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

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  961 ratings  ·  101 reviews
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 Co ...more
Paperback, 432 pages
Published December 17th 1996 by W. W. Norton Company (first published January 1st 1996)
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Mar 24, 2011 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
1. The book is about the rise of one Hong Xiuquan in the mid-19th century China to become leader of the Christian millenarian sect that caused the Taiping Rebellion.

2. The book for me really begins with the excellent overview of the pantheistic religious traditions prevalent in Hong Xiuquan's home district of Hua, about forty miles north of Canton. This is no doubt the ignorance against which Hong will rant in furture chapters.

3. For some reason, perhaps because it's hardwired into me by ge
Feb 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: china, christianity
Jonathan Spence remarks in his foreword that much has been written about the 1850 Taiping rebellion in the west, and even more in the east. Despite the rebels dubious theological foundation, China's communists canonized them as an early socialist movement. The Taiping have remained a topic of interest, with many books recently written. Spence synthesizes Chinese and English research, and also considers two newly discovered texts by the mid-century master of mayhem, Hong Xiuquan.

The story begins
Brian Griffith
I've always been fascinated with this potential for popular religion to turn explosive. Spence gives a sensitive examination of how a failed, frustrated scholar with messianic ambitions set off a social chain reaction that almost blew China apart. ...more
Aug 22, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-history
There are millions of goopy songs and movies about star-crossed lovers, but you hardly ever hear anything about star-crossed readers. I am a star-crossed reader.

I bought this book in the year 2000 and placed it lovingly in my crates of books to be shipped around the world to an extremely isolated location, where I planned to live for a few years. My vision: to sit out on the veranda on long tropical evenings, sipping cocktails and reading this particularly lunatic tale of historical mayhem and r
Jul 31, 2012 rated it liked it
Talk about your crazy Christians!!! I finally finished God’s Chinese Son, and man. It was more challenging than I thought to set aside my preconceived notions of what is acceptable, or at the very least, understandable regarding religious doctrine. For those not in the know, this book by Jonathan Spence follows the rise and end of the Taiping in nineteenth century china. And for those really not in the know, the Taiping were some crazy Christians. Seriously. It movement originated with a guy who ...more
Apr 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
Interesting read. Hong Xiuquan was a local school teacher who took (and failed) the Confucian licenate tests several times to try to rise in position in the governing Qing bureaucracy. After his fourth and final attempt, Hong had a fever induced vision while he was bed ridden for forty days with an illness. Hong had recently read and been influenced by some protestant religious tracts that were being distributed at the examination site. The vision he had had him ascending to heaven where he foug ...more
Sep 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Many people in the West (United States and Europe) are probably not aware of the Taiping Rebellion which would be up there among one of history’s most terrible events. It took the lives of twenty to thirty million people and when one compare that to World War One which took seventeen million lives you get the magnitude of this horrific fourteen year war in China that center around a man name Hong Xiuquan who claim to be the “younger brother of Jesus.” If you are interested in the history of Chri ...more
Stephen Douglas Rowland
Aug 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
My only complaint is that Spence has a strange way of barely mentioning things that seem extremely important and extensively elaborating on the trivial. Otherwise, this is excellent, and there are other books on the subject to fill in the gaps.
May 29, 2012 rated it liked it
A thorough investigation of the Taiping Rebellion. As historical scholarship, it's exhaustive. As a casual read for somebody, like myself, without an extensive grounding in Chinese history, it can be exhausting. As far as the former, there's little better. As far as the latter, it's hard to recommend, except for those keenly interested in some of history's more obscure currents.

I will say that I would have liked to see more of the results of the aftermath of the Taipings. It doesn't examine the
If you like informative books that try to compact as many details as possible between their covers, you'll probably like this book. For me this book is a chore to read. Although Dr. Spence's writing is very educational and seemingly well-researched, it makes for a dry read. The Taiping Rebellion is interesting to learn about, but my rating has nothing to do with what Dr. Spence was writing about and everything to do with how he actually wrote it.

