A wingding Journey of cultural transformation                         

Lessons from History: Cultural Mission in China

by Edwin Su


The year 2007 marks the bicentennial anniversary of the Protestant mission in China . All missionaries who went to China had the dream to see her Christianized. But the Chinese culture was difficult for outside force to break through. It has been a self-satisfying system lasting for thousands of years. However, in the 20 th century this country was greatly shaken by the upheavals of wars, political and cultural revolutions. The old traditions and societal structures gradually collapsed. The Chinese have been experiencing a painful process of cultural transition. It is our hope that it will eventually lead to the flourishing of Christian faith in China , not only individuals turning to God, but the entire culture being transformed. Indeed this is the goal we all strive for.

What lessons can we learn for the mission efforts in the past? What were the mistakes to avoid? What direction should we move forward? In trying to answer questions like these we may certainly gain some insights by examining the history.


The Blind Spots in Cultural Mission

•  In Tang and Yuan Dynasties: Died out with the Government

Christianity came to China in the 7 th century during the Tang dynasty. It also existed in Yuan dynasty. Basically it was the Nestorians who sent the missionaries to China . They tried to win the acceptance of the imperial court and the nobles, hoping the conversion of the leaders might influence the whole society. However, they relied mainly upon the political power. Once the dynasties were overthrown, the church died out as well.

•  In Late Ming and Early Ching Dynasties: Limited Success

Roman Catholics sent missionaries to China in late Ming and early Ching dynasties. Most of those from the Jesuits were scholars who led a simple life. They followed the principle of incarnation exemplified by Jesus by living among the ordinary Chinese people. They spent a lot of time trying to master the Chinese Classics. Their strategy was to Christianize the Chinese culture through gradual penetration. Famous missionaries like Matteo Ricci were highly respected by many Chinese intellectuals. Ricci and his companions won converts among the high officials. Even the emperors venerated them. Nevertheless there were blind spots in their efforts.

(1) Limited Influence: Their desire was to influence the mass through the officials. Yet their influence was confined within the group of higher class.

(2) Rootless Flower: They adopted the strategy of accommodation to avoid conflicts with the Chinese tradition. However, it led to a negative consequence. The believers were not encouraged to think through the real meaning and significance of Christian faith. Thus the church was immediately weakened when being tested.

(3) Unsuccessful in Surpassing Confucianism: They had some success in finding similarities between Christianity and Confucianism, the predominant thought in China . Ideally the steps followed would be to demonstrate that Christian faith could supplement Confucianism and even surpass it. However, they were fruitless in trying to change the Chinese traditional views and ways. One of the reasons could be that cultural change would not happen by persuading handful intellectuals alone. The Gospel must reach the mass, influencing all levels of society, before it can effectively transform the culture.

C. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: A Total Failure

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (1851-1864) was an effort to Christianize Chinese through political efforts. We know now that it was a total failure. Most of their leaders were not true Christians, holding syncretistic views of religion. Though the Taiping government enforced many rules in accordance with Christianity and showed high morality in the beginning, it soon corrupted. Religion became their tool in power struggle. This terrible period should be seen as a warning in cultural mission.

D. Timothy Richard's Strategy: New Culture Movement

Among the Protestant missionaries coming after the treaties in 1842 and 1860, Timothy Richard may be seen as the representative of the strategy of new cultural movement. He insisted that to change the mass it was necessary to change the intellectuals first. Therefore he published newspaper f巷鵤 the Globe Magazine and books to introduce the Western thoughts on science, politics, economics, law, democracy, etc. These publications gained support from high officials in the government. He also promoted the establishment of universities. His efforts widened the views of many Chinese intellectuals who in turn impacted the political scene.

Ideally this strategy should nurture a group of intellectuals who would carry out the task of cultural mandate. Sad to say, most of the people under the influence of this new cultural movement became so-called ^cultural Christians. ̄ They were sympathetic to Christian value system yet expressed no commitment to Christian faith.

Timothy Richard's effort and the cultural encounter of the West and East in the twentieth of last century resulted in four kinds of responses among the Chinese intellectuals: (1) Total negation of Christianity, regarding it worthless to the Chinese; (2) Replacing Christianity with atheism and education; (3) Adopting only the elements in Christianity useful to Chinese culture, such as love, forgiveness and sacrifice; (4) Dualistic view of science and religion, regarding them as belonging to different realms.

In evaluation we found that the strategy of new cultural movement alone cannot convince the Chinese of God's truth, for they did not see the life-changing power of the Gospel.

E. Xiaofeng Liu's Model: Studying Christianity

Xiaofeng Liu could be identified as the representative of the intellectuals in Mainland China who engaged in cultural mission in the eighties of last century. He earned his Ph.D. in Europe and penned a number of books concerning Christianity in Chinese. His literary style was beautiful and intelligent. His writings and translations had a great impact in the Chinese academia.

Christianity was despised as a cane to the old, the na?ve, and the weak in Communist China. Liu's effort changed the impression of the public and generated the heat of studying Christianity. Doubtlessly this is a great contribution. Nevertheless the real ^treasure ̄ in Christianity is not its ethics or value system, but the life of Christ. It is a pity that Liu's effort has not helped those ^cultural Christians ̄ grasp this point yet.


Proper Directions of Cultural Mission

After evaluating the history, I would like to point out three principles or directions in cultural mission.

1. Transforming the worldview and the value system

Christian mission should reach the goal of changing the worldview and the value system of the original culture. When confronted by Christianity, the easiest change is usually behavioral. For example, Chinese Christians would offer flowers to the dead instead of food. Yet outside conformation alone, without real repentance in the heart, will only make nominal Christians. The true believers have to have a God-centered worldview.

2. Cultural Mission cooperating with Traditional Evangelism

The fundamental differences between Christianity and Confucianism lie in the worldview. Confucianism is human oriented, but Christian faith is divine oriented. The differences of value systems rooted in the discrepancies in worldviews. To reach the goal of changing the worldview, the deepest level in one's consciousness, we need to win the mind and the heart at the same time. In other words, cultural mission must work hand in hand with traditional evangelism that emphasizes conversion. We have to adopt the strategies that may convert the intellectuals and the mass at the same time.

3. Scholars Witnessing with Believers

The success of the Christian mission, no matter in cultural transformation or in traditional evangelism, depends on the individuals who carry it out. This principle is universal.

The early church Fathers set a good example. Many of them were scholars respected by the society. Yet nearly all of them were martyrs, especially in the first three centuries. They lived out their faith just like the ordinary believers. That was why Christianity could conquer the Western world within four hundred years.

I firmly believe that the most important task of mission in China is to win a lot of true believers who own a new life and a renewed mind. They will not conform to the world but devote to the cause of Christ. They will be the ones who are able to ^present everyone perfect in Christ ̄ by admonishing and teaching with all wisdom (Col. 1:28).

May we bear in mind the lessons from history and strive forward along the right path.


Edwin Su

Director of the Overseas Campus Magazine

Board Director of the BF

A Speech in the BF Family Retreat, July 2005

Translated by Liang-Shwu Chen