God's Chinese Son

by Jonathan D. Spence

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The novel God's Chinese Son by Jonathan D. Spence is written in the present tense, eschews a scholarly tone in favor of simple language, and succeeds in presenting a vivid description of the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-nineteenth century.

Reverend Edwin Stevens is an ordained minister, a student of the New Haven Theological Seminary, who has arrived in Qing China as the chaplain of the American Seaman’s Friend Society. He devotes his days to missionary work in and around Canton, preaching to foreign sailors and the local Chinese.

William Milne is a Scottish Protestant missionary who translates the Bible into Chinese. He insists that his employees attend his sermons, regardless of their religious persuasions. He introduces Liang Afa to Christianity and later on baptizes him.

Liang Afa, born in 1789, is a practicing Buddhist who carves wooden printing blocks for a living. His employment under Milne and exposure to the Bible leads to his eventual conversion to Protestantism. In 1814, he first publishes the Chinese Monthly Magazine, a journal aimed at spreading the Gospel among the local populace. Liang Afa moves to Malacca with his family after being arrested in Canton for distributing religious tracts.

Hong Xiuquan is the titular Chinese son of God, and the architect of the Taipeng Rebellion against the Qing dynasty. Hong's reading of the Chinese translations of missionary religious tracts convinces him that he is the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He leads the Taiping Heavenly Army to victory against the imperial forces, even conquering Nanjing, but fails to run over Peking.

Luo Dagang is a pirate who joins the Taiping army. He offers valuable expertise in naval warfare and the use of waterways to move supplies. His river fleet plays an important role in the siege of Yongan. He stands out as an enterprising and skillful commander, especially during the siege of Guilin.

Yang Xiuqing is a Hakka charcoal burner who is also a medium. For the soldiers of the Taiping Army, he is the voice of God. He commands the left flank of the defensive Taiping formation during the siege of Jintian. The followers of the Heaven-and-Earth society rely heavily on God's words delivered by Yang when he's in a trance.

Xiao Chaogui is an impoverished Hakka farmer who also serves as a medium or an intermediary between Jesus and Hong's followers. Xiao uses his eloquence and unique gift to steer the Taipeng army's actions towards favorable results. Through him Jesus opines on the worthiness of fresh recruits.

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