Chinese Theology
The Intellectual Influence of Christianity in a Modern China Society
--    Li Minbao

China has been undergoing drastic change. "Paradigm shift" is a more and more popularly used phrase, which indicates that people realize there will be a kind of fundamental and critical change. A new and more powerful paradigm of puzzle solving may emerge. A historical breakthrough may take place. Schools of thought compete for the right to lay down foundations for the blueprint of a future value structure. Representatives of different value heritage are excited to offer their particular insights to contribute to the transformation. As we are in a global age, the success of the paradigm shift in China will certainly concern not only the Chinese people, but also people around the world. Could Chinese Christianity play some role in this change?

At first sight, the answer is not encouraging. In fact, Christian scholars in Hong Kong and Taiwan seem to give a generally pessimistic assessment of the Christian impact upon the public life of the country as a whole. That is why I was not surprised when I read Peter K. H. Lee's discouraging description in a recent article published in the Princeton Seminary Bulletin.[1] However, we believe that with a change of perspective and a more involved introspection, a different picture may appear. While one should not exaggerate Christian influence on today's Chinese scene, I believe it would be an equally unfortunate underestimation to say there is little sign of Christian ideas at work on many facets of Chinese mainline value reform discourse. The Christian influence could be viewed in different ways, for "Chinese Christianity" is a general term that covers a broad phenomenon, working at different levels and in different domains, involving at least two major subgroups, namely, the common people and the intellectuals. The former subgroup is an intriguing phenomenon that I have studied for some years. Our focus in this discussion, however, is on the intellectual influence of Christianity, because it is the intellectuals who have been active in making the Christian voice heard in public discussions of major change.

My discussion will follow several steps. First, to provide some background, I will describe the characteristics of traditional value paradigms and the problems the emerging paradigm will face today. Then I will discuss the various efforts to form new value constellations and how Christian ideas are engaged in this context.

Traditional Chinese Value Structures

      To talk about the change of a value paradigm, one first has to have a general idea of the paradigm that has been in use and of its current malfunction. The Chinese value paradigm for several decades has been "Maoist socialism." This value framework is both a break from and a continuation of traditional Chinese value structures. "Confucianism" or "Confucianism-Taoism-Buddhism" are epithets that come to mind when one thinks about Chinese culture. Yet, how did these "isms" construct the public value pattern? Within the total framework of traditional Chinese society, we can identify three types of moral mechanisms working at three different levels: king, peoples, and intellectual bureaucrats. Though the "only free person" in the country (as Hegel said), the monarch was subject to a morality of responsibility if his rule was to have at least minimal legitimacy (respect and trust from the people). This responsibility was defined by Confucian teachings as various benevolent activities deemed proper to a "caring father." On the other end, the people lived in a moral world of extended families, permeated with Confucian virtues such as the "five cardinal human relationships" that are appropriate to a high contact society. These kinship-based communitarian mores were strengthened by folk religions, including Taoism and Buddhism in their popularized forms. The value formation and orientation of the third group of people, namely the elite intellectuals, is of special interest to our present topic. Though imperial China was a somewhat hierarchical society, the bureaucrats often were not hereditary. Because of the system of annual national examination, the regular bottom-up flow of human resources was made possible. At least in theory, therefore, an "arete-oriented," instead of "birthright-oriented," aristocracy was the typical way of the reproduction of the elite class. The Confucian system of ethics, which this class embodied, is a teleological one that called its members to cultivate virtues (attaining sagehood) in order to fulfill their important functionary vocation in the society. Moreover, because Confucianism provided a quasi-religious vision of immanent transcendence, the center of value resource in China maintained relative independence from the center of political power. The intellectual officials were normally loyal to the monarchy, but since they looked at themselves as the witness of Ren (humanness) or Tao (the way of heaven), they could and were obliged to critique the king.[2]

Both Taoism and Buddhism, despite their indifference to the political world, have contributed to creating this distance or the tension between value center and political center. Taoism originally meant to denounce all "nomos,” all artificial, human-made worlds, and to retire to the "natural world," becoming one with nature, enjoying a life in harmony with the cosmos, achieving long life or even physical immortality. However, in its opening up a broad subjective free space and in its locating the individual's higher value in this "real space," Taoist thinking has backed up the confidence of the scholar-statesmen in carrying out the Confucian task in the public realm. Buddhist teaching is supposed to go further than Taoism, for in its other-worldly orientation it even denies the value of nature. Everything important happens within the subjective realm of cognition. Ignorance and passion create the world and suffering. The enlightenment of mind leads to the negation of the world and thus to salvation. The salvation, though, is a state of supreme void that is at the same time full and real, far beyond the comprehension of ordinary understanding and language. All these look somewhat similar to views held by gnostic believers who have renounced all hopes in this world. Nonetheless, in the resurrection of Neoconfucianism in medieval China, Buddhism stimulated Confucianism to develop its spiritual dimension and so helped the intellectual officials feel more confident of their independence from political power.

