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A Chinese who claimed to be a son of God
A Chinese who claimed to be a son of God
Book gives a comprehensive picture of the Taiping Rebellion, led by
messianic Hong Xiuquan, its origin, religious beliefs and
military successes and failures
Book review by Francis Chin
GOD'S CHINESE SON
By Jonathan Spence
ONE of the most catastrophic events to have shaken modern China was
Taiping Revolution in the mid-19th century.
Started by a band of Bible-chanting, hymn-singing Hakka peasants and
miners in the remote mountains of Guangxi, south-west China, the Taipings
sought to establish a Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (Taiping
Led by the messianic Hong Xiuquan, who proclaimed himself the Son of
and younger brother of Jesus, the God-worshippers (to distinguish them
from the "idol-worshipping" ordinary people) conquered one-third of
and set up their New Jerusalem in the old Ming capital of Nanjing.
In God's Chinese Son, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Of Hong Xiuquan,
renowned Chinese historian and Yale University professor Jonathan Spence
offers a fresh look at the extraordinary Hong, his millenarian-style
Christianity and his army of God-worshippers.
For more than a decade, from 1850 - 64, the greater part of China was
torn apart in a titanic war between the Manchu troops (aided by British and
French gunboats, cannons and men) and Hong's Taiping followers. It
only with his death and the near-total massacre of his followers, as well
the inhabitants of Nanjing, Hangzhou and other great Taiping cities.
Today, the memory of the Taiping is honoured by the communist
in Beijing, which views it as a prototype revolution of peasants in the
It is also probable that Mao Zedong and his Red Army commanders
understood and applied the Taipings' military tactics and doctrines in
the 1930 - 49 civil war. Many of the Taipings' campaign marches and
strategic advance corresponded closely with those of the Red Army.
Now, thanks to Spence's extensive research and access to hitherto
Taiping texts, a comprehensive picture of its origin, religious beliefs and
military successes and failures has emerged.
It should clear away popular misconceptions based partly on the
strange but explosive mix of Christian doctrines and Chinese tradition.
More importantly, the author points out that as the year 2000
many communities are gripped by a kind of "millenarian" fever -- an
apocalyptic belief in the end of human society and the coming of
It was precisely such a millenarian vision that motivated and drove
Taiping followers to set up their Heavenly Kingdom.
Spence writes: "Borne aloft on the wings of such millenarian belief,
began late in the 1840s to assemble an army of the 'God-worshipping'
who by 1850 had coalesced into the Taiping Heavenly Army.
"It was at the head of this army that Hong fought his destructive yet
triumphant way through southern and central China, until in 1853, his
forces seized the mighty Yangzi River city of Nanjing.
"Here, in a community that was at once scriptural, imagined and rooted
the soil, they created their Taiping New Jerusalem, which remained their
for 11 years until in 1864 -- after 20 million people or more in the
regions under their sway had lost their lives in battle or from starvation
the remnants of his army perished in their turn from famine, fire, and
Almost half the book is devoted to Hong's relatively unknown early
in Canton, his encounter with missionaries, his vision and ascent to
and the doctrinal basis of his mission to rid the world of demons and
Hong had in his possession a series of tracts. These explained the
and nature of evil and of the Lord of Heaven, Jehovah, who sent his holy
Jesus, to save mankind. At the birth of Jesus, the angels had
"Glory to God in the highest and on Earth, great peace (taiping) and
towards men." (Luke 2:14).
Hong, who had repeatedly failed the state examinations -- the only
then to official glory -- believed that God was his celestial father and
elder brother he saw in his vision was none other than Jesus Christ.
His divine mandate was to continue what Jesus had started, to preach
true doctrine of salvation, destroy demons and set up the Heavenly Kingdom
of Taiping or Great Peace.
From his wandering and preaching among the Hakka villages in
poverty-ridden Guangxi, he managed to build up a band of dedicated
emulating the 300 warriors of the biblical Gideon (Judges 7:7).
The book explores the awful economic conditions of the Hakkas, the
hostility of local people towards these "guest-people", and the attraction
Hong's message for them.
There are extensive excerpts from Taiping texts discussing their
religious indoctrination and direct messages from God and Jesus to comfort,
and console the faithful.
When the Taiping band moved out of its first base in Thistle Mountain,
Spence uses detailed maps to aid the reader in following the fast-paced
narrative of the pitched battles with Manchu troops on land and water,
the long march north-east along the Yangzi River and the army's logistic
moving hundreds of thousands of men, women and children safely through
In less than three years of brilliant campaigning, the army captured
stoutly-defended towns and cities, including Nanjing, where Hong set up his
Here, the Taiping followers held outdoor services on the Sabbath Day
where huge crowds gathered while a sea of flags and streamers, red, yellow,
white and green, floated in the wind over them, to listen to the two
preachers appointed for the day expounding a soldier's duty, love of family
attention to prayer.
"It is hard for Nanjing visitors not to be moved by such servic"
The book, however, was cursory in its treatment of the closing years, when
Taiping court was riven by intrigue, poorly-focused campaigns and,
finally, Hong's death. Still, it is written with sympathy and
understanding of China's only modern-day messiah.
What would have been if the Taiping army were to occupy the whole of
China? The national religion today would have been Taiping Christianity,
the national tongue Hakka. The country would have been ruled by a very
harsh, inward-looking religious regime, something like the Taleban fighters
One contributing factor to the ultimate failure of the Taiping was the
inability of its leaders to see beyond their narrow religious vision and
other Chinese communities with myriads of faiths and customs.
As a result, once they moved out of their mountain fastness, they
not secure popular support. The local population, particularly north of the
Yangzi, regarded the Taiping followers as no better than the Manchus.
Ultimately, the revolution was rejected because it was alien to the
pragmatic, tolerant nature of the Chinese people.