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…

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