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Will History Repeat Itself?

From the series Our China Stories

“It was something of a shock to the Christian world…. “1

This is how one American Christian publication began its coverage of the decision of China’s paramount leader to reintroduce Confucianism as the nation’s guiding ideology. Titled “China Returns to Confucianism,” the article went on to explain the leadership’s rationale for the decision, namely, China’s declining morals and the need to check the degradation that had resulted from neglecting traditional rites and customs. The current situation was, according to the commentator, not dissimilar to conditions that prevailed in Confucius’ own day, a time of moral decline that prompted Confucius’ call for a return to traditional virtues.

For the past decade, Xi Jinping has used this rationale to justify his imposition of traditional Chinese cultural mores to combat the encroaching decadence resulting from pernicious Western influences. This particular article, however, was not about Xi and his rejuvenation of the Chinese nation through reviving China’s cultural heritage.

The year was 1914, and the article, appearing in The Christian Herald, was about then-President Yuan Shikai’s revival of Confucianism as the state religion. While it may have come as a shock to the Christian world, the Yuan administration assured the missionary community that its decision “was political and not connected with religions.” In Yuan’s mind it may have been entirely political. Yet foreign Christians serving in China were well aware how previous clashes of Christian missions with Confucianism had resulted in missionaries being expelled from China.

“Will history repeat itself?” the article inquired. “That is the question missionaries are asking themselves today.”

In his thoughtful ChinaSource Blog piece on what is arguably the end of the “golden age” of foreign Christian activity in contemporary China, Chen Jing asks a similar question. Comparing today’s situation with the “China Debacle” of the 1950s, when all foreign missionaries were expelled, Chen entreats those currently engaged in China to learn from history by taking the time to evaluate what has been done over the past four decades and what have been the results. The first question to consider, writes Chen, is “before and while serving in China, did we do our homework adequately to understand the history, culture, and politics (CCP) of the country?”

Which brings us back to Yuan Shikai and his shocking decision. The Christian Herald article ends by noting, “At the headquarters of the various missionary boards in the United States little apprehension is felt for the work in China…the general impression being that it is of political rather than religious significance.”

As a result, the article concludes, mission leaders do not anticipate “there is any reason to believe that the government meditates the adoption of a hostile attitude toward Christianity in the near future.”

Missionary activity did in fact continue for several more decades. Yet the rapidly shifting political currents of that era, culminating in the eventual expulsion of all missionaries, spoke volumes about the inextricable tie between the political and the religious in the minds of Chinese leaders. Whether a century ago or today, whatever our China stories may purport to tell us about being apolitical, of “leaving our politics at the door” or “staying out of politics,” one of the hard lessons of history is that foreign Christian involvement in China is unavoidably political.

If we are to heed Chen Jing’s admonition to reflect on the past before charging ahead into an uncertain future, we must grapple with the implications of this political reality.

Although it may be possible to steer clear of politics in relationships at the local level, to scrupulously avoid politically sensitive topics in conversations with officials, and to ensure that communications with supporters at home has no political overtones, the presence of a significant number of foreign Christians engaging Chinese at all levels of society is itself a political statement. For the most part this engagement has happened with the government’s full knowledge, but not its full consent, making the foreign Christians a potential liability to any locals with whom they come in contact, be they friends, coworkers, employers, or the officials charged with keeping tabs on them. Their message, even when (as it has been, for the most part) shorn of overtly political language, has still, to the ears of China’s leaders, been laden with political meaning. Their identity has been inseparable from the political entities that issued their passports.

Individualistic Western believers may proclaim and may honestly believe that they come only as representatives of Christ. Yet, because religion in China has always been the purview of the state, foreigners bringing religious ideas are naturally viewed through a political lens. As guests of China, they are expected to serve a political purpose and further the goals of the state. Those found to be doing otherwise constitute a threat.

“Will history repeat itself?”

Will yet another generation of foreign Christian workers one day enter the Middle Kingdom, only to be rejected because they believed they were somehow immune to the political reality that defines life in China? Or will they find a new approach to a dilemma that has confronted foreign Christians in China from the Tang Dynasty to the present? With the current regime doubling down on control and on its suspicion of all things foreign, careful reflection on this political reality, and its implications for Christian witness in China, is more urgent than ever.


  1. “China Returns to Confucianism,” The Christian Herald, February 18, 1914, 147–48.
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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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