God’s New Sons: Media Coverage of the Taiping Rebellion and the Ghost Dance of 1890

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, or Taiping Rebellion, was a religious and political movement that swept over China beginning in 1851, eventually reigning over most of China’s provinces until its fall in 1864 to Chinese imperial and British forces. The Ghost Dance of 1890 was a new religion that rapidly spread among Native American tribes of the American West from 1889-1891. Though separated by a few decades, both movements involved non-white cultures absorbing Christian ideas and reinterpreting them into a millennial style that inspired thousands to join in their practice. Both movements spawned from their respective leaders, Hong Xiuquan and Wovoka or Jack Wilson, experiencing visions wherein they met the Christian God; the men were each inspired by these dreams to share their new theological ideas with their cultural fellows. However, Europeans and Americans understood Taiping theology in much greater depth than Americans ever did with the Ghost Dance. This fundamental difference can be traced to the sharp contrast in media coverage of the two religions.

The central disparity between the media’s presentation of the Taping Rebellion and the Ghost Dance of 1890 was the agency of its religious practitioners in shaping the popular opinion of their own movement. This ability to contribute to the public discourse allowed Taiping followers to represent their religious beliefs as they understood them, whereas the Ghost Dance was seen only through the eyes of fearful whites viewing it from the outside. Official Taiping documents translated into English and letters from foreign visitors to the Taiping capitol of Nanking frequently appeared in The North-China Herald throughout the rebellion.1 These visitors were often missionaries invited to Nanking by Hong himself. Though these men frequently came to see the Taiping as blasphemous and heterodox, this was after having spoken with followers of the new religion.2

In contrast, no reporter ever met with Wovoka during the Ghost Dance’s peak period of popularity both in the media and among Native groups, which lasted only from 1889-1890.3 Instead, the white perspective prevailed in the papers and focused on the practice of the Dance among the Lakota Sioux, which journalists interpreted as a sign of coming war.4 This white perspective removed the possibility of viewing the Dance as a religious movement founded in some Christian concepts for most white American audiences. Even those aware of the true religious nature of the movement saw it as a threat due to the preconceived notion that Native Americans were savages incapable of rationality.5 In summation, the way that newspapers covered each movement controlled the way that white audiences of both Europe and America understood them; since Taiping believers contributed to this coverage in a way not available to Indians practicing the Ghost Dance, the Chinese Taiping were not assumed to be crazed aggressors from the outset.

  1. Just one example being: J. L. Holmes, ‘To the Editor of the North-China Herald’, The North-China Herald, Shanghai, 1 September 1860, pp. 2-3, [accessed 30 October 2020]. []
  2. See Holmes, ‘To the Editor’, pp. 2-3. William R. Doezema, ‘Western Seeds of Eastern Heterodoxy: The Impact of Protestant Revivalism on the Christianity of the Taiping Rebel Leader Hung Hsiu-Ch’üan, 1836-1864’, Fides et Historia, 25: 1 (Winter 1993), pp. 73-76. []
  3. L. G. Moses, ‘“The Father Tells Me So!” Wovoka: The Ghost Dance Prophet’, American Indian Quarterly, 9: 3 (Summer 1985), p. 342. []
  4. Just two of many examples: ‘Ready for the Trail’, Chicago Herald, Chicago, 23 November 1890, p. 10. ‘Reds Come for Rations’, Chicago Inter-Ocean, Chicago, 23, November 1890, pp. 9-10. []
  5. Louis S. Warren, God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America, (New York, 2017), pp. 15, 37. []