by Ted Pricksett
Using our heads and our hearts, we have an unprecedented opportunity to reach this unique group in the wake of Tiananmen Square.
We all remember the pictures of June 4, 1989, from China: armored vehicles rolling into Tiananmen Square, soldiers firing, and crumpled, bloody bodies of pro-democracy students. Discontented generals and power-hungry politicians did not organize these demonstrations for greater freedoms. Rather, students from China’s top universities, the cream of the crop, planned and led them. These visionaries are often referred to as intellectuals.
We are living in a critical, yet opportune, time for seeing Chinese intellectuals come to Christ, because they have rejected the communist system and feel that there must be more to life. China’s intellectual community—both inside China or studying abroad—is open to the gospel to an unprecedented extent, and we may never have this opportunity again.
Although the aspirations of the intellectuals were suppressed in 1989, China’s politics may very well look quite different in the years to come. When political change does come, the intellectuals may again be more interested in their changing nation than in the gospel, so the implications for the Christian community are obvious. And with more than 20,000 Chinese graduate students enrolled in the United States right now, the opportunities for evangelism are tremendous. So that we can better understand and reach Chinese intellectuals, let’s see where they have been, where they are, and where they are going.
Intellectuals have always been a unique group in China. They, not the general populace, have been the recipients of formal education and training. In the past, the intellectuals absorbed rationalistic Confucian teaching, while the common folk gravitated toward the supernatural and the mystical. Confucius believed that education was the key to improving people, and that through proper training mankind could get rid of hypocrisy and have a sincere heart. Then, society would run smoothly and there would be greater happiness. Therefore, the mindset of the intellectuals differed substantially from the rest of the population, even while having a great impact on the society as a whole. Almost from the beginning, Chinese intellectuals vehemently rejected Christianity and saw it as a great threat to society. By the 1920s, a full-fledged anti-Christian movement had developed. Why?
Most scholars agree that one of the biggest reasons was that the proclamation of the gospel was accompanied by Western military power in the early 19th century. During this time, the British, along with other Western powers, were frustrated with numerous Chinese restrictions on their lucrative opium trade. Years of festering tensions finally erupted in what came to be known as the Opium War (1839-1842). Although the war’s scale was small, the British won easily, which was a great psychological blow to the Chinese, who were forced to sign what became known as the “unequal treaties.”1
Besides forcing the losers to import more opium and cede Hong Kong, these treaties gave Western missionaries new privileges, such as the right to buy or rent property in inland China.2 Many missionaries, although not particularly proud of this forced entry into the country, nonetheless saw a great opportunity to spread the gospel. But in some ways, this method of power would actually harm their cause. As a Chinese once stated, “You brought to us both opium and the gospel, neither one of which we wanted!”3
Paul Cohen, who agrees that gunboat diplomacy created hostility toward Christianity,4 also points out a seldom-recognized tradition of anti-Christian thought in China going back to the 17th century. “Its literature was abundant,” Cohen states. “And it proved to be a major influence on the anti-Christian attitudes of the nineteenth-century intellectual.”5 Cohen maintains that this tradition actually had more influence than the gospel of power, or any other factor, for that matter. Basically, the concept said that anything not Confucian was immediately suspect. To give honor and respect to true learning, heterodox doctrines were tobedestroyed. These maxims were taught in China for a long time, and candidates for government positions were expected to know them well.6
CONFLICT WITH THE GENTRY
The mass introduction of Protestant missionaries soon followed the Opium War. Coming in power and in greater numbers than the Catholics, they reached the inland areas of China by the mid-19th century. By distributing large amounts of literature (only the Chinese intellectuals were able to read at the time), they established themselves as teachers and (probably without even realizing it) placed themselves in the position of intellectuals. Compounding their offense, under the unequal treaties the Westerners had more protection under Chinese law than the Chinese gentry who already lived there. So, obviously, the intellectuals saw these newcomers as a direct threat to their existence.7
Further, a key factor in the anti-heterodox tradition was whether a new doctrine was considered a political threat, and Christianity seemed to be just that. The gentry believed that China was the seat of all civilization, but the newcomers not only denied this, they said that people should give allegiance to Christ instead of Confucian tradition. Many Chinese feared that this kind of teaching would eventually destroy the Middle Kingdom.8 While the intellectuals certainly felt vulnerable and under attack, the missionaries viewed the tremendous influence of Confucianism as the main enemy of Christianity. And so, the battle lines were drawn, suspicion was rising on both sides, and the missionary had only just arrived!
