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The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

During the mid-19th century, natural disasters, catastrophic floods and famines, Western excesses, and Qing government neglect and corruption had all coalesced to create widespread unrest in China. It was in such a setting that the largest uprising in modern Chinese history occurred. Known as the Taiping Rebellion, its impact continues to be felt even today.

The Taiping Rebellion started in the mind of Hong Xiuquan (born Hong Huoxiu, 1814-64), a teacher and a farmer's son from Guangdong Province. After Hong failed his civil-service exams for the third time, he had a feverish dream of a bearded man and a younger man, whom he later decided were God the Father and Jesus. Hong also kept seeing part of his own name, "Huo" in the Christian tract, which he interpreted as another divine calling. Convinced that he was God's son and Jesus' younger brother, and his mission from God was to "slash the demons" -- the twin demons of the Manchu government and the traditional Chinese folk religion -- Hong formulated his own ideology, a mix of Christian ideals and Confucian utopianism. He soon amassed a large anti-Manchu, anti-establishment following in the south and in 1851 led a group of 20,000 followers to establish the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, with Hong himself as king. Using their army and any number of ragtag peasant militias they could muster along the way, the Taipings swept up through south and central China and established themselves in Nanjing in 1853, renaming the city Tianjing (Heavenly Capital).

The Taipings preached a new order based on the equal distribution of land, equality between the sexes, monotheism, and the existence of small communities ruled by religious leadership, an order that, save for the religious bit, was to prefigure some of the tenets of the Chinese Communist movement. Feudalism, slavery, concubinage, arranged marriages, opium smoking, foot binding, prostitution, idolatry, and alcohol were all to be abolished (at least in theory). While women under the Taiping were allowed a greater degree of freedom (there was even a Taiping army made up entirely of female troops), Taiping morals continued to stress obedience and chastity in women. Hong Xiuquan and other Taiping leaders also continued to keep harems, in that way no different from any of China's emperors or even Mao Zedong, who was known to maintain his own.

In the end, however, the Taipings were doomed by a combination of internecine struggles, corruption, defections, flawed policies, and external forces made up of a reconstituted Qing army aided by Western powers who had apparently decided they would rather deal with the devil they knew (the Qing government) than contend with the uncertainties of a strong Taiping force, even though they were closer to them in ideals. The counterattack was brutal and merciless, and by the time the Chinese army succeeded in crushing the revolt 14 years after it began, a reported 30 million lives had been lost. Hong Xiuquan himself died of illness in 1864 but his successor, his 14-year old son, was killed by Qing troops.

It is uncanny how so many facets of the Taiping Rebellion would be echoed in later Chinese events. The ability of one man to command such a large fanatical uprising and sustain it for so long would later be paralleled in Mao's Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The effects of such large mass uprisings also help explain the current Chinese leadership's fear of them.

The Nanjing Massacre

On December 13, 1937, Japanese troops invaded Nanjing. What followed were the darkest 6 weeks of Nanjing's history, as over 300,000 Chinese were bayoneted, shot, burned, drowned, beheaded, and buried alive. The city was looted and torched, and corpses were thrown into the Yangzi River. Women suffered the most: During the first month of occupation, 20,000 cases of rape were reported in the city. Many of those who survived were tortured.

During this time, a small number of Western businessmen and American missionaries, who stayed behind when their compatriots fled after the departing Chinese government, used their privileged status as foreign nationals to create a 3.9-sq.-km (1 1/2-sq.-mile) safety zone covering today's Hanzhong Lu in the south, Zhongshan Lu in the east, Shanxi Lu in the north, and Xikang Lu in the west. Around 250,000 Chinese found safe haven in 25 refugee camps inside it. The head of the safety zone was German businessman John Rabe, chosen in part because he was a Nazi. Often described as the Oskar Schindler of China, Rabe's initial determination to save his Siemens Chinese employees eventually took on a larger purpose as he even sheltered hundreds of Chinese women in his own backyard. There were countless individual moments of courage, too, as Chinese clawed their way out of mass graves, crawled to hospitals with bullet wounds, or sheltered their brethren at great risk to themselves.

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