Botany or Flowers? the Challenges of Writing the History of the Indigenization of Christianity in China

Article excerpt

The impressive growth of Christianity in a rapidly modernizing China in the post-Mao decades has attracted much recent media attention. (1) A look at the development of the Chinese church in the past century of China's tumultuous history reveals an even more extraordinary record. (2) Yet the remarkable story of Christianity in China has been burdened by emotional baggage stemming from deep historical roots. An element of this baggage is the unfortunate association of Christianity with Western military power in the minds of many Chinese in the past one and a half centuries because the door to missionary activity was opened in the nineteenth century by various "unequal treaties" following the Opium War of 1839-42. Another is the current state of the Chinese church, divided between government-sanctioned Three-Self churches and "house churches," which are subject to government suppression. Both elements are important to the history of Christianity in modern China, but this essay will address only the latter. More specifically, this essay will address the challenges of writing an integrated history of the indigenization of Christianity in twentieth-century China given the current state of scholarship on the subject, and with a view to the divided state of the contemporary Chinese church.

The history of the indigenization of Christianity in China in the twentieth century has three currents: (1) the ecclesiastical development of the Church of Christ in China, which was the culmination of the church-union movement in China in the first decades of the twentieth century; (2) the emergence of Chinese Christian intellectuals associated with missionary colleges and universities, the best known of which was Yenching University; and (3) the emergence of independent preachers and their mass followings outside denominational missions. The first and the second developments shared a similar set of historical actors: representative figures such as Cheng Jingyi, T. C. Chao (Zhao Zichen), Liu Tingfang, Wu Leichuan, and Y. T. Wu (Wu Yaozong). The third development involved historical actors such as John Sung (Song Shangjie), Wang Mingdao, and Watchman Nee. The rise of these preachers took place somewhat later than the first two developments. Cheng Jingyi was one of the three Chinese delegates to attend the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, and in 1919 Chinese intellectuals at Yenching University formed the Peking Apologetic Group, later renamed Life Fellowship. Momentum for church union in China led to the formation of the National Christian Council of China in 1922. Hence, the individuals associated with the first two developments were already in positions of leadership and considered the spokesmen of the emerging indigenous Chinese church by the time Wang, Sung, and Nee entered the national scene. Wang began a congregation of his own in Beijing in 1925; Sung began preaching in his native Fujian Province in 1928 and first became known as a national revivalist in 1931; and Nee began to attract a small circle of followers in Nanjing in 1927, which developed into the Little Flock movement. This story is further complicated by the fact that a theological fault line ran between the third development and the first two. It became pronounced from the mid-1920s on and even shaped the responses of Chinese Christians to the Communist regime's policies after 1949.

The ecclesiastical, intellectual, and independent-preacher subplots of the indigenization story are told separately, often with conflicting assessments of the historical significance of the first two on the one hand, and the third on the other. This state of affairs brings to mind a sermon in 1931 by A. Wo Tozer entitled "The Love of God." (3) In this sermon Tozer gave a word of caution to his hearers concerning the subject on which he was preaching: that in analyzing the various aspects of God's love, one risks becoming a botanist who takes apart the petals of a flower, with the outcome of this endeavor being botany and no longer a flower! …