Book Reviews

Building a Nation

Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China 1857-1927 by Ryan Dunch. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001, pp. xxi, 293. ISBN: 0-300-08050-6 Hardback. Cost:  $35

Reviewed by Jason Kindopp

This path-breaking book is not merely a local area study of Fuzhou Protestants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; rather, as the title suggests, it is also about their role in forging a modern Chinese nation. Dunch’s central thesis is that Protestants in Fuzhou were “vitally involved” in the areas central to the modernization process: education, professionalism, progressive politics, and forging a national consciousness through the creative use of ideas, symbols, and rituals. While the argument runs counter to dominant views of China’s early Protestant converts, Dunch backs it with meticulous research. The result is a compelling account of Fuzhou’s Protestant population which shatters many of the longheld stereotypes of Chinese converts to Christianity in the late Qing era and their role in Chinese society.

Protestantism’s contributions to Chinese modernity in Fuzhou began with education. As Dunch points out, “conversion for these people brought both the motivation and the opportunity to learn to read” (37). Pastors taught converts to read, and the instruction held for baptism candidates often included literacy training. Missions developed formal rural schools, which became a “ladder of mobility between rural areas and Fuzhou”—especially for women (43). The missions also established the Anglo-Chinese College (ACC), whose great majority of graduates entered the growing professional elite.  As Dunch observes, “Protestant conversion opened up, quite literally, a whole world of opportunities for young Chinese of ability” (35).

A segment of Fuzhou’s Protestants also became active in progressive politics, and “played an important role in the political changes of the 19011911.”  Progressive Chinese Protestants were at the forefront of the anti-opium and foot binding movements, and took leading roles in Fuzhou’s reform societies.  At least 15 of the 87 members of the influential Qiaonan Society had links to Protestantism, including several prominent Methodist pastors (64-6).

When the Qing government succumbed to popular reform pressures and allowed the formation of representative bodies, leading Protestant figures were elected to Fujian’s Provincial Assembly.  Chinese Protestants were even found in the ranks of political radicals. In one interesting example, Dunch notes that the director of a Methodist orphanage “had the boys in his orphanage making bombs for the revolutionary side on the eve of the battle with the Qing garrison in November 1911” (67).

One reason Fuzhou’s Protestants were active in progressive social and political movements was the way they defined their Christian identities. For many Chinese Protestants, Christianity held the most effective keys for establishing a moral foundation for a modern Chinese society, which, they believed, was integral to building a strong nation.  This outlook was embodied most fully in Fuzhou’s YMCA, which, Dunch argues, “stood for a vigorous, masculine, useful style of Protestant Christianity” (p. 76, emphasis in original text).

Linking Christian moralism with nation-building also explains why progressive Protestants were accepted by Fuzhou’s secular activists. Dunch observes that both secular and Protestant progressives “tended during this period to see the process of building China into a strong, modern nation primarily as a matter of moral education, of molding the Chinese people into a nationally conscious and public-spirited citizenry” (xviii). Another reason is the appeal of American-style republicanism for many of China’s early 20th century progressives. Given their close contacts with Western missions and their early use of patriotic hymns and national flags, Protestants “were regarded by their non-Christian political associates …as possessing a special expertise on the use of symbols in the service of the nation” (xix).

The most interesting parts of Fuzhou’s narrative are those which directly challenge conventional stereotypes of Christianity in late-Qing China. One example is the view that Chinese converts were wholly dependent on and subservient to Western mission organizations. Yet missionaries are peripheral in this book. The reason, Dunch explains, is that “in most instances they were peripheral to the day-to-day life and religious practice of Chinese Protestants” (4). Where Western missionaries do appear in this volume, they are often at odds with their Chinese colleagues on issues ranging from educational curricula in mission schools to U.S. foreign policy. In instances of direct conflict between Western missionaries and Chinese converts, it is the missionaries who yield more often than not.

