The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Revolutionary Christianity Arrives in China

History

Is the Taiping Revolution (1850-1864) the moment when the revolutionary Christian tradition arrives in China? I suggest that it is precisely such a moment, for a number of reasons. These include a radical reinterpretation of the Bible, a thorough challenge to the underlying structures of existing power, a communistic way of life, and the development of a distinctly new religious form.

Is the Taiping Revolution (1850-1864) the moment when the revolutionary Christian tradition arrives in China? I suggest that it is precisely such a moment, for a number of reasons. These include a radical reinterpretation of the Bible, a thorough challenge to the underlying structures of existing power, a communistic way of life, and the development of a distinctly new religious form. However, before I explore these points, let me offer a brief outline of the Taiping Revolution.

Beginning in the southern provinces of mid-nineteenth century China, the revolution controlled vast areas of China for over a decade. It fielded peasant armies numbering more than a million, taking Nanjing and threatening Beijing and further west. It rocked the Qing dynasty to its core and was overcome only with the assistance of foreign guidance and weapons technology. Of course, peasant revolutions were not unknown in China, with dynastic change often involving peasant uprisings, at times by minority groups. But these uprisings would then institute another dynastic system that continued the patterns of the old. The challenge in these cases was to the particular dynasty, which had – it was assumed – veered off course and become corrupt. So a correction was needed, restoring a proper dynasty with emperors that held true to the ‘mandate of heaven’. In this way, the fundamentals of the dynastic system remained firmly in place. By contrast, the Taiping Revolution radically challenged the justifications and assumptions of the dynastic system itself, declaring the whole imperial system idolatrous and in need of abolition.[1]

Heterodox Christianity and Revolution

But why was the Taiping Revolution a decisive break with profound historical repercussions? To begin with, it appears as an unorthodox or heterodox form of Christianity. This theology, based on a novel but careful interpretation of the Bible,[2] was initially developed by Hong Xiuquan, who had failed repeatedly to pass his imperial civil service examinations. At its core was the theological argument that Shangdi (the high God of classical China) had chosen Hong to found on earth a Heavenly Kingdom. Shangdi also spoke through the Bible, and here the message was clear that the sacred, if not divine, claims of the imperial throne blasphemed Shangdi and created idols in his place. Further, instead of the traditional trinity (father, son, and holy spirit), Hong argued that only the ‘father’ was properly God, with Jesus as God’s first son and Hong as his second son. Through dreams and visions, Hong heard a message that he was a slayer of demons and leader of the new heavenly kingdom on earth. With such an original reworking of theology, it should come as no surprise that Hong had and continues to have legions of detractors. The missionaries and indeed churches in China rejected his theology as ‘heresy’. Of course, this is a standard line, found in many cases of the ‘indigenisation’ or ‘contextualisation’ of Christianity wherever it has gone. Even more, many today continue to dismiss this theology by insisting that Hong was in some senses ‘mad’. But this dismissal of revolutionary religious leaders, if not revolutionary leaders as such, is a drearily common feature among anti-revolutionary commentators.

This theological innovation led Hong and the Taiping followers to a revolutionary position. Crucially, this revolutionary approach relied up a distinct interpretation of the first three of the Ten Commandments. In the eyes of the Taiping revolutionaries, those commandments referred directly to the Qing dynasty and the whole imperial system, which sought to place other gods before the high God, Shangdi. In doing so, it blasphemed and created idols, not merely by the claim that the emperor was in many respects a sacred figure, but through the many symbols of imperial rule throughout China. For these reasons, the imperial system had to be destroyed. In order to indicate their intent, the Taiping armies systematically smashed the symbols – statues, icons, buildings, and so on – of imperial power.

The Bible and Communistic Life

The Bible may have provided Hong and his collaborators with the justification for revolution, but it also outlined a way of life to be followed. In this case, the early Christian communities became the model, where all things were held in common (Acts 2 and 4). This communistic way of life is also a feature of the revolutionary Christian tradition, the best example being Thomas Müntzer, who led the Peasant Revolution in sixteenth century Germany. The Bible, argued Müntzer, rejects the power of princes and the church. Instead, God supports the lowly and the weak, the poor and oppressed. For Müntzer, the core of the Christian message is this: ‘It is an article of our creed, and one which we wish to realise, that all things are in common [omnia sunt communia], and should be distributed as occasion requires, according to the several necessities of all. Any prince, count, or baron who, after being earnestly reminded of this truth, shall be unwilling to accept it, is to be beheaded or hanged’.[3]

For the Taipings, this way of life meant not only common ownership of property, but also the abolition of private property. Yet it went further, for the Bible also speaks of there being neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew nor gentile in Christ (Gal 3:28). Thus, the Taiping movement abolished classes and instituted equality between the sexes. The Taiping army included many women, and the new examination system (based on the Bible) included women with men. Opium, alcohol, tobacco, gambling, slavery and prostitution were also banned. Thus, not only does the current situation require revolutionary overthrow, but also the new society is not to be like the old.

