Supporting Article

Understanding China’s Intellectuals

Lessons from History

Cross-cultural workers in China service are increasingly aware of the strategic importance of reaching China’s urban intellectuals. Some of these intellectuals, often (mis)named “Cultural Christians,” have taken up Christian thought as a subject for serious academic study. At the same time, these are exciting, confusing days. China is stepping onto the international scene as a member of the WTO. She is searching for new ideas and values. What can the history of China, and the history of Christian missions in China, teach us as we seek to understand China’s intellectuals?

The Social Context of Miscommunication

When we look back in history, we may be sobered by the recent past. One could make the case that the history of the Christian church’s outreach to China’s intellectuals has been a history of deep-seated inter-cultural misunderstanding. Even during Matteo Ricci’s brilliant career, his Chinese friends, who admired his personality and became interested in his technology, could not fathom why he was in China.

After Robert Morrison arrived in China in1807, French Catholics penetrated the hinterland, often as the first white people ever seen by the local people. The story of Chinese opposition to Christianity has been chronicled by Paul Cohen and others.[1] A number of misunderstandings and faux-pas resulted in riotous response by the scholars and the gentry. The results were disastrous: the series of anti-Christian riots finally culminated in the Boxer Uprising of 1900.

Cohen and others showed how 19th century missionaries failed to understand and appreciate the social role played by the gentry-scholar in China’s countryside.[2] Missionaries, eager to survive and develop their work, often focused on the their own well-being and that of their mission compound. They did not personally know the scholars, gentry or the local magistrate around them. Many of the gentry had passed the Confucian civil service examinations. They were often the intermediaries between the government and the people, even sometimes collecting taxes for the government. They were in charge of local educational and charity projects, such as repairing and building schools and examination halls. On the local level, they exemplified and defended the Confucian tradition.[3] When missionaries penetrated China’s interior and began schools, orphanages, clinics and chapels, they were supplanting the role of the gentry unawares.

What about today? What roles do intellectuals play in China? Are they the guardians of China’s present and future worldview and value system? There is evidence that mass media and the stock market may supplant intellectual inquiry in shaping China’s value system. Yet national pride, anti-American anger, and indigenous religions are very much alive. Intellectuals are struggling to obtain a hearing for their proposals for China’s future cultural construction. Will Christians offer an understanding ear?

The Anti-Christian Arguments

Beyond the socio-cultural misunderstanding, the history of Christian missions among China’s   intellectuals can also be understood as the history of Christian response to anti-Christian arguments.

In the 1860s, Cohen tells us, the scholars rejected Christianity because it was foreign. China had just concluded a second series of humiliating treaties with Western nations (Tianjin, 1858, Beijing, 1860).  When a foreign “cultural invader” (Christianity) made its presence felt in the countryside, Confucianists, Daoists and Buddhists joined ranks and opposed the “foreign” in the name of “Chinese” tradition.[4]  In the 1920s, China, having terminated the Confucian civil service examination system in 1905 and having thrown off the Manchu imperial yoke in 1911, sought, in the midst of warlordism, a new order. Intellectuals rejected Christianity because it was contrary to reason and science—or their understanding of science, perhaps appropriately named “scientism.”[5] In April 1920, Chen Duxiu, editor of New Youth magazine (the most influential periodical among China’s youth at that time), fired his first salvo against Christianity as the agent of Western imperialism. As late as the fall of 1919, Chen admired Jesus Christ for his warm personality, but this did not prevent him from rejecting Christianity as an agent of foreign imperialism. What followed was a series of anti-Christian attacks: April–May 1922 against the World

Christian Student Federation convention in Beijing; 1923–24 the Campaign to Restore Educational Rights and numerous riots; the May 30 incident in 1925; and the Northern Expedition in 1926–27. By the end of this period, students and soldiers were killing missionaries and destroying mission property.

What are the intellectual arguments against the Christian religion today on the part of China’s intellectuals? My view is that all the old arguments are still very much alive: Christianity as un-Chinese and foreign; Christianity as somehow contrary to logic and science; and Christianity as the agent of imperialism. (In addition, there are also new arguments.) A Chinese intellectual can be extremely curious about why highly educated Western scientists can embrace the Christian faith and about the relationship between Christian ideas and modern institutions such as law and democracy and Newtonian science. At the same time, he or she may reject the Christian religion as inappropriate for, and below the dignity of, an educated Chinese elite.

My interpretation is that a clash of values—Confucian/Daoist, atheist/materialist, modern/scientific and postmodern/nihilistic—characterizes the inner self of many intellectuals in China today, although they may be unaware of this. How will they understand and accept the Christian faith if they do not distinguish between the various components of their own worldview? Who will have the knowledge and understanding that will allow for meaningful dialogue? Will Christians be able and willing to help them sort out these issues?

Image credit: university student, Anyang, China by V.T. Polywoda, on Flickr


  1. ^ Paul Cohen, China and Christianity, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1963.
  2. ^ Sydney Forsythe, An American Missionary Community in China, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1971.
  3. ^ Chang Chung-li, The Chinese Gentry: Studies on Their Role in Nineteenth-Century Chinese Society Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1955, 32-41.
  4. ^ Compare Joseph Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: A Trilogy, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958.
  5. ^ For more on this subject see David W. Y. Kwok, Scientism in Chinese Thought, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965.
Share to Social Media

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