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Finding Themselves in China

From the series Our China Stories

It has been said that for the person who has a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

For foreigners who go to China, it is often the case that what they find depends on what they’ve come looking for. Bringing with them their assumptions—based on who they are and what they do—their discoveries in China can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Their China stories, as a result, are often descriptions of what they envision happening as a result of their being in the country. The anticipated ends of their China engagement determine the plot and trajectory of their China narratives. Aspects of China that fit the storyline are accentuated, while others are left out.

To a lawyer the China story is about human rights. To a pastor it’s about planting churches. To a teacher, training leaders. A missionary’s story is about raising up cross-cultural workers, while an educator talks of building schools. Journalists and authors—depending on what they are writing—may find a China that is exotic, sinister, majestic, overwhelming, or just plain strange.

Very much the product of those who tell them, these are the stories of a China that could be, or should be, not necessarily the China that really is.

Shaped by their own cultural understanding and how they see their place in the world, those who tell these China stories tend to focus on their desired ends, assuming there is an identifiable process for getting there. While this process may be legitimate and workable, it often neglects the myriad other factors at work. These factors become distractions, setbacks, or obstacles. Viewed through the lens of spiritual warfare, they might be the work of an unseen enemy.

As historian Jonathan Spence illustrated so poignantly in his classic book To Change China, most who engage China for any considerable length of time find their original stories bending to the realities of the Middle Kingdom. In the process, they too are shaped. They find themselves as part of a much larger story that began long before they became involved in China, one that will continue long after they have left. It is in light of this larger story that their own stories finally make sense. The personal transformation they inevitably undergo in the process eventually becomes an integral part of these stories.

For the Christian, this larger story is the Missio Dei, God’s mission in the world, in which Christ invites his followers to participate. To find oneself in China requires being willing to enter into a story where one has no control over the plot, much less the ending. Setbacks, obstacles, and even spiritual attack may all be part of this larger story in ways not immediately recognizable to those struggling to achieve a particular purpose in China. But as generations of foreign workers have learned, their China stories were not ultimately about what they intended to see happen, but about what God was doing in them, and in China, and how these two related.

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Image credit: Christian Lue on Unsplash.
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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