The Long View: God's Chinese Son

If you have ever wondered why the Chinese Communist Party was so harsh on Falun Gong, it was probably the memory of the Taiping Rebellion. That war is one of the deadliest in recorded history. Taking the low estimate, 20 million people were killed in China during the Taiping Rebellion. To put that in proportion, the low estimate for World War II is 40 million, in a world with about double the population. Except that was spread out over half the world instead of focused just in Southern China. Depending on the estimates, somewhere between 10-35% of the Chinese population was killed by famine, pestilence, or war.

I have often said that the twentieth century was a particularly horrible century, but there were hints of what was to come much earlier if only we had known what to look for. The Taiping Rebellion, like the American Civil War, was part of the dress rehearsal for the First and Second World Wars.

One significant difference with the wars of the twentieth century was the way in which the Taiping Rebellion was religiously motivated. Much like the contemporaneous Second Great Awakening in America, the Taiping Rebellion affected so many people because the religious movement underlying it was deeply popular. In a way, I think we no longer really know what a popular religious revival really looks like, and how drastically it can change society. Popularity in early twenty-first century America is something ephemeral: all the rage this week, and next week we all move on to something else. There are revolutionary movements, but they lack popular support. Imagine if the Occupy Wall Street movement had actually had the support of a broad swath of middle America, instead of mere toleration?

The Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 was a millenarian war in the literal sense of the term. Inspired and led by the visionary Hong Xiuquan, it was a campaign with the ultimate goal of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven everywhere on earth. It very nearly succeeded in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, which had ruled China since 1644. It was the most devastating conflict of the nineteenth century. The figure usually given for the number of deaths is twenty million. Most of these were civilians who died of famine or pestilence caused by the back-and-forth struggle of Taiping and Imperial Chinese forces. A large percentage, however, were casualties of battles comparable in size to those of the contemporary Civil War in America. Millenarian insurrections have not been rare in human history, and the nineteenth century was particularly rich with them. Few if any, however, have matched the Taiping in size, sophistication and degree of success.
This account of the Taiping movement by Jonathan D. Spence, a Sterling Professor of History at Yale, is a rare delight. Spence is a veteran sinologist, notable for maintaining his critical integrity in a field traditionally marred by political kowtowing. The literature on the Taiping is understandably considerable, and a book on the subject could easily become distended into a general study of Chinese culture or of millenarian movements. Spence keeps close to the narrative history, giving just enough background information on Chinese (particularly southern Chinese) folk customs and religious beliefs to make the story comprehensible. The result is an account that is objective but sympathetic to the principal figures. The book is short on analysis and uses speculation only to cover inevitable gaps in the sources. All in all, this is a very good way to cover a large subject.
In outline, at least, the history of the Taiping resembles the history of the Third Reich in its melodramatic simplicity. A prophet of humble birth had a vision. After a time of confusion and war, he formed a little cult. At first obscure, the cult suddenly became a crusading army, the Kingdom of Heaven on the march. In a few years they seized the second city of the empire and continued to expand militarily even as they established the divine order on earth. The millennium turned out to be a nightmare, however, a totalitarian state racked by bloody purges. As his competent ministers died or fled, the prophet increasingly lost touch with reality. When he died, isolated in his palace during the final siege of his capital by the resurgent forces of the old order, the Kingdom of Heaven collapsed. In China and in Europe, the drama took just over half a generation to enact.
That is the outline. This is what actually happened.
In 1836, a twenty-two year old village school teacher, then named Hong Houxiu, came to Canton from his home about fifty miles to the northwest to take the provincial civil service examination. While there, he picked up some literature being distributed by an American missionary, including translations of some of the apocalyptic texts of the Bible. By his own account, he was not much interested at the time and did not give the material more than a glance until the summer of 1843. He took his exam and failed it, something not at all unusual the first time out. [David Nivison’s fascinating biography, “The Life and Thought of Chang Hsueh-ch’eng (1738-1801)” (1966) is in large measure the tale of a very intelligent man who spent half his life failing standardizd tests.] He came back next year for a second try and failed again. He took this failure rather harder. Indeed, he became so gravely ill that his death was expected. That was when he had his first visions.
The extent to which the Taiping movement can be considered a form of Christianity has vexed the study of the subject since rumor of the movement first emerged from Guangdong Province. The content of these first visions, at least as originally reported, is more consistent with the popular Chinese supernatural than with Christianity. Hong ascends to heaven, which is ruled by a venerable old man with a golden beard. The old man has a wife and eldest son. The King of Heaven seems little different from the Jade Emperor of traditional belief, who is actually a human being who had attained immortality thousands of years before. Hong is told that he himself is this figure’s second son, and that he must return to earth to fight the unspecified “demons.”
