Analyzing the Past to Serve Faithfully in the Future
Recently, many friends of mine switched from WhatsApp to Signal for online communication due to concerns about possible privacy issues. At that time, Signal was flooded with new accounts worldwide. Intuitively, I knew that I was going to lose contact with my friends who were using Signal in mainland China. Because its server is located outside the border, these China-resident companions believed that Signal could provide a safe platform to talk about church ministries. But as more and more people jumped on this bandwagon, I knew the Chinese government would soon block it. My prediction came true a few weeks later.
The blocking of Signal by the Chinese government was predictable following the past trajectories of Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and WhatsApp. At first, when the number of users on those platforms was not too great, messages from the West were allowed to pass through. But as each foreign platform grew increasingly popular, restriction became the inescapable fate.
This incident simply reflects that over the years the governing leadership in China has been very consistent. When the ruling government remains unchanged, the pendulum simply swings either a bit more to the right or to the left within a fixed limit. The outcome of certain happenings is often predictable. Along this line of thought, understanding the history of mission and church development in China definitely helps us foresee what Christians will face in Hong Kong’s new normal.
Loving Care Turned into a Historical Burden
When teaching Sunday School, I often use a DVD series about how the gospel was brought into China. Every time I watch it, the lively historical scenes of missionaries making undaunted attempts to knock on the door of China, I am humbled and feel indebted to them. The last episode is particularly impressive as it describes thousands of missionaries coming to China from the time of Robert Morrison till the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1807–1949). Traveling from afar, across rolling oceans, they risked their lives to come to an underdeveloped country, not only for the sake of preaching but for the holistic well-being of the Chinese. Their richness in knowledge intertwined with sacrificial love blossomed into a renewed culture in China through their establishment of the first school for girls, the first tertiary education institute, the first hospital, the first orphanage, the first rehabilitation center, the first laboratory, the first periodical, the first newspaper, even the first team to participate in the Olympic Games, just to name a few breakthroughs.
However, these laudable contributions were met with skepticism among non-believers in the public domain. They suspected that the missionaries were harboring imperialistic ambitions under the cloak of spiritual salvation. The cumulated distrust eventually burst into the Anti-Christian Movement in 1919–1925.1 Scholars have identified several factors that caused the nationwide campaign including the rise of nationalism among the Chinese, the propagation of atheism, and the advocacy of new learning without Christianity. Besides these internal agitations, the instigation of Soviet communists behind the scenes added fuel to the emotional upswing.2
The hostility was not groundless. While almost all missionaries came to China without the prospect of personal benefit or political gain, some exceptional examples aroused public concern:
- Robert Morrison was dedicated to Bible translation, but he also held a position in the East India Company as a translator for the opium trade.
- Peter Parker was passionate for medical mission. However, he was heavily involved in diplomatic affairs on the US side. Parker also played a role in the negotiation of the Treaty of Wangxia which the Chinese considered an unequal treaty.3
- Samuel Wells Williams was at first a missionary. Later he shifted to become the Secretary of the United States Legation to China. Samuel was an active participant in the unequal treaties, too.4
- Charles Gutzlaff acted as a translator and an intelligence agent when the British military charged forward towards the northern heartland.5 He participated in many sessions of negotiations which ended up with the Treaty of Nanking. At the signing of the treaty, he continued to play his dual role as a missionary and a diplomat. He awkwardly handed out copies of the New Testament to each of the Chinese negotiators.6
These short-sighted acts contributed to the misconception that their mission was wielding military power to propagate the Good News.7 Perhaps unknowingly, they held on to their simple faith but without the wisdom to see their actions in the broader sweep of history and thus contributing to the controversies and mistrust that continues to today.8 Although these incidents constitute a minor portion among tens of thousands of commendable ministries, they left indelible marks in history. Based on such blackmarks, the United Front has continued to identify a connection between Christianity and imperialism. Propaganda continues to be used to guard against foreign infiltration through religious activities and foreign funding.
In March this year, news media worldwide overwhelmingly reported the explosive discussion during the diplomatic meeting between China and the US in Alaska. In China, the presentation of this news was eye-catching. A photo of a historical negotiation in Beijing and a picture of the present talk in Alaska and were placed in juxtaposition. The former showed the disadvantaged Chinese diplomatic team being forced to sign the Protocol for the Settlement of the Boxer Rebellion. The latter intended to exemplify China’s quantum leap in negotiation power.9 Interpreting the pictures from another angle, the historical conflict involving foreign powers and missionaries has not been forgotten after 120 years.
