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Chinese Intellectuals and the Search for Modern China


A new millennium is dawning and everything in China seems to be new.  A new generation of young people, comparable in mindset to Generations X and Y in the West, searches for material riches and temporal pleasure.  New skyscrapers grace the skylines of Shanghai and other cities.  Promising to weather the financial crisis in Asia, China’s leaders continue to push for economic growth and modernization. As state enterprises are dismantled, the private sector is becoming dominant.

Will the twenty-first century be China’s century in the world?  If China does become a world leader, will Christian ideas influence her direction?  Her goals?

What ideas will truly guide the “search for modern China?”  Will China be an anti-foreign, militant, and nationalistic people in the 21st century? Will nihilism, materialism, and atheism be the governing ideas for the worldview of the Chinese people?  Will Buddhism and folk religions rise again to dominate their thinking?  Will a new version of Confucianism find a hearing among China’s students and teachers?  What is the place of the Christian gospel, a worldview based on the Old and New Testaments, in China’s search for an all-comprehensive national ideology?

A Battlefield of Ideas: Christianity and the May Fourth Movement (1915-1927)

The Christian gospel was a contestant in China’s battle of the mind earlier in the twentieth century.  Soon after Sun Yat-sen’s revolution of 1911, key Chinese intellectuals realized that a constitution and a parliament were insufficient to transform China into a modern, strong, and prosperous state.  Something more fundamental was at stake: China needed a new culture, a new set of ideas and values to guide individual and social behavior.  The “New Culture Movement” was born.

The most influential magazine read by young people during this “May Fourth Period” (19151927) was called New Youth, edited by the journalist and activist Chen Duxiu.  Launched in the fall of 1915, Chen called for the emancipation of the individual, free thought, and experimentation. He invited a society conducive to the promotion of democracy and science, the abolition of all Confucianist and feudal ideas and institutions, and a vision for the future based on the Social Darwinism of Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer.  In short, all things ancient and Chinese must go; all things modern and Western were to be implemented.

The May Fourth demonstrations in 1919 taught China’s students the magical power of mass rallies and political organization.  Into a climate of anti-foreign, anti-imperialistic anger, Marxist ideas entered through Soviet agents and an indigenous Marxism study group which met at the librarian’s office in Beijing University. Mao Zedong, an assistant to librarian Li Dazhao, was a junior member of the group.  The Chinese Communist Party was organized as an underground movement in July 1921.

As young Chinese Communists sought to influence their contemporaries with their worldview and program for change, the battlefield of ideas began to take a significant turn.  Communists claimed that Christianity was unscientific and was a tool of imperialism. Religion was an impediment to social progress.  Communist students led the first Anti-Christian Movement in 1922, as well as the second wave of anti-Christian fermentation from 1924 to 1925. Western Christian missionaries, as well as Protestant Chinese leaders, were caught on the defensive.  How should Christian churches and institutions in China change to meet these challenges?  Could one be a Christian and a patriotic Chinese at the same time?

Liberal Protestants in China, both Western and Chinese, began to demonstrate that Christianity was compatible with Confucianism at a time when intellectuals called for the total abolition of Confucianist ideas!  They also explained that Christianity could be a significant instrument to foster a spirit of democracy to produce Chinese leaders and to bring about a society based on equality and freedom.  The kingdom of God was to arrive on the good earth of China through liberal education and gradual change.  The Sermon on the Mount was to guide China’s transformation.  Little was said about Adam’s sin and the fall of humanity, the atoning death of Christ on the cross, or salvation by God’s grace in Christ.

The May Fourth search for China’s ideology came to a close in 1927 as civil war ended.  Chiang Kai-shek ordered all students to return to their books in 1928.  China entered a period of conservatism, and the nineteenth century scholar-warlord, Zeng Guofan, was hailed as a hero for junior and senior high youth.  The Communists fled to the countryside and were later forced to go on “The Long March” in 1935 and resettle in Yanan.  All seemed quiet on the battlefield of ideas.

Evangelical preachers like John Sung, Wang Mingdao, Watchman Nee, Calvin Chao, and Andrew Gih began their revivalist careers shortly after 1925.  From 1927 to 1949, many high school and university students turned to Christ and dedicated their lives to evangelism.  Little did they realize that they were preparing themselves for a period of suffering and persecution (1949-1976). With great fervor, Sung, Wang, and Nee exhorted young and old alike to separate themselves from the world and live holy lives for Jesus Christ.  A biblical, Christian worldview, which called Christians to transform the world, but not be transformed by it, was rarely presented.

