God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan

God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan

by Jonathan D. Spence

ISBN: 9780393315561

Publisher W. W. Norton & Company

Published in Calendars/History

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One


It's hard to be always on the outside, looking in, but these foreigners have no choice. They live crammed together by the water's edge, two hundred yards or so beyond the southwest corner of Canton's crumbling but still imposing walls. They climb often to the roofs of their rented residences, and gaze from there across the walls to the close-packed streets and spacious landscaped residences of the Chinese city that lie beyond. They are allowed to stroll along the west wall's outer edge and peer, past clustered Chinese guards, through the long dark tunnels that form the city's major gates. If times are peaceful, a group of foreign men by prearrangement meet at dawn and walk the city's whole outside perimeter, a walk that takes two hours or so if no one blocks the way. During the fire that raged all night near the end of 1835, and destroyed more than a thousand city homes, one Westerner clambered onto the walls to watch the flames; initially turned away by Chinese guards, he was allowed to return the next afternoon, and walk along the walls at leisure. But this was exceptional grace, and not repeated. Some, with permission, visit rural temples in the hills, which from their upper stories give a different angle to the view across the distant walls. Others scan old Chinese maps that let them place the city's major landmarks in the context of the unwalked streets.(1)

In their frustration, the foreigners pace out the dimensions of their allotted territory. It takes them 270 steps to cross the land from east to west, and fewer still from north to south. Along the southern edge of their domain, where the Pearl River flows, there is a patch of open ground, and this the Westerners call their "square" or "esplanade." But 50 paces from the shore rise the solid fronts of the buildings where they live, and these fill almost all the space remaining, save for three narrow streets that intersect them from north to south, closed at night by gates. Here, in 1836, live 307 men--British and Americans, in the main, but also Parsees and Indians, Dutch and Portuguese, Prussians, French, and Danes. No women are allowed to be with them, and the 24 married men must leave their wives in Macao, one hundred miles away, three days by sampan on the inland waterways where travel is the safest. Twice, in 1830, defiant husbands brought their wives and female relatives to visit them. But even though the women came dressed in velvet caps and cloaks to hide their sex, and stayed indoors all day, when they went out at night (a time chosen because the shops were closed and the streets seemed empty) to see the sights, excited shouts at once announced the arrival of the "foreign devil women." The local Chinese lit their lanterns, and blocked the roads till all the foreigners retreated back to their homes. And the authorities, threatening to cancel all foreign trade unless the women returned to Macao, won their point.(2)

Not that the life lacks compensations. There is money to be made, by old and young alike, two thousand dollars in a few minutes if one deals in opium and a buyer is in urgent need, smaller but still steady sums from trade in tea and silk, furs and medicines, watches and porcelain and fine furniture. The foreign community publishes two weekly newspapers, printed on their own presses, which cover local news and feud and bicker over trade and national policy. There is a fledgling chamber of commerce, and two hotels where one can stay, for a dollar a night, in a four-poster bed, with hot water for shaving, but no mirror. There is fresh milk to drink every day, from the small herd of cows that the foreigners keep always nearby, either in local pasturage or aboard specially adapted boats that moor in the River. There is a small chapel that seats a hundred, a dispensary, and a branch of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. There is even a new mall service, between the factories in Canton and the city of Macao, collected Wednesdays and Saturdays, five cents a letter and twenty cents a parcel, to replace the old letter boats, whose volatile crews sometimes tossed the mailbags overboard, and left them bobbing in the water until they were rescued (if they had not sunk).(3)

The thirteen rows of buildings, known as "hongs," or "factories," rented from the small circle of Chinese merchants licensed by the state to deal with the foreigners, are spacious and airy. Many of them were destroyed by the great fire of 1822, but they have been well rebuilt, of granite and local stone and brick, two stories high near the waterfront, rising to three stories in the rear, and are better protected from fire than before, with well-designed fire pumps ready in the yards. Arched passageways give access and privacy within each of the thirteen lengthy structures, which are divided into contiguous apartments, storerooms, and offices, and shaded from hot summer sun by long verandas and venetian blinds; the men sleep well, despite the heat, on clean, hard rattan mats, or mattresses filled with bamboo shavings, unnostalgic for the feather comforters of home.

