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The Coming Third Anti-Christian Movement?

Learning from Modern Chinese Intellectuals

While most of us living in the West have been fascinated by China’s openness to the West in areas such as commerce, technology and diplomacy, there is a subtle development beneath the surface. Confucianism, along with Buddhism and folk religion, is on the rise. If we think that the Christian church is growing in China (what is a more accurate statement might be: the church has begun to plateau, and in certain sectors may be declining), Dr. Fenggang Yang of Purdue University has noted a strong rise in the worship of Confucius and the emergence of Confucianism as a religion:

A strong social movement has begun to revive Confucianism as a religion in China. Moreover, some people are trying to make Confucianism the state religion. The advocates, enthusiasts and reluctant supporters of Confucianism include academic scholars, college students, economic and social entrepreneurs, and government officials.

Can this be true? If it is true, how should the West respond?

Beyond shock and unbelief, we must learn from history. The recent fascination of China’s intellectuals with the Christian religion, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s, should not blind us to the fact that this is an exception to the rule, a rare window of opportunity, but viewed from history, certainly not the norm. China’s intellectuals have always been resistant to Christianity; in fact we can learn much from two major waves of anti-Christian opposition.

The first wave occurred during the Tongzhi (T’ung-chih) Restoration, 1862-74. The two Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60) and the unequal treaties afterward had humiliated China before the Western powers and exposed her need to modernize. The emperor was a young child; behind the regency was the Empress Dowager who ruled China with an iron hand until her death in 1908. While reform-minded leaders built China’s first modern language school (inside the Kiangnan Arsenal; missionary W. A. P. Martin served as principal for a while and recruited fellow missionary John Fryer to teach there) and dealt with foreigners through the Zongli Yamen (a rudimentary “Foreign Office”), the Empress Dowager and her eunuch supporters wanted to “move back the clock.” She never trusted foreigners. The climax of this reactionary, anti-foreign opposition was the Tianjin Massacre of foreigners in 1870. (Mary Clabaugh Wright’s book eloquently states her main thesis in the title itself: The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T’ung-chih Restoration, 1862-1874). During this period, China’s gentry (scholar-landowners) and officials (the magistrates in the imperial system) opposed Christianity with a vengeance. They designed placards (political cartoons) which depicted Christian bishops as pig-heads (a pun on the term zhu-jiao), accused missionary orphanages of gouging young girls’ eyes to make Western medicine and misinterpreted Christian baptisms as orgies and the Lord’s Supper as cannibalism. The lack of information flowing between missionaries and the gentry contributed to this gross misunderstanding.

The gentry tended to distribute these materials when civil service examinations were conducted in provincial capital cities, when intellectuals and commoners alike would assemble. The point for our discussion is: intellectuals and their magistrate-colleagues opposed Christianity from the vantage point of “traditional Chinese culture.” Christianity was seen as a Western, foreign, barbarian religion. When Chinese civilization was threatened, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and folk religion joined ranks in the name of Chinese culture to oppose this Western monster called Christianity. [Cf. Paul A. Cohen, China and Christianity, and Lyu Shi-qiang, zhongguo guan shen fan jiao di yuan yin (reasons for Chinese official and gentry opposition to Christianity). Both books make the same point.]

While Chinese intellectuals opposed Christianity from the vantage point of traditional “Chinese culture” (an amalgam of at least four traditions), the Anti-Christian Movement of 1922-27 was a very different affair. This was the period of the May Fourth Movement (1915-27). While China became a republic overnight on October 10, 1911 under the nominal leadership of Sun Yat-sen, power lay in the hands of Yuan Shikai, who betrayed China and made her a puppet of Japan in 1915, and proclaimed himself emperor in 1916. Yuan died in 1917, opening China to a period of civil war among eccentric warlords (1917-1927). Intellectuals who were elated in 1911, sank in despair by 1915-1916. They launched the May Fourth Movement (or the New Culture Movement), under the leadership of Chen Duxiu, Hu Shih, Li Dazhao, Zhou Zuoren and many others (Chen and Li became founding leaders of the Chinese Communist Party in July 1921). This movement initially sought to learn from the modern West, in order to forge a generation of “new youth” who would be forward looking, scientifically minded, independent in spirit and would courageously step onto the front stage of China, forging a new, free, modern, democratic society.

