Learning from Taiping

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The American Civil War was the deadliest in our history and degenerated into a “total war” with General Sherman’s tactics in Georgia. At the same time, the Chinese were also embroiled in a civil war, theirs being between government forces and Taiping rebels. 

Unlike the Confederates, the Taiping were mostly freshly-recruited peasants with no military training, and their leader, Hong Xiuquan, had no prior military experience. Not surprisingly, they did not fight like professional soldiers — they fought what we now call a “scorched earth” campaign in which they targeted mostly civilians, burned down homes and pastures and destroyed infrastructure, doing what Sherman did. 

Whereas the American Civil War ended in 1865 and took some 600,000 lives, the Taiping Rebellion ended the same year and took 20-30 million lives. Considering that China’s population has quadrupled since that time, what kind of death toll can we expect if a portion of the civilian population again tries violence to overthrow the government?

I am not taking a stand on whether China’s government should change. I am only concerned with those who want change to come via violence. Who would want that? Well, to begin with, in 19th century China Hong Xiuquan was an educated peasant and a highly charismatic one. He was converted to Christianity by an American missionary, experienced a series of dreams that he interpreted as omens, then spent three years riding through the countryside proclaiming that he was the brother of Jesus Christ, ordered by God to turn all of China into a Christian theocracy.

In Hong’s time there were many Christian missionaries in China. More than a century later, the world would experience the most dramatic religious expansion ever. During the Cold War, American missionaries began spreading Evangelicalism, Charismatic Christianity, Pentecostalism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses — all American faiths — in developing countries. 

Adherents to these sects of Christianity now number more than 500 million. These are all radical sects of Christianity, and they mean business. Some missionaries are aware that they are sowing the seeds of violence.

In Guatemala, President Efrain Rios Montt — formerly a Pentecostal minister —led a mass-killing campaign in 1982-83 that left 200,000 dead or missing. He famously said that “A true Christian carries a Bible in one arm and machine gun in the other.” 

In Uganda, long a popular destination for missionaries, the Lord’s Resistance Army has been engaged in a campaign of killing, kidnapping, rape, mutilation, ravaging and pillaging since 1987 with the hope of establishing a regime with the Ten Commandments as its constitution. The infamous Joseph Kony, a convert to Christianity, has been its leader since 1995.

China could certainly be the next major battleground. The People’s Republic has five state-controlled religious establishments (Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist and Taoist). People are free to practice a religion, so long as they register with the government and follow the government’s own sect. 

Very, very few of China’s Christians are registered with the government. Naturally, estimates of the number of Christians in China vary tremendously, from the government’s estimate of approximately 14 million to estimates of well over 100 million — yet there were virtually no Christians after the anticlerical Cultural Revolution (1966-76). At the source of this growth are thousands and thousands of foreign missionaries — even though the promotion of any religion by foreigners is illegal. What are these missionaries and illegal converts besides rebels?

I don’t think we can recall all the American missionaries in China, but I do think we can make more Americans aware of the Taiping Rebellion and its significance. First, we will need more history teachers — beginning in the more progressive schools — to know about it and why it’s important. 

The teachers should then find a way of carefully teaching this lesson that does not cause parents to protest. We must have a better-informed population of young people so that they understand the potential impact of their work if they do decide to become missionaries. 

Michael Harrison is studying for a PhD in political science at the New School.

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