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Christianity in China

Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present

Daniel H. Bays, Editor. Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. 482 pages. ISBN0-8047-3651-0.

T
he twenty chapters in this collection of essays fall into four sections, entitled: “Christianity and the Dynamics of Qing Society”; “Christianity and Ethnicity”; “Christianity and Chinese Women”; and “The Rise of an Indigenous Chinese Christianity.”

Though the book does not claim to be a comprehensive survey, there’s something here for almost everyone. Do you want to know why Chinese often reacted violently to both missionaries and their converts? Several authors detail the complex web of factors, including resentment provoked by the special privileges granted to adherents to the foreign religion, especially its Roman Catholic form. The resulting rage and counter-actions included murder (or was it suicide?); theft; riots; lawsuits – some pages look as if they came out of the local police register.

Perhaps you wonder why some groups accepted the Gospel more readily than others. Chapters on “worldly” motives behind large-scale conversions by members of minority groups shed light on the problems of Taiwan’s “mountain” Presbyterian churches today, and dispel the notion that the Hakka are a naturally “resistant” people. Christians in Taiwan will also find interesting the chapter on Pentecostal and charismatic churches there.

What makes a “successful” missionary? Individual sketches, as well as descriptions of missionaries and their work in many chapters, highlight certain qualities: Hard work; excellence in the language; living among the people; practical assistance; and a manifest love for those they came to serve. From the flamboyant, peripatetic, and controversial career of Karl Gutzlaff to the steady labors of Samuel Pollard, we see the value of hard work and suffering in winning the confidence of the ever-practical Chinese.

I was impressed with how seriously Roman Catholics in general, and some Protestants also, took the need for solid instruction of candidates for baptism, for example. Encouraging also were indications of ways in which foreigners quickly began to employ talented and dedicated Chinese in evangelize and education.

The book contains sadder stories too, of foreigners who seemed distant, proud, and domineering. A common theme: The unwillingness of many to grant full responsibility and authority to Chinese co-workers. Another dark hue: The power of the purse, especially when controlled by donors thousands of miles away. For much of this period, the connection between gunboats and the Gospel cast a shadow over the entire missionary enterprise and hampered the rise of true indigenous Christianity. We continue to labor under that onerous legacy.

Women constitute a huge proportion of the Chinese church. Several treatments of individual Chinese women as well as of schools and organizations shed light upon the ways in which Christianity affected women in China. Feminism seems to under gird most of these reports, which means they must be interpreted in the light of Biblical teaching on the value and roles of women in the home, church, and society.

Sometimes missionary work brought unintended consequences. Though some single women missionaries went to China zealous to raise up independent professional women who would transform society, most wanted to inculcate “traditional” values associated with being a wife and mother. Without knowing it, however, even these “conservative” women, by living independently of a husband, presented a different role model, one that impressionable Chinese girls readily adopted as a pattern.

That brings us to a major concern: The relationship of Christianity to China’s rapidly-changing society. The new religion was correctly viewed as culturally “subversive” by 19th-century conservatives, but as a key to modernization by many 20th-century progressives. How should a Christian relate to the larger society? Can a Christian be a Communist? What are the reasons for co-operating with a government-sponsored church, and what are the risks? Several chapters explore this vital topic with balance and sophistication, at least from a secular historical viewpoint.

Sometimes the answers to this question will depend upon whether one has a “liberal” or “conservative” theological viewpoint. We see this clearly in the chapters on Gilbert Reid, the Wenshe (Protestant Publishing house) and Y.T. Wu. Like Jonathan Spence’s To Change China: Western Advisers in China, these studies show the potential and the perils of focusing on education and reform as “missionary” and “Christianizing” activities.

The Communist victory in 1949, like the brief Japanese occupation of parts of China during World War II, brought forced indigenization to the Chinese church. Several chapters deal with various aspects of this development, which had been long desired but insufficiently prepared for. Brief overviews of entirely indigenous ministries both before after 1949 remind us that the history of the church in China is not limited to a record of missionary activity!

Though I skipped several chapters on my first reading, because they didn’t seem to discuss matters of interest to me, for the sake of this review I eventually read the entire collection. I’m glad I did. This is not a complete history of the last 150 years of Christianity in China (despite a rather misleading title) but it does highlight a number of key themes, movements, and people, and raises critical issues for all who seek to ponder how the Gospel has affected the world’s most populous nation.

This collection of essays from specialists in Chinese history will seem too detailed at first for many readers. I found, however, that all the articles provided quite useful information and insights, with application far wider than the narrow topics treated in each chapter.

Published by a non-religious press, this compendium seeks to maintain the highest standards of historical scholarship, and seems to succeed well. Balance, objectivity, careful documentation – these qualities make for a reliable and convincing presentation of each subject addressed.

Not everyone will find the format appealing at first, but I recommend this book to all those who seriously want to understand Christianity in China.