Troublous Dreams

Our dreams are gateways into self-discovery.

by William Sandlund | 5/19/17 1:40am

This column was featured in the Green Key 2017 Special Issue: "Awakening."

“Only after the great awakening will we realize that this is the great dream. And yet fools think they are awake.” — Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi

Each day billions of dreams formulate and dissipate across the planet. They are phantoms of our skulls, mirages we can taste and touch. Once we wake they are gone, lacking any material trace except for the uncertain testimony of memory. If we do not write them down or tell someone, this evidence disappears with the morning dew. They are immensely interesting for their composer but are usually odious conversation topics. Dreams are the stories we tell ourselves, ones that in our self-absorption we become lost in. We do not just suspend our disbelief — the line separating reason and emotion dissolves.

Occasionally, there arises an exceptional specimen of dream. These dreams are so powerful they take on the status of revelations. It becomes unclear if the dream imposes its vision onto the individual or the individual imposes his or her interpretation onto the dream. The consequence of such dreams persists in the waking world in religion, history and art. These nocturnal visions seep into reality, further blurring the line between subjective perception and our shared external environment. Dreams possess the unique potential to change how lives are lived from within.

The deadliest dream of the 19th century flit before the eyes of a stressed-out student in Guangzhou, China. In 1837, Hong Xiuquan, a Hakka peasant from Southeast China, failed the imperial examination for a third time. Although he showed intellectual promise, the exams were notoriously difficult to pass, with a district level success rate of around 1 percent. China’s rapidly growing population had outpaced the number of government postings, leaving thousands of promising young scholars disaffected in a time of economic stagnation, government corruption and racial tension.

Hong felt an immense pressure to succeed. He came from a poor rural family that had invested significant amounts of time and money into his classical education. Following his failure, he suffered a nervous breakdown and slipped into a days-long delirium. Later he described the experience as his spirit visiting heaven. He had a recurring dream involving an old man telling him the Chinese people were demon worshippers. The man eventually entrusted Hong with a sacred mission to slay these evil spirits.

Around a year before this strange episode, Hong received a religious tract from the protestant missionary Liang Fa called “Good Words to Admonish the Age.” Christian ideas almost certainly influenced the content of Hong’s visions, but more importantly they helped Hong interpret the significance of his dream. He believed that the old man was God and that He had assigned Hong with the divine mission to overthrow the Qing dynasty.

Upon recovery Hong apparently underwent a cathartic change. He purportedly grew taller and exuded a charisma people found irresistible. He began preaching and quickly gained a strong following among peasants and miners. Stories began to circulate about Hong working miracles — mutes could speak and the insane became articulate. An angelic young boy reportedly descended from the heavens and repeatedly proclaimed Hong’s name.

In the early stages of the movement, Hong continued to reference his wondrous dream, which became steadily more embellished. He drew confidence, purpose and followers not just from the dream itself but from its repeated retelling. In an essay written by Hong’s cousin Hong Renkan, Renkan describes his reaction to Hong’s preaching about his dream-vision as follows: “I felt as if I were waking from a dream and as if I were regaining soberness after intoxication.” The dream took on a life of its own and somehow awakened people to their reality or convinced them that they had found something meaningful around which to order their lives. Hong eventually founded a millenarian sect called the God Worshipping Society.

The movement quickly gained momentum by exploiting local dissatisfaction with the Qing dynasty. In 1850, a year after the start of the rebellion, Hong and his followers took over Yongan and later established the “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.” Two years later, the Taipings had taken Nanjing as their capital. Their kingdom in southern China lasted until 1864. Hong died during the death throes of his revolt, probably poisoning himself within the confines of his luxurious palace. He was one of the final casualties in a conflict that left at least 20 million people dead and permanently crippled Qing authority.

Histories have already been written about the socioeconomic conditions that allowed for such a deadly rebellion to take place. It is hard to acknowledge and understand how a single dream started a chain of events leading to such a massive loss of life. However tempting, analyzing Hong’s dream can only ever yield speculations. We must be content to observe the power of a dream over an individual and a movement in the hope that it can shed light on our subjective experience.

Dreams exploit our self-centered nature. They have an intoxicating power that prevents us from recognizing their illusive qualities. When Hong woke from his vision he was convinced that he had awoken to a new reality. His world had been shattered by his failure to pass an exam but then his life was restored and imbued with new meaning and purpose. It is an awful lot like someone discovering religion or Marxism and feeling like he has found a framework to understand the world. Suddenly you have answers to uncertainty, and you want to tell everyone about your momentous transformation. Conversion begets conversion, just as power begets power.

We embrace dreams, theories and religion partly in order to feel at ease in an unfathomable universe. Before you fall headlong into a new idea, consider asking yourself what it is you are attracted to. Then ask why you think this is what you are attracted to. Keep questioning and delve deeper into yourself. Truth is elusive and illusive, but it comes from within. And if you have a sacred dream vision, you will know you are onto something good.