Yangshuo, China

Christianity in China

Handbook of Christianity in China, Vol. II

Review of Handbook of Christianity in China, Volume Two: 1800 – present, edited by R. G. Tiedemann. Leiden: Brill, 2010. 1050 pages, including appendix and indices.

T
his superb volume, edited and written by some of the world’s leading scholars, should be read carefully by every serious student of Christianity in China. Foreign Christians who wish to have a positive impact on the growth of the faith in China should reflect soberly on a few of its major themes.

We also invite our readers to see the companion article at China Institute on some possible implications of the history of 19th century Roman Catholic and Protestant missions for today.

The book is divided into three parts, dealing respectively with late Qing China, Republican China, and the People’s Republic, Hongkong, Macao, Taiwan. This review will deal with Part One only.

Each Part is divided into four sections, Introducing the Sources, Actors, “Scene” (historical period), and Themes. The Sources section could not have been more inclusive, containing 114 pages of detailed bibliographic information about Chinese Primary Sources (annals, official histories, archival sources, published collections of edicts and memorials, local histories, published primary sources in modern collections, libraries with important collections). Western Primary Sources include a “typological survey”; bibliographies of primary sources; topographical survies; published collections of primary sources; manuscript sources in archives. Secondary Sources and Reference Works are divided into bibliographies and biographies. This is a researcher’s gold mine, though it can be skimmed before one dives into the substantial articles themselves.

The Actors

Most of us will be more interested in the next three Parts, beginning with the Actors. In order of appearance, they are Roman Catholic missionaries, Protestant missionaries, the Russian Orthodox Church, Chinese Roman Catholics, Chinese Protestants. What a star-studded cast of characters it is!

We learn that persecution of Roman Catholics in the 18th and early 19th century had driven their church underground and, with few foreign missionaries unable to operate openly, had impelled Chinese priests, catechists, and “virgins” to take the lead, thus laying the foundation for a truly indigenous church. The process was interrupted by the arrival of many new missionaries from Europe after the Opium War treaties in the 1840s, so that local initiatives and innovations were stifled by the imposition of foreign rules and regulations, a process which only intensified as the French exercised a “protectorate” over Roman Catholics in China.

The result was “the imposition of a borrowed church” (119) that was understood by many Chinese as “an integral part of a deliberate planned policy of the West. The gospel was perceived as a gospel of power, a foreign religion imposed by barbarians.” (120) Understandably, since “[i]t was especially French power that enabled the missionaries to reassert the Western political and religious form of the Catholic church.” (120) More attention should be paid to the heroic and effective labors of the Chinese, even though one must also admire the “apostolic” labors and sufferings of the missionaries, many of whom paid the ultimate price for their dedication.

“The Protestant Missionary Enterprise” began in 1807, with the arrival of Robert Morrison, and can be divided into two phases. The first one, 1807-1841, is further divided into the first period, 1807-1830, and the second, 1830-41, beginning with the arrival of the American Elijah Bridgman and ending in 1841 with the temporary departure of most missionaries at the start of the First Opium War (1839-42). “Morrison in China: the Many Lives of a Missionary Exemplar,” gives due credit to this hard-working and long-suffering pioneer, who had the foresight to see himself as a foundation-layer preparing the way for others.

Elijah Bridgman paved the way for what became a steady stream of American missionaries, but neither he, nor Morrison, nor any other foreigner could have accomplished much without the assistance of such Chinese co-workers as the indefatigable and courageous Liang Fa, who is also given proper recognition as the first in a long and growing line of Chinese who formed an “embryonic network of Christian workers” (141) who would build a fully indigenous church. Murray Rubenstein pens a crisp, concise, yet lively introduction to these early giants, many of whom, alas, were, directly or indirectly, fairly or unfairly, associated with, and sometimes implicated in, the odious opium trade and the “unequal” treaties that followed the First Opium War.

“Mission Strategies and Tactics in the First Treaty Port Era” began with preparing new missionaries for their work, starting with learning the language, the teaching and acquisition of which were still illegal when Morrison arrived in Canton. Sometimes they started out in Southeast Asia, where the Qing government could not impede their progress. Some especially gifted missionaries, such as Morrison, Charles Gutzlaff, James Legge, and others, became outstanding linguists and Sinologists; most acquired by sheer hard work enough Chinese to communicate at least the basics of the gospel.

Before describing the wide variety of discrete activities in which missionaries engaged, the important point is made that “the missionaries employed a larger and more cohesive strategy that served to integrate such activities as part of a larger whole. To put it another way, each and every type of missionary activity was ultimately directed toward one ultimate goal: to win the individual Chinese to Christ.” (167) In other words, central to their thinking was “bearing witness and converting people.” (168) One might add that they intended to bring these converts into congregations of believers.

Especially before the interior of China was opened to evangelistic itineration, missionaries devoted much of their energy to preparation of Christian literature in Chinese, and relied on Chinese converts to carry these silent sermons into the hinterland, where they performed essential preparatory work. The Bible came first, of course, and then a whole series of “tracts,” some of which could be very substantial.

“Protestant Missionaries in late Nineteenth-Century China,” by Jost Oliver Zetzsche, covers the period of rapid missionary expansion, both in the number of individual workers and in the number of mission societies, during the period 1860-1890. In addition to the established missions, dozens of newer societies entered the scene, “the most remarkable” of which was the China Inland Mission (CIM), founded by J. Hudson Taylor in 1865.