The Moral Paradigm of Chinese Communism

      After 1949, a quite different value framework was established by Chinese communists. In a book about comparative ethics, I have defined the basic feature of this moral paradigm as "grand uni-teleology." We know that a teleology views morality as virtues relating to the realization of the good. A strong uni-teleology, however, uses a single overarching good (for instance, "Grand Unity") to organize all spheres of a society, moral or amoral, into a huge engineering project. Everything meaningful is because it has a moral meaning, and the moral meaning of everything should be traced to this grand "means-end" whole. The whole life of a person is to be found only in his or her "revolutionary work," while this work is regarded as an organic part of Chinese revolutionary history. Further, this national revolution is one indispensable part in the moving forward of the history of international communism, which in turn makes sense only in its functional position in the cosmological evolution.[3] In this "future oriented" dynamic whole, elite leaders are required to possess high levels of moral virtues. (Confucianism and Chinese Communism share the emphasis on the virtues of leaders. Both ideologies like the term "self cultivation.") Actually, all social spheres, all people, are required to live from a moral point of view. In its forty-year practice, this strong teleological moralism has achieved considerable moral accomplishment. Even today, many Chinese people miss the "golden time of the high moral ethos" of the 1950s and 1960s. Our present task is to find out exactly why, paradoxically, though people feel the appeal of that "golden era," they still favor a change of their moral paradigm. To put it in other words, one has to explain the historical irony that a paradigm that was meant to be moral, with all its sincerity and effort, ended up, in reality, very immoral. It will require a book (or books) to explore this issue.

Here, we can only suggest some general observations. Generally speaking, a moralist paradigm like this tends to trust the moral perfection of human beings too much. Therefore, it shies away from the cold mechanisms designed to check the fallen state of human nature. Namely, it lacks the basic moral level that features discourse on justice, rights, and the rule of law. It merges political power and value source, and so moves even further from Confucius to Plato, who would legitimize the political control over all spheres of life: economy, family, education, mass media, and hospitals. Even the mutual check between the leader of the state and his associates, which existed to some extent in a Confucian society, disappeared. The politicization of high morality made morality something external to one's free choice and thus destroyed its basic motivating force. Moreover, the end justified the means. If the final end was "just," so was the means. Invasion of the personal sphere was not only possible but necessary because such a grand uni-teleology had to draw its vitality from constant fighting against moral devils ("revolution"). Mao was dissatisfied with the moral degradation of bureaucratic corruption and relied on mass rebellion or constant revolution. However, this kind of revolution or periodic purge ("movement") is more like a self-destroying convulsion than a self-healing process.

The "cultural revolution" was the culmination of all revolutions that follow the logic internal to this type of value paradigm. Its tragic consequence awakened the people and the leaders of the nation to realize that when a political power erases civil society instead of protecting it, when an economy starves its workers instead of feeding them, when a literature produces non-literature, when an ethic theory generates brutality and hypocrites, then the paradigm does not solve puzzles but generates puzzles. It is caught in self-contradiction and so, faces crisis.

Christian Contributions to a New Paradigm


Given these observations, the twofold task that Chinese reformers now face is clear: First, to evaluate the old value paradigm critically so as to push it to make fundamental change; second, to seek to create a new paradigm with the capacity of solving the pressing problems of Chinese modernization and moral revival. Many value resources have found their representative thinkers and writers in the ongoing heated discussion and debate on these issues since the 1980s. According to their basic orientations, they can be roughly sorted into two camps. One is the deconstruction camp and the other is the reconstruction camp. The deconstruction camp rejects all efforts at establishing a value paradigm. It has been a powerful trend rooted in the radical response to the fierce result of the strong moralism of Maoist practice. In the 1980s, books by Freud, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus were hotcakes among young college students. The literature and arts expressing absurdity and black humor enjoyed disproportionate popularity. The ethos has been carried over into the 1990s and is joined by fascination with the postmodernism of Derrida, Rorty, Foucault, and Lyotard. This widespread mentality is understandable, given the general failure of mainstream moral life and the awareness of the authentic self in front of moral oppression and moral hypocrisy. However, its nihilistic tendency is regarded by the new idealists as harmful to the social ecology.

