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An Important Lens [1]

The Taiping Rebellion


I have always thought that in order to understand the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude toward (or shall we say fear of) religion, one needs to study up on two key events: The Boxer Rebellion (1900) and the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). Both of those movements started out as quasi-religious and morphed into anti-government political movements that weakened, and eventually led to the downfall of the Qing Dynasty.

And they were bloody. It is estimated that more than 20 million people died during the Taiping Rebellion, and the Boxer Rebellion saw the deaths of more than 30,000 Chinese Christians and hundreds of foreign missionaries.

In other words, when the Party looks at unmanaged religious movements, they see them primarily through the lenses of these two events that brought instability, horrendous suffering, and the collapse of Qing rule.

The super-abbreviated version of the Taiping Rebellion is this: a “Christian” convert named Hong Xiuquan got side-tracked doctrinally (to put it mildly) and became convinced that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ and that his God-given mission was to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and set up a “Heavenly Kingdom” (Taiping) based on the moral teachings of the Bible. He was able to amass enough support to form an army and actually take control of large swaths of southern China before being defeated by Qing troops (with the help of foreigners) in 1860.

If you want to read up on this important event in Chinese history and how it informs today’s rulers, the following books would be a good place to start:

God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan Spence.

Whether read for its powerful account of the largest uprising in human history, or for its foreshadowing of the terrible convulsions suffered by twentieth-century China, or for the narrative power of a great historian at his best, God’s Chinese Son must be read. At the center of this history of China’s Taiping rebellion (1845-64) stands Hong Xiuquan, a failed student of Confucian doctrine who ascends to heaven in a dream and meets his heavenly family: God, Mary, and his older brother, Jesus. He returns to earth charged to eradicate the “demon-devils,” the alien Manchu rulers of China. His success carries him and his followers to the heavenly capital at Nanjing, where they rule a large part of south China for more than a decade. Their decline and fall, wrought by internal division and the unrelenting military pressures of the Manchus and the Western powers, carry them to a hell on earth. Twenty million Chinese are left dead.

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, by Stephen R. Platt

A gripping account of China’s nineteenth-century Taiping Rebellion, one of the largest civil wars in history. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom brims with unforgettable characters and vivid re-creations of massive and often gruesome battles—a sweeping yet intimate portrait of the conflict that shaped the fate of modern China.

Next week I’ll highlight some books that will help in understanding the Boxer Rebellion.

Image credit: Wikipedia

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio


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