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A Book Review

From Christ to Confucius: German Missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Globalization of Christianity, 1860-1950 by Albert Monshan Wu. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. Hardcover $16.94.


From Christ to Confucius is the first monograph of Albert Monshan Wu, currently Assistant Professor at American University of Paris. The book has been reviewed on, a website dedicated to discursive reviews of academic books in the humanities.

The commentators are:

  • Daniel Steinmetz Jenkins (organizer)–Lecturer, Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs (1yr appt.).
  • Brian Stanley–Professor in World Christianity, Director Centre for the Study of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, New College (School of Theology).
  • Jonathan Bonk–Research Professor of Mission at Boston University.
  • Justin Choi–PhD student at SOAS, London, historian of political ideas in twentieth-century Korea.
  • Steven Pieragastini–University of San Francisco Ricci Institute Post-Doctoral Fellow.
  • John Chen–PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Columbia University.

Syndicate is unique in that a book will be commented on by several scholars of the particular field (Syndicate lists four: Biblical studies, Literature, Philosophy, and Theology), each of which will be responded to by the author himself or herself, and even, at times, the author’s response again responded to by the respondent, creating an open-access dialogue among experts. It is something akin to sitting in on an academic conference panel. In addition to the Syndicate review, the book has been reviewed a number of times in other open-access locations here, here, here, here, and here.

In light of these helpful resources, I will approach my review of this book in a slightly different manner than most book reviews, including and engaging the reviews by the scholars on the Syndicate website in my comments. Furthermore, I will also aim my comments at what I perceive to be the main readership of ChinaSource, which is practitioners of mission, rather than an academic audience. All page numbers in parentheses are to Wu’s book.

The book is divided into an introduction and conclusion, sandwiching eight chapters that chronologically recount the activities primarily of two German mission societies, one Roman Catholic (the SVD; Societas Verbi Divini or Society of the Divine Word) and one Protestant (the BMS; Berlin Missionary Society), between the years 1860 and 1950.

Some of the key contributions of this volume are 1) the access it provides to Christian and mission history for people interested in getting beyond Anglo-American activities in China, but lack German language ability, 2) the dual-track examination of Protestant and Catholic mission societies of the same region and time period, which are usually examined independent of each other, and 3) an attempt at reexamining the “dominance-resistance model” that Wu claims “has long preoccupied the portrayal of church-state relations in Communist China” (p. 249).

Each of these three contributions Wu executes admirably. Particularly for readers interested in German missions history in China, and its distinctiveness against a backdrop of Anglo-American and European missions in China, this book is a helpful resource.

First, it might be asked by many practitioners, “of what value is this book to me? As an academic book, isn’t it too ‘heady’ for me? How can it offer practical help?” I would say to the non-academic reader, it will at times seem dry and difficult to access, particularly for one who is not familiar with the larger historical currents in Christian missions in China, or does not have a firm grasp of the general timeline of events in Chinese Christian and mission history.

Nevertheless, Wu does a good job of shifting back and forth between the larger historical picture of missions and Christian history in China, and the two societies that are the focus of his efforts. As a result, the reader is given a good deal of general context to the more precise examinations of the activities and thoughts of SVD and BMS missionaries.  Of the first chapter Bonk says that it is “among the clearest, most succinct overviews of the nineteenth-century missionary impulse that I have come across. Were I still teaching a class on the expansion of world Christianity, I would assign this chapter.” While I see the chapter as focused too exclusively on the German context, it still says a lot about the quality of scholarship and eloquence that Wu brings to his work.

While I commend the book for its scholarly presentation of the research material, it is in the interpretations where I have my strongest reservations. Here I will only highlight two important points. Other significant critiques can be found in the Syndicate comments, and the other reviews cited above.