These idealists belong to the construction camp. They, however, often conflict with each other and can be further divided into three schools. They are: Neo-Confucianism-Neo-Marxism (represented by Li Zhehou and the Marxists who are working on the philosophy of "subjectivity" and alienation), Liberalism (libertarian and later on, those who are interested in John Rawls-type liberalism), and Christianity. It is our task here to elaborate on the Christian school.

When one speaks about the intellectual influence of Christianity, people normally assume this refers to the "Cultural Christian" (CC). But that is inaccurate and too narrow. In fact, the working of Christian ideas in the contemporary intellectual world is much broader and richer. It becomes necessary for us to press beyond the discussion of "Cultural Christians" to view the matter in an even broader perspective. Of course, among those academic Christian thinkers, the most conspicuous contenders are CC, who usually voice their opinion in the free speech journal "DuShu," and in annual anthologies like Critic of Christian Culture, and Religion and Culture. The Hong Kong-based Logos and Pneuma is becoming increasingly important. These people also publish translations of many great thinkers of Christian theology, from Augustine to Barth, Bonhoeffer, Weil, Otto, Hans Kung, and Moltmann. (These books are welcomed by the young but suspected by many Hong Kong and Taiwan theologians to be incorrect and lacking in Spirit.) The most prominent representative of CC is Liu Xiaofeng, professor of the department of philosophy, Sun Yat Sen University, China.

Nonetheless, there are many scholars who do not declare themselves Christian but are devoted to the intensive study of the Christian value resource in analyzing and constructing value paradigms. Among these are distinguished scholars such as Yang Shi and Zhao Duenhua (philosophy professors of Beijing University), He Guanghu and Zhuo Xingpin (research fellows at the Institute of Religious Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Science) and Yang Huiling (professor of Renmin University of China). But we ought not confine ourselves to these. To trace the influence of the Christian value resource on Chinese intellectuals, one has to look at those famous scholars who do not focus on the study of Christianity, yet refer to basic Christian ideas in their social criticisms, such as the active Shanghai scholars Su Jilin and Zhu Xueqing.

It is a common reservation, or even objection, from the church-oriented theologians that such persons should not designate themselves "Cultural Christian," because many of them are not baptized and do not frequent churches. Besides, their understanding of theology seems not to fit well with the tradition. This has been an issue debated in Hong Kong recently. The dispute concerns different understandings of ecclesiology and the sacraments that can be discussed and have been defended by the "Cultural Christians."[4] In this discussion, however, we do not have to tackle this issue, for our present interest is to trace the influence of Christian values on public discourse in China. If one keeps this particular subject in mind, one finds that, despite their lack of clarity or of uniformity in their faith commitment, the CC, rather than church or seminary theologians, have done the significant work in bringing Christianity from the edge to the center of mainline public discourse. This is a peculiar situation that may exist only in today's China. In the West, no one would deny, for instance, that Barth, Niebuhr, or Tillich are important figures who have helped shaped public discourse. But in today's China, the researcher has to turn to another group of intellectuals.

One reason for this is that these intellectuals inherited the characteristic self-consciousness of the Chinese intelligentsia, who always deem concern for public affairs a personal duty, unlike the "evangelical" (in Chinese the word implies "fundamentalist") church that does not care very much about the destiny of the public framework of values. In fact, theology itself suffers suspicion from the Chinese churches. In an article entitled "Is there a Chinese Theology?" a Chinese church theologian says that in China, there is a tendency to look down on and even deny all theological reflections. A number of reasons have led to this kind of thinking. First of all, most Chinese Christians are evangelical or fundamentalist in their faith. Based on traditional evangelical thinking, the attitude toward rational thinking has been essentially negative. Secondly, Christianity in China has not been given a chance to develop in a stable environment. The "foreign religion" image brought on by the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion had no time to be corrected before the onslaught of the "non-Christian movement" in the 1920s. The late 1950s campaign to destroy Christianity hardly ended before the beginning of the "Cultural Revolution." Another reason is that Chinese Christianity has not been given space for intellectual development. Though the time of "class struggle as principle" has long gone, those in the Christian community are still fearful and apprehensive.[5] For other reasons, the intellectual side of Christianity has not developed very well in Hong Kong and Taiwan either.[6] Moreover, unlike in America, the church in China is still viewed by many people and by the state as a particular interest group, partly due to its former affiliations with foreign powers. The intellectuals, on the other hand, are easily viewed as beyond partisan interest and speak as the social conscience. For instance, the "Cultural Christian" Liu Xiaofeng has published a book that contrasts Christian values with Chinese culture, with very unfavorable conclusions on the latter side. The book astonished many people and led many to pay serious attention to theology. If the book had been written by a church-based person, either it would not have received much attention in the public or it would have been regarded as too offensive. 

