A Book Review of God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan
Updated: Oct 12, 2020
“If God, the Heavenly Father, is saddened at Hong’s passing, He gives no sign. Hong’s Elder Brother, Jesus, too, is mute. And even his Heavenly Mother, who cried out with such anguish at his birth… stays silent in her realm.”
The mission of the “Taiping Rebellion” (1850-1864) in Qing China was to see an overthrow of the Manchurian government and a uniform conversion of its subjects to a unique sect of Christianity, where Hong Xiuquan would rule by divine right as the self-proclaimed brother of Jesus Christ. According to Jonathan D. Spence’s book God’s Chinese Son, Hong Xiuquan was “one of those people” who separated themselves from the judgements of humanity, and on his quest to create a paradise did not care to calculate the cost. The war he waged on the Manchu government led to the deaths of more than twenty million people.
God's Chinese Son takes a fascinating approach to examining Hong Xiuquan and his motivations for behind the establishment of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and the so-called “New Jerusalem” in Nanjing in 1851. Rather than writing a book on the military or political history of nineteenth-century China, Spence was interested in writing a book about Hong Xiuquan himself: the Taiping Heavenly King who was "caught up in the turbulent crosscurrents of Western ideas that were introduced to China during his youth" 
The Heavenly Kingdom’s origins, growth, increasing popularity in the southern provinces, its battle against the Manchurian Qing government in Beijing, and its demise are all analysed in twenty-two elaborate chapters. Spence uses a chronological structure to examine the motives behind the Heavenly King's actions and decisions even before his dream that set him on a course of destruction. He argues that the translation and circulation of Christian doctrines in China are what convinced Hong to pursue his destiny of "ridding China of the conquering Manchu demon race and lead his chosen people to their own earthly paradise".
Jonathan Spence is one of the world’s leading historians of Chinese history and was the president of the American Historical Association in 2005. He has a particular interest in Qing China (1644-1911) and their strained relationship with the West, but has written Chinese history books from the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (1661-1722) up to the Mao regime (1949-1976) and its legacy in the 1980s. He has been recognised by the New York Times as a “leading Western authority on China”. Spence adopts a beautifully clear writing style, and establishes the context and evolution of the topic of his book before analysing the event or person themselves. It is easy to wonder why he feels the need to begin his story in 1835, fifteen years before the establishment of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, but upon reaching the year 1850 in this book, one will feel that they know nineteenth century China and Hong Xiuquan well enough to read about what they think they know as the “Taiping Rebellion”.
The first two chapters of God’s Chinese Son, titled Walls and The Word respectively, detail the China that Hong would be born into: a China where the East India Company held the monopoly on trade and where foreign presence, albeit restricted, was increasing, but only in Canton (modern day Guangzhou). Through foreign missionaries such as Reverend Edwin Stevens and even Chinese Christians such as Liang Afa, “the word” of Christianity was spreading. Chapters three and four analyse where Hong grew up: from a modest background in Hua county, Guangdong province. Chapter five explores how he came to the conclusion that he was the brother of Jesus Christ, through a series of dreams that Hong himself claimed were visions granted to him by God. Through this arc, Spence reinforces the notion of Hong creating a new identity for himself after these ‘visions’. Spence uses chapters six to nine to craft a narrative of how Hong established his Heavenly Kingdom. The narrative begins with Hong Xiuquan wandering in the countryside of Guangxi and Guangdong provinces, then cultivating a large following and setting up base in “New Jerusalem”, and then the judgements: the policies and writings of the Heavenly King dedicated to establishing law and order in his new kingdom. Chapters ten to fourteen outline the Taiping's war with the Qing government. Finally, chapters fifteen to twenty-two outline the collapse of the Heavenly Kingdom, the failure of Hong Xiuquan’s mission, and his death in 1864. Spence is particularly interested in constructing this narrative to explore Hong Xiuquan’s decisions, military tactics, and motives in order to comprehend and analyse the moral justifications for the catastrophic loss of life.
Historical literature is abundant on the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Its friction with the ruling class (rather, the ruling ethnic group), is commonly known in historiography as the “Taiping Rebellion”. The name for this event has proved to be a rather tricky topic. The Qing government at the time had no issue calling it a “rebellion”. To them, the Taiping were the ‘Hairy Rebels’ due to the growth of their hair in resistance to the mandatory Manchu queue, or ‘Southern Rebels’ due to their southern origins. After the fall of the Qing in 1911, the Nationalist government called it the "Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Revolutionary Movement". It identified with the revolutionary ambitions of its founder, Dr Sun Yat-sen. Nanjing, the city renamed “New Jerusalem” as the base for the Heavenly Kingdom, became the capital of the Nationalist government. The Chinese Communist Party that seized power in 1949 also identified with the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, treating it as a liberating peasant movement. It has been known as the “Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Movement” in China ever since. Twenty-three years later, in God’s Chinese Son, Spence avoids use terms such as "rebellion", "movement", or "revolution”. He does not state his position in this debate of names at all, referring to the event as “that strange upheaval” or just “the Taiping”. It is possible that the reason for this was to maintain the clarity and focus on the man, rather than the war he waged or his army, as part of his argument that Hong Xiuquan himself must be held accountable.
The end of the twentieth century was a time when the historiography of the Taiping was beginning to change. Historians were starting to look at the Taiping differently, as Spence has done. Despite his lack of participation in the terminology debate, Spence's book makes a significant contribution to the historiography of the Taiping. He illuminates his use of Taiping texts: The Imperial Decrees of the Holy Father and The Imperial Decrees of the Holy Brother. These texts were printed in the early 1860s and are said to contain “the visions communicated by God and Jesus Christ through their Taiping followers on earth”. Spence argues that the texts of the Holy Father contain Taiping perceptions of Western visits to the Heavenly Kingdom, while those of The Holy Brother give historians insight into rural society in the 1860s. As well as the sacred religious texts of the Holy Father and Holy Brother, Spence has also highlighted the value of other primary sources such as the Taiping's battle manuals. These direct military instructions have helped historians understand the importance that the leaders of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom placed on their military tactics. Access to these sources facilitated a “fresh look" at the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom because they not been discovered until 1993, just three years before the publication of God’s Chinese Son. This new angle of Taiping historiography could be the first to explore the perspectives of the Taiping themselves, rather than its observers. He has made an impressive effort to rely almost entirely on primary sources. He has drawn his own conclusions from these sources, instead of duplicating the existing scholarship.
Here’s my take: my understanding of the "Taiping Rebellion" before reading this book was as a thorn in the Qing government's side, another event that showed how the Qing government was losing control and credibility. Spence's book is different. It narrates how the Heavenly Kingdom was established from scratch: the motives of the people involved, combined with an understanding of rural Chinese society in immense depth. The way the story of Hong Xiuquan and his Heavenly Kingdom is told suggests a history from below. It treats Hong not as an authority figure with outstanding intellect, but as another man who excluded himself from the rest of humanity to pursue "a mission given directly to him to make the world a better place".
Despite this being such a refreshing piece of historiography on the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, it is not all telling. It does not provide very much information for those who know little or nothing about the "Taiping Rebellion". I would recommend this book to someone who already has a basic understanding of the uprising and the parties involved. Spence has dedicated a part of this book to the grave financial situation that the Manchu government found itself in under the Xianfeng Emperor, but has completely separated the two sides with minimal interaction. The Manchu dynasty was indeed very fragile, but what role did the uprising of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom play in this?
Although the focus of Spence's book is to examine the motives of the Heavenly King, he has excluded the incentives of his followers. What was it that attracted people to join Hong on his quest to transform China into a paradise ready for the Heavenly Father and Heavenly Brother’s approval? He preached to farmers and migrant workers in the hills of Guangxi province in the early 1840s, but what was it that attracted these people to follow him and call him their Heavenly King? Were they desperate for change and reform themselves? Did Hong convince them that Christianity was the solution to achieving an afterlife in an eternal paradise? Spence does not say. The only thing Spence notes on Hong's followers is that even those whose loyalty to the Heavenly Kingdom was wavering would have no intention of surrendering themselves or their knowledge to the government. The government insisted on executing all veterans of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom without exception.
I got less satisfaction with my curiosity about the impact on the ethnic division and assimilation in nineteenth century China, especially in the political sphere. As Spence explains, Hong Xiuquan and his family were not Han (the majority ethnic group in China). Hong was from the Hakka ethnic group, who were given two exclusive slots in the notorious imperial examinations, which Hong failed twice. The Manchu government managed to successfully assimilate the Han in politics by giving them positions in the government. However, there is little discussion to be found surrounding the assimilation of Hakka into the Chinese court. I am curious about the role that ethnic tensions played in the "Taiping Rebellion", especially since Hong declared war on the so-called "demon Manchurian race". Spence may or may not have believed that ethnic differences played a role in the turn of events, but he does make a point of saying that even though the Hakka were not seen as outsiders or socially inferior, they lived separately from the Han. The Hakka spoke a different language and had customs of their own. For instance, Hakka women did not bind their feet, so they only married Hakka men since Han men found unbound feet unattractive.
Despite leaving some questions about "that strange uprising" unanswered, what Jonathan Spence has written is the result of skilful research and appropriate use of primary sources. The narrow focus of the book may leave some readers who are curious about other aspects of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom disappointed. However, if one were to examine the man Hong Xiuquan himself, I would strongly encourage them to read this book. It is not an overarching narrative of the events surrounding the "Taiping Rebellion" that took place. Therefore it is best suited to someone who already has a basic understanding of this event in Chinese history, wishing to go deeper into the motivation behind what Spence has described as an "apocalypse". I would also recommend this book to anyone interested in Chinese religious history: how Christian doctrines spread through western missionaries and their Chinese translations that Hong studied very carefully. The writing style is so clear and coherent that it makes this book accessible to anybody remotely interested and possesses any understanding of the Taiping whatsoever, historian or not. This well-researched, well written, and insightful book could potentially serve to identify what historians did with the new materials that became available to them in the late twentieth century.
Heidi Chapman is a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland. Her interest lies in British social and political history. Since she completed a double-major undergraduate degree in History and Chinese, her thesis is about the influence of Chinese tea in London in the eighteenth century. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.
 Spence, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, p.332.  Ibid., p.xxv.  Ibid., p.xix.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Wakeman, “Jonathan Spence Biography”. https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/presidential-addresses/jonathan-spence/jonathan-spence-biography .  The New York Times, “Sunday Book Review: Up Front”.  Spence, p.18  Mayer-Fong, What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China, p.10  Ibid., p.12  Ibid., p.13  Spence, p.xxii  Ibid., p.xxiii  Ibid.  Ibid., pp.166-167.  Ibid., p.xxiii  Ibid., p.xxv  Ibid., p.249  Ibid., p.xxiv  Ibid., p.249  Ibid., p.25  Ibid., p.xix  Ibid., p.25  Ibid., p.xxiv  Ibid., p.30