Title

River of Fire

In her introduction to a collection of Karl Marx’s newspaper dispatches on China, Dona Torr conceived a charming fantasy in which Marx speculates that

When our European reactionaries have to take refuge in Asia and at last reach the Great Wall of China, guarding the very hearth of reactionary conservatism, they may find inscribed above its gates:—“Chinese Republic. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”1

Marx himself did not underestimate the Taiping revolution—it was not a mere rebellion—that took place in nineteenth-century China. His articles about China usually appeared in the New York Daily Tribune; and on June 14, 1853, he wrote, “the chronic rebellions subsisting in China for about ten years past, and now gathered together in one formidable revolution,” were the result of “English cannon forcing upon China that soporific drug called opium.” When this revolution finally gets going, Marx predicted, “…it will throw the spark into the overloaded mine of the present industrial system and cause the explosion of the long-prepared general crisis, which, spreading abroad, will be closely followed by political revolutions on the Continent.”2

Marx had spotted something significant, unnoticed by many. He then made one of his gigantic, and unsuccessful, leaps of prediction. Mao Zedong, who had plenty to say about peasant uprisings, contented himself with observing that China’s revolution began with the Taiping revolutionaries in the nineteenth century, but ultimately failed because they were “idealistic” and were not led by the Communist Party.3

* * *

The nineteenth-century Chinese uprising, between 1851 and 1864, conceived and led by Hong Xiuquan, the subject of God’s Chinese Son, was one of the most extensive and bitter civil wars ever. Far more violent than the American Civil War, it left at least twenty million dead and shook the Chinese state to its core. Chinese and Western historians have paid these events much attention. During the Cultural Revolution, the fact that Hong Xiuquan was a fanatical Christian proved no problem for some Chinese historians. According to an official history published in 1976, the Taiping movement

when stripped of its religious mantle was actually a revolutionary organization, advocating an anti-religious philosophy of struggle…. The message is clear: state power is secured only by the sword, happiness is realized only through hard work, and only by capturing all demons, and by suppressing traitors and blood-suckers, can peace be brought to the world.4

Philip Kuhn of Harvard, a leading specialist on nineteenth-century Chinese uprisings, says of the Taiping revolution,

More than any other rebellion of their day, they addressed themselves directly to the crisis of the times and offered concrete measures for resolving it. Their vision of a new system of property relations, a new mechanism of local control, and a new relationship between the individual and the state was an authentic response to the distinctive problems of the late imperial age.5

John King Fairbank, who devoted most of his academic life to the history of nineteenth-century China, pointed out in his final book that both Nationalists and Communists “have tried to salvage from the Taiping movement some positive prototype of anti-Manchu nationalism and social reform.” The Taiping revolutionaries, Fairbank commented, were against “all the usual evils—gambling, opium, tobacco, idolatry, adultery, prostitution, footbinding….” His final judgment was dismissive: “A cause for which so many gave their lives must have had much to offer, but only in comparison with the effete old order under the Manchus.”6

* * *

Jonathan Spence, Professor of History at Yale, looks at the revolution differently. He concentrates on the first and almost last Taiping leader—Hong Xiuquan, who, Spence says, quoting Keats, “was one of those people who believe it is their mission to make all things ‘new, for the surprise of the sky-children.’ It is a central agony of history that those who embark on such missions so rarely calculate the cost.”

Almost thirty years ago, when Spence was a graduate student at Yale, he writes in God’s Chinese Son, his favorite teacher, Mary C. Wright, introduced him to Jen Yu-wen, one of the leading Chinese Taiping specialists. Eventually, as a historian fascinated by the minds of the obscure and the eccentric, Spence was bound to be drawn to Hong Xiuquan, the Taiping leader who imagined he was the younger brother of Jesus. For more than a decade Hong, who established his own theocratic imperial state-within-a-state, convinced millions of Chinese that the Emperor was a devil, and directed the armies that seized some of China’s major cities and menaced Peking itself.

