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God’s Chinese Son: The Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan
By Jonathon D. Spence
Norton, 400 pages, $27.50

China in the first half of the nineteenth century faced unusually complex problems. The ruling Qing (Manchu) dynasty was weak and internally divided. Trade contacts with the West were increasing, but the Qing government was unsure how to deal with them. The first Opium War, concluded in 1842, showed that military resistance would not succeed. Should Western trade be restricted to the coastal cities? Or should it be allowed access to all Chinese markets? And then there was the problem of Christianity. By the 1840s, Protestant missionaries (mostly Baptist, but also Anglican) were numerous and active, publishing tracts and Chinese versions of the Bible on a large scale, and distributing them freely everywhere it was legal to do so (and in many places where it was not).

These difficulties”faced by all Asian governments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries”were given special force in China by a messianic Christian revolutionary movement that, between 1851 and 1864, threatened the internal security of the country, caused millions of deaths, and was defeated only with help from the same Western powers whose missionary efforts made it possible in the first place.

This movement is usually called the Taiping (“Great Peace”) Rebellion by Western scholars, after the new dynasty-name that its leader proclaimed in 1851. In 1837, Hong Xiuquan (then called Hong Houxiu), a half-educated, lower-middle-class man with ambitions to join the Qing bureaucracy, had a dream-vision following hard upon his failure in the Confucian examinations he needed to pass in order to become a bureaucrat. He could make no sense of the vision at the time, but several years later, in 1843, he read a Christian tract produced by the Baptists that made sense of it for him: he had seen God the Father and God’s son, Jesus, and had been anointed as Jesus’ younger brother, “God’s Chinese Son.”

By 1850, thinking himself destined to found a new dynasty and to make China a new Christian kingdom, he and his followers began open rebellion against the Qing. By 1853, they had taken Nanjing, the largest city in Central China, and declared it the new capital. By that time, they had a military force of several hundreds of thousands, and had consistently proved superior to government forces in battle. They made an attempt to take the Qing capital, Peking, but failed, mostly due to Western support of the Manchus.

In the late 1850s and early 1860s the Taiping movement began to splinter, and in 1864 Nanjing fell to the Qing, Hong Xiuquan dying of unknown causes shortly before the city fell. By 1865 nothing remained of the Taiping Dynasty. It had lasted only a little more than thirteen years, but its legacy included millions of deaths and the irreversible weakening of the Qing dynasty; it also showed the way, militarily and to some extent ideologically, to the Chinese Communists half a century later.

Jonathan Spence is an historian of China with a special interest in China’s relations with the West since the sixteenth century. He is, unusually these days, also a man who knows how to tell a historical story in a way that is precise and careful while still being evocative and exciting. His earlier works, perhaps most especially The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (1984), a biographical study of a Jesuit missionary in China, show this virtue. But it is evident here to a still greater degree: this is a book likely to keep you up later at night than is healthy.

The story Spence tells is not a new one. It has been written about by scholars, Western and Chinese, almost since the events occurred. Scholars in the People’s Republic of China have devoted attention to it largely because they think of the Taipings as proto-Communists. And Westerners with interests in messianism, fundamentalism, and the history of China have written much about it. But new documentary evidence was discovered in the 1980s: written records of the heavenly visions of God the Father and of Jesus (the “Elder Brother”) accorded to Hong Xiuquan and other leading Taipings in the late 1840s and mid-1850s. And Spence’s book is the first in English to make extensive use of these sources.

The book is important even for First Things readers who have no special interest in Chinese history. It provides a detailed and well-documented analysis of what is probably the most effective Christian revolutionary movement there has ever been. Contemplation of the details of this story raises deep questions in missiology: If tracts handed out by Baptist missionaries in China contributed to the Taiping Rebellion, what does this suggest about how to propagate the gospel? At the very least it may mean that unrestricted distribution of the Bible without an institutional context and a tradition is deeply problematic.

