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China’s Missing History

A wealth of scholarship on the history of Chinese Christianity has emanated from Asia during the past 50 years. Yet, although significant work on Christianity’s past is taking place in academic circles—including among mainland scholars—many Christians in China today are largely unaware of the rich history of the gospel in their own nation.

In his article “History Matters: Christian Studies in China Since 1949,” (Monumenta Serica Journal of Oriental Studies, vol. LVIII (2010): 335-356), Wong Man Kong traces the progression in the historical treatment of Protestantism in China from “demonization” by scholars, whether foreign or Chinese, who focused on Christianity in China as foreign invasion, to the “humanizing” efforts of later scholars who looked at the interaction between cultures, often from the viewpoint of individual Chinese Christians. Wong begins with a comprehensive overview of major works in the study of Protestant Christianity in China, giving particular attention to those emanating from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Looking at the conservative trend in Chinese theology during the past century, Wong makes the point that understanding the theology of the Chinese church today requires understanding the history of theological thought (and the influence of prominent figures such as Watchman Nee).

Paul Rule’s “From Missionary Hagiography to the History of Chinese Christianity” (Monumenta Serica Journal of Oriental Studies, vol. LIII (2005): 461-475) traces the movement of the study of Chinese Christian history from the periphery to the mainstream of Chinese historiography. In the process he points out some of the shortcomings in this scholarship at various stages along the journey, noting, for example, that relatively little work has been done on the inner spiritual life of Chinese Christians. While Rule argues that the jury is still out on the lasting impact of China’s “culture Christians,” he nonetheless applauds this generation of scholars for their positive reassessment of the role of Christianity in the development of modern China.

Based on anecdotal evidence, it seems that many Christians in China outside academic circles may have a greater appreciation of the history of Christianity, particularly theological developments, outside China than they do in their own country. Prominent figures such as Robert Morrison, J. Hudson Taylor, Watchman Nee and Wang Mingdao may be talked and written about, but a thorough understanding of where the Chinese church has been does not seem to be present in ordinary church life. In schools and in the media, meanwhile, the official discourse continues to emphasize Christianity’s foreignness and the “imperialist invasion” narrative.

This raises the question of what “version” of China’s church history Christians in China are adopting for themselves and how this influences their perception of their role in society. With the new official emphasis on “Sinicization” of religion this question becomes potentially even more critical.

Image credit: Hard-Puzzle by Antony *** via Flickr.
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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio

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