The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   59

God's Chinese Son

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan

by Jonathan D. Spence

NY: W. W. Norton, 1996
The last two centuries have been the golden age of millenarianism, of mass movements founded on the imminent overthrow of the existing order of the world, and its replacement by something Much Better, the humbling of the mighty and the powers that be, the arrival of a new heaven and a new earth. The reason is not hard to seek. If we are to believe the historians and sociologists of millenarianism, merely being miserable and oppressed does not make one particularly susceptible to such ideas. Rather, those most likely to contract it are those whose traditional and expected lives, however unpleasant and unpromising, have been disrupted and destroyed, the rootless and the uprooted. The Industrial Revolution produced plenty of such people in Europe and North America, but the really productive regions, which millennia and messiahs swept like brushfires or (more precisely) epidemics, were the countries Europe was conquering, many of which had never been exposed to millenarian ideas before the arrival of missionaries protected by rifled guns. The names of these movements --- sometimes for the Europeans and sometimes against, sometimes peaceful, often violent, occasionally noble, typically hare-brained and fanatic, not infrequently self-destructive --- form a sort of litany of doom, for they were all defeated: the Ghost Dance, the Cargo Cults, the Mahdists. One remarkable movement, among the Xhosa of southern Africa, reasoned that it made no sense to conserve resources with the Apocalypse upon them, and accordingly slaughtered the cattle, on whom their livelihood depended, for great religious feasts. (The argument was revived, without credit to the Xhosa, by President Reagan's secretary of the interior James Watt.)

The greatest of all the millenarian movements provoked by the rise of the west (leaving aside the Bolsheviks) was also the culmination of the two thousand year old Chinese tradition of millenarian revolts (leaving aside the Maoists): the Taiping Rebellion. It nearly overthrew the Qing dynasty, convulsed China for fourteen years and left millions dead. It was the fruit, essentially, of a man named Hong Xiuquan, into whose hands a collection of Protestant tracts was pressed one day in the 1830s in Canton, where he had gone to fail the examinations yet again.

Hong was the younger son of a poor farming family from the mountains north of Canton, member of a linguistic and quasi-ethnic minority in the region called the Hakka, in whose academic, and so bureaucratic, career his family and much of the rest of the village had invested. After failing the provincial examinations four times, he took up the normal career of the failed candidate, namely teaching school in his home village. He fell ill for several days and dreamt or hallucinated that he ascended to Heaven, met his Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother, Heavenly Elder Brother and Heavenly Wife. Hong was enlisted by his Heavenly Father and Heavenly Elder Brother in a campaign to drive the ``demon devils'' (doubtless it sounds better in Chinese) from the lower reaches of Heaven and annihilate them upon the Earth.

Hong recovered; nobody having any idea of what to make of his visions, he went back to teaching. Somewhat later a relative, another failed examinee, turned up the Christian tracts and borrowed them. This person read them with attention and eagerly pressed them upon Hong, who absorbed them and tried to fit them into his visions (his Heavenly Father was of course Jehovah; his Heavenly Elder Brother, Jesus Christ). They converted, baptized each other, and started preaching and baptizing; indeed, they went to Canton to get baptized by a proper Protestant preacher (an American missionary), who at the last minute turned Hong down, perhaps because it had come out that Hong regarded himself as, literally, the younger brother of Jesus Christ. (Hong tells us in detail about Jehovah's beard, eyes, chin, etc.)

The two set off on preaching tours, leaving behind Hong's earthly wife, and traveled several hundred miles to another mountain district, even poorer, more isolated, and more full of Hakka. Here the new cult, known as the God-Worshiper Society, took off like wildfire, despite-and-because (in the usual way of successful cults) of opposition from the local gentry and the magistrates --- temples to ``demons'' were smashed up and (a very Chinese touch) victory poems inscribed on their walls, apostles arrested and broken out of jails, etc. In a region called Thistle Mountain, some of the converts started speaking in tongues (or near enough), and others to have visions and, supposedly, speak in the name and voice of the Heavenly Father and the Heavenly Elder Brother. (Nobody has really ever figured out for sure if the possessed were sincere, but most historians are inclined to doubt it.) Hong started preaching about Taiping Tienguo, the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, using a first person singular pronoun reserved for the Emperor, and even presumed, in secret, to wear yellow robes.

The inevitable happened (as it will), and when, in 1850, the authorities moved to suppress the God-Worshipers, or Taipings as they were now known, open revolt broke out. The war in the original province was confused --- the Taipings won some important battles, lost others, couldn't hold the territory and couldn't be put down, either. They established separate men's and women's camps, with strict penalties for improper conduct, and what was perhaps the first set of front-line women soldiers in the world, doubtless helped by the fact that the Hakka did not practice foot-binding. (I would dearly love to see one of those annoying lumpen-feminist books about patriarchy and war which took account of this, or of the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War.) Instead of being smashed like sensible rebels, they broke out of the province and took their attack down the Yangzi, crushing everything in their path and absorbing thousands if not millions of recruits, until they took Nanjing and came almost to the European-controlled city of Shanghai. Nanjing and environs were declared to be the Heavenly Kingdom pro tem., until the ``foreign devil dogs'' (i.e. the Manchus, the Qings, and not the Europeans) could be driven out of Beijing. They nearly were; the foreign powers in Shanghai all sent their consuls up-river to Nanjing, and perhaps if the Taiping theology had been a bit less heretical, the initial European enthusiasm for a Christian Chinese movement would have turned into European military aid, and the successful overthrow of the dynasty.

As it was, it took the better part of two decades to end the revolt, and the Qing were forced to desperate measures. Some of these --- employing foreign mercenaries, and Chinese units trained and led by foreigners, such as the Ever-Victorious Army under Charles ``Chinese'' Gordon; letting the local gentry set up their own armies; etc. --- contributed materially to the eventual overthrow of the dynasty, and indeed the dissolution of the empire, at least until its restoration in 1949. (The Communists look upon the Taipings as predecessors, without any noticable continuity of doctrine.) The Taipings were, nonetheless, quite thoroughly crushed; Hong was never captured, but died of an illness on 1 June 1864. His son and heir went into hiding, was captured, repented, and was executed.

It's very hard to admire the Taipings, and I won't make the effort. They were fanatics and they were absurd, their redeeming features more than outweighed by such charming practices as branding Taiping Tienguo on the faces of conscripts to prevent their desertion (as happened to the maternal grandfather of the philosopher Hu Shih, who was much more successful in helping modernize China; he had, after all, gone to Columbia University for a doctorate.) Yet stories like theirs --- of the amazing actions performed by desperate people in the grip of bizarre ideas --- form a large part of the story of our times. To ignore such convulsions is to falsify our own view of the world, to say nothing of showing disrespect to immense tragedies. Twisted and terrible, the Taiping and their spiritual kindred deserve to be remembered; they, at least, have at last found their chronicler.

xxix + 400 pp., black and white illustrations, maps, end notes, bibliography, index
China / Millenarianism / Modern History
Currently in print as a hardback, US$27.50, ISBN 0-393-03844-0, and as a paperback, US$15.95, ISBN 0-393-31556-8, LoC DS 758.23.H85 S64
Thanks to Jon Fetter
17 September 1998