While Chen imported modern Western ideas wholesale from 1915 to 1919, students took to the streets and protested against Japan’s imperialistic designs on China on May 4th, 1919. This turned into a nation-wide strike and boycott of Japanese goods. The May 4th incident symbolized the organization of post-1911 Chinese students into a political force. Many more protests followed until April 12, 1927. In this post-1919 red-hot political environment, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in July 1921. In April 1922 (just nine months later), the youth department of the CCP, the “Socialist Youth League,” staged the “Anti-Christian Student Federation.” Faculty members started a parallel organization: “The Great Anti-Religious Federation.” They opposed Christianity from the vantage of modern Marxism: Christianity is contrary to science and reason and is a tool of imperialist aggression. It is very convenient that these intellectuals used a Western toolMarxismto oppose a Western religionChristianity! Joseph Levenson, in his Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: A Trilogy, observed that when Confucianism collapsed in China (the abolition of the civil service examination system in 1905 is a symbol of the beginning of this collapse), the Chinese found it easier to pay for this ruin with a foreign coin (i.e., Christianity). The Christian faith became a scapegoat for the crisis in civilization.

Why review through this history? Because the Chinese Communist Party’s religious policy–including her commonalities and differences with the population–can be traced straight back to the Anti-Christian Movement of the May Fourth period (cf. works by Jessie Gregory Lutz and Ka-che Yip, and the doctoral dissertations by Wing-hung Lam, Jonathan Chao and myself). In our contemporary, post-Mao period, opposition to the Christian West remains a convenient tool for the government to rally popular support. (Witness how China responded to the Belgrade Embassy bombing in 1998.) Therefore, a third Anti-Christian Movement may not be so much from “traditional Chinese culture” (but then with the rise of Confucian religion, this may happen!), nor “modern Marxism” (but then it may). Whatever the ideological foundations, this future Anti-Christian Movement will very likely be a united front between government and people.

How do we respond? First, understand the history of the mindset of Chinese intellectuals (the collaborative volume, Chinese Intellectuals and the Gospel, is a good starting point and can lead to further readings). How do they think? What do they think about Christianity? Today, professional service, acts of compassion and business investment are all wonderfully strategic avenues to bless the people of China. However, America’s evangelicals involved in these enterprises (or in supporting them) are woefully inadequate in understanding Chinese intellectual history. Will we make up for homework undone?

Second, we need a strong biblical apologetic, coupled with strong compassion for Chinese people. The late Francis Schaeffer’s apologetic is a good example for us to follow; Schaeffer took the apologetics of Cornelius Van Til and made them understandable. Schaeffer’s wife, Edith, made this apologetic understandable through acts of hospitality and a lifestyle characterized by compassion and community. Schaeffer’s slogan was: honest answers to honest questions. Schaeffer’s conviction was: the Bible is authoritative and provides the foundations for all Christian answers to questions from non-Christians.

Often, sincere calls for dialogue, understanding and a positive, friendly approach to Chinese thought have not been based on a truly biblical apologetic, nor a serious study of the history of Chinese intellectuals and their worldview. It is more often based on good intentions than anything else.

Third, we need a cautionary word concerning efforts to build common ground, “bridges of understanding,” which depict the Bible and the Confucian classics as depicting the same God, especially the same “general revelation.” We must distinguish between God’s revelation, which is clearly seen in the human heart and in the created universe (but without words! Psalm 19:1-4, Romans 1:18-21), on the one hand, and the “elementary teachings of this world” (Colossians 2) which reflect man’s suppression of the truth (or general revelation, Romans 1:18-23). God’s revelation is downward (from God); philosophy is upward (from sinful men and women whose minds and hearts are distorted by sin). Human philosophy is always idolatrous; China needs a fresh hearing of God’s wordnot humanism rehashed in the name of Christianity.

We can be compassionate toward people (Chinese intellectuals), yet not compromise on the Bible’s position on human thought (Chinese thought). We must not confuse compassion and a listening heart with compromise with man-centered worldviews. Could this be one of the weak spots in American theology and missions today?

If Christians from the West are to provide a compassionate, strong, biblical response to China’s intellectualsespecially if a third Anti-Christian Movement is on the risethen serious study of history, sound doctrine and apologetics, coupled with the ministry of hospitality and compassion (what I have been calling the “Mashed Potato Hospitality” which I enjoyed from American Christian families since my arrival here in 1965) are not options. They are indispensable.

Image credit: Confucius Statue in Jiading by jurgen.proschinger, on 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