I want to preemptively acknowledge how broad the subject matter of this post will be, but it is the only subject that I’ve come across recently to somewhat pique my interest for discussion. Quite a few articles and blog posts concerning Christianity in China have caught my attention over the past week. Just as my younger brother started his missions/missionary trip to China exactly one week ago, Danwei posted a translation of an interesting essay by Hu Shi (1891-1962) written in 1928 that criticized foot-binding and praised Western missionaries for bringing different ideas to China. An excerpt:
“Turn women into beasts of burden.” This phrase doesn’t do enough to describe the cruel treatment of women in China. It isn’t enough for us to turn women into beasts of burden – we must chop off two of their hooves and force them to suffer hard manual labor!
Looking at the rest of humankind, one is unable to find a second country with such a barbaric system!
Our virtuous sages and ancient classics offer absolutely no help. Confucian scholars have spent every day of the last one thousand years discussing benevolence and justice, and yet never spoke up for the inhumane suffering of their grandmothers, mothers, and sisters.
Suddenly, missionaries arrived from the West. Besides religion, they brought over some new customs and points of view. They also gave us quite a few lessons on morality, the most important being that women should be treated as humans.
A few days later, Danwei published a translation of another essay, this time written in 1929, concerning children in China. Again, an excerpt:
The other day, a friend told me something rather profound: “to see how civilized a country is, you just have to examine three things: First, look at how its people treat children; Second, look at how they treat women; Third, look at how they spend their free time.”
These three standards are straightforward. It’s disappointing that China fails at all three. No matter which of the three we choose, we find that our country is the most barbaric. How do we treat children? How do we treat women? How do we spend our free time? The country is filled with fools boasting about our intellectual and ideological development, yet not one of them has reflected on these three issues.
Hu Shi goes on to criticize how children were delivered, reared, and educated (or instead of being educated, had their feet bound). Many of these criticisms are clearly outdated, warranted at the time for the practices that were norms at the time, contrasted by Hu Shi against what he admired in the West1. Of course, certain things like gender equality have persisted, albeit to a generally lesser degree.
Here’s the money quote:
We should deeply thank the imperialists for waking us up from this dark and evil dream. We should thank the Christian missionaries for bringing over a little bit of Western civilization and humanism. We should thank them for telling us that the way we treat children is inhumane and barbaric. With all our hearts, we should thank the so-called “cultural invaders” for promoting the “Natural Foot Society,” the “Anti Foot-Binding Society,” and for building new schools, hospitals, and maternity hospitals.
A lot of Westerners are experiencing a massive erection at this point, like most of the commenters at chinaSMACK. The Chinese fenqing at the nationalistic Chinese discussion forum Tiexue are probably convulsing in rage though.
Unfortunately for both groups of people, C.W. Hayford of Frog in a Well responded to Danwei‘s first post by adding some perspective on Hu Shi’s views of Christianity in China:
Hu, a Columbia University PhD, won a poll in the early 1920s as the most admired “returned student” in China. But his surprising words of praise for the YWCA need to be balanced against his views on Christianity’s future in China. He elsewhere disdained the run of Christian missionaries as uneducated and narrow. They came to China because they could live well for little money, he said, and mission boards were far less careful in selecting China missionaries than Standard Oil was in selecting China salesmen and executives.
Published in a North American journal, The Forum, Hu Shi wrote:
The future of Christianity in China is a question which should be considered apart from the question of the past services rendered to China by the Christian missionaries. The part played by the missionaries in the modernization of China will long be remembered by the Chinese, even though no Christian church may be left there. They were the pioneers of the new China. They helped the Chinese to fight for the suppression of opium which the pirate-traders brought to us. They agitated against footbinding, which eight centuries of esoteric philosophizing in native China failed to recognize as an inhuman institution. And they brought to us the first rudiments of European science. The early Jesuits gave us the pre-Newtonian astronomy, and the later Protestant missionaries introduced modern hospitals and schools. They taught us to know that there was a new world and a new civilization behind the pirate-traders and gunboats.
Many of the Protestant missionaries worked hard to awaken China and bring about a modern nation. China is now awakened and determined to modernize herself. There is not the slightest doubt that a new and modem China is emerging out of chaos. But this new China does not seem to promise much bright future to the propagation of the Christian faith. On the contrary, Christianity is facing opposition everywhere. The dream of a “Christian occupation of China” seems to be fast vanishing, – probably forever. And the explanation is not far to seek.
So altogether, Hu Shi gave credit where credit was due, focusing less on the source of good things as he did the actual things he considered as “good” against those he thought as “bad”. Sounds like a good, practical man.
Excerpted from NPR:
Official Chinese surveys now show that nearly one in three Chinese describe themselves as religious, an astonishing figure for an officially atheist country, where religion was banned until three decades ago.
The last 30 years of economic reform have seen an explosion of religious belief. China’s government officially recognizes five religions: Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam and Daoism. The biggest boom of all has been in Christianity, which the government has struggled to control.
Marx would be pissed. Mao too, but for different reasons. Hu Shi was wrong, in a way.
Personally, I’m not sure what to make of this “one in three” claim regarding the prevalence of religion in China, especially as juxtaposed with China being officially atheist and religion having been “banned” only decades ago. I mean, how do we define religion or being religious? How do we describe a religious person? Someone who merely believes there is a higher power? Someone who adheres to certain religious practices? How strongly do they have to adhere to them for them to be designated as religious?
Has there been an explosion of religious belief in China? I’m not sure. Part of me believes many “religious” (and superstitious) beliefs or practices were merely keep quiet during times they were frowned upon by the powers that be, powers that could send you to be reeducated. Another part of me believes that organized religion naturally expands absent environmental restrictions and controls, adding to their ranks of believers and followers. This is because people in China are like people from anywhere else, with the same human insecurities and uncertainties about their place and purpose in the world. They’re just surviving and thus susceptible and amenable to beliefs in higher powers or organized ideologies that give them comfort in an often tough and unfair existence. Ideology, whether religious or atheistically socio-political, is ideology, a worldview to be proselytized and subscribed to for people to make sense of things. If communism isn’t working, and communism isn’t threatening you with a stint to a labor camp, its easy to be receptive to alternative and competing ideologies.
The question I have is: Is any increase in religion and religious belief in China good or bad?
With China and Christianity, a religion or faith that openly seeks converts, we specifically have a volatile intersection of pre-consisting contentious views and values. You have the people who genuinely believe they are doing something good, that they are saving lives and souls. Then you have the people who doesn’t really believe that, seeing it more as cultural imperialism, a desire to “civilize” the uncivilized, to “enlighten” the unenlightened. Some think of Christianity, like any religion, as an opiate, something to lull adherents into acquiescing to and thus perpetuating the injustices of the present world for some promised reward in the next, to pray to God instead of petitioning their grievances. Others encourage religion to bring spiritual fulfillment to a world too obsessed with materialism and the competitive acquisition of wealth, as a way to be at peace with a world that we cannot always change. One person says these people do good works. Another says they do good works to buy an opportunity to proselytize.
But even if we replace Christianity with something else, like Tibetan Buddhism, is religion something that will help or hurt China, for itself, and for its interactions with the rest of the world? What’s your ideology for China?
- Anyone going to challenge me on using “the West” here? Or are you only supposed to challenge the usage when it is something negative? [↩]