The Capitalism of Christianity

The opening of Japan in the mid 1800s resulted in an intellectual exchange between Japan and the “Western” world as Western countries vied to establish ties with Japan and to exert their own cultural influence on the country.  While the general model for imposing cultural conventions is through capitalist systems, Christian influences took a different approach.  The prevalence of capitalism in the nineteenth century permeated all aspects of life in the United States and many European countries, including missionary work.  H. B. Cavalcanti uses the case of American missionaries in Latin America to demonstrate that even religion could be commodified and used as a means of exerting capitalist influences on other countries.  He describes the competition between American Christian denominations which “competed openly in the American religious market, vying for ‘shares’ of the country’s faithful (Finke and Stark 2000). Once those churches established foreign-mission programs, it was only natural that they tried to reproduce in host countries similar market conditions to the ones enjoyed at home.”[1]  While the spread of capitalism in the nineteenth century seemed to be an unstoppable force which, among its other political, economic, and social consequences, effectively exported Christianity globally, this was not the case in Japan.

Instead, the diplomatic relations between Japan and Russia led to a transnational exchange of ideas which led to the emergence of a form of religious anarchy.  Sho Konishi argues that this cultural exchange was highly influenced by the popularity of Russian literature translated into Japanese.[2]  Populist Russian literature introduced new, and complemented existing solutions to “social problems” which both countries were facing in the aftermath of their revolutions.  A running theme in translations of Russian literature was that “‘society’ began to be defined in this context as a problem of unfettered capitalism.”[3]  The socialist and anarchist themes in Russian literature built off pre-existing anarchist traditions in Japan, creating an anti-capitalist base among Japanese intellectuals.

This Russian translation culture was not only anarchist in nature, but Christian as well.  Konishi uses the popularity of Leo Tolstoy in particular to illustrate this fact.  Just as “Tolstoy became a dangerous apostate of the Russian Orthodox Church, he was gaining a widespread religious following in Japan, where many regarded him as a prophetic religious thinker and a saint.”[4]  But, the Christian ethic which was popularised by Tolstoy does not conform to either the typical Western Christian theology or the methods of its dissemination.  Instead, “The resulting conversions to what was called ‘Tolstoyan religion’ (Torusutoi no shūkyō) or ‘religious anarchism’ (shūkyōteki anākizumu) in Japan occurred in the total absence of the converter, that is, without a missionary or church institution.”[5]  Unlike the missionary organisations which operated in other countries, Christianity in Japan was not the result of capitalist systems imposing religious doctrines, but a unique religious theory which rejected the very idea of capitalism.  This “religious anarchism” was both a political stance and a utopian dream for a future universal human religion.


[1] H. B. Cavalcanti, “The Right Faith at the Right Time? Determinants of Protestant Mission Success in the 19th-Century Brazilian Religious Market,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41, no. 3 (2002): 423–38,, 423.

[2] Sho Konishi, Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan, 1st ed. Vol. 356 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2013),, 95.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 93.

[5] Ibid., 95.

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.

The Conservative Character of the Taiping Rebellion

A surface level study of the ideology of the Taiping Rebellion may lead one to view the movement as distinctly unique and unprecedented in Chinese history. Though Christianity, a religion obviously not indigenous to China, had made itself known to China for centuries prior to the rebellion, it certainly never inspired social movements anywhere near the scale of the Taiping. A first impression of the Taiping rebellion as revolutionary and progressive may be reinforced by historiographical schools of thought that see the Taiping’s as peasant rebels and revolutionary ancestors of the Communists.[1] Whilst land redistribution was a theme in the rhetoric of the Taiping’s it was never realized in practice. Additionally, whilst foot-binding was abolished in areas controlled by the Taiping rebels, the practice was far less common in Guangdong and Guangxi province where the revolt effectively was born, therefore, for the leaders of the rebellion abolition of foot-binding was a less revolutionary step than it would have been in other parts of China.[2]

