Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2491
Lasting a decade and a half and costing in excess of twenty million Chinese lives, the mid-nineteenth century Taiping Rebellion stands as one of the most devastating civil wars the world has ever seen. Its desolation of entire counties in China’s rich Yangzi valley provinces stunted that country’s economic and societal development and weakened the central government to the advantage of provincial military leaders. More than any other conflict, the Taiping Rebellion signaled that the peaceful and prosperous era of eighteenth century China was but a distant memory. It also foreshadowed the bitter internecine clashes and struggles that would beleaguer China throughout much of the twentieth century.
God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan builds upon a considerable body of existing research on the Taiping “Heavenly Kingdom,” yet caters to the general reader by relegating the scholarly apparatus to the endnotes and bibliography. Acclaimed historian Jonathan Spence uses the present tense and an engaging prose style to make the book read more like a vivid assemblage of eyewitness accounts than a dry chronology of facts and events. Spence’s balanced portrayals of Hong Xiuquan and other key historical figures on both sides of the struggle evince both sympathy for their strivings and criticism of their excesses.
Hong Xiuquan was a provincial Cantonese from a village about thirty miles north of Guangzhou (Canton), Guangdong Province’s largest city and, until 1842, China’s only trading port legally open to Western merchants. This crossroads of Chinese and Western culture proved to be a catalyst for a hybrid millenarian ideology that would foster a doggedly entrenched mass rebellion against the Manchu Qing court and its local officials and soldiers.
As Hong repeatedly failed the Confucianist civil service exams, his resentment took the form of a strong interest in the rival religious system of Christianity brought to Guangdong and other predominantly southeastern regions by Western missionaries. Hong was drawn to Protestantism’s emphasis on personal religious experience mediated by one’s own language or dialect and not dependent upon priestly intervention; no organized priesthood subservient to Rome or elsewhere could effectively deny any religious vision he might have. Nor would Hong defer readily to Protestants; the Baptist missionary Issachar Roberts delayed his planned baptism of Hong, expressing doubts about the Chinese convert’s religious sincerity, but Hong never doubted himself, abruptly walking away from Roberts to preach in his own way and on his own terms. Hong Xiuquan even convinced many highly educated Chinese like his cousin Hong Rengan of the authenticity and significance of the former’s hallucinatory vision of 1837 in which God recognized Xiuquan as Jesus Christ’s younger brother and exhorted him to extirpate China’s unbelieving “demon devils” (not explicitly identified as the Manchus and their followers until a dozen years later in 1849).
Like many Hakkas, or “guest people,” whose ancestors had migrated south to China’s southernmost provinces considerably later than the original Han Chinese inhabitants of Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces, Hong Xiuquan resented what bordered on second-class status for the Hakkas and became interested in nonmainstream religious movements such as Christianity and moralistic folk Buddhism. Spence convincingly shows how the millenarian and moralistic beliefs in these two religions strongly resonated with one another, making Hong’s doctrinal claims much less exotic to his provincial revival-goers than they would have sounded to Confucian literati who tended to dismiss folk Buddhism as mere superstition.
Anti-Manchu secret societies, such as the Heaven-and-Earth Society and the Triads, also formed an organizational base for many Hakkas, who along with the Hong’s “God- worshipers” formed the major nucleus of his increasingly militant millenarian movement. The movement’s ranks swelled even further with the addition of erstwhile bandits and pirates yearning for a more secure existence in the wake of Manchu bandit suppression campaigns and the British navy’s destruction of key coastal pirate lairs. Other new Taiping converts included destitute and desperate provincials who were fleeing famine and social unrest for the subsistence and relative safety they could find among the God-worshipers’ camps.
The turning point of the God-worshipers’ transformation from unruly but basically harmless bands of religious zealots into a self-proclaimed army fighting against the Manchus to establish a Heavenly Kingdom occurred in the winter of 1849-1850. Two prominent adherents were arrested by the local authorities in 1849 on trumped-up charges, and the tactics of appeals for clemency, arguments for the imprisoned men’s innocence of any substantial wrongdoing, and generous bribes to magistrates and jailers no longer proved as efficacious as they had in the past. Both of the imprisoned God-worshipers soon died from mistreatment in jail; Hong Xiuquan and his followers vowed that the time for “patience and humility” in responding to government suppression was over. By the early months of 1850, the four Hakka- dominated bases for the God-worshipers in Guangxi were being described as “army” encampments that needed to be stockpiling guns and gunpowder with as much urgency as they had been storing up grain against threats of government siege for some time. Now styling himself the Taiping Heavenly King, Hong wrote a poem likening himself to the founders of the Han and Ming dynasties, and began to wear the yellow robes traditionally reserved for emperors alone. It was at the end of this fateful year that the first Manchu government officer died in combat with the Taipings, resulting in a tough policy of suppression.
