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  • Writer's pictureEd & Phil

S2 E1: Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

Click to listen to the episode here.

Welcome to Countries That Don’t Exist Anymore. The podcast that looks at history’s national one hit wonders. The Chesney Hawkes of nation states.

This time we take a look at the first CTDEA country which could also be considered a cult: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.


Hey! Sounds peaceful.

(disturbing music)


...which led to one of the most bloody civil wars in Chinese history with 20 million dead.




What was the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom?

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was a state founded during a rebellion against the Chinese Qing (ching) dynasty during the 1840s and 1850s.

How long did the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom last?

About 14 years, from 1851-1864.

How large was the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom?

At its peak, it controlled perhaps as much as a third of China, with its base in the southeast. This included the major city of Tianjing, which had been the old Ming capital. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom contained 30 million people, which represented 10% of China's population of 300 million at the time. Pretty incredible for a cult!

Who was the leader of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom?

Hong Xiuquan (ju kwan), a young man from a Hakka family that had fallen on hard times. Hong hoped to enter the Chinese civil service but sort of accidentally instead formed a cult which almost conquered China.

Song: I'm am the Hong and only.

And that's a Chesney Hawkes callback, which is more than Chesney Hawkes gets.


What have you done Ed?



Who were the Hakka?

The main culture in China were the Han. Hong was ethnically Hakka which means "guest people." This is because the Hakka immigrated into Southeastern China from the north 800 years before, and no one had quite got over it.

As such, the Hakka were viewed with some hostility and had a low rank in society. That's what happens when you outstay your welcome.

Fx: Modern household. Snoring.


Dave, is your brother ever going to get off our sofa and get a job?


He's having a rough time, Donna. He's only going to stay with us while he gets himself together.


Dave, it's been 800 years.


I tell you what. If he's not out of here by the next Ice Age, I'll have a word.

So, to improve his prospects, Hong Xiuquan had to memorise the works of Confucius and pass the Imperial exam. This was a way of getting into the Chinese bureaucracy and one of the few ways people from relatively humble backgrounds or low castes could make it. But it wasn't easy. Of all the people who took the exam, only 1% would make it. Add in the suffocating pressure of family expectations on his back and what we're talking about here is an emotional trip to the little town of Stressville, Alabama.

But, Hong was no slouch. In fact he did pretty well. He passed the first two tests with just the third to go, which he….


Come on, Hong man, I believe in you.




So he traveled back to his family home in Guangzhou, near Hong Kong, to take the test again. It's like X-Factor. If you fail the audition in London, move to Liverpool, disguise yourself with a fake curly wig, slap on some permatan and give it another go.

VO: warning, this episode may be culturally insensitive to Liverpudlians.

Now Guangzhou was a port, which meant lots of trade coming in from the West. At this time in Chinese history, the Imperialist British were trying to push a dark, nefarious, insidious product on China to destabilise its society. Christianity. No. I'm kidding. Opium.

Why was the West trying to make China opium addicts?

Well, China had loads of products that powers like Britain really wanted: their porcelain was all the rage, great furniture, vases, silks, spices, tea. Britain wanted it all. But there was a catch. China didn't feel they needed any British goods.


Not even chocolate hobnobs?




Wagon wheels?


No. No biscuits at all. But they did like opium.


If they like opium, they should try gingernuts. They're very addictive.


Not as addictive as opium.


Got any ginger nuts on you?




Come on man. You're holding out on me.

But actually the other import WAS Christianity.

Hong heard the words of a Christian missionary and was given a pamphlet which he stuffed in his pocket to pretend to read later. Like with all pamphlets. But that pamphlet proved to be one of the most deadly in history. Even more deadly than the Medieval pamphlet telling you how to:

Salesy voice:

"Import your own Mongolian gerbils and any diseases they might carry, earn mega groats and work from the comfort of your own hovel."

Anyway, Hong failed his exams AGAIN and, in a life that seems to share something in common with Arnold J Rimmer and the astronavigation exam, he falls into what seems like a psychotic stupor and has a long series of feverish dreams.

