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on 29 November 2010
This is a very interesting book, written by a fine scholar of Chinese history. Its author is British born academic Jonathon Spence, who is accredited in the book at the time of publishing, as being the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University. He writes extensively upon the subject of Chinese history and culture. This book carries the full title of:

'God's Chinese Son - The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan'.

The hardback (1996) edition contains 400 numbered pages and is separated into 22 chapters:

1) Walls. .
2) The Word.
3) Home Ground.
4) Sky War.
5) The Key.
6) Wandering.
7) The Base.
8) Judgements.
9) Assembling.
10) Earth War.
11) The First City.
12) The Hunt.
13) The Earthly Paradise.
14) Three Ships.
15) The Split.
16) The Killing.
17) Family Circles.
18) The Wrong Man.
19) New Worlds.
20) Priest-King.
21) Snowfall.
22) Partings.

The book contains a number of illustrations relevant to the Taiping period, as well as the reproduction of various of maps. Spence presents a carefully researched picture of the life of the Chinese scholar known as Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864), who rose from relatively humble origins to rule large geographical areas of south China. Hong had encountered Protestant missionaries active in China, and had received various Biblical texts translated into Chinese. Hong took and failed the imperial examination 4 times. The imperial examination system often failed around 90% of those who participated, regardless of whether the candidates had passed. Hong's apparent academic failure created a sense of intense spiritual suffering within him which eventually led to him having a number of religious visions. These visions included an old man telling Hong that China suffers from 'demon worship', angels carrying him to Heaven, and him receiving a sword and a seal from an old man in a robe. These visions, combined with the Christian texts that he received, convinced Hong that 'God' wanted him to purge China of Confucianism and Buddhism.

Hong founded the 'Taiping Movement' (Grand Peace), and cultivated a curious blend of indigenous Chinese beliefs and Christian theology. He raised an army of many tens of thousands, primarily from the Hakka minority - his own particular ethnic group. Spence makes a point in his Foreword to stress that the contemporary Chinese scholar - Zhong Wendian - taught him (Spence) about the Hakka point of view. Hong developed the idea that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and much of his religious zeal and authority stemmed from this assumption. Open conflict between Hong and the Qing Chinese authorities maybe traced to between 1850 and 1864. During this time, millions of Chinese people are thought to have been killed in the conflict. Hong died in 1864, and his Taiping Movement was crushed in that year, not long after. His movement had come very close to toppling the Chinese government, but ultimately was unable to take Beijing, or attract support from the Christian countries outside of China. This is a very good book of outstanding research.
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on 18 November 2014
This is a book full of detail, sometimes overwhelming detail. It tells the story of the rebellion from the side of the rebels drawing on Chinese and western sources. The story moves quickly but the constant use of the present tense in the narrative can become irritating. Some attempt is made to set the events in their social, religious and historical context but one would have appreciated a little more analysis and evaluation and more about the government against which they were rebelling. The emperor is a distant figure barely visible in the narrative. For those unfamiliar with these bizarre events this is a good introduction.
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on 15 April 2014
Very few people in the West know anything at all about the Taiping Rebellion which roughly coincided with the American Civil War of the early 1860s. An estimated 20 million+ people died as a result of a misunderstanding about Christianity... Those of us who are interested in it usually approach the Rebellion through reading about mercenaries like Ward and Gordon defending Shanghai and the foreign settlements. This book puts the Taipings into their proper Chinese context and shows that foreign interventions were extremely periferal to the enormous conflict which stretched over 2000 miles from Canton almost to the Imperial capital Peking. Ward, Gordon and their 'Ever Victorious Army' are barely more than a footnote to the real fighting in which many Chinese on both sides showed enormous bravery and tenacity in fighting for their beliefs, however strange.

There can be no doubt but that Jonathan Spence is the greatest living Western scholar of Chinese history and this is an important book. It is a shame that the publishers have saved themselves a lot of trouble by not using any Chinese characters in the print, not even in the bibliography (I'm no expert, but it would have been useful, particularly with so 'literary' a movement as the Taipings). The illustrations are also rather disappointing, a nice selection but badly reproduced. Prof Spence's writing style can also jar, especially his use of the present tense to describe things that happened in the, er, past - which does have a useful tense of its own. Despite those reservations, fairly readable, and you ask yourself: When exactly does a humble persecuted minority turn into a raging, almost unstoppable torrent of angry humanity?
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on 18 November 2015
Fascinating subject by an expert in this field but it is let down by a number of serious failings. The first is that it is written almost entirely (one or two paragraphs escape) in the historic present. This rather precious device does not make anything more immediate, and renders the book almost unreadable. I spent most of my time mentally chiding the author and pointing out the the events related in the book were all over 150 years ago, thus not concentrating on the narrative. And this is my second and most serious criticism: the balance between narrative and analysis is weighted far too heavily towards narrative. I would have loved more analysis and greater explanation of the significance of what was being unrolled. Finally, as a historian (although not of China), I missed any discussion of the sources: what survived and why, which perspectives are presented in the sources available and which are missing and, in the footnotes, a less dramatically abbreviated system so that it is possible for someone not intimately familiar with the sources to understand where material came from.
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on 31 March 2009
I came to this book on this topic, the Taiping rebellion, through an interest in social and political revolution and how religious ideas can inform such movements.

