One of the consequences of the weakness of the Qing dynasty in the nineteenth century was the extraordinary Taiping Uprising, an event that would lead to the slaughter of millions, and which has been described as the most colossal civil war in the history of the world. The Taipings were led by Hong Xiuquan, failed civil-service candidate and Christian evangelist, who, following a fever, declared himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. In 1851, he assembled 20,000 armed followers at Jintian village, near Guiping in Guangxi province, and established the Taiping Tianguo, or Kingdom of Heavenly Peace. This militia routed the local Manchu forces, and by the following year was sweeping up through Hunan into central China. They captured Nanjing in 1853, but though the kingdom survived another eleven years, this was its last achievement. Poorly planned expeditions failed to take Beijing or win over western China, and Hong’s leadership – originally based on the enfranchisement of the peasantry and the outlawing of opium, alcohol and sexual discrimination – devolved into paranoia and fanaticism. After a gigantic struggle, Qing forces finally managed to unseat the Taipings when Western governments sent in assistance, most notably in the person of Queen Victoria’s personal favourite, Charles “Chinese” Gordon.

Despite the rebellion’s ultimately disastrous failure and its overtly Christian message, the whole episode is seen as a precursor to the arrival of Communism in China. Indeed, in its fanatical rejection of Confucianism and the incredible damage it wrought on buildings and sites of historic value, it finds curious echoes in Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.

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