Huangshan, China

Christianity in China

Reading Christian Scriptures in China

Chloe Starr, ed., Reading Christian Scriptures in China. London & New York: T & T Clark, 2008.

W
e are all aware that Christianity, especially Protestantism, has grown at an astonishing rate in China over the past few decades, and that believers can be found among all strata of society, from the rural peasant to the university professor. What we may not know so well is how the Bible has been read and understood by Chinese.

Since the Bible serves as the main source of Christian doctrine, the nature of its reception, interpretation and influence must be understood in order for us to comprehend the varying streams of Chinese Christian faith and practice and the different responses to Christianity among non-Christians.

Despite the very modest aims and claims of the editor, this volume provides a great deal of information and insight in a dozen well-written essays preceded by a splendid introduction.

As Dr. Starr writes, Because of China’s millennia-long history of interpreting sacred texts, “we cannot read pre-twentieth century Chinese responses to Scripture without some understanding of the framework of imperial scholarship.” The interplay of classical and biblical texts forms a prominent – and fascinating – theme in this book. Other factors influenced the way Chinese read the Bible also, notably the history of Western biblical interpretation and application that came with the translations of the Bible.

These essays also explore the tensions between “traditional Chinese heritage and scriptural mores [ethical norms],” and those “between personal and individual readings and institutional or academic ones.” Readers before 1949 concentrated on the former of these, while the latter have been more pronounced under the communist regime.

A further distinction must be made within contemporary readings of the Bible in China: That between the more “literal” and the more “liberal” – the first representing the unregistered churches and the second the official state-sanctioned bodies, especially the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement, or at least its leaders.

Attention to such complexities makes this book especially valuable. Indeed, as Dr. Starr states, we do learn a bit about both Christian and secular history as we watch how Chinese have responded to the Christian Scriptures over the past two hundred years.

Part 1, The Bible in China “looks at the history of readings through to the present and of contextual settings of the Bible in China, while Part 2 focuses on hermeneutics, presenting case-studies of individual Chinese biblical exegetes and their approaches to reading.”

The only major deficiency in this otherwise excellent volume is hinted at in the editor’s introduction: There are only a few references (including the influence of Jonathan Chao’s manual for Christian workers and the role of Archie Lee of Hong Kong) to the very extensive corpus of high-level biblical studies among Chinese Christians in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and North America. Several dozen of these scholars have engaged in robust studies; a number of them – and more of their publications - have exercised influence in China proper, and should therefore be considered a part of the “Reading of Christian Scriptures in China.” As Dr. Starr admits, their “reading practices… offer a counterbalance to mainland trajectories, and open up avenues for comparative research.”

That being said, the contents of this collection are already sufficiently rich, with each chapter contributing substantially to our understanding of the reception of the Bible in China. As the back cover says, it is “wonderfully informative.”

Perhaps the most striking contribution of Reading Christian Scriptures in China is the variety of perspectives it gives us to shed light upon the powerful – one might even say determinative – role which their cultural and social context has played in the understanding of the Bible by Chinese.

These studies are so valuable, in fact, that the book may be considered required reading for anyone wanting to understand Christianity in China, both past and present. The following summary can provide only a glimpse:

In “Modern Chinese Attitudes Towards the Bible,” Chen Jianming surveys different ways in which Chinese viewed the Bible in the late-Qing and Republican periods. Some read the Scriptures (or portions of the Bible) as “heterodox text” and responded with criticisms.

Others received the Bible as “a norm for faith” and the source of superior ethical instruction. A third group used the Bible “as a guide to revolution.” Finally – and most surprising to me – were those Chinese writers who saw in the Bible “a model for enriching Chinese literature.”

Chloe Starr’s “Reading Christian Scriptures: The Nineteenth-Century Context” opens our eyes to the vast wealth of other Christian texts which informed the reading of the Bible itself. Many, of not most, of these were heavily influenced by Chinese literary texts, and represented an attempt to appeal to make the Christian message seem less “foreign.”

Aside from “50 or so different editions and single books of scripture,” there was a huge literary production of supplementary works in different styles, of different lengths, and aimed at different reading audiences. These included annotated Bibles; children’s primers; bible story books and narratives; Bible dictionaries; “overviews and reading guides”; selections of Scripture sentences; and liturgical texts, including catechisms and an elegant translation of the Book of Common Prayer.

Fredrik Fallman brings us into the current situation with his chapter, “Hermeneutical Conflict? Reading the Bible in Contemporary China.” With due regard to the complexity of Bible access and reception in China, he makes a confused picture less so. He points to increased, though still limited, access to the Bible; the greater number of people from various classes reading the Scriptures; and the zeal with which the Bible is received.

Other sections of his chapter concisely summarize complicated subjects, such as the various ways and contexts in which the Bible is studied and interpreted, including the “liberal” view of Ding Guangzun and the many of Three-Self Patriotic Movement’s publications to the more “conservative” stance of other materials, especially those coming from unregistered churches.

