Millenarianism: Chinese Millenarian Movements

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The yearning for a utopia where one is free from want and where peace and prosperity reign supreme has been very much an integral part of Chinese religion since pre-Qin times (before 221 bce). Confucius (551479 bce) maintained the notion of a golden age when Sage-Kings such as Yao and Shun reigned effortlessly in perfect harmony. Laozi also espoused the idea of small agricultural communities where life was simple and government was noninterfering. The Moist concept of undifferentiated and nondiscriminating love was expressed in the form of datong ("grand unity" or "great equality"), which had been incorporated into the Confucian text Liji (The classic of rites). However, all these utopian states were understood to have existed in the distant past. As time progressed, the conceptualization of utopia became more concrete and contemporary. During the Qin-Han period (221 bce220 ce), mysterious lands in the extreme east and west of China were regarded either as paradises inhabited by immortals, or as idealized countries where justice and honesty prevailed. The realm of Xiwangmu or Queen Mother of the West, on Mount Kunlun in the west and the three fairy islands of Penglai ("proliferating weeds"), Fangzhang ("square fathom"), and Yingzhou ("ocean continent") in the eastern seas belonged to the first category, while the land of "Great Qin" (Da Qin), an idealized version of the Roman Empire, belonged to the second.

In contrast to pre-Qin utopias, all these ideal realms were understood to be contemporaneous with those who visited or reported on them. However, they were accessible to only a few privileged members of society. The Queen Mother of the West, for example, entertained only emperors and regaled them by her turquoise pond with her peaches and wine of immortality. The three fairy islands were similarly inaccessible to ordinary mortals; they either sank into the ocean when approached, or caused big storms to drive people off course.

Early Movements

Two major soteriological movements developed in China in the second century of the common era. Both had appeal to the masses. The first, centered in western China (present-day Sichuan and Shaanxi), was headed by Zhang Lu, who created a theocratic state between 186 and 216 ce. Tracing his teaching to his grandfather Zhang Daoling (34?156? ce), Zhang Lu taught that illness was a sign of sin and could be healed by confession. Furthermore, he advocated the establishment of communal facilities to expedite the realization of his utopia on earth. These facilities provided free food for the needy and undertook all kinds of public works for the good of the commonweal. Zhang's movement, known as the Five Pecks of Rice (Wudoumi) or Way of Celestial Masters (Tianshi dao), survived the Han-Wei dynastic transition because of his accommodation with political authorities. It became the recognized orthodox Daoist tradition in China, and Zhang Daoling was revered as the first Daoist patriarch.

There was another religious movement in eastern China that, under the leadership of Zhang Jue (d. 184 ce), existed contemporaneously with Zhang Lu's and in many ways resembled the latter in both belief and organization. It was called the Way of Highest Peace (Taiping dao) because of its alleged subscription to the text Taiping jing (Classic of highest peace). However, it differed from Zhang Lu's movement in that it rebelled in 184 and was ruthlessly crushed by the Han imperial forces. This rebellion, known as the Yellow Turban Rebellion because of the color of the headgear worn by the rebels, represented the first large-scale religiously inspired rebellious movement in Chinese history.

Some scholars argue that the impetus for the militancy of the Yellow Turbans came from the Taiping jing which, despite its Confucian and perhaps even Buddhist borrowings, was obviously a Daoist text concerned with eschatology and changing the course of history. Compiled in the form of a continuing dialogue between the Celestial Master, an emissary of Dao, and his disciples, the Taiping jing offers description of an ideal society and provides expectation of a renewal of the world through heavenly agents. The significance of the text's eschatology lies in the fact that it relativizes the validity of the existing society. It sees drastic change in the course of history as imminent and desirable, for the demarcation between this world and the beyond will be broken down, and the dawning of a mystical new order will be at hand.