Each building is named for the foreign nation that rents most of the space within it. So one finds the Spanish and the Dutch, the Danish and the Swedish hongs, the English, the Austrian Empire's hong, and, most recently, the American. But these national labels are not exclusive, and the small community is interlayered among the thirteen hongs. Some of the buildings have billiard rooms and libraries, spacious terraces jutting out toward the river to catch the evening breeze, and grand dining rooms with gleaming chandeliers and candelabra shining on the silverplate and spotless table settings. Meals can be sumptuous, with solemn Chinese servants in formal hats and robes, silent behind every chair.(4) The inventory of one young American's personal possessions, as tabulated by watchful Chinese clerks, shows glimpses of this life: thirty knives and thirty forks, thirty glasses and decanters, one trunk of woolen clothes, shaving kit and mixed colognes, mirror, soap and candles, hat and spyglass, framed pictures, a gun and sword, fifty pounds of cheroots and 542 bottles of "foreign wine."(5)

There is friendship among the foreigners, and sometimes music. A redcoated band from a visiting ship plays in the square, to the delight of the Westerners, but to the astonishment and tonal anguish of the listening Chinese.(6) Or--a novelty first seen in 1835 at Canton--a steam-driven pleasure boat with band aboard takes parties down the river and into the beautiful, isle-filled sea.(7) And out beyond the harbor one can scramble up the narrow track to the top of Lintin Mountain, aided by fifteen bearers, and picnic there on a large flat rock, laid with a repast of poultry, fish, pastry, ham, and wine, while again a band that accompanied the climbers plays. Replete and rested, one can, if one chooses, slide back down the hillside on one's bottom through the long dry grass.(8)

Language might seem a problem, since in all of Canton and the foreign hongs there is no Chinese who can read or write in English or other European languages, and only a few Westerners who know enough Chinese to write with even partial elegance. This has not always been the case. In the 1810s and 1820s, when the East India Company was at its peak of power, there were a dozen or more young men from England studying Chinese in the Canton factories. They translated Chinese novels and plays, and even the Chinese legal code, so they could assess the equity of the government's rules more carefully. Though the local officials on occasion imprisoned Chinese for teaching their own language to foreigners, and even executed one, and Chinese teachers often had to shelter privately in their pupils' lodgings, the East India Company representatives fought back. By tenacity, they won the right to submit commercial documents in Chinese translation, rather than in English, and to hire Chinese teachers, for study of classical texts as well as Cantonese colloquial dialect. And though the company directors never won official acknowledgment of their right to hire Chinese wood-carvers, they went ahead anyway and block printed an Anglo-Chinese dictionary using Chinese characters; in addition, they managed to accumulate a substantial library of four thousand books, many of them in Chinese, which they housed in their splendidly appointed hong, with the company's senior physician doubling as the librarian.(9)

With the termination by the British government in 1834 of the company's monopoly of China trade, these glory days were over. Most of the language students and experts were reassigned to other countries; their finest teacher, Robert Morrison, died the same year; and the great library was scattered. Only three young men, who had been classified on the company's roster as "proficient" enough to receive an annual student's allowance, are left in Canton by 1836, and their main role is to be caretakers of the company's former buildings and oversee their closing down.(10) Nor are there any established bookshops to be found in the foreigners' restricted zone of residence, for specific laws forbid the sale of Chinese books to foreigners, and even make it a crime to show them one of China's local histories or regional gazettes. Those who wish to search out books must walk some distance to the west, where two bookshops on a side street (a street with gates locked and barred at night) will break the law to the extent of selling novels, romances, and "marvellous stories" to the foreigners, and sometimes arrange for purchases of other titles from the larger stores within the city.(11)

