Chinese Theology: Text and Context, Part I


Chloe Starr, Chinese Theology: Text and Context. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.

Dr. Chloe Starr has written a brilliant and insightful book with many virtues as well as some problematic points.


Chinese Theology’s strengths include writing that is both elegant and precise; clear and meticulous organization; tenacious adherence to its stated aims and emphases; careful definitions and distinctions at every point; and detailed analysis of key texts that illustrate central themes.

Starr, who is associate professor of Asian Christianity and Theology at Yale Divinity School, is an expert Sinologist who has read widely across several centuries of both secular and Christian Chinese literature. Her work displays a mastery of an impressive array of Roman Catholic and Protestant writings, an ability to spot pivotal issues, and a remarkable balance and civility of tone. She is able to explain complex controversies clearly and fairly, without hiding her own considered opinions.

Basic Approach

This volume contains discussions of Chinese Roman Catholic and Protestant writings from the sixteenth century to the early twenty-first century. In her later chapters, she presents the work of both “Mainline” and “House church” writers, with sections on church and academic publications, popular hymns, and blogs by church leaders.

Starr adopts a distinctive two-fold approach to the subject of Chinese theology. That is, she bases her study on a close reading of key texts in their contexts (thus the subtitle, “Text and Context”). She focuses on texts because theology itself has been dominated by written texts, and Chinese reverence texts. Texts must be read in context to be understood, however.

Contexts for Chinese theological works include Chinese literary contexts, such as themes, words, phrases, and allusions to other texts, and a distinctly Chinese literary style and structure. Indeed, the book makes the major claim that Chinese have not produced a “systematic” theology precisely because their literary tradition does not feature systematic treatments of subjects like theology and philosophy.

Chinese society and politics form the other major context for Christian writers, especially “nationalism,” broadly defined as a concern for the nation. The author highlights other dialogue partners during and after composition of the text and theological debates at the time, including both Chinese and foreign discussions. She avers that a purely “Chinese” theology is hard to find, for all the writers are in dialogue with world church conversations.

Unlike most other treatments of Chinese Christianity, Starr highlights not just history but theology. By “theology,” however, she means, “speaking about God,” not just the usual systematic treatments with which we are familiar in the West. She believes that because there is little systematic thinking in the usual “Western” form, we need to look in other places for discussions of God, man, and life in this world. At the same time, she does not limit herself to “theology,” but devotes extensive space to public religious policy and to history, that we may understand the contexts of these texts.

She sets out the overall timeline and understanding of Christian theology in China. Unlike in some parts of the West, theology has not been an academic discipline in China, where its study has been located in churches. The author, therefore, casts her net widely, especially in the post-1949 era, to include people who did not publish formal theological tomes but who did speak to matters of ultimate concern.

Starr’s understanding of Chinese literature shapes her treatment of what she calls “textual reading.” In the first place, especially for Chinese, texts are important in themselves and must be read. More than that, however, in China the reading of texts, especially the Classics, was meant to enable you to become a good person. There was a shared universe of allusions, themes, genres, etc., that shaped cognition and interpretation, even of the Word of God. Always, textual reading has been a collaborative process, with authors and readers engaging in an ongoing dialogue that resulted in changes in previous texts. Like the rest of Chinese society, reading was a relational activity.


Chapter 1 - From Missionary Writings to Chinese Christian Texts: An Introduction

In this opening chapter Starr traces the evolution from missionary theology, first translated and then composed by missionaries, to localized Chinese theology. She notes that enculturation has been going on all along. The creation of Chinese theology goes through three stages: 1. Jesuit missionaries translate existing Catholic works into Chinese. 2. As they gain facility in Chinese, missionaries write in a Chinese textual form. 3. Chinese themselves write and think within their own heritage and tradition.

To illustrate this trajectory, Starr examines three texts: Michele Ruggieri’s catechism Tianzhu shilu, published in 1584; Matteo Rice’s revised catechism Tianzhu shiyi, issued in 1603; and Li Jiubiao’s Kouduo richao (Daily Excerpts of Oral Admonishments; 1630-1640). She likes the term “accommodation,” for it speaks of a “two-way making room for, or adaptation of, religious thought, liturgy, and method within a new philosophical house or religious casing. It implies a generosity, and hospitality, on the part of both the one making room for the metaphysical newcomer and the one accommodating Christianity to a new sphere of religious experience.” (17) 

She applies this to theology, with particular focus on the fact that not only content, but literary form, played a key role in this process, and concludes that Chinese “theology does not need to follow – and indeed, cannot follow – the forms of other textual cultures.” (39) The chapter as a whole shows how sinicization of theology took place very early, as Chinese Roman Catholics wrote for each other and for a critical public, and as they took part in community life as Confucian scholars.