Jonathan Spence has achieved an international reputation as a scintillating Chinese historian with a remarkable range of interests. His books examine, among other matters, the inhabitants of a small county in north China in the late seventeenth century; one of the greatest Manchu emperors; the mind of a seventeenth-century missionary to China; and late nineteenth- and twentieth-century revolutionaries. He has also written The Search for Modern China, a very good general history of China’s last three hundred years.7

Some academics have been irritated by Mr. Spence’s attempts to penetrate the minds of his subjects; they worry that he comes closer to imagining their inner lives than historians are justified in doing; he also often writes in the present tense, which gives his prose immediacy and tension, but occasionally gives the impression of his being more of a witness to action than even the most vivid historian can be. He is drawn to details; in God’s Chinese Son, for example, he discusses British three-legged and wheelbarrow races, the names of some of the British-owned dogs (“Punch,” “Die,” and “Nero” among them) that were stolen to be eaten by starving people in Shanghai, and the outfits of the Cantonese washerwomen who offered their services to foreign sailors. At the same time, while Spence’s account of the Taiping movement is original and fascinating, it does not show why their rebellion ultimately failed; it has little to say about the scholarly mandarins who were largely responsible for defeating them, or about how the British contributed to that defeat.

In his foreword Spence writes, “This book does not attempt to give a total picture of the Taiping movement.” His aim is to show how Hong and his visions had “such an astounding impact on his country for so many years.” Readers who admire his power to vividly describe Chinese life may want some more specific conclusions. They need, however, to look no further than the masterly twenty-eight pages on the subject in Mr. Spence’s The Search for Modern China,8 where he describes the main elements of the Taiping struggle and draws the conclusions that would, with little effort on his part, have clarified some of the questions that remain obscure in God’s Chinese Son.

* * *

As it is, the story is a powerful one and Mr. Spence tells it vividly. He begins in a typically Spencean way by introducing Hong as a Chinese millenarian who was transformed by his encounter with Christian doctrines:

The story of Hong Xiuquan and his Taiping Heavenly Kingdom is as strange as any to be found in Chinese history…. Some intersection of Hong’s own mind and the pulse of the times led him to a literal understanding of elements of this newly encountered religion, so that the Christian texts he read convinced him that he was the younger brother of Jesus, imbued by his Father God with a special destiny to rid China of the conquering Manchu demon race, and to lead his chosen people to their own Earthly Paradise.

Mr. Spence provides a masterly little essay on apocalyptic visionaries reaching back four thousand years to Mesopotamia and Egypt. He shows how, by the second century AD, apocalyptic thinking, with its goal of “Great Peace,” or Taiping, could be found in the reflections of Chinese scholars who resisted Confucian authority. A supreme deliverer, in a volcanic final act of history, would rescue human beings from their miserable lives. Through the centuries, with accretions from Taoism and Buddhism, the idea of apocalypse spread, accompanied by intensifying visions of fire and sword. Only the chosen would survive. These notions inspired peasant Chinese rebels who threatened the local and provincial peace. In fact, similar ideas are increasingly noted with alarm today in the mainland press, which regularly publishes reports about “black societies” or “superstitious gangs,” often led by Party officials. W.J.F. Jenner, Professor of Chinese at the Australian National University, aptly describes the more recent version of the secret societies as

an underground river of fire, coming to the surface only when social and political structures are under strain or cracking…as communist rule grows shakier…. [there] are signs that the underground river is coming nearer the surface. They hint at the destruction some such movement could achieve if it were able to mobilize peasant discontents on a large scale.9

Spence reminds us that Christian millenarian sects were particularly active in the West during the early nineteenth century and that, especially through the energetic Baptists, their visions made their way to China just as Hong Xiuquan, a deeply troubled man, was losing faith in the Confucian tradition. What especially interests Mr. Spence about Hong is “the strength, the inspiration, and the sense of purpose” he derived both from the Bible and from unreliably translated Western Christian sources, “with all their ambiguities, errors, and unexpected ironies, that brought him to his faith and his sense of destiny.”