The political and theological orientation of the Taiping’s was conservative in nature, rhetoric and ideology concerned a return to a time when China was favoured by God (Tianzhu). The connection between God and the Chinese people was severed at the time of Qin Shi Huang’s wars of unification when Qin adopted the title of (Di), usurping a title that can only legitimately be held by God, and began worshipping Daoist false Gods.[3] Since then, China had become increasingly morally corrupt not least due to the idolatry associated with foreign Buddhism. It is of course, a classic conservative rhetorical move to harken back to a Golden Age when people had pure morals and society existed in perfect order. The widespread iconoclastic attacks on Buddhist and Daoist idols bare superficial resemblance in imagery to the iconoclastic attacks perpetrated by the Communist Party against antiquated superstition. However, the purpose of the iconoclastic attacks conducted by the Taiping’s was not to destroy old ways to make way for a new, progressive society, but to reverse the spiritual decline that China had suffered due to the worship of false Gods.[4]

Perhaps the most striking example of the Taiping’s conservatism was their distinctly patriarchal view of the role of women in society. In Poems of the Heavenly Father, Hong Xiuquan, leader of the Taiping rebellion, outlines his misogynistic feminine ideal. The poems lay out ten offences which are punishable by beating, clearly establishing a link with the Decalogue so that women serving Hong in the palace would associate the ten offences with the will of heaven. The ten offences are:


          1. Disrespectfulness
          2. Refusing to obey instructions
          3. Raising the eyes
          4. Disrespectfulness in asking for instructions
          5. Rashness
          6. Speaking to loudly
          7. Refusing to respond
          8. Cheerlessness
          9. Casting the eyes to the left or right
          10. Unmannerly speech[5]


In the palace of Heavenly Capital (Tianjing) feminine virtue was an instrument of patriarchal domination. Hong’s patriarchal doctrines where not always Biblically inspired, but in the case of the ‘three obedience’s’ inspired by the Chinese classics. The three obedience’s instructed women to obey their fathers, then their husbands, then (as widows) their sons.[6] In his monograph on Taiping ideology, Carl S Kilcourse argues that the patriarchal nature of the Taiping movement was the clearest example of Hong’s attachment to classical Confucian morality, even though the movement’s outward rhetoric disavowed Confucianism.[7] Poems of the Heavenly Father demonstrate Hong’s reluctance to move away, even nominally, from the oppressive patriarchal role of women that was the norm in China, and is perhaps the most illustrative feature of the Taiping movement’s conservative character.

[1] Kilcourse, Carl S. Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China, 1843–64. Springer, 2016. p.157

[2] Ibid. p.158

[3] Ibid. p.51

[4] Ibid. p.54

[5] Ibid. p.161-162

[6] Ibid. p.164

[7] Ibid. p.165

Add and Stir: Taiping as a Confucian-Christian hybrid

The focus of our reading this week was on the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). The Taipings sought to overthrow the Qing dynasty and establish a Christian ‘heavenly kingdom of great peace’ (太平天國). A natural thought might be to characterise the Rebellion as an instance of what Philip Kuhn calls ‘an alien religion generat[ing] a furious assault on China’s existing social structures and values’.1 In describing Christianity as bringing about a ‘furious assault’ onto ‘China’s existing social structures and values’, Kuhn separates the Eastern and Western ideas into two distinct spheres – two worlds that contrast each other. In characterising the relationship between the East and the West in this way, Kuhn therefore characterises the Taiping Rebellion as a case in which the Western idea of Christianity was imposed onto the East.  I think this view is too simplistic. Instead, I think the Taiping Rebellion ought to be seen as an ‘interplay’ between Chinese and Western ideas.2 The East and the West should not be seen as two separate spheres. Instead, Eastern and Western ideas should be seen as more fluid, adapting and shifting as they interact with each other.

In particular, I like the term ‘glocalization’, which one of my peers used in his presentation on Carl Kilcourse’s Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China 1843-1864. The ‘glocalization’ framework, according to Kilcourse, refers to the localisation of a globally-disseminated product, ideology, or institution, i.e. when something is taken to a new cultural environment and transformed into an original expression of the indigenous culture3. Analysing the Taiping Rebellion this way, I think, is truer to the reality of the situation. Christian ideas were taken in and mixed in with traditional Confucian notions, creating a religion that was not purely Christian and was, instead, more of a Confucian-Christian hybrid. In order to demonstrate this, I will reference some of the Ten Heavenly Commandments the Taipings established.

