Hong Xiuquan (1814–64), the leader of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), was a Chinese Christian revolutionary who claimed to be the second son of God, the younger brother of Jesus, and the divinely appointed Heavenly King. These claims acted as the ideological foundation for the Taipings’ revolutionary crusade against the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). They also became the focus of an extended interpretive struggle between Taiping leaders (including Hong himself) and Protestant missionaries who hoped to convert Hong and his followers to ‘orthodox’ Christianity. The missionaries eventually realised that Hong and other Taiping leaders were unwilling to change their theological beliefs in order to conform to an alien standard of orthodoxy. Disillusioned missionaries thus declared the Taipingsinconvertible and dismissed Hong as a blasphemous and psychologically abnormal individual.
Although these judgements help us to understand the frustrations of the missionaries, they tell us very little about the thinking of the Taipings and Hong Xiuquan in particular. Fortunately for historians of the Taiping Rebellion, Hong annotated the Taiping Bible and his notes, along with many official Taiping publications, were preserved following the suppression of the rebellion. By looking closely at Hong’s biblical annotations, we can understand his theological priorities and his reasons for rejecting the prescribed doctrines of the missionaries.
Taiping Theology: Revelations, Anthropomorphism, and Radical Monotheist
At the heart of Hong’s theological worldview were the visions that he experienced in 1837.According to the official account of those visions, Hong ascended to heaven and met both the Heavenly Father (Tianfu) and the Heavenly Elder Brother (Tianxiong), Jesus Christ. Hong described the Heavenly Father as an anthropomorphic deity who wore a high-brimmed hatand a black dragon robe. The Heavenly Father personally conversed with Hong, ordered him to expel demons from heaven, and sent him back to earth with a mission to exterminate the demons of the world. Hong interpreted this mission as a divine crusade to destroy the ‘usurpers’ (from popular gods to the Chinese emperor) that had blasphemously claimed the position of God in China.
Hong’s representation of himself as a slayer of demonic usurpers not only provided a religious justification for rebellion, but also encouraged him to adopt a radically monotheistic doctrine of God. Although Hong presented himself as a literal son of God, he explicitly stated that both he and Jesus were non-divine beings who were naturally inferior to the Heavenly Father. According to Hong, the Heavenly Father alone was the ‘one true God’.
Missionaries interpreted (or rather misinterpreted) this non-Trinitarian theology in different ways. For some, Hong’s claim to be the second son of God was proof that he was attempting to absorb himself into the Godhead as the divine equal of Jesus. For others, Hong’stheological claims showed that he saw Jesus and himself simply as human messengers ofGod. During the 1850s and early 1860s, many missionaries travelled to Taiping territories with the aim of correcting these theological ‘errors’ and converting Hong and his followers to ‘orthodox’ Christianity. They failed without exception.
Hong Xiuquan’s Annotations to the Taiping Bible
The efforts of missionaries to transform the thinking of Hong and his followers had the opposite effect. Rather than accepting their criticisms and embracing their ‘orthodox’ teachings, Hong maintained his theological positions, questioned the biblical interpretations of the missionaries, and directly challenged their Trinitarian doctrine of God. Hong communicated this challenge most powerfully in his annotations to the Taiping Bible. Whilst the missionaries had tried to challenge Hong’s theological claims with reference to the scriptures, Hong suggested in his annotations that the biblical text actually validated his theology and contradicted that of the missionaries.
Hong’s annotations are found in the revised (‘Authorised’) Taiping Bible, which was published around 1861. This publication date suggests that Hong’s decision to annotate the Bible was prompted by his reading of letters and theological papers that Issachar Roberts (who had been staying with the Taipings at Nanjing since October 1860) and other Protestantmissionaries had sent to him. This conclusion is also supported by the fact that Jesus’ relation to the Father was one of the central themes in Hong’s annotations. In his notes on Luke 1:34–35, Hong explained that God merely ‘came down’ to Mary and did not, contrary to the doctrine of the incarnation, enter her belly and become a human being. Underlining his rejection of the incarnation, Hong commented on Romans 1:4 that Jesus, despite being the son of God, was not himself God. Through these and other annotations, Hong rejected the missionaries’ view of Jesus as both human and divine and stressed that the Heavenly Elder Brother was a non-divine son of God.
In other annotations, Hong suggested that the Christological doctrine of the missionaries failed to protect the oneness and uniqueness of God. Commenting on Mark 12:28–34, Hong claimed that ‘later disciples’ had mistakenly identified Jesus as God and that to accept their interpretation was ‘to have two Gods’. Hong also claimed, in his notes on Mark 12:35–37, that this interpretation was incompatible with his revelation of 1837. Challenging the idea that the Father and Jesus were ‘united as one’, Hong explained that he had seen the Heavenly Father and Jesus as separate beings (and with their own female consorts) during his time in heaven. This comment shows that Hong used his annotations not only to defend his radically monotheistic theology, but also to assert the authority of the new revelation on which his belief system and legitimacy were built. That revelation, according to Hong, represented a new stream of divine truth that could be used to interpret biblical passages and interrogateparticular theological claims. Hong thus suggested that he, as the recipient of the revelation, was in a better position than the missionaries to define the meaning of Christianity in China.
Dr Carl Kilcourse is a Lecturer in history at Manchester Met University