A further reason for the limited success of Christian ideals by CC in mainstream discourse is that this discourse is very sophisticated today and written in philosophical jargon developed in modern and contemporary western "isms." Only those who have been well trained in German, French, Russian, and American philosophy and literature can understand the vocabulary and make their own message convincing. The Chinese church has its theologians who occasionally publish articles on public affairs. But their expressions and conceptual framework often remind people of the type of knowledge belonging to the first half of the twentieth century, which is still imbedded in the traditional Chinese culture. They lack attraction in a world of more cosmopolitan scholarship. 

Given these general descriptions and explanations, we can move to the more detailed discussion of the Christian influence on the public discourse and do so in three areas: politics, economics, and culture.

The main concern of political reform is the analytical reflection on the Maoist paradigm and the justification of democracy. All agree that democracy is the goal of political reform. All representatives of value resource claim that they can help secure it. Of course, the liberals are the most outspoken fighters for democracy. But even Neoconfucians are discussing how to deduce democracy from the traditional Confucian value framework. Few people thought about religion at first, since to many people, "enlightenment" equals democracy plus science, which eliminates all religions. However, more and more scholars soon recognized the deeper foundations of Western democracy in Christian thought.

What is "democracy?" Many descriptions can be and have been developed. There are, generally speaking, two clusters of ideas, namely, participation (by the people) and restriction (of the state). The former features majority rule (autonomy, people’s sovereignty), while the latter consists of a series of checks and balances in an established legal system. These two orientations, if working together in a harmonious way, will contribute to the whole picture of democracy. Of course, there might be potential tension between them, as is often argued in China in the oppositions of Rousseau versus Locke, or positive freedom (freedom to) versus negative freedom (freedom from).

As for the idea of participation or the sovereignty of the people, scholars have been contemplating why this principle could be developed in the West but not in the East. Many relate it to the Christian belief that everyone is equal before God. The Protestant idea of "justification by faith alone" enables people to question any external authority. The liberal idea of freedom will ultimately prove inadequate. A well-known Shanghai thinker, Su Jiling, has done much research in this area. He has reminded readers of the insight of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, namely that, to attain real autonomy, to be independent from all kinds of external authorities, to be able to legislate by onself, one must have faith or the "supportive will." Without faith in an ultimate value, a state inevitably enervates the soul, and by relaxing the springs of the will, prepares a people for bondage. Then, not only will people let their freedom be taken from them, but often they actually hand it over themselves. "If he has no faith he must obey, and if he is free he must believe." Therefore, faith in an ultimate value is the important resource of inner freedom and is the foundation of Chinese modernization.[7] Tocqueville's book, by the way, has been listed as a "classic" in China and is available in bookstores everywhere.

Because of the particular Chinese experience, it is not surprising that the idea of "restriction" by the state should have commanded more attention. The Christian view of the sinfulness of all people has been cited to prove the necessity of separation of state and church. In a polemical article, Liu Xiaofeng argued that Karl Barth firmly denied the absolute worth or holiness of any human activity, including political activity. To mystify secular activity, to sanctify secular power, to worship political leaders, is exactly the source of the crisis and disaster of the twentieth century, West and East. God is qualitatively and infinitely different from any existence on the earth. "God is God, and humans are only humans."[8] This saying became a kind of implicit slogan in the political discourse in China. Following this line of thought, many like-minded scholars have resorted to Christianity to argue that the sacred should free itself from the secular in order to secure its ability to criticize the political domain. On the other hand, the political power should be aware of its own humble, secular nature, and thus accept checks and critics from the value center that lies outside and above. An active Shanghai scholar, Zu Xueqing, not a Cultural Christian himself, referred to the Christian value resource when criticizing the Neoconfucian effort to deduce democracy from Confucian moral ideals. (One has to notice that the criticism of Confucianism is often a mild form of the criticism of the Maoist paradigm, for the two to some extent share a common inner logic.) Zu Xueqing believed that the association of value resource with political power has made an independent value center inconceivable and thus prohibits Chinese tradition from developing constitutional democracy. By contrast, he remarked, "through the thought pattern of the opposition of God and human, through the idea of God as the absolute 'other' or absolute criticizer, Christianity has spread the democratic seed of depreciating the power of monarchy. The seed only awaits harvest later on."[9]

