War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression
(1931-1945)
Civil War and Founding of the PRC
(1945-1949)
Tales of Hong Kong
(1840-1949)
Tales of Macao
(1840-1949)

(1) The Spread of Christianity in China and the Foundation of the God Worshipping Society

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During the mid-Qing dynasty, the population increased rapidly, leading to a shortage of farmland and widespread poverty. The large amount of indemnities paid by China to Western countries after the Opium War, as well as the increasing quantity of imported goods such as Western textiles, drove up tax rates and devastated traditional village-based industries like handicraft-making. At the same time, rampant corruption among government officials stimulated social discontent. These factors led people to a hard life. It turned more of them against the Qing’s rule, and eventually, to the largest peasant rebellion during the Qing dynasty, the Taiping Rebellion, shocking both China and foreign countries.

The leader of this massive uprising was Hong Xiuquan (洪秀全), a village schoolteacher from Hua County (花縣), Guangdong (廣東). The creed of his rebellion was based on the Protestant doctrine introduced to China by Western missionaries.  In 1843, frustrated by his unsuccessful attempts in the imperial examination, Hong was influenced by a Protestant propaganda booklet Benevolent Words to Advise the World (《勸世良言》) and adapted it into the creed of the God Worshipping Society (拜上帝會). He believed that God was his “heavenly father” and Jesus his “heavenly brother”, proclaiming himself the second son of God. He even vowed to “exterminate the Manchu demons”.

Later, Hong and his hometown friend Feng Yunshan (馮雲山) spread their religious beliefs in the provinces of Guangdong (廣東) and Guangxi (廣西), and founded together the God Worshipping Society. Hong’s writings Instructions on the Original Way to Save the World (《原道救世歌》), Instructions on the Original Way to Awake the World (《原道醒世訓》), and Instructions on the Original Way to Make the World Realise (《原道覺世訓》) were used as the doctrine of the Society. They gradually amassed many believers, including Yang Xiuqing (楊秀清), Xiao Chaogui (蕭朝貴), Wei Changhui (韋昌輝), and Shi Dakai (石達開), who formed the core of the Society. An anti-Manchu mass uprising was about to erupt in Guangxi, one of the poorest provinces in China at that time because of complex and acute ethnic feuds and rivalries.

When did Christianity begin to spread in China? Why did Eastern peasants in the past revolt under the banner of a Western religion?

See answer below.

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Prior to and after the Opium War, the number of foreign missionaries who preached in China increased. Among them, Robert Morrison, a Protestant missionary who ordained Leung Faat (梁發) as the first Chinese pastor, had a great impact. Robert Morrison’s son, John Robert Morrison, was a senior official in the Hong Kong government in the early days of the entrepot. Morrison Hill Road in Hong Kong was named in memory of the two Morrisons.

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Morrison, a Scottish missionary born in England, arrived in Guangdong in 1807 and died in Macao in 1834. During his time in China, he translated the Bible and compiled A Dictionary of the Chinese Language, in Three Parts (《華英字典》), among other works. He contributed greatly to the cultural exchange between China and the West. His son John Robert Morrison served as a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative and Executive Councils, as well as the Acting Colonial Secretary (equivalent to the Chief Secretary for Administration nowadays).

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Leung Faat was the first Chinese pastor. He played an important role in propagating Protestantism in China in the 19th century. In Kwun Tong, Hong Kong, there is a church named the Church of Christ in China Leung Faat Memorial Church.

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Leung Faat’s work Benevolent Words to Advise the World, published in 1832, was written to promote Protestantism. It was later obtained by Hong Xiuquan. It is believed that this publication contributed to the foundation of the God Worshipping Society and the occurrence of the Taiping Rebellion.

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In addition to the influence of religious beliefs, there were other factors contributing to the Taiping Rebellion. One of the most important factors was population growth outstripping farmland availability. Population increased exponentially between the early Qing period and the reign of Emperor Qianlong (乾隆). By the end of Qianlong’s reign, the estimated population was 300 million, an historic high. Hong Liangji (洪亮吉), a scholar at the time of Emperors Qianlong and Jiqaing (嘉慶), pointed out that the farmland expansion was falling behind the population growth, resulting in widespread poverty, and adverse impacts on the national economy and people’s lives.

During the reign of Emperor Daoguang (道光), the shortfall between population and farmland reached a critical point. The deterioration in livelihood created a breeding ground for turmoil. Religion, as a result, acted as a spark to ignite a peasant revolt. In fact, incidents of similar nature have happened in China’s history. However, since the population during the Qing dynasty was relatively high, the scale and death toll of the Taiping Rebellion were far greater in comparison with previous peasant uprisings.

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Hong Xiuquan was the leader of the Taiping Rebellion. Before leading the uprising, he had a shaved forehead and a queue, just like other males during the Qing dynasty. After he led the followers to establish his kingdom, he made a change. He did not shave his forehead and braid hair into a queue. He cut his queue and wore hair long instead. This hairstyle was adopted by all leaders, soldiers, and civilians of the Kingdom. This was why the Qing government called them the “long haired” or “hairy bandits”.