After his visions, Hong made a slow, somewhat alarming recovery. He spoke much of his place in the cosmic hierarchy and his mission on earth. He called himself, among other things, “Son of Heaven in the Age of Great Peace.” This age is the “Taiping,” literally “High Peace.” In Chinese historiography, it could be used to characterize either notable dynasties of the past or hoped-for periods in the future. [For a general study of the pursuit of paradise in Chinese history, see Wolfgang Bauer’s “China and the Search for Happiness: Recurring Themes in Four Thousand Years of Chinese History” (1976)] Hong changed his given names to Xiuquan, to emphasize the syllable “quan,” meaning “fullness.” The change also removed the syllable “huo,” meaning “fire,” which contradicted his surname, Hong, meaning “deluge.” This latter term is familiar from popular Taoism as a metaphor for revolutionary transformation. [Note, for instance, the title of Han Suyin’s fawning biography, “The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution 1893-1954” (1972).] Eventually Hong calmed down, however, returning to his duties as a teacher and householder. He even began studying to take the provincial examinations again.
The history of China in that era did not conduce to these peaceful pursuits. The Opium War between Great Britain and the Qing government began in 1839. When it ended in 1842, western access to Chinese ports was greatly expanded and the Chinese government was humiliated. The cities of the central Chinese coast were more affected by the war than was the more southerly Canton, whose magistrate contrived to maintain an uneasy truce with the British. Nevertheless, even in Hong Xiuquan’s backcountry village, people were aware that cities had been shelled and the armies of the central government defeated. The Qing Dynasty lost face not only because it lost the war, but because the Manchu rulers, suspicious of their Chinese subjects, undertook pacification campaigns to terrorize them into continued loyalty. Complicating things for Hong was the fact that he was a Hakka, a member of an ethnic group that had migrated from north-central China about 150 years before. While considered Chinese, they were still looked at askance by the people who had been in Guangdong before them, and tended to take the brunt of ethnic and economic hostility in difficult times.
The Taiping movement is perhaps evidence for Michael Barkun’s famous thesis in “Disaster and the Millennium” that millenarian movements tend to follow catastrophes, in part because the catastrophes make the end of the existing order of things more plausible. In any event, it was in this time of persecution, of wars and rumors of wars, that Hong got around to reading the tract he had brought back from Canton in 1836.
The tract in question consisted of translations by a Chinese convert named Liang Afa, a printer by trade, of selections from Genesis, Isaiah, Matthew’s Gospel and parts of the Book of Revelation. They were accompanied with commentaries by the author, not all of them distinguishable from the biblical text. Nevertheless, the tract gave Hong the key to understanding his vision. He understood that the King of Heaven in his vision was in reality God the Father, and that his eldest son was Jesus. Further, he understood that he was Jesus’s younger brother, with a mission of his own. He was to establish the “Kingdom of Heaven,” which had been translated by the term “Taiping.” (Literally, the “Heavenly Kingdom” is “tianguo,” a term Hong also used and which eventually eclipsed Taiping as the term for his regime.) He was to do as Jesus had done: preach and teach, and drive out demons. In the beginning, at least, Hong seems to have had no notion that his path would lead to civil insurrection.
Thus, Hong’s career as a prophet really began in 1843. He preached to the people of his own village, not without success, though it cost him his teaching job for a while. He went on a journey of evangelization into neighboring Guangxi province, where he gained adherents more well-to-do than his neighbors. He returned home as his disciples spread his word into the more remote parts of Guangxi while he devoted himself to writing. In 1847 he traveled to Canton and studied for a while under the irascible American missionary Issachar Roberts, who introduced him to more of the scriptures in translation. Returning home yet again to more unsettled conditions, he headed north and east to the Thistle Mountain region of Guangxi, a poor area with a large presence of Hakkas. Between 1847 and the year 1850, when the Taiping rebellion can be properly said to have begun, something remarkable happened.
Hong’s original society of “God-worshippers” was not a very alarming organization, either doctrinally or behaviorally. It had an original liturgy, including weekly “baptisms,” and scriptures consisting of Hong’s writings and excerpts from the Bible. It enjoined a rather Confucian morality with certain Christian additions. Its theology was monotheistic, but not platonically monotheistic. Hong always insisted on the literal corporeality of God, since his visions had been of a corporeal being. He also never accepted anything like the orthodox account of the Incarnation. In terms of Chinese metaphysics, in which form and substance were a familiar antimony, it would have been perfectly possible to sinicize the Christology of the Nicene Creed by saying that Jesus was the divine substance (qi) in human form (li). Hong’s Christian sources, however, either did not think to make this distinction or did not understand it themselves. Essentially, Hong replicated the Christology of the fourth century heresiarch Arius, who held that Jesus was simply the highest of created beings. Hong’s only innovation was in designating himself as the second highest created being. Only later, when Hong had installed himself as an alternative emperor, did he come into contact with theologically sophisticated missionaries. By then his ideas and his regime had hardened, and so he called on the missionaries to conform their theology to his. This attitude did not help his relationship with the European powers based on the coast, who would eventually cooperate with the Qing regime in bringing down the Heavenly Kingdom.
In some ways, Taiping history was like the development of a normally harmless bacterium that unexpectedly rages out of control in a weakened body. Law and order were breaking down in the already remote and loosely governed regions of Guangxi in which the group flourished. This was partly an effect of the Opium Wars. The British had made great progress toward driving the powerful pirate organizations from the South China Sea, with the unanticipated result that the pirates moved up the rivers and began to terrorize the interior. Also increasingly active were the Triad Societies. These had been formed in the eighteenth century by various malcontents. In part they were a native resistance to the Qing that hoped to reestablish the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which had preceded the Qing invaders. On a more practical level, they constituted a formidable system of protection rackets. In times of disorder, they tended to descend into mere banditry. In such a situation, Hong’s new converts were not the only group organizing itself for self defense. The decisive factor in turning the Taiping from a religious group to a rebellion may have been the fact they were among the targets when the forces of law and order attempted to reassert control.
The Taiping God-worshippers had originally obeyed the injunction to “fight the demons” by instituting a campaign to stamp out pagan cults. This began modestly enough by vandalizing small Buddhist and Taoist shrines. It was this sort of activity that first brought the Taiping to the unfavorable notice of local magistrates and gentry, who began to take limited measures to control the new cult. These progressed from admonitions and appearances in court to executions and coordinated attacks against Taiping villages. As Qing armies, present in the region primarily to fight the river pirates and the Triads, increasing played a role in attempting to suppress the Taiping, the Qing Dynasty soon became the chief manifestation of the demons who had to be fought. By the end of 1850, the Guangxi bases of the Taiping were surrounded and untenable, but the movement was growing and dynamic.
Persecution of this sort was just what they expected. The process of alienation, perhaps, was not altogether different from what happened when the Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco and Firearms laid siege to the compound of the Branch Davidian cult at Waco, Texas, in 1993-94. The very fact of the enemy assault was proof that the time had come to establish the Kingdom of Heaven. Moving north along the rivers, not just an army set out to establish it, but a new millenarian nation.
To some extent, this new stage in Taiping development resembled the Long March of the Chinese Communists 90 years later. Both involved the movement of whole communities. Both were in part inspired by ideologies imported from the West and adapted to local conditions. The crucial difference is that, whereas the Long March was a strategic retreat in search of a wilderness base, the Taiping were moving from relative wilderness toward the centers of civilization. Also, the organization of the Taiping fighting forces, in contrast to those of the Communists, was based on armies described in the Chinese classics, as was the ministerial system of the government the Taiping later formed.
Less generically Chinese but more peculiarly Hakka was the role of women in Taiping society. The Hakka did not bind the feet of their women, for instance, and generally Hakka women had more autonomy than had been usual in China since the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Taiping expanded the role of women further. Women served in the army and civil service, always in their own units. Indeed, in the final stage of the Taiping state, Hong’s palace bureaucracy consisted almost entirely of women. This partial suspension of gender roles is often a feature of millenarian groups worldwide.
A related feature of Taiping discipline was the strict separation of the sexes. Except for Hong and his subordinate “kings,” strict celibacy, even between husband and wife, was supposed to be the rule until the Kingdom of Heaven was finally established. (In practice, the rule was relaxed as soon as the Taiping became more secure.) Much has been written about whether the endorsements of celibacy in the New Testament should be understood only as a provisional morality adopted by endtime communities. In the case of the Taiping, that is just what it was.
