The Interplay of Confucianism and Protestant Fundamentalism in the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

“A fascinating example of the interplay between Chinese and Western ideas in a historical event of the first magnitude.”1 This summary, taken from the second volume of Sources of Chinese Tradition, neatly outlines the legacy of the Taiping Rebellion. This piece will argue that it is this interplay that contributed to the original success of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, due to the similarities between Confucian ideals and western Protestant Fundamentalism.

The importance of Protestantism in the foundations of the Taiping Rebellion cannot be overstated. As Thomas O’Reilly brilliantly explains, Protestantism as a denomination had come to China far later than Catholicism, and yet was quick to take hold. He points out that rather than focus on proselytising and active conversion, as previous Catholic efforts had done, the first Protestant missionaries instead devoted themselves to translation. In doing so, he argues that ‘the translated Bible constituted Protestantism’s most influential contribution to the Taiping Rebellion’. 2

However, translation alone does not account for the success of Protestantism in China. Reilly’s work, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, details how the success of the Rebellion in part came down to the inherent similarities of Protestant Fundamentalism and Confucian teachings. In particular, Reilly notes the importance laid on the hierarchical system of the Heavenly Father (God), Jesus (the Heavenly Elder Brother), and the leader of the Rebellion himself, Hong Xiquan (the Heavenly Younger Brother). In demanding complete obedience to this structure, Reilly shows that Protestantism shared much of the same core values and dogmas as Confucianism. Hong, having been extensively educated under the Civil Service Examination system, was thus deeply rooted in Confucian ideology, and it was therefore no great issue to tie in the new western religion to these ancient ideals.

This return to Confucian ideals is echoed by Philip A Kuhn, who argues that Hong’s original aim of conversion ‘could best be accomplished by reconciling Christianity with the Confucian tradition’.3 Both Reilly and Kuhn note the importance placed on the adherence to the Ten Commandments, slightly altered from the Old Testament, but retaining much of the basic tenets. As well as this, Reilly mentions that the doxologies, or songs, were more likely to have been chanted rather than sung, and, more importantly, that ‘a report from the city of Suzhou states that that the singing of the doxology in that city included 28 verses of four to five characters each’, which naturally draws comparisons with the Three Character Classics.4 Of course, there were noticeable differences, notably in the granting of land to each family unit equally and the call that no-one should own private property.5 However, this speaks more to Hong’s plans for economic reform, and were as much rooted in the dissatisfaction and hostility to the Qing dynasty’s perceived failures as in religious doctrine.

Overall, it is clear that the reason for the early success of the Taiping Rebellion was due to the similarities between Confucianism and Protestantism. For a young man having dedicated his life to learning Confucian ways and being deeply disappointed in his failures, it is it perhaps easier to understand the allure that Protestantism held for Hong Xiquan. In integrating his classical education with the newness of western religion, he was able to marry the two together almost seamlessly. In the end, it was not a failure of religious belief and unity that saw the fall of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, but military, as it was weakened by internal power struggles and fracturing. It therefore stands as one of the major events of the 19th century in China and undoubtedly laid the groundwork for the later rebellions and uprisings of the 20th century and beyond.

  1. Theodore de Bary, William, Lufrano, Richard John, Wing-tsit Chan and Berthrong John, Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 through the twentieth century, (2nd ed. New York, 2000), p. 213. []
  2. O’Reilly, Thomas, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, (Seattle, 2014), p. 57. []
  3. Philip A Kuhn, ‘The Taiping Rebellion’, in John Fairbank (ed.), The Cambridge History of China: vol 10: Late Ch’ing, 1800-1911 (Cambridge, 1978), p. 269. []
  4. O’Reilly, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, p. 127. []
  5. Sources of Chinese Tradition, p. 225. []