TOGETHER FOR CHINA: Lessons from the History of Protestant Missions in China, 1807-1949

( [email protected] ) Oct 25, 2005 01:41 PM EDT

As the 21st century dawns, we stand at the threshold of one of history¡¦s most profound and perplexing transformations: the modernization of China. How will the gospel of Jesus Christ impact 1.2 billion people? In order to effectively evangelize and disciple the Chinese people, Christians outside China must humbly learn lessons from history, and learn to work together. The China Consultation was convened for this purpose.

Reaching China: Theological Considerations

As Christians in the west respond to the challenge of China, we are all too often impatient to search for biblical and theological foundations for our work. We want to get the job done, as soon as possible. After all, we follow in the tradition of those student volunteers whose goal in the 1890's was "the evangelization of the world in this our generation." God honors the labors of his children; He also brings hardship, frustrations and failure to those who walk ahead of His leading.

1. Many of us have been conditioned to think of the Third World in terms of the tremendous human need there. China is no exception: it is a very needy place. However we must remember that while we can reach segments of the Chinese people by "meeting their needs," the Chinese today stand in succession to an ancient, proud, self-sufficient culture which is resistant to condesceding charity. In order to reach the Chinese heart and mind, much patience and wisdom is needed.

Scripture teaches that God has revealed himself in the human heart; he has made himself plain in men. God has also revealed himself in his creation in nature; he has made this plain to men. Paul teaches us that, in light of these two truths, all men are "without excuse," all know God (Romans 1:18-21). This means that culture is man¡¦s response to God's revelation in the human heart and in nature. Man can respond in obedience to God, or in rebellion against him. The Chinese people, in response to God's general revelation, have built up one of history's highest forms of humanist culture. The Confucian-Taoist worldview places great confidence in man's ability to better himself by meditation, study, remembering history and leadership by virtue. This fundamental worldview was not eliminated by forty-five years of Communist rule. The Chinese worldview is self-sufficient, proud, resilient and resistant to any foreign idea which purports to offer an alternative. Patience is needed to reach a proud, self-sufficient, resistent worldview.

God's revelation in the human heart is the starting point of evangelization; let us not be so burdened and enamored by human need, that we lose a God-centered foundation for all that we do in China.

2. The Confucian-Taoist worldview has been summed up by a Chinese scholar, N.Z. Zia, as "mysticism-pragmatism." Mysticism is man's communion with nature, through art, meditation and poetry. Pragmatism is the scholar-official's obligation to preserve Chinese culture, to lead the masses by virtuous example, and to be able to look back to China's past for guidance in policy decisions. Neither Chinese mysticism nor Chinese pragmatism is akin to the western worldview. The latter is characterized by a more rational approach to nature, and (in the case of American worldview) a pragmatism driven by the desire to solve problems with method and technology.

Christians concerned to reach China need to appreciate and "absorb" the Chinese way of looking at the world. Dialogue with Chinese intellectuals, for example, would be an important way to reach into the Chinese mind, and to maintain a Christian presence. Overemphasis on a cognitive, logical approach to life, including our business-like way of handling ministry, would create a distance between us and millions of Chinese. All too often we have seen tragedy and disaster in China ministry due to this subtle kind of cultural difference.

While we are used to logic, technology (including the Internet), and management by goals and objectives, we must remember that for two thirds of the human race, this is a foreign approach to life.

3. The history of both Christianity and Buddhism in China shows that, when a foreign religion successfully assimilates itself on Chinese soil, it will lose some of its original character. Buddhism has been transformed into a Chinese religion. Result: Chinese Buddhism represents a significant alteration of original Hinayana Buddhism. What can Christians learn from this? In our effort to atone for the sins of 19th cultural imperialism, we are often too eager to identify with Chinese culture and to find ways to express Christian faith and worship through Chinese forms and symbols. Two thousands years of church history, however, reminds us that accommodation may lead to syncretism, a danger to be avoided at all costs.

The gospel is the gospel. Culture is culture. The gospel may be applied to a culture through forms and symbols. The gospel must not be altered when entering a culture. Inigenous forms, yes; syncretism, never. Let us not take it for granted that we know what the gospel is. Let us not take it for granted that, as we already know what the gospel it, let us move on to "get the job done." Each generation of missionaries must wrestle with the issue all over again: How can we gain a true, comprehensive, and accurate understanding of the gospel, and how do we apply it to the people we are trying to reach?