The Taiping gained in numbers and skill as they moved, becoming a formidable amphibious force. Some cities they bypassed and some they sacked. The decisive point in their strategic fortunes was their entry into the littoral of the Yangzi River. The forces of the Qing were bewildered and overwhelmed, and in the spring of 1853 Hong’s people took the great city of Nanjing. This became their capital, where they began to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Heaven on earth, as it would be so often in the 20th century, was a kind of “war socialism.” Essentially, the organization of the army was transferred to civil life, so that land was distributed and communities organized pretty much the way the army was. Traditional Chinese models of the perfect society are almost wholly agrarian; other trades are regarded as essentially parasitic. Though not ignorant of the new economic institutions being established in the coastal cities, Taiping economic measures encouraged land reform and discouraged almost everything else. In Nanjing itself and the other cities that would be firmly under Taiping control for some years, normal market activity was more or less prohibited. Nevertheless, the initial entry of the Taiping into a new area was often welcomed by the peasants, since the local gentry would flee and their humbler neighbors could divide up the refugees’ goods and land.
Although the Taiping government was in principle structured according to the ancient “Rites of Zhou,” Hong’s real ministers were five “kings” he had appointed. Although his rule was based on visions, he did not have them regularly himself. For many years, he was willing to defer to those of his associates who did. Two of his kings issued frequent shamanistic pronouncements as “the Voice of Jesus” and “the Voice of God..” On the march north, the Voice of Jesus fell silent from a sniper’s bullet, an incident that inspired the Taiping to sack their first city. The Voice of God, however, Yang Xiuqing, continued to relay rather sound divine guidance until his murder in 1856. The problem was that, as a source of continuing revelation, his position was gradually eclipsing that of the Heavenly King Hong himself. The silencing of the Voice of God instituted a period of extremely bloody internal fighting among the Taiping, by the end of which Hong had managed to rid himself not just of Yang’s supporters but also of his assassins. The problem for the Taiping movement was that, in large measure, he had also succeeded in ridding himself of any key official who was not an idiot.
After taking Nanjing, the Taiping for several years made thrusts to the south and north, but without a clear strategy. Their attempt to take Peking, for instance, actually reached the suburbs of the city. It then petered out for lack of reinforcement, and their army was annihilated. Perhaps the strangest thing about this strange period was the survival of the Qing Dynasty. The Taiping Rebellion was the largest of their problems, but not the only one. There was another popular revolt, of the Nian, going on in eastern China at the same time. Moreover, in the late 1850s the Qing government somehow contrived to fall into hostilities with the Western powers again. In 1860, an Anglo-French force actually took Peking.
The dynasty survived because of the resilience of local institutions, particularly in central and southern China. Where imperial armies were not available, local gentry would raise their own. Local initaitive of this type prevented the Taiping from making any permanent gains when they again turned their attention to their own southern homeland, and helped to raise the forces that would ultimately destroy them.
The Qing government was corrupt, cruel and obviously doomed. [As John King Fairbanks notes in his “China: A New History” (1992), the morphology of the Chinese dynastic cycle is quite real, an effect he was inclined to attribute to autohypnosis.] Such dynasties in the past had often been overturned by insurgents intent on reestablishing Confucian virtue. These insurgencies might be led by men of little education. It was normal for such movements to contain some millenarian elements. [See, for instance, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s remarks in his “Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years,” on the role of that Chinese perennial, the White Lotus Society, in the popular movement that established the Ming Dynasty.] Popular insurgents could end an incumbent dynasty and establish their own if they won over the educated gentry by manifesting the intent to reform government along traditional lines. This was precisely what the Taiping could not promise to do.
Hong had originally been merely critical of Confucian ideas in certain details. By the time the Taiping were on the march, however, he had denounced the whole Confucian canon as demonic, despite the fact his system of government was informed by his own classical education in that canon. For the local people who made traditional China work to accept the legitimacy of Hong’s dynasty, they would have had needed to jettison everything they had ever thought of as good and true. Indeed, they would have had to reject the theory of government on which their notion of legitimacy rested. A more traditional Taiping movement might have rallied all of China against the alien Manchu government. As it was, their influence extended no further than their armies, and their armies increasingly lived by pillage.
One of the ways in which the Taiping were thoroughly traditional was also one of the things that doomed them. The principle leaders of the Taiping movement, including Hong himself, had actually had a fair amount to do with European missionaries and merchants. They could distinguish one kind of foreigner from another, for instance, which was sometimes more than the Qing government could do. The foreigners in Shanghai at the mouth of the Yangzi were anxious to learn more about this new movement as soon as it established itself in Nanjing. The notion of a Christian empire in the heart of Asia was, after all, redolent of the legendary Kingdom of Prester John. Hopes were raised for the rapid evangelization of China. As it was, the French and British and Americans who made the trip up the Yangzi found a government anxious for their aid but willing to treat with them only as vassals. The notion of diplomatic equality has been a rare one in Chinese history, something resorted to only by regimes in extremis. The Taiping did not regard themselves as weak. Indeed, they may have regarded themselves as the end of history.
