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The Chinese Church’s Attitude towards Its Own History

An Interview with Nathaniel Yuan

In May of this year I sat down with Dr. Nathaniel Yuan, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Centre for Christian Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Dr. Yuan collects oral histories from mainland churches in an effort to better understand the development of the Chinese church. Our discussion was wide ranging, but part of our conversation touched on the relationship between the present identity of the Chinese church and its historical experiences. The following transcript has been translated and then edited for length and clarity.

ATK: The three main emphases of your research project have to do with the history of the Chinese church. Why is it worth studying these things that have happened in the past? What's the value? Why do this research?

NY: I think I can describe it from three angles: The first is my personal faith, the second is my academic pursuit, and the third is the needs of the church. For myself, I came to the Lord when I was young, when I was in junior high school [in China]. By that time my mother had already, long before, believed the Lord. I asked her where the church in our hometown had come from. My mother said that Jesus Christ established it. But, when I was very young I wanted to know how our church came to be. At that time the state was really suppressing the church. It was a very closed environment and people around you would not tell you anything. But, I wanted to know how the church came to be. This was a reason why I transferred programs to study the history of Chinese Christianity—I wanted to find my own identity. We Christians have two thousand years of history. It has been two thousand years since Jesus came to the world. I want to know what has happened in these two thousand years. It's like our family tree. I am from [a particular] province and I am a Christian. Now I need to understand what happened in the past.

ATK: You want to know yourself!

NY: The second angle is academic. Whether it was research during my doctoral program or my current research as a postdoc, I mainly do research from the perspective of religious history. This topic is very interesting. Looking at the global history of the church, in each country or people group there are cases of persecution. Regardless if it's the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe or North Korea, in each communist state there has been such persecution. But for me, even though there have been many people since 1949 who have researched the Chinese church, I feel like it's not enough. The history of the Chinese church since 1949 is still on the whole a blank. Chinese Christians do not have a complete history of the church. Two thousand years ago the Roman churches were persecuted. Using church history, we can reflect on our own context in China. I don't think church pastors are very concerned about these things, but we Christian scholars have a duty to research these things, and also to respond to some of these topics in the sociology of religion and sociology. We hope to make a small intellectual contribution to sociology, political science, and history.

ATK: The third reason you mentioned is the connection this research project has with the church and the value to the church. Can you talk a little more about that?

NY: We've had some achievements with our research. The first is in terms of passing on our identity. The current Chinese church—even if it's the urban house church—their identity is still rather frail and fractured on the whole. I'm not ruling out some churches and pastors who consciously pass on the history of the Chinese church. For example, some urban churches don't see themselves as "house churches” contrasting with the so-called "Three-Self Church." The urban church doesn't classify itself as the house church. For them, the heritage of the historical Chinese church is a historical burden to be eschewed. But, how is it possible for a church to divorce itself from a cultural background, or political background, or national background? Jesus was a Jew. He never tried to deny this.

ATK: Every building has a foundation.

NY: That's right! My first thought is that, historically speaking, the lives of those Christians who lived in the thirty years following 1949 make for a beautiful testimony. Over the past several years I've read about many such testimonies from Christians, especially those who lived from 1949 to 1979. I found that these testimonies are very valuable. Like, for example, a man who, even in the midst of suffering in a prison labor camp, still continued to minister to his fellow prisoners. People persecuted him but he kept on ministering to others. I think something as valuable as this isn't just a heritage that belongs to Chinese Christian community; it's a heritage that belongs to all Chinese people. This needs to be processed and sorted out in a systematic way.

Many Christians don't understand what happened in the years following 1949. This is a blank space in our history. We were hoping to discover such wonderful testimonies in our land. This is a group of people who God chose from our land. How can we turn a blind eye to this?! To make a comparison: it's like when the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea into the wilderness and then entered the beautiful land of Canaan—how could they turn their eyes away from this piece of salvation history?! What we're doing isn't just academic research. We also hope that through the literature written by some of these Christians the public can read about an important piece of history. These are spiritual blessings that I hope we all can inherit.

My second thought is, you can see that a church without historical awareness and without a foundation is a very weak church and a church that is prone to make mistakes. For example, China is currently revising the national religious affairs regulations. Pastors of urban churches are searching for how the church can respond under an increasingly unfriendly political regime. But, you can see that many pastors of these churches lack a historical awareness. They basically don't understand post-1949 church-state relationships.

ATK: This really isn't a new problem.

NY: Right, there's nothing new under the sun! What you'll find is, alongside testimonies of ordinary believers, Chinese church history as a whole really does mirror present realities. This lack of knowledge about the post-1949 Chinese church is terribly unfortunate, and so it is difficult for the church to find some good historical examples from church history to borrow from.

ATK: Right! We learn from the past in order to avoid repeating mistakes. This is a serious issue. Let me ask you a difficult question. I often do training on church history in China. Half of the time Christians have a big interest in history because, as you just said, there is a big blank space when it comes to this history. When I talk about Matteo Ricci or Robert Morrison, maybe three or four people have heard of their names. But I very quickly learned from my training that it's not enough to only lay these historical records in front of people because there are many blank spaces in the entire historical structure. Not only are we talking about blank spaces in the history of Christianity or the history of religion, but many areas in the entire historical structure lack careful study, and an even more serious problem is that some areas contain mistaken understanding. How do you deal with this problem?

NY: Yes, I agree with what you're saying. We hope resources written on Chinese Christianity can be framed with Chinese history in the background and against a specific context. What we are more or less envisioning is to use "suffering" as our main theme.

For example, the suffering Chinese Christians endured during the Cultural Revolution, and particularly the suffering that all average Chinese people suffered. That is to say, we'd like to insert a perspective of public theology into the writings about Chinese church history.

I think Jesus suffered for the entire Jewish nation, that he suffered for his brethren. We can't just talk about how individual Christians suffered. We need to put this against a backdrop to talk about how Christians can bear even more pain.

Another thing is that we need to challenge people's consciences—that is, why it is that Christians can live out freedom in a freedom-less environment. Christians can give some light to ordinary Chinese people or to Chinese culture. 

For more about the history of the Chinese church, see the 2017 autumn issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, "The Chinese Church and Its Historical Past

Image credit: 香港中文大學全景 The Chinese University of Hong by See-ming Lee.

Andrew T. Kaiser

Andrew T. Kaiser, author of Voices from the Past: Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in China, The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876,  and Encountering China: The Evolution of Timothy Richard’s Missionary Thought (1870–1891) (Evangelical Missiological Society Monograph Series Book 1)has been living …View Full Bio

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