Intellectuals in China approach the text from a variety of perspectives, some seeking to “contextualize” it; others to retain its distinctive nature; still others have sought independence from missionary influence, to construct a “Sino-theology,” while “a new generation” holds to the authority of the Bible along with “analytical capability as well as linguistic and literary knowledge – and a living faith sustained by frequent Bible reading in daily life.”

In “The Bible in the Twentieth –Century Chinese Christian Church,” Thor Strandenaes limits his focus to the ecclesial status of the Scriptures. By 2006 fifty million bibles had been printed by Amity Press, and the Bible was “unofficially the best-selling book in China.” He gives several reasons why the Chinese Union Version gained such overwhelming popularity; a major factor was the “heavy involvement of Chinese co-translators.” Another was the use of something approaching the spoken vernacular in this translation.

Strandenaes also surveys the development and use of the Chinese Catholic Bible and the pervasive presence of biblical themes and quotations in Chinese Christian hymnody.

Zha Changping provides a very useful survey of New Testament studies in the Chinese academic world from 1976 to 2006, which he admits are in their infancy. He writes that those in China are characterized by “studies of constituent parts than of the whole; and there is more research in religious studies than theology.” Historical studies predominate, perhaps because that approach is safer, but actual attention to biblical texts suffers as a result.

Zha helpfully divides current biblical research in China in: Christology perspectives; the perspective of philosophical theology; comparisons between the Bible and traditional Chinese texts; “the perspective of the conception of language,” by which he means rhetorical and narrative criticism of the Bible; one example of the perspective of traditional Christian theology; and various other approaches.

He concludes that “Christian studies in the Chinese academic world today needs a more balanced perspective: one which includes traditional theology, and which does not slavishly follow social science perspectives.” He attributes the relatively immature state of New Testament research partly to the lack of training in theology and in the biblical languages.

Despite promising to include research done outside of Mainland China, Zha hardly mentions the substantial contributions by highly-trained Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and North America.

Part 2, Chinese Biblical Hermeneutics, looks at 20th-century hermeneutics in China from first Protestant, then Roman Catholic, points of view.

Sze-kar Wan begins with “Competing Tensions: A Search for May Fourth Biblical Hermeneutics.” He challenges at the outset whether Western hermeneutics, which seeks understanding of the text before engaging in interpretation, can account for the way in which Chinese Christians approached the Bible in the first half of the 20th century. Instead, “they read the Bible as they would a Chinese classic, namely, for the sake of self-transformation, moral cultivation, discovering ethical injunctions.” In other words, they tended to “read the Bible in a particular cultural milieu that more often than not was an amalgam of Western culture and their own traditional Chinese upbringing.”

His survey of five Protestant authors includes “conservative” figures Ni Tuosheng, Chen Chonggui, and commentary writer Jia Yuming; and “liberal” interpreters Zhao Zhichen (T.C. Chao) and Wu Leichuan. All these men are portrayed as essentially Confucian interpreters of the Bible responding in different ways to the national crisis. Several of them, indeed, shared the “underlying concern to move from the spiritual to the moral and ultimately to national salvation” in a fully Confucian fashion, with a focus on “moral perfection through self-effort,” leading to “national salvation by character.”

Thus, despite their deep theological and hermeneutical differences, all five interpreters shared a Confucian approach to any classic: “Their root motivation was moral.” They engaged in a “moral interpretation of the text that aimed at transforming the character of the reader” and eventually of society as a whole.

I am not sure whether Zha’s application of Confucian categories adequately explains the confidence in the Bible as God’s Word held by the conservative interpreters he discusses.

Grace Liang examines Wu Leichuan’s interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer as an example of 20th-century “Confucian-Christian” exegesis. She notes that Wu’s perspective included elements of Christianity, Christianity, socialism, Darwinism, communism, and “various other revolutionary theories.” Like many other Chinese, he sought for “effective and immediate solutions to the serious sociopolitical issues of his time,” and found Christianity to be the most “workable” of all the options.

From this perspective, he abandoned the sort of exegetical principles brought by the 19th-century missionaries and re-interpreted biblical texts, including the Lord’s Prayer, from a this-worldly point of view. In his hands, this passage calls for the establishment of the perfect society through human effort. His hermeneutical strategy is “ideological,” and centers on how to reconstruct society through individual transformation as a result of self-cultivation.

Influenced, like Zhao Zichen and others, by the skepticism which characterizes both Confucian humanism and modern rationalism, he rejected the core elements of Christian faith, such as the resurrection and deity of Christ. He made Jesus into a Confucian sage, a moral exemplar. Though Liang concedes that “the Confucian heritage wills till play the leading role in Chinese cross-cultural reading, and Confucian philosophy and ethics strongly influence a Chinese orientation in biblical study,” she believes that Chinese biblical scholars should still try to be faithful to the text, as well as to their own context.

Richard S.Y. Zhang’s short but enthusiastic chapter tries to explain the immense popularity and influence of The Life of Jesus by T.C. Chao (Zhao Zichen). He attributes its abiding appeal of this book among Chinese intellectuals to several things: Its “graceful writing style”; liberal theology and demythologized portrait of Jesus; poetic treatment of Gospel history; and humanist framework.

