Wednesday, February 18, 2009

GOD'S CHINESE SON/Jonathan D. Spence

"It's hard to be always on the outside, looking in, but these foreigners have no choice."

That's the immediately arresting first sentence of this book, talking about the earliest - very narrowly circumscribed - foreign trading settlements established at Canton/Guangzhou. Jonathan Spence's fascinating account of the Taiping Rebellion against the Qing Empire in mid-19th Century China first appeared a dozen or so years ago, but I've only just discovered it. It's a bold and unusual choice for a serious historian to craft an account almost entirely in the vivid present tense (often, indeed, as in that striking opening, he seems to be adopting the point of view of one of the protagonists or of a notional Chinese everyman); and, while it can occasionally become a slightly distracting affectation (particularly when he has for a while been forced to dodge backwards or forwards in his narrative, departing for a while from the present tense and then returning to it), it is on the whole very effective in creating an immediacy which secures the reader's full imaginative and emotional involvement in the story. For such a weighty topic, this is a very easy and engaging read.

At the centre of the story is the figure of Hong Xiuquan, a young man from a fairly humble family in southern China who had devoted his life to studying the Confucian classics in order to try to obtain a post in the civil service through the notoriously exacting Imperial examination system. After failing in these exams for a second time, he became sick with a fever and during his delirium experienced an extraordinarily protracted, vivid, and detailed dream in which he went to 'heaven', met with 'god', and fought a great battle against a horde of 'demon devils'. It was only several years later that he puzzled out the significance of this dream in the light of his reading of a foreign book, one of the biblical tracts in Chinese translation which had recently begun to circulate in the country. Hong became convinced that his dream had been a real experience, that the 'god' he had met had been the Christian god, Jehovah; and moreover that he, Hong, was a second son of God, a younger brother of Jesus, and had been sent to Earth with a sacred commission to convert the Chinese to the true religion and save them from the 'demon devils'.

At first, these 'demon devils' were associated primarily with the superstitious practices of traditional Chinese religions, but as Hong's fledgeling religion grew and started to provoke suspicion and persecution from the local government, it rapidly became politicized and militarized, and began to identify the 'demon devils' as China's Manchu rulers, the "Tartar" invaders from the far north-east who had seized the country two centuries before but were never fully accepted by the indigenous Han Chinese and were now starting to find their grip on power increasingly tenuous.

Hong was remarkably successful in winning converts, and gained considerable assistance from two of his earliest followers who proved to be extremely convincing at 'channelling' the voices of God and Jesus to provide advice and encouragement. With this appearance of direct divine intervention, Hong soon created a powerful millenarian movement, intent on establishing a Kingdom of God on Earth, the Kingdom of 'Great Peace' - Tai Ping. The Taipings soon numbered in the tens of thousands and later in the hundreds of thousands, and at their zenith controlled a broad swathe of central China, with the city of Nanjing established as the capital for their Heavenly Kingdom. For 15 years they, and other disaffected groups, waged a bitter civil war against the armies of the imperial government - one of the most terrible wars in history, a conflict that is thought to have left at least 20 million people dead, not only in battle but through brutal massacres and executions, starvation and disease.

Outside of China, this is a history that is probably known little if at all. It should be more widely known, since it is one of the keys to understanding China today (for example, the present Communist government's extreme wariness of religion in general, and of cults like the Falun Gong in particular, is tied to the startlingly rapid growth and the ultimately disastrous impact of the Taipings a century and a half ago), and Spence's book makes it very accessible. This is a book I would highly recommend, even to people who don't normally like non-fiction or history.

1 comment:

Kristin Dodge said...

Excellent review... this is going on my to-read pile.