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TAIPING ("great peace" or "great equity") denotes a pan-Chinese social ideal and utopian slogan of rebels and dynasty founders. Ping ("level, balanced, just, harmonious"), daping ("great peace"), or taiping ("supreme peace") first appear in Confucian texts of the pre-Han (pre-206 bce) era. There these terms denoted the ideal state of the world that had existed in high antiquity and that could again be brought about by a sage ruler who practiced the proper rites and music (Daxue, Li ji ). The term never implied social equality in a modern sense but rather referred to a society where, as Xunzi defined it, each individual occupies the place that he should and fulfills his task according to his capacities. At the same time, Great Peace was not limited to human society but denoted a cosmic harmony that resulted in a seasonal climate, plentiful harvests, and longevity of all living beings (Chunqiu fanlu, Yantie lun ). It was a state in which all the concentric spheres of the organic Chinese universe, which contained nature as well as society, were perfectly attuned, communicated with each other in a balanced rhythm of timeliness, and brought maximum fulfillment to each living being.

During the Han dynasty (206 bce220 ce), Great Peace became the social ideal of the official Confucian state doctrine (which it remains to this day). However, when the Han declined, "Great Peace" became the slogan also of popular movements of revolt inspired by Daoism. Daoism had earlier found a place for the concept in its own philosophy. The Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi (fourth century bce) had called a government that conformed to the order of nature taiping, an idea that was in no contradiction to the Confucian definition of the term. The Daoist popular movements were opposed not to the ideal of Great Peace but to the dynasty that subscribed to it and had failed to bring it about. Thus, taiping cannot be called a "revolutionary" ideal, although two of the greatest social upheavals in Chinese history are called Taiping rebellions.

Twice during the Han period, a group of fangshi ("masters of [esoteric] techniques") presented at court a Taiping jing (Classic of Great Peace). It was rejected because of its Daoist tenor. This or a similar Classic of Great Peace became the sacred scripture of the first Taiping or "Yellow Turban" Rebellion (184 ce), which eventually brought down the Han empire. This scripture, still extant in a revised version (probably sixth century), elaborates the messianic element in the Taiping tradition: the Great Peace that the princes of high antiquity brought about through a Daoist government of "nonintervention" (wuwei ) is a state that will be recreated in the near future as a result of revelations by a divine messenger called Celestial Master (Tianshi). The religious originality of this view lies in its substitution of the Confucian virtues and rites with Daoist spiritual exercises and other methods of longevity as the means by which to reach Taiping.

The rebellion of 184 was crushed, but it engendered a messianic ideology that flourished during the Period of Disunion (220581), was rekindled in all subsequent periods of upheaval, and formed the basis of Daoist as well as Buddhist messianism and eschatology in China. This Taiping ideology centered around the expectation that a divine or human sage ruler, the Perfect Lord of Great Peace (Taiping Zhenjun), emissary of Heaven, will appear on a prophesied date at the height of a period of cosmic chaos and human suffering. He will save the elect (zhongmin, the "seed people") from the demonic forces sent to destroy all evildoers, and will usher in the reign of Great Peace (as related in the Dongyuan shenzhou jing ). Even in this religious setting, the messianic kingdom is often no more and no less than a glorious new Chinese dynasty, although in some Daoist traditions it is developed into a paradisiacal utopia.

Dynasty founders, especially those of the Tang, 618906, and the Ming, 13681644, tapped this messianic tradition by casting themselves in the role of the sage ruler of Taiping. Ten times in Chinese history Taiping was chosen as the name of a reign period (nianhao ). Emperor Taiwu of the Northern Wei called both himself and a period of his reign (440452) "Perfect Lord of Great Peace."

The second Taiping rebellion (18501865) was the most powerful of several great uprisings toward the end of the Manchu dynasty. In 1851, the visionary rebel leader Hong Xiuquan (18131864) from Canton proclaimed the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (Taiping Tianguo) with himself as Emperor of Great Peace (Taiping Tianzi). His religion was a combination of Chinese traditions with many elements from Protestant Christianity (monotheism, ten commandments, Sunday worship, iconoclasm, condemnation of "Chinese idol-worship"). Hong called himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ. God had endowed him with imperial legitimation (in the shape of a seal), with the (Daoist) power to kill demons (a sword), and with divine scriptures (revelation in Chinese religion is always in the form of writing). The Taiping theocracy established in Nanjing was destroyed in 1864, but the Taiping ideal lives on in Daoism and in most of the modern Chinese syncretist religions.

See Also

Daoism, overview article; Millenarianism, article on Chinese Millenarian Movements.


The basic texts on the Taiping ideal of antiquity and the Daoist Taiping Dao movement are presented in Werner Eichhorn's "Tai-ping und Tai-ping Religion," Mitteilungen des Instituts für Orientforschung 5 (1957): 113140; see also Max Kaltenmark's "The Ideology of the Tai-ping ching," in Facets of Taoism, edited by Holmes Welch and myself (New Haven, 1979), pp. 1952. On medieval Daoist messianism, see my article "The Image of the Perfect Ruler in Early Taoist Messianism: Lao-tzu and Li Hung," History of Religions 9 (19691970): 216247, and "Taoist Messianism," Numen 31 (1984): 161174. The religion of the nineteenth-century Taiping Tianguo movement is the subject of a detailed monograph by Vincent Shih, The Taiping Ideology (Seattle, 1967).

New Sources

Prazniak, Roxann. Of Camel Kings and Other Things: Rural Rebels against Modernity in Late Imperial China. Lanham, Md., 1999.

Spence, Jonathan D. God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. New York, 1996.

Anna Seidel (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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