The Important Mainstream and the Unimportant Peripheries
In traditional, Chinese culture, the concept of mainstream society is deeply rooted in many people’s minds. The ancient Chinese philosopher, Guliang, is probably the earliest scholar who described the idea of mainstream society. He talked about four mainstream occupations or four types of people in society: gentlemen (shi), farmers (nong), artisans (gong), and merchants (shang) (The Commentary of Guliang). Another ancient scholar, Guan Zhong, also saw these four occupations or types of people as the cornerstones of a state or nation (Guanzi: Xiao Kuang); that is, they are important and should be people’s priorities. In addition, among the four types of people, scholars and farmers are better or more important than artisans and merchants. Later in history, another philosopher, Han Fei, criticized saying that merchants are a type of parasite in society. Then Chao Cuo, who served the imperial courts of Emperor Wen of Han, even proposed that government should emphasize farming and discourage business. This idea became a dominant concept for more than a thousand years in Chinese history until Wang Yangming, a famous Ming Dynasty scholar, tried to revive the status of businessmen. In his article The Epitaph for Fang Jie’an (Jie’an fanggong mubiao), he stated that all four occupations are proper and are equally important in Chinese tradition: gentlemen help govern the country; farmers feed the nation; artisans develop various tools for people; and merchants smooth the process of product exchange. As long as one puts his heart into his work and lives up to the proper moral standard of the occupation, all four occupations make contributions and provide benefits to mankind and therefore are equally good for people.
However, this idea of proper society still excludes many social members from the mainstream. For example, musicians, witchdoctors, doctors, beggars, monks, Taoist priests and Chinese geishas (prostitutes) are all seen as inferior in this system. Even scholars, who should belong to gentlemen, are excluded since they can only become gentlemen when they are recognized or accepted by mainstream society or the government. Otherwise, they also are classified as inferior, probably because they could cause social instability. In addition, they do not provide concrete services or benefits for society and are therefore a waste of society’s resources. Therefore, within the hierarchy, independent scholars are as inferior and useless as the Chinese geishas and beggars. Since this idea of mainstream is fundamentally based on whether or not an occupation is a way or a path (dao) to benefit or contribute to society (more or less concretely or practically), religious careers such as Taoist priests or monks (with an exception of during the Yuan dynasty) are often seen as inferior by society. This cultural value naturally affects people’s attitude towards Christianity.
The cultural and spiritual mindset of the Chinese does not encourage seeing beyond the unseen world. Things that provide practical use for the current world are more important and are often emphasized. Since religions have been excluded from mainstream society all along, if a religion, such as Christianity, wants to become more popular and influential, it must emphasize how helpful and functional it is for one’s life on earth. In addition, it needs to be accepted officially by the government.
Now, I have mentioned that on the ideological level, there were four main occupations that Chinese society tended to emphasize. However, when it came to practice, there was, in fact, only one decisive mainstream system—the civil servant system. In the past, successful scholars could be recognized as gentlemen by the government and thus become government officials—and they could, perhaps, even serve kings. Personal ambitions were therefore tied to being recognized and promoted by the government in this civil servant system. Wealth and power were also distributed through the same system. Thus, the Chinese social system centered on this civil servant system. It was the means for social control or social adjustments. There was only one authority, one value and one standard—the state. Nowadays, even though different types of non-governmental professional standards and organizations exist, educated Chinese still like to evaluate the “properness” of academic credentials or results based on whether those credentials or results are recognized by the government. Society, in general, also tends to evaluate the virtue of new things or ideas based on whether they are approved or recognized by the government.
However, the aforementioned government-centered society recently has been changing. It is moving towards a modern business and technologically skilled society. Although such a transformation has diversified the channels for the distribution of wealth and power, it is also forming a mono-system that is still based on the old standard of practical benefits or “contributions.” In this new system, entrepreneurs or management professionals are the backbone of the society. These people are educated and belong to the 20 to 45 age group. They are now the mainstream. However, religions are completely out of this system.
