Respecting Chinese Culture: The Example of Hudson Taylor, Part One

It has become commonplace to claim that J. Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission and one of the most important Protestant missionaries to China in the 19th century, was guilty of a negative attitude towards Chinese culture, particularly in contrast to more “liberal” figures like Timothy Richard.For example, consider this statement: “Taylor wanted to save the souls of the Chinese, in such a way that it echoed with the saying, ‘One more Christian, one less Chinese’; . . . Taylor failed because his attitude toward Chinese culture, traditional religions and customs, particularly, ancestor worship, was rigid and uncompromising.” Timothy Richard, it is often claimed, showed “more tolerance and sympathy toward Chinese religions and culture.[1](Others, including Hudson Taylor, considered Richards’ methods more than indications of respect for other religions. They feared that he had begun to preach “’another gospel,’ a syncretic mix of Christianity, Confucianism, and Buddhism.”[2] )What, then, was Hudson Taylor’s attitude towards Chinese culture? In the words of our conference theme, how did he change and adapt himself as he sought to serve Christ among the Chinese?J. Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission (CIM) which he founded in 1865 are well known for their adoption of Chinese dress, in contrast to most foreign missionaries at the time and afterwards. What may not be as well known is the connection between wearing Chinese-style clothing and other aspects of Taylor’s unusual approach to conducting foreign missionary work in China, namely, eating Chinese food with Chinese implements; living among the Chinese in Chinese housing; the high standards which he and the CIM set for acquisition of the languages of those whom they intended to reach; care to observe local customs and etiquette; his own study of traditional Chinese culture, including elements of Chinese science; and refusing protection from British consular authorities and the military power at their disposal.In this paper, I shall try to show that these were all natural products of one basic motivation: the desire to imitate Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word of God, who “became flesh and dwelt among us.” Hudson Taylor believed not only in the theological truth of this creedal affirmation, but also in its missiological necessity. As a result, he demonstrated a profound respect for many aspects of Chinese culture, even as he strove with all his might to help Chinese people find salvation in Christ alone.Hudson Taylor was harshly criticized at the time for several of these practices of adaptation and change to Chinese customs, for being too “Chinese,” but – ironically - has even been faulted in recent times for failing to express sufficient respect for Chinese culture.[3] Then as now, Taylor has been a controversial figure more often either idolized4 or caricatured [5] than understood. This paper seeks to redress that balance to some degree.Let us now look at the various elements of Taylor’s unconventional approach.

Respect for Chinese customs and Culture Generally

DressWhen Taylor himself adopted Chinese dress, including shaving his head and wearing a queue (bianzi), his countrymen in Shanghai considered him a madman.[6] Many foreigners in Shanghai responded the same way when the first party of CIM missionaries arrived with the Taylors in 1866.[7] One of them recollected in 1890 that “Shanghai papers ridiculed the ‘pigtail mission’ and dubbed [Taylor] a fool or a knave, but he answered not a word.” This veteran missionary then added, “I for one feel ashamed of my attitude towards Mr Taylor in those early days.”[8]Taylor, on the other hand, saw that the usual way of adhering to European customs would not win the hearts of the Chinese. As one of his early critics later wrote, “His missionary colleagues dressed and behaved like European clergymen. They belonged, visibly, to the same world as the merchants and the administrators and the soldiers whom the Chinese collectively classed ‘red-haired foreign devils’. The first step was obviously to get out of devildom by looking and behaving as much like a Chinese as possible and thus approaching one’s potential converts on their own terms.”[9]Taylor himself put it this way:

In (Chinese dress) the foreigner, though recognized as such, escapes the mobbing and crowding to which, in many places, his own costume would subject him; and in preaching, while his dress attracts less notice, his words attract more.[10]

Partial vindication of this policy came when some members of the CIM reverted to foreign dress and a riot ensued, forcing Taylor to re-insist upon conformity to their agreed-upon guidelines.[11]FoodTaylor insisted that his workers not only dress like the Chinese, but adopt their eating style as well. This caught the attention, and won the approval, of their neighbors, one of whom sought from a Chinese Christian an explanation of who these people were, who “not only dressed as Chinese, but ate like Chinese, enjoying food cooked in the Chinese way.”[12]AccommodationsDespite the difficulty of obtaining rented premises in cities away from the treaty ports, Taylor persisted in settling his missionaries in Chinese buildings among the people they wished to reach, rather than concentrating them in the foreign settlements on the coast, where they could enjoy the comforts of European-style accommodations.CustomsTaylor’s own experience had taught him that adoption of Chinese customs was necessary to overcome well-founded prejudices against European ways. For example, he instructed prospective candidates in this manner:

Husbands and wives may not walk out together arm in arm, nor even walking separately may they be unattended. In walking out among the Chinese, persons of both sexes will have to adopt the slow, orderly, sedate gait of educated natives; otherwise they will lose influence with the people, and be thought ill-brought up, unmannerly and ignorant.[13]

