Supporting Article

Western images in a Chinese mirror


Many Christians overseas seek to become involved in Christian work in China.

Churches, parachurch organizations and enterprising individuals are drawn for various reasons to China.  In some cases they are ill prepared.  While their motives may be genuine, because of the vast linguistic and cultural gulf that separates China from the average modern Western Christian, serious mistakes can be made.  My purpose here is not to dissuade anyone from deeper involvement with China, but rather to enable us to stand back and examine our own motives.  Prayerful and informed reflection needs to take place prior to activism.

The truth, which can easily be ignored, is that God has raised up the Chinese church over the last three decades without us.  During that period, the church in China grew from about one million believers to possibly fifty million.  At the same time, the church in the West experienced overall decline.  The survival and revival of the Chinese church is one of the greatest stories of church history.  Its recent extraordinary growth stems from a period of dark persecution and suffering on a scale that we in the comfortable West can only dimly understand.  This growth has been overwhelmingly due to indigenous factors.  The only major exceptions to this have been the contributions made by Christian radio and literature agencies—and these have been largely staffed by Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere in the overseas Chinese Diaspora.  We need, therefore, to approach China with a profound humility and a spirit that is willing to listen to what the Spirit is saying through our Chinese brothers and sisters.

Rather than proposing detailed recipes for Christian service in China, I would like to suggest some lessons from history.  China, in its vastness, is like a mirror that reflects back that which the viewer wishes to see.  Even as Christians, we can deceive ourselves as to the realities of the situation in this complex and ancient culture.  Over the centuries, Westerners have seen varied, and often deeply conflicting, images of China.  The same is true today.

Seven hundred years ago, Marco Polo was the first Westerner to visit China at a time when Chinese civilization was, in many respects, ahead of the European.  He returned to Venice with tales of opulent Cathay that many refused to believe.  China was exotic, distant and unreal.

The Jesuits, in the 16th and 17th centuries, made serious efforts to evangelize the Confucian scholar class. They immersed themselves in the Confucian classics and, in so doing, emerged with a profound respect for China’s ancient culture.  They carefully transmitted back to Europe a stream of detailed information about Chinese philosophy, art and culture which had a profound effect on Western thinkers. China was seen as a rational, humanist utopia—a civilization lacking the revelation and blessings of the gospel, but one showing how much mankind could achieve by the aid of natural human reason.  The Jesuits, such as Matteo Ricci, were prepared to accept the Chinese custom of ancestor worship and to adapt, to a considerable extent, the Christian message to Chinese culture. Rome, fearing syncretism, was not amused and the “Rites Controversy” in which the Popes forced the Jesuits to forbid ancestor worship, eventually led to the failure of the Jesuit mission.

The Chinese Emperors, on the other hand, were impressed by their Jesuit advisers who introduced the latest Western scientific (particularly astronomic) knowledge.  However, they were not prepared to accept papal interference in China’s internal affairs. This attitude can be traced directly to the present day when China’s communist rulers are quite open to learning from Western technology and accepting Christian professionals while remaining adamantly opposed to Western and Vatican political interference. In fact, the entire Jesuit experience merits being studied in depth by the serious Christian professional interested in working long-term in China today.

Voltaire, Leibniz and other Western thinkers learned much from China in the 18th century, but inevitably, at the more popular level, images of China were stereotyped and false.  During the 18th century, the “rococo” craze swept the fashionable salons of Europe. China was seen as exotic and fashionable, but few people really wished to understand the Chinese people at a deeper level.

By the 19th century, Western images of China had changed and hardened. Western industrial society had forged ahead of China and Western traders were eager to open up this vast market for their cheaply-produced goods. China had entered a period of dynastic decline and was neither at her best nor able to resist imperialist encroachment. The infamous Opium Wars forced her doors open at the barrels of the gunboats.  China was seen in the West as decadent, weak, stagnant and ignorant. Unfortunately, it was during this period that modern Protestant Christian mission to China began.  The missionaries were children of their era and, while some missionary scholars studied Chinese culture with sympathy, others were far more dismissive.