All this, acting on a determined but unhinged mind such as Hong’s, shows “the extraordinary dangers that may flow from the unguided transmission of a book so volatile….” Spence has worked through the very difficult Chinese versions and garblings of the Bible that would have influenced Hong and he has traced their connections with Hong’s visions. John Fairbank observed that the Taiping record was “biased because the imperialists destroyed most Taiping writings, except for those preserved mainly by foreigners (some were found only in this century in French and British libraries).”10 Spence found two such texts in the British Library in London: “a protracted series of heavenly visions said to have been relayed through Jesus and his Father to their faithful Taiping followers on earth.” These texts, he says, inspired him to write God’s Chinese Son. The previously unexplored accounts of Hong’s visions, while “not historical sources in any precise sense of the term,” provide insights into his appeal to peasant society and also give information about the Westerners who visited Nanking, the Taiping capital and stronghold. It is admirable and Spence-like to discern such possibilities in visions preserved in arcane Chinese, although his extensive verbatim texts can be tedious.

* * *

The story starts in 1836, during Canton’s first snowfall in over forty years, when Hong Xiuquan, a bright twenty-two-year-old country boy, came to the city to take the state examinations for the bureaucracy. He was from the relatively small cultural minority who spoke the Hakka language and whose promising young men were granted special dispensations to ease their assimilation into mainstream Han society. The examinations required a near-perfect memory of Confucian writings and an ability to apply them to official problems. For almost two thousand years they had been the way to the top for any Chinese male whose relatives or friends could pay the tuition fees for the skull-numbing years of preparation, in which calligraphy was honed to bureaucratic perfection.

It had long been said (and is repeated today in the People’s Republic about becoming a Party official) that when a man passed these examinations he, his wife and children, and even his chickens ascended to heaven. Hong failed. But during the wait for the examination he accepted from a foreigner in the Canton street, possibly the Yale graduate Reverend Edwin Stevens, a set of religious tracts, composed by Liang Afa, a Chinese who had been converted to Christianity by Stevens in 1816 and longed to translate and transmit the divine message to ordinary people. His tracts concentrated on the coming destruction of human society and its redemption through God’s grace.

Prominent in the tables of contents of these tracts was the Chinese character for flood, the mighty flood which swept the earth bare. There was also mention of a god, one of whose names was “fire,” which happened to be part of Hong’s first name. “So Hong shares this god’s name,” Mr. Spence remarks. “There is flood, there is fire. And Hong…in some fashion, for some reason, partakes of both.” It seems plain to me, from Spence’s account and from the Taiping writings themselves, that Hong was himself close to insane, and that he was bent on revenge against the system that had shut him out along with his own folk, the Hakkas. It is no coincidence that his initial followers also were Hakka outsiders. Spence tells us that, although they were Chinese, the Hakka people were “regarded by their longer-settled Southern neighbors as strangers whose women did not bind their feet, and were treated scornfully.”

The following year, 1837, Hong failed the examinations again, collapsed, and took to his bed. There he had the dreams or visions that animated the Taiping movement. Demons, the King of Hell, animals, processions, strange lights, his mother, an older brother, and a man with a golden beard he took to be his father—all appeared to him. The father figure told Hong that men had lost “their original natures” and said what was needed was quan: “completeness.” Hong woke periodically and ran about shouting out the new titles he claimed for himself: Heavenly King, Lord of the Kingly Way, Quan, and Son of Heaven in the Period of Great Peace. He wrote these in red ink, the imperial color. His relatives and neighbors, assuming he was crazy, kept an eye on him. He calmed down, and began a third attempt to pass the state examinations.