In these dreams, he takes a trip to a land in the East -which I guess is a land in the West to us - where he's given a new heart and meets an old man with a golden beard who tells him he's his father. He gives him a sword and tells him that demons are plaguing the land. With the help of his brother, who he's also just met, he must defeat the King of Hell. In his dream, he then goes and defeats the devils, marries and has a son.

After weeks in his bed, Hong wakes up and tells his family about the dream. Everyone thinks he's nuts, especially when he changes his name from Hong Huoxiu - which apparently didn't fit in with his new persona - to Hong Xiuquan. Not knowing much Chinese, I can't tell you the difference between the two names, but the cherry on the cake is that he's been given a new title in the dream: "Heavenly King. Lord of Kingly ways."

He then takes the exam again. And falls again.

He should have come back with the title "Studious King. Lord of effective revision timetables."

Initially, he's not sure what to make of all this, BUT then finds the religious pamphlet and starts to make connections. In a typical downer way, the pamphlet calls China an apocalyptic wasteland, which does seem to square with the opium dependency found all around.

Hong connects his vision with the teachings in the pamphlet, and for him, it all makes perfect sense.

The father in the dream was God.

His brother was Jesus Christ.

The King of Hell was the snake in the garden of Eden.

Therefore Hong must be the son of God. Makes sense when you think about it.

Song: I am the Hong and only…


Hong starts to spread this message and, amazingly, it actually starts to catch on.


Hi, would you like to take a free personality test?


Oh. Right. Sounds fun. Is that what you guys are all about then? Personality tests?


Personality tests. Yeah. And the fact that you're infested with the tormented souls of ancient aliens.


What? That sounds...


Did I mention that the personality test is FREE?


I like free! Lovely!

So Hong gets disciples who join him as he goes on tour to preach the word. While he works on the new religious texts, his followers sell paint and brushes to pay their way.

The group calls itself: "The God Worshipping Society" and grows in popularity, attracting thousands of converts.

Why was the God Worshipping Society so popular?

While his story may seem nuts, it's not as simple as people just taking his word for it. Members weren't necessarily joining up just because they wanted to maximise their God worshipping.

Remember, Hong was from the Hakka people, who generally chafed under their low status. Hong's offering was about changing a social order in which they were getting a raw deal.

In his teachings, Hong rejected many Confuscian ideals around family, social structure and the elite.

For example, under the Confuscian ideals, if you're an unmarried man without children, you're essentially worthless.


Sounds like my mother has been reading Confuscius.

The problem for lots of Chinese men of middling or low status, is that it wasn't unusual for wealthy Chinese men to take 5 or 6 wives. Meaning uneven distribution of wives, leaving many men resentful that there were no available wives. In that sense the God Worshipping Society may have been the first inCel group.


This redistribution of wives thing would never work. It's sixth form politics. What these lefties don't understand is that the wealthy in Chinese society weren't wife hoarders. They were really more wife creators.

So what was Hong's religion?

It was a blend of the 10 commandments of the Old Testament with a little Confuscianism thrown in. It's China. You've got to have Confuscianism. It also had just a hint of proto-communism, emphasising that property was to be shared and, perhaps crucially, followers were promised FREE LAND!

That's quite a draw!

Peasant 1:

Hey peasant 2, what's all the fuss about?

Peasant 2:

Hi, peasant 1. That's Hong. He claims to be the son of God and brother of Jesus. He's going to defeat the King of Hell with a magic sword.

Peasant 1:

Sounds like a maniac.

Peasant 2:

He's offering free land.

Peasant 1:

Damn you King of Hell. Magic Jesus brother man gonna kill you!

Now, at first this was all about the worshipping god bit and the general heavenliness.

But things got increasingly more violent when Hong increasingly identified the devils to be vanquished with the Man Chu.

Who were the Man Chu?

The Man Chu were a people that had conquered the Chinese Ming dynasty in the 17th century and had established their own Qing Dynasty. But despite having ruled for 200 years, they were still regarded as foreigners. It really takes the Chinese a long, long time to come round to people.


Mr Chang, your daughter and I have been faithfully together for 20 years. We've had 4 children and were voted most stable relationship by Monogamy Magazine. Now can I marry her?


No way, lover boy. I know your fly by night games, playa. I got my eyes on you, Flash in the pan.

