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Sweet and Sour Lessons from Chinese History

Henry Ford wrote: “History is bunk!” Unfortunately, this attitude is still seen today in North America and Britain where many students are hazy even about details of the Second World War. For Christians, ignorance of history is inexcusable as our faith (unlike the myths of Hinduism and Buddhism) is based on the historical facts of the life, death and resurrection of the man Jesus Christ who was incarnate in a Jewish province of the Roman Empire. Ignorance of history is particularly dangerous when attempting Christian ministry and evangelism in any country or culture, but particularly so in China, which today is the world’s longest surviving cultural entity. While the Sumerian and ancient Egyptian civilizations were older than the Chinese, today they are dead cultures. In contrast, China’s present writing system can be traced back continuously to the oracle bones of the Shang dynasty nearly four thousand years ago.

The Chinese are rightly proud of their long history and culture. China gave to the world tea, silk, the compass, paper, printing and many other inventions. It is humbling for the Westerner to realize that the golden age of philosophy in China flourished some 2,500 years ago. Two thousand years ago the Han dynasty was the equal of the Roman Empire in splendor. One thousand two hundred years ago Changan, the capital of the Tang dynasty, outshone any city in Europe with the possible exception of Byzantium.

When Marco Polo first visited Song dynasty China in the 13th century he was overawed by the opulence of Hangzhou that put Venice to shame. Few Americans realize that Puritan New England began to flourish in the mid-seventeenth century just when China’s last dynasty, the Qing, was starting. Recent historical studies have shown conclusively that the West only began to edge decisively ahead of China in terms of technological invention towards the end of the 18th century.

The Chinese have a deep sense of history that permeates their culture. Both Chairman Mao and today’s technocrats and business people are familiar with the strategies described in the Art of War written by Sunzi during the Warring States period (403-221 B.C.). At the popular level, the battles of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 A.D.) have entered into popular story, song and proverb. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) China’s ancient culture received a major jolt, but it has quickly recovered over the last twenty years. Today Beijing opera and local folk and ancient religious festivals flourish.

Lack of Historical and Cultural Understanding

Failure to understand Chinese history and culture has done immense harm to the cause of Christ in China. I will raise just a few examples. In the 19th century, the West arrogantly imposed itself upon the Chinese. The Qing dynasty was weak and increasingly decadent. The East India Company built up the iniquitous opium trade to make vast profits. After the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1857-1860) the

West was free to establish Treaty Ports and, by the end of the 19th century, to virtually carve up the entire country into ‘spheres of influence.’ Western missionaries were only allowed into the country by the imposition of the ‘unequal treaties.’ Although most were humble ministers of Christ, some unavoidably carried the prejudices of the period. Roman Catholic bishops claimed the right to be treated on the same level as the local mandarins. We do not have to accept the cruder propaganda of the Communist Party (A book published in Sichuan alleges that missionaries sold opium on the one hand while preaching the Bible on the other.) to admit that serious mistakes were sometimes made, and the Gospel seriously compromised. Missionaries, priests and local Chinese converts could rely on the threat of physical force from the British, French or German consuls to resist pressures from the local magistrate or mob. Shanghai, where many missions had their headquarters, was a totally foreign-governed enclave. The nadir was reached, possibly, in 1900, when German propaganda at the time of the Boxer Rebellion and the siege of the foreign legations in Peking caricatured China as the ‘Yellow Peril.’ Many patriotic Chinese—not just communists—were rightly outraged by the high-handed actions of the West that continued well into the 20th century.

In the early 1950s when the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) was set up to control the Protestant churches, the recent colonial past was still vivid to most Chinese, and the mistakes and compromises of some missionaries could be ruthlessly exposed to the detriment of the church. Today, the propaganda rings increasingly hollow, but it would be a grave mistake for us to forget the lessons of history. Many older Chinese have fond memories of the sacrificial love and dedication of the pre-1950 missionaries. The love of Christ and the deep fellowship in the Holy Spirit has transcended every cultural and political boundary. However, Christianity in China has become increasingly indigenous, and its spectacular growth over the last two decades owes everything to local Chinese evangelists and Bible-women and very little to foreigners.

Many non-Christians see Christians as ‘good people.’ Chinese intellectuals, disillusioned with Marxist ideology, see Christianity in a more favorable light; nevertheless, national pride is high. There are still ‘leftist’ officials who suspect Christians, both Chinese and foreign, of ‘subversion.’ The Party is uneasy over the vast growth of Christianity in China seeing it as an ideological threat after the events a decade ago that led to the rapid collapse of Communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe.

Any linking of Christianity with Western or American culture, let alone political power, is highly undesirable. After all, was not Christianity first brought by humble Nestorian monks across the Silk Road to the Tang dynasty’s Changan in 635 AD? They followed in the footsteps of their Master—and so should we. The humility of Christ and the early Christians—their “foolishness” and “weakness”—is a bridge into the Chinese culture so deeply affected by the “emptiness” and “poverty” of Daoism and Buddhism.

These attitudes are in strong contradistinction to the self-assertiveness and hyper-active egocentricity of some ‘successful’ Western ministries.

