Dr. John Barwick Shares Chinese Christian Efforts to Liberal Modernity in Republican China, Why They Failed

Dr. John Barwick, a history lecturer at Cornell University
Dr. John Barwick, a history lecturer at Cornell University (photo: Cornell University)
By Grace Song November 25th, 2021

A scholar recalled how three prominent Chinese Christians served to promote liberal modernity in Republican China, encouraging modern Christians to more engage in social engagement. 

In a lecture themed “Chinese Christians and the Path to Liberal Modernity in China, 1900-1949”, delivered on November 14, Dr. John Barwick, a history lecturer at Cornell University, reviewed the stories of three Chinese Christians who served to promote liberal modernity in Republican China. He concluded that in the future Chinese Christian social engagement would emerge again because the Christian world views intrinsically coincided with liberal modernity.

Taking place both in-person in Oakland, California, and online, the lecture was hosted by the China Academic Consortium (ERRChina) and was co-hosted by US-China Catholic Association and China Source.

The speaker examined three prominent Christian social activists (Zhang Boling, Liu Tingfang and Liu-Wang Liming), their efforts in promoting liberal modernity in Republican China, and how such efforts were motivated and justified by Christianity. By reviewing these connections, he attempted to explore why Christians were such a crucial power in advancing liberal modernity and yet fell short to the Communist Party in the end. In his conclusion, he outlined lessons for Chinese Christians today in order to achieve social progress.

Defining liberal modernity as “those configurations of modernity concerned with protecting individual rights and promoting the common good by such means as constitutional democracy, autonomous civil society, freedoms of speech/press/religion, greater opportunities for women, respect for private property, and rule of law”, Dr. Barwick first examined the connection between Zhang Boling’s activities and the promotion of individual rights.

Zhang Boling was a leading practitioner of private education in China and the founder of Nankai University. After his conversion to Christianity in 1908 through the influence of American YMCA missionaries, according to Dr. Barwick, Zhang refused to participate in Confucian rituals which involved bowing to Confucius tablets and his conversion received negative responses from the Nankai Board.

For this reason, Zhang decided to resign, which was rejected by the Qing officials who inspected the school and decided that they could not do a better job than him. As a result, Zhang was allowed to keep his position and exempted from the Confucian worshiping practices.

“This gives us a window that shows how Christianity was advancing this liberal modernity in China during the early phase of the contact with the modern world”, Dr. Barwick commented. “On the one hand, conversion increased Zhang Boling’s individual autonomy as he resisted all the pressures of cultural tradition, elite society and political ideology to become a Christian because the conviction of Christian message was rooted in a divine authority that transcended all these early authorities. At the same time, the conversion implies the idea of individual rights - the right to freedom of religion. The fact that the authorities allowed him to continue in his role without participating in the rites shows that Christianity was creating pressure for a liberalizing change.”

He continued to argue that Zhang’s involvement with YMCA in Tianjin helped the formation of civil society, which he defined as “voluntary organizing by citizens to advance the common good”, an important feature of modernity. Zhang shaped YMCA’s work on practical social reform and encouraged cooperation with non-Christians. He attributed YMCA’s success to their motivation - Christianity. “This helps us to understand why Christians in China during this period were amongst the most active and effective promoters of civil society."

The second Christian figure was Liu Tingfang, a prominent Protestant minister and public writer. As a fourth-generation Christian, Liu was the founding editor of the journal Truth and Life, which gave a Christian perspective on modern thoughts and ideologies at work in China. With a Ph.D. in modern Chinese history, Dr. Barwick commented that the journal contributed to a liberal public sphere by “using the vernacular, taking truth seriously, and encouraging free expression and reasoned debate”.

When serving as a Christian educator and head of the School of Religion at Yanjing University, apart from other focuses, Liu particularly “saw cultivating democracy as a central part of Yanjing University’s mission”. In a speech that Liu delivered to the Yanjing faculty in 1925 on democracy, he expressed that he believed that Yanjing and its Christian faculty were part of God’s purpose to bring democracy to China, and according to his faith, democracy was assumed to be reasonable, practical and universal.

Then the speaker moved to Liu-Wang Liming, who was a female leader of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in China and promoted liberal modernity by exploring new roles for women. “She spread new conceptions of women’s roles by organizing women helping women, and along with WCTU, she also started Settlement House in Shanghai to help beggar women and children.” Her efforts with WCTU challenged the Confucian hierarchical order which limited women to the domestic sphere.

“Liu-Wang’s efforts had a Christian motivation, opened new doors for women, increased their dignity, and expanded civil society”, said Dr. Barwick. He quoted from Liuwang’s records, “... these women and children are entirely changed from their hearts ... because the love of Christ is being manifested to them morning and night.”

The lecturer concluded a few reasons why Christians made such a big impact on modernity: missionaries established powerful institutions which were later indigenized by Chinese Christians and flourished in the Chinese context, and Chinese Christians identified with and promoted a liberal vision of modernity through the institutions. From the perspective of church and theology, churches emphasized social engagement, which greatly influenced China’s mainstream urban Protestant groups; Social Gospel theology helped cultivate social concern, and Christian politicians also helped secure religious freedom.

However, by the year 1949, the population of Protestants and Catholics altogether only accounted for 0.95% of the Chinese population, and other non-Christian liberals were also minorities. Apart from the population disadvantage, Dr. Barwick reckoned that another reason why Christian liberalism fell short was that the West failed to return Shandong territory to China at Versailles in 1919, which broke Chinese’ trust in the West and the Western political model. The corruption and bribery under then Republican government and warlords battling for power under a so-called democratic structure only pushed people even further away from pursuing democracy. Given all of these conflicts, he stated that it was not hard to understand why the Chinese had a strong desire to build a powerful central government as soon as possible.

Focusing on today and the future, Dr. Barwick still believed that Chinese Christians could be potentially a major force in promoting liberal modernity in the future when people have realized the need for a moral reconstruction of Chinese modernity. As the collapse of Qing led to the destruction of the Confucian moral framework, leaving an empty space that Republican China did not fill, he believed that the moral dimension still called for attention and effort today. And Christians could be a crucial group in building China’s moral core along liberal lines, thanks to the rich biblical truths that they could draw wisdom from.

“Christians won’t be able to do that on their own”, said Dr. Barwick. “They need to be joined by the wide range of the non-Christian Chinese that also support liberal ideas.”

What was more, the success in Republican days could bring confidence, he added. 

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