Those who are in the mainstream know it and strive to maintain their esteemed status. In addition, they will also be very interested in pursuing higher positions, such as management or professional status. Instinctively, desiring to move up the ladder, they reject anything that may marginalize them in society. Therefore, their attitude towards alternative subcultures is one of fear, abhorrence and distance. They see subcultures as distasteful because they think their professions are more “proper”—through them they can make true contributions to society. Their social status or position is therefore respectable and welcomed by society. This mindset relates to the fact that they are proud of themselves as winners in the system. They see themselves as the smart and good ones with concern about the character and values of their professions. These qualities and values may include efficiency, discipline, punctuality, dedication, work procedures, professional standards and so on. They regard those who are outside of the mainstream as losers in the game. In general, they see subcultures as dumb, lazy and not so good. Finally, they believe that it takes real abilities to be able to do what they do; their professions are bringing true practical benefits to society. They are very proud of their own culture and find subcultures neither proper nor serious when compared to their own.
Does this sound like what they called “Saddleback Sam” in America? It is actually very different because churches are seen very differently in southern California compared to how they are seen in China. In addition, the two societies have very different attitudes towards subcultures. “City Saddleback Sam” in China is feeling much less secure in his social position because the keen competition can bring him down anytime. He fears the influence of subcultures may damage his tough-guy reputation and endanger his career future. This attitude is also related to the government attitude towards subcultures. The government is often afraid of subcultures; it tries to monitor, suppress or even replace them.
With this analysis, we can now understand the attitude of this mainstream group towards Christianity. They are from 20 to 45 years old. Among them, we find many who see Christianity as belonging to an alternative subculture. When they are occasionally frustrated, confused or worried, they may think of learning more about this type of alternative life. However, Christianity to them is not something serious; it should be avoided if possible. They think men have responsibilities to their families and society. Thus, wasting their time in church is not doing anything proper, serious or useful—although one might not exclude the possibility of undertaking this personal pursuit once the proper work, that is their career, has been taken care of. But, when will that ever be?
Members of this group also see a commitment to Jesus as a form of escapism. Those who have a business or professional background tend to see people, problems or difficulties through the perspective of technical methods or correct choices. In fact, they may easily interpret life as a closed system that can be manipulated by skills or techniques. Therefore, they believe that capable people do not need the help of any “god,” because with complete dedication, a clear target and the right methods, one can achieve anything if his heart is set upon it. They refuse the commitment found in Christianity because they are afraid their weaknesses and failures might be exposed. They worry that any connections with Christianity will affect their social or professional future.
Aside from their attitude towards Christianity, this socially dominant group may also dislike the style or nature of social interactions exhibited in church fellowships. To them, this kind of fellowship is aimless, yet time and effort consuming. They would see it this way because they tend to associate social relationships with functions, goals and practical purposes such as exchange of information, mutual help and even emotional ends which may be seen as a source of support for their life and career. With this perspective, anything that does not have a price tag or a purpose sounds and looks suspicious such as a relationship of unconditional love as proclaimed by Christians.
Finally, the rejection of Christianity is also due to some general prejudices against religions in Chinese society. Religions are often associated with certain negative qualities or attitudes such as low-education, superstition, anti-science, anti-society, hatred towards the rich and the denial of reality. All of these are not welcomed by mainstream society.
The Attitudes of Urban Chinese Women towards Christians
Although women are within the same mainstream workforce and societal group as men, their attitude towards subcultures, including Christianity, may be different.
In many situations, we are accustomed to group women together with elderly and children. Although this way of classification does not sound exactly logical, it reflects the fact that people intuitively know women, children and te elderly are very different from men who are in their prime. Women, children and the elderly are often seen in society as more vulnerable and needing extra attention. Both in the past and today, women are not included in the social institutions of the family (surnames, family estates, traditional family rituals or status) or the mainstream public sphere. They are neither in the mainstream nor among the marginalized. Women tend to understand their identities and develop their sense of belonging through subjective personal feelings, close personal relationships and solidarity, rather than through their status in the community or society. When interacting with the same sex, women tend to start with achieving a close and intimate friendship and then subtly compete with each other. On the other hand, men would move directly into competition and develop friendships and solidarity through the process of competition. Once a friendship is established, the competition will stop.
