Drawing (Selected) Lessons from the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

Shortly before we all left for China, it was revealed to us that we would be adding Nanjing to our itinerary, another stop on the high-speed rail. I had good reason to be excited. I’m currently a dual student at Michigan with the Ford School and UM’s Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, but the real spark for my fascination with China came during my undergraduate experience as a history major at Michigan State University. In one of the best history courses I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking, I stumbled across a quick two-page textbook summary of what I later found to be the most intriguing historical  movement that I had ever read about at that time: The Taiping Rebellion of the 19th Century. I will only spend a few sentences describing the movement here, but look into it yourself if it sounds interesting to you. In particular, a book called “God’s Chinese Son” written by Yale historian Jonathan Spence may still be the most engaging book on history I’ve ever read.

Why was this movement so important? Roughly coinciding with the American Civil War, the Taiping started out as a peasant movement in the countryside that eventually conquered large swaths of southern China and ultimately resulted in an estimated 20-30 million deaths. In contrast, the American Civil War — often cited as one of the most brutal in world history — is thought to have taken an estimated 750,000 to 1.2 million lives. Though conditions of a deteriorating Qing Empire were strong contributions to the source of Taiping mobilization, the true spark came from an ideological source that few might guess: Christianity. After coming into contact with a slim, excerpted version of the bible in Guangzhou, it’s leader, Hong Xiuquan, received a vision in which it was revealed to him that he was God the Father’s second son after Jesus. What’s more, God gave him the heavenly mandate to lead a movement that would clear China of “foreign demons” and bring about a heavenly utopia. Western powers initially were thrilled with the potential for a Christian ally against the Qing, but were shocked upon learning of its radical heterodoxy. This lead to American, British and French forces contributing to the eventual defeat of the Taiping.

Today, Nanjing is the site of China’s remembrance for this movement, as it became the capital of the Taiping Kingdom from 1853-1864. After the communists came to power in 1949, the Taiping movement was lionized by Mao as a peasant uprising with radically communal social policies. The movement was seen as a progenitor to the glorious Communist Revolution and a museum was built to honor it.

Disappointingly, the museum fell far short of its potential for addressing the world’s greatest calamity that has ever erupted from a clash of Eastern and Western culture. As I went through the maze-like museum, my enthusiasm for its collection of artifacts quickly gave way to the nagging feeling that I had stumbled into a historical garage sale. Item after item, there was no context provided for what actually happened before or even during the movement. In fact, the only aspect of the rebel movement’s expression that seemed to receive any attention was its radically communal land distribution policies and its anti-foreign sentiment, which the museum sought to mutate into a sort of Chinese proto-nationalism. Any mention to Christianity is notably absent and the religious fervor of the movement is almost completely left out of the museum.

I was lucky that the exit of the museum ended up featuring the most stunning Chinese garden that I’ve ever seen, but it was completely unrelated to the Taiping. I’m glad I went to finally see contemporary China’s eulogy to the once-powerful peasant uprising of the Taiping, but ultimately came away disappointed by such a stunted effort to recognize one of the most important events in world history. The Taiping Rebellion offers the world lessons of what can happen when processes of cultural transmission warp violently and boil over into chaos. Unfortunately, those interested will have to look for sources outside the museum to explore the movement with any depth.

– Ryan E.

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