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God’s Chinese Son

March 20, 2010

Jonathan D. Spence. God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Zhou Guanghui (2003)

In this book, Jonathan Spence attempts to reexamine the uprisings of China’s Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a millenarian religious movement inspired by Christianity, and the intellectual development of its leader, Hong Xiuquan. As with many of his other books, the author entertains his readers with lovely details and dramatic narrative. However, despite the inclusion of newly discovered texts from the British Library in his analysis, for those who are already quite familiar with the history of the Taiping rebellion, this book falls short of providing breakthrough research. As the author happily admits, many of the arguments are built on other scholars’ work concerning almost every major aspect of the movement. For this reason, even the new texts, though useful, might not be expected to give a fresh look at the Taiping movement.

Yet, for curious readers, the author might have offered at least some explanation about the new materials beyond that offered in the “Foreword.” What kind of new documents have been found? What are their contents? How do they differ from the already known ones? And with respect to the author’s central concerns, what can they reveal about Hong’s religious thought? In sum, an evaluation of the new texts would be very helpful in understanding their relevance to Hong’s mind and the Taiping rebellion.

In this book, the author focuses on the intellectual development of Hong Xiuquan, and seeks to understand “how it could be that this particular man had such an astounding impact on his country for so many years.” Hong Xiuquan loomed large among the Taiping rebels. There is no doubt that Hong was one of the most important leaders of the Taiping movement, and his strange dreams and interpretations of Christianity fascinate many scholars. Yet, the relationship between the mind of Hong Xiuquan and the movement he inspired is quite complicated. To answer the author’s question, one has to first assume that Hong, in many important matters, really played a central role and that it is possible to distinguish Hong’s ideas from those of other Taiping leaders. Secondly, one has to assume that it was mainly Hong’s ideas that inspired other people. However, during the first period of the movement before the outbreak of internecine struggle, Hong did not usually involve himself in “practical” matters. Yang Xiuqing and Xiao Chaogui often spoke for Hong, and presumably imposed their own ideas upon the Taiping movement.

Various other social elements were attached to the Taiping movement, but they were not necessarily attracted by Hong’s religious tenets. The gap between the sermonizer and the audience is another problem. How did the followers understand Hong’s religious messages? What variations existed among the interpretations? What should we make of the important fact that when Hong resumed everyday power and tried to unify the competing meanings within his Christian teachings after 1958, he began to alienate many of his followers?

To understand Hong’s mind and its relation to the Taiping movement, then, one also needs to understand Hong’s social and economic ideals, the counter-ideals proposed by his opponents, and their influence upon changes in Hong’s thought and action. Yet the author, while paying great attention to Hong’s religious concerns, actually provides little understanding of them.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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