God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan
by Jonathan D. Spence
400 pages, 1996, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Man, it's been a while since I finished a book. I was trying to read some of the magazines that I subscribe to, and then, of course, there was my spectacular failure to get far in The Gulag Archipelago,
so it's been some time. I finally decided to move to the next book in my alphabetical list, and I was glad it was this one!
Spence is a bit of a China expert, and I read his book The Gate of Heavenly Peace
, which was about the revolution, and liked it, so I figured this would be a good read. For those of you who are weak on your Chinese history, the Taiping ("Great Peace") movement was a millenarian Christian movement led by the charismatic Hong Xiuquan in the mid-nineteenth century. Hong believed that he was Jesus' younger brother, hence the name of the book. It's a fascinating time period in Chinese history, as the Western Powers were encroaching on Chinese soil and fighting wars to force the Chinese to import opium, while the Qing dynasty, ethnically different from most Chinese, were holding onto power by the slimmest of threads while rebellions mushroomed all around them. The Taiping rebellion was the most successful of these, but even with God's blessing, it could not displace the ruling dynasty and usher in Hong's Heavenly Kingdom. It went down in flames, but not before making a huge impression on China and the way the West dealt with the Chinese.
Spence traces the roots of Hong's movement back to apocalyptic movements predating Christianity, but quickly brings us to Canton in the 1830s, where Hong Huoxiu (his given name) takes the Confucian exams that is the gateway to civil service in the vast Chinese bureaucracy and always fails them. Canton, Spence tells us, is a place where several Western powers have their trading depots, and it's a strange melange of Western thought and Chinese traditionalism. In 1836 he met Edwin Stevens, a missionary from New England, and got a hold of several Christian tracts by Liang Afa, who had attempted to distill Christian thought into a form the Chinese would understand. Hong at first didn't read the tracts, but in 1837 he fell ill and had a dream. This dream would inform the rest of his life and lead to countless deaths. In his dream, Hong goes to heaven. While there he learns that he is God's son, and Jesus is his brother. God wants him to return to earth to destroy "the demon devils" that have wrecked the world. He also has to change his name, because "quan" means "completeness," and this experience has left him complete. So Hong Huoxiu becomes Hong Xiuquan. When he woke, he initially lashed out at his family members, but eventually calmed down.
Hong's revelation lay dormant for years, and in the meantime, the British fought the Opium War. This strange war with China, forcing the Chinese to accept shipments of opium even though they tried to ban it, leads to several things, not the least of which is the founding of Hong Kong, but it also leads Hong to finally read Liang's tracts with a critical eye. As he read them, he came to believe that Liang was talking specifically about China and the situation as it now exists. The "demon devils" are obviously the ruling Manchus, foreigners from the far north, and Hong is supposed to cleanse the country of them. It all becomes clear!
Hong left his home and went west into the mountains of southern China, where he met up with some relatives and other Chinese Christians who called themselves the "God-worshipping Society." They attacked traditional Chinese gods and Confucius, and were often persecuted, but they managed to recruit several powerful families in the area to their cause, which shielded them from the worst punishment. Hong was also able to bring bandits - the Triads - into the fold, because they were also outlaws in the eyes of the Qing and the British, and were also good fighters. For several years the Taiping movement remained localized, but Hong gathered a great many people to his cause. Two men, Xiao Chaogui and Yang Xiuqing, became part of his inner circle, and Xiao began channeling Jesus and Yang channeled God. Their proclamations when they are speaking with Jesus' or God's voices became part of Taiping law. The Qing were largely disorganized in the area and Hong's power grew until he was able to challenge the army directly. He spoke of a Heavenly Kingdom where all his followers could live in peace, but he was very careful to never say exactly where this kingdom would be nor when it would come about.
In 1850 the situation changed - the Qing forces were able to root out the Taipings, and Hong was forced into action. In a great march north, he led his now large army from Guangxi province to Changsha, outwitting and outfighting the Qing but for one disaster in northern Guangxi. They were thwarted at Changsha, but they simply continued north to Wuchang on the Yangzi River, and then downriver to Nanjing. It was a spectacular campaign of coordination, covering thousands of miles and involving tens of thousands of people - men, women, and children. In 1853 the Taiping army broke in to Nanjing and founded their Earthly Paradise. It lasted until 1864.
