GOD'S CHINESE SON: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan by Jonathan Spence, HarperCollins pounds 20: HUNGRY GHOSTS: China's Secret Fami ne by Jasper Becker, John Murray pounds 19.99; Two impressive new books explore the disastrous effects of Western ideas on CChina and her people: at the time of the Taiping revolt as well as in the millenarian Marxism of Mao Zedong's personal vision disaes equally tragically nest costing no it is really fine to
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One of the tragic consequences of the expansion of Western power into new territories was the devastating impact that Western diseases had on civilisations previously unexposed. With no immunity, whole communities, mostly in the New World, were wiped out by measles or the common cold. But when Westerners first breached the defences of China in substantial numbers in the early 19th century, the impact was not in diseases of the body - if anything, China's microbes took their revenge for the impertinence of the early envoys, soldiers, traders and missionaries. Curiously, for a civilisation that prided itself on its intellectual, moral and political self-sufficiency, the most pervasive microbe was the dangerous and elusive one of the mind: Western ideas, transplanted, transformed in that alien soil, which took on new, strange forms.

Both these books tell the extraordinary stories of what that meeting of thoughts produced: in the case of the Taiping, it was Christianity that blossomed in the mind of Hong Xiuquan, "younger brother of Jesus Christ", into a dream of the Heavenly Kingdom on earth and a rebellion that took thousands of lives and shook the Qing empire to its foundations. In the case of Mao Zedong, it was the equally millenarian effect of Marxism, filtered through the lens of the Soviet Union, that led the Great Helmsman to believe that Chinese society could be transformed by force, that agriculture would respond to the power of his visions and that communism could be achieved in his own version of the Heavenly Kingdom. The human cost of Mao's dreams is still a matter of informed guesswork. Even the margin of error is horrifying - somewhere between 43 million and 60 million people, Becker estimates, were to starve.

In both cases, the soil in which the ideas were to take root was well ploughed - or at least thoroughly disturbed - by social upheaval and the breakdown of the political order. As the failed scholar Hong Xiuquan was reading his first Christian tract in 1836, the Qing dynasty, a Manchu dynasty already beginning to suffer from sclerosis, was losing its grip on the empire, undermined by the unceremonious challenge of the West and by incipient revolts within its borders. A century later, Mao Zedong was coming to political maturity in a time of post-imperial chaos, external aggression and warlordism. Both had reasons to reject the philosophy that had underpinned the empire for the best part of two millennia. Both were to become charismatic leaders whose delusions of omnipotence and omniscience brought disaster.

Hong Xiuquan was the son of a farming family in Guandong province whose great ambition was that he pass the imperial exams and become an official. For years he studied, but repeatedly failed. On the second occasion of his failure, in 1837, Hong fell ill and experienced a series of visions in delirium that derived from a Christian tract he had picked up in Canton the previous year. In his dreams, he is summoned to Heaven, where a reproachful Heavenly Father, complete with long golden beard, laments the prevalence of demons in the world. He had created and called on Hong, whom he designated his younger Son, to slay them. When his delirium abated, Hong did not forget his dreams, but since he could not understand them, he resumed his life and his (still unsuccessful) efforts to pass the exams. It was not until 1843, a year after the end of the first Opium War, that Hong rediscovered the tract and, on reading it, understood his mission.

Against a background of a South China infested by pirates, brigands and secret societies. Hong began to preach and to refine his visions, adding to the Christian imagery his own millenarian elements drawn from the wealth of such material in the Chinese tradition. As he became more convinced of his mission, Hong and his followers began to attack the physical manifestations of the demons that so offended his Heavenly Father - the temples and shrines to other gods - thus bringing the Taiping into explicit conflict with official China. From his base in south-west China, Hong's movement built with astonishing speed and, by 1850, a Taiping force of more than 13,000 - it was to grow much bigger still - was moving steadily toward military confrontation with the empire.

It was a struggle that brought 14 years of constant warfare until the Taiping were finally defeated. In the course of those 14 years, they had performed prodigious feats of military valour. They captured several cities in the search for a base until the great southern city of Nanjing fell to them and Hong proclaimed it the capital of the Heavenly Kingdom. From there, huge forces were sent against Shanghai and Peking. They developed extraordinary military skills, both in naval strategy, on China's huge rivers, and in siege and counter-siege techniques. They might have succeeded, but for one thing - the madness of the whole enterprise and of its leader.

The society they established was bizarre and scarcely designed to last, though Hong proclaimed it destined to endure for thousands of years. At its height, it was a neo-military social structure, with elements of sexual Puritanism that were to recur in Mao's socialist China. Men and women were strictly segregated and sexual contact forbidden on pain of death - except for Hong, who maintained a large seraglio throughout. Hong and his trusted cohorts dispensed the word of God, delivered direct in dreams, messages and visions - for the Word as discovered in the Bible soon began to fall short of Hong's own vision. Genesis was pronounced faulty and substantially revised. And as the Word was the foundation of the enterprise, so it became its battleground, as the inner circle fell out and brief civil war erupted within Nanjing in 1856. Hong emerged victorious, but tens of thousands had been slaughtered and the Taiping were left with no competent leadership. Hong retreated into dreams and when in 1863 the Qing besiegers were on the edge of the final onslaught and starvation threatened the city, he ordered the people to eat manna. The order occasioned some bemusement since nobody, including Hong, knew precisely what manna was or where it could be found. A concoction of weeds was prepared and Hong was the first to try it. He died a few days later and his Heavenly Kingdom was crushed.

The people of China were still eating weeds - and counting themselves lucky to get them - a hundred years later, though by 1963 the worst of the appalling famine that Mao had visited on his people had abated. Jasper Becker has pieced together one of the most terrible events of the century - the consequences of the Great Leap Forward and the establishment of the People's Commune that, in a dreadful echo of Stalin's famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s, brought mass starvation to the whole of China. The horror of the story lies in the determined denial of reality that ran from Mao's crazed vision at the top to the false reporting of miracles by local cadres at the bottom. The Chairman believed his methods would increase harvests tenfold, and the Party cadres dutifully reported that they had.

To substantiate the fantasy, they had to seize every ounce of grain from the peasants, leaving them to starve. Even as they starved, they were persecuted for "concealing" the balance of the food that Mao believed they must have produced. Meanwhile, state granaries filled up and exports were increased to demonstrate to a sceptical Soviet Union that Heaven on Earth had been achieved.

Both these accounts are meticulously researched and compellingly told. The story of the Taiping has often been told, but Jonathan Spence brings to his subject the insight born of many years of scholarship devoted to the interaction of the West and China, and a capacity for vivid and detailed narrative only slightly marred by a preference for the historic present. Jasper Becker has achieved that rare feat of exploring a theme in Chinese history - the recurring threat of hunger - and bringing the reader to an understanding of its true importance in the memory of the Chinese people and its tragic role in the political drama. He also offers a small memorial to those uncounted millions, a memorial the leaders who brought about those deaths will never erect. As he says of what was probably the greatest mass murder in history: "There will be no museums to the victims of the famine. The dead seem destined to remain hungry ghosts, unplacated by any memorial or apology ..."

Isabel Hilton, writer and broadcaster, is working on a book about the search for the 11th Panchen Lama.