A painting of many soldiers attacking each other with spears and swords

This religious revolt nearly toppled China's last imperial dynasty

The Taiping Rebellion and its self-proclaimed messiah threatened the Qing dynasty's hold on China as the nation battled Europe in the Opium Wars.

The Taiping rebels can be seen retreating across a bridge pursued by Chinese imperial forces during the battle at Ruizhou in 1857. This work is one of a 20-part series of 19th-century paintings commemorating the Taiping Rebellion.
SOTHEBYS/AURIMAGES

Failure of a civil service exam led to one of the most important political events in Chinese history: the Taiping Rebellion. This social and spiritual upheaval of the mid-19th century was led by Hong Xiuquan, who was born in 1814 in the Guangdong Province of China. Hong’s academic struggles put him on the path to religious zealotry and leadership of peasants of southeastern China in a mass movement that threatened the security of the ruling Qing dynasty and led to the deaths of millions.

Hong’s family belonged to a marginalized ethnic group, the Hakka, who had their origins in northern China but migrated to the southern regions in the 13th century. The Hakka retained their own separate culture and never fully blended into the local culture in southern China. Their traditions and language remained distinct.

Hong Xiuquan’s family and friends saw great promise in this son and made great financial sacrifices to fund his education. If he were able to pass the Confucian civil service examination, Hong could become a government official, which would bring both wealth and prestige to his people.

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