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The Creation of Hell on Earth : GOD'S CHINESE SON: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan by Jonathan D. Spence; W.W. Norton & Co. $27.50, 400 pages


The historian Jonathan D. Spence tells in gripping detail a story he calls "as strange as any in Chinese history," the tale of Hong Xiuquan and his Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

In the 1830s this son of a modest farming family in south China encountered some strands of Christian doctrine introduced to China in Chinese by Protestant missionaries.

"Some intersection of Hong's own mind and the pulse of the time," Spence writes, "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."

By the 1840s he had an army of the "God-worshiping faithful"; by the 1850s it had become the Taiping (Great Peace) Heavenly Army; and, with Hong at its head "he fought his destructive yet triumphant way through southern and central China, until in 1853 his forces seized the mighty Yangzi River city of Nanjing (Nanking).

"Here, in a community that was at once scriptural, imagined and rooted in the soil, they created their Taiping New Jerusalem, which remained their base of 11 years until in 1864--after 20 million people or more in the regions under their sway lost their lives in battle or from starvation--Hong and the remnants of his army perished in their turn from famines, fire and sword." Spence's telling the story in the present tense gives it a lively urgency that helps convey a sense of the turbulent flux in which some 450 million people lived under the decaying Qing dynasty while it was increasingly assaulted by ideas, commerce and arms from the West.

Spence says his purpose is to understand the mind of Hong Xiuquan as best he can and to fathom how this man had "such an astonishing impact on his country for so many years."

The portrait he draws of Hong as a young man (described in his own words and those of others) is attractive. He walks about the countryside, teaching and winning converts. As he works out his special religion, he exhibits a charming naivete.

But what begins as a communal life of simplicity and equity for his followers becomes increasingly hierarchical. He and the top leaders in his rapidly growing movement give themselves fancy robes and titles the rest cannot have. Preaching strict sexual abstinence for the masses, Hong takes one concubine after another and fathers many children. He becomes increasingly stern and punishes the least infractions with multitudinous beheadings and terrible lashings.

As the years go by, Hong withdraws from sight, concentrating on theological questions. Was Jesus man or God? Was God corporeal? (Hong had been to heaven and seen him.) And the Qing forces gather strength, harassing, then slowly conquering, the huge area of central and south China, home to 30 million, where the Taiping more or less held sway. Their end is terrible.

Spence lets his narrative speak for itself. He leaves the drawing of conclusions to the reader.

They are, I think, obvious and sobering. Strict and regimented adherence to an abstract ideal of human society, rather than bringing about a promised heaven on earth, will more likely produce hell on earth for actual men and women.

For corroboration you need look no further than China's experience with another Western import, Marxist communism.

But the analogy need not be confined to China. The long history of ferocious religious wars in Europe and Asia about imposing on others the True Faith and exterminating the Infidel suggests the wisdom of never abandoning some skepticism about the certainty of one's convictions.

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