Transformation

Third, in the case of the Taiping movement, this revolutionary Christian tradition undergoes a transformation in a Chinese context. It did so by attacking and transforming the Confucian tradition that provided the ideological framework for the imperial system. On the one hand, it sought to destroy the Confucian justification – by means of a rigid hierarchy suffused with harmony – of that system. In place of this Confucian hegemony, it offered the alternative hegemony I have outlined above. On the other hand, it transformed the Confucian tradition itself, especially in terms of taiping shi (Great Peace) and datong (Great Harmony). The key here is the theory of three stages of history, first articulated in the Gongyang Commentary to the Spring and Autumn Annals from the later Han period: the Age of Disorder (shuailuan shi) is followed by the Age of Ascending Peace (shengping shi), which reaches its culmination in the Age of Universal Peace and Equality (taiping shi). In its own way, this proposal was itself a reshaping of the older Confucian idea of the datong, except that Confucius seems to have thought of it as an age of the past now lost, or perhaps part of a cycle from order to chaos and back again.[4] By the time of the early twentieth century, this tradition underwent yet another reformulation, now by Kang Youwei (1858-1927) in his Book of Great Harmony (Datong shu), for whom the utopian final age of great harmony would be suffused with the Confucian principle of ren. However, the question to be asked here is: utopia (taiping and datong) for whom and for whose benefit? It is all very well for the ruling classes to advocate harmony and peace, for these values ensure that the ruling classes remain in their positions of power – harmony and peace, yes, but for our benefit.

The Taiping Revolution took up and transformed this Chinese tradition in light of the Christian revolutionary tradition. The Taiping movement provides a glimpse a new focus, on the people who have normally been excluded by the idea of harmony and peace; or rather, on those who must remain subservient to the ruling classes – harmony and peace, but now for the majority of the poor. As the Gospels point out, ‘blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. It is not unexpected, then, that the Taipings abolished private property, classes, and gender discrimination – for the miners and peasants who were part of the movement. And no wonder it had such wide appeal.

Conclusion

Each of the features I have discussed is also found in the revolutionary Christian tradition that Engels first identified and Kautsky outlined in such detail: the radical and heterodox interpretation of the Bible; the revolutionary challenge to the existing order in the name of God; a communistic mode of living; and the creation of novel religious forms. Obviously, this revolutionary tradition was a far cry from the earlier forms of Christianity introduced to China by Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries.

Let me close on a slightly different point, picking up Samir Amin’s suggestion that the Taiping Revolution was the ‘ancestor of the “anti-feudal, anti-imperialist popular revolution” as formulated later by Mao’.[5] In fact, he argues that it was the first revolutionary strategy of peoples on the peripheries of capitalist imperialism. It sought to reject the first incursions of imperialism into China, which had taken place barely ten years before in the First Opium War of 1840. It therefore became the model for modern anti-imperialist struggle, which was refined by Mao. It may have been crushed initially, but it won out in the long run due to the model and inspiration it provided. I would add the point that the distinctly novel form of the Taiping movement was due to its engagement with the revolutionary religious tradition of Christianity.

References

Amin, Samir. ‘Forerunners of the Contemporary World: The Paris Commune (1871) and the Taiping Revolution (1851–1864)’. International Critical Thought 3, 2 (2013), pp. 159-64.

De Bary, William Theodore, Wing-tsit Chan, and Burton Watson, Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960).

Kautsky, Karl, Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation (trans. J. L. Mulliken and E. G. Mulliken; London: Fisher and Unwin, 1897).

—, Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus II: Der Kommunismus in der deutschen Reformation (Berlin: Dietz, 1976 [1895-97]).

Müntzer, Thomas, The Collected Works of Thomas Müntzer (trans. Peter Matheson; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988).

Reilly, Thomas, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004).

 

[1] One may argue that the Taiping Revolution followed in this pattern too in some respects, with the later rise of its leader, Hong Xiuquan, to the status of supreme leader in a way that resembled the emperors. But this illustrates that the emergence of a new approach to revolutions is never pure, for it is tied in some ways to what has gone before.

[2] See Thomas Reilly, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004).