Although originally nomadic horseback riding arsekickers from Manchuria in the north east, the Man Chu had settled comfortably into Chinese civilsation and had taken a liking to it.

That happens to every nomadic horsey type that conquers China. At first they're all like.

Phil: I bathe in the blood of my enemies.

But within a few years it's like.

Phil: Can I have some chocolate sprinkles on that?

The Mac Chu had really taken to Chinese ways. Even championing the civil service exams that Hong had failed to pass. At their height, French philosopher Voltaire had praised the Qing for having the most effectively organised government the world had ever seen.

Although a small ethnic group, the Manchu had held onto power from the majority Han Chinese by keeping top positions of power for themselves. As a visual reminder of domination, the Qing required subjects to wear a ponytail on their otherwise shaved heads.

VO: Barbershop, China. 1830.


So what can we do for you today?


I don't know. Something a bit different. I'm looking to reinvent myself. Maybe shake things up a bit. Something that says, I'm inferior to my Manchu overlords and I'm good with that.

In summary, because the demons of Hong's dreams had taken the form of the Manchu and their hold on power….the power that Hong couldn't get a piece of himself….establishing the Heavenly Kingdom meant some Old Testament smiting of their asses.

Central to his new culture, Hong encouraged an explicit rejection of Qing norms - so to mark out his followers:

Their ponytails were chopped off and hair was grown long and lustrous. Or grown a bit at the side and then combed over.

Plus they got to wear a red turban as a symbol of allegiance to Hong.

So, what was the result of all this "those people are literally the devil" talk? One of the bloodiest civil wars in Chinese history.

Within 2 years of its foundation, the Society of God Worshippers was less about praying and more about overturning the status quo, having whipped up hundreds of thousands of Chinese into open rebellion. And they had a ton of momentum.

By 1853, Hong had captured the Ming capital of Nanjing. Hong's troops were puritanical storm troopers who went on the rampage, burning Confuscian texts, pulling down idols and effigies and destroying Ancient temples.

This was the ISIS of its day. But should we be too judgmental? After all. Some of the Taipings policies don't seem too bad at first glance.

Slavery was banned. Tick.

The opium that had caused so much damage was outlawed. Tick.

As were arranged marriages. Tick.

Women were put on a more equal footing with men. Tick.


Hey, this doesn't sound too bad after all.


Sex wasn't allowed without express permission, even amongst married couples. It was no sex before victory.


Oh. Well, that's not ideal…


Alcohol was completely banned.

Phil: I'm against it.


I'm against it too. Cheers.

FX: Opening bottles, filling glasses, downing drinks, belching. All-night bender in 10 seconds.

Just as Hong was issuing commandments about everyone being pure and virtuous, the man himself didn't seem to be following the programme. Just like any self-respecting cult leader.

While his followers were living the life of Puritans, Hong entered Nanjing riding on a yellow silk seated sedan carried by 16 bearers accompanied by beautiful women twirling yellow umbrellas...for some reason.

He then set himself up in a luxury palace in Nanjing, enjoyed his large hareem and kept away from public appearances. Within the palace, no men were allowed (except for Hong, obviously) and he employed a staff of all female officials and servants. Apparently he was obsessed with hygiene and demanded a constant supply of clean towels.

And this special treatment wasn't new. Even while out in the wilderness in the early days of his cult he lived apart in a small hut that he called the Dragon Palace. But after all, he was the Son of God. We all remember the Bible story…

And Jesus did poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet?Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. For thee art greater than me. And Jesus sayeth unto Simon Peter, good point.

So while we try not to editorialise here at Countries That Don't Exist Anymore, it's fair to say that Hong had gone totally batshit.


But in Hong's situation of absolute power, you would have done things totally different?


Well, I mean. It's just all so tacky! Pimp Palace, sex on tap, luxury lifestyle while your followers live like peasants. Twirling yellow umbrellas.


So, lose the umbrellas.


Well, yeah. Or... red?


So Hong goes nuts and the whole thing collapses, right?

Actually, no. See, this wasn't a one man show and while Hong was the figurehead of the operation, there were other key figures taking on the actual administrative and military operations.