Thus, from the original view of an ideal world existing in the remote past, through the transitional view of the utopia existing in distant lands contemporaneously, Chinese religion finally came to the view of the perfect realm existing in the future, the arrival of which would signal the end of the present age.

The Medieval Period

The several centuries after the collapse of the Han dynasty were a time of burning religious zeal, caused in part by the people's desire to seek solace from a rapidly disintegrating society brought about by "barbarian" invasions and incessant warfare. With Confucianism in eclipse, both Daoism and the newly introduced Buddhism made great inroads into the hearts and minds of the Chinese. Especially attractive to the suffering masses was the promise of messianic deliverance offered by both Daoist and Buddhist sectarian groups. It was during this time, specifically from the fourth century on, that a Chinese-style millenarianism developed, complete with the identification of an eschatological crisis, the appearance of a messianic figure, the apocalyptic battle, the guaranteed survival of the elect, and the portrayal of the "New Jerusalem."

In sectarian Daoism, millenarianism was expressed in the cult of Laozi, which now assumed the name of Li Hong the Perfect Lord. Between the fourth and the fifth centuries numerous rebel leaders, claiming to be incarnations of Li Hong, staged uprisings. As described in the Dongyuan shenzhou jing (Classic of divine spells from the deep cavern), a Daoist text compiled in the early fifth century, the millenarianism of the Li Hong cult contains the following themes:

  1. There is an impending crisis of cosmic proportions caused by the accumulation of evil. The time of reckoning will be the year renchen (which occurs once every sixty years in the Chinese calendar, but was generally understood to specify the year 392 ce), when floods surging upwards of several thousand feet and epidemics of every imaginable kind will afflict the world.
  2. The savior Li Hong will appear to deliver his believers from this cataclysmic disaster and to eradicate all nonbelievers, who will be discarded as chaff. This apocalyptic battle will result in the total triumph of Li Hong and his chosen ones.
  3. An era of unutterable joy and peace will ensue. The ravages of war will be eliminated. The cosmos will be reconstituted. The entire earth will be covered with seven treasures. One sowing will yield nine crops and human lifespan will be extended to three thousand years, after which it will be renewed again. All men and women will be sages and evil people will no longer exist.

This Daoist millenarianism was paralleled by a Buddhist version of the same period. Centered around the messianic figure of "Prince Moonlight" (Yueguang tongzi), a minor character in the legendary biography of the Buddha, this Buddhist millenarianism has essentially all the features of its Daoist counterpart, with the same expectation of apocalyptic happenings designated to take place in a specific year. In fact, the similarity between the two versions of millenarianism is so striking that one is compelled to assume that Daoism and Buddhism must have overlapped or merged together at the popular level during their parallel development at this time.

Prince Moonlight was later superseded by a much more powerful and famous Buddhist saviorthe Buddha Maitreya. In Buddhist mythology, Maitreya was the Buddha who "has yet to come." He was believed to dwell in the Tusita heaven, waiting to descend to earth to save all believers. There is the further understanding that when he arrives the world will be experiencing the last days of the Buddhist dharma (an age known as the mofa ), and that with one bold stroke he will rid the world of all evil elements and usher in a new golden age. The Maitreya Buddha was thus perceived as a savior, as his coming would signal the end of existing misery and injustice. Unlike Amitābha Buddha, who promised salvation in the form of rebirth in his Pure Land and made no attempt to improve this world, the Maitreya Buddha served as a world redeemer who would radically and dramatically change the status quo and transform the world into a realm of bliss and abundance. What made Maitreya worship even more subversive was the belief, pervasive since the fifth century, that his coming was imminent (rather than in the distant future as originally believed). This immediately turned him into a symbol for numerous antidynastic movements, all of which aimed at the speedy toppling of the existing order.

