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Christianity in China

Book Review: Chinese Christians in America

Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities, by Fenggang Yang. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-271-01917-4. 238 pages, including appendix, notes, bibliography, index.

T
hough this book came out more than ten years ago, it remains relevant today. That is why I dare to write such a tardy review.

Don’t let the subtitle put you off. It’s added for Yang’s fellow sociologists, to declare his thesis, which is that “the Chinese Christian church [in America] helps its members to construct an evangelical Protestant identity, a conservative American identity, and a cosmopolitan Chinese identity.”

Clearly written, tightly organized, well-documented, this volume helps us understand the multiple roles played by the Chinese church in America in the lives of its members. Along the way, we learn a great deal about the aspirations, struggles, and profound transformation of Chinese who become committed evangelical Christians in their adopted land.

Though most of his research and information deal with one congregation in suburban Washington, D.C., Yang draws upon wider sources to make significant generalizations that apply to immigrants from “Greater China” in other parts of the United States. It thus constitutes required reading for those who would understand this growing population of Chinese Christians.

Social context

He places this phenomenon in its larger social, cultural and religious context, which is one of an “increasingly pluralistic American society.” The American core culture – Anglo-Saxon Protestantism – “has been eclipsed amid various social movements and revolutions since the 1960s.” Thus, “religious conversion becomes less an act of conformity to social pressures and more a matter of personal choice.”

Meanwhile, “Chinese Protestants are establishing themselves in a time of restructuring of American Protestantism,” when “mainline” denominations, with mostly liberal theology, are rapidly declining, while conservative evangelical congregations, especially those with no denominational affiliation, are rapidly growing.

Furthermore, “these Chinese immigrants come from various societies of third-world countries.” Ethnic Chinese from various nations of East Asia have come to America to find a new home. “China as a modern nation-state has become stronger and stronger, but the reconstruction of Chinese culture and identity has become increasingly complicated and difficult.”

Christian identity

In this environment, Chinese believers construct a Christian identity. They are attracted to evangelical Protestantism for several reasons, including “the desire for religious interpretations about the meaning of life and the world,” as they long “for order, purpose, and rules.”

Second, “conservative Protestantism… proclaims absoluteness, love, and certainty. The church has become a haven for homeless sojourners.”

Third, “in conservative Christianity, . . . Chinese find a good match for their cherished social-ethical values,” most of which derive from Confucianism.

Finally, their Christian identity “provides a universal and absolute ground on which these Chinese can selectively reject or accept certain cultural traditions.” That is, biblical norms help them to affirm some aspects of traditional Confucian and Daoist ethics and philosophy, while rejecting non-biblical religious rites and beliefs.

American identity

The church also enables them to construct a new identity as Americans. Living, studying, and working among non-Chinese during the week, they congregate with fellow Chinese believers on the weekends. In the process, they become part of the larger conservative-evangelical Christian sub-culture, which greatly influences their values. Like their fellow non-Chinese believers, they decry the rapid moral degradation of American society and seek to bring their children up in a way that affirms traditional Christian values, which they also believe conform to the best in their Confucian Chinese heritage.

This “Chinese ethnic church is independent but not really isolated,” because of the non-Chinese context in which its members live and because it “selectively networks with some non-Chinese Christian organizations and individuals.” Furthermore, “their becoming American does not mean giving up the Chinese identity. Instead, the church helps them to retain and reclaim Chinese cultural identity within American pluralism.”

One possible qualification to Yang’s observations in the 1990s may be that as white evangelicals in America become more and more liberal – theologically, socially, and politically – we can expect Chinese Christians to mirror that trend, though perhaps a bit more slowly.

Chinese identity

Despite ethnic diversity caused by different countries of origin, Chinese Christians in America build a unity out of diversity. Their varied backgrounds force them “to redefine their identity and expand the meaning of Chineseness.” Specifically, they tend to conceive of being Chinese not in terms of citizenship in a particular nation (though that is important to many) but in terms of a shared culture heritage. They discard non-biblical religious traditions, but try hard to retain the language, Confucian moral values (such as thrift, hard work, and filial piety), some aspects of philosophical Daoism, and the celebration of Chinese New Year as a cultural (as distinct from religious) festival.

Within the overall mission of evangelism, they “set the priority principle of ‘Chinese first,’ and concentrate on sharing the Gospel with their compatriots, both in the U.S. and in Asia.

Constructing this new sort of Chinese identity is a continuous process, of course, and some are further along than others. Likewise, the “definition of Chineseness is not fixed,” so that everyone involved is engaged in an ongoing adaptation to changing situations.

One of those is the dramatic rise of China in recent years and its integration in the world economy, engendering immense pride in overseas Chinese and giving them more opportunities to connect with their cultural roots. Many Chinese Christians believe that China’s new superpower status fulfills God’s ancient plan to use the Chinese to carry the Gospel to the whole world.

Selective assimilation and selective preservation

As the world economy relies more and more on information, the newer Chinese immigrants, who are generally quite well educated, find increasing scope to assimilate into their host culture. At the same time, globalization enables them to maintain their Chinese identity, as they participate in the transnational interaction that characterizes today’s educated elites.

In sum

They trust the [American] education system, so they send their children to public schools and prestigious universities; they trust the economic system, so they work hard and invest wisely to gain tangible rewards; . . . they do not trust the [American] media and entertainment industry for encouraging liberal moral values and unconventional lifestyles. Instead, [they] choose evangelical Christianity because its value system fits their desire for order and success. They choose to congregate in the evangelical Christian church because it provides material and social capital for Chinese immigrants and their children.

Lest this all sound completely worldly, however, we should emphasize that Yang discovered that spiritual reasons provide the major impetus for becoming Christian in America. Chinese choose to trust in Christ so that they may find true satisfaction in life, purpose for living, love, and a lasting relationship with God.

I wish I had read this study when it first came out! Yang helps to explain much that one sees in Chinese churches in America, including what seem to be the endemic conflicts that tear congregations apart.

My only question has to do with the degree to which Confucianism and philosophical Daoism mesh with biblical Christianity. Yang generally handles this sticky question well, but I think more careful study will be required to prevent the continuation of what many have considered to be the undiscerned assimilation of Christianity to Confucianism among Chinese almost from the beginning. Likewise, Yuan Zhiming’s easy equation of the Dao of the Laozi with the Logos of the Bible ignores some fundamental discontinuities between the two.

Nevertheless, I do hope that more people, both Western and Chinese, will be read Chinese Christians in America. Yang’s findings may well apply to extent also to the emerging urban Chinese church.