Chapter 2 - The Christian Imprint: The Shaping of Republican-Era Theology

In this chapter, one of three like it (the others being chapters 6 and 8), the author provides a masterful survey of the social, political, and ecclesiastical contexts of mainstream, elite Christian literary production in the early twentieth century. With comprehensive conciseness, she explains “the five background factors to the growth of Republican theology . . . (internal church developments, anti-imperialism, Christian education, elite social responsibility, and the effects of the Anti-Christian movements).” (42) After that, she describes “where theological texts were being produced and by whom.” (42)

Two interacting factors in all this were, first, the question of identity: “who are we, as Chinese Christians?” Can a person be both Christian and Chinese? If so, what does this mean? In the light of the 1911 revolution, the abolition of the Confucian educational system, the introduction of Science and Democracy, the rise of nationalism and the need to distinguish themselves from foreign Christianity and to become independent from foreign control, mainline Chinese Christians struggled to forge a new identity as both Chinese and Christian. Starr notes that some “left to join new, ’Chinese’ churches,” but does not deal with their spokesmen, concentrating instead on the ones who remained “within the historic churches.”

The second factor was the rise of the modern press. “Rapid, cheap circulation of print media enabled Christian thought to be widely distributed and debated . . . The Christian press, n parallel with the secular press, shouldered the mantle of determining what China was and what the Chinese church should become.” (43)

No summary can do justice to the ensuing analysis. Highlights: Church structures changed dramatically, as “separatist and coalition movements went in different directions. The former founded independent churches and organizations. The latter sought to gain equality and then full independence within missionary-founded denominations and organizations. Everyone had to deal with the stigma of the connection between missionary activity and foreign imperialism. 

Missionary-founded colleges turned out educated elites who plunged into the debates and church and society, Christianity and Chinese culture, and the need to form a truly independent Chinese church. Many of these went abroad for further study and returned with degrees from prestigious liberal Western seminaries and graduate schools. As liberal intellectuals, they felt a responsibility to participate in the building of a strong and modern China.

They also sought to build a new “Chinese” Christianity, seeing ‘Chinese culture, and Chinese society, as the ground for their work.” (56) They “embraced Christian involvement in social and economic action, national education, and the reevaluation of Confucian ethics.” (56)

In all this, “the periodical press emerged as a natural center of Christian activity during the 1920s and 1930s.” (61) They urgently called for an indigenous press to inculcate Christian values in the youth and to counter the criticisms of opponents to Christianity. “A small group of liberal-leaning theologians and writers who edited and contributed prolifically to apologetics journals and magazine defined the core features and values of their theological vision as they wrote. . . Building on the thinking (and labor) of Social Gospel proponents in China like Legge, Richard, and Allen . . . they sought to build the Kingdom of God on earth.” (65) Some were Christo-centric; most did not accept biblical claims of miracles. This group rejected or wanted to re-define traditional Christian doctrines. At the same time, they did not deny the reality of the worldwide church, but stressed that Chinese were part of an international body of believers.

Crucially for her thesis, Starr emphasizes that “[t]theology was not separated out into great tomes, . . . (although serialized articles were often republished as complete texts . . . ) but was served up monthly, interspersed among other aspects of Christian life and thought, to a paying audience.”(71)

In the next three chapters, Starr carefully analyzes key works by representatives of this elite group: Zaho Zichen, Xu Yongze, and Wu Leichuan. Because they fit the patterns just described, I shall be quite brief in my treatment of Starr’s description of these writings.

Chapter 3 - Zhao Zichen and a Creative Theology: The Life of Jesus (1935)

As noted earlier, “The Christians intellectuals and leaders who inherited the mission legacy and its rhetoric and chose to remain within historic denominations occupied a demanding, meditative position: interpreting Christian through to China and on Christ into Chinese modes. . . [They] often stepped in line with wider Chinese views rather than church expectations and they took their own stance on matters of theology, governance, and social need.” (73)

Zhao Zichen was one of the leaders of this group. Having studied theology at Vanderbilt, Zhao, and ordained Anglican priest, taught philosophy and Christian at Yanjing (Yenching) University in Beijing, from which Peking University developed. A prolific writer, he penned more than two million characters during the course of his life, including many articles in English.

