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River of Fire

God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan

by Jonathan D. Spence
Norton, 400 pp., $27.50

In her introduction to a collection of Karl Marx’s newspaper dispatches on China, Dona Torr conceived a charming fantasy in which Marx speculates that

When our European reactionaries have to take refuge in Asia and at last reach the Great Wall of China, guarding the very hearth of reactionary conservatism, they may find inscribed above its gates:—“Chinese Republic. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”1

Marx himself did not underestimate the Taiping revolution—it was not a mere rebellion—that took place in nineteenth-century China. His articles about China usually appeared in the New York Daily Tribune; and on June 14, 1853, he wrote, “the chronic rebellions subsisting in China for about ten years past, and now gathered together in one formidable revolution,” were the result of “English cannon forcing upon China that soporific drug called opium.” When this revolution finally gets going, Marx predicted, “…it will throw the spark into the overloaded mine of the present industrial system and cause the explosion of the long-prepared general crisis, which, spreading abroad, will be closely followed by political revolutions on the Continent.”2

Marx had spotted something significant, unnoticed by many. He then made one of his gigantic, and unsuccessful, leaps of prediction. Mao Zedong, who had plenty to say about peasant uprisings, contented himself with observing that China’s revolution began with the Taiping revolutionaries in the nineteenth century, but ultimately failed because they were “idealistic” and were not led by the Communist Party.3

The nineteenth-century Chinese uprising, between 1851 and 1864, conceived and led by Hong Xiuquan, the subject of God’s Chinese Son, was one of the most extensive and bitter civil wars ever. Far more violent than the American Civil War, it left at least twenty million dead and shook the Chinese state to its core. Chinese and Western historians have paid these events much attention. During the Cultural Revolution, the fact that Hong Xiuquan was a fanatical Christian proved no problem for some Chinese historians. According to an official history published in 1976, the Taiping movement

when stripped of its religious mantle was actually a revolutionary organization, advocating an anti-religious philosophy of struggle…. The message is clear: state power is secured only by the sword, happiness is realized only through hard work, and only by capturing all demons, and by suppressing traitors and blood-suckers, can peace be brought to the world.4

Philip Kuhn of Harvard, a leading specialist on nineteenth-century Chinese uprisings, says of the Taiping revolution,

More than any other rebellion of their day, they addressed themselves directly to the crisis of the times and offered concrete measures for resolving it. Their vision of a new system of property relations, a new mechanism of local control, and a new relationship between the individual and the state was an authentic response to the distinctive problems of the late imperial age.5

John King Fairbank, who devoted most of his academic life to the history of nineteenth-century China, pointed out in his final book that both Nationalists and Communists “have tried to salvage from the Taiping movement some positive prototype of anti-Manchu nationalism and social reform.” The Taiping revolutionaries, Fairbank commented, were against “all the usual evils—gambling, opium, tobacco, idolatry, adultery, prostitution, footbinding….” His final judgment was dismissive: “A cause for which so many gave their lives must have had much to offer, but only in comparison with the effete old order under the Manchus.”6

Jonathan Spence, Professor of History at Yale, looks at the revolution differently. He concentrates on the first and almost last Taiping leader—Hong Xiuquan, who, Spence says, quoting Keats, “was one of those people who believe it is their mission to make all things ‘new, for the surprise of the sky-children.’ It is a central agony of history that those who embark on such missions so rarely calculate the cost.”

Almost thirty years ago, when Spence was a graduate student at Yale, he writes in God’s Chinese Son, his favorite teacher, Mary C. Wright, introduced him to Jen Yu-wen, one of the leading Chinese Taiping specialists. Eventually, as a historian fascinated by the minds of the obscure and the eccentric, Spence was bound to be drawn to Hong Xiuquan, the Taiping leader who imagined he was the younger brother of Jesus. For more than a decade Hong, who established his own theocratic imperial state-within-a-state, convinced millions of Chinese that the Emperor was a devil, and directed the armies that seized some of China’s major cities and menaced Peking itself.

Jonathan Spence has achieved an international reputation as a scintillating Chinese historian with a remarkable range of interests. His books examine, among other matters, the inhabitants of a small county in north China in the late seventeenth century; one of the greatest Manchu emperors; the mind of a seventeenth-century missionary to China; and late nineteenth- and twentieth-century revolutionaries. He has also written The Search for Modern China, a very good general history of China’s last three hundred years.7

Some academics have been irritated by Mr. Spence’s attempts to penetrate the minds of his subjects; they worry that he comes closer to imagining their inner lives than historians are justified in doing; he also often writes in the present tense, which gives his prose immediacy and tension, but occasionally gives the impression of his being more of a witness to action than even the most vivid historian can be. He is drawn to details; in God’s Chinese Son, for example, he discusses British three-legged and wheelbarrow races, the names of some of the British-owned dogs (“Punch,” “Die,” and “Nero” among them) that were stolen to be eaten by starving people in Shanghai, and the outfits of the Cantonese washerwomen who offered their services to foreign sailors. At the same time, while Spence’s account of the Taiping movement is original and fascinating, it does not show why their rebellion ultimately failed; it has little to say about the scholarly mandarins who were largely responsible for defeating them, or about how the British contributed to that defeat.

