Timothy Richard’s Vision: Education and Reform in China, 1880-1910


Eunice Johnson begins her study of Timothy Richard’s vision for education and reform by noting that most missionaries did not conform to the usual stereotype of “cultural imperialism or colonial paternalism” (1). Rather, they endured much sacrifice and privation to bring blessing to China, both in the form of the message about Christ and through various social works, such as education for both sexes, hospitals, and helpful literature.

Though studies of the key roles that missionaries played in the modernization of late-Qing and early Republican China are increasing at a rapid rate, and the missionaries’ part in the creation of institutions of higher learning is being recognized, these investigations are still in their infancy. Johnson has given us an excellent account of Richard’s overall “vision” for the general improvement of the lot of the Chinese people, and of his central part in the establishment of the Imperial University in Shanxi.

After an opening chapter that briefly introduces the whole book, the author moves through Richard’s long tenure in China to trace the development and implementation of his grand strategy of education and reform. Always, Richard was motivated by a view of the kingdom of God that would be “worked out intellectually, spiritually, and materially, ultimately leading to peace among individuals and nations” (4).

Unlike most biographies of Richard, this book does not rely solely on his own account, Forty-Five Years in China: Reminiscences, but also draws upon private notes and letters, as well as biographies composed by his contemporaries, along with newspaper and journal articles in English.

Chapter 2: Early Years

The second chapter traces Richard’s early years, from his birth and education, to his acceptance as a missionary with the English Baptist Missionary Society (BMS), founded two hundred years previously by William Carey and others. The well-known story includes his initial engagement in traditional missionary activities, including preaching in street chapels and itinerating in the countryside, followed by a gradually developing strategy of “finding the worthy” – that is, people of higher academic, social, or religious standing – and nurturing friendships with them. Over the years, he developed good relationships with men in very high positions.

He sought to build relationships that would reduce the anti-Christian prejudice common among educated elites, and he used the method of instructing them in “secular” studies that would broaden their understanding of the world and the God-given laws which lay behind its workings. He hoped thereby also to free them from superstitions, such as belief in feng-shui (geomancy), which hindered progress. In time, these lectures would develop into a scheme for a network of schools in China.

When the great famine of 1876-79 hit Shandong, he poured his energies into raising funds for famine relief, distributing those funds, and suggesting reforms of various kinds that would reduce the severity of such disasters and perhaps even prevent them. He later moved to Shanxi to apply the same methods, where also he established a permanent work for the BMS, and where he presented reform ideas to the governor. From this famine Richard became convinced that the great need of China was for education, especially in Western science, mechanics, industry, and organization, as well as the beneficial effects of Christianity upon Western civilization. He also began to make recommendations for political reforms, such as granting religious liberty.

Johnson, working from a number of sources, provides an excellent and very succinct account of this formative period in Richard’s life. By 1884, Richard sensed that his missionary labors in Shanxi must take a different direction. In 1885, he and his family returned to England for furlough and consultations with the leaders of the BMS.

Chapter 3: Reform

In Chapter Three: Refining the Reformer, 1885-91, we read how Richard returned to England on furlough in 1885, armed with a proposal to present to the home committee of the BMS that called for founding excellent colleges in all the provinces of China, in which Western science, history, philosophy, and other similar subjects would be taught. He argued that such an educational system would help Chinese officials serve the people better, reduce prejudice against Christianity among the elites, and prepare Christian evangelists for more effective service. The BMS turned down his plan, citing lack of financial resources; Richard sailed back to China deeply disappointed.

Johnson then describes the conflict and criticism which met Richard when he returned to Shanxi, where he discovered that some of his BMS colleagues, as well as CIM missionaries, disagreed with his missionary methods and what they perceived to be his errant theology. (Her account of the ensuing controversy comes almost entirely from Richard’s point of view, emphasizing that Richard’s critics in the BMS were younger, inexperienced missionaries, and attributing their continued public opposition to Richard as evidence of personal animus against him. She notes that A.J. Broomhall’s seven-volume Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century was published by the successor organization of the CIM, and does not classify it as “academic,” thus seemingly discounting the value of Broomhall’s narrative of the alienation of the two great missionaries from each other as a balanced and reliable historical source.)

The rest of the chapter covers Richard’s departure from Shanxi for Beijing and Tianjin; attempts to return to Shandong to establish a college and newspaper as a BMS missionary; serious illness; resignation from the BMS; and publication of important works on education, the benefits of Christianity for British society, and the growing threat of persecution in China. Johnson describes his brief editorship of the influential paper The Times (Shi Bao); relationships with high-ranking Chinese; and eventual assumption of the post of General Director of the Society for the Diffusion of Christian and General Knowledge among the Chinese (SDK, later known as the Christian Literature Society or CLS) with the temporary financial support of the BMS.

Chapter 4: A Fruitful Time

Chapter Four: Shaping China’s Reform Movements, 1891-1910, covers what the author considers to be the most fruitful period of Richard’s life. Through the CLS, he disseminated information introducing Western science to Chinese leaders, and tried to show that Western power derived from its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. He also promoted economic and political reform. Personally, he mentored high-ranking Chinese officials who also believed that China needed fundamental change and were willing to learn from the West.

Johnson explains in detail Richard’s comprehensive plan for expanding the influence of the CLS and its ideas to every part of China.

After the humiliating defeat by Japan in 1895, the pressure for reform became urgent among many of China’s educated elite, all the way to the emperor himself. Johnson narrates the growth of this first reform movement and Richard’s crucial role in virtually all phases of it, including meetings with key reformers and several of the highest officials in the land. His works and others of the CLS were read with appreciation by the emperor, who recommended them to others.

