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Thoughts in Response to the End of the “Golden Age”

From the series Reflecting on the End of the “Golden Age”

The title of A. J. Broomhall’s book, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century, implies that the “open” state of China, roughly between the 1840s and 1951, was only a window of opportunity, while “closed” has been the usual state of China during its long history. If Christian workers, foreign or local, were aware of the cyclic historical pattern, they might be less surprised by the recent retightening of religious policy after four decades of reform (the 1980s to the 2020s). It was just a matter of time.

The Importance of Understanding the History of China

History can surprise us by the way it repeats itself. The so-called “Golden Era” of church growth in China, aided by missionary endeavors, happened during the first two decades of the twentieth century, bookended by the Boxer Rebellion and the May Fourth Movement. About a century later, the “Golden Age” of mission work and church growth in China, referred to by Chen Jing, peaked in the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Younger workers who entered the field during optimal conditions—knowing only that era, or with the assumption that “this time is different from the past”—are less likely to be prepared for the current tightening up. For people who have surveyed China’s long history, the “new normal” is a return to the “old normal.” Since no one lives long enough to experience or witness everything, it is always helpful to work things through with the aid of historians’ research.

“Debacle” has been a regular occurrence since Christianity was first introduced to China:

  • The annihilation of Nestorianism during the “Anti-Buddhist Persecution” of a Taoist emperor (武宗灭佛) in the Tang Dynasty (AD 845) after 200 years of tolerating religious diversity.
  • The retreat of all erke’ün (也里可温) Christians to Central Asia at the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1368) after a century-long, state-supported propagation.
  • The imperial banning of Catholicism (1721) as a result of the Rites Controversy (礼仪之争) after 140 years of rapid spread.

More recent examples include:

  • Evacuation to the treaty ports during the Boxer Rebellion (1900).
  • Withdrawal from the interior as a result of the Anti-Christianity Movement (非基运动) which peaked during the Northern Expedition (1926–1928).
  • The retreat to Free China1 and the captivity in POW camps during the Pacific War (1941–1945).
  • The complete expulsion of foreign missionaries from 1949 to 1953.

Given the regularity (or irregularity) of intermittent debacles during the past 1500 years, foreign workers in any era should always enter the field with the outlook of eventual withdrawal, preparing from day one for “the euthanasia of missions” (as the nineteenth century CMS missions statesman Henry Venn put it), or “the removal of scaffolding” (as the founder of CIM, Hudson Taylor, put it). The window of opportunity, lasting longer or shorter, will eventually be closed.

Dimensions and Perspectives to Consider

Chen Jing’s call for reflection and the responses that followed suggest the inclusion of the following dimensions in the discussion:

  • Practitioners vs. theoreticians: Chen calls for reflection at both the operational and theoretical levels, while “Swells” calls for the involvement of practical missiologists (mission scholars with field experiences).
  • American vs. non-American: To some extent, we should also consider English-speaking and non-English-speaking missionaries, with the possible addition of “subaltern” workers from small sending countries, as well as Chinese diaspora missionaries.
  • Religion vs. politics: Fulton highlights the need to include (rather than eschew) politics in missions discussions as missions has inevitably been perceived as political in China throughout its history. Borrowing a feminist slogan (“Personal is political”), in the China context, “being religious is being political.”
  • Old mindset vs. new façade: Chen wisely points out that new generations of workers are likely to think that they are pouring new wine into old skin while there may have been “nothing new under the sun.”

No one so far has mentioned gender perspective: has it been relatively easier for women missionaries to enter, settle, be accepted, and last on the field? What are the implications of marital status with respect to women missionaries (single, married, divorced, widowed) in relation to their success on the field? Is the gender factor fast disappearing as an important factor as there is no longer a separate “women’s ministry” in China?

It may also be worthwhile to evaluate how our reluctance to leave China may become a stumbling block for entering other fields or returning home, as evident in many “Old China Hands” of the last century. Our love for China may hinder us from blessing other peoples and nations if we have the mentality that nothing can replicate “the China experience.”

The Need for Quality Historical Research

Enough has been said by Chen and the respondents about the importance of history in the reflection exercise. My chief concern is the lack of quality history studies to support such reflection. A lot of “history talks” in missions and church contexts are skin-deep, anecdotal, mystical, hagiographical, one-dimensional (a sociological term indicating a lack of critical thinking), or misleading (for example, quoting historical examples as a proof-text to support the opinion of the speaker). There is a general lack of historical understanding and awareness in the Chinese Christian community as well as among the people who are called to serve them. There are times that we may need to do some basic fact-checking. Other times, we simply remain in the ignorance of “we don’t know that we don’t know.”

History is just as complicated as current reality, which requires thorough understanding and reflection from all sides, a similar exercise to doing exegesis on the history books in the Bible. It will be helpful to do some methodological brainstorming before we dive into the thick of history:

  • What happened? A question about statement.
  • How did it happen? A question about narration or storytelling.
  • Why did it happen? A question about interpretation.

General missions history textbooks may be a good start but are never adequate for what we want to achieve. For one, most of these textbooks have not been updated with new discoveries. Moreover, general history textbooks often base their narrative on secondary or handed-down knowledge. Although a lot of academic studies have been done in missions history in China, not many include contextual analysis that will benefit contemporary missionary strategists and practitioners. Although historical survey provides necessary background knowledge, good, contextualized case studies are digestible learning exercises. The missionary community needs a “digest” to process the emerging research findings in the scholarly world and make it relevant to contemporary practitioners. For example, Julie Ma’s article on Karl (Charles) Gutzlaff illustrates how a case study of one man can teach us multiple lessons (good and bad) for missions today.

Final Concerns as We Reflect

My response would not be complete without expressing my concern for doing contemporary and future history research. Most of us would agree that much more research needs to be done on post-1949 church history in China (including the recent Golden Era). However, security concerns and research ethics make data collection nearly impossible. With things still evolving and developing, it is difficult to come to any conclusions. We may need to wait a few decades to see “patterns in the dust” (as the title of Nancy Bernkopf Tucker’s book on Sino-American Relations during 1949–1950 aptly puts it).

On a more general note, we can no longer write history as we have known it. The records and communications of the missions community have become increasingly transient and fragmented, compared with our predecessors, not to mention the coded vocabulary and disguised identities that can repel any serious scholarly inquiries.


  1. “Free China” in the context of the Sino-Japan War refers to the Chinese territories not been occupied by the Japanese invader. It was largely the northwest and southwest of the country. The gospel was spreading to these areas when the churches, Christians, and missionaries moved westward.
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Image credit: Dingzeyu Li on Unsplash.

Sylvia Yuan

Sylvia Yuan, PhD, is a researcher and mobilizer for a sending organization as well as a liaison among the Chinese churches for the Bible Society of New Zealand. As the author of four books and mother of three, Sylvia encourages people to think cross-culturally through her writings and talks, both …View Full Bio

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