Almost everyone knows about the American Revolution [1775 – 1783] that led to the founding of the United States, and many are aware of the French Revolution [1789 – 1799], but I suspect few outside of China [and possibly in China] are aware of the bloodiest rebellion in human history, the Christian led Taiping Rebellion [1845 – 1864].
I didn’t know about China’s Taiping Rebellion until I discovered it while researching the life of Sir Robert Hart, who is the [real-life] main character in my award-winning, historical-fiction novel, My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition].
Robert Hart—a British citizen and devout Christian—was asked by China’s Imperial leaders to patch up a feud between a Han general, Li Hongzhang, and General Charles Gordon [an evangelical Christian who would later become Queen Victoria’s supposedly favorite general].
In fact, Gordon was so devout that he sincerely believed he was an agent of God’s purpose. What is ironic is that the Taipings were led by a Chinese Christian convert who felt the same way.
At this point, you might be wondering why two British citizens who were devout Christians, Hart and Gordon, were helping imperial China defeat a Christian rebellion with a goal to convert all of China to Christianity.
The answer has to do with the opium trade—opium was produced in British India and sold in China and taxes on the profits were funding the British military and the expansion of the British Empire. In addition, to force the opium trade on China, the British and French Empires fought two wars with China. The 1st Opium War was 1839 – 1842 and the treaty that ended it included allowing Christian ministers into China to convert the Chinese. The 2nd Opium War was fought from 1856 – 1860 to expand the opium trade to reach more Chinese leading to more profit.
To be fair, Hart and Gordon did not have history textbooks to guide them, and there was no way for them to know the extent of casualties spread across China in a rebellion that lasted almost twenty years. Hart was nineteen when he arrived in China in 1854 and Gordon was twenty-seven when he arrived in 1860.
How did God’s Chinese son fit into this history? Hong Xiuquan—a failed student of Confucianism—found success as a Christian convert who was baptized by a Scottish Protestant missionary, one of the missionaries allowed into China after the 1st Opium War. And not long after converting, Hong claimed that he visited heaven and met God, Mary and his older brother, Jesus.
Hong wrote his own gospel and claimed he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He also added his gospel to the Bible that he had translated into Mandarin and then published for his followers to study.
Hong’s Taiping Rebellion to convert China to Christianity would rage for nineteen years but converting China was only one goal. Another goal was to rid China of opium. But the British, French, United States and Russians—all Christian countries—stood to lose a lot of money if the forced opium trade ended. The United States would send troops [1856 – 1859] to fight the Chinese in the 2nd Opium War.
Several sites on the Internet say that 20 million people were killed in the Taiping Rebellion but some say it was 30 million. I’ve read one claim that the number killed may have been closer to a hundred million.
For a comparison, 40,000 people were executed or murdered during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror (1793 – 1794). During the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815) that spread across Europe after the French Revolution, 3 – 7 million died from combat and disease; the Russian Civil War (1917 – 1921) caused 5 – 9 million deaths.
But only 50,000 dead and wounded were killed during the American Revolution after eight years of fighting. Even America’s Civil War (1861 – 1865), considered the bloodiest war America has fought, only had about one million casualties on both sides.
Lloyd Lofthouse, January 6, 2014
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.