IN A NEW YORK magazine article last spring, a young Chinese-American named Jefferson Mao spoke of the cultural importance of doing well on school exams. “You learn quite simply to nail any standardized test you take,” he told Wesley Yang. Yang’s piece described how Chinese neighborhoods in Queens are filled with “‘cram schools,’ or storefront academies, that drill students in test preparation after school, on weekends, and during summer break.” In The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, her infamous memoir detailing how she raised prodigy-level children, Amy Chua noted that a “devastated Chinese mother would … get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child” if the young miscreant had the misfortune to come home with a B, “which,” she writes, “would never happen” anyway.
Neither work mentioned the bizarre and tragic tale of Hong Xiuquan, who, like many Chinese immigrant children in the United States, was under fierce pressure to ace his tests in order to reach a high station and bring honor to his family. (As Chua writes, “I have a family name to uphold, aging parents to make proud.”) Born in a village outside of Canton in 1814, young Hong Xiuquan studied hard, memorizing the Confucian classics before reaching his teens. He was regarded as so promising that several of his teachers worked for free in the hope of receiving favor once he passed the notoriously difficult civil service examinations that guaranteed an appointment in the Qing dynasty government. But he failed the three-day test on his first try in 1827. Waiting nine years for his next turn, he failed again. After another failure in 1837, he had to be carried back to his village. Once there, he descended into a trance and experienced forty days of befuddling visions. In 1843, he failed for the fourth time.
Two centuries earlier, a man named Pu Songling went through much the same thing, eventually spending four decades trying to pass the imperial exam. He channeled his frustration into a series of fantastical tales, often collected in translation as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, regarded as one of the great works of Chinese literature. Hong Xiuquan responded in his own way. Happening upon a Christian missionary tract translated into Chinese, he decided that his post-test visions were messages from the Christian God. He was being told that he was Jesus Christ’s younger brother—the third member of a Holy Ghost-less Trinity—and that he had been ordered to slay demons. To his thinking, the demons were the autocratic and ethnically foreign rulers of China (Manchus native to regions north of the Great Wall), upholders of the state religion of Confucianism that served as the basis of the examination system. His delusion would lead to what Stephen R. Platt, in his engrossing new book, describes as “likely the bloodiest civil war of all time,” which killed at least twenty million people from 1851 to 1864, beginning when Abraham Lincoln was still a lawyer in Springfield and ending less than a year before Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
The phantasmagoria commenced when Hong Xiuquan declared the “Taiping Heavenly Kingdom” in 1851 and appointed himself “Heavenly King” over China, which already had a leader of divine mandate, Xianfeng, the presiding emperor of the Qing dynasty. Mindful that God had handed him a sword in his dream, Hong Xiuquan converted the poor and disenfranchised in his region, those with little future in the shoddily administered empire, into an army that cut a violent path (with various kinds of bladed implements and rusty matchlock firearms) north from Guangdong Province to the walled city of Nanjing in Jiangsu Province, which became the rebel capital in 1853. The Heavenly King, hidden away in an ornate palace with his harem and chamber pot of silver, became the dictator of a puritanical theocracy (no alcohol, no theater, no laziness) whose trance-messages from God were posted around town: “Those who are against us will be killed,” went one.
The author is not entirely unsympathetic to the Taiping, particularly in the person of Hong Rengan, the pro-Western, English-speaking cousin of the Heavenly King who advocated an advanced “vision of the country as a modern industrial power” with its dusty gates open to the rest of the world. The regime did receive some support in the West, particularly from Protestant missionary societies eager to sort out the peculiarities in the Taiping catechism and untroubled by the use of force. A Tennessee-born Baptist named Issachar Roberts, who was received by invitation into the rebel citadel, wrote that it was “better in the highest sense of the word for half the nation to be exterminated, than to go on as they have been doing, if the other half would thereby learn righteousness!”
The Qing response to the Taiping uprising was pitiless. Its army hunted insurrectionary provinces in search of the longhaired rebels—the Taiping flouted the law by refusing to sport a shaved head with a single, long braid down the back, known as the “queue,” preferring instead to let their freak flags fly, as it were. Throughout 1854 and 1855, the Qing army conducted “a series of executions, among the most horrible for extent and manner, of which the world has any authentic records,” wrote the British consul in the port of Canton. “Thousands were put to the sword, hundreds cast into the river, tied together in batches of a dozen,” according to another witness, who counted sixty-three decapitations in four minutes before turning away in horror. Suicide stations equipped with daggers and ropes were set up in the countryside to allow the guilty a chance to die with a greater degree of dignity, a Qing gesture of charity.
