Taiping and other Chinese Messianic Movements in the Nineteenth Century

By Kamran Ekbal

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #14
Bahá'í­ Centre: Manchester, England
July 4–6, 1997
(see list of papers from #14)

    Bahá'i sources generally refer to an upsurge of messianic movements in the early part of the 19th century. The Seventh-Day Adventists in the USA and the German Templers who arrived in Haifa in 1868 are usually given as examples of such movements preceding the revelation of Bahá'u'llah. Bahá'i historiography seems unaware of two other significant movements. One of these originated in southern Germany in about 1816-7 and led in the year of the birth of Bahá'u'llah to an emigration of the predecessors of the Templers into the Caucasus, expecting the coming of the Lord "somewhere on the shores of the Caspian." A chain of German colonies ensued from this wave of messianic migration into the vast regions of the Caucasus.

    During the same period that the Shaykhi and Babi movements were proclaiming the advent of the new millennium in Persia and Mesopotamia, messianic movements characterised by millenarian visions rose also to prominence in another part of the East. The White Lotus Movement (1796-1805), which had predicted the imminent arrival of the millennium to be ushered in by the Maitrea Buddha was revived in the 1810s in the Eight Trigrams rebellion (1813). Its leader, Lin Ch'ing (1770-1813) declared himself the reincarnation of Maitrea Buddha and said that Li Wen-ch'ang (1770-1813), another leader of the movement, would rule on earth as "King of Men". Both movements were checked by the army of the emperor, but the millenarian hopes generated by them remained.

    The most prominent of the successors to these movements was the T'ai-p'ing t'ien-kuo, or Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace. Its founder, Hung Hsiu-ch'¢¨an (1813-64) had visions of ascending to Heaven and being appointed by Jehovah to exterminate the "demons", which represented to him the spirits of traditional Chinese folk religion. Hung, who believed that he was the second son of Jehovah and younger brother of Jesus, gathered great numbers of adherents. At the same time as the Babi uprisings in Iran, the Taiping Rebellion started in 1848 and achieved decisive victories against the imperial troops. Nanking was taken in 1853 and became the capital of the Heavenly Kingdom. The reconciliation of Christian and Confucian tradition was one of the major aims of the Taipings. Like the Bahá'i Faith later, it became a major rival of Christian missionaries and could only be subdued by European auxiliary forces under Charles Gordon.

    Many elements of Hung's teachings, such as the belief that the coming Messiah was not a single event in history but rather an apocalyptic world crisis that would recur any number of times, bear similarities to Babi and Bahá'i doctrines and will be discussed in this paper.

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