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Approaching the Christian Tradition in Chinese Academic Settings

My first two years in China, 2011 to 2013, I taught at Beijing No. 2 Middle School in the Dongcheng district of Beijing, where I was a member of the founding faculty, as we liked to refer to ourselves, of the school’s international program. It was there that I encountered one of the paradoxes of teaching in an officially atheistic state, and this was the freedom to teach Christian and religious material that might well raise eyebrows—and hackles—here in the States.

It was during the spring term of my first year there that our textbook landed us in Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in The Hands of An Angry God. Up until that point, questions about and discussions of God and things Christian/religious of course had arisen; it’s hard to introduce literature, even at a very superficial level, without such conversations taking place. However, this was a head-on encounter, and I really had no idea how it would unfold.

As we entered the world of this most famous of sermons, the students, as Edwards himself would have desired, were sitting upright and taking notes. The lessons were not theological, as such, but literary, so we discussed at length imagery (of which there is much), suspense, conflict, crisis and resolution, and the general use of language to capture and keep a reader’s/listener’s attention. But there were also discussions touching upon the themes of judgment, sin, punishment, grace, redemption and so on. The students’ understanding of these themes was slim, such as one would find at a school in the States, Christian or otherwise. Nevertheless, they were engaged, asking good questions, making important observations, and clearly aware that this was not simply another piece of writing, but rather that there was something at stake here.

During my time at Beijing No. 2, I also taught an English class to seminarians at the Beijing National Seminary for the Roman Catholic Church in China in far south Beijing along subway line 5. I had been asked by a priest at St. Joseph’s Church-Wangfujing whether I would like to do this. How could I say no? What an opportunity to pull back a veil of life in contemporary China! My position there was to try to firm up the seminarian’s English skills, which overall were minimal. Much of this was basic vocabulary building. To this end I used PowerPoint presentations from Genesis and Truman Capote’s beautiful Christmas story, A Christmas Memory, which I also used at Beijing No. 2, as it offers some of the most simple yet luminous and vivid writing I have ever encountered. One of the things I remember with a combination of humor and amazement was that these seminarians, whose overall education in most things seemed rudimentary (there’s a back story regarding seminarian selection), were nevertheless able to point out that I was using a Protestant Bible. And, indeed, I was using the English Standard Version. To this day I remain unsure as to what exactly in Genesis tipped them off.

At The Affiliated High School of Peking University (BDFZ), where I was from 2013-2016. The international division, Dalton, was highly elective based, thus allowing students to take a wide range of liberal arts courses. One of the first courses I taught was a tutorial on medieval literature. However, given the unusual and valuable freedom faculty had in the Dalton program, I turned this into a course limited to Augustine’s Confessions. As there were only two students, I thought it be a fantastic opportunity to introduce them to one of the seminal thinkers and writers in the Western Christian tradition.

We read the autobiographical sections, stopping at where he begins his biblical commentary. Beginning with “Our hearts do not rest until they rest in you,” we worked through Augustine’s wondrous examination of the will, time and memory. We were able to pursue Augustine’s thinking in depth, which the two students appreciated a lot, as they had many questions, good questions, that demonstrated a willingness to engage the text on its own terms. Like so many readers of the Confessions, they found it to be uncannily modern—and not necessarily Western in its perspectives—even though it was written in the 3rd and 4th centuries C.E.

Finally, I want to mention another seminar course I directed at BDFZ. I had discovered online a conference at Rice University in Houston, Texas, entitled “The Common Good: Chinese and American Perspectives.” Out of this conference came a fantastic series of essays of the same name. This solved any questions I might have had about the name of the course. It named itself. This was a course that looked at the history of an idea, the common good, from theological, philosophical and political perspectives.

One of the clear virtues of this course is that it allowed the students to engage thinkers of their own tradition, such as Confucius, Mozi and Li Si and the Legalism school, and then compare and contrast them with the Western philosophical-theological tradition, to include Augustine, Aquinas and others. In so doing I learned a lot, and the conversations were excellent. Additionally, each of the students was required to do a presentation on one of the essays, which they handled very well. The essays were thematic, but all addressing some aspect of the Common Good. The discussion I remember most vividly focused on the Chinese idea of the qun (群) or group, and how the closely circumscribed idea of this in Chinese society makes a discussion of the common good, i.e., the welfare of those outside your group, problematic, much less the implementation of policies that would provide for a stronger civil society. They were, of course, aware of the irony of this, China being supposedly a collectivist society.

Readers may ask, can such courses be taught in today’s China? Can such questions be asked and examined, given the current political landscape? From what I hear from colleagues still in the Middle Kingdom, the restrictions are much tighter for post-secondary institutions. At high schools, I think things still depend on the school’s leadership and what it wants, and, to a degree, its willingness to take prudent risks. Even while I was there it was understood that there were limits to how much we could critique, especially things pertaining to the Party. When questions of Christianity or religion came up, provided we did not proselytize, the discussions could be wide ranging and in depth. However, during my second year at BDFZ, we all took note that during the Christmas season, the Christmas tree that the year before had graced the school’s interior quadrangle was no longer there. Times were changing.

Image courtesy of the author.

Peter Petite

Peter Petite was in China from 2011 until 2017, teaching and doing college advising in Chinese high schools in Beijing and Shenzhen. He continues to work with and mentor Chinese students in the United States, from high school to college, and from college to graduate school and various professions. His …View Full Bio

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