A Second Chance

PRC students emerged from the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) as some of the most well-read intellectuals in the late twentieth century.  Like their counterparts in Russia and the former Soviet republics, Chinese students are trained to think, write, debate, and handle profound issues in literature, the arts, philosophy, the social sciences, and politics.

On June 4, 1989, Christians outside China (Chinese or otherwise), were glued to their television sets, shedding tears of support for the student demonstrators overrun by the People’s Liberation Army.  Chinese evangelical leaders took to the streets in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, calling on God to judge with justice.  Soon China returned to an awkward normality.  Christian professionals and English teachers returned to China.  The economy took off in China and in the United States as China became a major trading partner with the United States.  The Communist Party’s desperate struggle to respond to unprecedented changes after 1989 and to continue to govern 1.2 billion people, made its position very vulnerable; so it harassed and persecuted Christians who might destabilize the nation, just like what had been done in Eastern Europe.  Many intellectuals, working for business enterprises rather than reading and writing philosophy, found that “to get rich is glorious.”

Post-1989 China shares one thing in common with post-1919 China.  Despite the economic changes, China still needs to find an all-comprehensive ideology or worldview to guide her into the future.  Since Christian liberal theology lost the distinctiveness of Christ and fundamentalism withdrew from engaging the culture, both proved to be inadequate.  What can the church offer China?  As Chinese students meet Christian teachers in English classes in China, or international student workers on campuses in the West, they want to know: What does Jesus Christ have to say to China’s political, economic, cultural, educational, and family needs?  Will Christianity offer a viable voice to shape China’s future?

Post-Tiananmen Square China can be compared with two other periods in Western history.  During the sixteenth century, Martin Luther and John Calvin preached the gospel of salvation by grace through faith to Europeans enslaved by medieval Catholic legalism and authoritarianism.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is all about grace: a Father in heaven, loving, accepting, and transforming his children as they come to Him in faith.  China today needs to hear the strong word of grace!

Then, in the eighteenth century, after Luther and Calvin’s influence began to wane as a secular, commercialized society took shape in England and America, the Great Awakening called Christians back to repentance and a disciplined lifestyle committed to the glory of God and the transformation of society.  Jonathan Edwards both witnessed the movement of repentance in New England and sought to shape and sustain it.  Responding to the church’s skeptical critics during the Enlightenment period, Edwards interpreted the experiences of the Christian soul, both in the light of the Bible, and in response to eighteenth century skepticism.  A biblical worldview made a significant contribution in shaping the new republic, balancing and tempering the secular, Deist ideas of the time as America adopted her Constitution in 1789.

Compare this experience with France.  France endured mob rule during the 1789 Revolution, followed by Napoleon’s dictatorship.  Why the difference?  In large measure, Reformation ideas embodied in the Great Awakening tempered the American experiment in modern democracy.

Evangelical outreach to Chinese intellectuals today needs to be similarly undergirded with a philosophy of history grounded in the Bible.  Evangelistic fervor and fidelity to the gospel of the cross of Jesus Christ need to be complemented with intellectual rigor and integrity.  As the late Francis Schaeffer called upon Christians in the 1970s to provide “honest answers to honest questions,” so twenty-first century evangelicals must be prepared and equipped with a biblical, compassionate, and relevant apologetic.

What Christian ideas can guide China?  What does the Bible have to say about constitutional democracy, economic progress, business ethics, divorce and remarriage, and postmodern art and literary criticism—not to mention the challenge of New Confucianism and folk religion in China? This is the church’s second chance to bring hope to China, by presenting a Christian worldview to her leaders.  Let us not miss it.  Again.

Abridged from “A Second Chance” by Dr. Samuel Ling (in Chinese Intellectuals and the Gospel, Samuel Ling and Stacey Bieler, eds., forthcoming).

Image credit: dsc_0039.jpg by egorgrebnev via Flickr.

Samuel Ling

Samuel Ling, Ph.D. is a theologian and observer of theological and cultural trends that affect the Chinese church. He is president of China Horizon. View Full Bio