Academic journal article International Review of Mission

A Modern Chinese Journey of Inculturation

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

A Modern Chinese Journey of Inculturation

Article excerpt


It can be said that, from the apostolic age onwards, Christians have made it their first priority to spread the gospel and to make Christian converts of people of all nations. In so doing, they came to encounter peoples of many different cultural and religious traditions; people whose religions and cultures had longer histories of development than those of Christianity. The people thus encountered were often quite happy with and proud of their own cultural heritages and did not welcome interference from this new religion. This was precisely what occurred in China.

Christianity in China can be traced back to the year 635 CE and the arrival of Alopen, a Nestorian missionary. However, Nestorian Christianity lasted only about two hundred years, disappearing in the ninth century. According to Prof. Chen Zemin, a highly respected Chinese theologian, one of the main reasons for its failure was that the missionaries did not try seriously enough to adapt to the Chinese context or to accommodate to the content or essence of the then flowering Chinese culture. They simply created a miscellany of Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist terminologies and transliterations in order to put the Nestorian Christian tradition - scripture, doctrine and history - into the Chinese language. This left an impression of syncretism.(1)

Christianity again reached China in its Nestorian and Catholic forms in the 13th and 14th centuries, but fared no better. In the 16th century, Matteo Ricci, of the Roman Catholic Church, was the first missionary to insist on the necessity and significance of accommodating between the gospel and the Chinese culture. Nevertheless, the "Rites Controversy" which occurred later between the Christian faith and Confucian rites over such aspects as ancestor worship, produced a cultural-religious conflict between the Pope and the Chinese emperor. This almost caused the collapse of Catholic Christianity.

Protestant Christianity was brought to China in the mid-19th century by missionaries from the West. After a very difficult period of mission involvement, these missionaries had made about 700,000 disciples(2) of Jesus Christ in China by the year 1949, when China gained its independence from its semi-colonial status. While the Protestant missionaries had somehow made some achievements in the more than 180 years of their mission, their relation to imperialism and colonialism and their failure to root Christianity in Chinese culture and society, caused Christianity to be regarded as a tool used by Western powers for aggression and cultural invasion.

The Three-Self Movement, which was started by Chinese Christian leaders, helped Protestant Christianity to sever the cord that had connected it to its "mother" missionary societies and to gain independence and an identity of its own. But the construction of an indigenous Chinese church was only actually carded out after the end of the 1970s. By firmly embarking on a journey of inculturation in the period since 1980, the church in China has grown rapidly and become an ecumenical church with its own identity.

After a brief introduction to traditional Chinese culture, this essay describes some of the conflicts between the gospel and culture in the Chinese historical context, and relates some of the main aspects of the journey of the Chinese Protestant Church in inculturation, particularly in its theology and praxis since 1980. It also indicates some of the problems and challenges that remain to be faced.

Part I - Some Reference to Chinese Traditional Culture

It is impossible to describe the inculturation of the gospel without giving an introduction to the culture. Being part of one of the world's ancient countries, with a history of thousands of years, Chinese traditional culture - very different from that of other areas of the world - was largely shaped by its age-old philosophy which was deeply influenced by its religion. …

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