And this is one of the reasons that Western powers didn't initially intervene in this rebellion. Because which side should they back - the Qing or the Taiping? On the face of it, the choice seems simple enough. Established 200 year old dynasty or religious nut with hygiene issues?

But Hong's cousin, Hong Rendang took the reigns as an effective prime minister. What he succeeded in doing was turning the Taiping from a revolutionary movement into a possible alternative state.

His plan was to solidify the movement. Not only by turning Hong's jibberings into a proper doctrine but also by modernising the Taiping state, including a banking system, railways, newspapers and post offices. His belief was that if they could westernise, they'd get recognition as a stable, reliable state. And this wasn't a bad idea.

In fact, Western missionaries and the merchant classes of Shanghai were initially enthusiastic about all this. For one thing, this rival Chinese state was professing to be Christian - which got them on side with a lot of people. Even the Times of London suggested that the Taiping were the new face of China.

But for all Hong Rendang's good PR work, the problem seemed to be King Hong's rather improvised take on Christianity….

In letters exchanged with the London Missionary Society, Hong is told that much of the Bible should be taken figuratively. Hong replies back, saying "nope. Literally." They also point out that God had one son. "No" says Hong. "Two."

So while the Taiping are practicing a kind of Christianity, the fact that their Christianity could well be seen as a heresy probably made them more r eviled. Protestants. Meet Catholics. Catholics. Protestants. You guys have SO much in common.


By 1861, the British finally decided to come in on the side of the Xing, and it's not just because Hong's god complex ruffled their feathers. In fact when the Taiping advanced on Shanghai, the Western foothold in the region, they may have expected a warm welcome from their fellow Christians. What they got instead were cannonballs whistling past their turbans.

But why?

Well, it was felt that the Taiping were naturally anti-foreign. If they saw a 200 year old dynasty as a bunch of tourists, how would they take to longer-term Western influence in their affairs?

And any march on the invaluable port of Shanghai was obviously a no no.

And this is probably the deal breaker, the Taiping were anti-opium. With America embroiled in a Civil War, China became a more important market than ever for Britain to shift its drugs and get its finery. Sure the Xing were not going quietly on this opium thing (in fact they were fighting a Second Opium War with Western powers between 1856-60) but it seemed to be a central tenet of the Taiping. The Qing weren't super keen on the opium trade. The Taiping were totally against it. So the British intervened to keep the dope flowing.


So, you're saying at the heart of it, the glorious British Empire was basically an international criminal organisation.


Well, I wouldn't say it's true. I'd just say it was a historical fact.


Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves. Britons never never never shall be making everybody else slaves.

Now it's time to talk about the Qing Dynasty. In order for the Taiping to go round gaining huge chunks of China, it was important for someone to get beaten pretty badly, and that was the Qing, but why were they taking such a pasting?

So, as we said, when the Manchu founded the Qing Dynasty they were a powerhouse at their peak.

But by the time of the Taiping Rebellion, the Qing Dynasty were up against it. For one thing, it had been defeated by the British during the First Opium War. This caused the Qing to accept a rather humiliating peace which saw the British establish a more permanent foothold in ports like Shanghai and Hong Kong - and a flow of opium into China which was eating away Chinese society from the inside.

A once proud military suffered from a tax system that was unable to generate enough tax revenue to support a strong standing army. That army was stretched thin by other rebellions including a Muslim uprising. And the Opium War wasn't a one off either. Even as the Qing were fighting the Taiping, they went back to it with the British fighting a Second Opium War.

China was further destabilised by a period of famine, drought and floods. All told, China in the mid 19th century was a biblical landscape, and not the Garden of Eden type biblical landscape on page 1 either. No. More the Armageddon bit at back near also by the same author.

Little wonder that there would be a genuine desire for a Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.

So when the Taiping were halted on their march on Shanghai, it wasn't initially the British that intervened either. No. The armies of Hong were initially repelled by American soldier of fortune Frederick Townsend Ward (who was on Shanghai's payroll) and his army of mercenaries, armed with the best of the industrial West, including modern rifles and a barrage of artillery.

