Supporting Article

Traditional Chinese Views of History and Contemporary Chinese Christianity

The Chinese peoples, meaning those clans, tribes, and kingdoms that throughout time have inhabited the Yangtze River and Yellow River basins and beyond, were assiduous history buffs. However, that does not mean that traditional Chinese views of history were static, or that they all held to one historical view. One common view of history, popular at various periods, held to a cyclical understanding of human time (such as the 500 year cycle that gave rise to Mengzi’s (孟子) anxious expectation for a king that would unite the various states battling for supremacy (see the Mengzi 2B:13). Another view saw history as a patterned repetition that followed the Five Phases theory (wuxing五行), each dynasty replacing the next in a predictable, repetitive pattern, often identified with certain colors (yellow, blue, white, red, and black). Other views of history were more progressive, one of which held to three main “ages” of “disorder” (juluanshi據亂世), moving through “rising peace” (shengpingshi升平世) and culminating in “great peace” (taipingshi太平世).

The common stereotype in the modern era has been that Chinese people are “backward-looking,” often meaning that Chinese culture and people only value repeating old ideas and place no value on new ideas or ways of thinking. Because of this, they cannot make technological or “scientific progress” (in Anglo-European, post-Renaissance, and Industrial Revolution terms). This was a criticism held by Chinese and foreigners. The solution to this supposed backwardness, offered in the mid-1960s, was to discard the “Four Olds” (sijiu四旧), that is, old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas.[1] This marked a significant break with traditional views of history, the impact of which will be discussed later, though it should be mentioned that the sprouts of this break with traditional views began much earlier, in the late Qing dynasty with the “evidential studies” school (kaojuxue考據學).

The founding of the People’s Republic of China opened up a new way for Chinese people to think about Chinese (and world) history. It was another form of progressive history, this time based on a Marxist account of progress that claimed human history is moving from a slave society to a feudal society, then through bourgeois-capitalist and socialist societies to culminate in a classless communist society. Chinese scholars struggled to impose this framework on historical evidence in Chinese sources that did not fit the theoretical description, but the impact of Mao’s “Total Propaganda”[2] has gone a long way to rewriting and reframing history in the minds of the majority of citizens in the PRC. Even young people, who think they are returning to “tradition” by studying classical Chinese texts or try to bring back various traditional views on any particular topic, are quite surprised when their superficial knowledge is exposed. They discover that they are far more “modern Marxist-Maoist-Dengist-Xi Jinpingist” than they had thought. This leads to our consideration of how citizens of the PRC today view their history, both Christian and non-Christian.

A salient feature among all these very different views just presented is a pronounced “state-centeredness.”[3]That is to say, the subject of “history” that is promoted nationally directly serves the interests of the state (whatever form the state may take). This is not a new invention or the result of Marxist influence, as some might think, and may sound strange to foreigners for whom education in history focuses on people, events, and their interpretation, with sometimes widely divergent perspectives debated by both the layperson and scholar alike. That does not mean there are no voices producing alternative narratives in the PRC, but they tend to receive little media or scholarly attention, and their influence on society at large is marginal. Members of these state organs take necessary precautions when publicly promoting a particular historical narrative, through either self-censorship or overt silencing of views that depart from the approved narrative. What this means for the “Chinese person on the street” is that, a minority of dissenting voices aside, there is a nation-wide, generally agreed upon social narrative that is at least given lip-service. While a common person may have doubts about certain aspects of what is learned, very few people have taken up the arduous and risky task of investigating and rewriting a new narrative for themselves or others. What this means for the “foreigner on the street” is a need for awareness of the likely one-dimensional historical view of most mainland Chinese people, Christian or not. It is not that a person has weighed various views and prefers this perspective; it may be the only one he or she knows.

With this knowledge, there are a few things to keep in mind when considering Chinese history and Chinese Christian history.

First, history is not singular. There is “History,” meaning the vast web of all of the aggregate events, people, institutions, letters written, gunshots fired, rallies held, births, deaths, and so on that make up reality, and which no one can fully fathom, explain, understand, or write down in a library of books. Then, there are “histories.” These are the smaller narratives that people tell and retell as a way of locating themselves in that vast web of History, including personal histories, family histories, community histories, national histories, and international histories. It is the way human beings make sense of all of life. It includes the things we talk about and the taboos that we grow up learning not to talk about. Histories can include facts as well as “alternative facts.” Chinese Christians who endured intense persecution are going to remember the ’60s and ’70s very differently than a leader of the Red Guard at that time. A millennial university student may very well have absolutely no knowledge of a series of nationally significant events from the spring of 1989. We should immediately be wary when someone says, “We Chinese believe…” about history. Be prepared to sensitively challenge the “argument from ubiquity,” but make sure you are informed!

Second, having an awareness of multiple histories does not invalidate one or the other history, nor does it imply historical relativism (the idea that history is utterly subjective, unverifiable, and immune to judgment). People experiencing the same event and retelling it differently does not mean that one is wrong and the other right. At the same time, this does not imply that histories cannot be revised, and errors corrected through dialogue. Each historical narrative is an interpretation. Listen to those narratives. What do they tell you about the people who have fit themselves into that narrative? Or have they fit themselves into it? Are they “at home” in it, or do they seem somewhat uncomfortable with it but unaware of alternatives? How do you fit into that narrative? (You may be shocked to find out.) Narratives about Christianity abound in contemporary PRC. Do you know them? How does that shape the receptivity of the person you are speaking with? Which “orthodox” narratives have they accepted or rejected? Be prepared for pushback when an alternative is presented.

Third, be aware of “historical amnesia.” This was alluded to earlier. As Galadriel says in the Fellowship of the Ring: “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.” Some subjects are taboo by force, others by shame and pain. When the memory of them fades, our histories can become distorted, and the narratives we live by can lead us astray. As Whitefield says in his article in this issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly, this can lead to arrogance and ingratitude, both toward God and toward other people. What do the Christian young people today know of what the generation before them endured? A few years ago I interviewed an elderly woman who managed to live through the terrible years of the mid-20th century by disconnecting from fellowship with brothers and sisters. A short time prior to our conversation she had made a tremendous return to the Lord (in her 80s!). Being a nationally recognized voice teacher, she was now directing the church choir. The privilege of privately hearing her confession (for it was almost at that level) with two or three other people is very uncommon. If these stories, due to shame or other reasons, are not shared from generation to generation, people eventually become disconnected from their own histories. The tether that keeps us grounded is cut loose and we are blown around like a helium-filled balloon.

Lastly, recent church history in China is fraught with historical pitfalls. In some places there is still a great divide between house and registered churches, but in others there is cooperation. Have you spent some time learning the spiritual lay of the land in your local area before charging in (Numbers 13)? Do you know the history of the churches in your area—both registered and unregistered? Has there been harmony between or within congregations, or are there theological or social contentions?

Whether you have recently arrived in your adopted home, or have lived there for many years, proactively acquaint yourself with the histories of the people around you. Based on this new knowledge, is there anything you should do differently? Any practices or patterns of ministry that should be changed to better meet people where they are (and where they perceive themselves to be)? Be aware of your own histories as well: cultural, spiritual, political, familial. How does that impact what you do, the decisions you make? As the horizons of your life and the lives of the people you meet intersect, new histories will be formed. You will become a part of other people’s stories, and they will become a part of yours. 


  1. ^ Exactly which customs, cultures, habits and ideas were “old” was never fully made clear, and in fact, changed with the whims of leadership.
  2. ^ See Jacque Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, trans. Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), pp. 9-15. “We are here in the presence of an organized myth that tries to take hold of the entire person. Through the myth it creates, propaganda imposes a complete range of intuitive knowledge, susceptible of only one interpretation, unique and one-sided, and precluding any divergence” (p. 11).
  3. ^ David S. Nivison, “Philosophy of History,” Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2003). This essay was immensely helpful for the earlier summary of Chinese historiography.
Share to Social Media

Peregrine de Vigo

Peregrine de Vigo (pseudonym), PhD, lived in central China for nine years and is a student of philosophy, sinology, and several other “-ologies.”View Full Bio