In addition to Daoist Li Hong and Buddhist Maitreya, there was yet another millenarian tradition in medieval ChinaManichaeism. Originally introduced from Persia during the early Tang dynasty (618907), Manichaeism subscribed to a dualistic view of the world wherein the forces of Light, under the leadership of Mani, would engage in a fierce struggle with the forces of Darkness. Followers of this tradition held the belief that cosmic history progressed in three stages: the first stage characterized by a clear division between the realms of Light and Darkness, the second by a blurring of this division that resulted in the struggle between the two, and the third by the ultimate triumph of Light over Darkness and the creation of a realm of everlasting peace. Believing themselves to be living near the end of the second stage, followers of Mani led a pure and puritanical life in order to guarantee victory over the forces of Darkness and evil. They practiced strict vegetarianism, refused to worship spirits, ghosts, and even ancestors, and buried their dead naked. Indeed their vegetarian diet had become such a distinguishing feature that they were pejoratively referred to as "vegetable eaters and devil (Mani) worshipers" (chicai shimo ). Their antinomian values, demonstrated by such practices as naked burial and nonobservance of ancestral rites, earned them further suspicion from the authorities.

The Late Imperial Period

All the above-mentioned millenarian traditions interacted with one another as they evolved. By the fourteenth century, such a substantial merger had taken place among them that they were collectively known as the White Lotus, a catchall label used by the government to encompass most of the proscribed millenarian groups, all of which had their own respective names. In fact, White Lotus had a very distinguished beginning. It was allegedly the name of a lay Buddhist group organized in 402 by the eminent monk Huiyuan to worship the Buddha Amitābha. Later, the Pure Land master Mao Ziyuan (10861166) also used this name to designate his pious vegetarian group. In any event, White Lotus had obviously metamorphosed into a millenarian sectarian movement under the leadership of Han Shantong (d. 1355) toward the end of the Yuan dynasty (12061368). Combining Maitreyan with Manichaean elements, Han boldly declared the "incarnation of Maitreya Buddha and the birth of the Manichaean Prince of Light." Although he was captured and executed, Han was the symbol of the religious movement that eventually brought an end to the Yuan regime.

During the ensuing Ming dynasty (13681644) (some scholars even argue that the very name Ming, which means "light," is indicative of the Manichaean influence on the founder of the dynasty), the folk sectarian tradition generally labeled by the government as White Lotus became even more systematized. Central to this mature sectarian belief was the notion of Wusheng laomu, or the Eternal Mother, who, as progenitor of the human race, had vowed to save all her repentant children from certain demise. She would deliver them to the zhenkong jiaxiang ("native land of true emptiness") where they would enjoy peace and affluence forever. This dual concept of the Eternal Mother and her Native Land of True Emptiness became the identifying creed of these late imperial Chinese sectarians. It served as a profession of faith and a powerful bond that drew all the sect members together into one big religious family. This concept also enabled them to relativize their attachment to their earthly parents and their native communities, and allowed them to see that this world was not the best of all possible worlds, that a "new beginning" would arrive in time to replace the existing order, and that this new beginning would sit in judgment over the entire past.

Like the Manichaeans before them, the Ming-Qing sectarian believers maintained that time progressed in three major epochs: the age of the Lamplighting Buddha of the past, the age of the Śākyamuni Buddha of the present, and the age of the Maitreya Buddha of the future. Crucial to this time scheme was the expectation that the third or future age was imminent, to be ushered in by an apocalyptic conflagration that would scourge the world to remove all evil elements. (Some sects used the epithets Blue Sun, Red Sun, and White Sun to represent the respective ages.) This cataclysmic turning point was known as the kalpic transition (jie), characterized by floods, epidemics, earthquakes, and all kinds of unspeakable disasters during which the whole cosmic order would be torn asunder and the elect and the doomed would be separated. When the Maitreya Buddha finally appeared as the messenger of the Eternal Mother to deliver the surviving faithful, the world would be reconstructed and the reunion between the Mother and her lost children would take place. The saved would enjoy the new order, which, according to the description of the baojuan ("precious scrolls")a special genre of religious tracts compiled by the sectarians in profusion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centurieswould be peaceful, immortal, and egalitarian.