[3] Karl Kautsky, Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation (trans. J. L. Mulliken and E. G. Mulliken; London: Fisher and Unwin, 1897), p. 130; Karl Kautsky, Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus II: Der Kommunismus in der deutschen Reformation (Berlin: Dietz, 1976 [1895-97]), p. 67. See further Thomas Müntzer, The Collected Works of Thomas Müntzer (trans. Peter Matheson; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988).

[4] The concept of datong originates with the ‘Liyun’ (‘Evolution of Rites’) chapter of Liji (Book of Rites). In that text Confucius says to a disciple: ‘When the Great Way was practiced, the world was shared by all alike. The worthy and the able were promoted to office and men practiced good faith and lived in affection. Therefore they did not regard as parents only their own parents, or as sons only their own sons. The aged found a fitting close to their lives, the robust their proper employment; the young were provided with an upbringing and the widow and widower, the orphaned and the sick, with proper care. Men had their tasks and women their hearths. They hated to see goods lying about in waste, yet they did not hoard them for themselves; they disliked the thought that their energies were not fully used, yet they used them not for private ends. Therefore all evil plotting was prevented and thieves and rebels did not arise, so that people could leave their outer gates unbolted. This was the age of Grand Unity’. William Theodore De Bary, Wing-tsit Chan, and Burton Watson, Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), pp. 175-76.

[5] Samir Amin, ‘Forerunners of the Contemporary World: The Paris Commune (1871) and the Taiping Revolution (1851–1864)’, International Critical Thought 3, 2 (2013), pp. 159-64 (159).

2 thoughts on “The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Revolutionary Christianity Arrives in China

  1. This is an interesting argument. It tracks closely with Reilly’s book, which you include in the bibliography. Reilly also sees the Taiping as a political Christian movement, and draws an analogy to liberation theology (which I find a little far-fetced).

    I visited the Taiping Museum in Nanjing in 2007, and I remember that the museum (at the time–I don’t know what it is like now) focused purely on the revolutionary tradition of the Taiping, without much discussion of the religious content. Marx was alive during the Taiping and saw it as a possible model for rebellion (along with the US civil war). That said, I don’t really agree with you. The Taiping took place after similar revolutionary movements earlier in the nineteenth century (i.e. White Lotus), which were violent and millenarian. Hong sex-segregated the city and introduced a range of new theological teachings. He described visions where Confucius was present. I don’t know whether or not he called his movement Christian, but it was clear very early on that he was teaching something different from the missionaries and Chinese Christians of the period. Was it anti-imperialist, or just anti-imperial?

    I am always curious about analogies like this. Is the goal to show how the Taiping offered a model for rebellion? Is it to see a Christian inspiration for rebellion? It’s an interesting piece, and I hope you can develop it more fully. Clearly, Christian teachings had a huge impact on the rebellion (the largest, most violent in history before the 20th century), but the movement drew on several traditions in a very particular context.

  2. You mention in your conclusion having found in the Taiping movement both “…the radical and heterodox interpretation of the Bible; the revolutionary
    challenge to the existing order in the name of God; a communistic mode
    of living” and “the creation of novel religious forms.”, but you only seem to have demonstrated the former, unless you mean the latter being constituted by the former, which looks like a redundancy. Obviously “novel religious forms” applies to western Christian communist movements like the Diggers, the Hutterites, the Taborites and Thomas Muntzer’s original League of the Elect (and current pioneers, like the Jesus Army). It seems to me that the use of the word religion in itself confuses matters, since using the word assumes the arbitrary and false distinction between matters spiritual and theological and matters of daily and material existence, whereas in Biblical cosmology and anthropology no such separation exists, neither between body and soul nor between God’s kingdom and the earth, which is why the absence of God’s rule was felt and lamented, and why Jesus proclaimed its arrival with his ministry. It is un-Biblical heresy which asserts that God’s rule is spiritual only and exists only in the the spiritual dimension of the universe (heaven) or only in the afterlife (paradise). If that were so, the absence of God’s rule would be normal and unremarkable, and no struggle with principalities and powers would be entailed in its enforcement.

    A secondary complaint is with the typology of “heterodox” applied to radical interpretation of the Bible. The implication is that political conservatism, the condoning and promotion of inequality and avoidable need is part of theological conservatism, whereas surely the socio-political character of Biblical orthodoxy is what political conservatism flouts (the defense of Wickedness necessarily involving heresy, blasphemy, idolatry, apostasy and hypocrisy, per The Road the Damascus: Kairos and Conversion). At the least, the socio-political character of orthodoxy, the determination of what and where orthodoxy is, is the real political-theological struggle.

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