The gentry’s fears were seemingly well founded. By 1912, their power was deteriorating.9 Their land pricesfalling in a time when Western capitalism’s influence was rising, they did not possess much other capital and were becoming increasingly demoralized. Without an emperor in China now, political struggles became intense; bribery and corruption had become commonplace. Confucianism, it seemed, had failed, and the Chinese were turning to science to heal the country’s ills. A great surge in nationalism was the most important result of this intellectual revolution (known as the May Fourth Movement because of student demonstrations on May 4, 1919, against provisions in the Treaty of Versailles allowing Japan to control parts of Shantung Province).10
As this nationalism increased, it took on an anti-imperialistic tone. Christian educational institutions were said to fulfill none of the traditional Chinese goals of education,11 and the training in Chinese classics was not even good enough to allow students to prepare for the civil service exams. Chinese intellectuals would not send their sons to these Christian schools because they brought little prestige and rarely opened doors to influential political positions. Additionally, the schools preached a doctrine that seemed quite opposed to much of Chinese heritage. Interestingly enough, the intellectual revolution initially attacked Confucianism, not Christianity, but it eventually broadened into an attack on religion in general; thus, its continued criticisms of the Christian schools were inevitable. Many of the students behind the movement had returned from overseas studies with the idea that modern man no longer needed religion, and that science had discredited religion. Consequently, Christianity was condemned both in the name of nationalism and in the name of science.
During the first half of 1926, several anti-Christian riots, and some looting of missionary property, occurred in Kwangsi. Later, in Hunan Province, military units and unions seized much missionary property, and most mission schools were closed.12 By 1949, the communists fully controlled the mainland, and the missionaries were forced to leave. In many ways, the communists simply took advantage of attitudes already there before their rise to power, quoting Confucius, Mencius, and other traditional thinkers when advantageous.13
Many Western Christians thought that the communist takeover would be a terrible blowtoChristianity. But history shows that the church actually grew by leaps and bounds, as it was finally able to become truly Chinese in every way. (As Jonathan Chao, director of the Chinese Church Research Center in Hong Kong, put it, “The Communist Regime has been used by God but not anointed by God.”14) In the next 40-plus years, the native Chinese church was forced to grow on its own, and it did so very well.
FROM OPPOSITION TO OPENNESS
But what of the Chinese intellectual today? What might be his current response to the gospel? In a Newsweek article appearing just three months before Tiananmen Square, a leading Chinese poet said that Chinese intellectuals had absorbed so many ideas from the outside that they were no longer willing to give the Communist Party the same unquestioning faith they had before.15
About a month later, another Newsweek article stated that many Chinese young people were fed up with party corruption and empty Marxist slogans. One student was quoted as saying, “So many Communist Party officials don’t practice what Marxism preaches—they give us nothing to believe in.” As a result, many of these students have been turning to the church. Another student said, “Party members are not the ones helping others. They do things to get ahead. But Christians do good deeds without telling anyone about it.”16 What a testimony to the difference that Christ can make in a person’s life! These students saw a difference in the lives of Christians and were attracted to it. (In contrast, the article mentioned that the less educated in China were being won by healing services and loud revival meetings. It seems that the age-old aversion of the intellectuals to mysticism is very much alive.) The Chinese intellectual is being won not by miracles and manifestations, but by the profound sincerity of heart that he sees in Christians.
