On July 19, 1864, after a months-long siege, the city of Nanjing, the capital of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (太平天國; pinyin: Tàipíng Tiānguó), was stormed by forces of the Qing imperial army. This was the last act in the bloodiest civil war of all time. From its beginning in 1850 until 1864, when it ended, the civil strife caused the death of at least 20 million people.

It all started in the 1840s, when the “God Worshippers”, a group of insurgents led by Hong Xiuquan, a political and religious leader who claimed to be a Christian prophet and Jesus’ brother, began to conquer vast territories in the rich and fertile southern provinces of the empire. Their aim was to overthrow the Manchu government in Beijing and establish a new dynasty. But in the end, all the suffering and sacrifices came to naught. The armies of the rebels were defeated, and the Heavenly Kingdom collapsed. The Qing dynasty remained in power, but it was as weak as ever. The prestige of the Manchu rulers was gone. Besieged by economic and social decay, foreign aggression, corruption and inefficiency, the Qing state managed to survive for nearly four decades, until they were overthrown by Sun Yat-sen‘s revolutionaries in 1911 (Sun regarded the Taiping as predecessors of his own anti-Manchu insurgence).

In the summer of 1864 Nanjing was at the mercy of the victors. The imperial troops looted, murdered, raped, and enslaved the civilians who had survived the siege, regardless of age and gender. Even the commander of the imperial army, Zeng Guoquan (曾国荃 / 曾國荃; pinyin: Zēng Guóquán), was disgusted by the brutality of his soldiers. “Children and toddlers,” he wrote, “some not even two years old, had been hacked up or run through just for sport.” He had prohibited acts of violence, but there was nothing he could do to rein in the fury and greed of his army (see Stephen R. Platt: Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, 2012, Chapter 16).

On July 22, Li Xiucheng (李秀成; pinyin: Lǐ Xiùchéng), the most famous and talented of the generals of the Heavenly Kingdom, was captured by imperial forces while he was trying to escape. He had taken refuge in a temple, but some villagers who lived nearby, hoping for a reward, betrayed him, and the imperial cavalry seized him. During his captivity Li Xiucheng gave an account of his life as a general of the rebel state. In the course of the interrogation Zeng Guoquan, who had been so ashamed of his troops’ cruelty, proved no less brutal. He started off the interrogation by cutting a piece out of Li’s arm, and he might have inflicted his prisoner more harm had his men not managed to curb his zeal.

On July 28, Zeng Guofan (曾國藩 /曾国藩; pinyin: Zēng Guófān), Guoquan’s brother, entered Nanjing to see with his own eyes the centre of power of the rebels. Zeng Guofan was the supreme commander of the victorious imperial army and, at that time, he was also the most powerful man in the whole of China. Li Xiucheng, the captured Taiping general, was Zeng’s most precious booty of war. 

Li gave a detailed deposition, about 50,000 words long; one of the most important accounts of the Taiping Rebellion. Zeng Guofan patiently edited Li’s confession. He was an ambitious man, and he wanted to leave to posterity a perfect piece of propaganda that extolled his own and his family’s contribution to the survival of the Qing Empire. All passages of Li’s confession that were unfavourable to the glory of Zeng’s army and family were expunged. The 28,000 words that were left were sent to the Qing Court as the official version of Li’s deposition. Then, Zeng Guofan ordered the general’s execution (ibid.).



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Li Xiucheng was born in 1823 in Teng County, in China’s Guangxi Province. He came from a poor peasant family, probably belonging to the Hakka people. He joined the Taiping on September 1851 when the insurgents marched through his village on their way to Yong’an. Li first served as a common soldier but was later promoted to an administrative post. He obtained the rank of army inspector before leaving Nanjing in 1853 as a junior commander in general Shi Dakai‘s army. He was then appointed junior minister of state. 

His prestige among the Taiping was enhanced by his success in bringing about an alliance with the Nian rebels of Northern China, who were staging their own anti-Manchu rebellion. Due to disagreements with Hong Xiuquan, Shi Dakai left the Taiping in 1857. After Shi’s defection, Li Xiucheng became one of the most important and successful generals of the Taiping army (see Charles Anthony Curwen: Taiping rebel: The deposition of Li Hsiu-ch’eng, 1977, pp. 7-8).

Li Xiucheng’s confession is a remarkable and unique document. Although it was edited by his enemy Zeng Guofan, it still remains one of the most important direct testimonies of China’s civil war. Below are three excerpts from Li’s deposition. In the first one, Li explained the motives behind his decision to join the rebels. In the second, he described the character and behaviour of the “Heavenly King” (天王; pinyin: Tiānwáng) Hong Xiuquan; Li was a loyal follower of Li’s until the end, yet he was also critical of his king’s management of state affairs. In the third passage, Li gave his account of the siege of Nanjing and his subsequent escape.