I found it very informative on the development of Hong Xiuquan's religious ideas, how the movement formed and the course of the Taiping campaign. It was also good on how the Taiping ideas evolved among a section of the marginalised lesser imperial bureaucracy. It was also interesting to see how American Protestant missionaries in China, whose ideas had initially played a formative role, reacted and related to Hong.

I found it less informative of how Taiping ideas shaped a massive social rebellion, how the Taiping rebellion fitted into the conflicts in China as the impact of Western capitalism came to be felt in China. You get little sense of why millions of Chinese peasants laid down their lives for a heterodox interpretation of Christianity and man who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. I felt these links could have been better made.

Nevertheless, recommended.
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on 8 February 2015
Enjoyable and easy read on the Taiping Rebellion. Will be reading more of Spence's works after this.
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on 2 May 2010
God's Chinese Son details the rise and fall of the Taipings from the 'dream' of Hong Xiuquan to the collapse of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom due to internicine dissent and the actions of Qing forces. Jonathan Spence attempts to explain how Hong, once 'converted' built his army from the poor, disaffected and outlawed and took his forces on a tortuous journey through southern China to establish a Heavenly Kingdom. Spence uses Taiping records and Hong's own writings to allow the reader to understand the nature of the movement from the inside. Although such quotes render some passages in the book somewhat turgid reading they provide an essential and fascinating insight into Hong's thinking. A good book which I would have rated five stars if the author had provided decent maps.
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on 3 July 2014
There is no need to present Jonathan Spence. He is an outstanding writer and scholar. Here he is turning up what i consider the definitive story of the Taiping Emperor, Hong Xiuquan Hakka from Southern China who, having failed the central examination to become a scholar, became half-mad, or totally mad. His madness was rooted in the belief that he was the second son of God, the brother of Jesus, and its responsibility was to destroy the demons. The demons were the Chinese Emperor and everything that was not "Chinese".
Jonathan Spence tackles with precision the religious side of the claim as well as the ravage of war. Hong Xiuquan was cunning and ruthless. Most of the books I read on the Taiping war (1850-1864) implies that the Emperor and its army were hapless but this book makes clear that it was a much more complex affair. Once in Nankin, the self-proclaimed Emperor of the Heavenly Kingdom, started to self-destruct. Nankin was surrounded and isolated. One way or another all the companions of the early days got killed, mostly by Hong Xiuquan.
The self-proclaimed Emperor was lucky enough to die of illness or abuse before the fall of Nankin. His son did not have such a luck. The poor boy escaped but was caught, alone and afraid hundred of miles from Nankin. He was put to death by slicing - a terrible death. The boy was 14y old. The human costs had been horrifying. About 18 millions people were cut to pieces over the years. Religious zealots are always extremist. Hong Xiuquan was not different. Human life and sufferings were part of the grandiose scheme of things, and so be it.
Reading this book while in Iraq and Syria the same madness is going on makes one ponders: Is human kind seriously defective?
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on 28 November 2002
This is in fact the only book on the subject of the Taiping Rebellion leader, although little adhered to, the title gives the impression of 'Hong Xiuquan: a life', but in fact this is yet again another book charting the pseudo-religious-military strategies of the Taiping Rebellion from 1851-1864, where Hong later was know as Heavenly King.
The Taipings captured Nanjing and ruled for 13 years, but, at the peril of 2 million lives lost in a civil war against Imperial rule. Ultimately in 1864, Taiping rebels were to be quashed by British and French troops to help keep Zheng Guofan the Manchu Qing leader in power. Hong Xiuquan committed suicide by poisoning himself and his leaders were executed.
For readers, who love suspense, this book is the one to buy, as Spence adds more descriptive tension to the Taiping Rebellion to make an enjoyable read. Spence if most famous for his epic volume: "The Search for Modern China".
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