Chao wrote from within the Confucian tradition and produced a “life” of Jesus that highlights Jesus’ human nature and the similarity of his ethics to those of the Chinese classics. Though familiar with some Western works on Jesus (almost all of them “liberal”), he chose to re-construct his own imaginative portrayal as a fully Chinese adaptation of biblical material.

John Y.H. Yieh continues the series of chapters on Protestant interpreters of the Bible with his substantial essay on “Reading the Sermon on the Mount in China: A Hermeneutical Enquiry into its History of Reception.”

He notes first the significant differences among the three men he selects: Wu Leichuan, Wang Mingdao, and Ding Guangxun (T.H. Ting). Wu approached the Sermon on the Mount with his Confucian conviction that “the purpose of religion was not simply to offer personal salvation but to reform society,” which must begin with “character formation.” As we have seen, Wu held to a “low” Christology, in which Jesus is the ideal citizen and social reformer, and a “liberal” view of the Bible.

Wang, on the other hand, believed the Scriptures to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God and Jesus the divine-human Savior of mankind. Holding to the biblical view of human nature as enslaved to sin, he called for personal regeneration before character formation could be attempted. Even then, the presence of sin in individuals means that no perfect society will be built on earth.

Sharing the “liberal” understanding of the Bible and of human nature of Wu, Ding also called for Christians to engage in social reform, and urged more study of the Sermon on the Mount, but did not speak or write on it himself. Yieh offers the conjecture that Ding’s concern to emphasize the universal love of God and his experience of human frailty during the Cultural Revolution turned his attention away from personal moral reform.

On the other hand, these three interpreters of the Christian message shared some assumptions in common, the most important of these being an emphasis upon ethical instruction; the belief that Christians must seek to influence society through good behavior; and a thoroughly Confucian concentration on character-formation.

In the last three chapters, attention shifts to Roman Catholic readings of the Bible. Tian Haihua first explores “Confucian Catholics’ Appropriation of the Decalogue,” using Archie Lee’s model of cross-textual reading to show how both Confucian and Christian texts shaped biblical interpretation by both converts and missionaries in the late Ming and early Qing. The process was mutual, since each side learned from the other.

“Inculturation” took place when Confucian terminology and concepts molded the ways in which the Decalogue and introductions to it were rendered in Chinese. “Acculturation” happened as the biblical texts began to exert influence on traditional Chinese culture. In the first case, for example, words for “God” and “honor your parents” come from Confucian texts and ideology, whereas in the second, the commonly-accepted practice of concubinage was gradually recognized as a form of adultery, and thus prohibited for Christians.

“The interaction between the Decalogue and traditional Chinese culture presents a complex and interwoven picture,” only a portion of which is touched upon in this short summary of his rich study.

The last two chapters introduce us to the remarkable translation work of Wu Jingxiong (C.H. Wu), who rendered the Psalms and then the entire New Testament into elegant Chinese.

Mark Fang briefly surveys “Translating and Chanting the Psalms” by Roman Catholic Chinese in the latter part of the 20th century, beginning with the translation of the entire Bible into Chinese by Lei Yongming and of the Psalms by Wu Jingxiong. He shows how quickly the Psalms, and books of hymns in Chinese based upon them, became a mainstay of Roman Catholic worship in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

As both Mark Fang and Lloyd Haft emphasize, Wu’s rendering of the Psalms and the New Testament into Chinese is considered “ one of the most elegant, most ‘Chinese-sounding’ Bible translations ever made.” The almost total neglect of his work in recent years may be due not only to their relatively archaic style, but also to the very considerable involvement of Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) in the process of producing the final version. Chiang not only provided financial support for Wu’s literary work, but offered extensive comments and suggestions on each passage, many of these being accepted by the translator.

Haft notes, first, that the classical style employed by Wu, with its preponderance of single-character words, allows for the sort of ambivalence that some passages require.
He then explains Wu’s departure from Roman Catholic practice by translating Logos as Dao in John 1:1, as Protestant Bibles had rendered it from Medhurst and Gutzlaff on.

Previously, Roman Catholic translations, here as elsewhere, had tried to avoid syncretistic or misleading usage of existing terms with Buddhist or Daoist connotations by inventing rough “transliterations.” So, Logos was rendered, Wu-er-peng,” a three-syllable transmogrification of v-er-bum,” the Latin for “Word,” to avoid the difficulties of the alternatives - yan, spoken word, and dao, a term laden with religious and philosophical baggage.

As a noted translator also of the Dao De Jing, Wu was thoroughly familiar with its terminology; allusions to which in his version of the New Testament reflect, nevertheless, a non-Daoist use of the classic’s words. Whether the same is true of the evident Neo-Confucian influence upon Wu Haft does not make clear. In addition to Chinese philosophical traditions, Wu’s biblical works reflect his intimate familiarity of previous translations, as Haft illustrates by comparing Wu’s rendition of the Johannine Prologue with other versions.

The richness of the final chapter of Reading Christian Scriptures in China defies adequate summary – a reflection, in fact of this entire volume, which superbly communicates the best scholarship in a lucid and lively style.