The book is packed with facts big and small. Most
Nov 23, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I'm torn about whether to rate this as a 3 or a 4. Clearly, the author knows his stuff, but I found the book draggy to read. Wrong book at the wrong time? That's certainly possible in 2020 AD. Why read a book about something so grim during a pandemic? I was partially inspired to read this because of the QAnon phenomenon in the US, but the facts as scrupulously laid out by Spence argue against a quick and easy historical analogy. Still there is plenty here for people that are interested in Chines ...more
Jul 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
An interesting, overlooked, and truly bizarre chapter of history. Hong Xiuquan was in many ways a Chinese Savonarola or David Koresh, but with far more devastating consequences. The story of Hong Xiuquan is a bizarre tale, brought to life by Jonathan D. Spence in lively form that is detailed, yet accessible to the layperson.
Considering the cast of characters involved, including Charles Gordon and Lord Elgin, one can only wonder why this episode is not better known in the West, but Spence has don
Bob Newman
Oct 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, china
Strange Sect Runs Amok in 19th Century China
When I studied World History in high school back in the '50s, we didn't study China at all. We were fully concentrated on the history of Europe and its antecedents in Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, Greece and Rome. I think things have improved a bit, but in general, if you ask the average person around here what was the biggest war of the 19th century---those who can remember any that is---they are likely to say either the American Civil War or the Napol
Oct 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
I really did enjoy this book about the Taiping Rebellion in China. Having lived in the Orient for almost 25 years and also being a Christian missionary, I found it doubly interesting and instructive. Sometimes just a little Christianity can do more harm than good if the recipient is mentally unstable, and I think it is fair to judge Hong Xiuquan to have been in just that sort of condition, with a mixture of self-serving and corruption thrown in for good measure. I also saw glimpses of what would ...more
Ill D
Jun 02, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed, history
Highly successful as a work of narrative and psycho-history (yes, that is a real term). However, I was hoping for a more birds eye narrative that would explain the social, economic, political, and religious forces that affected (Hong) Xiuquan, his world and how these impetuses caused this young many to wreak so much havoc on the Middle Kingdom in the late-middle 19th century. Moreover, for what is probably one of the most bloody and destructive events in not just the 19th century but world histo ...more
Nov 29, 2013 rated it liked it
Hong Xiuquan failed the provincial tests on Confucian texts to get a job in the old Imperial Chinese bureaucracy four times. So, after a dream that he had ascended to heaven to meet his father God and his big brother Jesus, he set out on a new career as a messianic leader, "God's Chinese Son." Oh, and he also decided to revolt against the Quin Dynasty who ruled China back then. The result was the bloodiest event in history up until the Second World War: the Taiping Rebellion of 1845-64 in which ...more
Chris Brown
Apr 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Jonathan Spence is THE modern Chinese historian. No one else comes close. Here is covering one of the most interesting, bizarre uprisings in world history and the beginning of the end for the Qing Dynasty: The Taiping Rebellion. Anyone interested in history, religious leaders, China, or just excellent scholarship and writing needs to read this book.
Zulu Fox
I'm a little confused as to how this book ended up coming together the way that it did. It seems like it's trying to be a few things at once: a history of the Taiping Rebellion aimed at a general readership, an exegesis of some newly-discovered writings of Hong Xiuquan (the founder of the Taiping movement), a biography of Hong Xiuquan, and an argument for the significance to Chinese millenarian sects like Taiping of the intellectual "aura" created in parts of China by Western missionaries. All o ...more
RS Rook
Feb 20, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I first became aware of Jonathan Spence because his texts were often required reading in college Chinese and East Asian History courses. So for those of you feeling like this reads like a textbook, that's because it is one.

His usefulness as a textbook author lies in the fact that he generally avoids the kind of speculative musings that tend to spring up in popular history texts. Such musings are often employed to either humanize the subjects or add greater coherence and drive to the thrust of th
Dec 06, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Powerful, compelling, epic describe this thoroughly engaging work of scholarship. God's Chinese Son is a look at a time of the Great Awakening in the mid 19th century, the beginnings of global markets as we know them today, and the power of religious fervor to shape events. It definitely evoked, for me, parallels with Fawn Brodie's excellent book, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, a biography about Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism at approximately the same time. God's Chin ...more
Kelleen Thaxton
Jan 05, 2019 rated it liked it
A very detailed, well-researched telling of a fascinating period in Chinese history about which I knew absolutely nothing. The interesting history and cultural insights kept me reading through many of the dry, minute-detail-heavy sections regarding numbers of bushels of rice or cartons of muskets being transported, or movements of troops back and forth in the same area for days on end. I would have enjoyed more illustrations, and definitely some maps that would clarify the troop movements and pr ...more
Zeke Chase
Oct 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: china
The Taiping Rebellion is considered history's deadliest uprising, a messianic Christian rebellion that left 20-30 million dead in just 14 years. Fought between 1850 and 1864 in southern China, it was led by Hong Xiuquan, a man proclaiming himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and became the most fundamentalist theocracy in human history. At it's peak, it involved everything totalitarian that “The Onion” could think of and more, including a capital ban on all sex – it was Rick Santorum's w ...more
Feb 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
I chose to read this book for a World History book review assignment. My Professor highly recommended this account, and now I do too. Spence is an amazing writer who knows how to frame large amounts of information in a digestible and engaging way. It was a slow and heavy read for me but entirely worthwhile. Now I’ve an interest in pursuing his other works.
Dan Slimmon
Aug 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, china, war, biography
this book almost comes closer to biography than history. it's the story of hong xiuquan and those in his inner circle, rather than the taiping civil war itself. for the latter, check out stephen platt's autumn in the heavenly kingdom . but they're both good books. ...more
William Dinneen
Oct 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Great. Spence writes in a unique way that puts you right there with the Taiping troops. You follow Hong Xiuquan from his humble beginnings through to the end, remaining within his head the entire way. It was endlessly interesting to see how Hong reconciled Confucian ideas with his aberrant Christianity, and how he was able to bring about such a large movement.
Tycho Toothaker
May 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Very good history of the Taiping Rebellion. I found it to cover a bit too extensively the particular campaigns and troop movements, but that's just because that's not what I wanted from it. Told in a very compelling way. ...more
Jul 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
What a richly colored world that Spence has painstakingly recreated in this work. I appreciated the many different perspectives and documents pulled together to create this work, although I wish more on the Qing perspective had been included as well as an epilogue.
Dennis Wong
Sep 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The book is a comprehensive research on Hong Xiuquan and the rise and fall of the Heavenly Kingdom. I am especially interested in how Hong removed and changed the contents in the Bible to suit his needs.
Derek Weese
Feb 10, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a hard book to review as it covers a broad and complex story in a manner that I thought could have been done better and with far greater detail. The setting is China immediately following the Opium War with the British in the early 1840's (Qing Dynasty). The Chinese are, to say the least, down on their luck in this point in history. Western powers are slowly beginning to encroach upon Chinese territory and the Opium War has just proved that militarily China has about as much chance of wi ...more
Sep 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Evangelical Christians are scary.
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Jonathan D. Spence is a historian specializing in Chinese history. His self-selected Chinese name is Shǐ Jǐngqiān (simplified Chinese: 史景迁; traditional Chinese: 史景遷), which roughly translates to "A historian who admires Sima Qian."

He has been Sterling Professor of History at Yale University since 1993. His most famous book is The Search for Modern China, which has become one of the standard texts

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