China’s rich history flows back and forth like a string of waves on an ever-turbulent sea of years—a series of recurring themes that reinvent and adapt themselves to the current situation while maintaining strong ties to the past. Even in an era of unprecedented change, the lessons of history and millennia of accumulated tradition continue to guide China’s course as it forges boldly into the 21st century. As various contributors to this issue of ChinaSource have pointed out, we ignore these waves at our own peril. Those seeking to live and work effectively within the Chinese culture must either learn to ride these waves or be crushed by them. Beneath these undulating waves of history lays another current, often unseen and unnoticed, running persistently through the centuries. Some have referred to this subtle but powerful current as “His story,” or the account of God’s working amidst and in spite of the waves of human history. The vessels He chooses to work through are often unremarkable and their immediate impact slight. It is only when one takes the long view of history that one is able to discern their role in “His story.”
Matteo Ricci entered China during the Ming Dynasty with the goal of introducing Christ to the intelligentsia of his day. For all Ricci’s successes in learning the language and becoming accepted by those he sought to reach, he never saw his goal fulfilled in large measure. Yet the past decade has seen unprecedented numbers of Chinese intellectuals find in Christ a hope that fulfills the longing of their hearts and their aspirations for their country’s future.
Centuries later, in 1807, Robert Morrison arrived in Macao with a vision to see the Gospel spread to every province of China. He too, never saw his vision realized, and the number of lives he directly impacted was relatively few. Yet today the church is active in every province of China, and its numbers continue to increase exponentially.
J. Hudson Taylor, pioneer missionary to China’s interior, spoke of the missionaries as “scaffolding” that would one day be removed to reveal a strong and independent Chinese church. Taylor and those who followed gave sacrificially in building up the church. However it was not until the 1950s, when missionaries were forced to leave China, that the scaffolding finally came down. Following a season of trial and testing, the church did in fact emerge stronger than ever before.
Countless others could be cited—evangelists, Bible women, pastors who spent decades in prison for their faith, many who gladly faced death rather than deny their Lord. Like the heroes of faith listed in the 11th chapter of Hebrews, these servants of God in China saw only through eyes of faith the things that God would one day bring to pass. So today, it is up to those who serve China not only to discern the historical realities in which they live but also to see through the eyes of faith their own role in “His story.”
Image credit: Ink-ed # 2 by Nick Lo, on Flickr
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