The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) was a devastating conflict in China between a growing Christian sect under Hong Xiuquan (1815-1864) and the Qing Dynasty government (1644-1911) that resulted in the deaths of over ten million people. Opinions differ as to whether this was a religious or political war, and while elements of both are generally agreed to be involved, an understanding of the overwhelming significance of religion’s role seems nonexistent. While the political forces within Hong’s “God Worshippers” did want to solve the internal turmoil in China, and certainly influenced events, the Taiping Rebellion was a religious war. It was more the influence of the West, not the problems at home, that sparked the violence. While many revolutions had occurred before this with no Christian influence, examining the viewpoint of the God Worshippers and the viewpoint of Qing militia leader Zeng Guofan (1811-1872) will make it exceedingly clear that without the influence of Western religion, the Taiping Rebellion never would have occurred.
From the point of view of Hong Xiuquan, religion was at the heart of everything he did. The origins of his faith and his individual actions immediately after his conversion explain his later choices and those of his followers during the rebellion. According to Chinese scholar R. Keith Schoppa, Hong had a vision he was vanquishing demons throughout the universe, under orders from men whom Hong later determined to be God and Jesus Christ. Hong believed that Christ was his older brother and Hong was thus “God’s Chinese son” (71). Hong studied “Good Works to Exhort the Age,” in which Christian author Liang Fa emphasized that his own conversion stemmed partly from the need to be pardoned of sin and partly from a desire to do good deeds to combat evil and eradicate it from his life (Cheng, Lestz 135). Reading Liang’s writings after the life-changing vision brought Hong to Christianity. It is essential to note that, as Schoppa puts it, “In his comprehension of the vision, Hong did not immediately see any political import” (71). All Hong was concerned about at this point was faith, not the Manchu (Qing) overlords. He was so impassioned he would “antagonize his community by destroying statues of gods in the local temple” (Schoppa 71). What Hong would have done with his life had he not become a Christian is impossible to say. He had repeatedly failed China’s all-important civil service examination; perhaps he would have taken up farming like his father (Schoppa 71).
Instead, he formed the God Worshipping Society. According to Schoppa, certain groups that joined declared the demons in Hong’s vision were the Manchu, and had to be vanquished (72). It was outside influences that politicized Hong’s beliefs. Yet even through the politicization one will see that at the heart of the matter is religion. The very society Hong wished to create was based on Christian ideals. Equality of men and women led to both sexes receiving equal land in Hong’s 1853 land system, the faith’s sense of community led to familial units with shared treasuries, and church was required on the Sabbath day and for wedding ceremonies (Schoppa 73). Christianity brought about the outlawing of much urban vice as well, such as drinking and adultery. One might argue that behind all these Christian ideological policies were long-held Confucian beliefs. According to the 1838 work “Qian Yong on Popular Religion,” eradicating gambling, prostitution, drugs, etc. was just as important to the elites and literati (those who have passed the civil service examination) as it was to Hong (Cheng, Lestz 129-131).
While there were indeed heavy Confucian influences on Hong’s teachings (evidenced by their Confucian adaptations to the Ten Commandments and the proceeding hymns found in Cheng and Lestz’s “The Crisis Within”), Schoppa makes it clear that “the Taiping Revolution was a potent threat to the traditional Chinese Confucian system” because it provided people with a personal God rather than simply the force of nature, Heaven (75). The social policies that emerged from Hong’s Christian ideals, like familial units and laws governing morality led Schoppa to declare, “It is little wonder that some Chinese…might have begun to feel their cultural identity and that of China threatened by the Heavenly Kingdom” (76). The point is, Hong never would have become a leader of the God Worshippers had Western Christianity not entered his life, and even after his growing group decided to overthrow the Manchu, the system of life they were fighting for and hoping to establish was founded on Christian beliefs. Just as Hong smashed down idols in his hometown after his conversion, so everywhere the God Worshippers advanced they destroyed Confucian relics, temples, and altars (Cheng, Lestz 148). The passion of Hong became the passion of all.
On the other side of the coin, it was also the opinion of the Manchu government that this was a religious war. As the God Worshippers grew in number, Schoppa writes, “The Qing government recognized the threat as serious: A Christian cult had militarized and was now forming an army” (72). Right away, the Manchu identified this as a religious rebellion. “It was the Taiping ideology and its political, social, and economic systems making up the Taiping Revolution that posed the most serious threat to the regime” (Schoppa 73). This new threat prompted the Qing to order administrator Zeng Guofan to create militia units and destroy the Taipings. “The Crisis Within” contains his “Proclamation Against the Bandits of Guangdong and Guangxi” from 1854. Aside from calling attention to the barbarism of the rebels, Zeng writes with disgust about Christianity and its “bogus” ruler and chief ministers. He mocks their sense of brotherhood, the teachings of Christ, and the New Testament (Cheng, Lestz 147). Zeng declares, “This is not just a crisis for our [Qing] dynasty, but the most extraordinary crisis of all time for the Confucian teachings, which is why our Confucius and Mencius are weeping bitterly in the nether world” (Cheng, Lestz, 148). Then, in regards to the destruction of Confucian temples and statues, Zeng proclaims that the ghosts and spirits have been insulted and want revenge, and it is imperative that the Qing government enacts it (Cheng, Lestz 148). This rhetoric is not concerning politics and government, Manchu or anti-Manchu. Zeng makes it obvious what he aims to destroy and why. He views the rebellion as an affront to Confucianism. The Christians, he believes, must be struck down.
With the leader’s life defined by Christianity, with a rebellious sect’s social structure based on Christianity, with the continued destruction of Confucian works in the name of Christianity, and with the government’s aim to crush the rebellion in the name of Confucius and Mencius, can anyone rationally argue that the Taiping Rebellion was not a religious war? A consensus should now be reached! The rebellion’s brutality and devastation is a tragedy when one considers the similar teachings of both sides of the conflict, the Confucian call for peaceful mediation of conflicts and the Christian commandment not to kill. The Taiping hymn that accompanies the Christian sixth commandment says, “The whole world is one family, and all men are brethren / How can they be permitted to kill and destroy one another? / The outward form and the inward principle are both conferred by Heaven / Allow everyone, then, to enjoy the ease and comfort which he desires” (Cheng, Lestz 142).
Cheng, Pei-kai, Michael Lestz, and Jonathan D. Spence, eds. The Search for Modern China, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 128-149.
Schoppa, R. Keith. Revolution and its Past (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 71-76.