Women also tend to adopt and share each other’s beliefs and values after a close friendship has developed. Yet, men will not become close friends unless they can agree with each other’s beliefs or values in the first place. Unlike males’ friendships, which are often built on certain objectives or goals that are non-personal, females’ friendships are often more personal and emotional, that is, the persons involved in the friendship are themselves the pursuit of the friendship. Hence, one can see that men’s interactions tend to start with conversation topics that are not about themselves; personal matters are often seen as a social taboo. On the other hand, women are more likely to talk about personal matters, because otherwise friendships cannot be established. Because of this, women are much less concerned about what community or sector of the society they may belong to. They are also more likely to alter their beliefs due to influences from other people. Thus, the distinction between the mainstream and subcultures is not as important to them as it is to men. At the same time, women who associate with marginalized subcultures are more accepted by mainstream society. We can see, then, that men who are not Christians would support or encourage their spouses to participle in church while women who are Christians would tolerate their husbands who are non-believers; in some cases they may even feel reluctant for their husbands to become Christians.
Perhaps women do not care about being marginalized in society as they can be satisfied by close, personal and supportive friendships in the subculture they belong to. Aside from this, women often fear, or extremely dislike, the clearly defined power relationships at their work and are put off by the explicit, robust, impersonal competition among people in their jobs and in society. To them, a close and supportive personal relationship is a precondition for competition. Otherwise, feelings would be hurt. The warm atmosphere, love, supportive relationships and beliefs provided by the church are not rejected by female professionals. Rather, they are something that would attract them.
To conclude, I think that the main cause of the more serious gender imbalance that occurs in the Chinese city churches, compared to the gender imbalance in Chinese churches in North America, Hong Kong and Taiwan, is the combination of the non-mainstream status of churches in China and the different attitudes of men and women towards subcultures.
If the above statement is true, the current imbalance seems to be something we should not worry about—we may even be facing a good situation here. Following are some predictions that will determine its future development:
- Government-centered Chinese society will continue to develop in the direction of encouraging businesses, skills, and technologies; hence, society will continue to be diversified in its values and powers along this path.
- There will be more freedom within society. Government controls may be reduced or, eventually, even disappear.
- In order to lose the image of being against society and to be accepted by the mainstream, the church will emphasize more and more the functional aspects of Christianity and life on earth; it will tend to omit the aspect of eschatology that sounds suspicious for many.
- The content of the church’s teaching will be more devoted to values and morals that are relevant to the new business and technologically oriented society. These values will become more and more systematic and an integrated part of religion, so that mainstream society can find the church strongly relevant to society and current events.
- Church members will work hard to be successful in mainstream society. At the end, the problem of imbalance will be solved and the church will no longer be marginalized as a subculture.
Yet, all of the above changes may create greater dangers for both the theology and the identity of the church. Without being aware of it, the church may adhere too strongly to the ideologies of mainstream society and lose its own identity as God’s Kingdom on earth.
I think that the church losing its unique identity and sacrificing its above-the-world status should not be the price of a true solution. Instead of compromising, the church should develop ministries that focus on men. In our society, we have associations that focus on serving women but none for men. This happens because of a special characteristic of our society: our women need extra help and protection. Similarly, churches today should develop extra ministries that serve men so as to more effectively help men come to Christ.
In order to be easily approved and accepted, the church may try to be cooperative, be assimilated and be likable. On the other hand, the church can only attract people’s commitment and dedication if it keeps its unique status of holiness. We see churches nowadays that have already had tendencies to reduce the supernatural aspects of the gospel in order to make their message more acceptable to the masses. I think we should be reminded by pastor Dean Inge’s warning: “He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.”
Translated from found article at the ChurchChina web site: https://www.churchchina.org/no101103. Used with permission. Translation is by Ring Low.
Image credit: Baptism by Patrick He, on Flickr