In the midst of America’s civil war another, bloodier, battle was being fought in China. The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) took more lives than World War I and devastated parts of rural China so thoroughly that they were not fully recovered until the 1950s. The Taiping Rebellion was the deadliest war the 19th century world had ever seen…and it was started by one man, Hong Xiuquan.
Leaders, good or bad, have lessons to teach us and that’s why it’s crucial to read about leaders past and present. That said, in our own culturally bound world, we tend to read only about those we are most familiar with. We have our own select gallery of bad and good leaders and beyond this we rarely venture into different cultural worlds. That’s why it’s exciting to take off our blinders and examine a case we rarely hear about.
Hong Xiuquan’s story follows an unusual road that is thoroughly, and cinematically, described by Jonathan D. Spence in God’s Chinese Son. Hong’s life of unrest begins in southern China where he was groomed to take China’s civil service exam that he eventually fails repeatedly. Broken, Hong returns home to become a tutor. Before his new life begins he suddenly falls ill and has a prolonged vision where he speaks to both God and Jesus and marries a women he calls First Chief Moon.
According to Hong, God and Jesus inform him that he is related to them and, as such, he needs to fight the evil forces that threaten heaven’s borders. Hong initially disregards the message until he comes across a portion of the bible, translated into Chinese by a missionary that frames his vision succinctly. Overjoyed, Hong begins collecting followers in the villages of southern China, using his fragmented bible and his personal story as legitimizing factors.
Hong manages to recruit a large number of followers for multiple reasons. Prime among them is local antipathy for the ruling, foreign, Qing forces. Hong’s recruits eventually create a military that successfully fights their way into Nanjing where they establish their capital. Hong is eventually stopped when he reaches Shanghai owing to bad weather conditions, multiple foreign-hired mercenary armies, and amassing Qing forces. Hong’s retreat leads to his mysterious death.
The dynamics of leadership rest in the ability to get things done and, at times, individual vision. We can see that Hong’s rise as a leader is directly related to his unique vision that resonated with the Chinese population. Hong’s desire to defeat the “evil forces” paralleled people’s desire to fight the culturally dominating Qing forces. Still, Hong certainly wasn’t the only rebel to agitate Qing forces. What made Hong special and what kept his movement growing was his ability to create coalitions. When Hong first started spreading his word he made sure to recruit the help of his friends and family and building a movement that was focused and driven. He was a master at taking a vision and building a ground-up network based in his local community.
In examining leaders we are inevitably trapped by our own values. The challenge is to ask ourselves not simply about the content, or the goals of the leaders, but the tactics, the strategies, and the mindsets that leaders apply to their chosen mission or vision. As you read this fascinating volume you know, no matter what your opinion of Hong may be, one thing for sure: this man knew how to take a vision and build it into an organization and a movement.