Chinese Church Voices

How to Make the Church Chinese? Three Perspectives

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.

The full title of this article is "How to Make the Church Chinese: Perspectives from the Religious, Academic, and Political Spheres" and is posted on the website of the China Christian Council/Three-Self Patriotic Movement (CCC/TSPM). Originally published in the official China Nationalities News, it examines the question of how Chinese the church is in China. While most Chinese Christians would likely agree that today's church is already Chinese both in character and leadership, many in the larger society have yet to acknowledge Christianity as genuinely a Chinese religion. The process of Sinicization, this writer argues, involves not only Christians themselves, but also China's intellectual and political elites.

Since the article was published in a government newspaper, and has been re-posted on the CCC/TSPM site, it is obviously from an "official" perspective. Articles like this provide an interesting window into Chinese political discourse, or what we in the west might call politically correct language. Whether one agrees or not, it is important to be familiar with this kind of discourse.

What does it mean for the church to be Chinese? Talking about this issue in the future tense is just a matter of opinion and will certainly result in different and uncertain views, some of which may even be ridiculous. But if we start from a historical point of view, the answer to this question becomes clearer. From specific experiences we can reach a general theory. Actually, since Christianity was brought to China and spread among Chinese people using the Chinese language, the process of the Sincization of Christianity has already begun. To continue this process, whether at present or in the future, we have to consider historical resources. More importantly, creating a truly Chinese church is by no means simply an issue for the Christian community. It has been in history and still now is a process that involves interaction between the Christian community, Chinese society and the Chinese government. Therefore, we must view this procedure from a religious, academic and political perspective.

First of all, the Christian community is naturally the protagonist for making the church Chinese. Ever since Christianity was introduced into China, but especially during the 20th century with internal and external difficulties pressing the country, a visionary group of Chinese believers and theologians started exploring the indigenization and localization of Christianity in China with the objective of making the church Chinese. Among those people were earlier believers and theologians such as Yu Cuozhen, Zhang Yijing, Wu Leichuan, Zhao Zichen, Xie fuya. More recently, Wu Yaozong and Ding Guangxun have been engaged in this endeavor. In a broader view, western religious figures such as Miner Bates were also concerned about and explored this issue and tried to look for cultural and ideological resources in Chinese traditional culture to help the spread of Christianity. In fact, in addition to the theological discussion of making the Church Chinese, Chinese believers made many adaptations concerning doctrine, church services, organizational forms, worship music and church architecture. In some places, there was even a tendency to view Christianity as a Chinese folk religion. If we get a clear understanding of the thoughts and practices that have occurred in the process of making the church Chinese and measure their level and impact, Chinese believers will have a clearer understanding as to the ideal way of making the church Chinese, and where we are in this process and what efforts should we take now.

Secondly, non-Christian groups in China, especially the secular intellectuals are also crucial in the process of making the church Chinese. Ever since Christianity was introduced to China, Chinese intellectuals have been debating the issue of Chinese vs. foreign. First they were concerned with maintaining Confucian Orthodoxy and later criticized Christianity using science and Marxism. Sometimes, those debates and criticism contained the flavor of national justice and revolution. Similar examinations of criticisms of religion will not cease in the future. However, in the process of east meeting west, new religious beliefs were encountered and a growing number of Chinese intellectuals started to make misleading and exaggerated distortions concerning Christianity and its political influence among Chinese intellectuals. During the late Qing Dynasty, earlier envoys such as Zheng Jize and Xue Fucheng reflected on the traditional views held about Christianity after they witnessed the real condition overseas. Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao tried to imitate the West by suggesting that Confucianism be declared the national religion. Zhang Zhidong wrote in Chinas Only Hope that if national governance were to be successfully implemented, the Christian religion would be another religion in China just like Buddhism and Daoism and therefore it should not be attacked. Even when the anti-Christian movement was at its peak, intellectuals like Tian Han still advocated an objective view of Christianity. Nowadays, Chinese intellectuals should be even more rational about Christianity and play an active role in making Chinese culture more vigorous and diversified by pushing forward the process of making the Church Chinese.

Lastly, the political circle should also be an important force to promote the Sinicization of Christianity. From a historical point of view, very early on, especially after the Republican era, there was much cooperation between the church and the government on issues such as culture, education, medical care and the anti-Japanese struggle. Church-state relations generally moved in the direction of tension to relaxation. As the ruling party, the Communist Party explicitly pointed out in its religious policy that it would guide religions to adapt to a socialist society. In fact, since the government is the main institution responsible for the social adaptation of Christianity and leading the church to contribute to this adaptation, the government should play a guiding role in making the church Chinese. This includes, analyzing the history of church-state interactions and summarizing its gains and losses, keeping pace with the times and promoting an innovative system of providing political and policy support and an impetus for adapting Christianity to a socialist society.In summary, the trend of making the church Chinese is an indisputable fact which also has been noticed by western scholars. Church history scholar Daniel Bays, who is devoted to the study of church history in China, has commented, Among the post-western Christian countries, I think the Chinese church, rooted in its rich culture and history, will contribute a lot of new things to church history. Perhaps in a way that is similar to what happened during the Sincization of Buddhism, the religious, academic and political powers will all play very important roles in the Sinicization of Christianity. However, it is doubtless that history will not simply repeat itself. In the age of globalization, with highly developed ideologies, cultures, science and technology and intricate domestic and international situations, the Sinicization of Christianity today will face new problems and more challenges.

2012-04-17 《中国民族报》

Image source: by Zarrin Maani, via Flickr

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