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...
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