The year 1851 witnessed the Manchu government’s first concerted military campaigns to search out and destroy the Taipings, whose Heavenly Kingdom was officially founded in March. A few years passed before the Taiping armies and their generals were able to conquer a major walled city and defend it from Manchu sieges for years on end. The Taipings quickly learned the techniques of one type of warfare after another, however, showing themselves equally adept at besieging the enemy’s cities, staving off the enemy’s sieges, and breaking out of enemy encirclement. Whenever the Manchu forces appeared to be getting the upper hand in their struggle with the Taipings, the latter would elude catastrophic defeat via an end run or a strategic pullback, and manage to regroup somewhere less perilous. The Taipings also became proficient at transporting their army and its attached civilian population by land and by river, simply requisitioning the boats and carts they needed while moving from city to city. They conquered and occupied their first sizable walled city in September that year (Yong’an in Guangxi), although they were shortly forced to abandon it because of Manchu encirclement tactics. Unable to conquer either the major walled cities of Guilin in Guangxi or Changsha in Hunan, the Taipings simply cut their losses and broke out of Manchu lines to the north. Hubei Province’s great river ports of Hankou, Hanyang, and Wuchang fell to the Taipings’ quick and relentless assaults early in 1853, and later that year they conquered their biggest prize of all, the downstream port of Nanjing, which they made the capital of the Taiping Heavenly Country (literally, “Great Peace Heavenly Country”).
At the fullest extent of their power, Taiping armies controlled most of the crucial Yangzi River valley, fought to within a hundred miles of the Manchu capital at Beijing, and were poised to conquer or at least lay waste to China’s major commercial hub of Shanghai. By 1864, however, the remaining Taiping generals were either busy foraging for desperately needed grain supplies or else trying in vain to break the tightening Manchu blockade around Nanjing, which finally fell to the Qing siege in mid-July.
Spence’s study highlights a number of factors which contributed to the Taiping debacle. Instead of setting up a viable and regularized system of justice and law, the Taiping leaders preferred to handle such matters along the arbitrary lines of frontier or rebel justice, in which summary execution was typically meted out to the accused before evidence could be weighed and sifted in any systematic manner. Many of the European mercenaries who fought for the Taipings in the early 1850’s departed in disgust over the plethora of indiscriminate beheadings during the middle of that decade, and the various provincial armies allied with the Qing against the Taiping included huge numbers of Taiping deserters and peasants who resented the Taipings for their harshness in conscripting coolie labor and confiscating village grain supplies. The Taipings’ edicts that forbade private trade in Nanjing and elsewhere helped prevent the economic recovery of war-ravaged areas and encouraged the widespread military confiscation of foodstuffs and other essential products, which was certainly a heavy blow to the region’s agricultural economy.
Hong Xiuquan and his right-hand king Yang Xiuqing seemed to ignore the egalitarian ideals they once preached when later cloistering themselves in luxurious palaces thronged with concubines, where the trappings of power and abstruse squabbles over theology distracted them from the more practical matter of improving long-term security and prosperity for their kingdom’s subjects. For example, the Taiping rulers isolated their kingdom when rebuffing various European offers to regularize trade and diplomacy; the Taipings insisted on impossible preconditions that foreigners first break off relations with the Qing dynasty “demon devils” and follow the archaic tributary model of coming forward as a vassal nation of the overlord Taiping Kingdom. Not surprisingly, British, American, and other Western troops primarily fought against the Taipings when not maintaining a wary neutrality. However difficult Westerners may have found Qing officials to deal with at times, at least the latter did not claim to be infallible mouthpieces of God who enjoyed a monopoly on the truth. Even Western missionaries who initially were favorably disposed toward the Taipings generally came away disappointed, if not disgusted, at the Taiping kings’ dogged adherence to what seemed heretical religious dogma, not to mention the draconian manner in which the kings’ commandments were often enforced.
