Modernity, Social Change and Sino-Christian Theology

As early in the 1960s, sociologist Prof. Ambrose Y. C. KING (金耀基) in his famous work From Traditional to Modern (從傳統到現代) pointed out that the basic problem of Chinese modernization is not a cultural debate between east and west, nor that between renewal of tradition and westernization, but a matter of “social change”.[1] In a documentary about LI Hongzhang (李鴻章) by Phoenix TV, the anchor said “LI Hongzhang was living in a changing age China has never met in the past 3000 years. The ban to foreign countries was abolished; strong neighbours surrounded. The Chinese culture encountered a great challenge of the western civilization, such that it was forced to re-cognize oneself again. This also made China transform from an authoritarian feudal state to a modern state.”[2] This documentary lets me have the chance of reviewing the questions concerning how traditional China turns to modernity.

China encountered a change never met in the past 3000 years since the opium war in 1842 till now. It absorbed western culture on three levels: the instrumental, the social institutional, and the cultural. In the beginning LI Hongzhang only learned western technology for strengthening the military side. Until late Qing dynasty KANG Youwei (康有為), LIANG Zichao (梁啟超), SUN Yat-sen (孫逸仙), CHEN Duxiu (陳獨秀) etc. discovered that it is only the preliminary level. It was more important to introduce advanced social institution such that the Chinese society could be transformed. After the May 4th Movement intellectuals even began to think about the difference between the thought and behaviours of east and west.[3] When reviewing the above grand horizon, I was reminded that the emergence of Sino-Christian theology is intertwined with the challenge of the Chinese “modern change”. Since the establishment of ISCS in 1995, many of our core academic activities like the roundtable symposium was entitled “Modernity, Social Change and Sino-Christian Theology”. More than a decade has passed, although the realms of Sino-Christian Theology chartered have extended from philosophy, history and literature to scriptural studies, empirical studies and even public theology, I believe that the above problematic is still worth for consideration.

Today China has been refined through numerous cultural and political movements in the last century. It has even suddenly become a “strong country” in the international stage after the economic tsunami. At the same time, China has still been experiencing the continuing challenge of western civilization. The concern of constructing a new Chinese culture or even Guoxue (國學) is understandable. But I hope and believe that contemporary Chinese scholars can be more confident and positive to absorb foreign culture after the century-long cultural exchange between east and west, and we can even contribute to the common problem from modern change. The famous scholar (季羨林) who died last July suggested a concept of “big Guoxue”: 1. it is a living rather than an unchanged tradition; 2. it should include the traditions of 56 different ethnic groups (consisting Tibet and Islamic cultures); 3. Chinese culture is a result of continual learning process from the world through generations.[4] The open mind of this 98-year-old scholar should be kept in the mind of all intellectuals.

It is interesting to note that, Chinese political culture was being looked upon by Europeans in 17th-18th centuries. French scholar PierrePoivre said in 1769, “If the law of the Chinese Empire becomes the universal law, then China could provide a fascinating picture of the world. Go to Beijing! See the greatest man in the world (Kangxi). He is the true perfect image from the heaven.”[5] Another French author Grimn of the same period mentioned, “In our time, the Chinese Empire has become a special object of investigation… philosophers extracted useful materials from China to correct the problems of their own countries… Chinese morality is the highest in the world and perfect; its law, politics and arts can also be a model for other countries.”[6] But history produces paradoxes. This French romantic praise in 18th century makes a big and unbelievable contrast to the so-called “China Treat” concept suggested by some western politicians nowadays. QIU Benli (邱本立), editor of Yazhou Zhoukan (亞洲週刊, Asian Weekly), provides us a good reflection. He thought that the emergence of a great China should not be proved by its GDP. China does not only need strong power but also great value. It should be feared by others but be respected.[7] From this, I believe that Sino-Christian theology developed in the 1990s from Mainland China academia can contribute to a transforming “Big Guoxue”. 


[1]. Ambrose Y. C. King (JIN Yaoji), Cong Chuantong dao Xiandai [From Traditional to Modern] (Taibei: Shibao Wenhua, 1978), 3.
[2]. Phoenix Perspective: On LI Hongzhang (5-DVD, 2009).
[3]. King, , Cong Chuantong dao Xiandai, 113-134.
[4]. QIAN Wenzhong, “The Decease of a National Treasure who denied this title”, Yazhou Zhoukan 29 (2009), 45.
[5]. Joachim Bouvet, Portrait histoique de l'empereur de la Chine (Paris, 1697).
[6]. ZHANG Xipin, Zhongquo yu Ouzhou Zaoqi Zongjiao he Zhexue Jiaoliushi [The Exchange of Religion and Philosophy between Early China and Europe] (Beijing: Eastern Press, 2001), 331.
[7]. ZHANG Jieping, “Xianggang Reyi Zhongguo Zenyang cai Gaoxing” [Hong Kong hotly discusses how to make China happy], Yazhou Zhoukan 31 (2009).