Another stereotype Dunch brings under scrutiny is the role of Chinese Protestant clergy in late-Qing society. Official Qing sources depict them as “no-good, unscrupulous troublemakers,” due largely to their propensity to intervene in legal disputes on behalf of their members (26).  The appropriate view of Chinese clergy, Dunch argues, is similar to lower degree holders and lineage elders, who, as literate, educated men in positions of leadership, were obliged by the dictates of social custom to play the role of teacher to those under their care.  As acknowledged community leaders, Chinese preachers “were seen as men of status and turned to for help in difficult situations” (27). While they were not legally permitted to intervene in judicial affairs (which was reserved for members of the scholar-official stratum), Protestant pastors filled an ambiguous social elite role which, Dunch argues, was “exactly parallel to the ambiguity in the relationship between local elites and the state in late Qing China” (32).

The stereotype Dunch dispels most decisively is that of Chinese Christians as deracinated individuals, who effectively renounced their Chinese identities by choosing to embrace the Christian faith. Nothing could be further from the truth. The identities of progressive Chinese Protestants were inextricably linked with the concepts of national strength, and Fuzhou’s Protestants were unhesitant in defending China’s national interests when they believed them to be encroached upon by foreign powers. When the U.S. passed the controversial immigration restrictions against Chinese coolie labor in 1905, students at Fuzhou’s Protestant colleges “were ahead of their government school counterparts” in protesting them. Not only did they object earlier, Protestant students, faculty members, and community leaders used their mission connections to deliver directly to the U.S. Consulate a 350-signature petition opposing the policy.

Far from being divorced from broader society, Fuzhou’s Protestants during the 1900s and 1910s enjoyed considerable support from society’s leading figures. This is most visibly demonstrated in the YMCA’s ability to raise $48,000 in local funds in two months during the spring of 1911 to build a new center. Many of Fuzhou’s elite were among the donor list, including one of its wealthiest families, the Lins, whose $10,000 contribution catalyzed a flurry of donations from other local elites. Matched by a $45,000 pledge from the YMCA in America, the resulting YMCA center was the tallest and most modern building in Fuzhou.

These heady days of Christian progressivism mark the apogee of Christianity’s influence in 20th century China. In an insightful concluding chapter, Dunch addresses the counterfactual question of why China did not develop into a Christian republic. Rather, Protestantism was forced to the margins of Chinese society and out of the political sphere altogether. Dunch points to sea changes in the political order and intellectual climate as the driving forces behind the demise of China’s socially and politically progressive Protestantism. The collapse of the Qing and the resulting warlordism brought a new group of military elites to Fuzhou that was less tolerant with the church’s role in social and political affairs. The warlords were soon eclipsed by an increasingly totalitarian Nationalist Party, which held an equally dim view of the church.

These developments were reinforced by the growing influence of a Chinese nationalism that drew on Lenin’s theory of capitalist imperialism as an explanation for the Western nations’ aggressions. As a result, within a few short years, Christianity came to be viewed as an expression of Western cultural imperialism and an integral part of the West’s efforts to dominate and subjugate China.

While Dunch’s narrative ends with the developments of the 1920s, he points to two important later developments. First, dwindling opportunities for social and political activism gave rise to a Protestantism which emphasized individual piety and subjective experience over social involvement (exemplified by the emergence of Watchman Nee’s Little Flock that has grown rapidly in the post-Mao era as well). Second, despite the increasingly negative view of Christianity among China’s intellectual elites and the growing totalization of political control, China’s Protestant population still doubled between 1927 and 1949. Understanding how this occurred, and what forms of Protestantism held the greatest appeal during this period, is essential for a thorough understanding of the Chinese church today.

Finally, observers of the contemporary church in China cannot help but be struck by the parallels between the climates of the early 20th century and today. Profound concern with the moral state of Chinese society, apprehension over China’s deepening political problems, and widespread dissatisfaction with the dominant answers to life’s enduring questions are all as salient in Christianity’s appeal today as they were a century ago.

Image credit: small church by ipickmynose, on Flickr

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Jason Kindopp

Jason Kindopp, M.A., is a doctoral candidate at the Elliot School of International Affairs, George Washington University and also a Civitas Research Fellow at The Brookings Institution where he is writing his doctoral thesis on "Protestantism and Politics in Contemporary China."View Full Bio