The Dreams that Fueled Hong Xiuquan
Dreams are often difficult to interpret. Dreams are believed to offer a metaphysical and divinatory knowledge, as well as provide ethical clarity concerning actions in the world. The leader of the Taiping Movement, Hong Xiuquan, relied on the dream world as proof of his calling from God to transform the minds of his followers. Hong used his dreams and his limited interpretation of the bible to persuade distressed and wealthy Chinese followers to believe he was their heavenly leader. Hong Xiuquan proclaimed there was a kingdom in heaven, yet he left earth a hell in his wake. His dream world validated his actions as a self-proclaimed prophet because Hong believed the will of heaven rested with him.
The dream world has been the catalyst for many people seeking change in their own life. In order to convince a following of people to believe him, and change their own personal lives, Hong Xiuquan relied on his dreams to prove he was literally God’s Chinese son. Liang Afa’s collection of religious tracts, “Good Words for Exhorting the Age,” attracted the attention of Hong; the name Hong is mentioned in these tracts, and he developed a meaningful and purposeful connection to the literature. After he initially failed his licentiate examination in Canton during 1836 and then again in 1837, Hong started to read Christian scripture, which was arbitrary in its original translation. He felt a certain connection to his reading, especially since his name, Hong, was mentioned throughout the reading tracts.
After his inability to pass his examination in Canton, Hong rendered himself a failure and underwent great stress. He suffered prior examination failures, but after his inability to pass the examination in 1837, Hong developed a type of sickness that rendered him bed-ridden, and many family members believed him to have gone mad.
During this time in 1837, a great dream influenced Hong. Hong’s great dream during his stress-induced sickness, influenced him to believe he was chosen by God, as the heavenly father’s youngest son, the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Hong believed God, in all his majesty, wearing a black dragon robe, a high-brimmed hat, and a long golden beard, instructed Hong to kill the evil throughout the earth. Hong changed his name to, “Heavenly King, Lord of the Kingly Way, Quan.” His name change reflected his newfound power and dignity.
Once Hong recovered from his sickness, he firmly believed the combination of his recent illness with his understanding of the new Christian literature were heaven sent and “meant to be.” According to Hong: “If I had received the books without having gone through the sickness, I could not have dared to believe in them, and on my own account to oppose the customs of the whole world; if I had merely been sick but not also received the books, I should have had no further evidence as to the truth of my visions…I have received the immediate command from God in his presence, the will of Heaven rests with me.”
A dream, especially one where a prophet occurs, often legitimizes an individual’s particular position in a religious, cultural, or ideological setting. Hong believed he received instruction through his dream to act on any evil he deemed intolerable. Hong believed his heavenly father, God, created him to transform the people in the human world.
Religious groups throughout the world have used their dreams as the reason for starting their own religious movements. A higher reality is believed to be accessible through dreams. Hong was not original in his religious conquest when he used his dreams to purport his heavenly messages from his dream world. “Virtually every religious tradition throughout history has looked to dreams for revelations into the divine, for guidance from the gods, and for spiritual insight and values.”
During 1845, Hong named his followers the “God-worshiping Society.” By late summer 1849, there were four distinct God-worshiper centers grouped in a semi-circle to the north and to the west of the district city of Guiping. These four regions comprised a sixty-mile area from east to west, and eighty miles from north to south. During this time, the God-worshipers were viewed by the Chinese officials of the Qing state, as well as by their fellow neighbors, as mainly a religious group without any emergency for direct military suppression by the Chinese state.
By 1850, members of the God-worshipers were brought to trial in Qing courts on “trumped-up charges,” such as being offensive to Chinese moral values, and this infuriated Hong. Hong now referred to the Qing government officials as “demon devils” and “demon officials.” He began talking of revolution and restoration of the old Ming dynasty to overthrow the ruling of the Qing. Hong knew he couldn’t restore the old Ming dynasty since nearly two hundred years had passed since its collapse, but Hong called for the mandatory establishment of a new dynasty.
During February 1850, the god-worshipers discussed logistical support and tactical planning for their attacks on “demon” positions. Hong elevated his rank among the God-worshipers, and he was in charge of developing military strategy among the four bases in Guiping. Hong changed his name to “Taiping king,” and often referred to his four bases as “the court.” By 1851, there were approximately 20,000 Taiping troops.
By October 1860, Hong dreamed of a message sent to him by his Heavenly Father. Hong recorded the dream as “countless heavenly soldiers and generals faithfully placing before me their tributes of sacred articles and treasure, and I smiled happily and silently.” Throughout history many religious traditions have revered dreams as sources of divine revelation. Hong used his dreams to purport his connection to the heavens, and his paramount position in the Taiping movement rested on his uninterrupted journey to the heavens that his dream world provided him.
By spring 1864, Hong did not have enough resources or ammunition to either feed his followers or battle the Qing government that had started to eradicate all Taiping soldiers. The Qing government had demolished many Taiping advancements, and the loss of human life was enormous. Many Taiping troops began to either dissert their positon as soldiers, they developed illness or died of hunger, or they were massacred by the Qing government. Such a defeat and loss of life were not the images of earthly paradise that Hong promised his followers.
Hong had many dreams that expressed concrete images, like an image of God, which metaphorically expressed ultimate existential concerns that were powerful and challenging, and further had a deep transformative effect on his life. He developed a following of people who accepted his dreams as real, arguably offering up no formal debate about their existence or their potential to deliver a higher truth, allowing his dreams to be used as evidence of his calling from the heavens. Believing that a higher reality was accessible via dreams. “While dreams may be epistemologically useful, they are ontologically suspect.” Dreams do have a place with many cultures. Throughout history many religious traditions have revered dreams as sources of divine revelation. In the case of Hong Xiuquan, “One person’s messiah is another’s Antichrist.”