God’s Chinese Son, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan D. Spence, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 1996. ISBN 0-393-03844-0, $27.50.
Reviewed by Tony Lambert
One hundred and fifty years ago, a failed Confucian scholar in south China read a Christian tract and had visions. He came to believe he was Christ’s younger brother and drew a band of disaffected peasants to him to overthrow the hated Qing Emperor. The Taiping rebellion was born. Between 1850 and 1864, the disciplined Taiping armies swept across south and central China and even within striking distance of Peking. In 1853, they occupied Nanking which they made their “Heavenly Capital.” Hong appointed various wang or kings to take charge of the growing movement and its armies. Temples were razed, idols burnt, the Sabbath upheld and a weird mixture of Old Testament monotheism and Chinese morality enforced. For a time, evangelical missionaries held their breath and wondered whether the Taipings would establish a Christian China.
Jonathan Spence’s fascinating and well-written book tells the story of how the dream turned into a nightmare. Hong Xiuquan’s visions and “hotline to God” led to madness and a bloody war in which more than 20 million people perished. The few Western missionaries allowed entry into Nanjing found a fanatic cloistered in his harem who haughtily rejected biblical orthodoxy. Spence, drawing on unpublished Taiping documents, shows that Hong was quite prepared to rewrite the Bible to prove his pretensions. When a rival king claimed divine inspiration equal to Hong’s, he and his followers were wiped out in a bloody palace coup in which thousands were slaughtered.
The Taipings failed to implement utopian land reform schemes, alienated the all-powerful Confucian scholar-gentry and rejected trade with Western traders downriver at Shanghai. They were unable to resist the combined forces of a regenerated Qing army led by Zeng Guofan and the “Ever-Victorious Army” of the Western powers whose most famous leader was General “Chinese” Gordon. The noose round Nanjing tightened. The now-crazed Hong decreed that his starving followers should eat weeds and finally, in June 1864, committed suicide. One month later, Nanjing fell amid scenes of appalling carnage. The Taiping movement along with its syncretistic religion collapsed, and virtually all traces of it were systematically erased by the victorious Imperial regime.
Spence’s book is timely as it is directly relevant to recent events in modern Communist China. This review is being written within days of a massive crack-down throughout China on the Falungong cult which has millions of followers. The Chinese government is worried by the growth of syncretistic religious sects that it fears could establish rival power-bases to the Communist Party. Millions of poor peasants and unemployed workers are forming a growing, but still disorganized, mass of humanity that is increasingly vocal in its opposition to Party corruption and injustice. Many are attracted by religious sects that provide spiritual solace, such as Falungong, as well as by Christianity. However, the Party knows that China has a long history of dynastic decline and fall in which such sects have provided crucial foci of opposition to the central government. It only needs a charismatic leader for the dry tinder of discontent to spark into a formidable blaze. For Christians, Spence’s book is particularly thought-provoking. Tracts written by Western missionaries filtered into the hinterland and influenced the sensitive and unbalanced Hong. By the time missionaries sought to give true biblical teaching to the Taipings, it was too late. Today, we must similarly question some “hit and run” evangelism undertaken by foreigners in China. Vast and frightening consequences could follow from naive and ill-considered evangelistic efforts. Unless the full gospel is presented in a biblical, culturally relevant and sensitive form, one-sided and exaggerated presentations (such as stressing miracles and healings rather than salvation by grace through the cross of Christ) could spawn sub-Christian movements which could mutate into monstrous cults.
The Taiping rebellion was the last great rebellion until the Communist Party itself seized power a century later. However, the Taiping ideology was not atheistic Marxism, but a form of heretical or syncretistic Christianity. Ultimately, it failed to win over either the peasantry or the intelligentsia because of its fanatical iconoclasm.
Today the situation is very different. Christianity in China has made a most remarkable recovery and revival over the past thirty years. Most of that growth can be traced to the vigorous witness of unofficial house churches. These have mushroomed, in some cases, from small cell-groups to largescale movements covering several provinces—even nation-wide. While the heart of this movement (or movements) is based on biblical and evangelical Christianity, growing numbers of pseudo-Christian cults flourish at its fringes. Often they have charismatic figures claiming to be the Messiah (much like Hong). Some, like Hong, place their own writings alongside, or even above, the Bible in authority. Many, like Hong, are virulently opposed to the current regime.
In the last decade or more, the Chinese government has cracked down hard on such groups, sometimes taking few pains to distinguish orthodox house churches from heterodox groupings. Such persecution persists. Last year several major house church groupings issued a joint Confession of Faith expressing their firm adherence to biblical Christianity and called for a dialogue with the government and an end to persecution. House church Christians constantly wrestle with the issue of “Christ or Caesar” and need the prayerful support of Christians worldwide.
Christians overseas need more and more wisdom and discernment as they are faced with the increasingly complex religious, and even Christian, situation in China along with a plethora of discordant voices. There is a very real possibility that certain religious groupings could become political bases of opposition to the government. Spence’s book goes far to explain, even if it does not excuse, the deep-seated Chinese bureaucratic fear of fanatical sects and the desire to control and suppress them. These fears have been magnified more recently by the role played by Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christianity in the overthrow of Communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe barely a decade ago. Some years ago a leading Chinese government figure was reported to have said, concerning the burgeoning house church movement, that the “baby must be stifled in the cradle” before it could grow up and threaten the State. In China, the governing class has a long collective memory when it comes to history. In Chinese terms, the Taiping Rebellion was but yesterday.