The Dilemma of Accommodation: Reconciling Christianity and Chinese Culture in the 1920s

By Xu, Xiaoqun | The Historian, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Dilemma of Accommodation: Reconciling Christianity and Chinese Culture in the 1920s


Xu, Xiaoqun, The Historian


China in the 1920s was open to new ideas and institutions as never before. Chinese intellectuals of the May 4th Movement (1915-21) rejected the old imperial system of government, blaming the preceding Qing dynasty for China's present weakness. They also questioned traditional Confucian philosophy, which they perceived as outmoded, and sought to modernize their country. At the same time, the Chinese were acutely sensitive to externally imposed cultural forms, one of the most prominent of which was Christianity. Nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries' attempts to impose Western culture along with their religion had caused Christianity to be perceived as a form of cultural imperialism. Continued missionary activity in the 1920s was viewed with suspicion and further contributed to tensions in China.

While Chinese faced the problem of integrating a foreign religion with Chinese culture, missionaries in China struggled to accommodate Chinese culture while remaining faithful to the Christian message. Western culture had become so intertwined with Christianity in the minds of many Christians that to reject the culture was to reject the faith. Those missionaries who attempted to render their faith more accessible to Chinese by recognizing positive aspects of Chinese culture risked criticism and loss of support by their colleagues and sponsors. At the same time, missionaries who insisted that Chinese unilaterally abandon their most sacred traditions gained few converts. Examination of Anglo-American Protestant missionary writings, the proceedings of several missionary and Chinese Christian conferences, and other sources reveals how missionaries struggled to come to terms with their dilemma, even as Chinese struggled to retain their indigenous culture amidst an onslaught of twentieth-century international influences in the form of science, technology, democracy, and religion.

The question of accommodation between a foreign ideology and Chinese culture was not new. Buddhism had come from India many centuries previously and had been readily accepted; in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Jesuit missionaries introduced Catholic Christianity, although with limited success. But the wrenching cultural and ideological issues that plagued China in the 1920s made this conflict especially acute. The May 4th Movement gave rise to a new sense of pride and Chinese nationalism, which was embraced by intellectuals and by both the Nationalist and Communist parties that were founded in its wake.

The decade after the May 4th Movement witnessed the Anti-Christian movement of 1922-24, demonstrations in 1925 against Japanese and Western imperialism in Shanghai that became known as the May 30th Movement, and the Movement to Restore Educational Rights of 1924-28. In 1926-27, the military forces of the Nationalist (Guomindang) Party marched across China from Canton to Beijing, incorporating many former warlord regions along the way and unifying the nation under one government for the first time since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912. These events evoked fervent nationalist and anti-imperialist sentiment among urban Chinese, and missionaries, who were seen as cultural imperialists, were often a prime target of Chinese nationalist attacks. Because several of China's most important Nationalist leaders, including Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, were at least nominally Christian, Christianity and nationalism became to some extent intertwined.

In order to continue their work in China, Christian missionaries were forced to take a public stand on a number of current political issues. By and large, missionaries supported Chinese nationalism in principle, and in some instances went so far as to favor abolition of extraterritoriality (a legal principle giving foreigners special rights), Chinese control over customs and tariff collections, national control of education, and creation of an indigenous Chinese Christian church.

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