Foreign disapproval of the Taipings, however, was a very small factor in their demise compared to the internecine struggle that swept through the Taiping capital in the mid-1850’s. As Hong Xiuquan’s absorption with theology and the pleasures of his palace caused him to cede more and more control over military planning and day-to-day administration to his chief lieutenant, East King Yang Xiuqing, Yang came to have the ambition that his position as de facto chief of the realm be recognized with a title that put him on par with Hong. The fact that Yang was behaving more and more like an emperor and had sent all three of the Taiping generals most loyal to Hong on suspiciously distant military campaigns strongly implies that he was planning a coup to oust Hong. Ever since the death of West King Xiao Chaogui during a battle in 1852, Yang was the only other surviving Taiping king aside from Hong who regularly claimed to be serving as a direct mouthpiece of part of the Holy Trinity; Yang was thus uniquely qualified to serve as both the spiritual and temporal leader of the Taipings.
Hong astutely preempted Yang’s coup plot by secretly ordering his three most loyal generals to return with stealth and set a trap for seizing Yang. Two of Hong’s most zealous generals returned earlier than expected and managed to trap and kill Yang before he could flee or stage a counterattack. Yet the generals went on to conduct a bloody rampage, indiscriminately killing all of Yang’s family members, concubines, servants, and clerks in his palace. Moreover, with Hong’s blessing, the two generals used a ruse to trap the several thousand retainers still loyal to Yang who had managed to avoid the first bout of killings and massacred them all in turn, striking terror into much of Nanjing’s population during the process.
When the third general, Shi Dakai, finally returned to Nanjing, he was so shocked at these brutal excesses that he criticized the two generals for unnecessarily creating divisions among the Taipings and thereby indirectly aiding the Qing enemy. The two generals furiously countercharged that Shi Dakai must have been a Qing spy himself to say such things, and proceeded to massacre Shi’s wives and children and hunt down Shi himself. More fortunate than his murdered family members, Shi managed to escape from Nanjing, outside of which he assembled a huge Taiping army a hundred thousand strong; he threatened to attack Nanjing unless the two severed heads of the murderous generals were brought to him. Hong Xiuquan managed to arrange just that, thereby averting what might have been a suicidal, full-blown conflagration in Nanjing. The bloody coup shocked and demoralized the Taiping faithful, however, and the loss of literally dozens of capable military leaders and thousands of elite troops and loyal followers was a heavy blow from which the Heavenly Kingdom never fully recovered.
Spence insightfully notes that as the Taipings’ military and economic prospects became more and more bleak in the early 1860’s, the leaders’ claims of bringing messages from divine sources dwindled to nothing. As famine conditions worsened in 1862, Hong Xiuquan’s noble gesture of joining his subjects in supplementing their meager grain rations by gathering purportedly edible weeds led to the pathetic aftermath of a serious illness that finally killed the Heavenly King on June 1, 1864. His fourteen-year-old son, the Young Monarch Tiangui, ruled for only six weeks until having to escape from rampaging Manchu troops that had finally broken through Nanjing’s formidable wall defenses. In spite of fleeing afar, shaving off his hair, and disguising himself as a farm laborer, Tiangui was captured by Qing troops in October. He begged to be released, arguing that he never shared his father’s ambition to become an emperor and had no greater ambition than “to study quietly at the Confucian classics and try to gain the lowest degree, that of licentiate.” Tiangui was probably oblivious of the irony of requesting to follow the very path his father had once taken for many years until resentfully rejecting it for more exalted callings. The young man’s execution in November, 1864, marked the pathetic end of Hong Xiuquan’s short-lived imperial line, but the Taipings’ eagerness to countenance the destruction of millions of lives as a small price to pay for building a brave new political order would reappear in a twentieth century Chinese regime that has proudly apotheosized the Heavenly Kingdom as its revolutionary precursor.
Sources for Further Study
America. CLXXV, August 17, 1996, p. 62.
American Spectator. XXIX, April, 1996, p. 69.
Asiaweek. XXII, April 5, 1996, p. 15.
Commonweal. CXXIII, August 16, 1996, p. 24.
First Things. LIV, June-July, 1996, p. 46.
Los Angeles Times. February 23, 1996, p. E4.
New Statesman and Society. IX, May 24, 1996, p. 38.
The New York Review of Books. XLIII, February 29, 1996, p. 39.
The New York Times. January 24, 1996, p. B5.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, February 4, 1996, p. 6.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, November 27, 1995, p. 62.
The Times Literary Supplement. October 25, 1996, p. 4.
The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXII, Summer, 1996, p. 80.
The Wall Street Journal. January 5, 1996, p. A7.
The Washington Post Book World. XCII, January 21, 1996, p. 1.
The Wilson Quarterly. XX, Winter, 1996, p. 85.