Jaws dropped around the world. Picture the scene: one morning in 1853 paterfamilias opens his morning copy of The Times and finds the world turned upside down. Rebels called Taipings have seized China’s second largest city, Nanjing, and are threatening the very foundations of the great Qing dynasty established by the country’s Manchu conquerors in 1644. This rebellion had been rumbling on for three years, so this is not what shakes our reader: uprisings and insurrections seem to be a Chinese norm. And he would have little sympathy for China and its rulers. Although the country’s borders were forced open by British arms in 1842, allowing foreigners to live and trade in some of the large coastal cities, the Qing have proved skilfully obstructive. British familiarity with China has bred contempt. The chinoiserie craze has long passed, supplanted by a brutish Sinophobia and denigration of all things Chinese. And although foreign missionaries have leapt straight into newly opened China, progress has been slow. After nine years, the London Missionary Society has made twenty-one conversions. China remains a dark land of ignorance, superstition and sin.
But this rebellion comes with a bewildering twist. The ethnic Chinese fighters who have burst out of the obscure highlands of the country’s south are Christian soldiers. The rebels have established a ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’ (or ‘Taiping’)