Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 640
Jonathan Spence interprets a turbulent period in Chinese history. Beginning in the 1830s, as Europeans crowded into the city of Canton (Guangzhou) after the British monopoly on trade had been ended, he relates how Christian missionaries gained converts among the Chinese. One of them, Hong Xiuquan, took the teachings to heart in an unprecedented way. He came to believe that he was another son of God, like Jesus Christ, and declared a new Heavenly Kingdom. This belief set him upon a path that gained thousands of followers, generated tremendous violence that lasted for more than a decade.
Spence first describes the European lifeways and limited area where they lived in Canton. Europeans were not allowed to live in the interior, although many did so illegally. There were also severe restrictions on Chinese learning English and vice versa. Spence describes how the few people literate in both languages held an advantage, and the diverse machinations people used to circumvent the restrictions. As the missionaries’ presence increased, learned Chinese began writing and printing Biblical texts in Chinese.
Liang Afa was an expert at the printing and distribution of tracts . . . Liang . . . roam[ed] the countryside around Canton . . . handing out as many as seven thousand Christian tracts on a single journey . . . [H]e began to hand out his tracts near the [civil service] examination hall in Canton city . . . In no other place in southeast China could one find a larger gathering of Chinese of proven education and of potential influence in their country’s life.
One of those potential civil servants was Hong Huoxiu. He is from a family of “Hakkas,” “guest people,” a Cantonese term for recent migrants from other parts of China. He soon receives one of Liang Afa’s pamphlets and meets missionary Edwin Stevens. When he reads the first tract, he sees the name of Yahweh written as Ye-huo-hua in Chinese transliteration, and is immediately struck by the fact that part of his name, “huo,” is that of this foreign god.
There in the table of contents is the Chinese character for Hong’s own name . . . The literal meaning of Hong’s name is “flood,” and the entry says the waters of a Hong have destroyed every living thing upon the earth . . . This destruction was ordered by Ye-huo-hua, the god who created all living creatures . . . So Hong shares this God’s name. There is flood, there is fire.
Thus Spence interprets the beginning of Hong’s fascination, and subsequent conversion and revelation. As Hong takes, and fails, the civil service examination, he turns increasingly to Christianity, but molds it to his own vision of divinity, encouraged by a vision telling him that he is God’s son.
The Taiping Rebellion that Hong led pulled in Chinese and Europeans alike. They wreaked severe political havoc that threatened to destabilize the Manchu empire. They created a stronghold at Nanjing, where Hong ruled as Heavenly King. The Manchus ultimately managed to quash Hong’s rebellion, in part by laying siege and starving them Heavenly Kingdom’s residents. When the situation became dire, while acknowledging that the people had no food, Hong insisted that God would provide “manna” enough for them to survive this ordeal; No one knew exactly what manna was, so the Heavenly King prepared it himself, one general later reported. Hong
“ . . . collected all sorts of weeds, which he made into a lump and sent out of the palace, demanding that everyone else do likewise, without defaulting. He issued an edict ordering that the people act accordingly, and everyone would have enough to eat.” Thereupon the Heavenly King began to eat the clotted weeds within his palace.
Their situation was soon further weakened by Hong’s death, causing division in the ranks and widespread desertion. Nevertheless, the impact opened a crack that contributed to the Manchus’s downfall about fifty years later.