Christian Confucianism

“China also walked in the great Way, but within the most recent one or two thousand years, China has erroneously followed the devil’s path, thus being captured by the demon of hell.”[1] – The Book of Heavenly Commandments

According to many 19th century Christian missionaries and supporters of Confucianism, the teachings of Christianity and Confucianism are based on opposing philosophies which cannot coexist.  Christians of the Taiping Rebellion even went as far as to describe Confucianism as “the devil’s path.”  However, there are many ways in which their ideas overlap and events such as the Taiping Rebellion demonstrate that Confucian ideals can be adapted through a Christian framework.  While most scholars view the Taiping Rebellion through the lens of class or nationalism, Carl Kilcourse argues in his book Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China 1843-1864, that the most important aspects of the rebellion are grounded in religion.  He describes the ways in which rebels adapted Christian theology and successfully integrated it with their own traditions, including Confucianism.  He argues that it was the ability to merge Christianity and Confucianism which made the movement initially successful.

Even though the rebellion’s leader Hong Xiuquan denounced Confucius, many aspects of the Taiping discipline reflect Confucian thought.[2]  Hong’s understanding of human nature shows that he was greatly influenced by classical education, especially the philosophy of Mencius, because Hong held an optimistic view of human nature.  Contrary to the Christian belief that original sin marks all of humanity as inherently evil, Hong’s belief that humans are naturally good reflects Neo-Confucian thought.  Additionally, the Taiping commitment to the Ten Commandments is reminiscent of the Confucian commitment to self-cultivation.  The idea that one can unlock one’s inner good nature by following the Ten Commandments seems to be based on the classic Confucian idea that one should commit oneself to learning and self-perfection.  The fifth of the “Ten Heavenly Commandments” is also connected to Confucianism.  The fifth commandment of filial piety is described in “The Book of Heavenly Commandments,” where it claims that, “the Lord God is the universal Father of all in the mortal world.”[3]  It adapts the Confucian principle that sons should be loyal to their fathers to portray the relationship between humanity and god as one of filial obedience.  Kilcourse uses the Taiping understanding of human nature, the Ten Commandments, and filial piety to show how much their Christian theology overlaps with Confucian tradition, demonstrating that despite Hong’s anti-Confucian rhetoric, he was greatly influenced by Confucianism.[4]

To explain the success of the Taiping ideology, Kilcourse uses the term “glocalization,” or the process of “localization [which] occurs when a foreign object, idea, or institution is taken to a new cultural environment, exposed to local influences, and thereby transformed into an original expression of the indigenous culture.”[5]  While Christians and Confucians alike declared the mutual exclusivity of the two ideologies, their principles and values were often adapted to compliment each other.  The ideas on which the Taiping Rebellion was founded draw from both Christianity and Confucianism, merging the two to create a foundation for the theology of the uprising.


[1] Theodore de Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century, (Columbia University Press, 2001), ProQuest Ebook Central,, 219.

[2] Carl S. Kilcourse, Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China 1843-1864, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 110.

[3] Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition, 219.

[4] Kilcourse, Taiping Theology, 109-133.

[5] Ibid, 17.