“Does heaven revolve?
Does earth stand still?
Do the sun and moon jockey for position?
Who controls all of this?
Who ties it altogether?
Who dwells in inactivity,
Yet impels things on their course?
May it be that there are levers and threads
That drive them inexorably?
Or may it be that they just keep turning
And are unable to stop by themselves?
Do the clouds make the rain?
Or does the rain make the clouds?
Who bestows them so generously?
Who dwells in inactivity,
Yet urges things on to all this lusty joy?
The winds arise in the north
And, first to the east, then to the west.
They drift back and forth above us.
Who breathes them?
Who dwells in inactivity,
Yet does this fanning?
The hills and farmland of Hua, some thirty miles north of Canton grow lavish crops of rice, wheat and hemp. If faithfully tended and when the rains and irrigation are able to partner their effort, the soil nourishes a variety of beans, peas and cabbage. Bright oranges and red/yellow peaches, melons and dates grew amongst the dogs, ducks, chickens and fish within Guanlubu village, in the Huaxian County of the Guangdong Province. To the observant, the humid air carried the sweet smell of fertile crops. If you stood downwind from the large pool of muddy water that set before the houses of the Hua where a stinking pool carried all the dirt and the town’s refuse, stood a rich water supply used in the manuring of the fields.
Hong Huoxiu, the teacher, once again resumed his role as student. As Hong sat at the entrance to the walled city of Canton, the springtime sun of 1837 warmed his round and expressive face. It was an unusually bright day that won out over the cool and wet weather that Hong endured on his trek from his home village. With a slight crease upon his brow, Hong envisioned the honor that would be bestowed upon him when he passed the Imperial Examination. The eyes of his father and brothers would look to him with pride. A red cap placed upon his head, a garment of blue flowing the length of his body that that would flow to just above his black satin boots, Hong envisioned his march in a procession leading to the Confucian temple. Here he would receive two gold flowers for his hat and a red wreath as a grand symbol that he had passed the first stage of the Imperial examinations. How proud and honored his family would be!
Hong studied laboriously. His father and brothers worked the fields allowing Hong the opportunity to let his talents flourish. Hong honored each God in the hopes of winning their favor. He payed homage to Kuixing in the hopes that his ranking among the test takers would be favorable. He made offerings to King Wenchang, the God who looked favorably upon worthy students. On the night before the examinations Hong looked towards the night sky at the constellation of the “Big Dipper” or, the “Plough” as it was known by the British missionaries scattered about the region, and prayed. Although his home contained the usual family shrines wherein obeisance may prove favorable, it was the night sky that drew Hong Huoxiu's breath and imagination.
The examination methods underwent little change in its methodologies and substance from when they were first instituted during the Tang period in China’s long history. In the fall, candidates were tested in their home prefectures. In the spring, those that had passed the entrance exams were eligible to take the local level exams. Although results varied regionally it was not unusual for only one in ten to pass at the local level. Upon success at the local level, one could then move on to the tests at the Provincial level. Average success rate at the second level averaged only one in one hundred. This candidate was then eligible to proceed to the Metropolitan level. It was everyman’s dream to advance to this level, the level of Jinshi, “Presented Scholar” taken at the palace of the Emperor.
After passing the qualifying examination for his second time, Hong was again taking the local level exam for the degree of Shengyuan. After completion, if he passed, Hong would be exempt from corporeal punishment and the corvee labor dues pressed upon the populace. Hong would obtain the right to wear scholar’s robes and receive a small state salary. He would then be recognized as a member of the gentry. It was an all important first step that would mark the beginning of better fortune for Hong and his family.
The Examination hall contained approximately 7500 cells which measured four feet by three feet and were high enough to stand in. On the day appointed, Hong stood with those that had passed the entrance exams and stood nervously shifting his feet. The stress of the event was palatable. The design and formalities leading up to the actual examination accentuated the weight of the occasion. Waiting at the great gates of the examination hall for their individual names to be called out stood several thousand men ranging in ages from their early twenties to men of an indeterminable age. Hong looked about wondering if everyone would live through the grueling set of examinations. Once the gates were closed, they were closed for the duration and the only way out was through death. Not an inconceivable notion. The pressure to succeed was great. Some men had made it their second occupation in life and took the test over and over until their physical abilities failed them and made attendance impossible. When his name was called, Hong received a roll of paper marked with the number of the open cell he was assigned to. He brought with him writing materials and enough food to sustain him throughout the exams and handed it to the overseers for a thorough search. Cheating was heavily discouraged. Hong stood outside his cell as the long process was repeated over and over until all were accounted for and then assigned to their cells. When the students were ready, they took their seats while the Grand Examiner performed an elaborate set of rituals making elaborate gestures that made little sense but looked nonetheless important. He lit incense and motioned for the doors of the great entrance to be closed. Those that managed to survive the first three days and nights of tests will be allowed to refresh themselves and prepare for two more sessions of the same. In total, examinations will take nine days to complete.