The difficulties that the official representatives of the Western powers had in deciding whether the Taipings were Christians, and, if they were, whether this meant that they should be accorded better treatment than the official Qing dynasty, show that these were difficult questions at the time. Spence records some hilariously solemn debates among the British as to the theological significance of Hong Xiuquan’s views. Sir George Bonham, the British plenipotentiary, judged that although the Taipings were solidly grounded in the Bible, they had nonetheless “superadded thereto a tissue of superstition and nonsense.” Not many ambassadors these days would be as confident of their theological judgments as Bonham; and he almost certainly ought not to have been.

Hong Xiuquan himself appears to have been fascinated and troubled by the differences between his own construal of Christianity and those offered by both Catholic Christians in Nanjing (of whom there were about two hundred in 1851) and by the Baptist missionaries, with whom he had extensive discussions in the 1850s. He was not convinced by these discussions to alter his views significantly, but he was prompted to make a still more detailed study of the Bible than he had done to that time. Spence offers a picture of Hong between 1860“62 holed up in his palace in Nanjing, devoting many hours a day to biblical study and annotation. Hong was not above emending the text, rewriting it in light of his own assured prophetic knowledge of God’s nature and will. By Catholic Christian standards, at least, Hong’s Christology was Arian and his approach to the biblical text quasi-Marcionite.

The Taiping story reveals how easily Christianity can be used in the service of a radically revolutionary movement. Spence shows that all the usual elements associated with such movements”language reform (the proposal of a new vocabulary and the purification of an old one), social reform (drastic reconstrual of the proper relations between the sexes, redistribution of property, alteration in habits of dress and coiffure), and religious reform (complete and violent rejection of whatever orthodoxy the revolutionary movement replaces)”were present among the Taipings. But all were given an explicitly Christian justification by the Taipings, as they have also been by some Anabaptist movements.

Study of the details of the Taiping appropriation of Christianity as a justification for revolutionary reform should become a standard part of curricula in Church History. The compressed and well-documented nature of the Taiping movement, as well as its situation of relative isolation from other construals of Christianity, means that a great deal can be learned from it, more in many important ways than from study of radical reform movements in contexts that are already Christian.

Hong Xiuquan’s message, like that of St. Paul (and perhaps like that of Jesus himself), was directed at and seems to have appealed largely to nonelites. Confucian bureaucrats were not the converts; agricultural laborers and village schoolteachers were. And, as the community grew and developed in theological sophistication and institutional complexity, the means used to control disagreement and to legislate norms of conduct and belief were broadly charismatic: Hong’s chief lieutenants received visions and auditions from God the Father, or from Jesus, Hong’s elder brother. The New Testament parallels are once again obvious, and not accidental. The Taiping community did not last long enough to develop the institutional structures that came to order the Christian Church by the second century, but it can still provide a beautiful miniature case study of embryonic church formation.

Finally, there is a question here of peculiar poignancy, one that troubled the Western powers at the time and that ought trouble Christians now. Were the Taipings Christian? They baptized; they prayed in the name of Jesus; they regarded the Bible as the word of God; they believed in God as creator of all that is, as the only proper recipient of love, worship, and praise. They were not, of course, orthodox by Catholic Christian standards, but that is not quite the same thing. Considering seriously the question of whether the Taipings were Christian provides a splendid focus for the broader theological question of just what makes someone, or some group, Christian. Spence’s book could provide a very effective pedagogical focus for discussion of this question.

It is difficult to criticize God’s Chinese Son . Sinologists may have their own bones to pick, but my only cavil is that for a theologian or a historian of Christianity Spence doesn’t give enough detail about Hong’s interpretations of the Bible, or his views about worship. I would especially have liked to know more about the liturgical practice of the Taipings, since this is one of the areas that is most difficult to construct from the ground up, with the Bible as your main tool. Spence explains the Taipings’ use of baptism, and makes occasional mention of public worship, but his hints do no more than tantalize.

But in the end I have almost nothing but praise for Spence’s work. The book reads beautifully as a historical narrative. It provides a moving account of a failed attempt to understand and appropriate Christianity, one that evokes sympathy in the reader for the protagonists without minimizing the massive and horrifying violence that went with the attempt. And it avoids the reductionism so tempting to historians: Spence recognizes and gives due and proper weight to the social and economic causes of Taiping behavior, but he also understands the genuine religious and moral fervor that informed what they did.

Paul J. Griffiths is Associate Professor of Philosophy of Religion in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.