A wingding Journey of cultural transformation                         


A Winding Journey of Cultural Transformation

  By Daniel Ling Li

Jesuit Society in China

The earliest record of Christianity in China went back to the Tang and Yuan dynasties. Yet it did not take root in Chinese culture and only lasted for a short while.

When the Jesuit Society came to China in the end of Ming dynasty, its leaders recognized the importance of understanding Chinese culture. They requested for brilliant missionaries to come to China to study its language and literature, preparing well before doing the ministry of evangelization.

Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) was the most famous Jesuit priest who carried out this strategy. Broad in the knowledge of western science and well versed in Chinese classics, he gained access to the imperial court and made friends with the intellectuals.


Insights of Matteo Ricci

The sophisticated Chinese had a tendency to despise other civilizations. Having a long history over 4000 years, they always felt superior. Ricci realized the great differences of worldview between Christianity and Chinese traditional thoughts. He also sensed the cultural pride of the Chinese. Therefore he approached them in an ingenious way. He first presented the acceptable sides of the faith to the people. He encouraged the Chinese to receive the message for their own good.

He targeted the intellectuals in the hope that they may influence the uneducated mass. He wrote the famous apologetic book, True Meaning of God , based upon his in-depth study of the Chinese Classics. He firmly believed that Confucius thoughts did not contain anything against Christianity.

The contribution of Ricci to the spread of the Gospel in China was enormous. He had amazing insights toward cultural transformation. He pointed out that it was dangerous to shake the original value system of a society before the people could adopt a new faith. Thus he allowed the Chinese believers to continue in many of their traditional ways, especially the funeral ceremonies and the ancestor worship. He argued that the later was not religious in meaning, only a symbolic way to inspire the younger generation to respect their parents.


The Decree that Closed the Door

However, not all Catholic priests agreed with Ricci. Some missionaries accused him bitterly, especially those from the older societies like Dominicans and Franciscans. They were used to a more dogmatic way of evangelism. Nevertheless, the Jesuit missionaries insisted that the strategy of accommodation was necessary. Arguments were presented before the Holy See in Vatican . Eventually Pope Clement XI forbade the Chinese believers to participate in ancestor worship and the ceremony of sacrifice to Confucius in 1704.

Yet this decree jeopardized the missionary endeavor in China that had flourished for 150 years. The friendly emperor Kangxi of the Qing dynasty became furious upon hearing it from the Vatican ambassador Charles Maigrot. His son, emperor Yongzheng, banned missionary activities entirely. Thus the door of China was shut to Christianity and remained so for 120 years.


Evaluation of Mission Strategy

There is a Chinese idiom, RenZhongDaoYuan 販嶷祇h , which means literally the responsibility heavy while the road long. The phrase occurred first in Analects of Confucius with a historical background. It describes a person who seeks the best for the community with a long-range vision and a heavy sense of responsibility. Matteo Ricci could be qualified as such a person.

He pondered upon the huge resistance coming from the Chinese tradition. He understood the significance of Chinese value system to the whole society. He realized that he should watch out for the stability of Chinese society in the process of evangelism. He wisely combined the ^heaviness ̄ of the responsibility to transform the Chinese culture with the ^lengthiness ̄ of time that was required. His mission strategy was indeed brilliant.

Ricci could never imagine that his fellow missionaries who were equally zealous for evangelizing the Chinese would bring an end to his effort. This tragedy in mission history should remind us the importance of strategies in dealing with the challenges from the indigenous culture.


Early Protestant Missionaries

When Robert Morrison reached Macao on September 4, 1807, a new phase of China mission began. Before the death of this pioneer sent by London Missionary Society in Guangzhou in 1834, he only baptized 5 people. However, Robert established a solid foundation for the future missionary endeavor by translating the Bible and producing an English-Chinese Dictionary. He set up printing house to publish periodicals and tracts in Malacca , Malaysia , a place near China . He also opened a school there to educate the local Chinese and to cultivate new missionaries.

Between 1807 and the Opium War in 1842, Protestant missionaries focused on cultural exchange programs. They introduced western science and knowledge to the Chinese and translated Chinese Classics in English and other European languages. Elijah Coleman Bridgman was a good example. As one of the first missionaries from America he pioneered in opening bookstores, initiating newspaper industry and establishing printing company. He also emphasized the importance of medical services in mission.

James Legge, the British missionary who arrived Hong Kong in 1843, translated classics of Confucianism into English, i.e. the Four Books and the Five Classics . This work tremendously helped the western world understand the foundation of Chinese culture.


Winning the Intellectuals

Nevertheless, the efforts in ploughing the Chinese cultural ground by these missionaries were sometimes criticized by the fundamental camp. They contended that it was unnecessary and misleading, a direction influenced by liberal theology. Some missionaries claimed that the only urgent task was preaching the Gospel message directly to the mass in order to rescue them from perishing in hell.

As to the Chinese culture, these Protestant missionaries tended to hold an uncompromising attitude. Consequently their converts usually broke away from the tradition. Their abrupt change of behaviors led to many conflicts at home and in society. Many Chinese intellectuals were concerned and blame Christianity for the disturbances. Their negative comments in turn fueled the anger of the mass. The great tragedy of the Boxer Rebellion in 1899-1900 could be related to this fundamental type of mission strategy.

At the same time, some missionaries worked hard to win the Chinese intellectuals. Alexander Williamson, the Irish missionary who established the famous Guangxuehui VW , literally Association of Broad Knowledge expressed that the highly regarded Chinese intellectuals were the soul of this great empire. Their respect should be won before the missionary enterprise could succeed. Young John Allen, another famous missionary on the same line, suggested the idea of YeRuHeLiu 勳斐栽送 , i.e., combining Christianity and Confucianism together.

Three centuries have passed since Matteo Ricci came to China . It is a fact that by God's grace the Christian church has firmly established in this vast land. Yet investigating a little more, we may find that Chinese culture is still like a piece of tough ground, unfriendly to the Gospel. Christians are considered a marginal group. Christian values are unknown to the populace. Christianity is mainly regarded as western culture, or worse, a tool of western cultural invasion. Yet few leaders in Christendom seem to be aware of the necessity of transforming the Chinese culture.


A New Effort in Mission

The Blessings Foundation founded in 1994 in Los Angeles , California , may have brought about a new phase in Chinese mission. The vision of this young organization is to remove the cultural barriers in order to bring bountiful harvest among the Chinese. Realizing the need of mature and talented workers in this mission field, they set up a scholarship to invest on seminarians with great potential.

The vision of the Blessings Foundation is extraordinary. Its focus is not on a particular ministry or the growth of certain local churches. It has in view the expansion of God's kingdom in China . The BF indeed embarks on a winding journey with an arduous task.

I first knew about the Blessings Foundation while I was a seminarian. I applied for the Blessings Seminarian Scholarship not only out of financial need, but also of my hearty consent with their vision. The more I get acquainted with the BF, the more I feel the importance of its task. After serving five and a half years in the church, I left the pastoral ministry and joined the Blessings Foundation. I would like to devote myself to this arduous task together with them.

It is my sincere hope that more churches and brothers/sisters will identify with this vision. We do need partners to be our strong supporting forces in this significant ministry, i.e., cultural transformation in Chinese mission.


Daniel Ling Li

Director of Academic Cooperation, BF

April 2006

Translated by Liang-Shwu Chen