I adapted the spelling of the names to the pinyin system, which is the most common romanisation system today. In the deposition Li Xiucheng is commonly referred to by his official title “Zhongwang” (忠王, “Loyal King”), while Hong Xiuquan is called “Tianwang” (“Heavenly King”). 


The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in 1854

Li Xiucheng Joins the Taiping Rebellion

The Zhongwang, upon being called on for his defence, wrote the following: 

Before entering into the details of my own career, I will make a few preliminary remarks relative to the antecedents of the Tianwang. The Hong family [the family of Hong Xiuquan’s, the Heavenly King] consisted of three brothers; the two elder (Hong Renfa and Hong Renda) were by the father’s first wife, and Tianwang (Hong Xiuquan) was by the father’s second wife. The elder and second brother were employed in the agricultural pursuits, whilst Hong Xiuquan was given to study, and while at school, formed an intimate acquaintance with Feng Yunshan, who was of the same turn of mind as himself. 

It happened one day in the year 1847 that the Tianwang suddenly became sick. For seven days he was in a trance, and when at the end of that time, he again became conscious, he was much given to peculiar or insane conversation. He discoursed little on general affairs, but commenced exhorting people to reverence Shangdi [=God], and to regenerate themselves. His doctrine was that a man serving Shangdi would be free from all calamity or misfortune, whilst snakes and tigers would devour all disbelievers. These who served Shangdi could not serve other gods, and those who did serve other gods were guilty of sin ….

The Tianwang was a native of Huaxian in the Canton province, and from that place through Guangxi, and other places extending several thousand li, his followers were sprinkled like stars. The Tianwang was constantly concealed amongst the hills, carrying on his work of reformation, and out of ten families he either made converts of three or five or even eight of them. Students and those of good sense would not follow him, but only the agricultural labourers and those in distress were willing to join him, and of these latter there was an immense number. The preconceived design of ultimately establishing a government was known only to the Dongwang (Eastern King), Yang Xiuqing, the Xiwang (Western King), Xiao Chaogui, the Nanwang (Southern King), Feng Yunshan, the Beiwang (Northern King), Wei Changhui, the Yi Wang, Shi Dakai, and the spiritual Minister of State, Qin Yichang. None but the above six were aware of it. The only object the remainder of the people had in following the Tianwang was for the sake of obtaining a subsistence.

The Eastern King … lived … in the neighbourhood of Guiping (xian), and depended for his existence on the sale of firewood and charcoal. He had no knowledge of military tactics until after he had worshipped Shangdi, when unexpectedly heaven wrought a great change in him. He enjoyed above all others the confidence of Tianwang, and had the general management of affairs entrusted to him. His orders were strict and proper, and his rewards and punishments administered impartially.

The Xiwang … likewise engaged in farming and hill-side planting. He married the young sister of the Tianwang and was hence all-important to the cause. He was a brave and courageous man, and one of the best fighting men. The Nanwang was of literary turn of mind and possessed of very good ability. He was the originator of the project for setting up a government, and was the prime mover in the affair. The Beiwang … was engaged in public business, and was generally acquainted with Yamen routine. The Yiwang … was a student of good family and was well up in both civil and military matters.

The Minister of State … was … an ordinary labourer by trade. He was without talent or ability, but possessed of faithfulness and honesty which recommended him to the confidence of Tianwang …

The great distress of our home was the sole cause of my leaving it. Our family lead a very precarious existence, having to subsist in the best way we could. From the age of 8 to 10 I was engaged in study, but at that period I was obliged to assist my father and mother in working for our daily sustenance. It was not until I had attained the age of 26 that I heard of Hong Xiuquan projecting a new doctrine.  

(Harley Farnsworth MacNair: Modern Chinese History – Selected Readings. Shanghai 1927. Vol. I, pp. 335-336)

The Character of the Heavenly King in the Last Years of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

The Chief gave himself no concern about either the nation or the people, but buried in the recesses of his palace he never left the palace gate. When one proceeded to memorialise him upon internal affairs and to make suggestions pertinent to the preservation of the kingdom, he would invariably greet you with assertions about heaven and earth – subjects totally irrelevant to the main argument or point in view. He not only refrained from taking any active part in the government but he did not even engage anyone to look after matters, hence each man carried on his own work, and things went on the same as usual …

The wealthy people alone in Nanjing had food to eat, the destitute and distressed males and females all came round me and prayed me to succour them. Utterly at a loss what to do, I complained to the Tianwang of this difficulty and entreated him to issue a decree with suggestions to meet it, to the end that tranquillity might be somewhat restored to the public mind. The decree was that they should eat “sweet dew” in order to support themselves, upon which I asked “How can they subsist on sweet dew?” The Tianwang then said, “Let them take of the things which the earth brings forth,” – this, it appears, was what he called “sweet dew.” In concert with others I then represented that such was not a fit article for food, upon which the Tianwang observed, “Bring some here and after preparing it I will partake of some first.” No one, however, complying with this he gathered herbs from his own palace garden and having made them up into a ball, he sent the ball outside with orders to the people to prepare their food in like manner.