The Taiping didn't want to stop in Nanjing. They tried to seize Shanghai, but were rebuffed by Westerners. They sent armies north to strike at Beijing, but the campaign fell apart. Hong, meanwhile, set himself up with his various sub-kings and ruled his Paradise. The Taiping, like all fundamentalist movements, wanted to control every aspect of life, and while they did not succeed throughout the areas under their control (a great swath of central China in the 1850s), they were able to dominate life in Nanjing. And, of course, the various factions began squabbling with each other. One of Hong's oldest friends, Feng Yungshan, died on the march north, and Xiao, the voice of Jesus, died outside Changsha. Yang became more and more powerful, as God spoke through him constantly, even going so far as to criticize Hong. In 1856, during a power struggle, Yang and his entire family and several thousand of his supporters were slaughtered by Wei Changhui, another sub-king, and Qin Rigang, who were in turn put to death, despite having acted under Hong's orders. Nanjing became a ghost town, as Western merchants were refused entry and commerce came to a halt. Hong did allow Westerners to visit the city, because several of the Powers - the British and the French most notably - were interested in his brand of Christianity, but they were never allowed to meet with him and they came away disgusted by his "blasphemy" of equating himself with Jesus. Finally, in 1864, after years of fighting, the Qing army was able to attack Nanjing directly. Hong had gotten ill, and passed away quietly on 1 June 1864. His son and heir, along with the last remnants of his advisers, fled the city, but they were all captured and executed. His son was not yet fifteen.
The story of Hong Xiuquan is certainly compelling, and Spence tells it with an interesting twist. While he goes over the events of the Taiping movement well enough, he is much more interested in Hong's proclamations, his relationship with God and Jesus, his hierarchy, and his exotic brand of Christianity. Therefore, the book is filled with quotes from Hong's many writings, which attempt to forge a new kind of religion from the Bible and Chinese folk religion. Hong is even more strict than the Bible, and when he reads something he doesn't like - Lot's incest with his daughters, for example - he simply excises it from the published work. Spence does a good job explaining the context of southern China in the 1830s, when Hong began his mission. Once the Taipings arrive in Nanjing, he focuses less on the political events and more on the society that Hong attempted to build and the power struggles inside the movement. It's a good way to tell the story, because even though we lose some of the exterior drama of the downfall of the Earthly Paradise, we still get a good sense of why it fell apart and how the hubris of humans - imagine that! - gets in the way of building a utopia. Another interesting thing Spence does is never comment on the actuality of Hong's visions. They are presented as fact, without irony, and Xiao and Yang are never said to be faking it when they speak with Jesus' or God's voices. It's interesting, because we in this cynical age might be tempted to tear down the artifice of Hong's vision and call it delusion, and certainly others at the time did so. Even if we think Hong was mad, Spence does not say so, and it is up to us to interpret what is going on in the mind of Hong Xiuquan and his followers. How much did they believe? How much did they claim to believe but didn't? How many of them were opportunists? Some might think this is a weakness in the book, but there's no way to tell exactly how cynical Hong and his followers were - if they were at all - so it's best to present their written statements and leave it up to us.
The book is written in a slightly jarring style - it's in the present tense, which feels weird at the beginning but becomes more natural as you read. It also ends poorly. Spence ends the book with the execution of Hong's son and then a very brief paragraph musing about the influx of Westerners into China. The Taiping movement is not placed in any historical context, which is strange, because it lasted for 20 years and dominated Chinese politics for ten. It also weakened the Manchus considerably, and forced them to turn to foreigners for assistance, which led to a whole host of other problems. It's a strange way to finish, because it leads people to believe that this entire movement occurred in a vacuum, which is untrue. It's a minor complaint, however, because the book is pretty gripping - Spence has access to Taiping documents, obviously, and we get deep into the movement and experience the rapture and the horror of this deranged - my word, obviously, because I'm cynical - man. It's a fascinating book.
If you're interested, Caleb Carr wrote a book about the Taiping movement, too: The Devil Soldier.
His book, however, is about Frederick Townsend Ward, an American mercenary who was hired by the Manchus to fight the Taiping. Ward was killed in 1862 but became a Chinese folk hero. That's an interesting book, as well.
Labels: Books, China, History, Religion, What I've been reading