First, the title of the book is a bit of a misdirection, and some of the commentators in the Syndicate piece were distracted by this. Bonk describes the narrative of the book to be about a shift in German missionary regard for Confucianism from “critical caricature” to “measured appreciation.”  Pieragastini claims that the “greatest contribution of the book is the one indicated in the title. Wu convincingly shows that….Christian missionaries in the post-WWI environment quickly embraced Confucianism.” This is further exacerbated by the title of chapter six, “Falling in Love with Confucius.” The book title and the title of chapter six both seem to point to the shift in missionary views of Confucianism as the core event of the entire story.

However, Stanley, Choi, and Chen all perceive a more complex set of interactions, only one of which was seeing “Confucianism as a discursive ally” in the spread of the Christian message (Chen). Choi, I think, nails the overall story well, quoting Wu’s “Introduction: the European encounter with China catalyzed new ways of Christian thinking” (p. 8). One of these new ways was to see Confucianism in a new light, not as an antagonist, but as a possible cooperative partner in the advance of the gospel in China. It is not a story of how Christian missionaries came to China and converted “from Christ to Confucius.” Certainly, their views of Confucianism shifted, but Wu does not cite one “conversion” from Christianity to Confucianism. That is, in fact, not what he means by the title of the book or the chapter.

What seems more apparent from Wu’s meticulous recounting is that European missionaries (in particular, Germans), entered China in the middle 19th century with Western colonial/imperial views of Christianity, to the effect that one had to become Western in order to become Christian. This adds significant weight to the basic reason that they held on to religious authority for so long; their Chinese converts were Christians, but they were just not yet Westerners. Until they could achieve that kind of cultural transition, they would be unfit to hold the reigns of religious authority.

The missionaries gradually, through cataclysmic events such as WWI, came to see things differently, and so their approach to missions changed. Missionaries did not “fall in love with Confucius.” Rather, they thought that they could apprehend the Confucian perspective in service to their political effort at driving the gospel forward, in the same way that they had attempted—and by their own admission, failed—to drive the gospel forward through “Westernization.” In the end, both attempts ended in what Wu calls “failure.”

When Wu describes the missionary shift from rejecting Confucianism as a competing religion, to embracing it as a “cultural force” (p. 186), it seems clear to me that the shift occurred more because Confucianism had already been vanquished as a political obstacle for the Westernization of China following the overthrow of the Qing empire through the 1911 Xinhai Revolution.

This links up with another question. Why did China resist Christianity historically, and why it is resisted today? Wu mentions that Christianity was seen as a political tool for Western imperialism, and this same rhetoric appears today. How much of Christian presence (both foreign and local) in China today encourages this kind of political linking of Christianity with new political systems? Must China become a democracy in order to enhance the spread of the gospel? Is that a necessary condition?

A second important point worth noting, which is also taken up by Stanley, is the recurring overgeneralization from the two case studies of the SVD and the BMS, to “missionaries” generally speaking, both by Wu and by most other commentators. Stanley captures this point in his comments:

A second and related weakness in Wu’s analysis is his tendency to extrapolate too widely and confidently from his two German case studies to the missionary movement as a whole, or even to the modern history of Christianity itself. Thus he assures us on p. 252 that “Christian missionaries altered their beliefs when they encountered other religions and civilizations.” Well, some did, but many more did not. Although Wu’s book adds weight to the evidence adduced by scholars such as Lian Xi that China could convert missionaries as well as the other way around, it is far from clear that this was the majority trend.

Wu’s study focuses on two relatively small, and in his own recounting, relatively ineffectual missionary societies. This warrants caution when drawing conclusions about the broader missionary movement in China and around the world.

These critical comments aside, there is much to learn from in Wu’s book, if one approaches it with discernment. The comments in the Syndicate piece are also very interesting and insightful, and certainly worth the time, and I highly recommend following up the book with the commentary. And, as always, read with discernment.

Peregrine de Vigo

Peregrine de Vigo (pseudonym), PhD, lived in central China for nine years and is a student of philosophy, sinology, and several other “-ologies.”  View Full Bio

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