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Reading Blog - October 2023

Tags: books

China, the US, and Chicago in history

God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (Jonathan D. Spence, 1996)

After gaining access to untranslated Chinese documents, a historian retells the story of Hong Huoxiu, a farmer and schoolteacher in the mid-1800s, who interpreted transliterated names in the Bible to mean that he was the younger brother of Jesus. This started a journey to leading a cult and mini kingdom responsible for 20 million deaths. This story got a short mention in a middle or high school textbook, and now I finally get to some substance.

At the time foreigners and Christians were restricted in travel, but Hong visited Guangzhou/Canton to take civil service exams. Missionaries set up on the streets outside to reach people like Hong who came from rural counties for the exams.
The divine interpretation was also shaped by traditional Chinese mythology and a vision of heaven he had while recovering from illness. Hong's family became worried as he destroyed a Confucian schoolroom, then wandered the region baptizing his first followers. Eventually he and allies found a home base in the Thistle Mountains, where followers received more messages through trances and challenged locals' pagan taboos by desecrating shrines and temples.

The government was slow to protect temples because of bribes and the recent re-legalization of foreign religion. In 1850 there is a turning point where the believers become an army and the government were demons; by the end of the year thousands of Hong's troops battle Qing forces and slip away from city to city. This process continues (with a comparison to Exodus) until the Taiping rebels capture enough boats and weapons to sail down the river and take Nanjing.

Radical beliefs of the group included separating men and women (even married couples), communal property, reciting the Ten Commandments, and extreme beatings for any military or religious disobedience. Women were militarized, and men would wash and mend their own clothes. The author attributes the swift success of the Taiping to resentment of the Manchu emperor, breakdown of local law and order, the organization of punishment and rewards, and outrunning enemies. From the details of battles, the Taiping benefited from new tactics, and ordering civilians ahead of invasion to mark their houses to promise compliance.

Tension with Christians continued after establishment of the Taiping Kindom, with local Catholics being forced to use the new prayers, translations, and rewrites.
Missionaries reached out to Hong, but relationships inevitably grew strained. Of particular interest is Rev. Isachaar Roberts who met Hong when he was a nobody with visions. The author believes that Roberts's assistants, to protect their jobs, manipulated Hong into asking for payment and making his request for baptism look insincere. This is deeply personal 1840s office gossip, so I looked into it. The citation is The Visions of Hung-Siu-Tshuen, and Origin of the Kwang-Si Insurrection pg. 31–32, published 1854. Indiana University has an online copy with the same story and Roberts's recollection of events. Later he would visit Emperor Hong and come away disgusted.

Hong's impulsive mismanagement nearly fell to an internal coup. He replaced all deputies with family members in 1856–57. The historic death count includes those killed in plagues and famines during this rule. With the Qing cutting off all trade, and his armies pushed back from all corners, Hong and his empire eventually collapsed in 1864.

I thought about this book while following a modern-day cult / conspiracy podcast. This one far-off cult continues in Western consciousness because of the "that's not how any of this works!" reaction to the Jesus's brother thing. This is also highlighted in a humorous chapter where the three Western powers sail from Shanghai to Nanjing to attempt to meet and understand the new neighbors. Is picking this event out of Chinese history a type of Orientalism, or a peek into the chaos rolling over China in the stages of empire, colonialism, and republic?


There are a few scattered thinkpieces across the web on the meaning of the Taiping Kingdom to Chiang-Kai Shek, Mao, modern China, and Marx. Hong's initial peasant uprising got a mural in Tiananmen Square, so it seems to be in favor. There are statues and a former residence in Haidu as a tourist attraction. Archivists have found that Marx wrote about the rebellion while active, and took it as an example of why communism would form in industrialized, not agricultural societies.

The author paints a picture of particular cities, recent clashes with the British, pirates and the Triads, festivals and rituals, origins of Hakka people, etc. which were influential but not directly about the rebellion. I skimmed these sections, but they're likely spot on for someone who wants to visit distant lands and times through reading.

I Cannot Write My Life: Islam, Arabic, and Slavery in Omar ibn Said's America (Mbaye Lo and Carl W. Ernst, 2023)

Professors at Duke and UNC published this book this summer.

Omar ibn Said was one of the few people captured in the American slave trade whose writing survives for modern historians. His Arabic writing and Islamic scholarship drew curiosity from slaveholders, who invented stories around Omar being a prince and being grateful to convert to Christianity. Casual Arabists and a Yale expert only recognized some religious phrases in his writing. The Library of Congress credits an abolitionist with preserving his 1831 autobiography and letters. An article appeared in the American Historical Review in 1925:

The writings were re-interpreted and recollected by native speakers at history departments in the 1980s and 90s (C-SPAN video says the autobiography was obscure until the 2000s, traveled the US, then was acquired by the Library of Congress in 2017).

In North Carolina Omar's enslavers were the Owens, a rising political family. Their work in government would thwart abolitionists and pressure free Black people to leave the state. The Owens appeared to use Omar's story to promote themselves as benevolent Christians, and to back a belief that a few exceptional Blacks should ask permission, buy their freedom, and resettle in Liberia.

Ibn Said wrote little about his life in Africa, but with solid researchers on the case it's clear that he studied for 25 years at a madrassa in Bundu, a multi-cultural city in present-day Senegal. His writings indicate that West African scholars were familiar with Islamic scholars as far off as Iraq. A few years after returning to his hometown, he was taken prisoner by an anti-Islamic group and sold to traders.


Rhiannon Giddens, already winner of a Grammy and a MacArthur genius grant, wrote an opera on ibn Said's life. The opera recently won a Pulitzer Prize:

A Guide to Chicago's Public Sculpture (Ira J. Bach and Mary L. Gray, 1983)

After reading Smashing Statues and the recent Chicago Monuments report, it's interesting to travel back to 1983 to see a short, carefully-researched blurb about each sculpture. It's a compact book ready to keep as a reference on your shelf or coffee table.
Bach had directed the city's planning and development departments, and Gray is an art historian affiliated with U. Chicago.

In 1905, lumber magnate Benjamin Ferguson left a million-dollar trust for recognizing public figures with monuments in Chicago. Only a decade later, the book finds a quote that the art world had moved away from populating parks with statues and monuments. The Art Institute of Chicago would use the fund for buildings until pressured by the public and courts to resume sculptures.
Independent of the fund, the Picasso sculpture in front of City Hall sparked a renewed interest in large modern art installations in the late 60s and onward.

Depictions of Native Americans were already in public art consciousness - two sculptures on the U.S. Capitol steps were put into storage in 1958. Controversy is briefly mentioned in the blurb on Potawatomi Rescue, a memorial for Fort Dearborn which would be removed from view around 1997. The section on the Balbo Monument (an original Roman column gifted by Mussolini) also hints at its controversy.

Some Lincoln Park facts:


The Ferguson Fund continued to commission sculptures in 1986, 1996, and one for the extremely-delayed DuSable Park at the mouth of the Chicago River. There are a few articles and blog posts about the Fund continuing but little mention since 2010.
In the 1980s the sculpture Chicago Rising from the Lake was about to be relocated. It got lost twice and is now viewable on the Riverwalk.

In 2012–13, long-lost Lincoln Park sculptures Fountain Girl and Emanuel Swedenborg were re-cast:

Updates to Previous Reads

Wow this is a lot of links.