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Confrontation or Conversation? The Church and Confucianism in China

IThe Spring 2014 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly takes up the topic of Confucianism's resurgence in China and its implications for the church. Certainly not a new topic, the relationship between China's dominant worldview and the Christian gospel has been a perennial subject of discussion since at least the days of Matteo Ricci. Successive generations of Christians in China have asked the pertinent questions in different ways, some choosing to find accommodation between the two, while others find them to be mutually exclusive.

With the spectacular growth Christianity in China, some see Confucianism's resurgence as a challenge to the continued advance of the Gospel. However, as Huo Shui, a Beijing-based scholar on religion and society, has pointed out, Confucianism and Christianity are not on equal footing. According to Huo:

In the eyes of the average Chinese, Christianity is still regarded as a religion of the West and an "imported product" of Western culture . As a system of faith, ethics and morals, the contextualization of Christianity has not been completed . The prejudice, doubt and worry most people have against Christianity are mainly cultural. In China's mainstream media and publications, Christianity has only changed from having a negative role to a "neutral" one; its presence is tolerated without the need for public criticism. The government has never given any public recognition or affirmation to the culture, values, ethics and morals of Christianity. From a cultural perspective, the position of Christianity cannot be compared with official, orthodox Marxism, traditional Chinese culture or Confucianism .Overall, Christianity is still in a position of being culturally discriminated against and has not become an indispensable part of mainstream Chinese culture.1

Purdue professor Dr. Yang Fenggang sees the church in China today not as confronting Confucianism head-on, but rather as helping to inculcate the next generation of believers with Confucian values, many of which seem to be consistent with the Bible. In this sense, the church is not seeking to replace Confucianism but to "revitalize Confucianism with Christianity."

Other scholars, both in the Christian and in the Confucian camps, are not so sanguine. They instead emphasize the fundamental differences between the two. Fundamentalist Confucians also contrast Confucianism's longstanding place in China's history with Christianity's relatively short presence and its perceived Western roots. Their dismissal of the gospel as having no significant role in Chinese culture is an example of the "cultural boycotting" of Christianity which Huo Shui refers to above.

The roots of Confucianism go deep and its influence in the Chinese culture is pervasive. The Christian faith has also become deeply rooted in China, and it is up to this generation of believers to decide how they will navigate the ongoing relationship with China's Confucian heritage and its modern day resurgence.

For more on Christianity and Confucianism, please see the current issue of ChinaSource Quarterly.


1 Huo Shui, "Two Transformations: The Future of Christianity in China," ChinaSource (Fall 2011),

Image credit: Confucius, by Jay P. Lee, via Flickr

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource.  Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio