Since Christianity (or at least some form of it, the Nestorian Church) arrived on the shores of China in A.D. 635, it has been perceived as a foreign religion and hence irrelevant for the culturally Chinese. The “One more Christian, one fewer Chinese” chant in the 1919 May Fourth Movement further reinforced and perpetuated the misconception that when one chooses to follow Jesus, one has denounced one’s Chinese identity to go after a foreign or Western god and ideology. A Chinese commits a great offense against his ancestor and nation when he pledges allegiance to Jesus.

According to historian Wu Xiaoxin, the propaganda that impacted the Chinese the most is the claim that “religion is the opium of the people.” One of the main contributing factors to the hostile reaction to Christianity is nationalism. Anyone familiar with the events in this part of the world during the mid-1800s would realize the baggage this statement bears.

Connection to Western imperialism

Since the 19th century, Christianity has been associated with Western imperialism in the minds of Chinese people. Both Catholics and Protestants came to China together with Western imperialists.

In fact, many of the Western missionaries of that generation rode on the coattails of the European opium traders to bring the gospel to the Chinese.

For example, Karl Gützlaff, an early Protestant missionary to China, joined the Jardine Matheson opium fleet as an interpreter in order to reach more Chinese with the gospel. Former Peking University president Jiang Menglin aptly described this historical baggage when he compared the arrivals of Buddhism and Christianity in China: “Buddha rode into China on a white elephant, while Jesus rode in on a cannonball.”

The antimissionary feeling was understandable in view of the circumstances under which the modern missionary movement in China began: The same door that was forced open by military and naval power to expand trade was the door through which missionaries entered China. This compromised the gospel in Chinese eyes for the next century.

Although Christianity is not identical to Western imperialism, they were synonymous in the perception and memories of the Chinese. As a result, the encounter between Christianity and Chinese culture in the modern missionary era came with struggle between nationalism (and patriotism) and imperialism.

Even though personal relationships extended to deep friendships between Chinese and missionaries, in the background there always lingered the fact of missionaries being representatives of the foreign powers whose assault on China was all too obvious. As the Chinese saw their land endure one humiliation after another at the hands of foreigners in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they came to regard Christianity as the representative of Western cultural imperialism.

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Positive contribution of Western missionaries

While it is undeniable that at some point in Chinese history Westerners who called themselves Christians were involved in oppressing and exploiting the Chinese, we need to differentiate Western imperialism and colonialism from Christianity. These Westerners did much harm to the Chinese, but many Western Christian missionaries also contributed greatly to the communities where they worked.

Many sacrificed their lives to serve the Chinese people and built institutions like schools, hospitals, and orphanages. For example, during the tumultuous years of the Second World War, many Western missionaries (such as Minnie Vautrin) and doctors stayed behind when most Westerners evacuated, risking their lives to tend to the injured and dying.

And prior to the war, many Christian missionaries were instrumental in setting up schools and universities throughout Asia in the 1800s. Ubiquitous schools like the Anglo Chinese schools and Methodist colleges were all established by missionaries like James Legge, Robert Morrison, and others. Tu Weiming, the renowned modern-day Confucianist and Sinologist, points out that graduates from the Christian universities provided important human resources for virtually all professions, and by emphasizing a liberal arts education, the schools trained several generations of modern scholars in the humanities and social sciences.

The belief that Christianity is a Western or Westerners’ religion is also far from being true, as Christianity is a divine plan of salvation for all humanity regardless of heritage or ethnicity. In fact, to be historically accurate, the Christian faith’s early setting was the East rather than the West. Neither Jesus nor the apostles were Westerners. Though as a result of historical development Christianity did come to us from the West, it actually originated in Asia.

Conflict with cultural Chinese worldview

In addition to the sentiment against imperialism, there is conflict between Christian belief and traditional Chinese culture. The gospel along with the beliefs it represents are entirely foreign to the cultural Chinese worldview, and consequently some have considered the spread of Christianity as a kind of cultural invasion.

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Chinese Christian scholar Xie Fuya, who spent most of his life analyzing the relationship between Christianity and Chinese culture, believes the reason for the many misunderstandings and conflicts between the two is that Christianity has not yet comprehended Chinese culture. Consequently, Chinese culture does not fully fathom the essence of the faith, while Christianity has not been able to impress and influence the Chinese culture.

Perhaps this is oversimplifying an issue that is much more complex, but I think in doing so, Xie has stumbled upon something that is unique about the Christian faith. Unlike the other dominant foreign religion in China (Buddhism), Christianity is a canonical and exclusive religion. It makes exclusive truth claims about God and reality. Buddhism is much more inclusive doctrinally. As such, it was able to assimilate congenially into the cultural Chinese spirituality—accommodating and conforming to local philosophies, which resulted in various indigenous permutations of the religion, affording it a homegrown status.

The cultural Chinese emphasis on maintaining peace in relationships also further obscures the objectivity of truth. As the telling of truth may involve the unpleasantness of upsetting the other person, a genuine discussion of truth is hard to achieve. It is more virtuous to impress and remain pleasant than to discuss truthful matters and offend. Hence there is a general reluctance to deal with the truth of matters directly and openly.

Being a Paul to cultural Chinese

What then is the most effective apologetics strategy that we should employ with a culturally Chinese person? Perhaps there is no need for one. After all, the Great Commission is not about finding an apologetic against all non-Christian worldviews but to witness about Jesus Christ to the world and make disciples in his name. Apologetics is just an approach where there is a need for us to clear away intellectual or cultural obstacles that may stand in the way of someone’s understanding and acceptance of the gospel.

The Book of Acts records Paul’s famous sermon in Athens. However, what preceded this event in Acts 17 was the claim that Paul was preaching a foreign god to the Athenians (Acts 17:16–20). The Athenians called Paul a babbler who was presenting some weird ideas and they wanted to learn more. Of course, our audience may not be as interested in our message as the Athenians, for, after all, the pragmatism of the culturally Chinese would have no time for such endeavors. Instead, like Paul, we need to figure out if there is a way to locate some of their values within the Christian worldview.

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If we are to relevantly share the Christian faith with the over 1.3 billion culturally Chinese in the world, we need to understand their worldview. The onus is on us to learn and study the cultural Chinese worldview and cultural expressions. We need to consider how to ask probing questions tactfully and learn to listen attentively as we seek the help of the Holy Spirit to discern the core issues at hand. We must learn how to articulate the gospel in terms that are attractive and significant to this quarter of the world’s population.

I-ching Thomas is a writer and speaker in Christian apologetics specializing in the relevance of the Christian faith in the Eastern cultural contexts.

This is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Jesus: The Path to Human Flourishing by I’ching Thomas, ©2018. Used by permission of Graceworks Private Limited,

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]

Jesus: The Path to Human Flourishing: The Gospel for the Cultural Chinese
Jesus: The Path to Human Flourishing: The Gospel for the Cultural Chinese
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