Ignoring History Brings Peril

However, there is much evidence that some Western churches and agencies are ignoring the lessons of history. The deep work of God in China through the suffering church and indigenous evangelists in recent decades can be brushed aside by the arrogant self-centered call to “evangelize China,” as if the foreigner were the first to arrive on the scene. Rather, there should be the humble determination to serve the existing Chinese church in its already breathtakingly successful work of evangelism. Throughout China, the vast opportunities in schools and colleges for Western English teachers should be filled by dedicated Christians. However, unless they are properly trained, the dangers of creating a new cycle of dependence are apparent. Young people, desperate to study abroad (usually in America), will go

through the motions of conversion via superficial evangelistic techniques that take no account of their cultural or intellectual background. In the old days, food and a blanket offered to refugees, or flood or famine victims, led to the phenomenon of “rice Christians.” Today’s converts, more upmarket, may be attracted by making a foreign friend or gaining a scholarship abroad. If conversion occurs overseas, new converts, unable to face the sometimes harsh realities of discipleship for which they have been ill-prepared, often fall away when they return to China.

Other evidences of a lack of sensitivity may also be mentioned. For example, the sermons or training materials of some famous (or would-be famous) Western Christian preachers/theologians/evangelists are translated into Chinese with little thought as to whether they are culturally relevant to the Chinese situation. Others have desired to set up their own “ministry” (or church or denomination) in China while ignoring the existing churches (whether TSPM or unregistered).

In the 1840s, Charles Gutzlaff sought to evangelize China with much imagination and enthusiasm. He had vast quantities of tracts printed and formed a network of Chinese preachers and tract-distributors. However, he became the victim of his own enthusiasm and credulity. By 1851, it was discovered that the great majority of his “preachers” were opium-smokers and criminals. They were even selling back his literature to the printer who resold it back to Gutzlaff![1] Today, how many schemes have been hatched in the West to raise large sums of money to evangelize China? Some have been shown to be dubious and their Chinese contacts shady. Some have sunk without trace. Serious evangelism, theological training and discipleship ministries must be undertaken with the long-term future in mind. This means thorough preparation in the Chinese language—and an understanding of Chinese history and culture.

The devastation wrought by the Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s and 1860s is a clear example of what can happen when a partial understanding of the Gospel mutates into a full-scale uprising against the government. The visionary Hong Xiuquan (a failed Confucian scholar) read a gospel tract and interpreted his strange visions as a call from God to exterminate the Qing dynasty “demons” and set up a pseudo-Christian theocratic state. The tragic saga is brilliantly told in Jonathan Spence’s recent book, God’s Chinese Son.

The rebellion was crushed at the cost of 20 million lives. The Taiping tragedy has every relevance today as we see the present government rocked by the sudden upsurge of the Falungong cult. Why is the Party so wary of religious sects including harmless evangelical house-churches? Chinese history is littered with examples of strange Buddhist or Daoist cults which rapidly fomented peasant rebellions when the ruling dynasty became weak. Today, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought is a dying ideology. Grass-roots Buddhism and Christianity, as well as many indigenous cults, are experiencing spectacular growth. Is it any wonder that the Party responds with repression? Here again, an understanding of history is absolutely critical. China’s joining the WTO is likely to leave millions of peasants and workers unemployed. In their misery and despair they will become easy prey to cults and sects. A period of economic and political instability is in the cards. The lessons of history from the Taiping Rebellion may well be of use.

Learning from History

While there are many negative examples from which we can learn, what about the positive ones? Last year was the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, in Beijing. It is highly significant that this missionary, unlike most others, received a glowing write-up in the Chinese press. Many commemorative meetings were held to which distinguished foreign scholars were invited. What was so different about Ricci? An Italian priest who spent many years studying the Chinese language, Ricci became so proficient in both its spoken and written forms that he was able to debate with Confucian scholars as an equal and write learned treatises. Soon after arriving in south China in 1583, he, himself, donned the robes of a Confucian scholar to better reach the intellectuals of the day. He steeped himself in the Confucian classics. In 1595 he moved to Nanjing, but it was not until 1601, after much patient negotiation, that he was allowed to set foot in Beijing. He brought with him the latest technology that he presented to the Emperor in the form of accurate maps, clocks and the art of painting in perspective. He made friends at the imperial court and by 1608 had made over 2,000 converts.

While evangelicals will not wish to copy Ricci in his traditional Catholicism, his missionary methodology still has much to teach us today—especially those who wish to communicate Christ to Chinese intellectuals. How many Westerners reach a proficiency in Chinese that allows them to not only share the Bible in depth but also debate science, atheism, Marxism, modern Western philosophy and culture with their Chinese friends? How many can prepare evangelistic and discipleship materials which are not mere translations of books used in North America or Europe but are culturally sensitive to the Chinese situation?

Learning from Chinese history, including secular and church history alike—both of which are under the sovereign control of God—is not an optional extra for Western Christians headed to China. It is an absolute essential.

Image credit: Terracotta Army by Jan, on Flickr


  1. ^ The sad tale is told in Latourette’s History of Christian Missions in China, The Macmillan Company,New York, 1929.
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Tony Lambert

Tony Lambert is the director for research, Chinese ministries, for OMF International and the author of China's Christian Millions, The Resurrection of the Chinese Church and the recently published Pray for China! A 30 Day Prayer Guide.View Full Bio