  1. Honour and worship the Lord God …

2. Do not worship false gods …

3. Do not take the name of the Lord God in vain …

4. On the seventh day, worship and praise the Lord God for his grace …

5. Be filial and obedient to thy Father and Mother …

7. Do not indulge in wickedness and lewdness …

… Men or women who commit adultery or who are licentious are considered monsters; this is the greatest possible transgression of the Heavenly Commandments. The casting of amorous glances, the harboring of lustful imaginings about others … are all offenses against the Heavenly Commandment …

10. Do not think covetous thoughts …4

I will begin by highlighting the Christian elements of this extract. Western influence can be seen in some of the practices adopted by the Taipings.5 Firstly, the overall observance of the Ten Commandments is undoubtedly Western in origin. Within the extract, points 1, 2, and 3 are taken directly from the original Ten Commandments, and 4 – the observance of the seven-day week – originates from Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. As Commandments 1-4 are lifted explicitly from the Bible, they can thus be used as evidence to support Kuhn’s view, promoting the idea of the Taiping Rebellion as a direct imposition of Western ideas onto the East.

Glocalization begins when we analyse Commandments 5, 7, and 10. What makes these particular Commandments interesting is that they all make explicit reference Kongzi’s Analects (孔子). Firstly, 5 mentions ‘filial piety’, the duty a young person has to respect their parents. In Analects 1.6, Kongzi states that ‘a young person should be filial and respectful of his elders when at home and respectful of his elders when in public’.6

7 and 10, on the other hand, make reference to the fact that intentions, not just actions, carry an ethical charge in Confucianism. 7, makes the argument that ‘harboring lustful imaginings about others’ is just as offensive as committing adultery. 10 warns Taiping’s followers to not have ‘covetous thoughts’, or thoughts of wanting more than they need. In focusing on ‘imaginings’ and ‘thoughts’, both thus make the argument that intentions can be both morally good and bad. This references Analects 3.12, in which Kongzi says that ‘if I am not fully present at the sacrifice, it is as if I did not sacrifice at all’.7 What he means by this is that it is not good enough to show your goodness by doing good actions. If you sacrifice without ‘being present’, i.e. not mentally and spiritually committing to the sacrifice, then you are better off not having done the sacrifice at all. Instead, a truly good person must also have good intentions whilst they are doing their actions. Otherwise, those actions are empty.

By explicitly-referencing Kongzi’s Analects, Commandments 5, 7, and 10 thus demonstrate that the Taiping Rebellion was not just an instance in which Western ideas were imposed onto the East. Instead, the references to the Analects demonstrate that the Taiping Rebellion was more ideologically-complex, with interplay between Western and Eastern ideas. This interplay can be described as ‘glocalization’, whereby Western Christian ideas were taken in, mixed with pre-existing Confucian traditions, and combined to create a Confucian-Christian hybrid religion.

  1. Philip A. Kuhn, ‘The Taiping Rebellion’ in D. Twitchett, J.K. Fairbank (eds.), The Cambridge History of China: Vol. 10: Late Ch’ing, 1800-1911, Cambridge University Press: 1978, p. 264 []
  2. William Theodore De Bary, ‘The Heavenly Kingdom of the Taipings’ (1952) in Richard John Lufrano, Wing-Tsit Chan, John Berthrong (eds.), Sources of Chinese Tradition: Vol. 2: From 1600 through the twentieth century, Columbia University Press: 2000, p. 213 []
  3. Carl S. Kilcourse, Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China 1843-1864, Palgrave Macmillan: 2016, pp. 17-18 []
  4. Xiao Yishan, ‘Taiping Tianguo congshu’ (太平天國叢書) ser. 1, ce 1, pp. 1a-2b, 6b-8a in William Theodore De Bary, ‘The Heavenly Kingdom of the Taipings’ (1952) in Richard John Lufrano, Wing-Tsit Chan, John Berthrong (eds.), Sources of Chinese Tradition: Vol. 2: From 1600 through the twentieth century, Columbia University Press: 2000, pp. 220-221 []
  5. William Theodore De Bary, ‘The Heavenly Kingdom of the Taipings’ (1952) in Richard John Lufrano, Wing-Tsit Chan, John Berthrong (eds.), Sources of Chinese Tradition: Vol. 2: From 1600 through the twentieth century, Columbia University Press: 2000, p. 218 []
  6. Kongzi, 1.6 in P.J. Ivanhoe, Bryan W. Van Norden (eds.), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, Hackett Publishing: 2005, p. 3 []
  7. Kongzi, 1.6 in P.J. Ivanhoe, Bryan W. Van Norden (eds.), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, Hackett Publishing: 2005, p. 9 []