Beginning as a theological liberal, Zhao changed his views over time, especially after serving six months in prison. His later Life of Paul (1947, which reflects traditionally orthodox theological positions, contrasts sharply with the earlier, and more famous, Life of Jesus (1935). Because of her interest in Chinese Christian theological texts as texts in context, and her great admiration for the ways in which Zhao employed traditional Chinese literary forms, the author devotes this chapter to an extensive analysis of the Life of Jesus.

The Life of Jesus is a historical biography written in the newer style that highlighted the subject as a moral exemplar, and used biography to inculcate virtue. Zhao tries to fill in the gaps between Gospel narratives, imagining what might have happened. He sees Jesus as a man whose sense of mission, and even his character, developed over time. In the preface he comments that “all that Jesus said, and did, was poetry, with the flavor of a novel,” and his book mirrors this perspective. It is filled with Chinese poetic images and phrases from the traditional literary corpus.

In his reading of the Bible, Zhao downplays the miraculous and the supernatural, highlighting instead the splendid humanity of Jesus. Jesus came, not to die and rise as Messiah, but to enlighten the minds of the masses and liberate them form the tyranny of religious leaders. Eschewing military force, he gives his life away for the sake of the people.

Finally, Starr shows how Zhao drew upon the Chinese literary tradition of travel narratives, with their attention to the land through which the traveler journeys and its connection with the past, present, and potential future. “Even when his mind wanders to the goods the God. . . . Land and the heroes evoked by it are intertwined. Jesus’s imagination is caught by figures who obey God unconditionally, but the foreboding of a seemingly incomplete mission, by the possibilities of military power, by sacrifice.” (93)

Zhao depicts Jesus as the founder of a “religion that could build on the humanistic and democratic aspirations of the youth movements. . . The twin themes of liberation from political/imperialist oppression and of a rational, morally perfect humanity exemplified by Jesus espouse this approach.” (96) The book “does more than just counter prevalent criticisms of Christianity: it provides a model for a constructive cultural engagement.” (97)
Though Zhao later repudiated theological liberalism and gave up trying to integrate Christianity to a Chinese culture that he thought had imploded, Starr believes that the Life of Jesus still has value for contemporary Chinese Christians, some of whom have re-opened the debate on the relationship of Christianity and Chinese culture.

Chapter 4 - The Public and Personal Faces of the Church: Xu Zonge’s Sui Si Bi and the Shengjiao Zazhi (Revue Catholique).

“The Holy Church is a good mother who protects her children. . . . The priests of the Church are spiritual doctors, curing the pain of the people.” (100)

“To spread the gospel in a country, the first thing necessary is to assimilate it with the people’s thinking and customs, only then can it enter deeply among the people and comprehend their psychology.” (100)

These two epigraphs at the opening of the chapter illustrate the two foci of Xu Zonge’s writing: Roman Catholic teaching and the personal and social situations of the Chinese people. Starr first looks at his essays in the Revue Catholique and then at the “thoughts and jottings” that later became a regular feature in the back pages of the magazine. In each case, she finds Xu to be applying traditional Roman Catholic convictions to daily life.
Xu, a learned Jesuit priest with both Chinese and Western education, edited this leading Roman Catholic journal during the crucial 1920s and 1930s. His position and voluminous writings gained him considerable authority among his Roman Catholic readers.

Xu published doctrinal works and textbooks, compiled from articles he had written for the journal. Some dealt with theological topics; others treated psychology and social economics. In 1940, however, he issued a “curious scrapbook of ideas and comments in the Chinese biji . . . style of composition titled Sui si sui bi.” (101) This chapter “sets the biji, or “thoughts and jottings,” in the frame of the “official” magazine writings.” (101)
In both the articles and the biji, we find a “deep social concern.” The first part of the chapter looks at the articles that discussed papal encyclicals that spoke to larger social issues, while the second part examines the biji, which addressed a larger variety of matters of importance to ordinary people. “Like the work of many of his protestant peers, Su’s writing was in dialogue with mainstream society as much as with other theologians, and a prime aim was for the church to influence society, especially in the formation of morals.” (102)

He worked within three sets of discourse: Roman Catholic teaching,” the new langue of social science, and Chinese traditional values. (103) Starr’s exploration of the interrelationships among these three is fascinating, and gives insight into the complex thought world of educated Chinese Roman Catholics and Protestants. Xu’s articles addressed matters like just labor laws, education, and marriage. 

