Supporting Article

Putting Christianity on the Map—for Chinese Intellectuals

As China continues her journey toward modernity and postmodernity, many forces are competing to shape the 21st Century Chinese mind. Christians in the West do well to take note of the rise of indigenous religions (as well as novel forms such as Falungongzhishi fenzi). They, too, are trying to shape Chinese thought and society. Some of them, in fact, are engaged in the development of Christian theology in Chinese context (hanyu shenxue), albeit in a form seldom noticed and recognized by theologians in the West.

Since the death of Mao, Chinese academicians in the fields of literature, history, philosophy and the social sciences have attempted to re-build their theoretical foundation in a more open context. Since “philosophy” and “metaphysics” were buzz words associated with Marxist-Maoist orthodoxy, and China in the 1980s had not yet totally rejected Marxist ideology, theoretical inquiries in art and literature became arenas where one could discuss “ontological” issues with relatively more freedom. One may discuss questions which are “ontological” (which is desirable) without being “metaphysical” (not desirable).

Liu Xiaofeng is one “Cultural Christian” seeking to find some form of “ontology” for life, through his inquiry into aesthetic and literary theory. His search for the “home of existence” led him to Christian theology. Today, Liu’s direct and indirect efforts in writing, translating, and editing have resulted in the publication of dozens of books on “Christian thought,” “Christian theory” and “Christian culture” through China’s academic press. Christianity now has a presence and a spokesperson in China’s intellectual circles through these “Cultural Christians.”

Some definitions are in order here. Many Chinese professors of philosophy, foreign languages, literature, art, history and social sciences have taken an interest in Christianity as an academic subject of research. These are accurately called “Scholars in Mainland China Studying Christianity” by Edwin Hui of Regent College. Within this larger group, a few have taken a personal (but unconventional) step of faith in Christ. These are “Cultural Christians.” They do not identify with any church nor do they attend church. They are, however, promoting Christian ideas and values in the Chinese academic context. Their goal is to make Christianity (understood in their own way) a visible force in China’s search for a new social and intellectual order in the 21st Century. Liu Xiaofeng is the most visible and most prolific “Cultural Christian.”

Born in 1956 in Chongqing, Liu Xiaofeng studied Chinese classical poetry with his father. Belonging to the “Cultural Revolution” generation, he was assigned to the countryside after high school graduation. In 1978, when university entrance examinations were resumed in China, Liu was admitted to the Sichuan College of Foreign Languages. He studied in the French and German departments, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. He then went to Beijing University in 1982, studied aesthetics and received his Master of Philosophy in 1984. In 1985, Liu went to Shenzhen University (just north of Hong Kong) and taught in the Chinese literature department. In 1989, he began his doctoral studies in systematic theology under Professor Heinrich Ott in Basel, Switzerland, and received his Doctor of Theology. Liu is presently academic director of the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies on Tao Fong Shan, in Shatin, Hong Kong. He is also an honorary research fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is adjunct professor at Beijing University’s Institute for Comparative Literature and visiting professor in the Chinese department of People’s University in Beijing.

Liu has authored five works. The first was Romanticism, Philosophy and Poetry: Explorations on the Poeticizing of Philosophy.[1]  He continued his search for the ground (or “home”) of existence in his second book: Salvation and Freedom. He compiled a series of articles written for Reading magazine in the volume, Toward the Truth on the Cross: Introduction to Twentieth Century Christian Theology. More recently he has written Introduction to Social Theory on Modernity: Modernity and Modern China and The Heavy Flesh: Narrative for an Ethic for Modernity.

Liu has also published collections of shorter pieces and has sat on numerous editing committees which have produced monumental series of volumes introducing Western thought and Christian theology to China. Significant titles include The History of Christian Thought and Scholarship Treasury, The Contemporary Continental European Religious Thought Series, The Best of Twentieth-Century Russian Spiritual Philosophy Series and Modern Society and Man: A Series of Translations of Famous Works. He has written for, or edited journals such as Christian Culture Review, Christian Culture Journal, and Logos and Pneuma: Chinese Theology Review.

