell beyond seven hundred thousand soldiers. One of leader Hong’s top aides—Yang Xiuqing, who claimed that his own utterances were the voice of God speaking through him—became a secondary commander. Together, they mandated a puritanical society, inflicting the death penalty for various vices and imposing strict separation of sexes. Although polygamy was banned, Hong, the supposed younger brother of Jesus, had a harem of concubines.
In March 1853, the Taipings conquered Nanking, killing thirty thousand imperial troops and civilians. Hong renamed the city “Heavenly Capital” and built his “Palace of the Heavenly King” there.
As the rebellion mushroomed so too did the horrendous death toll. The Taipings soon controlled much of south-central China, about one-fourth of the nation containing nearly half of the population. The visionary Hong partly withdrew as military commander—but he grew suspicious of Yang’s pronouncements as the “voice of God.” He ordered the execution of Yang and his family in 1856, along with the extermination of Taiping soldiers loyal to Yang.
Qing Dynasty rulers struggled to defeat the snowballing mutiny that ensued. Several local resistance militias were organized. The largest was the “Ever-Victorious Army” led by an American commander, Frederick Ward. After Ward was killed in 1862, Charles “Chinese” Gordon, a Briton, took up command. During that chaotic period in China, hiring expert foreign commanders to lead local mercenary defense armies was thought expedient.
Gradually, the Taipings were beaten back. But many fought stubbornly, even to the death. Eventually, they were surrounded in their capital, Nanking. Hong relinquished power to his fifteen-year-old son. Then Hong died of food poisoning from eating unclean vegetables in the starving city. As imperial troops overran Nanking in July 1864, many Taipings took poison, and others suffered mass execution. The final battle killed one hundred thousand people in three days.
Hong’s body was exhumed and burned, and his ashes were blasted from a cannon to deprive his fanatical followers of a gravesite where he could be worshiped as a divine martyr. Several hundred thousand Taiping soldiers remained in surrounding regions and continued a guerrilla resistance until 1871.
Footnote: Unlucky Chinese Gordon would later be afflicted by murderous religion a second time. In 1885, he led Egyptian defenses against a Muslim holy war in the upper Nile valley and was killed when the fanatics overran Khartoum.