Of course he failed, but his visions and readings now made everything clearer than ever. Liang Afa’s tracts included an account of the vision of the prophet Isaiah, the foreign sage who wrote of a scourging fire. That fire, Hong thought, would purify the nightmarish world around him in which the British were seizing Chinese ports, the foreign Manchus were on the throne, and secret societies, Jenner’s “underground river,” were rising and swarming.

* * *

By the time Hong failed the examinations a fourth time, he was completely convinced by Liang’s condemnation of the Confucian system as “full of vanity or absurdity.” The Confucian scholars, Liang wrote, were “bewildered and obsessed by their ambitions, so they cling to their delusions and worship these idols….” In Liang’s tracts Buddhists and Taoists and many other credulous people were also described as misled. But even though the Manchus were betraying China to the British, Liang said, the foreigners were bringing with them a message for the Chinese people: Abandon doing wrong and await the Last Judgment in which all the saved will be raised.

Hong now saw things clearly: the golden-bearded father in his dream was God. The older brother was Jesus. “And since Jesus is the son of God, and also Hong’s elder brother, then Hong is literally God’s Chinese son.”

Accompanied by three followers, Hong began preaching in Hakka hill villages, baptizing peasants as he went. One of his companions moved off on his own, deeper into the hills, preaching fire and redemption to people whose lives were threatened by bandits and by the pirates who had fled the British and were attacking boats on the inland waterways.

That Hong was preparing to challenge the state—which in the end would smash him—is suggested in a poem he wrote on a wall. Instead of the normal word for “I” he used the locution “I, the ruler,” which is the way emperors, and only emperors, referred to themselves. He openly condemned the Confucian classics, a heresy bound to provoke the mandarin class. In 1849 and 1850, he described the Manchu rulers and their followers as “demons.” In February 1850, Hong, self-proclaimed as the “Taiping king,” and his followers, the God-worshipers, began to speak of an army on the march; by April, in a grand act of lèse-majesté, he had assumed imperial yellow robes.

* * *

Women were central to Taiping thinking; the rebel leaders divided men and women into separate camps, and preached chastity in marriage. (The violation of this rule among Taiping leaders was an early sign of the sexual hypocrisy and corruption which marked the movement’s internal disintegration and later distinguished the Chinese Communist hierarchy.) Spence points out that married chastity “would be the final blow to any lingering adherence to Confucian views of filial piety toward ancestors with their emphasis on production of a male heir.”

Once recruited and mobilized, the Taiping army bought quantities of gunpowder and worked out a system of signaling with flags; it organized itself into small units according to a scheme described about 1000 BC during the Zhou dynasty. In December 1850, one of the Taiping regions came under attack for the first time by regular units of the Manchu army; the imperial troops were routed. The rebels killed a “demon” who was also a policeman, that is to say an officer of the Qing dynasty. Later that month a Taiping force of ten thousand defeated a larger Manchu force and killed a colonel. The Qing armies returned to the attack in great force and in January 1851 drove the Taiping from their stronghold. But in a further challenge to the Qing, Hong declared that 1851 was the First Year of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Only emperors were entitled to establish calendars.

Like the Communist forces in 1934 at the beginning of the Long March, the Taiping now had to break out of a government encirclement. Pursued by Manchu troops, in September 1851, they captured Yongan, a walled city, after galloping their horses around the walls all night while dragging baskets of stones to give the impression they had a large mounted force. By the time the Taiping occupied Yongan they had killed eight hundred Manchu soldiers and their officers. “It is September 25, 1851,” Spence writes, “and fourteen years after Hong’s first celestial battle the Taiping have acquired a solid earthly city.”

Here, as the Communists in their early military days were to do in “liberated areas,” Hong issued commands that his army must refrain from looting and that all valuable objects were to go into a common store, a “sacred treasury.” He thus combined early Chinese ideals of common property with the Sermon on the Mount.

The Taiping leaders, following Hong’s orders, now issued orders forbidding opium and footbinding; they worked out a complete new calendar to replace the imperial one; and they provided badges and titles for the leaders and their families. Hong’s daughters were named “princesses” and his son, “the Young Monarch, of ten thousand years.” Taiping “kings” were installed, all of whom were to die violently or miserably, sometimes at each other’s hands.

