Salt and Light: Vol. III – More Lives that Shaped Modern China

With the publication of this final volume in the highly-acclaimed Salt and Light series, stories of nine outstanding Chinese provide yet more evidence that Christian ideas and ideals played a vital role in the formation of modern China.In the introduction, Carol Hamrin states that “China’s faith community. . . served as a moral preservative in a nation under stress from severe socio-economic dislocation and corrupt power politics. And like light, it gave others hope during difficult times” (2). Chinese churches provided a “set of ethics and leadership service experience that brought benefit to the larger society,” while denominations, church-related associations, and independent Christian civic institutions modeled private social services, philanthropy and volunteering.This series highlights the immense contribution that people influenced by Christian values and culture made to a nation in turmoil. They include women whose roles in the home and in society at large were undergoing rapid transformation, sometimes in response to Christian impulses. Almost all had Christian affiliations, though some were more explicit about their commitment than others, but all reflect the widespread impact of (mostly Protestant) Christian education and concepts.Many had studied in the United States, and thus were able to serve as bridges between East and West, bringing new resources for China’s development and sometimes serving as a buffer between two civilizations. They had imbibed beliefs in the power of Christian principles to create a modern, prosperous nation “through renewal of the Chinese people through education, citizenship training, and social reform” (5). Even before the end of the Manchu dynasty in 1911, Christian Chinese were laying the groundwork for systemic reforms in society, and were positioned to take prominent places in the new Republic.For a variety of reasons, “there is a ‘deep’ or ‘thick’ linkage between Christianity and modernity as played out in China and elsewhere” (6). Protestant Christianity’s view of the responsibility of the individual believer to live out God’s will in public and private; the respect for reason over tradition; promotion of literacy as a part of the dissemination of the Bible; decentralized congregational management of church affairs, preparing for democracy; ethical principles such as thrift and the affirmation of secular vocations: these and other concepts work to create modern society. Both Roman Catholics and Protestants also believe in the intrinsic worth and dignity of every man and woman as created in the image of God, the basis for elevation of women and concern for the poor and powerless.Protestants were at the center of the 1911 revolution, though later they advocated gradual reform rather than the violent revolution pursued by the communsits. Rather than being tools of the Western missionaries and their governments, Chinese Christians did all they could to make their nation strong and independent. Some even turned nationalism into an idol, as they asked, “How can Christ help China?” rather than “How can China serve Christ and His Kingdom?” Most, however, maintained a balance between their commitment to church and to the welfare of society, and sought to imitate Jesus in his life of sacrifice for others.The lasting influence of Christianity on modern Chinese society includes a variety of facets. Christians introduced new moral, scientific, and physical education in primary, secondary, and especially higher education institutions; many of today’s premier universities were founded by them.Modern professions were created as students returned from the West to fill posts in government, the military, finance, trade, and diplomacy, but others played a key role in establishing new professions such as engineering, medicine, journalism and the arts. Spurred on and inspired by their participation in the YMCA and the YWCA, social reformers launched a variety of other organizations that began work in literacy training, public health, rural development, and community self-government (13).The women described in Salt and Light “were among the first to benefit from higher education abroad or from girls’ schools in China pioneered by Christians,” and went on to serve in society and in the home in ways unprecedented for Chinese women (14).Chinese Christians not only learned from missionaries, but also branched out both to start independent local congregations and take leadership positions in the China Christian Church and the National Christian Council, often representing China at international conferences that became part of an extensive interfacing of China and the rest of the world. “This process forged transnational identities both for missionaries and for their local converts,” and spawned many “track two” or “people to people” diplomatic initiatives (15).Finally, and most importantly, the subjects of these chapters “helped to plant seeds of personal character and public responsibility in all sectors of society.” After the traumas of war and occupation, their values and institutions were available to rebuild the Chinese society that reemerged in a new post-war world community” (16).In Volume 3 of Salt and Light, we meet the following outstanding leaders who made significant contributions to various “modern” fields:

Politics and the military

Huang Naishang was an early and ardent supporter of Sun Yat-sen’s revolution. Fearful for the situation of villagers in his home province of Fujian, he led a migration of some of them to Sibu, Sarawak; after the 1911 revolution, he returned to take part in the political leadership of Fujian.Zhang Zhijang was one of several famous “Christian generals,” though less well-known than Feng Yuxiang. Throughout his military career, he did his best to fight for justice and to spread the Christian faith among his troops and in his sphere of influence.Judge Wu Jingxiong became famous as a legal scholar early in life, playing a major role in the constitution of the Republic that was drafted in 1933. An initial and apparently superficial commitment to a form of Methodist Protestantism was followed by years of profligacy, which were brought to an end when his life was changed by faith in Christ. He was baptized as a Roman Catholic, produced an elegant and highly-acclaimed translation of the Psalms and of the New Testament, and served as China’s representative to the Vatican.