And despite being in an active war with the Qing, the British arrested Ward for violating neutrality in China. But, as we've said, the British decided it was in their interest to snuff out these Opium hating Taiping. We can't mess with trade you know.

So, Ward gets let off and sets up an army of Chinese soldiers with Western arms and training. But, fearing that this might all look like Western tinkering, the army was given a distinctly Chinese label. Phil, any ideas what the army was called?


The Chinese Army?


No, a bit more imaginative.


Qing the Merciless?


More inspirational?


The girl with the dragoon tattoo?


Pretty good! But no. It was the Ever Victorious Army.

The Chinese really can do names well. The Taiping were joined by two groups: The Red Turban Rebels and the Small Swords Society.

Crocodile Dundee ref

Mugger: Give me your money

Mick: Why?

Mugger: I’ve got a small sword (sfx sword)

Mick: Ha, that’s not a small sword (tiny knife sfx) this is a small sword


Mugger: Give me your money

Mick: Ok.

Anyway, the Ever Victorious Army was then taken over by British Commander Charles George "Chinese" Gordon and his batman Second Lieutenant Jock “Fevertree” McSchwepps.

Onwards, Mc Schwepps

FX: Open can with after-gas

Hmm.. you should see a doctor about that, McSchwepps

Aye sir, just feeling a wee bit.... Effervescent

I… see

This was the same British Empire legend who went onto be killed in Khartoum while bravely shooting Sudanese people who wanted freedom.


Heroic…so the Ever Victorious Army remain ever Victorious, bulldoze the Taiping and Mao's your uncle, right?




Oh. Ok. So the Qing have some breathing space, go through a training montage, weaponise rice paddies. That kind of thing.

It was really all of those things, but we're missing another element.

You see while the Heavenly armies may have been quite happy to go around conquering things, they were pretty heavy handed in the process.

Their conquests didn't look much like Heavenly Peace. Villages were burned, farmland looted and dykes broken. Which generally added to the ongoing carnage as floods and famine created further misery, unrest and death.

And not everyone was super stoked about this.

Since the Qing were nowhere to be seen, local Han gentry took matters into their own hands, raising little peasant armies and going on the offensive. And while, initially, one hundred peasants armed with hoes were no match for Hong's forces and were generally swatted away, these neighborhood watch militias grew into something like proper local armies.

Meanwhile not all was Heavenly in the Heavenly Kingdom. Hong pretty much disappeared from sight. The unifying factor of a leader with a direct line to God was lost and was replaced by infighting and factionalism.

In 1856, Hong's Commander in Chief Yang Xiuqing tried to overthrow Hong. He was defeated and thousands of his followers were killed. Including the man that killed Yang!

Hong felt unjustly betrayed by all of this and yet, years earlier, he had given Yang the title East King and announced his words were Divine. Bit of an overpromotion there.

FX: Office.


Tim, I just wanted to say. Great job on the photocopying.


Thanks, I'm glad my efforts are being acknowledged.


So great in fact that we've decided to make you a god. By the way, have you finished stapling the report?


Stapling is below the divine Tim Hobson, mortal.

*He walks off*

All shall kneel.


Wow. Where did that come from?

One of Hong's best generals and most reasonable administrators Shi Dakai, aka Wing King, aka Lord of Five Thousand Years….this cult had the best names...had quite enough of the warring factionalism and, in 1857, said "Bugger this. I'm off" and departed. He even wrote a resignation poem, which might have gone something like this:

"Dear Hong. I am gone. I am right and you are wrong."

Despite parting ways, he continued to fight in the name of the Taiping elsewhere in China. He only eventually handed himself in to the Qing to spare his men's lives, and he apparently stoicly withstood his execution - known as slow slicing, aka death by a thousand cuts. The Lord of a Five Thousand years killed by a thousand cuts.

Crowd member:

Get on with it.

But this combination of the Ever Victorious Army living up to their name, a reinvigorated and militarily upgraded Qing force, Western opposition, internal fighting and local resistance by the Han gentry broke the wave of the Taiping state until they were surrounded at their capital by 1864.

With food running low, King Hong made a rare appearance and reassured his people that the Lord would provide manna from heaven, whereupon he pulled up and ate a weed - claiming that whatever they ate, God would turn into nutritious food and sustain them.