With an army numbering forty thousand, the Taiping moved on to Guilin, an even larger city, which they besieged for thirty-three days. There they improved their skills in river warfare, using some forty large boats to store their ammunition, grain, and treasure and keep safe their children and other noncombatants. Tough Hakka women were allowed to fight.

The Guilin siege failed and in a great river battle the Taiping navy was ambushed: three hundred boats were destroyed and 10,000 soldiers were killed, many of them original believers. But soon Hong’s army crossed into Hunan province (Mao’s birth-place) and with 50,000 newly recruited soldiers laid siege to Changsha, the provincial capital. This siege, too, was unsuccessful and the Taiping moved on to Hubei province to attack their first major city, Wuchang, which fell on January 12, 1853. The Taiping captured one million ounces of silver, together with jewelry, gold, rice, ducks, clothes, and tea. They opened the jails and freed the prisoners.

While the frantic Manchu emperor was issuing edicts threatening with a terrible fate any officials who failed to crush the rebels, the Taiping suddenly abandoned Wuchang. They sailed 600 miles down the Yangtze river and in thirty days attacked Nanking, “the soul of China’s richest province, the center of its scholarship, the capital of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty almost five hundred years before.” Its walls, forty feet high, extended almost twenty-five miles around the city, making their defense difficult for the 50,000 second-rate Manchu soldiers manning them.

“The Taiping,” Spence writes, “surround. They threaten. They infiltrate. They spur the hatred for the Manchu conquerors and urge the city’s population not to do the demons’ work.” Nanking fell on March 29, 1853, and the triumphant Hong entered it while the inhabitants prostrated themselves, as they would have before the emperor. Behind Hong, “astride on their horses, are thirty-two women, with yellow parasols.”

* * *

At this point Spence masterfully sums up the Taiping vision. “The Earthly Paradise is not just one place. It is the whole of China, wherever the Taiping Heavenly Army can reach the people and destroy the demons, so that all may live together in perpetual joy, until at last they are raised to Heaven to greet their Father.”

In fact, parts of the Taiping social program fitted into the Chinese popular tradition of an ideal world in which all is fair, all is equal. (Mao found in this idealism Hong’s great flaw.) Land was divided up, with equal shares for all adults, male and female over sixteen, and half shares for children. Families were sorted into small units, under corporals, who ensured that everyone had enough and that contributions were made to the public treasuries, which in turn made gifts to families on great occasions such as birth, marriage, and death. But Buddhists, Taoists, and Catholics were treated as heretics and persecuted in varying degrees. Male homosexuals were executed, as were prostitutes. Married couples who risked sexual intercourse with each other were punished. But foreigners who visited Nanking noticed that “Taiping women dress boldly and garishly, and are heavily made-up, despite the puritanical pronouncements of their leaders.”

A great Taiping force was ordered north to capture Peking, the “Demon’s Den.” Other forces sailed down the Yangtze river toward Shanghai. There, in the international settlement, the British, French, and Americans were initially puzzled. The Taiping were Christians. Perhaps it would not be so bad if they formed a new government, which might be easier to deal with than the wily Manchus. An English vessel, the Hermes, sailed up to Nanking, where its captain noticed that the Taiping are “clever, decided, and determined…civil and good-humored.” The Taiping who encountered the Westerners warmed to them because, like themselves, they wore their hair long. But two of the Taiping Kings sent a message to the Hermes that sounded too contemptuous. The Kings said they welcomed English “fidelity” and hoped their guests would serve the Taiping master. Insulted, the captain of the Hermes sailed away.

The French Minister M. de Bourboulon also steamed upriver to Nanking and later wrote to Paris, “What stands out for me from all that I have seen is the strength of this revolutionary movement, which promises nothing less than to accomplish a complete transformation, at once religious, social and political in this immense Empire, by tradition a land of custom and immobility.”

