This week we learned about the Taiping Rebellion, which took place around 1840s-1860s. In it, Hoong, a man who repeatedly failed his government exams, decided to claim he was the other son of God and use Christianity as a recruiting method. This last was rather unique, as previous rebellions had used Buddhism, not Christianity. As much as you would think that the West would be thrilled with this, they weren’t. They were so dissatisfied with the heresy of there being a second son of God that they decided to side with the Qing government instead. So, they helped to modernize the Qing army by equipping them with guns and cannons (thus taking away the advantage of Medieval fortresses) and teaching them how to use these modern tools.
The book reviews taught me that history is not just a set of facts. It is how we view and interpret this bunch of facts- especially what importance we put on them, knowing what we do about what was then the future and is now the past. What’s more, history, like every other discipline, is interpreted through the eyes of humans. Every human has a different life history and different prejudices and thus a different opinion and interpretation. Thus, a man or woman with a more liberal outlook, perhaps because he/she lives in a democracy like the United States and not a communist regime (like modern-day China) is more likely to be sympathetic to Hoong’s cause than a more conservative person.
In this case, the facts have been shaped by the need to portray Hoong’s followers as miscreants fighting against the legitimate government. What isn’t commonly said is why these men decided to fight against this government. Had they won, not only would these reasons be commonly taught, but the Qing government would likely be shown as more evil and incompetent than it was. (The Qing government was actually pretty competent. It just didn’t maintain a large or modern enough standing army.) Remember- history is written by the victor. Due to ethnocentrism, this is especially true if race or ethnicity was involved, as was the case between the Manchu Qing empire and the Chinese and Hakka and other minority groups from Southwest China.
So, depending on which view the book was written from and which view the reviewer felt was correct, the reviewer may or may not have agreed with the book, thus explaining the wildly different reviews.
Melvin Bragg and guests “The Taiping Rebellion“. In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, Feb. 24 2011
Platt, Stephen R. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom : China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War. First Vintage books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2012
Sunquist, Scott W. Review of The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, by Thomas H. Reilly. Church History 74, no. 4 (2005): 900
Bohr, Richard P. Review of The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, by Thomas H. Reilly. Monumenta Serica 53 (2005): 514
Esherick, Joseph W. Review of The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, by Thomas H. Reilly. The American Historical Review 110, no. 5 (2005): 1498