Implication of a Subtle Difference
Yet, not all missionary activities are regarded by the Chinese government as infiltration. Some were well respected and are officially commemorated. The following examples illustrate what the communists look for in the quality of their mission endeavors:
- Hudson Taylor: In 2018, the Hudson Taylor Memorial Building was opened.10  Approving its establishment was a sign of respect from the government. Hudson Taylor refused to take any indemnity for settling the Boxer Rebellion as imposed by his nation. He also hated the opium trade that had caused two wars and the imposition of unequal treaties upon China.11
- Peter Torjesen: In 1988, local officials from Shanxi Province invited the Torjesen family to attend a ceremony for erecting a monument for Peter Torjesen on the 50th anniversary of his death.12 His name was enlisted among the people’s martyrs since he stood by the side of the villagers against the invasion of Japanese soldiers.13
- Minnie Vautrin: Her statue stands in the Memorial Hall of the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders. Minnie Vautrin was the acting president of Ginling College where she fearlessly accommodated and protected ten thousand Chinese women refugees during the Rape of Nanking.14
- Samuel Pollard: Before Hu Jintao took up the leadership role of the Central Government, he served as the Party Committee Secretary for Guizhou Province in the 1980s. There he gave special honor to Samuel Pollard, a missionary who left behind a legacy of educational wealth to the remote countryside. Hu Jintao credited his sacrificial love for the ethnic minority Miao (苗族). Pollard created a Miao script for starting literacy education. His teaching materials in the Miao language contained the important message, “I am a Chinese; I love China.”15 That paved the way for building up the trust of the community and later the recognition of the Chinese government.
These exemplary missionaries were sensitive to the Chinese culture and the ideology of the people. I believe that almost every missionary stationed in China in those days was dedicated to serving in response to God’s call. However, many, if not most, were misunderstood in society while some were well accepted both by the community and the government. An adaptive ideological mindset made a subtle difference. In the changing ideology in Hong Kong, I hope that the churches have wisdom like the prophet Daniel who tactfully bore witness to God’s truth through working across the gap between the Davidic kingship ideology16 and the autocracy under pagan kings. Daniel was a role model faithful to serve the Lord, the earthly kings, and the communities.
- Lewis Hodous, “The Anti-Christian Movement in China,” Vol. 10. No. 4 (Oct 1930), University of Chicago, p. 487-494.
- Connie Au, “Resisting Globalization: The Pentecostal Holiness Church’s Mission and the ‘Anti-Christian Movement’ in China (1920–30),” in Global Pentecostal Movement: Migration, Mission and Public Religion, Edited by Michael Wilkinson, (Netherlands, Brill, 2012), p. 117-118.
- Gerald H. Anderson, “The Legacy of Peter Parker, M.D.,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 37, No. 3, July 2013, p. 152–56.
- Andrew T. Kaiser, “S. Wells Williams: Early Protestant Missions in China,” Thesis for Master of Arts in Theology, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 1995, p. 77-89.
- Ka-lun Leung, Blessing upon China: Ten Talks on the Contemporary Church History of China, (Tian Dao Publishing House, 2002), p. 51.
- Jessie Gregory Lutz，Opening China: Karl F.A. Gutzlaff and Sino-Western Relations, 1827-1852，(Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), P.103.
- 蔣夢麟，蔣夢麟自傳：西潮與新潮，團結出版社, 2004, p. 4.
- Ka-lun Leung, Blessing upon China: Ten Talks on the Contemporary Church History of China, (Tian Dao Publishing House, 2002), p. 54.
- 崔文佳, “辛丑巨變：‘中國人不吃這一套’的硬氣從何而來”, 北京日報, Mar. 20, 2021, downloaded from https://news.bjd.com.cn/comment/2021/03/20/62752t112.html on Apr. 28, 2021.
- Ye Lan, “A Visit to the Hudson Taylor Memorial Building,” China Christian Daily, Sep. 12, 2019, downloaded from http://chinachristiandaily.com/news/church_ministry/2019-09-12/a-visit-to-the-hudson-taylor-memorial-building_8571 on Apr. 28, 2021.
- Ralph R. Covell & G. Wright Doyle, “J. Hudson Taylor,” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, downloaded from http://bdcconline.net/en/stories/taylor-james-hudson on Apr. 28, 2021.
- 余杰, 白晝將近: 基督信仰在中國, (香港: 晨鐘書屋, 2010), p.87-88.
- G. Wright Doyle, “Peter & Valborg Torjesen,” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, downloaded from http://bdcconline.net/en/stories/torjesen-peter-and-valborg on Apr. 28, 2021.
- Hua-ling Hu, “American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking: The Courage of Minnie Vautrin,” in China Review, Chinese University Press, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Fall 2001), p. 180-184.
- Hong Yun, “A Study of Western Missionaries in Guizhou During 1861-1949,” Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy in English Language and Literature, School of International Studies, Zhejiang University, China, 2013, p.124.
- W. Wessels, “Zion, beautiful city of God – Zion theology in the book of Jeremiah,” ISSN 1609-9982, Verbum et Ecclesia, 27(2), 2006, p. 729-748.
Image credit: The Hudson Taylor Memorial Tower opened on June 6, 2018. (WeChat account: Christianity in Zhenjiang ) via China Christian Daily.
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