Because of this millenarian and antinomian orientation of the sectarians, they were feared and ruthlessly persecuted by successive dynasties. Their very expectation of the advent of the third age was a negation of the present age, thus undermining the authority as well as the legitimacy of the existing regime. As it turned out, this obsession with salvation in the future age did occasionally inspire ambitious individuals within the sects to proclaim the descent of the Maitreya Buddha and to raise the banner of rebellion in an attempt to usher in the third age. To be sure, the correlation between millenarianism and rebellion was never a direct one, yet the government was always suspicious of millenarians, who, it had reason to fear, were not averse to using violence in order to hasten the end of the present age. There was only a fine line separating the anticipation of the kalpa from the expedition of its arrival. Given the fact that the leaders of these sectarian groups were often uprooted, restless, and disgruntled elements in society, this official apprehension is understandable.

Suspicion was further reinforced by the vicarious sibling relationship of the sect members, which undermined the Confucian emphasis on blood ties, as well as the relative equality of the sexes within the sectarian group, flouting the orthodox insistence on strict sexual distinctions. Sectarian organization itself, though lacking centralization, was nevertheless capable of forming large-scale regional networks in a short time because of shared beliefs among the majority of the sects. Quite often, different groups in different geographic areas would subscribe to the same precious scrolls, thus espousing the same doctrines. Many of these tracts had been handed down through generations of sect leaders, allowing the creation of a hereditary folk religious elite. Notable groups such as the Dacheng sect of Wang Sen (d. 1619) maintained an uninterrupted hereditary transmission for at least two centuries. This resilience of the sects was a great source of worry for the government.

The Taiping Rebellion

The most famous and spectacular millenarian movement in traditional China was, of course, the Taiping Rebellion (18501864) led by Hong Xiuquan (18131864). Hong was a frustrated examination candidate who had received Christian literature from a Chinese convert. With that minimal exposure, he wove together a religion that was a mixture of traditional Chinese eschatology and Christian salvationism. He also organized the God-Worshipers Society, which, reacting to ethnic tensions and prompted by Hong's own sense of mission, rebelled in 1850.

Hong Xiuquan's religion is best understood through the designation he chose for his movement after 1850. He named it Taiping tianguo ("heavenly kingdom of highest peace"). Taiping, it should be recalled, was the ideal of the Yellow Turbans who rebelled in 184, and had inspired various millenarian groups throughout Chinese history. Tianguo was derived from the Judeo-Christian notion of God's kingdom. Together, the two compound terms indicate Hong's unshakable faith that God's kingdom, in the form of Highest Peace, could be realized on earth, and that he himself would be the instrument through which this momentous task would be accomplished. Declaring himself to be the second son of God and the younger brother of Jesus, Hong saw himself as the redeemer of China, if not of the world as well. At once anti-Confucian and anti-Manchu, his brand of messianic salvationism was by far the most radical China ever witnessed.

Hong's Heavenly Kingdom was characterized by the proclaimed equality of all men and the liberation of all women. To be sure, there was the inevitable discrepancy between theory and practice. Yet this Taiping ideal was unequivocally enunciated and applied to concrete situations in the form of policy promulgations such as the land tenure system. This system provided equitable land redistribution, going so far as to observe no distinction between the sexes in land allotment.

When the Taiping army captured the city of Nanjing in 1853, Hong made it his Heavenly Capital. Nanjing, scene of the signing of the treaty that concluded the Opium War between China and Great Britain only eleven years earlier, was seen by Hong as the "New Jerusalem" promised in the Book of Revelation. But internal strife, coupled with Manchu military reforms and growing Western hostility toward the Taipings, finally resulted in their crushing defeat in 1864.

