Hymns of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

Hong Xiuquan, leader of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (image from Wikipedia)

The Taiping Rebellion was revolutionary movement against the Qing Dynasty government that lasted from 1850 to 1864. The uprising and the ruling regime's suppression of it killed millions despite the rebels' name for the country they established: the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

The Taiping's controlled large parts of southern China from their capital in Nanjing. Their leader was Hong Xiuquan, a Christian convert.

This article about the Taiping's and their hymns is by Peter Micic, who blogs at An Imperfect Pen and has previously written for Danwei about music and language (see links at bottom of article).

Hymns of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

by Peter Micic

Hong Xiuquan thought he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ.

In Canton in 1847, he sought instruction in the Bible from I. J. Roberts, a Baptist minister born in Sumner County, Tennessee. Roberts came to China in early 1837, a missionary under the aegis of the Roberts Fund Society. Hong had also read Christian tracts through Chinese translations by the Scottish missionary Robert Morrison.

There came a point in time when Hong and his cousin Li Jingfang were ready to be baptized and they did so together. Hong wrote this ode on repentance:

When our transgressions high as heaven rise,
How well to trust Jesus’ full atonement;
We follow not the demons, we obey
The holy precepts, worshipping alone
One God, and thus we cultivate our hearts.
The heavenly glories open to our view,
And every being ought to seek thereafter.
I much deplore the miseries of hell.
O turn ye to the fruits of true repentance!
Let not our hearts be led by worldly customs.

Hong later adopted the Protestant hymn ‘Old Hundredth’ as his own apocalyptic vision of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. A new text was written for the hymn and renamed ‘Ode to the Heavenly Kingdom’ sung at Taiping rituals and rallies.

We know very little of the organization and structure of their religious observances. In The Visions of Hung–siu-tshuen and the Origin of the Kwang-si Insurrection published in Hong Kong in 1854 and republished the following year in London under the title The Chinese Rebel Chief, Hung-siu-Tseun and the Origin of the Insurrection in China, Theodore Hamberg writes:

When the congregation in Kwang-si assembled together for religious worship, male and female worshippers had their seats separated from each other. It was customary to praise God by the singing of a hymn. An address was delivered on either the mercy of God, or the merits of Christ, and the people were exhorted to repent their sins, to abstain from idolatry, and to serve God with sincerity of heart.

In a book published by Day & Son Lithographers & Publishers in London in 1866, Augustus F. Lindley provides one of the most detailed accounts of how Taiping religious services were conducted. Each service opened with the Doxology ‘Ode to the Heavenly Kingdom’ which was followed by a hymn. After the singing of this hymn, writes Lindley:

The people resume their seats and the minister reads to them a sermon, after which the paper containing it [a prayer] is burnt. During the singing of hymns, the voices are accompanied by the music of very melancholy-sounding horns and hautboys. Upon the conclusion of the sermon the people all rise to their feet and with the full accompaniment of all the plaintive and wild-sounding instruments, render with very great effect the anthem ‘May the King live ten thousand years, ten thousand times ten thousand years’….The services are concluded with a hymn of supplication, and then large quantities of incense and firecrackers are burnt.

The Taipings were not the first singers of Christian hymns in China: they have a long history predating the Opium Wars and the raft of missionaries that followed ‘with pianos for thumping out hymns to save heathen souls.’

Nestorian Christians enjoyed considerable patronage under Tai Zong and Gao Zong during the early Tang, but an interdiction issued by the Emperor Wu Zong in 845 C.E. put an end to that.

Nestorian missions soon vanished, but they left behind, among other things, documents, numerous relics including a monument erected in 781 C.E. and three Christian hymns.

One of these hymns was discovered by Professor Paul Pelliot in 1907-1908 in the Thousand Buddha Caves in Dunhuang ‘contained in a little roll, torn into three pieces, yet complete.’ The authorship of this hymn is attributed to two figures—a Bishop Cyriacus, head of a Nestorian Mission that went to China in 732 C.E. and a monk called Jing Jing.

Matteo Ricci also wrote hymns. Accompanying the Jesuit missionary on his return to the Peking in January 1601 was the young Spanish priest Diego Pantoja who taught four of the emperor’s eunuchs how to play a clavichord or small harpsichord, among a bounty of gifts Ricci presented to the court. Ricci penned eight hymns.

Eli Marshall’s Unde Pendet Aeternitas (2005) takes it inspiration from the writings of Ricci and the eighth hymn in the cycle. In the programme notes to the work, Marshall writes:

This piece juxtaposes the personal words of his letters in Italian (and one moralistic lyric written for a court audience in Chinese) with words freely appropriated from the Roman Catholic Mass. Though I am not a Catholic, it is not my intent that the liturgical text highlights a profound respect for tradition.

My decision to omit a large part of the Credo, and to ignore the usual chorus, stems from a desire to avoid creating a liturgical piece and instead to imagine words in Ricci’s own mind (words which certainly he spoke many times and in many places). Ricci himself comes to my defense: ‘thanks to the existence of written culture, even those living ten thousand generations hence will be able to enter into my mind as if we were contemporaries.’

Ricci never had an audience with the Ming emperor and never heard the music composed by Pantoja to accompany his eight hymns. He died in Peking in 1610.

Hong’s vision to create a heavenly kingdom on earth, stamp out opium, alcohol, footbinding, prostitution and inequality between the sexes was never realized. He could have succumbed to a number of illnesses the year of his death in 1864. On June 1 he was found dead. We still don’t know whether it was suicide or a fatal case of food poisoning that killed him.


David, Sheng (1964). A Study of the Indigenous Elements in Chinese Christian Hymnody, University of Southern California, University Microfilms Inc., Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Hamberg, Theodore (1855). The Chinese Rebel Chief, Hung-Siu-Tsuen and the Origin of the Insurrection in China, London, Walton & Maberly.
Lindley, Augustus F (1866). Ti-ping Tien-Kwoh: The History of the Ti-Ping Revolution, London: Day & Son Lithographers & Publishers.

Earlier on Danwei by Peter Micic
There are currently 1 Comments for Hymns of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

Comments on Hymns of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

Hong Xiuquan was not a Christian convert. He studied Christianity and adapted it to fit with visions he had of going up to heaven. He was very Old Testament-oriented and denied that Jesus Christ was God, which puts him clearly outside Christian orthodoxy as expressed in, say, the Nicene Creed. He also edited the Bible to better suit his purposes. As time passed, Hong's teachings became even further removed from those of Christianity.

I recommend the book God's Chinese Son by Jonathan D. Spence, which contains a fascinating and thoroughly-researched history of Hong Xiuquan's life and his Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

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