Absorbing perspectives on what drove the messianic leader of the Taiping uprising that convulsed China during the mid-19th century. Drawing on contemporary texts, noted Yale sinologist Spence (Chinese Roundabout, 1992, etc.) provides a nuanced account of the spiritual life of Hong Xiuquan, a convert to Christianity whose vivid fantasies or visions doomed him to become a crucifer of blood. A native of rural Hua, Hong came to Canton in 1836 at age 22 to sit for civil-service examinations but failed the tests that could have made him a career bureaucrat. In the provincial capital, however, he was exposed to the evangelical doctrines preached by dedicated Christian missionaries from Europe and the US. Convinced by dreams that he was the younger brother of Jesus, whose duty was to establish a Heavenly Kingdom (Taiping) on earth, Hong eventually attracted a considerable following. Aided by widespread discontent with the Manchu regime that erupted after the Opium War, his movement became a religious and military force to be reckoned with. Having flooded into the eastern reaches of the Yangtze River Valley, the so-called God-worshippers seized Nanjing in 1853. Secure in this waterside stronghold, the insurgents built their New Jerusalem, bowdlerized the Old Testament (mainly to give Jesus a less reproachable lineage), and threatened to overrun all of South China. Concerned for the security of their Shanghai trading concessions, Western powers (notably, the UK) backed the central government, which recaptured Nanjing in 1864. Hong died of natural causes weeks before the final defeat, leaving bitter memories of a celestial state that cost millions their lives during its 11-year duration. With a storyteller's flair that other scholars can only envy, Spence provides lucid context for a remarkable but unfamiliar chapter in Chinese and world history.