Teaching the History of Chinese Christianity: Some Pedagogical Perspectives

Article excerpt


Beginning in the sixteenth century, European Catholic orders, including Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans, introduced Christianity and established mission outposts in China. Protestant missionary societies arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century. Despite the Eurocentric view of Christianity conveyed by Western missionaries, many Chinese believers successfully recruited converts, built churches, and integrated Christianity with traditional values, customs, and social structure. This pattern of Chinese church growth represents a large-scale religious development comparable in importance to the growth of Catholicism, Protestantism, and orthodoxy Christianity in continental Europe, the rise of Islam, and the Buddhist transformation of East Asia. The story of the Chinese church is an important chapter of the global history of cross-cultural interactions. The knowledge and insights gained from the China story throw light on the emergence of Christianity as a fast-growing religious movement in the non-Western world.

Some important questions arise for history teachers: How can we teach the history of Chinese Christianity, especially the transmission, acceptance, and appropriation of the Christian message in a Chinese context? How can we make the subject matter relevant to the discussion of Christian movements in contemporary China and of cross-cultural dialogues in the twenty-first century? What pedagogies should we use to contribute to a critical understanding of Christianity as an integral part of modern Chinese history and a fundamental aspect of human experience without teaching from a religious or ideological bias? How can we apply some of the pedagogies into a Chinese or Asian history survey and a World Civilizations survey? This article addresses these questions and looks at some pedagogical issues that arise from teaching the history of Chinese Christianity at the college and university level in the United States.

Over the last few years, I have drawn on research and fieldwork experience to teach an upper-level history course called "Bible and Gun: Christianity in China" at Pace University in New York City. This course presents an historical overview of the development of Christianity in China from 1500 to the present. Pace University has a diverse student body. The students take this course for different reasons. Some students are curious about any subjects related to China. Some students want to compare the development of Chinese Christianity with the Church in the West. Students from Russian Orthodox, Hispanic Catholic, Asian-American Protestant, and African-American Pentecostal backgrounds express strong interest in the religious experience of the Chinese church. Students majoring in political science, religious studies, sociology, and anthropology are interested in church-state relations, human rights, and religious freedom in contemporary China. The students' intellectual concerns generate many interesting questions for discussion in each class session.

Beginning with a discussion of academic objectives and content of this course on Chinese Christianity, this article examines the use of historical games in teaching American college students about Christian missionary experiences abroad, the dynamics of Sino-Christian cultural interactions, and the indigenization of Christianity in modern China. As I argue elsewhere, historical games can be used as an interactive and reflective pedagogy in courses with international, cross-cultural, and comparative foci. (1) These innovative games are set in a particular political and social setting. Students are assigned specific roles and tasks informed by primary sources. By incorporating these materials into historical games, this course enables students to relive the past and gain personal perspectives on controversial topics such as the Rites Controversy in early Catholic missionary movements in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century China, the Protestant missionaries' reaction to the Opium War (1839-1842), the Taiping Movement (1850-1864), and the outbreak of the Boxer Uprising (1900). …