But years of experience have led to the growth of a language shared by nearly all who live among the foreign hongs, a language known as "Canton Jargon" or "Pidgin English." This serves to keep the differing communities in touch, by mixing words from Portuguese, Indian, English, and various Chinese dialects, and spelling them according to Chinese syntax, with r transformed to l, and b to p. "Pidgin" itself comes from the word "business," via its intermediate mispronunciation "pidginess"; gods are joss from Deos; and a religious service is thus a "joss pidgin." Sex is "lofpidgin." Thieves become la-de-loons from ladrao, ships become junks, markets bazaars, lunch tiffin, a letter a chit, one who commands (mandar) a man-ta-le or mandarin, a document a chop, an urgent document chop-chop, one hundred thousand of anything a lac, a laborer a coolie, a conference a chin-chin, one's good acquaintance number one olo flen.(12) Double ee is added after dental consonants, so want becomes wantee, catch catchee. Chinese shopkeepers have at hand little books of terms compiled locally as guides to business, guides in which the Chinese characters for a given object are also glossed below, with other characters suggesting--in Cantonese dialect--the way to say the English. Scales are rendered sze-kay-lesze, January che-na-li-le, west wind wi-sze-wun, and one-two-three wun, too, te-le.(13) Thus can the wealthy merchant Howqua, forewarned that a senior Chinese official is coming to demand a massive bribe, say with resignation to a young American trader "Man-ta-le sendee one piece chop. He come tomollo, wantee too-lac dollar," and everyone knows what he means.(14)

Even though the city of Canton is closed to Westerners, Chinese life enfolds them in their little enclave. The riverbank is lined with boats of every size and shape, so that one can barely see the water. There are cargo boats from up-country, passenger craft, floating homes and floating brothels, drifting fortune-tellers, government patrol ships, barbers' boats, boats selling food, or toys, or clothes, or household notions.(15) And mixed with these amid the din are the ferryboats that run from the Jutting pier at Jackass Point across the river to Honam Island, with its tea plantations, ornamental gardens, and temples where the Westerners are--at intervals--permitted to take the air.(16) There are eighty of these little ferry craft, each holding eight passengers, and charging a standard fee of two copper cents a passenger, or sixteen for the whole boat, if one wishes to travel alone. And there are the larger floating theater boats, where the actors rehearse their plays as they travel from location to location between engagements, and where opium is provided to all visitors with the ability to pay.(17)

If the owners of such floating pleasure palaces by smile and gesture invite the foreigner aboard in hopes of financial gain, the same commercial motive is not present in all those one meets, and genuine hospitality or warmth is by no means lacking. The workers from a wheat-grinding mill, washing their bodies after a day of work, and munching their meal of rice and vegetables, welcome a visitor to view their eleven huge grinding wheels, and the oxen who drive them. A noisy group of carpenters and masons, gathering at sunset to eat and drink beneath an awning spread across an angle of the street for shade and shelter, beckon a passing Westerner to join them. Gangs of tough, barefoot or grass-sandaled, almost naked coolies, after waiting patiently for hours in the sun for casual work, squatting or standing amidst the stalls and markets, each with his bamboo pole with ropes dangling empty, still greet one cheerfully and show nothing but good.(18)

The foreigners know some of the Chinese they deal with by name, or at least by Western variants of their Chinese names. Among these are the hong merchants, thirteen in all, who have the formal monopoly on foreign trade, own the buildings in which the Westerners live, and filter all their petitions and complaints to the higher authorities, and whose own huge homes and warehouses flank the thirteen factories to west and east along the Pearl River: Howqua, Kingqua, Pwankhequa, and the rest. The official linguists," five in 1836, who travel door to door with crucial messages, which they deliver in their hybrid Pidgin English--Atom, Atung, "Young Tom," Alantsei, and Aheen--are known to all.(19)

Others have become known in their role as patients, carefully recorded in the registers of Dr. Parker's dispensary and hospital, opened in late 1835 on the second floor of number 7, Hog Lane, rented for $500 a year from Howqua. Atso, the rice merchant, the girl Akae, Matszeah, the scribe in the governor's office, Changshan, the soldier, Pang she, the seamstress, 925 of them in all, just between November 4, 1835, and February 4, 1836, with cataracts, tumors, abscesses, deafness, partial paralysis, and a score of other woes.(20)