The test was as painful as Hong had remembered. Long cold nights were broken only by shivers and short naps. He took sips of water and stretched often to lessen the pain in his neck and shoulders. Rubbing his eyes, he listened to sounds of the other examiners. An occasional shout, cough or cry would draw his attention away from his duty. His confidence undeterred, he busied himself and set his mind back on task. When at long last the nine days of examinations came to a close Hong waited with the crowd of fellow students. The mass of men with the smell of sweat and anticipation hovered forward to see the list of names of those that had passed the examination. The front of the procession would yield and flow away from the hall as some learned of their failure and some of their success. Hong pressed forward checking to see if his name would be towards the top of the roll signaling a great degree of success.
The air was cool while a fine mist hung in the air. Hong thought of the swallows living on the underside of the roof where his examination cell was located. Although they were on the opposite side of the cell wall from where he sat, he could hear the parent birds frequent attempts to feed the squawking hatchlings. He noticed the smell of soup in the air and the sound of children laughing outside of the examination hall’s great gate. Hong moved with the crowd feeling his heart pumping loudly and felt pressure building in his ears. His heart seemed to beat with a very slow thud. His face felt cold and hot at the same time. As he shuffled forward his confidence drained slowly from his body.
Hong Houxiu had failed again!
Nine days ago while he made his way to the examinations, Hong beheld a Wind-Horse moving gently above a small temple. He remembered now how he had smiled with a knowing confidence. His prayers were being offered with the blowing of each breeze. As Hong gathered his things for the long walk home, his eyes were brought once more to gaze upon the prayer flag shaking wildly in the wind and he felt his confidence turn into rejection. His step turned into a heavy weakness of the low back and knees. Thinking of the long walk home overwhelmed his senses and he soon felt unable to walk another step. Hong lapsed momentarily into a state of total indecision. People walked by him and around him with nary a glance. He gained his composure and hired a chair with two porters to carry his weakened body home. As they traversed the byway, Hong felt his thoughts and body go limp. His eyes hurt and felt severely strained. He had an overwhelming urge to hang his tongue out. The pressure within his chest made him want to yell profanities and curses. He decided to curl up and wait for signs of his home to appear. When Hong arrived home he was immediately sent to convalesce by his very worried family.
Back in the village of Guanlubu, members of a community of about four hundred people, stopped to discuss the apparent ill health of Hong Houxiu whenever a cease in their labors would allow. “I have heard that Hong Huoxiu has been ill for over one month! His father and brothers had to lock him in the house and guard him in fear that he may escape and harm someone!”
“Yes. Yes. I too, have heard that he has tried to kill demons that are invisible to all but him and that he calls himself by a new name.”
“A new name?”
“Yes! He is now calls himself Hong Xiuquan. He tells his father and brothers that he is to judge the earth and has been elected to slay demons and protect the virtuous!”
After forty days of illness, Hong Xiuquan claimed that his time of illness was a vision whereby he was taken to heaven and given a mandate to, “behead the evil ones, spare the just, and ease the people’s sorrow,”
Hong's family is grateful that his sickness has abated and they encourage him to regain his place within the family. The family seeks to ignore his tales of heaven in the hopes that it will go away. While Hong's wife gives birth to a daughter, Hong continues his study of Confusion texts and classics in preparation for the next examination. He is often seen speaking to the sky and using his study texts as pillows for long noonday naps. Hong would later conclude that his forty days of illness, were the same as the forty days of rain that Noah had endured. That they were equal to the forty days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai. He would also compare it to the forty days of challenge faced by David when he faced Goliath. But Hong most likened his time of separation from his family to be equal to the forty days that Jesus had spent in the desert being tempted by Satan. Analogy or comparison aside, Hong’s period of forty days would forever alter the lives of millions of Chinese and bathe the land in blood.