By the close of the century, a succession of civil wars (especially the Taiping rebellion), famines, floods and other disasters had confirmed the West’s viewpoint of China as hopelessly backward.  The Western powers had virtually carved China up into spheres of influence.  Chinese were now regarded as racially inferior.  The Boxer Rebellion in 1900 saw the Great Powers march in triumph into Peking.  The Western media were full of cartoons portraying the “Yellow Peril” and the “Heathen Chinese.”  Chinese were viewed as cunning, crafty, shifty and dishonest.  In the Treaty Ports, Chinese were fodder for the new factories, but, in contrast, foreigners on Chinese soil enjoyed extra-territorial freedom from Chinese law.  Overseas, Chinese were despised as ignorant laundry men and opium addicts in the ports of Liverpool and London, while in California Chinese were exploited to build the new railroads.

The image of China in the West has continued to change in the 20th century.  During the Second World War, Chiang Kai-shek and his wife cleverly built up support in the USA for the Nationalists in their fight first against the Japanese and then against the Communists.  The press coverage in the States bore little resemblance to the chaos and corruption enveloping the Nationalist forces in China itself.

The victory of the Communist Party in 1949 saw a major shift in perceptions of China overseas.  Much soul-searching was done in America as to why China had been “lost.”  In Christian missions circles there was a great loss of confidence as over a century of work in China abruptly came to an end.  A “bamboo curtain” now fell, severing links between East and West.  China was often seen as a regimented society of Maoist “blue ants.”  “Red China” became the enemy.  Later, the Cultural Revolution seemed to be the triumph of Maoism and the corresponding death-knell of the church. Neither the fulminations of the political and religious right against “Red China” nor the naive applause of Mao by certain intellectuals bore much relation to conditions in China.

The visit by Richard Nixon to China suddenly changed everything.  China and things Chinese again became popular.  China was seen now as an ally of the West against the Soviet Union. The visit of Deng Xiaoping to the United States and his being acclaimed as Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” symbolized the new relationship.  The “open door” policy led China into the family of nations.

However, hopes that China would automatically join the democratic, capitalist Western club were shattered in June 1989 with the show of force at Tiananmen Square.  Deng Xiaoping and his successors have made it quite clear that China will continue to pursue its own unique course under the authoritarian leadership of the Communist Party.  Since 1989 relations between China and the West have been strained while within China some intellectuals have reacted against Westernization (most notably with the publication of the book China Can Say No!).

In the United States there have been worrying signs that China may again be demonized by the religious and political right.  The continuing political suppression of all dissent, the repression in Tibet, the persecution of unregistered Christians, the poor conditions in China’s orphanages and the sabre-rattling over Taiwan and the South China Sea all combine to give much ammunition to powerful overseas lobbies who see China as an enemy and a major military threat in the 21st century.  That these are disturbing trends cannot be denied, but the real danger is that relations between China and the West will again be polarized, and extremist views on both sides will become self-fulfilling prophecies.  Furthermore, the question should be asked whether political lobbies who attack China over one or more of these issues might not ultimately be more concerned about internal Western politics than the actual fate of suffering Chinese people.

The way in which perceptions of China have changed radically in recent centuries—and even in recent decades —should give us pause for thought.  As Christians we must ensure that our motives are pure and pleasing to God.  We cannot avoid our citizenship in particular countries, but we can seek to avoid thoughtless nationalism.  We must constantly ask ourselves what model we are projecting as we serve Christ in China. Is it one of materialism and affluence? It is a fact that many Western Christians visiting China spend more on one night’s hotel bill, and even on one meal, than many Chinese Christian workers earn in a month.  What image of Christianity does this portray?  Westernization may serve as a vehicle for evangelism as Western Christians teach English and technical skills while living a Christian life-style.  However, Westernization can also be seen as a curse in the remorseless spread of a market economy, materialism, and its adjuncts of mass-market pornography and violence.  There is a great need in China to distinguish between biblical Christianity, which underlies what is good in traditional Western culture, democracy, art and legal systems, and the post-Christian, decadent West of today with its hedonism and immorality.

Ultimately, the Christian disciple is in China not to spread “Western democracy” or “values” but to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.  If Christ Himself “did not come to be served, but to serve,” (Matt. 20:28 NIV) then how much more we, who are His servants?

Image credit: Mirror Photo, Tong Li by Pippa Buchanan via Flickr.

Tony Lambert

Tony Lambert is the director for research, Chinese ministries, for OMF International and the author of China's Christian Millions, The Resurrection of the Chinese Church and the recently published Pray for China! A 30 Day Prayer Guide. View Full Bio