Picture this if you can: The lunatic figurehead of a populist movement, a man given not just to delusions of grandeur, but to fully-formed hallucinations of his messianic nature. He is surrounded by a motley crew of advisors and allies, each possessed of their own deranged agendas and protecting personal fiefdoms. He feels beset on all sides by his enemies — imagined and real — and decides the best way to move forward is to purge his team with fire and bring in new blood.
Tough to imagine in this day and age, right?
In 1851, Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864), a young Hakka scholar with a serious God complex, emerged from the hills of Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces with a thousands of followers convinced — as Hong himself was — that Hong Xiuquan was the living son of the Christian God, the younger bro of Jesus Christ sent to Earth to purge the world of demons. Lacking a ready supply of actual Hell Spawn to slay, Hong and his followers — known as the God Worshippers — settled for a plan to kill lots of Manchus. Lots and lots of Manchus.
To help him in his quest to make All Under Heaven great again, Hong relied on his advisors, each of whom he made a “King.”
(Management pro tip: Title bumps are fine. Walmart has “Associates.” Subway has “Sandwich Artists.” But avoid title bumps which come with an implied crown and a realm. Makes things messy during performance review month.)
There was the “East King,” Yang Xiuqing (1821-1856). Yang was the de facto military commander of the God Worshippers despite a thin resume which began and ended with the line: “Former illiterate charcoal maker.”
Then there was Xiao Chaogui (d. 1852), a poor farmer from Guangxi hill country, who rose through the ranks of the God Worshippers to become a sworn brother of Hong Xiuquan with the title of “West King.”
There was also Wei Changhui (1823-1856), a former pawnshop owner, who was called the “North King” but who had little in common with Jon Snow other than his long flowing hair. (Hong’s followers cut off their queues in defiance of the Manchus and were sometimes known as the “Long Haired Bandits.”) Feng Yunshan (d. 1852), one of Hong Xiuquan’s earliest allies, was named the “South King.”
And finally, there was Shi Dakai (1831-1863), the “Wing King,” a title which always makes me think of spicy chicken in a basket, and who was the youngest of the lot. Shi Dakai was a preternaturally talented military leader often completely confused by the insanity which surrounded Hong’s court.
By 1854, Hong and his followers had overrun the Qing military and swept through Central China and occupied the city of Nanjing, which Hong renamed the Heavenly Capital “Tianjing” of his Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.
Hong’s authority rested, in large part, on his divine nature. He claimed — and his followers seemed to believe — that he was indeed the Son of God and the younger brother of Jesus Christ. That sounds like pretty strong bedrock on which to build a kingdom, but things started getting weird when Hong’s kings began receiving visions of their own.
First, the East King, Yang Xiuqing, not content with being just a king or being in charge of the Taiping troops, began speaking in the voice of God. Not wanting to be left out, the South King, Feng Yunshan, started channeling Jesus Christ. The problem with this was of course that Jesus and God technically outranked Hong. The problem resolved itself in the case of Feng Yunshan when Feng was killed by a sniper’s bullet while attacking the city of Quanzhou.
Yang Xiuqing continued to build his own power base both through his visions and through the less divine but perhaps more effective method of consolidating his influence over the army, talking shit about his fellow kings and doling out punishments like it was hell week for pledges at the Phi Kappa Taiping House.
In 1856, Yang had the North King, Wei Changhui, publicly flogged for some petty grievance. Then he had the father of the Wing King, Shi Dakai, whipped 300 times. Yang then switched into “I’m the Voice of God mode” and went to work on Hong Xiuquan. By the fall of that year, it was pretty clear that all of the other kings were sick of Yang’s shit and had ample evidence that the “East King” was planning a coup to depose the increasingly psychotic and unstable Heavenly King Hong Xiuquan.
Wanting to move a few stones off of the board, Yang coerced Hong Xiuquan into sending Yang’s main rivals, the North King, Wei Changhui, and the Wing King, Shi Dakai, out of the capital to “reinforce the Western regions.” But Hong soon changed his mind and secretly sent word to Wei and Shi that he wanted them to return to Tianjing and take out Yang Xiuqing.
Wei’s armies returned to the city on September 2, 1856, starting what became known as the Tianjing Incident. Thousands of Wei’s troops poured through gates opened by allies of Wei and enemies of Yang. Soldiers then stormed the palace where Yang Xiuqing was living with his family and killed Yang, his children, and his 54 wives and concubines. Some of Yang’s supporters rushed to defend the East King only to be overwhelmed and cut down by Wei’s forces.
The Wing King didn’t get back to the capital until a few weeks later and when he did, Shi Dakai was forced to give “Mixed Feedback” to North King Wei. On the one hand, Wei earned an attaboy from his fellow king and conspirator for having killed Yang Xiuqing and eliminated that particular problem. On the other hand, Shi was concerned that Wei’s troops had killed so many innocent people in the process at a time when the Taiping rulers couldn’t afford to lose the support of their base.
The North King, miffed at Shi Dakai’s Monday Morning Quarterbacking of his massacre, ordered the arrest of the Wing King, but Shi Dakai had already taken his troops and left the capital. The North King had to settle, as demented kings sometimes do, with massacring all of Shi Dakai’s family and servants who had been left behind at court.
The North King’s actions were so over the top, and Shi Dakai was so popular among the army, that Hong had no choice but to appease his Wing King by sending him the North King’s head gift-wrapped with a card. When you care enough, you send the very best.
Shi then became the head of Hong’s army but soon found out, (See: Priebus, Rience and Lannister, Jaime) how hard it is to work for a delusional paranoiac trying to take over the world. Within a year, Shi Dakai would be out as well, taking his army and leaving the capital never to return. Shi Dakai fought the Qing on his own for another six years, campaigning across Western China into Sichuan until he was finally captured by Qing forces in 1863 and executed by slow slicing at the age of 32.
A year later, in 1864, Hong Xiuquan would be dead and forces loyal to the Qing Empire would storm the Taiping capital, ending one of the bloodiest wars of the 19th century.
Cover photo: Alchetron.org