The Tianwang, after he had entered Nanjing, and established his reigning title … reposed solely in heaven and was very scrupulous as to putting confidence in man … The destitute and starving males and females were constantly clinging round me to relieve them, and praying me to succour them – a request which I had not the means to meet. In the 7th and 8th months of the 13th year, when I had money and rice, I was able to contribute to their relief, and at that time had a list of seventy or eighty thousand poor people to whom were distributed 20 dollars and (or) two piculs of rice …

In the 12th month of the last year (Jan. 1864) I was obliged to discontinue the distributions, as I was in distress myself and had neither funds nor rice. Suzhou and Hangzhou had left us, and the capital was so closely beleaguered that it was impossible for it to hold out long. The Tianwang was unwilling to retire from the city and nothing could be done … I therefore represented to the Tianwang the state of affairs and advised him to allow the people to leave the city, but this he would not consent to do, and rebuked me with, “Dare you, without considering the nation’s dignity, let any of my brothers and sisters out of the city? … You are not wanted to say anything.” … The Tianwang rested implicit faith in idle words and would not rectify or improve the state. Thieves and robbers sprung up in the city, the nights were disturbed with incessant cannonading inside the city, and murders and pillages of whole families took place. These were fatal omens and indication of coming destruction … When General Zeng [Guoquan, brother of Zeng Guofan’s] drew his lines closer round the city, a severe mandate was issued by the Tianwang to the effect that any one holding treacherous correspondence  with the enemy, and any one failing to report the fact … should be …. either pounded to pieces or flayed alive. Who was not afraid of death in this form?”  

(ibid., pp.366-367)

The Fall of Nanjing

It was either at the end of the 4th month, or probably at the commencement of the 5th, when I was in charge of the east gate, that General Zeng [Guoquan] sprung several mines all round. This caused the Tianwang much anxiety and trouble of mind, and eventually so preyed upon him that on the 30th June he poisoned himself. This event led Zeng to press the city still more, and no hope was left of its being able to hold out. 

After the death of the Tianwang his eldest son Hong Futian ascended the throne, in order to quiet the public mind. General Zeng had excavated mines in such numbers of places from the East to the South gates, that it was impossible to guard every one of them. In addition to this, two breaches were made in the Shence gate which considerably increased the difficulty. The new Sovereign was but a youth, unacquainted with state affairs and with no intellectual genius sufficient to cope with difficulty. The city was each day more closely beleaguered, and this state of affairs went on till the 8th July, when it became evident to us that some demonstration must be made, as the city was then on the point of falling. 

Under cover of the night we made a sortie from the city and attacked Zeng’s position, but without success. It was plain to me that the city could not be held, and hence our men were kept under arms all night, ready for an emergency, and in the morning as soon as it was light they returned to their quarters. General Zeng having however observed the men in the city dispersing, from his eminence on Zijin hill, then fired his mine, and his troops stormed the city from the Zijin and Dragon’s neck hills. 

They entered the city on all sides and our men were unable to check them. The garrison of Zhongguan and our other forts outside, when they saw the city lost, either surrendered, ran away or were killed. 

When the city fell all came round me with tears in their eyes. After my defeat at the Taiping gate I returned to the Palace gate, where the Young King, together with the other two sons of the Tianwang, came to me and asked me what was to be done. I was at that time in a great dilemma and really at a loss how to proceed, and was obliged to discard attention to all save the Young King. To him I gave my war-horse (pony) as he was without one, and rode myself a weak and useless animal. 

We rode straight to my mother’s house in order that I might first bid adieu to its tenant and my other relations. They were all weighed down with grief at my departure, but I was obliged to leave them, and pursuing my way with my companion to Qingliang Hill we then endeavoured to conceal ourselves … Though the Tianwang’s days had been fulfilled, the nation injured through others baffling and deceiving him, and the state lost, still, as I had received his favours, I could not otherwise than evince my faithfulness by endeavouring to save his son … we determined to brave death in our last attempt to get out, and at one in the morning I sallied out with the Young Lord, followed by a few hundreds of our guards, forced my way out of the city. The camps that we passed were found to be in the most formidable array, and all of them defended by high parapets and deep fosses …

Zeng’s cavalry then came in pursuit of us, and I was parted from the Young Lord. As he had never ridden before and had never been subject to alarm or fright it is more than probable that he was cut up. the pursuing cavalry would have cut him up on the road without being aware that he was the Young Lord. How could they tell who the youth was?

After I had parted with the Young Lord my pony was unstable to go, for in addition to its not being a war pony, it had already been used during a whole day’s battle, and was weary … Had I retained my own pony I should undoubtedly have got away. I took refuge in a ruined temple on the Huang hill, but the people at the foot of the hill knowing that Nanjing had fallen, and there was sure to be some one lurking there, were bent upon making gain and eventually sealed my fate. I was finally taken by the pursuing cavalry of General Zeng and brought here. 

(ibid., pp. 368-369)

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