LanguageHudson Taylor himself set a high standard of language acquisition by acquiring the ability to preach in four dialects – Mandarin, Shanghainese, Cantonese, and the Ningbo dialect. His knowledge of the Ningbo tongue was so colloquial and exact that he was able to revise the existing vernacular version of the New Testament, composed in a romanized script that was easy to teach to illiterate Chinese.[14]He expected all his workers to learn to speak, read, and write Chinese as well. Soon the CIM became the “gold standard” for missionary language learning, and its curriculum was adopted by other missions. Completion of a six-part course was required of all workers within two years of arrival in China. Even the usually-hostile Alvyn Austin, who provides details of the subjects to be mastered, comments on the CIM’s exacting standards, and acknowledges that those who passed the test “had remarkable freedom to get close to the people.”[15]In addition to the principal outlines of Chinese geography, history, customs, and political organization , the course of study included mastery of such Chinese classics as the Qianlong Emperor’s Sacred Edict, the Great Learning, the Analects of Confucius, the Thousand-Character Classic, the Book of Rewards with Commentary, the Mencius with Commentary, and the Doctrine of the Mean with Commentary. Though not required to do so, all members were urged to learn about “beliefs and ceremonies connected with births, marriages, and deaths”; festivals and religious rites through the year; the educational curriculum; Daoism, Buddhism; Confucianism, including ancestral worship; “the history and influence upon the nation of famous men”; Chinese ancient and modern history; and Chinese culture and society generally.16 Though this curriculum was adopted after Taylor had been in China for many years, he himself undertook the discipline of completing it amidst his other, often crushing, responsibilities. We know also that he purchased and highly valued James Legge’s four-volume translation of, and commentaries upon, the Confucian classics.[17] Does this not show his profound respect for Chinese culture?Chinese medicineHudson Taylor went to China as a medical missionary. He was convinced that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be accepted more readily if Chinese could see and feel the love of Christ tangibly in the healing of ill and wounded people. On countless occasions, he risked his own health and even his life to tend to the needs of the sick and the dying. Though trained in Western medicine, he quickly developed an interest in, and respect for, the ancient Chinese lore of healing. Unlike many Western physicians who thought only of introducing their own scientific medicine to the backward Chinese, Taylor took the time and the pains of collecting all the information he could about the materia medica of his host country; he regularly purchased ingredients for the practice of Chinese medicine; and he read and studied academic books about Chinese medicine written in Chinese.18 Perhaps no other Westerner showed as much esteem for a centuries-old tradition which the Chinese themselves still highly regard.


In 1867, as the number of applicants to the CIM increased, Hudson Taylor addressed a long letter to all who would seek to join him in this new work.[19] Here he clearly and forcefully expressed his convictions on adaptation to Chinese ways, beginning with a reminder of the example of Jesus Christ himself:

We have to deal with a people whose prejudices in favour of their own customs and habits are the growth of centuries and millenniums. Nor are their preferences ill-founded. These who know them most intimately respect them most; and see best the necessity for many of their habits and customs – this being found in the climate, productions, and conformation of the people. There is perhaps no country in the world in which religious toleration is carried to so great an extent as in China; the only objection that prince or people have to Christianity is that it is a foreign religion, and that its tendencies are to approximate believers to foreign nations.I am not peculiar in holding the opinion that the foreign dress and carriage of missionaries – to a certain extent affected by some of their converts and pupils – the foreign appearance of the chapels, and indeed, the foreign air given to everything connected with religion, have very largely hindered the rapid dissemination of the truth among the Chinese. But why need such a foreign aspect be given to Christianity? The word of God does not require it; nor I conceive would reason justify it. It is not their denationalization but their Christianization that we seek.We wish to see Christian [Chinese] – true Christians, but withal true Chinese in every sense of the word. We wish to see churches and Christian Chinese presided over by pastors and officers of their own countrymen, worshiping the true God in the land of their fathers, in the costume of their fathers, in their own tongue wherein they were born, and in edifices of a thoroughly Chinese style of architecture.If we really desire to see the Chinese such as we have described, let us as far as possible set before them a correct example: let us in everything unsinful become Chinese, that by all things we may save some. Let us adopt their costume, acquire their language, study to imitate their habits, and approximate to their diet as far as health and constitution will allow. Let us live in their houses, making no unnecessary alterations in external appearance, and only so far modifying internal arrangements as attention to health and efficiency for work absolutely require.

He concludes with the other motivation for such a course, “Our present experience is proving the advantage of this course,” and goes on to describe the practical benefits of thus identifying with the Chinese.Later in that same letter, he returns to the primary motive for such adaptation:

Rather let the love of Christ constrain you to seek to commend yourself and your message to the Chinese, as becomes the followers of such a Master. Let there be no reservation; give yourselves up fully and wholly to Him whose you are and whom you wish to serve in this work; and then there can be no disappointment.[20]

(To be continued)G. Wright Doyle

Briefing NotesJason Truell