Let us now turn to 140 tumultous years of modern Chinese history, and review Protestant missionary work and the response it received from the Chinese people. From 1807 to 1949 China was transformed from an ancient, isolated universe to a socialist nation. Who communicated the Christian gospel to China during this period? What was their understanding of the Christian message? What strategies did they adopt, and what was the response? And what can we learn about the importance of partnership in reaching China?

I. Patience and Hope, 1807-1949

Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China, arrived in 1807. China was closed to foreigners. The British clamored for trade, resulting in the Opium War (1839-1842). China was defeated, humiliated with unequal treaties, and began to open five ports for foreign trade. Until 1842, then, foreigners were allowed to stay in a very restricted area outside Canton, for several months each year. Facing such adverse circumstances, what was the strategy of Morrison and his generation of China missionaries?

Morrison's generation set out to build a "wall of light" around China, waiting for China's doors to open. They studied the Chinese language, and produced some of the earliest Chinese language textbooks and dictionaries. They translated the Scriptures into Chinese, and went to Southeast Asia to found schools, trusting that the young men who graduate from these "Anglo-Chinese Colleges" would one day return to China to evangelize their kinsmen.

Forty-three years, or two generations, seem like an eternity to Generation X in the 1990's. Yet Morrison, Milne and others labored patiently, prayerfully, trusting and hoping for the Lord to grant fruit in due time. Sometimes their assistants, interpreters and language teachers became Christians, and some of these turned out to be China's first pastors. Humble beginnings, yes; a tremendous example of patient persistence for us.

2. Evangelism or Reaching China's Mind? Divergent Approaches, 1860-1915

After the Second Opium War (1856-1860), China signed additional unequal treaties in Tianjin (1858) and Beijing (1860), allowing foreigners to reside in China¡¦s inland, and permitting freedom of religious beliefs. The imperial court estbalished the Tsungli Yamen, an early form of an Office of Foreign Affairs, to deal with the foreigners. Upon the suggestion of Yung Wing, the first Chinese to graduate from an American university (Yale 1854), China sent a dozen young men to the west to study modern subjects each year. Ultimately, however, such experiments failed because the Chinese court and Chinese intellectuals only wanted to learn from the western ¡§barbarians¡¨ in order to defeat (at least suppress) them. Chinese learning (i.e. Confucianism) was at the very core of their worldview (or ti, sustance); western learning (i.e. modern science and technology) was merely a pragmatic way to get China modernized (or yung, use). When China saw these young boys returnaing from the west having been affected with the western way of life, she stopped this program of study abroad. Chinese conservatism and isolation ultimately brought the Manchu dynasty down in 1911, but until the Empress Dowager died in 1908, the court was kept under her malicious, xenophobic, and reactionary rule.

During this period western Christians enjoyed the dual privilege of being immune from Chinese law (having been guaranteed protection under the unequal treaties), and being able to propagate the Christian faith. Under these bewildering (and to the Chinese, humiliating) conditions, Protestant missions flourised. Dozens of missionary societies sent their workers to China. During this period two distinct approaches to China missions emerged.

First, Hudson Taylor represents the approach of direct evangelism. Refusing to be distracted with starting schools in China, Taylor sent his single young men and missionary couples to the towns and villages of China, distributing Scripture portions, preaching on the street, establishing chapels, and challenging Chinese to conversion. Life was hard on the road; itinerant evangelists paid with their health and strength. Gradually Chinese came to faith in Christ: mostly peasants and common folk, yet among them a few Confucian scholars (for example, Pastor Hsi, whose biography has been publshed in English).

The second approach is exemplified by W.A.P. Martin, John Fryer, Calvin Mateer, and Timothy Richard. They were well trained in the west before sailing for China, but often became frustrated in personal evangelism and preaching. They turned to a greater task: that of waking up China, and regenerating Chinese culture. They saw China as a giant about to be awakened, and the Christian missionary's strategic role was to work with those intellectuals bent on reform (or revolution, as in Sun Yat-sen). W.A.P. Martin and John Fryer taught in foreign language schools. Calvin Mateer promoted western science. Timothy Richard, Young J. Allen and others translated hundreds of books, booklets and articles into Chinese. These pieces of literature brought western science, law, history and philosophy within reach of China's intellectuals, many of whom had been rudely awakened to the need for reform and modernization.