Richard saw the many signs of growing impetus toward reform as indications that Chinese elites were losing their antipathy to Westerners and Western learning. He made it clear to his supporters that he was not just promoting Western civilization and its benefits, but “was seeking to guide public opinion in China to an understanding of the need for ‘the application of the healing powers of the Gospel to the social miseries of a great nation; it is a benevolent work, exemplifying the love of Christ, on the grandest scale . . . [which] needs most of all character and conscience, purity in the family life, integrity in the official life, and in order to get these, she needs a religious New Birth – she needs Christianity’” (67).

In the wake of the brutal suppression of the One Hundred Days’ Reform by the empress dowager in 1898, Richard and other missionary reformers were naturally dismayed, but that did not stop them from continuing to publish literature that could be used whenever the doors to Western learning re-opened. Richard’s involvement in, and eventual leadership of, the Educational Association of China (EAC), prepared the way for the huge opportunities that suddenly presented themselves after the Boxer Uprising was quelled by foreign powers and the Court realized that implementation of wide-ranging reforms was necessary. Johnson tells in detail how Richard and others in the EAC and CLS strove to fill the new demand for all sorts of textbooks, and how the CLS grew rapidly, both in membership and in number of volumes published.

The author also describes Richard’s efforts to counter the growing influence of Japan and its educational system in China after its defeat of Russia in 1905. Seeing that Christians were losing traction in high places, he urged the consolidation of missionary efforts to present a unified voice to officials. Within ten years, however, the government had prioritized elementary and secondary schools to inculcate “patriotism, loyalty, and concern for the public good,” rather than the “love, peace, and righteousness” that Richard had envisioned would flow from a system with a Christian foundation. After 1906, the Chinese took over their own educational work, and the role of missionaries as advisers declined dramatically.

Chapter 5: Shanxi University

Chapter Five: Fulfilling the Vision: The Imperial University of Shanxi, 1901-10, tells of the recently acknowledged historical roots of present-day Shanxi University in the earliest missionary efforts. When the Boxer Uprising had failed, Richard became a leader in the process of settling claims for losses to foreigners and Chinese Christians. Johnson narrates the story well, showing Richard’s key role at this crucial time and how it led to the creation of the Imperial University of Shanxi in Taiyuan. She also correctly reports (in a footnote, p. 93) that, contrary to the impression one gets from Richard’s account, the initiative for refusing indemnity for missionaries who had been killed came not from him but from the CIM. Johnson makes clear, also, how the impact of Richard’s writings and relationships with Chinese officials and foreign educational missionaries shaped several important developments in higher education during the years right after the Boxer Uprising.

The prolonged and delicate negotiations between Richard and the governor of Shanxi in 1902, in which Richard insisted, among other conditions, that faculty be allowed to talk about Christianity in the classroom, are fully described and documented. Johnson portrays a man willing to compromise on secondary matters, but adamant on the essentials. Her narrative goes into specifics about the design of a new higher educational system, one which had been thought through years before by Richard, and tells how this University was to set the pace for the entire nation. In 1910, when Richard made his last visit to Taiyuan, the provincial legislature convened a special assembly, during which he was roundly applauded for his great contributions in education and reform. Because of the impact of the educational program which was initiated by the Imperial University of Shanxi under the early joint chancellorship of Governor Cen Chunxuan (Ts'en Ch'un-hsuan) and Timothy Richard, this later became known as the “Model Province” of China under the governorship of Yan Xishan (Yen Hsi-shan).

Chapter 6: Conclusion

The final chapter, “Giving Honor Where Honor Is Due,” first describes the extraordinary recognition bestowed upon Richard by both the Chinese government and foreign institutions. It sums up his early life and career, frequently with new information not found earlier in the book, while presenting reasons for Richard’s great success. He had a pleasant and charming personality, never wavered from his convictions and goals, and possessed the qualities of a natural leader.

Johnson then skillfully relates how Richard’s strategy grew from a focus on the salvation of individuals to the “salvation” of the entire nation through education and reform, as a means of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth. She also shows how his optimism, expressed in an acceptance of the idea of progress through education, failed to account for the “materialism that pervaded Chinese philosophy and religion, as well as the gentry’s vested interests in the status quo” (119).

We learn more, too, about Richard’s breadth of vision and innovative methods of instruction and public communication. In his later years, he directed his energies toward the establishment of international organizations and covenants that would produce lasting world peace “rooted in Christianity, or even a united religion” (124). Beneath these schemes lay “an assumption of human perfectibility,” which was shattered, at least for a time, by World War I.

Contemporary and later scholars are cited to disprove charges of theological heresy, and the question of his innovative but controversial “Christian” interpretation of Mahayana Buddhism is being re-visited.The book concludes with an explanation why, until very recently, Richard’s profound and wide-reaching impact upon Chinese intellectuals, through literature and personal friendship, has remained largely unknown.

Throughout, Johnson fills in gaps in Richard’s autobiography from letters and other English language documents. Copious footnotes supplement the text with more information and documentation. She tells Richard’s remarkably rich life story with admirable succinctness, coupled with just the right amount of detail, much of it in well-crafted, richly satisfying footnotes.

Skillfully edited by Carol Lee Hamrin, Timothy Richard’s Vision is now the authoritative work on one of the most influential Westerners ever to reside in China. It deserves extensive and careful reading.

Read more on Richard’s life, as well as an evaluation of the man and his missiology.

Find here a brief discussion of lessons which might be learned from Timothy Richard’s career.

ReviewsG. Wright Doyle