Carl Kilcourse’s ‘Taiping Theology’ – A Book Review

Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China, 1843–64. By Carl S. Kilcourse. New York, NY, USA, Palgrave Macmillan 2016. Pp. xvii+281. $100.00.


As Christians around the world have been commemorating the quincentenary anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, many have reiterated one of its most famous dicta: sola Scriptura. These two Latin words have been used to summarise the spirit of Protestantism, especially as found through the reading of the vernacular bible. However, one often forgets that many of the translations were accompanied by copious notes to clarify words and expressions, and to comment on ‘correct’ Christian doctrine.1 While the Protestants behind each of these bibles held to the principle of sola Scriptura, they also held to a very strong sense that the bible read ‘incorrectly’ could be wielded — not as a sword of truth, but as a sword of blasphemy. In many ways, the book under review offers a profound case study of the power of the bible and the attempts of a religious leader in asserting his ‘correct’ reading of that vernacular text. Carl S. Kilcourse has provided a magnificent study of ‘Taiping Theology’ and the thinking of the main leader behind it, Hong Xiuquan.

The Taipings are a subject of great importance in Chinese history, generally speaking, as well as within Christian history in China. The standard historiography of the Taipings in mainland China has viewed them as a peasant revolution, precursors to the communist party, who attempted to overthrow ‘lackeys of imperialism’ (the Manchurian rules of the Qing dynasty) and to fight against the ‘barbaric invasion of the foreign capitalists’.2 While there is some mention of Christianity, this is generally sidelined by their revolutionary appeal. Scholarship outside of China has been much more varied, but the Taipings have generally been spoken of as a heterodox deviation from ‘true’ Christianity. Kilcourse’s book takes both of these critiques head first and makes an impassioned appeal to the Taipings as offering an example of a localised form of Christianity in China — one that can be recognised as both ‘Chinese’ and ‘Christian’ in many respects. To achieve this, he has offered a broad engagement with secondary sources, including those about parts of Africa and North America, as well as a deep reading into several key themes within Taiping theology. In one prominent example, Kilcourse explains the tension between Hong’s revolutionary stance and Christianity (pp. 13–4):

The essentialist view of Christianity as a passive religion of forgiveness and patience masks those biblical themes (in particular, the notion of God as a destructive punisher) and thus indirectly supports the misleading conclusion that the revolutionary strand in Hong’s thinking developed outside — and even in opposition to — Christianity.… The biblical text not only encouraged Hong to view the [Qing] imperial office as a blasphemous institution… but also inspired his core belief that God would actively intervene in history to destroy the idol-worshipping Manchus.

For Kilcourse, we must resist the tendency to be quick in disregarding the Taiping theology as the radicalised ideology of a madman.

After a first chapter summarising the history of missions to China and attempts to localise Christianity prior to the Taipings, Kilcourse offer five major chapters to discuss various aspects of Taiping thinking. Chapter 3 sets out Hong Xiuquan’s overall vision of world salvation, as found through the encounter between vernacularised Christian texts (the bible and a handful of tracts) and a complex sociopolitical context of a weakening Qing dynasty. Chapter 4 looks at the most controversial teachings of the Taipings, that is, their doctrine of God which includes the view that Hong was the younger brother of Jesus. Kilcourse successfully challenges the common interpretation that Hong saw himself as part of the Godhead; instead, he shows that Hong Xiuquan held to a radical monotheism found in his reading of the Chinese bible which countered the Chalcedonian formulation of the Trinity held by many missionaries. Chapter 5 describes a Christian ethic coloured by Confucian views of moral uprightness and filial piety, while Chapter 6 speaks of sacrificial and healing ritual practices akin to Chinese folk religion. These three chapters alone show how incredibly complex the Taiping theology was, critiquing essentialised understandings of both Chineseness and Christianity within this example of localised Christianity. As the final main piece of this study, Chapter 7 offers an impressive critique of the view that the Taipings were an egalitarian movement which sought to place men and women on an equal plane. With a close reading of the Taiping’s Poems of the Heavenly Father, Kilcourse shows how Hong Xiuquan viewed ‘palace women as personal servants whose primary function was to keep him clean, well groomed, and comfortable at all times’, offering daily massages and pulling his carriage through the imperial garden (pp. 167–8).

Carl Kilcourse has offered us a scholarly virtuoso, challenging conventional historiography on China and offering the field of world Christianity a well-articulated case study of the localisation of Christianity through vernacular writings. The text does have imperfections. For instance, while Kilcourse has offered such a strong defence of the Taipings against criticisms of heterodoxy, he uses the erroneous term ‘Nestorian’ to describe the Church of the East in China — a term employed by their enemies who challenged their orthodoxy, as opposed to one ever embraced by the group itself (pg. 28). Furthermore, while the introduction spoke of ‘glocalization’ as a valuable new theoretical framework (pp. 17–20), we never hear of the term again for the rest of the volume. Quibbles aside, Taiping Theology offers an accessible case study of vernacular Christianity for scholars and students of late imperial China, Chinese Christianity, and world Christianity.

Thanks to Carl S. Kilcourse for providing me a review copy of this book.

  1. This was true of Luther’s Bible, but was quite especially true of the 1560 Geneva Bible and the later 1917 Scofield Bible. 
  2. The Taiping Revolution (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1976), 177–8. 

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