Respect for Chinese Culture: The Example of Hudson Taylor, Part Two

Not only did Hudson Taylor seek to adapt as much as possible to Chinese customs and culture, but he labored strenuously to “reach the English-speaking world with updated information on the cultural complexities and religious openness of Chinese and other peoples within the Qing dynasty,” by means of extensive writing.[1] The CIM’s journal, China’s Millions, is filled with drawings and descriptions of everyday Chinese life, as well as brief explanations of religions and customs. Through this periodical, “a kaleidoscope of Chine scenes and cameos of other ethnic groups paraded into the homes and churches of an increasingly large international readership.”[2] The magazine was augmented by several books which he wrote to introduce people in the West to “China’s spiritual need and claims” (the title of one of them). The illustrations “corrected many previously stereotyped (and less humane) caricatures of Chinese persons and others from the ethnic minorities.”[3] Articles about Chinese customs discussed the meaning of filial piety and the “controversial problems associated with ancestral reverence and its associated familial rituals.”[4] Always, the spiritual needs of the Chinese people were constantly emphasized.

Respect for the Political System: Refusal of Consular protection

Now let us turn to Hudson Taylor’s stance towards Chinese law and the treaties which had been signed between China and the Western powers. At the beginning of his missionary career, he violated the stipulations of the treaties by traveling and preaching outside the boundaries of the designated treaty ports, as he admits himself in his brief autobiography.[5]But in a another letter to prospective missionary candidates in 1875, Taylor wrote that the CIM was looking for men who

Believe the Bible to be the Word of God, and who, accepting the declaration, “All power is given unto me,” are prepared to carry out to the best of their ability the command, “Go . . . teach all nations,” relying on Him who possesses “all power” and has promised to be with His messengers always, rather than on foreign gunboats, though they possess some power.

He guaranteed “a harvest of souls and a crown of glory hereafter ‘that fadeth not away,’ and on the Master’s ‘well done’” to those who were “prepared to take joyfully the spoiling of your goods, and seal your testimony, if need be, with your blood.”[6]After the conclusion of the Second Opium War in 1860, the Peking Convention allowed for the opening of nine more ports to foreign commerce, and legal travel and residence in the interior of China. More importantly to missionaries, the propagation of the Christian message was also permitted.[7] Teachers of Christianity were “entitled to the protection of the Chinese authorities” and persecution of them prohibited. Sixteen years later, the Chefoo Convention of 1876 provided “that foreigners were at liberty to travel in any part of the emperor’s dominions, that they did so under his protection, and were to be received with respect and in now wise hindered on their journeys.”[8]Hudson Taylor and the CIM relied on these provisions to open doors for them to travel and live in every corner of China. When threatened with violence by ordinary citizens, they appealed to local officials for protection, but they did not, like many other missionaries, call on their own foreign government for reprisals against offenders, much less demand that they be sheltered by foreign military power. In other words, they placed themselves under the authority of the laws of China.There was one early exception to this attitude, when Taylor wrote a letter to the British consul in Ningbo to protest the outrageous actions of a mandarin who had refused to protect several of his workers and their Chinese associates. He went so far as to say, “I would fain hope that you may see it right to vindicate the honour of our country, and our rights under the treaty of Tientsin, by requiring such a proclamation to be put out, as shall cause our persons and our passports to be respected, and shall give the natives confidence in rendering us their legitimate services.”[9] As Broomhall goes on to note, however:

By the standards he later set himself, it was the immature letter of a harassed man with no precedents from working under the new treaty conditions. With experience in more riotous circumstances, Hudson Taylor was quickly to reach a balance of co-operation with the well-meaning consular authorities and the mandarins in the best interests of the Mission, its members and the cause they existed to promote. The vindication of national and religious rights ceased to concern him.[10]

To be sure, these laws were promulgated at the point of a bayonet, and resulted from the hated “unequal treaties” forced upon the Chinese by foreign imperialists. From that standpoint, we may say that the missionaries were indirectly taking advantage of the results of military victories won by their nations against the Chinese. A few of them, indeed, gloated in the successive defeats of China and the resultant opening of ports and later the inland to merchants and missionaries alike. To my knowledge, however, these chauvinists did not include any members of the CIM, or Hudson Taylor himself, who deplored the rapacity of their national governments and waged long campaigns against the odious opium trade. They were, nevertheless, willing to make the best use of what they viewed as the providence of God in allowing them to spread the Gospel among the Chinese under the provisions of treaties which had been signed under duress.[11]But what else could they do? Remain in the port cities while hundreds of millions of souls perished without the knowledge of Christ? That they could not endure, so they went forth into all corners of the Chinese empire, not without danger even though supposedly guaranteed protection by Chinese magistrates. They were urged on not only by their evangelical faith and evangelistic zeal, but by the warm welcome accorded them in countless cities, towns, and villages by people whose lives had been ravaged by the Taiping Rebellion and other shocks to the old order. In general, when the literati had not succeeded in arousing the populace against them, the missionaries found ready and eager audiences for their messages, and many converts were being formed into congregations presided over by Chinese leaders. That is to say, they did not sense that they were being rejected by the people; persecution usually came only when the leaders of society violated the new laws. In seeking help, the missionaries were operating within the legal system itself.But Hudson Taylor would not countenance seeking help from a consul, even for redress after a riot in which damages were suffered. After the nearly-fatal uproar in Yangzhou, the foreign press distorted the facts and provided fuel for the British authorities in China to demand reparations, hoping that a refusal would justify military action, but all of this was contrary to Taylor’s express wishes.[12] The violent retribution for which the newspapers clamored, and which might have sparked yet another war, was only averted by compromise by the Chinese and British alike.[13]As Austin, in his usual ironic style, puts it:

In the apocalyptic struggle for China’s soul, the British consuls might be doing the devil’s work. By threatening to revoke passports, by sending gunboats, by high-handedly degrading provincial governors, by demanding minatory concessions, the flag obstructed the gospel. Out there in the countryside, the CIM knew that ultimately its protection came from the blind eye of the Chinese officials: one could travel better as a lamb than as a wolf.[14]

Aside from the mis-use of the word “minatory,” this passage, though accurate about the deleterious effects of British intervention, overlooks the consistent testimony of Taylor and his colleagues that they looked for protection, not to myopic mandarins, but to Almighty God, as we saw in the statement quoted above.[15]As is well known, the CIM, consistent with Taylor’s lifelong principles, refused to demand, or even to receive, compensation for losses after the horrors of the Boxer Rebellion, in which fifty-eight of its adult members and twenty-one children were killed, while dozens of others had passed through harrowing experiences. This attitude, though approved by the British Foreign Office, stands in stark contrast to the actions both of the allied powers who had sacked Beijing and of many other mission societies.[16]Austin writes:

As usual, the CIM bucked the imperialist rhetoric of the time, affirming Hudson Taylor’s dictum that faith in God was better than a revolver. According to the Principles & Practice, the CIM refused to ask for reparations or to accept them . . . as a result, it gained respect in the eyes of both the foreign and Chinese officials.[17]

Rejection of some aspects of Chinese culture

From the beginning of his long career in China, Hudson Taylor preached against the folly of worshipping idols. On one occasion during his first year, “Like the Apostle Paul in Athens, Hudson Taylor was so distressed to see a woman burning incense and worshipping idols that he expostulated” to the crowd, urging them to repent and turn to God, the only true God and Savior.[18] When he saw men in an idol procession bearing brass chains, he saw it as a “fit emblem of the bondage they are in to sin and Satan and superstition.”[19] More than once, even at a temple he “decried the folly and sin of idolatry as a substitute for worship of the true God and told them of his love and provision of an acceptable sacrifice for sin ‘theirs and ours.’”[20] Nor did he only protest the futility of graven images. Many times he discussed religion with Buddhist and Daoist priests. On one occasion, for example, he spoke with a “Buddhist priest who agreed that in Buddhism there was no real hope after death.”[21] In other words, Taylor was convinced that not only popular superstition but also informed Buddhism could not bring salvation. Deeper knowledge of Chinese religions over the years did not erase his first convictions that they were blind alleys.(He also recoiled against what he called “the impurity of this people,” and “their moral uncleanness, which cannot be named.” He explained: “Vice is open and unheeded.”[22])Contrary to popular opinion, Hudson Taylor did not “lead the attack” on the view that ancestor worship should be allowed for Christians at the Shanghai Missionary Conference of 1890, when he was thought to have called for a vote to reject W.A.P. Martin’s paper advocating that position. Others had already voiced strong opposition to Martin’s plea for greater tolerance of certain forms of reverence. They included scholar E. Faber of the Rhenish Mission, William Muirhead, “who protested that ‘toleration of ancestral worship would be most injurious to the Christian church,’” and Matthew Yates. Though the allotted time was up, Taylor wanted the debate to be continued, but the vast majority of delegates misunderstood what he said and rose to show their dissent from Martin’s views. On the second day of the debate, Taylor seconded a motion by Calvin Mateer, Martin’s fellow-Presbyterian, expressing disagreement with any form of ancestor worship, which was overwhelmingly passed.[23] The important point is that Taylor was only one among many who vigorously protested against approving of veneration of ancestors. The delegates, including Chinese leaders, believed that “fear, not veneration or worship, was ‘the real essence’ of the rite. The gospel of deliverance from the power and bondage of demons was a ‘great gift’ which Chinese would learn to recognize.”[24] And recognize they did. As Lauren Pfister notes, “almost all [Chinese Christians] have followed Taylor in destroying their ancestral plaques on becoming Christians.”[25]


Does Taylor’s rejection of Chinese religion as a means of salvation mean that he was not respectful of Chinese culture?From the foregoing discussion, we can say that Hudson Taylor loved the Chinese people and did all he could to identify with them; he possessed the greatest possible admiration for their long and illustrious civilization; and he required all his missionaries to learn as much as they could about Chinese culture and religion. On the other hand, like the Old Testament prophets and the Apostles, he believed that Jesus only was “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and that “no one can come to the Father apart from” him. With the Apostles, he was convinced that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). You could say that it was precisely because he loved and respected the Chinese that he spent his life in a heroic effort to turn them “to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). I would have to disagree respectfully, therefore, with the claim that Taylor’s view of evangelism did not pay “special attention to the complications of the Qing cultural contexts” in which missionaries labored.[26] I would also have to challenge the contention that Taylor “failed” because of his approach, for thousands of Chinese became Christians through him and his fellow missionaries in the CIM.The following justly-famous quotation gets to the heart of Hudson Taylor’s fundamental motivation:

If I had a thousand pounds, China should have it – if I had a thousand lives China should have them. No! not China, but Christ. Can we do too much for Him? Can we do enough for such a precious Savior?[27]

G. Wright Doyle

Briefing NotesJason Truell