Chinese cultural scholar: Christianity and Chinese culture must be open with each other

Professor HE Zhangrong
Professor HE Zhangrong
By Yang YiSeptember 9th, 2015

Christianity has been in China for more than 200 years since Nestorius came to China in the Tang Dynasty. But the history of the spread of Christianity in China is much longer. During the 1300 years, different experts, scholars and pastoral workers did research on the relationship between Christianity and Chinese culture. They not only learn from the lessons of history, but also provide reference for the development of Christianity in China.

As a scholar researching the history of Christianity in China from South China Normal University, Professor HE Zhangrong reflected on the success or failure and current situation of Protestantism in China for more than 200 years from the standpoint  of Christianity and Chinese culture. He put forward that the sinicization What do they mean by this word? of Christianity in China and Christianity must integrate with Chinese culture, absorb Chinese culture and open to Chinese culture. Professor HE first reviewed the history of the dissemination of Christianity in China from the beginning of Nestorianism. Nestorianism existed 210 years in the Tang Dynasty, although it was affected by Buddhism to a certain extent, however it was not integrated with Chinese culture. When Tang Wudi implemented "Huichang destroyed method" against Buddhism, Nestorianism disappeared. The Song Dynasty did not leave any trace of Christianity. "Erkeun" of the Yuan Dynasty was like Nestorianism in general, just a flash in the pan, and believers were only limited to minority ethnic Mongols, not for the majority of Chinese people. 

Until the late Ming Dynasty and early Qing Dynasty, missionaries from Society of Jesus began to leave a clear imprint in the history of China. At that time, the Catholics not only spread in the south of the Yangtze River and the Fujian area, but also spread among the Chinese literati class. At the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Kangxi also had the kind attitude to the Catholics and that had something to do with Matteo Ricci who combined Confucianism with Catholicism in the precondition of the Chinese society. He also struggled to find the communication between Catholicism and Confucianism. This "localization" of the missionary strategy was a great success, but ever since Morrison came to China, along with China's political and social changes, the spread of Christianity in China had also experienced a lot of ups and downs. When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, China's Christian population was less than 1% of the Chinese population. From 1949 to 1970, the development of Christianity in China had almost halted. After the end of the 1970's, the development of Christianity in China entered a new stage. Professor He believes that although the number of Chinese Christians is increasing,  Christianity has not become the common belief of the Chinese people and "Christianity is still not really integrated into Chinese society."

In the opinion of Professor HE, in addition to political and ideological reasons, the biggest resistance of Christianity failing to really integrate into Chinese society is  "culture". Why is it that Christianity and Chinese inherent traditional culture cannot be effectively integrated? Professor HE thinks that there are three main reasons. First of all, people think that Christianity and Chinese culture are confronted with each other based on their general ideas in their mind. He believes that so far, people haven't really found a proper method to combine Christianity with culture study and does not go beyond the frame of dichotomy thinking of the Western and Chinese or inside and outside, and always intentionally or unintentionally making them confront each other. 
The second reason is the Chinese churches' own reflection and construction of theology. From the point of view of the current situation, Professor He thinks that Chinese Churches' theological construction and reflection is still not enough. The Chinese church seems to be too busy with many affairs. Majority of teachers and other school personnel are busy with affairs and have little time to think about Christianity and Chinese culture. After Zhao Zichen, Chinese theological community is in a sate of downturn and so far has failed to produce influential local Christian theologians. The youngoung generation of faculty members generally have limited understanding of Confucianism and other religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam, etc. 

The third reason is the cultural quality of the believers in Chinese Church and the belief of Chinese intellectuals. Professor HE believes that Christians can be found in all sectors of the society but they are not the core elements of different levels. Therefore, he concluded that according to the history of the development of Christianity in China, if Christianity wants to have a greater spread and development tin China in the future, it must integrate or combine with Chinese traditional culture and effectively naturalize and localize. 

First of all, we must exceed the frame of dichotomy thinking between Christianity and Chinese culture, the Western and Chinese or inside and outside. The Chinese culture has already been the cultural genes of every Chinese people and has been integrated into the framework of thinking and behavior patterns of every Chinese person. Therefore, our faith must be rooted in our culture so that the Gospel can become what the people can share with each other. 

What's more, Professor HE said that the theology of Christianity is the theology of the incarnation. The doctrine of incarnation brings the human world to God and  through the incarnation, God also walks into the human history, into every specific cultural scene, and into embracing the human world. "The theology of incarnation of must be constructed from the native culture," Professor HE said. 

Secondly, Christianity must integrate with Chinese culture, absorb Chinese culture and be open to Chinese culture. Professor HE believes that although God has created turmoil in human language in the world in the Tower of Babel and has made people's faith and culture different, He did not deprive the consistency of human beings in the spiritual direction and the ultimate ideal and the common nature of transcendence. People in different groups or different cultural identity can still communicate with each other in the mind or soul. So, Christianity and Chinese culture has the coexistence, the base of communication, and the possibility to open up to each other. The Bible teaches many similar things to Chinese traditional culture, such as the emphasis on harmony, the promotion of taking care of your parents, respect for marriage, putting importance to family and the education of children.

At the same time, Professor He also points out that the integration, absorption and openness of the Christian faith and the Chinese culture does not mean that Christianity is engulfed by Chinese traditional culture, but a win-win situation for both.

Thirdly, the Christian should be in the transformation, updating, and salvation of Chinese culture. The integration of Christianity with Chinese culture doesn't mean blind cultural accommodation, but means  the actual reflection of our culture based on the Christian faith and theology and using Christ's salvation to become the vitality and creativity of the Chinese culture, in order to respond and reform the social life of the cognitive and criteria of Chinese people, to establish the relationship between themselves and the omnipotent God. 

(The article is about the main points of the speech by Professor He Zhangrong in the second "Sinicizing Christianity" theology seminar at Jiangsu.) 

related articles