Chinese millenarianism can thus be seen having a history that goes back to the early medieval period. It can still be detected among certain religious groups on the mainland, in Taiwan, and in Southeast Asia. It has exerted its greatest appeal among marginal or peripheral members of society who, though not necessarily economically deprived, were denied access to power and prestige in the orthodox world. Through mutual aid and group solidarity these people were able to gain self-respect and a sense of worth from their affiliation with sectarian organizations. The charismatic and talented among them might even achieve positions of power and influence within the sect. This was particularly true of women, who were otherwise totally barred from meaningful contacts outside of their families. Ethically relativistic because of their orientation toward the future millennium, members of these movements often invited the wrath and oppression of the authorities. They interpreted times of economic distress, social turmoil, and natural disasters as signals of the advent of the third age, an age when they would emerge triumphant in their combat against exploitation and injustice, as well as against death itself. They therefore became agitated and expectant, if not openly rebellious, and always potentially subversive. Their antinomian values and behavior posed a direct challenge to the orthodox tradition, while their millennial yearning to build a better world often implied their rejection of the present one. In a certain sense, twentieth-century Chinese revolutionaries, including the Communists, operated much in the same mode as the earlier millenarian sectarians in their attempt to change the world.

See Also

Huiyuan; Maitreya; Manichaeism, overview article; Zhang Daoling; Zhang Jue; Zhang Lu.


Bauer, Wolfgang. China und die Hoffnung auf Glück. Munich, 1971. Translated by Michael Shaw as China and the Search for Happiness: Recurring Themes in Four Thousand Years of Chinese Cultural History. New York, 1976. A delightful work that details the history of utopian thought in China. Full of insights and lengthy quotes.

Groot, J. J. M. de. Sectarianism and Religious Persecution in China (19031904). Reprint in 2 volumes, Taipei, 1963. First published around the turn of the twentieth century, this work examines the beliefs and rituals of the Chinese sects through official records and decrees.

Liu, Kwang-ching, and Richard Shek, eds. Heterodoxy in Late Imperial China. Honolulu, 2004. A symposium volume that contains numerous chapters dealing with chiliastic and millenarian movements in medieval and late imperial China.

Naquin, Susan. Millenarian Rebellion in China: The Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813. New Haven, 1976. An interesting work that traces the unfolding of a millenarian rebellion through the analysis of the confessions of the rebels.

Naquin, Susan. Shantung Rebellion: The Wang Lun Uprising of 1774. New Haven, 1981. Another work by Naquin using the same valuable rebel confessions for another rebellion.

Overmyer, Daniel L. Folk Buddhist Religion: Dissenting Sects in Late Traditional China. Cambridge, Mass., 1976. A trail-blazing work on Chinese sectarianism, particularly the White Lotus movement. It contains insightful comparisons with European religious movements.

Overmyer, Daniel L. Precious Volumes: An Introduction to Chinese Sectarian Scriptures from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Cambridge, Mass., 1999. The most thorough study in English of the teachings of late imperial Chinese sectarian writings.

Seidel, Anna. "The Image of the Perfect Ruler in Early Daoist Messianism: Lao-tzu and Li Hung." History of Religions 9 (November 1969February 1970): 216247. A celebrated work on Daoist messianism in the early medieval period. The Li Hong cult is analyzed.

Spence, Jonathan D. God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. New York, 1996. The most recent study of Hong Xiuquan and the Taiping movement, with an emphasis on Hong's religious beliefs.

Ter Haar, B. J. The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History. Leiden, 1992. A revisionist study of the White Lotus tradition that corrects some of the misconceptions regarding the movement.

Zürcher, Erik. "'Prince Moonlight': Messianism and Eschatology in Early Medieval Chinese Buddhism." Toung bao 68 (1982): 175. A seminal work on Buddhist millenarianism in the fourth and fifth centuries. Contains full translation of the pertinent Buddhist text.

Richard Shek (1987 and 2005)

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Millenarianism: Chinese Millenarian Movements

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