Xu’s biji receive more discussion, because they bolster Starr’s thesis that there is a “need to look beyond received doctrinal texts and forms in assessing Chinese theology.” (127) In these jottings, Xu was able to range broadly, touching upon all sorts of topics, many of which are not overtly theological or even “Christian,” and yet all of which reflect the intersection of divine truth with daily life.

He believed strongly that Roman Catholic youth must learn both their own Chinese culture and official church teaching, and must see the connection between truth and life, both private and public. Indeed, as seen in the biji, ”reading and ingesting forms the moral self.” (127) 

The author is to be commended for bringing this important Roman Catholic thinker and writer to our attention. Her wide-ranging treatment of his even more wide-ranging works not only introduced me to a major intellectual but also exposed me to delightful and sometimes provocative ideas.

Chapter 5 - Wu Leichuan, Christianity and Chinese Culture, and the Kingdom of Heaven

“The aim of religion is to improve society, and so all who believe in religion must directly or indirectly take part in political activities.” (128)

Once again, the epigraph at the beginning of the chapter encapsulates the core of its contents. Wu Leichuan’s book, Christianity and Chinese Culture opens by defining religion as “a motivating force for progress in human society.” (128) As a disciple of Western Social Gospel theologians who also wanted to contextualize his version of Christianity in Chinese culture, Wu continues to exercise influence. His earthly view of the Kingdom of Heaven and his conviction that Christianity must somehow help to “save” China fits nicely with the stated mandate of the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement and current calls for the “sinicization of Christianity.” 

Wu was one of the most highly-educated of the elite Protestant thinkers in the early twentieth century, having earned the jinshi degree (the equivalent of a European Ph.D.) under the old Confucian educational system. He was thus a master of the “Chinese culture” which he wanted to meld with Christianity. . He served as Professor of Christianity and then Vice-Chancellor of Yanjing (Yenching) University. 

His Western sources included Social Gospel proponents Bishop Charles Gore’s Halley Stewart Lectures (1927), Sherwood Eddy’s Religion and Social Justice (1927), and the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch

Like them, and in keeping with his Confucian background, Wu conceives of the Kingdom of Heaven (or of God) as entirely of this earth and this age. He rejects the supernatural, including accounts of miracles performed by Jesus. Though he agrees with evangelicals like Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng) and with the Nationalist New Life Movement that transformation of moral character among citizens must take place for society to be reformed, he does not believe in the necessity of the new birth or in prayer. The Holy Spirit is the same as the Confucian virtue ren (benevolence, humanity). Jesus was a revolutionary who came to trained his disciples to participate in the revolution. He came to preach a kingdom based on ren, love; to debunk superstitions, and to liberate the people from corrupt officials. 

Jesus lived a life of self-sacrifice coupled with a courageous confrontation with the forces of social evil. He aimed to become the ideal political ruler – the Messiah – of a new society, but failed when his disciples could not grasp his vision. He settled them for sacrificing his life in the struggle against evil to inspire his followers to carry out his original plan. Alas, after his death they turned his goal of political salvation to inner personal salvation, thus betraying Jesus’ legacy. Only Judas seems to have understood Jesus’ plan from the beginning. He is, therefore, a sympathetic character.

Key planks in Wu’s “platform” for the Kingdom of God, which largely agrees with Marxist doctrine, were the abolition of traditional family structures; the abolition of private property; land reform; economic control by the government; rural reconstruction; and moral education. Spearheaded by the church, these would transform Chinese culture into the Kingdom of God on earth. Wu reads the Bible to mean that the church must inculcate patriotism among believers. Starr comments, “Wu’s reading of scripture engages as imaginatively with the text as Zhao Zichen, but without the acknowledgement that this has as much akin with fiction as biblical exegesis.” (150)

In short, Christianity is the means to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth in China, which is the fulfillment of China and Chinese culture, as for all nations.” (152

ReviewsG. Wright Doyle