World-famous author Lin Yutang was brought up in a Christian home, but rejected the faith as a young man, partly because he thought that Western missionaries were denying Chinese the heritage of their culture. After an illustrious career, he wrote From Pagan to Christian, in which he claimed to have returned to his Christian roots.


Liu Tingfang was not only an ordained Christian minister but also a professor at Yanjing University and the founder of the influential journal Truth and Life, which sought to speak into the tempestuous intellectual and cultural debates of the 1920s from a Christian perspective.Zeng Baosun and her cousin founded a school for girls in Changsha, Hunan. Her writings, lectures, and participation in delegations representing China at international meetings carried a message of the application of the example of Christ to all aspects of modern life. Above all, her indomitable spirit inspired others to carry on despite tremendous obstacles.Zhang Fuliang taught forestry at Yale-in-China in Changsha, Hunan, and mobilized churches to engage in rural development. During the war against Japan, he offered shelter and necessities to thousands of refugees. Later, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky and hosted hundreds of foreign visitors who came to learn about how rural education and reduction of poverty was being done there.

Civil society

As a leader in the Chinese YMCA, Yu Rizhang combined character building, mass education, citizen training, and patriotism to mobilize his fellow citizens to build a stronger China and resist Japanese aggression. As chairman of the National Christian Council of China, he involved the institutional church in the affairs of politics. Later in life, he also engaged in citizen diplomacy.After returning from study in the United States, Wang Liming became involved in the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement (WCT), of which she later became the national leader. She broadened the focus of the WCTU from opposition to opium, tobacco, and alcohol addiction to a wider emphasis upon the family, including women’s rights, care for the poor and needy in Shanghai, and resistance to the Japanese invasion. She served both in the Nationalist and later the Communist governments. All the while, she devoted herself to her husband and her children.

A few comments

In this volume we read, once again, accounts of brave, capable, and dedicated Chinese who sacrificed a great deal, working under great pressure and sometimes mortal danger, to benefit their countrymen.All the people featured in the Salt and Light series were public figures with strong ties to institutions, both Christian and secular. Furthermore, most of them belonged to what Dr. Daniel Bays has helpfully called the Sino-Foreign Protestant Establishment, rather than to the independent evangelical Chinese churches. And, as the title of the series states, they were active agents of modernity. Generally, they reflected the “Social Gospel” side of Protestantism in China, though several of them were also zealous in personal piety and evangelism.We know that thousands of educated Chinese were impacted by the evangelical wing of Protestantism during this period. Watchman Nee’s movement attracted students and professionals, as did Wang Mingdao. John Song (Song Shangjie) records in his diaries how businessmen, housewives, educators, government officials, and even military officers were converted and radically transformed through his preaching.It would be interesting to know the stories of those who lived out their faith not in public ways like the figures in Salt and Light, but in private – in the home and at work. One can assume that their contributions to Chinese society, though less prominent, were just as significant and lasting as those connected with public institutions. In other words, “salt and light” Christians can permeate and bless society behind the scenes and without public recognition, embedded within ordinary life and quietly seeking to “glorify [their] Father in heaven.”Sadly, we know little about them, for the very reason that they were relatively hidden. But if you have materials for a story about such an unsung hero(ine), please send it to me for possible inclusion in the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity( short biographies in this series raise the question of the meaning of “Christian.” As editor Carol Lee Hamrin points out, the degree of personal commitment to Christ and his church varied greatly among the people included in these volumes, though all were decisively molded by Christian ideas and ideals. One example is the problematic conversion of Lin Yutang, the orthodoxy of whose Christian faith has been questioned recently, as it was at the time.[1]On another note: Modernity promised personal and national prosperity and happiness to the Chinese who embraced it, but proved to be a double-edged sword which also inflicted incalculable damage and suffering. Perhaps that should give us pause, and prompt us to ponder afresh the relationships between Protestant Christianity and the modern project.With the publication of this final volume in the highly-acclaimed Salt & Light series, historians of modern China have no more excuse to ignore the role of Christians in twentieth century China, much less to accept the canard that they impeded progress and were simply lackeys of imperial powers. John Barwick’s unpublished dissertation, “The Protestant Quest for Modernity in Republican China” sheds a great deal of light on this entire subject, and together with the Salt and Light series proves that Christians of all sorts were indispensable in the creation of modern China.G. Wright Doyle

ReviewsJason Truell