Apologists or Antagonists?

Chinese Intellectuals and the Gospel

Anniversaries carry a special meaning in Chinese tradition.  In this respect, NATO’s accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade this past May had particular significance for the rock-throwing demonstrators who retaliated by attacking the US and British embassies in Beijing.

This tragic accident took place within days of the 80th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement.  For Chinese intellectuals in the year 1919, May fourth signified a turning point in attitudes toward the West.  Angered by the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles, which ceded the Shandong peninsula to Japan, thousands of students took to Tiananmen Square. Their fervent nationalism would later be channeled into political activity culminating in a revolution that would change China forever.

These students had no doubt encountered Christianity in their colleges and universities, many of which were founded by Western missionaries.  Yet faced with China’s increasing humiliation by the international community, many had, by this time, concluded that Christianity was not only irrelevant to China but was yet another weapon in the arsenal of foreign powers intent on carving up China’s territory for their own.  The question, “Does the Gospel have anything to offer China?” drew a negative response. Christianity and the intellectuals’ goal of a strong and prosperous China appeared to be mutually exclusive. Seventy years later, another generation of students took to the same square in Beijing.  This time, however, they extolled Western political ideals as the saving hope of China.  In the aftermath of Tiananmen, many concluded that, since the rise of Western democracy could be linked to the Christian faith, Christianity must have something of value to offer China.  Not a few became Christians during this period, which constituted the season of greatest openness to the Gospel in the history of intellectuals in China.

Within half a decade the tide had turned again.  The China That Can Say “No” was a bestseller in Chinese bookstores.  Western ideals were fast falling out of favor as Chinese intellectuals, many of whose study experiences abroad had left them disillusioned, proclaimed that China must chart its own path to strength and prosperity. Some outside observers proclaimed that the window of opportunity to reach Chinese intellectuals was fast closing.

As several of the writers in this issue of ChinaSource point out, identifying the Gospel with a particular nation or political system can be dangerous, for when that country or system becomes offensive to those we seek to reach, our Gospel becomes offensive as well.

The history of Chinese intellectuals’ encounters with the gospel suggests that “what God can do for China” is in the end an insufficient attraction for Chinese intellectuals to come to faith. Those who have believed have usually done so not because of what Christianity as a collection of moral and ethical principles can do for China but because they have seen Christ in the lives of individuals who share deeply the concerns of the Chinese people.  Having been led into an encounter with the living God, they are no longer asking “What can Christianity do for China?” but rather “What can I—and my fellow Chinese—do for Christ?”

Image credit: Journal Entry (Joel Montes de Oca) by Chris Lott, on Flickr.
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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio