When it comes to youth and culture in today’s China, there is simply no one-size-fits-all approach. The practices and beliefs of Chinese—urban and rural—born after 1980 are increasingly shaped by a plurality of cultural forces (e.g., urbanization, commercialization, and globalization) mixed with the continuing influence of aspects of traditional Chinese culture. Given this messy reality, answering the question, “How does traditional culture affect younger Chinese?” requires careful thought, especially with regard to contextualization of the gospel. We should not assume that Chinese, at some mysterious core level, remain singularly and pristinely “traditional” despite the massive changes that have swept the country since 1978.
A more useful approach, I think, is to recognize that as cultures change, traditions inevitably are contested, get reworked, and take on new shades and tones. Moreover, as mounting research on culture priming shows, people rarely, if ever, live out their “traditional” values in consistent and broad general terms (Wyer, Chiu, and Hong, 2009). Various contextualization efforts extrapolate from generalized—even if sometimes overly idealized—understandings of face, guanxi, and family.
As helpful as they are, what new missiological spaces open up when we shift to a more “on-the-ground” perspective? How are these concepts actually refracted and negotiated amid the pressures of life confronting different groups of young people? This article argues that the influence of traditional culture on young people should be understood as but one important factor in the larger complex, cultural environment of China today.
While Chinese youth today face a bewildering assortment of options, they nevertheless continue to experience the tug of traditional culture in important ways. What we need to understand is that abiding imperatives such as filial piety and family, to highlight just two important examples, now operate in tension with other perceived “goods” in life, whether non-traditional and/or culturally non-Chinese. It is simply not the case that today’s youth understand the idea of family and strive to be filial in the same fashion as prescribed in the Analects, or even as their predecessors did just thirty years ago.
So how do young people grapple with the continuing demands of filial piety? On the one hand, some undoubtedly feel helplessly enslaved by their parents who demand submission and loyalty and expect academic or professional success. On the other hand, it is also true that parents today often bend over backwards to give their children the “good life.” This includes spending exorbitant sums of money for education and even to purchase a flat. In fact, parental demands for academic and professional success have actually encouraged many to view the pursuit of personal success and self-fulfillment as the key to filial duty (Hanson and Pang 2010, Yan 2011).
What often results is that youth find themselves caught between competing pressures. While the weight of obligation to their parents is real, youths also recognize that their academic and professional aspirations open for them new possibilities and lifestyles (including premarital relationships) that are at odds with their parents’ wishes. As a result, the maintenance of “face” in real life can take some interesting turns. While the pressure to maintain face may result in children slavishly obeying their parents, it can just as well result in children distancing themselves from their parents, visiting home less often, and lying in order not to hurt their parents’ feelings (Bregnbaek 2016).
These examples highlight the difficulties of maneuvering between two seemingly different worlds without a greater moral compass to guide one’s decision making. In other words, many people sense that something is awry with the level of control parents wish to exert on their lives; however, few have a clear vision of what a rightly ordered relationship with their parents might look like.
One goal of contextualization is to present the Bible’s answers to pressing cultural questions. For Chinese youth, there are few better places to start than with the Bible’s perspective on what it means to honor and obey one’s parents. This is especially true since the New Testament’s teachings on this matter presumed a cultural context where parental authority was absolute. This type of contextualization, however, does not usually lend itself well to quick-and-tidy, ten-minute presentations. It requires time and energy.
Because love and respect for parents remains such a deeply ingrained cultural script, many youths do not readily volunteer information about their struggles in this area. However, time and again, I have seen many—in fact, too many—college students move beyond their initial sanitized story to reveal more discontent, brokenness, and hurt than they ever thought possible to share openly and honestly. Once a relationship of trust and care is established, it is then possible to introduce the whole range of biblical teaching on parent-child relationships. Such ideas include not only what it means to honor and obey, but also the meaning of blessing and instruction as well as the idea of leaving and cleaving. Of course, the goal of this contextualization is not just restoring families, however worthy a goal that is. The larger picture that animates these ideas is the redemption and restoration made possible through God’s kingdom.
Contextualization is even more powerful when ideas are fleshed out with real-life testimony. This is why I point out here that the Asian-American Christian community has long grappled with cultural issues of filial piety and family. What does living out the biblical vision of honoring and obeying one’s parents actually look like? What does it mean to honor one’s parents but not obey every single one of their demands? Is honorable disobedience even possible? People interested in this topic would benefit greatly from the work of people such as Ken Fong, Tim Tseng, and Peter Cha, to name just a few.
Much like filial piety, marriage looms large for young people. It requires them to negotiate the cross pressures of traditional familial obligation and the quest for love as endless passionate feeling. The older generation’s more traditional and utilitarian approach pressures children to just get married, hopefully to someone rich or at least equal to their socio-economic status, and have a child. Conventionally, marriage aims to satisfy economic needs and perpetuate the family line.
This traditional perspective now coexists or contends with visions of heart-pounding romance hawked by popular culture. Soon after the wedding ceremony, many young marrieds come to see how woefully inadequate both of these views are for meeting the challenges of actual married life. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that divorce and extramarital affairs have steadily risen since 2003, just as the post 1980s generation began to come of marriageable age.
Love and marriage are universally popular topics. Yet, in China’s current context, numerous young people have either seen (through their parents’ struggling efforts) or experienced the tough realities of marriage. Therefore, they are quite open to learn what the Bible says about this aspect of life. This is possible precisely because young people at once sense the inadequacy of traditional Chinese views of marriage and are frustrated by the fleeting nature of passionate romance.
Among Chinese young people, few better ways exist to present the gospel in an engaging and relevant way today than through the topic of marriage. As Tim Keller explains so well, marriage was designed to reflect the saving love of God in Jesus Christ, and “that is why the gospel helps us to understand marriage and marriage helps us to understand the gospel” (Keller 2011: 8). Effective contextualization via the topic of marriage also presupposes a safe environment and a relationship of trust. Furthermore, nothing speaks as powerfully as seeing husbands and wives who actually seek to honor the Bible’s vision of marriage.
When discussing contextualization, much of our emphasis typically falls on crafting good answers and finding the right metaphors to help people cognitively understand the gospel. A good part of what I propose here has followed this premise. However, I have also tried to emphasize the importance of action. In other words, talk by itself is cheap. As many religion scholars note, the West’s religious experience often places great emphasis on correct thinking (orthodoxy), yet China’s religious experience has placed great importance on correct practice (orthopraxy). In Confucianism, the ideal man presupposes that we only become fully human through our interactions with one another. The ideal man is represented by the Chinese character ren (仁), which is composed of the symbol of man 人 and the number two二. Accordingly, how a person interacts with others is every bit as important, if not more so, than what he or she says.
This aspect of traditional Chinese culture is still operative in many ways, including the valorization of moral exemplars in Chinese education and society (Kipnis 2011). How does this impact the contextualization of the gospel? One important way is that many non-Christians are not drawn much to fancy talk; rather, they desire genuine Christian living and relating. For many young Christians who struggle to share the gospel with their family, their parents are not looking for a slick gospel presentation sprinkled with clever references to classical Chinese ideas. They often raise this question to their kids: “If this new faith of yours is true, then why haven’t you changed your bad habits?” I also know someone from a very traditional Hakka Chinese family who eventually helped a majority of his family members set aside their hostility and become Christians. For this person, the turning point came when he stopped talking and started to serve his family in loving ways that spoke powerfully to them about his newly transformed life.
Obviously, much more could be said than is possible here. In this article, I hope I have shown that while traditional Chinese culture still influences young people, it does not do so in a vacuum. Rather, it belongs to a complex, cultural environment that pushes and pulls people in a variety of directions. Many young people grow tired of balancing these cultural pressures. They are left with a sense that things are disordered and with no clear idea of how to bring about a better order. The key to contextualization, then, is to show how the gospel charts a better path through both word and deed.
- Bregnbaek, Susanne. 2016. Fragile Elite: The Dilemmas of China’s Top University Students. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Hansen, Mette Halskov and Pang, Cuiming. 2010. “Idealizing individual choice: work, love and Family in the Lives of Young, Rural Chinese,” Hansen M. H. and Svarverud R. (eds) iChina: The Rise of the Individual in Modern Chinese Society. Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies.
- Keller, Timothy. 2011. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York: Dutton.
- Kipnis, Andrew. 2013. Governing Educational Desire: Culture, Politics, and Schooling in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Wyer, Robert S, Chiu, Chi-yue, and Hong, Ying-yi. 2009. Understanding Culture: Theory, Research, and Application. New York: Taylor and Francis.
- Yan, Yunxiang. 2011. “The Changing Moral Landscape,” Kleinman A and Yan Y (eds) Deep China: The Moral Life of the Person. Berkeley: University of California Press.