The CIM differed from other organizations in several key respects: “(a) its headquarters was in China, (b) the necessary funds were not solicited (the ‘faith-mission principle’, (c) the educational or denominational background of the applicants was essentially irrelevant,” though “they did have to agree with the evangelical view of the Bible and Christian life and work. “(d) [C]o-operation rather than competition with the denominational societies was sought, (e) the missionaries were to conform as much as possible to the living conditions of the Chinese, and (f) the main goal of the mission was the diffusion of Christianity and the entering of new areas.” Here, sadly, the author relies on Alvyn Austin’s highly inaccurate treatment of the CIM, and repeats the common misconception that the CIM did not seek to build local churches.[1] The truth is that the CIM used itinerate evangelism very strategically, with the aim of establishing Chinese-led churches in cities, from which further evangelism in the surrounding countryside would then lead to the founding of more congregations.[2]

Though various Protestant societies did sometimes compete within the same region, as time went on they worked hard to establish “comity” agreements, which called for one society to focus on an agreed-upon area and to respect the “turf” of other missions. By and large, a spirit of harmony and cooperation existed among the many mission societies.

They came together to form special interest groups addressing particular problems in Chinese society, such as famine relief, textbooks for schools, Bible translation, printing and distribution, the campaigns against opium and foot-binding, and ministries to “the blind deaf, opium addicts, and orphans.” (181)

After this general introduction, we are given lively cameo portraits of some of the more famous missionaries of this period, including Griffith John, Hudson Taylor, Timothy Richard, and Lottie Moon.[3]

Russian Orthodox missionaries and their work receive a brief description, followed by a longer overview of Roman Catholic missionaries and societies by Jean Charbonnier, author of the magisterial Christians in China: 600 – 2,000.4 He partly retraces ground traversed earlier in the volume with a quick survey of the situation in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, but then offers significant additions, such as a detailed catalogue of the directives given to Chinese catechists; short biographies of major Chinese priests; more on the “institute of virgins; and refugee communities for Roman Catholics harassed by the authorities. Distinguished historian of modern Roman Catholicism in China Jean-Paul Wiest follows with a concise description of the context of Roman Catholic work in the middle of the century; Chinese “Lay Apostles”; and Chinese Priests, Sisters, and Brothers.

Jessie G. Lutz, author of several authoritative studies on early Protestant Chinese Christianity, begins by noting the difficulty of reconstructing the biographies of the first generation of Chinese converts, who were few, while “apostasy was all too common.” (247) Nevertheless, she gives thumbnail sketches of Liang Fa, helper to Robert Morrison and William Milne, and his son Liang Jinde, who worked for Commissioner Lin during the first Opium War, later returning to help Elijah Bridgman with the Delegates Bible. Two men with a strong commitment to Confucianism, Dai Wenguang and Wang Tao, illustrate just how tenacious loyalty to traditional Chinese culture could be; Dai even left the Christian faith. Their stories “help us to understand the obstacles to conversion and the social costs of church membership,” (250) factors still operative today, though perhaps less so in some ways also.

Religious tracts and the Bible brought some to faith, among whom was Che Jinguang. Alas, when James Legge called in military force to gain possession of property for a church and then left Che in charge, the local gentry vented their wrath upon the convert, who was tortured and killed – an example of the frequently toxic effects of close association with foreigners, another constant in Chinese Christian history. Missionaries lamented the rarity with which Chinese converts expressed sorrow for sin, but some did, like He Jinshan. Another recurring theme is the penchant, even obsession, missionaries had for establishing schools, hoping thereby to gain converts to the faith who would also become preachers. “Relatively few graduates entered the ministry and many ceased active church membership,” however; a trend that continued up to 1950 (253).

“Once a small cluster of Chinese had converted, these Chinese recruited a high proportion of the ‘second generation’ of Christians. Chinese assistants ordinarily made the initial converts, while missionaries and the few ordained Chinese provided further instruction and baptism.” (254) Again, this pattern persisted into the middle of the twentieth century. Lutz notes the growing involvement of Chinese Christians in education; the important role played by women; and the ways in which Christian communities were formed along kinship and other relationship lines.

These new communities became mini-societies, replacing former networks in providing a variety of services, but also tending to alienate Christians from their neighbors and often provoking charges that they had ceased to be “Chinese” and had come under the sway of foreigners – yet another persistent phenomenon. In one good development, Christian families “were often the major source of Chinese ministers, Bible women, and teachers while family stability and parochial schools promoted social mobility.” (256)
I have quoted this chapter so much because it seems to show how much the early decades laid the foundation for the church that would grow in the coming century, with both beneficial and baneful features still visible today.

David Cheung follows with an introduction to specific groups of Chinese Protestants in the last four decades of the nineteenth century. These included pastors; preachers – evangelists – catechists; Bible women; educational and medical workers; writers; colporteurs; and general assistants or helpers. Perhaps the dominant impression given is the speed with which missionaries recognized the greatly superior effectiveness of Chinese workers, compared with foreigners. Increasingly, Chinese were entrusted with leadership of local congregations as well as evangelism; in time, they took over more and more responsibility for teaching, medical work and writing. Alas, then as now, the chief impediment to the production of quality literature in Chinese lay in the busyness of qualified Christians, who were overworked and laden with the burden of multiple responsibilities.

Cheung then provides vignettes of some well-known Chinese Protestants, including He Futang, “Pastor Xi,” Ren Chengyuan, Li Zhenggao, and others. Towards the end of this period and until the early 1900s, “the revolutionary movement was mainly spearheaded by Chinese Christians,” a fact that will strike different readers in different ways. (274). The main point of this section, however, seems to be that Chinese Protestantism was coming of age, and a generation of highly capable leaders was rising, building up the “spiritual capital” for the full indigenization of the church that would eventually have to come.


Notes