God's Chinese Son

by Jonathan D. Spence

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Jonathan Spence, an academic historian who specializes in China, offers an insightful analysis of a crucial phase of nineteenth-century Chinese history in God's Chinese Son: The Chinese Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. He analyzes numerous impacts that Christianity had on several dimensions of China’s highly diverse population.

Spence concentrates on a millenarian or messianic movement that threatened the stability of Manchu China for more than a decade. The man who became the movement’s leader, Hong Xiuquan, had studied Christianity with British Protestant missionaries in Guangzhou, an important Pacific coast port which was formerly called Canton. Dissatisfied with the social restrictions of Manchu society that kept him from advancing, Hong turned to both Christian and Buddhist philosophy. However, Hong took these teachings to an extreme degree. He experienced a vision (which he understood as divine revelation), in which it was revealed to him that he, like Jesus, was a son of God.

Spence shows that Hong was not alone in internalizing the radical teachings that Europeans had introduced to China. A combination of factors contributed to the increase of social unrest in the 1830s–1840s in southwestern Chinese territories. These factors included the Manchu restriction of European presence to the coast and the migration of thousands of people to the cities because of drought and famine. Hong’s message held a great appeal to those who, like him, experienced or felt discriminated against by the Qing ruling ethnicity.

Combining religious fervor with political and social unrest, numerous groups joined with Hong in an effort to destabilize Manchu control. Hong, declaring himself the Heavenly King, did not merely equate his lineage and status with that of the Manchu emperors; he saw himself as superior to them because he believed he was God’s son. Other followers had limited loyalty to any ideal, and were motivated primarily by financial gain. These adherents included Europeans who had left British naval service or were pirates. Spence, in his account, constructs a picture of the growth of these armed camps (supported by raids on Manchu cities) that made these alliances a real threat.

By 1850, their forces had become strong enough to take over Nanjing, a major city, which they held for several years. It even seemed possible that they might invade Beijing or Shanghai. However, the timing of Hong’s illness and death—perhaps as much as any other factor—weakened his cause and opened the gap into which Manchu forces flooded. Spence convincingly demonstrates how the factors that led to the Manchus ultimately regaining control (imposing a siege that cut Nanjing’s supplies) depended on political negotiations as well as military might; Spence also cautions against interpreting the victory of the Manchus as predetermined.

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