Blundering onto this scene like something out of Monty Python was an Allied fleet of warships flying the flag of imperialism and looking to wring trade concessions from the Qing emperor. As self-declared neutrals in the Chinese civil war, the Allied fleet (mostly British and French, but also Russian and American) steamed past the fighting and arrived at the Taku forts on the Yellow Sea, the maritime gateway to Beijing. Angry that the emperor did not send a representative to negotiate with them, the Allies opened fire on the military installation, killing five hundred Qing troops. Shortly, each nation had a new treaty in hand. The British version (“Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Commerce”) required that the Chinese refrain from calling the Brits “barbarians,” even in private correspondence.
After sailing home to procure ratified copies for the emperor’s signature, an Allied force of 1,300 men reached the Taku forts in June, 1859. This time Qing forces opened up “a thunderous cavalcade of shot and shell” that killed 400 British troops, including twenty-nine officers, an act that was bound to result in a nasty counterstrike. A year later, in August 1860, it came in the form of a new fleet (184 ships; 24,000 troops), which blasted through the Taku forts and headed just south of Beijing, where its commanders were finally granted time with Qing officials. When negotiations broke down over whether the British commander, the eighth Earl of Elgin, would kowtow before the emperor (he would not), the emperor ordered a surprise attack. His fighters took twenty-six prisoners, including Britain’s chief negotiator and a reporter for The Times of London. Equipped with the fearsome new Armstrong gun, the Allied forces stormed into Beijing, first looting the emperor’s grand Summer Palace and then (after learning that fifteen of the prisoners had been killed, including the reporter) burning its 800 acres of gardens and buildings to the ground. Victor Hugo remarked, “This is what civilization has done to barbarism.”
The Taiping were thrilled, particularly after the thirty-year-old emperor, who had fled the capital for the northern mountains, died several months later likely from tuberculosis. (The convoluted palace intrigue that followed his death—which involved a dramatic beheading in a Beijing cabbage market—would make for a great Hong Kong miniseries, if it hasn’t already.) Although Platt pledges in his preface not to allow his book to “devolve into a numbing listing of dates, battles, and casualties,” it does indeed become difficult to sort out one bloody engagement from another in the multi-front conflict, with many pages devoted to the colorful mercenaries, including the American “filibuster” Frederick Townsend Ward, who scored important victories over Taiping forces eager to capture the vital (and sinful) port of Shanghai with its “Californians, Negro minstrels, gamblers, horse jockeys and the worst of both sexes,” complained an American merchant.
Suffice it to say that the stalemate was broken when a brilliant scholar-general named Zeng Guofan took over the Qing armies and began seizing key Taiping strongholds, and when Great Britain, its economy hit hard by the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, chose to join the fight on the side of the dynasty because the Liberal government decided the rebels would be an “impracticable and unmanageable” trading partner. The Taiping, in the words of The Times, were a “dragon who interferes between us and our golden apples.” Even Karl Marx, an early supporter, had lost sympathy, believing the rebels to be “an even greater scourge to the population than the old rulers.”
The endgame was particularly vicious. Without help from foreign forces, Zeng Guofan—who, Platt notes “is one of the most popular figures in China today, with dozens of books on his life and letters readily available in any airport bookstore”—ordered the encirclement of the rebel capital at Nanjing, which before long was choking to death. In July 1864, explosives were placed under a section of the city’s ancient walls and the ensuing blast carved out a hole two hundred yards wide. The slaughter that followed was so vicious that even Qing officials were discomfited. “Children and toddlers, some not even two years old, had been hacked up or run through just for sport,” wrote one soldier in his diary. Denied a chance to kill Hong Xiuquan—who had succumbed to disease weeks earlier—the imperial army ended the war with one final child murder: the Heavenly King’s young son, the “Young Monarch,” was captured 400 miles to the south and killed so as to ensure no possibility of succession. The Qing dynasty would survive for another five decades.
For his epigraph, Pratt quotes Jesus’s words from the Gospel of Matthew: “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” It is an odd choice, since his story has precious few peacemakers. We are mostly introduced to men who make it their business to make war. But there are children of God in this book. They appear fleetingly. Platt mentions the vast multitudes who “didn’t care at all who was in charge; they simply wanted the fighting to end. They wanted order.” They would grow “their hair long on the top when the Taiping took over but keeping their long braid wound up underneath to hide it, so that if the imperial troops should drive the rebels back, they could unfurl their queue and shave the top of their head …” It is an indelible image, a testament to the simple human desire to be left alone.
Peter Duffy is an author and journalist in New York.