Supporting Article

Who are the Chinese Intellectuals?

Historically, the encounter between the intellectual segment of Chinese society and the Christian faith has been filled with animosity, misunderstanding and lost opportunities. Following the Opium Wars, when China opened to the West and Protestant missionaries began their work, most converts were from the masses. Confucian scholars were hostile to these efforts, rarely converted to Christianity and, during the 19th century, incited their people to attack the missionaries.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, many students turned to Christianity and, for a short period, Christianity made headway among some intellectuals. After the 1919 May 4th Movement, however, many Chinese intellectuals rejected Christianity and turned to socialism or Marxism. They became more organized and articulate as they criticized Christianity as a foe of modern science and a tool of imperialism.[1] In 1927, a forceful anti-Christian movement caused most missionaries to flee to the coast. In the 1930s, evangelism and revival campaigns saw thousands of students turn to Christ, but the opportunity to address the May 4th intellectuals’ search for an ideology to save the nation had been missed.

After the Chinese Communist Party triumph in 1949, intellectuals were hounded and persecuted via political campaigns. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) many professors were assigned humiliating tasks, and some, unable to endure the “loss of face”, committed suicide. During this period, the government worked systematically to wipe out all religion, particularly the Christian church. However, at this same time, outside China, a period of conversions took place among intellectuals from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia who were studying in the United States and Canada. Today, hundreds of churches exist in North America as a result.

With their confidence in the system shaken, Chinese intellectuals began to examine Western politics and philosophy. Then, on June 4, 1989 with the Tiananmen Square tragedy, once again there was despair over finding answers to China’s problems. Intellectuals have continued to research Christianity and increasingly, many have been drawn to it. Among those who have come to faith in Christ, some have remained apart from both the registered churches of the Three Self Patriotic Movement as well as the unregistered house churches. This segment, known as “Culture Christians,” does not regularly meet together in community for worship and prayer. Their place in society and their cultural background determine how their faith is worked out within society. Today, in China, they engage in artistic pursuits or conduct research—one of the major areas of exploration being the relationship between Christianity and Western culture. They meet in small discussion groups and, increasingly, are able to publish the results of their research in academic journals.

Many of these intellectuals make up the ranks of international students currently studying or doing research at North American universities and on the campuses of U.S. institutions and substantial numbers are also on campuses in countries such as Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Great Britain and Japan.[2] As the Asian economy progresses, predictions are that the total number of international, university-level students in North America will increase from the present 1/2 million to 1.5 million in the next quarter century.[3] Many of these will be Chinese. With China looming on the horizon as a world superpower in the coming century, reaching these scholars becomes an immensely strategic opportunity.

Sharing a biblical worldview and philosophy of history with intellectuals is key when interacting with them, but, at the same time, the heart cannot be ignored. Many scholars who have come to faith recount that a kind gesture by a Christian or the singing of a hymn was instrumental in their journey to faith. In addition, because they are careful scholars, often come from an atheistic background and are sensitive to peer group pressures, time and patience are needed as they seek to understand the Christian faith and know its Author.[4] 


  1. ^ Chinese Communist religious policy dates back to the critique of Christianity in the 1920s by the intellectuals and to Mao’s experiment with anti-Christian legislation in the 1930s. Soul Searching, Hamrin, Ling and Su, editors, China Horizon, 1997, p.2. 
  2. ^ Serving China: A Primer for Pastors, Churches and Ministries, China Harvest and ChinaSource, 1998, p. 20. 
  3. ^ “Re-Inventing International Student Ministry in IVCF/USA” by Ned Hale, Internationals on Campus, Spring 1999, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, p. 1. 
  4. ^ Serving China: A Primer for Pastors, Churches and Ministries, p. 20.

Unless otherwise noted, the information for this article was taken from the introduction of Soul Searching, by Samuel Ling, General Editor (China Horizon, P.O. Box 40399, Pasadena, CA 91114) and “Culture Christians—A New Phenomenon” by Tony Lambert, China Insight, Nov/Dec, 1998, OMF International, 10 West Dry Creek Circle, Littleton, CO 80120.  

Image credit: 13-26-Chengde by kattebelletje via Flickr.
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ChinaSource Team

ChinaSource Team

Written, translated, or edited by members of the ChinaSource staff.          View Full Bio