Martin and his fellow missionaries of the "socializing wing" (as the second approach was called) adopted innovative approaches. They came into contact with radical reformers like Liang Chi-ch'ao. Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Chinese revolution of 1911, was a devout Christian. However, by the 1900s and 1910s, Martin, Fryer and Richard all became universalists.

What can we learn? Evangelism and church-planting remain priorities in the missio Dei, but reaching a generation of Chinese intellectuals for Christ is also both urgent and strategic. Must we choose between Taylor and Richard? Can we build bridges of understanding, mutual appreciation and enrichment between the evangelists and the cultural reformers? Will such partnership result in a more seasoned, ripe, wise approach to evangelized the Chinese in the 21st century?

Jesus came to die, rise from the dead and commission us to preach the gospel to the world. Jesus came also to live the life of the Second Adam -- to rule over the world in perfect obedience to God, creating a new community, a new culture in the world. Evangelism and engaging culture are both commissioned and modeled by Christ. They are part of one mandate. China missionaries were asked to choose between the two -- with tragic consequences.

3. Intellectual Revolution, 1915-1927

Soon after the revolution of 1911, Chinese intellectuals realized that the elimination of an emperor and the convening of a parliament did not guarantee that China would be a true democratic society. Power lay in the hands of Yuan Shih-k'ai, warlord in the north. University professors and writers such as Ch'en Tu-hsiu and Hu Shih began to call for a wholesale adoption of modern western ideas, the total elimination of the Confucian social order (which they saw as the root of all dehumanizing social evils), and a new culture featuring science, democracy, pragmatism, social Darwinism, radical individualism strangely coupled with fierce nationalism. During this period (named the May Fourth period, after a nation-wide student demonstration on May 4, 1919) China's teachers and students asked: Is there an all-comprehensive ideology which could supplant ancient Confucianism, and which would solve all of China's social, economic, political, cultural and religious problems with one stroke?

As Chinese intellectuals explored the modern west, they came to admire Jesus (as a character with a warm personality) but rejected Christianity as both unscientific and a tool of imperialism. Chinese Christians, in turn, felt called upon to defend their faith. Can one be a Christian and a patriotic Chinese at the same time? When the Anti-Christian Movement accused the Christian colleges in China of producing denationalized Chinese Christians, how would the Christian church respond?

Evangelicals, as a whole, was silent in the debate. Most of the evangelists who would later lead revivals were still young. The representatives of Christianity who responded to the charges of the Anti-Christian Movement were theological liberals, who did not believe in the Virign Birth, the miracles and the resurrection of Jesus Chirst. They ultimately offered to China something other than the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ: liberal arts education (the 13 Protestant colleges in China); Jesus as one who fulfilled personhood with his warm personality and his God-consciousness; the importance of discussion, dialogue and a broad appreciation of all that is good (including art); a broad mandate to train college graduates to take up leadership in society; and a belief that Christianity can somehow be harmonized with Confucian thought, modern science, reason, and the demands for a new social order in China.

The task was too great: it is even greater, in retrospect, if it is not undergirded with the firm foundation of the "whole counsel of God" revealed in Scripture. When earlier missionaries in the 19th century were forced to choose between evangelism and engaging culture, those who chose the second alternative gave up the gospel and gave China a counterfeit, a substitute. They did heroic work. They held up the "Christian" banner during the May Fourth Movement. That was no small achievement. But these Christians who called for a "Christian New Culture Movement" ultimately failed because they had no true message to offer China from the Scriptures.

Christians who are engaging China's intellectuals today would do well to heed the lessons learned from these May Fourth Christians. Engagement of intellectuals is absolutely necessary; it is strategic, it is work with the long-term welfare of China in mind. However we must not dialogue with Chinese intellectuals in such a way as we lose our identity as those who have found the truth, and who love to proclaim it. We must not reduce ourselves to fellow-searchers for truth, perpetually in dialogue as if truth deliberately eludes beyond the horizon.

On the other hand, those who avoid culture -- spiritual descendants of those who took Hudson Taylor's approach of direct evangelism only -- would do well to see the strategic importance of reaching beyond the church's four walls, and to speak the truth to a generation of intellectuals hungry and thirsty for something solid to believe in. China's best minds -- unlike their forbears in the 1860's and 1920's -- are wide open to the truth. Instead of an Anti-Christian Movement (in the 1920's), we have "Culture Fever" and "Christianity Fever" in China in the 1990's. Let us learn the language of philosophy, literature and art criticism, and speak the historic truth (what Francis Schaeffer called "True truth") to Chinese intellectuals.