Unfortunately, God seems to have missed the memo and (according to historical accounts) the weed was poisonous and he died. Or he may have been poisoned by someone else. Either way, Hong was poisoned and incidentally passed a poison challice to his teenage son the new Heavenly King.


Here you go son. All of this starving, desperate city is yours. Nearly new.


But I don’t want it, father


Nonsense, look at all them weeds, thee could make a lovely porridge out of them weeds!


But I don’t like weeds!


Nonsense, they’re lovely, served with bread n drippin’ - all I had when I were your age and I turned out right didn’t I? Look (eats and dies)



To which his followers said, "a teenage son? How have you got a teenage son? I thought that whole… not having sex thing until victory Just us?"

The subsequent Battle of Nanjing was a total bloodbath, with 3 days of fierce close quarter fighting. Despite viewing the Taiping as "rebel scum," Commander Fang of the Qing said: "I never encountered any rebels as brave and determined as these."

Nanjing finally fell in July 1864. The followers of Hong were offered amnesty, but, astoundingly, 100,000 of them went for mass suicide instead. This may be because they were true believers to the end or because there would have been no actual mercy.

Prime minister Hong Redang was given a few days reprieve to document his recollection of the events, but then they cut his literary career short by removing his head.


One man flunking his civil service exam and forming a god-man cult kingdom seems like your typically whimsical CTDEA story. Is this another Fulwar Skipwith of the Republic of West Florida with whimsically unrhyming national anthems and charming skirmishes with a few sprained ankles?

No. No it’s not - it led to possibly the bloodiest civil war in history, with a conservative estimate of 20 million deaths. This is like if L Ron Hubbard had managed to found a nation. This quirky blip of history had massive, massive repercussions.

Of China's 18 provinces, 16 were in some way affected. 600 cities were destroyed. Even after the fall of Nanjing, little pockets of the Taiping continued the fight but the Heavenly Kingdom was never to be reinstated.

The Taiping Rebellion needs to be put in context of other rebellions in Chinese history, which generally happened when the state was at its weakest.

See. The Qing weren't popular. Had the Taiping offered something broadly acceptable, they might have got the Han majority and external powers onside. There could have been a Heavenly Kingdom of China. But in a country demonstrably suspicious of outsiders, a pseudo-christian cult which threw out Confucianism, abolished property, introduced a puritanical regime and seemed to put the Hakka on top might have been a few steps too far for most.

But while Hong was the charismatic crackpot that lit the fuse, China was a powder keg of discontent from external pressures and internal discord. It took nineteenth century industrial weaponry to sweep away a system of warfare that was practically Medieval and remake China. After this calamity, the order of the day was modernisation of the military, so that China couldn't be gobbled up by hungry Western powers. And this rebellion crippled the Qing. They staggered on, but finally gave up the ghost in 1911..

And the Hakka people hardly got off lightly. The Chinese government started a policy of mass extermination killing 30,000 Hakka per day at its height. But some of the Tiping ideas around shared property and overturning the old order didn’t go away. When the Chinese Soviet Republic formed in 1931, one of the territories with the firmest support was Hakka. During the Long March of 1934, 70% of the soldiers were Hakka.

And although Hong may have been considered as a kook, the Taiping haven't been totally disowned. The heroics of Taiping general Shi Dakai were later to inspire his fellow Hakka clansman Zhu De, who founded the People's Liberation Army. And Hakka people took up prominent positions in the Chinese state communist party.

So, I guess old Hong got that civil service job after all.


Did he?



I am the Hong and only.

There’s nobody I'd rather be

I am the Hong and only.

I can’t take that exam successfully.

I've failed bureaucracy exams

I met a golden bearded man

He said I was Divine

and to chase the devils out of China.

I led my turban wearing pupils

I forced then to have blue balls

They did all of my warring

While I did all the palatial whoring.

I am the Hong and only.

There’s nobody I'd rather be

I am the Hong and only.

Taiping leader heavenly.

Thanks for listening to this episode of CTDEA, next time we’ll be joined by comedian and star of Radio 4’s Chinese Comedian Ken Cheng to talk about this

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