Even after the massacre, the Chinese church seemed to be continuing its strong witness. A nuclear physicist in Beijing stated, “Traditional Chinese religions could give no explanations for June 4, since none admit that mankind is basically evil. The Christian faith was the only realistic one available. It taught the total depravity of man, which explained June 4, and the intervening goodness of God, which can undo June 4. For the students, this was an irresistible combination.”17 But what of the U.S. church’s opportunity to witness to the thousands of Chinese students in the United States? After talking with Chinese intellectuals visiting the New York Times building, Times reporter Fred Strebeigh wrote, “Every Chinese leader seems to have a son or daughter in the United States. These scholars and students have importance beyond their numbers. For they likely represent a large segment of China’s next generation of intellectual leadership, and perhaps much of the economic and political leadership as well.”18 I was surprised that Strebeigh discovered that these people were very lonely and felt neglected in the United States. Some of the scholars told him that he was the first American who had taken the time to speak to them.
An article by Gordon Loux and Dean Ridings of International Students, Inc., notes that while many countries are closed to traditional missions, it seems that God is strategically sending some of their finest young people to the U.S. as students. “About 80 percent of these students never see the inside of an American home; 87 percent of them don’t enter a church. They get glimpses of Christianity on television. But is that the kind of Christianity we want these young men and women, who will be leading their countries in the future, to see?”19 Indeed, we must not pass up this opportunity to present the true gospel message to these students.
Our urgency should be even greater when we think about the potential results. “And as history shows, returning students have in the past shaken the Chinese state,” Fred Strebeigh reminds us. “Both the overthrow of China’s last emperor and the arrival of Marxism in China drew strength fromstudentseducated overseas.”20
How wonderful it would be to see many Chinese intellectuals return home with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Evangelism in the United States is not costly; it just involves a little time. Many intellectuals in the U.S. are on very tight budgets. The New York Times reporter said the scholars told him that simply giving a theater or intercity bus ticket would be the best thing anyone could do for them.
A WINDOW OF OPENNESS
Ralph Covell, a former missionary to China and Taiwan and author of several books on China, recently told me about the need for a healthy balance in evangelism. “Intellectuals are different…they wish to think deeply on issues,” Covell said. “But still they are Chinese and the best door to reach them is the friendly, personal touch. This approach will open them up to the gospel initially in ways that a purely academic approach will not.” Christians in the United States must become willing to befriend these intellectuals, who are already looking for company. In the process, we can introduce them to the greatest companion of all time, Jesus Christ.
Those trying to reach this special group should be well-versed in the Confucian classics and be living lives that truly reflect the character of Jesus Christ. Appreciation of Chinese culture and holy lives are important keys in reaching the intellectuals.
1. Albert Feuerwerker, “China: History” in Encyclopedia Americana, 1979 ed.
2. Ralph R. Covell, Confucius, The Buddha, and Christ: A History of the Gospel in Chinese (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1986), p. 82.
3. Ibid., p. 68.
4. Paul A. Cohen, China and Christianity: The Missionary Movement and the Growth of Chinese Antiforeignism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), p. 4.
5. Ibid., p. 4.
6. Ibid., p. 11.
7. Covell, p. 252.
8. Cohen, p. 20.
9. Wolfram Eberhard, A History of China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950), p. 315.
10. Feuerwerker, p. 541.
11. Jessie G. Lutz, China and the Christian Colleges: 1850-1950 (Ithica and London: Cornell University Press, 1971), p. 7.
12. John K. Fairbank, ed., vol. 12 of The Cambridge History of China (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 596.13. Chang-tu Hu, China: Its People Its Society, Its Culture (New Haven: Hraf Press, 1960), p. 482.
14. Covell, p. 222.
15. Dorinda Elliott, “Intellectuals Are Waking Up,” Newsweek 113 (March 6, 1989), p. 34.
16. Dorinda Elliott, “Let a Hundred Lilies Bloom,” Newsweek 113 (April 10, 1989), p. 59.
17. Ron MacMillan, “The Church in China One Year After Tiananmen Square,” Moody Magazine 90 (June, 1990), pp. 46-48.
18. Fred Strebeigh, “The Chinese Intelligentsia: Training the New Elite,” Current 318 (December, 1989), pp. 32-40.
19. Gordon Loux and Dean Ridings, “Coming to America,” Moody Magazine 91 (September, 1990), pp. 58-60.
20. Strebeigh, p. 318.
EMQ, Vol. 29, No. 1, pp. 58-66. Copyright © 1993 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.