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Born in 1814, Hong Xiuquan, who wanted to work in civil service, repeatedly failed the imperial examinations. This caused him to suffer from a serious illness after returning home and, during which, he claimed to dream of mystical visions. In 1843, after his last failure in the examination in Guangzhou (廣州), he read the Benevolent Words to Advise the World, a Protestant publication penned by Leung Faat. Hong began to relate its content to the mystical visions in his dream before. He claimed that he was the second son of God and Jesus’s younger brother, and sent to Earth by God to destroy demons. He wrote a poem as follows: “At the time of Taiping (Great Peace), my heavenly father and brother will ensure that you find food everywhere. Just as crops grow first by putting out roots and shoots, we must exterminate the Manchu demons.” From then on, he propagated the beliefs of the God Worshipping Society.

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Hong Xiuquan’s former residence. Hua County, Guangdong, Hong’s hometown, is now under Huadu District (花都區) of Guangzhou. In 1843, Hong and his hometown friend Feng Yunshan began preaching in the Guangzhou area. Unable to make much headway there, they then moved to Guangxi.

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A map of route taken by Hong Xiuquan and Feng Yunshan when they entered Guangxi to preach (collection of Guangdong Huadu Hong Xiuquan Memorial Hall). With its peripheral location, severe poverty, diverse ethnic groups, acute and complex class and ethnic contentions, officials were often unable to enforce order there. Hong and Feng entered Guangxi to recruit believers.

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Having stayed in Guangxi for a short period of time, Hong Xiuquan returned to his hometown while Feng Yunshan remained there. From 1845 to 1847, Hong wrote Instructions on the Original Way to Save the World, Instructions on the Original Way to Awake the World and Instructions on the Original Way to Make the World Realise, which formed the core doctrine of the God Worshipping Society and the theological foundation of the Taiping Rebellion.

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The Book of the Heavenly Commandments (《天條書》) was an important text of the God Worshipping Society. In 1847, based on the Ten Commandments from the Bible and some beliefs from traditional Chinese religions, Hong Xiuquan and Feng Yunshan compiled the Book of the Heavenly Commandments in Guiping County (桂平縣), Guangxi. In the book, there were 10 major precepts that believers must obey and the religious rites they must perform.

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The God Worshipping Society’s former site in Teng County (藤縣), Guangxi. A memorial slab was established there. Teng County was one of the locations in Guangxi where the society thrived. It was also the hometown of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’s prominent generals such as Li Xiucheng (李秀成) and Chen Yucheng (陳玉成).

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The God Worshipping Society spread the concepts such as equality and salvation, which attracted many lower-class people in Guangxi. They became the Society’s followers and gradually formed a force that was strong enough to fight against the government. The receipt in the photo above was issued by the Society to the peasants who donated their silver and cereal crops, on which the words “Fifth month of Gengxu Year”, referring to mid-1850, were stated. That was only around six months before the God Worshipping Society launched the rebellion against the Manchus in Jintian Village, Guiping County in Guangxi in January 1851. Tensions were running high in Guangxi at that time, and the Taiping Rebellion was on the verge of eruption to stun China and the world.

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Before the rebellion, the God Worshipping Society grew fast in Guangxi because the people there were suffering from a severe shortage of farmland and hardship. According to Chen Xulu’s (陳旭麓) Fifteen Lectures on the Modern History of China (《中國近代史十五講》), when the population increases rapidly but the available farmland increases slowly due to limited resources, peasants’ living standard will decline proportionately. In Guangxi, where the rebellion initially erupted, the population in the eras of Daoguang (道光) and Xianfeng (咸豐) grew to around 7.8 million, 14 times more than that of during the early Qing dynasty. Farmland areas, however, only grew by 10 per cent. While the per capita farmland area at the start of the Qing dynasty was 14 mu (6.6 mu equal one acre), this decreased to only 1.4 mu in the eras of Daoguang and Xianfeng, meaning resources that originally supported one had to be shared by ten.

When did Christianity begin to spread in China? Why did Eastern peasants in the past revolt under the banner of a Western religion?  

Christianity has different denominations. As early as in the Tang dynasty, a branch of the Church of the East entered China. From the Yuan dynasty, Catholicism was intermittently spread in the country. At the end of the Ming dynasty and the beginning of the Qing dynasty,  Western knowledge and ideas penetrated China, including Catholicism. Both before and after the Opium War, the newly established Protestantism also enter China. Hong Xiuquan established his God Worshipping Society including in its philosophy some aspects of Protestant beliefs. Throughout the ages, Chinese people have staged many uprisings to overthrow emperors and dynasties, in most cases demanding greater equality and better lives. The equality of all beings, preached by prehistoric religions, Daoism, Buddhism, and Manichaeism, has been used as an ideological weapon against ruling regime time and again. New uprisings need new beliefs as a banner for peasants to rally around. To this end the Protestant ideal of an earthly heavenly kingdom, in which all were equal, was used by Hong Xiuquan and Feng Yunshan to recruit followers from the Guangdong areas in the early 19th century. In short, religion or philosophy, Chinese or foreign, can be used as a regime-changing tool to incite peasant rebellion, as long as they promise “equality” and “land for all”.

 Source of photos used in this feature piece: Fotoe

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