Soon, Robert McLane, the US Commissioner in Shanghai, also sailed to Nanking, but the Taiping mistook the Stars and Stripes for a Manchu banner and shelled his ship. The captain sent them a drawing of an American flag so “that you may never mistake it hereafter.” The Taiping replied with a message to the outraged Americans recommending that they “revere Heaven and recognize the Sovereign.” When some American sailors attempted to scale a pagoda outside the city walls they were arrested and released with a warning that future unauthorized visitors to the Taiping capital might be killed. The Susquehanna returned downriver to Shanghai.

McLane made a shrewd if contemptuous assessment of the situation. “Thus is presented,” the Commissioner wrote to the Secretary of State,

the melancholy spectacle of an enfeebled and tottering imperial government, ignorant, conceited, and impracticable; assailed at all points by a handful of insurgents, whose origin was a band of robbers in the interior, whose present power is sufficient to drive before them the imperial authorities…but who are, nevertheless, unworthy [of] the respect of the civilized world, and perhaps incapable of consolidating civil government…

Indeed, although the end for the Taiping rebels was years away, it was now certain. With Peking their goal, they plunged deep into north China and stopped near Tientsin; they found the terrain unfamiliar and the Manchu forces were now more skilled in opposing them. Changsha was abandoned and the Taiping divided and subdivided their forces. The Qing armies drew near Nanking and the foreigners in Shanghai, now more frightened than curious, sent troops to drive off the encircling Taiping. The rebel leaders began quarreling among themselves and soon the Kings were massacring each other.

* * *

The government then organized provincial armies under scholarly top-rank Chinese mandarins who saw in the Taiping revolution a basic threat to the entire Confucian tradition. Mr. Spence mentions them in his new book, but does not make their importance as clear as he did in The Search for Modern China. Unlike many of the government’s other forces, they were recruited locally and their units were commanded by local officers. Directed by Qing officials like Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang, they gradually wore down the experienced and highly motivated Taiping—and they subsequently menaced the Qing dynasty itself.

In The Search for Modern China Spence writes,

The Qing cause was also bolstered by the loyalty, tenacity, and courage of senior Chinese officials who fought on against the Taiping even though the regular Manchu-led banner armies seemed unable to defeat the enemy. These Confucian-educated scholars were alarmed by the Taiping threat to their ancestral homes and distraught at the Taiping’s use of Christianity to attack the whole structure of Chinese values.11

In his earlier book Spence attributes the fall of Taiping to their failure to ally themselves with rebellions elsewhere in China, the use of foreign mercenaries by the Manchu provincial armies, and, more decisively still, the failure of the Taiping to attract support from Britain, France, and the United States; the West finally decided to support the faltering Qing rulers from whom they had already exacted much. (While it is also true, as Spence shows, that British and other merchants covertly sold weapons to the Taiping.)

In The Search for Modern China, Spence concluded:

The logic seemed clear: if the Qing beat back the Taiping, the foreigners would keep their new gains; if the Taiping defeated the Qing…then the West would have to start the tiresome process of negotiations—and perhaps wage fresh wars—all over again.12

A few such passages would have helped readers of God’s Chinese Son to better understand the fall of the Taiping. But God’s Chinese Son is a biography, which allows us to see more clearly than before the fatal influence of Hong Xiuquan’s personality on his movement. It responded in its way to the needs of millions of peasants but it was ultimately an expression of his madness. The vanity, greed, and craziness of his appointed Kings, the Lords of Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six Thousand Years, as they styled themselves, sapped and finally wrecked the Taiping earthly kingdom. The Qing army breached its defenses at Nanking in 1864. Hong was killed, along with his family, and slaughter, rape, and pillage swept the city. In The Search for Modern China Spence writes that by this time Hong Xiuquan had withdrawn “into a palace world of sensual pleasures and religious mysticism, surrounding himself with concubines and perusing the Bible for all references to himself….”13

