The Page to Damascus

In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was printed. In 1836 a provincial man of 21 years of age named Hong Huoxio came across some poorly translated Chinese-language pamphlets and Bibles left by visiting American Methodist missionaries. Ultimately, his reading of this material convinced Hong that he was the heavenly half-brother of Jesus Christ, and that it was his sacred duty to liberate his Hakka people from imperial oppression, and to purge China of the “demon worship” that he associated with Confucianism and Buddhism. Starting in 1850, and going on for fourteen more years, Hong (who had now taken the new name Xiuquan) fought what was called the Taiping Rebellion against the Qing dynasty. In that decade and a half of fighting, as many as thirty million people lost their lives, making it thirty times bloodier than that other civil war being fought at the same time in the United States. There were many causes for the Taiping Rebellion of course, but it arguably began with a conversion of sorts. And that conversion began with an act of reading. Popular culture often dramatizes conversion as always being a Road to Damascus moment, but Hong’s conversion, and then all the drama which resulted from it, was enabled not by a shining light but by a smudgy pamphlet.

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