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Who Was Mr. Wu?

Earlier this month, William Wan wrote an excellent article in the Washington Post, title “Prophet or Judas? Son of China Church Founder Tackles Thorny Legacy.” The article introduces us to YT Wu, the man who, in the 1950’s founded the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee that became the umbrella organization for Protestant Churches in China. The article is specifically about Wu’s son’s attempts to access his father’s personal diaries, which remain in the hands of the government.

Six decades after Y.T. Wu founded an organization used by the Communist Party to control churches in China, his son is suing the government to get Wu’s diaries back in hopes of rehabilitating his image among the many Chinese Christians who despise him.

As the article points out, Wu is a controversial figure within the Christian community in China:

To this day, the vast rift caused by Wu’s organization defines China’s churches. Among the booming unregistered churches, he is vilified. Some worshipers call him a Judas who delivered China’s Christian community into the hands of the Communist government and abetted the persecution of hundreds of thousands of Christians.

Yet in government-sanctioned congregations, Wu is revered for creating the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in charge of all Protestant churches.

Wan does an excellent job of describing the founding of the Three-Self Movement, and the opposition that eventually lead to the burgeoning house church movement.

Wu was in his 20s when his father began the Three-Self Patriotic Association in the 1950s. China’s Communist leaders had finally won control of the country, expelled all foreign missionaries and set up an atheistic government.

At the private urging of China’s premier, Zhou Enlai, and after meetings with Party Chairman Mao Zedong, Y.T. Wu — also known in China by his full name, Wu Yaozong — spearheaded the establishment of a national church that would be free from foreign influence and completely loyal to the new Communist government.

The resulting organization took its Three-Self name from its principles of self-governance, self-support and self-propagation of the Gospel.

Congregations that submitted to the organization’s authority were allowed to carry on; those that did not were declared enemies of the state. In the ensuing years, thousands of people were arrested and imprisoned, according to church historians, as Christian worshipers, churches and pastors were encouraged to inform on each other.

With the late-1960s Cultural Revolution, registration became moot. All religion in China was banned, and even previously state-backed church leaders were sent to labor camps, Y.T. Wu among them.

But from that repression emerged a thriving illegal underground church movement, whose growth outpaced that of the government’s Three-Self churches when they were restored in 1979.

A bitter rift between China’s official and illegal churches has existed ever since.

If you are looking to understand the division between the registered and unregistered churches in China today, this article is an excellent starting point.

A further and more complete exploration of the life and legacy of YT Wu can be found in Daniel Bays’ book Christianity in China: From the 18th Century to the Present. He takes up the subject of Mr. Wu on page 338:

Wu Yaozong, also known as Y.T. Wu (1983-1979), founder of the Protestant Three-Self Movement and its leader for almost thirty years until his death, was a controversial figure and the subject of widely varying assessments by both Chinese and Western Christians. His successor, Bishop Ding Guangxun (K.H. Ting), wrote in 1983: “I think we may say that Y.T. in starting the Three-Self Movement was doing something comparable to the historical role that Paul played, in that they both caused Christian religion to rid itself of certain deformities and narrowness and ushered it into a new stage of history.” He emphasized that it was Y.T. Wu himself who enabled Chinese Christianity “go get a fresh image before the Chinese people.” Ding also wrote about how he was inspired by his predecessor when he saw “how closely Y.T.’s love for Christ and his concern for the well-being of the people were harmonized and how his loyalty to Christ generated in him a great passion for truth, for life’s ideals and for the people.” Most of the other leaders of the Three-Self Movement and certain Western Christians sympathetic to that movement cherish a similar respect for Y.T. Wu.

However, Wu was far from a positive figure in the eyes of quite a few Western critics. The editor of Ching Feng, a Hong Kong Christian periodical, wrote: “Wu has been branded by some as a heretic or an anti-Christ, while others would question his intentions and his integrity as a Christian and wonder if he has not betrayed his faith through the close alliance with the Communist government.” Although the majority of Western critics have made a negative assessment of Wu, there are also a few Westerners who take a middle position, critical but not denunciatory of him. For instance, Francis Price Jones wrote:

“It seems clear that he was motivated by an honest conviction of the value of communism, a sincere love for the church, and a desire to save it from destruction. Approval cannot be given to all that he has done through the Three-Self Movement. He had allowed the church to be a “captive church,” doing nothing but parrot the Communist line. But he undoubtedly felt that this was the only alternative to complete destruction. He was misled by a too optimistic expectation of tolerance of religion from the Communist government and by a failure to appreciate the depth of meaning in Tertullian’s famous dictum that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”

There is a soundness in the views of Jones – who had long experience in China and a deep understanding of the Chinese Protestant Church, and was able somewhat to rid himself of one-sidedness – not to regard Y.T. Wu as either an absolutely positive or an absolutely negative figure.”

Now, more than fifteen years after his Wu’s death, we can look at his career more soberly. There is a Chinese saying, “A final judgment can be passed on a person only when the lid is laid on his coffin.”

If Y.T. Wu’s son is able to gain access to his father’s papers, it will hopefully go a long way towards the sober assessment that Bays speaks about.

Correction: The word “Committee” was added to the first paragraph.

Image Credit: Wu Zongsu, The Washington Post
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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