In order to do that, Christians in the west need to (a) humble acknowledge our lack of training and lack of interest in things theologically; (b) resolve to upgrade the understanding of sound theology and apologetics of the evangelical church in the west; (c) work together to consolidate resources and to partner with like-minded agencies so that Chinese intellectuals can hear a clear, uncompromising, and united voice from evangelicals who love and believe in the truth.

4. Revival and Revolution, 1927-1949

The May Fourth period came to an end when Chiang Kai-shek united the country, moved the capital to Nanjing in 1928 and required the students to stop their demonstrations and return to studies. During these short years before Japan invaded Manchuria (1931) and mainland China (1937), evangelists John Sung, Watchman Nee, Wang Mingdao and others crisscrossed China and traveled to Southeast Asia, preaching the gospel, calling for repentance and re-dedication to serve the living Christ, and for holy living. Thousands responded. Pastors and elders today in Asia can still trace their conversion or re-dedication to the ministries of these and other men of God.

While the fundamentalists were packing out churches for revival meetings, mainline Protestants also called for revival, albeit of a somewhat different sort. They challenged their churches to double membership in a decade. They called for sacrifice, determination and servanthood -- to serve the people, to serve their nation in crisis. Based on a humanist desire to serve mankind, some of these Protestant leaders became Pacifists; other joined the united front to resist the Japanese; still others were jailed by the Japanese and turned to an existentialist understanding of the New Testament. The "Christian New Culture Movement" splintered into divergent approaches; ultimately a few survived beyond 1949 to join the Communist regime and its control of the Chrisitan church.

As revival broke out again in 1945 and the Civil War period (1945-49), evangelicals were able to build up a generation of university-trained Christians who would stay on in China to witness for the living Christ beyond 1949. Soon they discovered that man-made organization, even evangelical ones' would not survive a violent revolution and a socialist regime determined to wipe out Christian influence in society. The test of faith came: identify with the new government; accuse missionaries of imperialism; join the new official church; accuse other Chinese Christians.

Christians in China and "Greater China" are keenly aware of the need to suffer for Christ, to stand up for the truth and endure the consequences. Yet a vibrant church emerged in China, destined to be the largest national Christian movement on earth in the 21st century. She lacks Scripture, Christian literature and training, and she is prone to heresies due to the lack of available Scripture. But she knows suffering like none of us in the west do.

What can we learn from the 1927-1949 period? Precisely this: just as the Nanjing government was seeking to give the people a more comfortable life, Christians, moved by the Spirit, were preparing themselves for difficult days ahead. They probably did not know that was God's will; in retrospect, we can see the perfect wisdom of the Lord.

Christians who are not determined and experienced to work together, to stand together and to love one another despite secondary differences, will suffer alone when persecution comes. We will be deprived of a deeper fellowship in suffering (Philippians 3:8-10). Christians in the west are concerned about security, and appropriately so. But when caution turns to suspicion and arrogance (only we know how China works), the Lord will withdraw a special blessing which comes only when His people stand together (Acts 2:41-48).


As China moves toward the 21st century, needs abound: crime, corruption and social evils which come with economic prosperity; the spread of cults, heresy and pagan materialism in Chinese society; humanist and nationalist ideas among intellectuals competing with biblical truth. Yet Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Christians in the west, let us (a) pray that God will melt our hearts and humble us to see how we desparately need His Spirit and power; (b) pray that we will see the commonalities among brethren, so that we will increase in love, concern, appreciation and prayer one with another; (c) commit ourselves to find ways to partner together, in prayer, in concrete projects, in networking and ultimately (if possible) in merging our efforts; (d) commit ourselves to train the church in the west in a rigorous understanding of sound theological truth and biblical apologetics, so we do not export to China an anti-intellectual, anti-doctrinal, ultra-pragmatic gospel; (e) commit ourselves to train up Christian leaders whose hearts burn for the truth found in Scripture, and whose lives will burn for the living Christ who speaks through Scripture.

Together for China -- for a great task, impossible without the gracious intervention of the Lord; for a great moment, the hour of China's modernization, and perhaps Christianization.