Negotiations did not go well. They were not aided by the campaign of one of Hong’s more enterprising generals to strike east and achieve direct communication with Shanghai. When the Taiping actually attempted to take the Chinese portions of the city in 1860, the Europeans began to fight them. Having achieved a new round of concessions from the Qing, the Europeans became their open allies. The most famous manifestation of this alliance was the “Ever Victorious Army” led by the British commander Charles Stuart Gordon. [It is interesting to note that this strange man was destined to die twenty years later at the hands of another and more successful millenarian revolt, the Mahdi’s jihad in the Sudan. For an account of the Mahdi and Gordon’s unhappy end, see Thomas Packenham’s “The Scramble for Africa” (1991).] The French, not to be outdone, supplied their own “Ever Triumphant Army,” which unlike Gordon’s force was still in the war when the Heavenly Kingdom was finally put down in 1864.
Nanjing in the final years of the regime was becoming a deserted city. Ordinary economic life had never been permitted by the Taiping within its walls, though small markets had flourished outside. However, as Qing armies and local militias moved through its hinterland, the provision of the city became more and more precarious. When the city was finally besieged, Hong was asked what the people should do in the emergency. On the basis of the Book of Exodus, he advised them to eat manna. This he interpreted to mean stray weeds that grew in the streets and waste places of the city. He began to eat this diet himself. Whether for that reason or for some another, he died on June 1, 1864. Although large Taiping forces still fought in the south, they had been unable to beak the siege. On July 19, Qing forces blasted a breach in the wall of the capital of the Heavenly Kingdom and began unsystematically putting the population to the sword. A few weeks later, Hong’s son and heir apparent, who had contrived to escape the sack of the city and make his way back to Guangxi, was captured, tried and executed.
The Taiping movement thus did not end the Qing Dynasty. Indeed, the regime entered a period of macabre “reform” that did not end until its final overthrow in 1911. However, perhaps the matter is not so simple. In all of Chinese history, the Taiping movement most closely resembles the Yellow Turban rebellion, which began in 184. Another millenarian outbreak but of purely Taoist inspiration, it aimed at overthrowing the Latter Han Dynasty, the political regime that capped Chinese antiquity in much the way that the later Roman Empire capped the antiquity of the ancient Mediterranean. Like the Taiping, the Yellow Turbans were put down. However, as was also the case with the Taiping, the regime they attacked came to an end a few decades later with the abdication of the last Han emperor in 220. A Dark Age followed. So, if you will, whereas the Yellow Turbans were a harbinger of the end of the ancient phase of Chinese history, the Taiping were a warning that the “modern” phase of the same civilization did not have long to run. What has been happening in China since then is, no doubt, part of another story.
No historically-informed American can read about the Taiping episode without a sense of the uncanny way it resonated with developments in America during the same period. The missionaries who gave tracts to Hong in the 1830s and taught him in Canton in the 1840s were moved by the fires of the contemporary Second Great Awakening in America. This strange movement of the spirit, comparable in some ways to the 1960s, would spawn the women’s suffrage and antislavery movements. It featured the Millerite Movement that so powerfully convulsed western New York State in the 1840s with the expectation of the imminent Second Coming. It sent the persecuted Mormons on a migration to found their own divinely-ordered country in the western desert of North America at roughly the same time that the Taiping were fighting to establish theirs on a crusade through central China. (Salt Lake City was founded in 1847). In the opinion of many historians, it was one of the underlying predispositions to the American Civil War itself, a conflict that from first to last had apocalyptic overtones for its participants.
Naturally, this is not to suggest that the Second Great Awakening caused the Taiping Rebellion. It is hard to think of more peculiarly American phenomena than the Awakenings, phenomena dependent for their gestation on local culture and history. [For an assessment of the role of the Awakenings in American history, see William Strauss and Neil Howe’s “Generations” (1991).] Still, we are presentd here with the sort of cross-cultural parallel that makes it hard to explain history as the determinsitic outcome of concrete conditions. Rather, as in cases of “parallel evolution” in biology, we seem to be dealing with a kind of accident that actively seeks for places to happen.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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