Taiping Rebellion: What differs it from other peasant rebellions in China?

The Taiping Rebellion is an uprising led by Hong Xiuquan in late Qing. This uprising is attached to great importance by many historians. What makes it so special compared with other rebellions and uprisings in China? One pattern of Chinese history is in a repeated rising and declining cycle of dynasties. When the power of a dynasty becomes weak, it loses control of its territory, then uprisings come in follow until someone takes the place of the previous dynasty. The Taiping Rebellion seems like one of those peasant uprisings which takes place in the phase of declining of a dynasty, the reasons why historians take it so seriously are revealed by Kilcourse’s analysis on Taiping Rebellion;  the significance of the Taiping Rebellion can differ between Chinese scholars and Western scholars due to their distinctive focuses.

Chinese scholars’ focus has a specific emphasis on the historical context of the Taiping Rebellion. It took place in the latter half of the 19th century when the Qing government was encountering the western world, many new ideas were flowing into China. It was the time when the belief in old traditions was trembling, and many people sought to find a new way to reform and strengthen the nation. Putting Hong’s attempt of building a different society in this context, Chinese scholars tend to interpret Hong as a predecessor of promoting capitalist or communist society, the starting point of following revolutions, he challenged “feudal autocracy” in China, and sought a new version of the society by importing Western ideas. They do not interpret him only in the contemporary context but also in the latter period. The Taiping Rebellion is seen as an important node in the development of China in the late Qing period, without the attempt of the Taiping Rebellion to overthrow Qing, there would not be Xinhai Revolution.1 So, for Chinese scholars, why the Taiping Rebellion is different from other peasant rebellions is due to its significance of trying to replace the decadent social structure of Qing, Hong’s ideal model is an immature prototype of a more advanced version of society. Though other peasant rebellions may also raise similar promotions, only Hong successfully put it into practice, and he was the only one who was influenced by western ideas and lived in the era when Chinese traditions were shattered by the west.

The second significant point of the Taiping Rebellion is its embrace of Christianity, drawing the attention of western scholars. Uprisings in a religious framework are also not new for peasant rebellions, for example, the White Lotus uprising. What is different for the Taiping Rebellion is that Hong did not solely adopt Christianity in his ideal world model, Taiping heavenly kingdom was the product of both Christianity and Confucianism. According to Kilcourse, Hong’s adaptation of Christianity was not just a mere distorted transplant from the West into China.2 Many Taping texts show his familiarity with Christian texts and doctrines, for example, the borrowing of Noah’s era from Great Genesis.3 This combination and rationalization of Christianity with Confucianist traditions is neither a total denial nor a yield to Western thoughts. Taiping is an alternative to investigate how Western and Eastern ideas are conflicted, combined, reshaped, and practised at the beginning of the 20th century. Since after Qing was forced to open to the rest of the world, it was inevitable for Chinese to face a different kind of thinking from the other end of the earth. Taiping is one of the early cases, after it, there would be more.

  1. Kilcourse, Carl S. Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China, 1843–64. Springer, 2016, P8. []
  2. Ibid, P2. []
  3. Ibid, P65-66. []

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, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/st-andrews/detail.action?docID=908711, 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 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. []

God’s New Sons: Media Coverage of the Taiping Rebellion and the Ghost Dance of 1890

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, or Taiping Rebellion, was a religious and political movement that swept over China beginning in 1851, eventually reigning over most of China’s provinces until its fall in 1864 to Chinese imperial and British forces. The Ghost Dance of 1890 was a new religion that rapidly spread among Native American tribes of the American West from 1889-1891. Though separated by a few decades, both movements involved non-white cultures absorbing Christian ideas and reinterpreting them into a millennial style that inspired thousands to join in their practice. Both movements spawned from their respective leaders, Hong Xiuquan and Wovoka or Jack Wilson, experiencing visions wherein they met the Christian God; the men were each inspired by these dreams to share their new theological ideas with their cultural fellows. However, Europeans and Americans understood Taiping theology in much greater depth than Americans ever did with the Ghost Dance. This fundamental difference can be traced to the sharp contrast in media coverage of the two religions.

The central disparity between the media’s presentation of the Taping Rebellion and the Ghost Dance of 1890 was the agency of its religious practitioners in shaping the popular opinion of their own movement. This ability to contribute to the public discourse allowed Taiping followers to represent their religious beliefs as they understood them, whereas the Ghost Dance was seen only through the eyes of fearful whites viewing it from the outside. Official Taiping documents translated into English and letters from foreign visitors to the Taiping capitol of Nanking frequently appeared in The North-China Herald throughout the rebellion.1 These visitors were often missionaries invited to Nanking by Hong himself. Though these men frequently came to see the Taiping as blasphemous and heterodox, this was after having spoken with followers of the new religion.2

In contrast, no reporter ever met with Wovoka during the Ghost Dance’s peak period of popularity both in the media and among Native groups, which lasted only from 1889-1890.3 Instead, the white perspective prevailed in the papers and focused on the practice of the Dance among the Lakota Sioux, which journalists interpreted as a sign of coming war.4 This white perspective removed the possibility of viewing the Dance as a religious movement founded in some Christian concepts for most white American audiences. Even those aware of the true religious nature of the movement saw it as a threat due to the preconceived notion that Native Americans were savages incapable of rationality.5 In summation, the way that newspapers covered each movement controlled the way that white audiences of both Europe and America understood them; since Taiping believers contributed to this coverage in a way not available to Indians practicing the Ghost Dance, the Chinese Taiping were not assumed to be crazed aggressors from the outset.

  1. Just one example being: J. L. Holmes, ‘To the Editor of the North-China Herald’, The North-China Herald, Shanghai, 1 September 1860, pp. 2-3, [accessed 30 October 2020]. []
  2. See Holmes, ‘To the Editor’, pp. 2-3. William R. Doezema, ‘Western Seeds of Eastern Heterodoxy: The Impact of Protestant Revivalism on the Christianity of the Taiping Rebel Leader Hung Hsiu-Ch’üan, 1836-1864’, Fides et Historia, 25: 1 (Winter 1993), pp. 73-76. []
  3. L. G. Moses, ‘“The Father Tells Me So!” Wovoka: The Ghost Dance Prophet’, American Indian Quarterly, 9: 3 (Summer 1985), p. 342. []
  4. Just two of many examples: ‘Ready for the Trail’, Chicago Herald, Chicago, 23 November 1890, p. 10. ‘Reds Come for Rations’, Chicago Inter-Ocean, Chicago, 23, November 1890, pp. 9-10. []
  5. Louis S. Warren, God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America, (New York, 2017), pp. 15, 37. []