At first glance, Hog Lane is an unlikely site for such benevolent work, but number 7 is at the north end of the narrow street, away from the river, near the busy Chinese thoroughfare that marks the northern boundary of the foreigners' domain. As Parker explains his choice, his "patients could come and go without annoying foreigners by passing through their hongs, or excite the observation of natives by being seen to resort to a foreigner's house." Bamboo strips, numbered in Chinese and English, are issued by the porter downstairs to each patient who comes to seek treatment (some have been waiting outside all night), and they are received in turn on the upper floor, where Parker deals with all he can manage. Their ages range from six to seventy-eight, and there are women as well as men, and in large numbers, to his surprise: "Difficulty was anticipated in receiving females as house patients, it being regarded [as] illegal for a female to enter the foreign factories," as Parker put it, but with male relatives usually in attendance, to watch over them and prevent any whispers of impropriety, "the difficulty has proved more imaginary than real," and female patients number around one-third of the total.(21)

Others, nameless to the observers, give a fuller sense of Chinese life. Two blind girls, nine years old at most, walk to the esplanade, holding on to each other and clutching their wooden begging bowls, laughing and chatting despite their rags, bare feet, and lice.(22) A traveling librarian, banging his rattle, his current stock of popular novels packed into boxes dangling from a bamboo pole across his shoulder, evades the rules that apply to bookshops by walking from door to door in search of customers among the Chinese clerks and coolies. He shows his wares to foreign questioners, and tells them he has no complaints. The three hundred volumes he is carrying--small, light, paperbound--are but those remaining from over a thousand he currently has out on loan.(23)

On the esplanade are rows of stands, whose owners--each with a distinctive cry--sell fruit and cakes, sweets and soup, dogs, cats, and fowl, slabs of horsemeat with the hooves still attached and strings of dried duck tongues, shaped like awls and hard as iron to the touch.(24) Others lure viewers to their peephole boxes, decorated brilliantly in red, or erect a tiny stage on which to mount their puppet shows. Old women sit on the ground, with needle and thread, to mend your clothes, or play a game of chance together, the prize a pair of shoes; a healer presses bamboo cups to men's naked backs, to draw the blood; tinkers at their stalls mend locks and pipes, drill broken glass and porcelain and mend the shards with finest wire, sharpen razors, fill cracks in metal pots. Bird fanciers squat in solemn circles, some with their precious birds in cages, others with birds perched on sticks, or cradled in their hands.(25)

Three streets cut through the foreigners' businesses and residences, dividing them into four blocks of unequal width. All are densely packed with shops. Old China Street, the widest, is twelve feet broad, New China Street and Hog Lane a little less. The streets in general are so narrow that it's almost impossible to move, and one is jostled by the crowds, or bumped harshly by the coolies carrying palanquins with passengers, or massive loads.(26) Buddhist nuns with shaven heads, Taoist and Buddhist priests, ratcatchers with a dozen or more of their captured prey dangling in rows from bamboo poles, fortune-tellers, itinerant doctors, money changers, sellers of the finest fighting crickets that have been collected from the hills outside the town--all join the throng.(27) The shops that sell expensive goods the foreigners might like to buy have signs in Roman letters to render the owners' names and English descriptions of their treasures: carvings of ivory, turtle shell and mother-of-pearl, silks of all kinds, lacquer ware, and paintings of insects and fruits, or of famous battles, where red-coated Englishmen in cocked hats sit rigidly in rows under the relentless fire of Chinese guns. For every item purchased you must get the shopkeeper's chop or seal on your invoice, else it will be confiscated as you leave Canton.(28)

One June evening in 1835, at the entrance to a side street leading to the more affluent Canton suburbs, a dead baby lies in a basket among the rubbish, its body doubled up and its head, slightly swollen, dangling over the basket's edge. So narrow is the way, at this spot, that a Westerner, returning from a stroll in the countryside, has to step over the basket, noticing the contents only when his foot is in midair. As he stares in shock and bewilderment at the baby's face, a group of Chinese bystanders gaze, in equal bewilderment, at him.(29) (Continues...)

Excerpted from "God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan" by Jonathan D. Spence. Copyright © 1997 by Jonathan D. Spence. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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