God's Chinese Son

by Jonathan D. Spence

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The book’s subtitle, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, presents the concept underlying a nineteenth-century Chinese millenarian movement that is generally known as the Taiping Rebellion. At its height, the followers ruled what the declared a separate country, based in Nanjing.

Hong Xiuquan, the movement’s leader, understood his challenge to Manchu rule as based in a divine mandate more than political opposition. After studying Christianity with Protestant missionaries in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), Hong took to heart the central message of direct personal religious experience. His campaign against nonbelievers grew out of a vision identifying him as the younger brother of Jesus or, as Jonathan Spence’s title indicates, another son of God. From 1837, when he had the vision, through the early 1860s, Hong inspired thousands of Chinese followers to reject Manchu rule and Confucianism. Part of his movement’s wider appeal, Spence notes, was the mixture of Buddhism into his iconoclastic Christian beliefs.

Spence traces the general history of Qing dynasty China from the eighteenth century through the period of rebellion, especially in the southern region. He points out that foreign and modern influences gained strength around Guangzhou because it was the country’s only port open to foreign trade. It is no accident, he argues, that a Southern Chinese man should spearhead this type of movement, as many so-called “Hakkas” who had migrated to the south were discriminated against and socially marginalized. Receptive to religious and social philosophies that support the downtrodden, they found Christianity especially appealing. Several other contemporary anti-Manchu societies also operated in secret. Widespread poverty swelled their ranks, as supporters established camps—some growing into small cities—financed through activities such as banditry and piracy. They also acquired European supporters, some former mercenaries who passed on their military training.

Through the late 1840s and 1850s, these movements gained strength, fueled by outrage over the arrest and death of two prominent leaders. In 1850, Hong took the honorific Taiping Heavenly King, claiming legitimacy equal to that of the emperor, and endorsing violent resistance. In attacks that grew in size and boldness, they attacked and took over numerous cities, sometimes just briefly, before conquering Nanjing in 1853 and declaring it the capital of a new country.

Controlling the Yangzi River valley from this base, they fought government troops within 100 miles of Beijing and were on the verge of attacking Shanghai. The Manchu naval blockade of Nanjing ultimately proved effective. Government forces retook the city in July 1864, which spelled the movement’s end. By then, Hong had retreated from political leadership into philosophical studies, which further fractured the movement’s leadership. Competition for the top position among several generals led to violent infighting, worsened still when Hong died in June 1864. After Nanjing fell, his teenage son Tangui, the throne’s ostensible heir, was executed in November of that year.

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