In God’s Chinese Son his account is even more vivid. He portrays Hong as a megalomaniac and paranoiac, whose often absurd public moral injunctions were exceeded by his private depravities and his sexual exploitation of his own followers (behavior that is familiar from accounts of such cults as the Branch Davidians in Waco). Spurning traditional imperial practice, Hong dispensed with eunuchs and turned the entire running of his inner court over to women. According to his son, who, as a male, was banished from the ultimate Eden, there were some two thousand of them, apart from Hong’s eighty-eight consorts, his mother, and his mother-in-law. There had to be perfect order, no weeping, no long faces, no unapproved absences. Roll calls were frequent. Hong was terrified of disease, so two women fanned insects away from his head and feet, keeping the fans at least five inches from his body. His hat was placed on his head in a special way. When he bathed, four sets of heated and scented silk towels were prepared, and his orifices were carefully cleaned. Women were forbidden to meet his eye. They pulled his carriage through his garden “watching at all times for bumps, walking slowly, keeping their distance, and remembering that if they swing the front of the carriage to the left, then the rear of the carriage will veer out to the right.”

Women recited his poems aloud and “need never hide their admiration…so long as they are sincere.” They maintained his sexual prowess with ginseng and shaved deer horn and massaged him all over. His women had to praise him even when they were beaten, and if they failed to do so, they were beheaded in the garden.

* * *

A comparison is inevitable with the character of Chairman Mao revealed last year in the book by his doctor.14 Charismatic, leader of millions toward an allegedly better life, champion of a just and equitable society, proclaimer of his own austerity—Mao was also cruel, a consumer of women, a self-created god or near-god, who caused millions to die before their time.

John Fairbank said of the “ignorant and exclusive” Taiping leaders that their revolution “led to the slaughter and destitution of the Chinese populace. Mass rebellion had seldom commended itself in China. Now it gave a bad name to Christianity, too…. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom went the way of Carthage—only the name survived.”15 Mr. Spence, as noted, observes that men who want to “make all things ‘new,’…rarely care to calculate the cost.”

Mao was such a man; he constantly compared himself, and wished to be compared, to the greatest leaders and visionaries of world history; he permitted himself any act. The Chairman confided to Edgar Snow that human beings need to worship and to be worshiped. Pandering to his need to appear omnipotent, those around Mao desperately tried to sustain his distorted view of the world. So, too, as Jonathan Spence brilliantly shows, in the world of the creator of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom it was “made clear for all to see that Moses, God, and Hong Xiuquan think fruitfully as one.”


  1. Marx on China 1853–1860: Articles from the New York Daily Tribune, with an introduction and notes by Dona Torr (Lawrence and Wishart, 1951), p. xvii.
  2. Marx on China, pp. 1–2, 7.
  3. See for example "The Bankruptcy of the Idealist Concept of History," in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1961), Volume 4, pp. 451–459.
  4. n.a., The Taiping Revolution (Peking, 1976), pp. 18–19.
  5. Philip A. Kuhn in John K. Fairbank, editor, The Cambridge History of China (Cambridge University Press, 1978), Volume 10, p. 317.
  6. John K. Fairbank, China: A New History (Harvard University Press/Belknap Press, 1992), p. 210, 212.
  7. Norton, 1990.
  8. The Search for Modern China, pp. 165–193.
  9. W.J.F. Jenner, The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China's Crisis (Allen Lane/Penguin, 1992), pp. 198, 200.
  10. Fairbank, China: A New History, pp. 211–212.
  11. Spence, The Search for Modern China, p. 177.
  12. Spence, The Search for Modern China, p. 182.
  13. Spence, The Search for Modern China, p. 176.
  14. See my review of The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao's Personal Physician, Dr. Li Zhisui, in The New York Review, November 17, 1994.
  15. Fairbank, China: A New History, p. 211.