Why should Christians care about Liu Xiaofeng and the whole movement of “Scholars in Mainland China Studying Christianity?”

First, Liu Xiaofeng has crossed over from aesthetic theory to Christian theology to social-cultural theory. He is recognized as a member of China’s intellectual elite. It is highly significant that such a broadly trained scholar is an advocate of Christianity in China’s academic circles! Such breadth of concerns should challenge Christians in the West to dialogue with scholars like Liu on the theoretical foundations of civilization. The Christian faith once took a leadership role in the shaping of Western thought, morality, and culture (until John Locke and the rise of Deism). It is high time that Christians in the West return to the articulation of a biblical and all-encompassing world-and-life-view, and dialogue with our Chinese colleagues. The collapse of modern culture and the rise of a pagan, postmodern culture demand nothing less.

Second, it is highly significant that Liu began in the 1980s with aesthetic and literary theory. He exemplifies the search, by China’s intellectuals, for a human element in philosophy and, more fundamentally, for the emancipation of the human spirit in a post-Marxist context of limited (but expanding) academic freedom.

We in the West need to take note that it is often in the fields of art and literature that Chinese thinkers are taking the lead to shape China’s future— not necessarily in philosophy. What does the Church of Jesus Christ have to say about freedom? Do we dare to make the distinction between the autonomous human mind and spirit, declaring one’s independence from God his Creator, on the one hand, and true freedom to live for the glory of God in all endeavors of life, on the other? The latter view of freedom implies a critique of the quest for humanity, even in China’s post-Marxist context. This is difficult for Chinese to hear, because “humanism” seems such a hypnotizingly beautiful dream. Jesus says you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

Third, while overseas Chinese and non-Chinese theologians may not know what to do with Liu’s massive translation and editing effort, it is clear that, as we enter the 21st century, there is a “Christian voice” participating in the intellectual debate in China on how to shape her social, spiritual and moral order. This is one of Liu’s primary goals in life: to put Christianity on the front stage of contemporary Chinese intellectual development. He has succeeded.

Evangelicals should rejoice that such an effort is made, with fruit, in a post-Marxist society to put Christianity on the map of intellectual discourse. We in the West, in a post-Christian context, are struggling for “space” to speak in the public square. There needs to be collaboration and conversation with people like Liu.

Fourth, Christians may be perplexed that “Cultural Christians,” who are not baptized and have no church affiliation, are promoting Christianity in China. We can find few parallels in church history.[2] We must come to terms with this unique development, whether we like it or not! Shall we dig into Scripture and church history to find clues on the proper mode of response?

Fifth, the key to understanding Liu’s intellectual inquiry is to feel the pain and anxiety of contemporary Chinese intellectuals as they seek to fill an ideological vacuum and shape China’s social, spiritual and moral order for the future. An understanding of modern Chinese intellectual history, especially since the May Fourth Movement (19151927), will aid in this. A review of existentialism and its impact on Protestant theology (through the writings of Barth, Brunner, and Heidegger) will definitely help us understand the Chinese plight. A biblical evaluation needs to be made on both the existential and contemporary Protestant response to man’s search for a “home.”

How will Christians respond to “Cultural Christians?” First, with an earnest attempt at understanding. Second, with friendship, dialogue, and well-defined collaboration. Third, by providing a biblical response which is sensitive to the Chinese context.


  1. ^ Liu’s works are written in Chinese. These titles have been translated for this article. Ed. 
  2. ^ Edwin Hui has given us a very even-handed evaluation and critique of these “Scholars in Mainland China Studying Christianity.” His essay will be found in a forthcoming book, Chinese Intellectuals and the Gospel, to be published by China Horizon.
Image credit: Tao Fong Shan 道風山by C K Leung via Flickr.
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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