In his foreword Spence writes, “This book does not attempt to give a total picture of the Taiping movement.” His aim is to show how Hong and his visions had “such an astounding impact on his country for so many years.” Readers who admire his power to vividly describe Chinese life may want some more specific conclusions. They need, however, to look no further than the masterly twenty-eight pages on the subject in Mr. Spence’s The Search for Modern China,8 where he describes the main elements of the Taiping struggle and draws the conclusions that would, with little effort on his part, have clarified some of the questions that remain obscure in God’s Chinese Son.

As it is, the story is a powerful one and Mr. Spence tells it vividly. He begins in a typically Spencean way by introducing Hong as a Chinese millenarian who was transformed by his encounter with Christian doctrines:

The story of Hong Xiuquan and his Taiping Heavenly Kingdom is as strange as any to be found in Chinese history…. Some intersection of Hong’s own mind and the pulse of the times led him to a literal understanding of elements of this newly encountered religion, so that the Christian texts he read convinced him that he was the younger brother of Jesus, imbued by his Father God with a special destiny to rid China of the conquering Manchu demon race, and to lead his chosen people to their own Earthly Paradise.

Mr. Spence provides a masterly little essay on apocalyptic visionaries reaching back four thousand years to Mesopotamia and Egypt. He shows how, by the second century AD, apocalyptic thinking, with its goal of “Great Peace,” or Taiping, could be found in the reflections of Chinese scholars who resisted Confucian authority. A supreme deliverer, in a volcanic final act of history, would rescue human beings from their miserable lives. Through the centuries, with accretions from Taoism and Buddhism, the idea of apocalypse spread, accompanied by intensifying visions of fire and sword. Only the chosen would survive. These notions inspired peasant Chinese rebels who threatened the local and provincial peace. In fact, similar ideas are increasingly noted with alarm today in the mainland press, which regularly publishes reports about “black societies” or “superstitious gangs,” often led by Party officials. W.J.F. Jenner, Professor of Chinese at the Australian National University, aptly describes the more recent version of the secret societies as

an underground river of fire, coming to the surface only when social and political structures are under strain or cracking…as communist rule grows shakier…. [there] are signs that the underground river is coming nearer the surface. They hint at the destruction some such movement could achieve if it were able to mobilize peasant discontents on a large scale.9

Spence reminds us that Christian millenarian sects were particularly active in the West during the early nineteenth century and that, especially through the energetic Baptists, their visions made their way to China just as Hong Xiuquan, a deeply troubled man, was losing faith in the Confucian tradition. What especially interests Mr. Spence about Hong is “the strength, the inspiration, and the sense of purpose” he derived both from the Bible and from unreliably translated Western Christian sources, “with all their ambiguities, errors, and unexpected ironies, that brought him to his faith and his sense of destiny.”

All this, acting on a determined but unhinged mind such as Hong’s, shows “the extraordinary dangers that may flow from the unguided transmission of a book so volatile….” Spence has worked through the very difficult Chinese versions and garblings of the Bible that would have influenced Hong and he has traced their connections with Hong’s visions. John Fairbank observed that the Taiping record was “biased because the imperialists destroyed most Taiping writings, except for those preserved mainly by foreigners (some were found only in this century in French and British libraries).”10 Spence found two such texts in the British Library in London: “a protracted series of heavenly visions said to have been relayed through Jesus and his Father to their faithful Taiping followers on earth.” These texts, he says, inspired him to write God’s Chinese Son. The previously unexplored accounts of Hong’s visions, while “not historical sources in any precise sense of the term,” provide insights into his appeal to peasant society and also give information about the Westerners who visited Nanking, the Taiping capital and stronghold. It is admirable and Spence-like to discern such possibilities in visions preserved in arcane Chinese, although his extensive verbatim texts can be tedious.

The story starts in 1836, during Canton’s first snowfall in over forty years, when Hong Xiuquan, a bright twenty-two-year-old country boy, came to the city to take the state examinations for the bureaucracy. He was from the relatively small cultural minority who spoke the Hakka language and whose promising young men were granted special dispensations to ease their assimilation into mainstream Han society. The examinations required a near-perfect memory of Confucian writings and an ability to apply them to official problems. For almost two thousand years they had been the way to the top for any Chinese male whose relatives or friends could pay the tuition fees for the skull-numbing years of preparation, in which calligraphy was honed to bureaucratic perfection.

  1. 1

    Marx on China 1853–1860: Articles from the New York Daily Tribune, with an introduction and notes by Dona Torr (Lawrence and Wishart, 1951), p. xvii.

  2. 2

    Marx on China, pp. 1–2, 7.

  3. 3

    See for example “The Bankruptcy of the Idealist Concept of History,” in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1961), Volume 4, pp. 451–459.

  4. 4

    n.a., The Taiping Revolution (Peking, 1976), pp. 18–19.

  5. 5

    Philip A. Kuhn in John K. Fairbank, editor, The Cambridge History of China (Cambridge University Press, 1978), Volume 10, p. 317.

  6. 6

    John K. Fairbank, China: A New History (Harvard University Press/Belknap Press, 1992), p. 210, 212.

  7. 7

    Norton, 1990.

  8. 8

    The Search for Modern China, pp. 165–193.

  9. 9

    W.J.F. Jenner, The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China’s Crisis (Allen Lane/Penguin, 1992), pp. 198, 200.

  10. 10

    Fairbank, China: A New History, pp. 211–212.

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