“The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom” only lasted about 14 years (1850-1864), but by the time of its demise, much of China had been ravaged, almost 20 million people had perished, the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty had nearly been toppled, and “one of China’s most remarkable megalomaniacs” had tarnished the name of Christ almost beyond repair.
But why spend the time to follow this tragic story, with all its macabre detail and inevitable denoument in the ashes of a city once called “The Heavenly Kingdom”? Do we not have other, more pressing matters to investigate and understand? Maybe, but maybe not.
This carefully-researched and elegantly-written work helps us understand why the Christian church in China under the Communists has faced unremitting government surveillance (at best) and sometimes brutal persecution.
After all, the Taiping rebellion seems to stand in the long line of religiously-inspired destructive movements that have threatened stability. Most have been Taoist or Buddhist, but the “Christian” flavor of this 19th-century insurrection might not seem, to the Chinese leaders at least, far different from the religious agitation so crucial to the American Revolution, the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, and numerous Christian-inspired revolts and resistance movements around the world today. (2)
Indeed, rulers in Beijing need look only at the role of the Taiwan Presbyterian Church in the rise of the Taiwan independence movement, and the raging passions connected with the March, 2004, election on that island, to see what can happen when “Christians” identify their particular political cause with the Kingdom of God. To a government obsessed with control and aware of history , the huge potential for religiously-motivated unrest will never be irrelevant.
The dreams, visions, heretical pronouncements, and virtual self-deification of Hong provide insight into the rapid, widespread, and very dangerous spread of sects and cults on the fringes (and sometimes at the heart) of the house church movement in China today. Like other such leaders, Hong claimed to have had visions and dreams of God, and even to have ascended into heaven itself. His right-hand-man passed on direct communication from God and from Jesus. Understandably, this translated into extclaims to infallibility and totalitarian authority, familiar to us in from many other movements – the Mormons, Jim Jones cult, Branch Dravidians, newer Pentecostal movements such as the largest one in Brazil, and even – according to Protestants - the Roman Pontiff.
In each case, though the Bible receives official prestige as the source of authority and even of laws regulating life’s minutest activities, the ultimate arbiter of orthodox belief and behavior can be found in the person in charge of the movement. But is this all that different from the religious and ideological orthodoxy over which the Emperors, and most recently the Communist Party, have always presided?
Again, the authoritarian (though not the religiously-delusional) aspect of Hong’s leadership style resembles that of the hated Qing “devils” he was trying to exterminate, as well as the Communist Party today.
The book also contains much valuable insight into 19th-century Chinese political, religious, and social life. As part of the background to Hong’s movement, Spence describes for us the idolatrous religion which the “God-worshipping society” sought to extirpate from Chinese life. His narrative necessarily paints a vivid portrait of the foreign treaty port of Canton and of the varied foreign attitudes and actions in that period of imperialistic expansion.
We are introduced, also to the Hakka (“guest”) people. With their distinctive language and customs, they migrated from the North to the South, and thence to other lands as well. Today, for example, they form a large and influential minority in Taiwan. One of the oldest and strongest Christian groups in Hong Kong are Hakka. Hong, like Sun Yat-sen, another evolution less than a century later, came from Hakka stock.
The Manchu Dynasty’s massive campaigns to subdue the Taiping rebellion introduce us to leaders like Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang, who would later figure prominently in the rise of provincial modernization and self-strengthening in the face of European incursions. This swirling vortex of currents, counter-currents, and cross-currents were the cultural, political, and social waters which intrepid missionaries such as William Burns, Peter Parker, Karl Gutzlaff, Edward Stevens, William Milne, and Hudson Taylor had to navigate. “Spiritual” biographies of these men make little sense apart from this context.
We meet, also, Chinese converts such as Liang Afa, whose Christian literature introduced Hong Xiu-quan to the stories of the Bible. Working closely with different missionaries, Liang made a lasting impact upon his countrymen. His orthodoxy could not stand in starker contrast to the wild and weird views of Hong, who was, indirectly at least, a sort of “disciple” of this faithful Chinese evangelist and writer.
Other foreigners played prominent roles during these tumultuous years. Both the Qing and the Taipings sometimes sought military support from the Western powers, but both also resented, and resisted, control. Indeed, the Summer Palace was sacked by the British and the French in the middle of the rebellion, adding to the woes of a dynasty beset on all sides. Bullets were flying in all directions. Could it happen again? Or will the present leaders, keenly aware of what led to the downfall of the Qing, take all necessary steps to prevent a recurrence?
The Taiping rebellion mobilized angry peasants along its route to the capture of Nanjing by confiscating the property of wealthy landlords, merchants, and high officials in the Imperial regime. Once in their final capital, they promised that the land would be divided up fairly among all the people. Banishing trade, they instituted a strict state control of the economy. No wonder the Communists laud them as forerunners of their own revolution!
And no wonder they fear any comparable movement that could energize the millions of Chinese rural poor who feel they have been denied justice by the powers-that-be – precisely the situation the government faces today. What if a new “Christian” leader with a charismatic personality and promises to remove corrupt officials should succeed in gaining widespread influence? Do the huge house-church movements, with their strong and centralized organization, seem just a bit too similar to the Taipings for the Communist Party to let them alone?
Much more could be said, but it would better for you to read this marvelous tale of adventure, courage, intrigue, betrayal, faith, heresy, and mayhem, set in the century that sealed the fate of the doomed Qing Dynasty and foreshadowed much that would occur in the 20th century. One might even say that today’s China, including the faith and practices of the huge and growing Chinese church, can hardly be understood without a knowledge of the men and movements portrayed in this rich and compelling narrative.
1. Other extremely useful books by Spence are: The Search for Modern China; To Change China; Gate of Heavenly Peace; The Memory Palace of Mateo Ricci; and The Chan’s Great Continent.
2. Many could be cited, such as the religious conflicts in Northern Ireland, the civil war between Islamic north and Christian south in the Sudan, and the merciless attacks by the Burmese government upon the Karen tribe, who are mostly Christian.