Scholars have not only questioned the Confucian paradigm but also that of Rousseau and the French Revolution, which has been highly honored for years, because of their moral utopianism, which is similar to Maoism. For instance, the liberal scholar Gan Yang has called for a change of our ideal of political reform, from "democracy and science" to "liberty and order," or from the continental model to the Anglo-American model. The basic idea contained in these phrases is that by gaining piecemeal independence of various spheres, the latter model will gradually reduce the political power to its proper level. The former model, by contrast, tends to put all powers into the hands of political leaders, whether tyrants or the mass plebiscite. In an article about Isaiah Berlin, Gan Yang attacked the value monism of "our tradition." As he understands it, Christianity is a value monism also, but the crucial difference is that its unity exists in God, not as the Chinese would think, on the earth. On earth, all people are fallen, according to Christianity.[10] Liu Xiaofeng in his article about Niebuhr argued that both Christian liberalism and Marxism failed because they are too optimistic about human nature, especially the possibility of moral perfection in the "excellent leaders of the masses." Christian realism believes that political powers should be separated, checked, and balanced, in order to achieve justice.[11]

The drastic change in China today, however, is not in the domain of politics but in economics. For about twenty years, the economy has been waking from ideological enchantment. It is becoming the most important domain of society today. In the past, though the official Marxist doctrine was to put economy first, the moralist paradigm tended to ignore its significance and tried to subject it to political teleology. The healthy development of a market economy hence will not only better feed the people, but also help the reform of the whole paradigm. It will help break down the hegemony of the monistic political power. It will build a middle class and a civil society that will limit the power of the state. Moreover, it will create a property system that supports the independent economic status. This will be, as Locke had already seen, the foundation of independent rights and dignity.

In the early stages of economic reform, people have turned more to utilitarianism to look for moral legitimation. They like the idea of the "invisible hand" that will eventually distribute a large share of the cake to everyone. Engels' famous rendering of the Hegelian idea that evil moves history forward more than good is also popular in the discussion. To many Chinese, religion is irrelevant, if not detrimental, to economic consciousness. Nonetheless, when the discussion goes deeper, more and more is attention called to the non-obvious connections between economic modernization and religion. Weber's insightful work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is widely read and discussed. Within a short period, it has become the consensus that the successful development of modern economy has a religious-moral background. Economic viability requires a serious moral ethos, more than just hedonistic consumerism and dishonest strategy. It is pertinent to note that Weber's theory not only helps people to think about the modern West and its internal relation with Christianity, but has stimulated many scholars, including almost all leading scholars of contemporary Neoconfucianism, to reflect on Chinese culture to see if there is a similar religious background for economic modernization. For instance, Yu Yinshi of Princeton and Du Wiming of Harvard have both published on the subject.[12] Many symposiums have been held to discuss "Weber's thesis and Confucian Ethics."[13] In the 1960s, most overseas scholars agreed with Weber that Confucian ethics, with its lack of aggressive individualism and its over-emphasis on equality and harmony in the collectives, is incompatible with modern capitalism. Interestingly enough, this is also the criticism that the Chinese intellectuals of the 1980s used in their radical self-criticism of Chinese traditional culture.[14] In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the situation has become a bit more complicated, as the "four little dragons" of east Asia rapidly developed modernized economies.

Now Weber is again brought into prominence, not, however, for his concrete conclusion about Confucianism but for his "insightful thesis" that religious-moral vision must have bearing on economic and social development.

I think Chinese Christianity will not only focus on the establishment of a modern market economy, though this economy is probably God's will, but also concern itself with the particular problems a market economy could bring about, namely, those who lose in the war of competition. Two problems demand immediate attention: how to prevent economic polarization (relative poverty) and how to help the jobless (absolute poverty). There are few works that have been developed by Christian intellectuals so far. But they could be developed, given that the Cultural Christians are meant to bring new principles of morality into Chinese culture. This leads us to the third area of Christian influence, namely, culture.

During the fervent "debate of culture" that began in the 1980s over the merits and defects of Chinese culture in modernization, Cultural Christians claimed that it would help the reconstruction of the Chinese mind to bring Christianity into China. The reason was that Christianity provides something important that Chinese culture lacks, namely, the absolute value of agape. Agape is the love of Jesus Christ who died for human beings on the cross. The suffering of God highlights the dignity and value of each single individual. Each individual encounters God in faith. Many intellectuals are attracted by this existentialist concept of Christianity. Though this direction is generally labled as the "mysterious" or "individualistic" tendency of the Cultural Christians, aiming at the filling of the void of the inner, unsettled heart of the lost generation, it has had various impacts on the public discourse of value paradigm. First, this absolute love becomes the point of reference in the self-reflection and self-criticism of Chinese culture. In this criticism, some scholars like Liu Xiaofeng took a position of direct confrontation with Chinese culture. They complained about the "superficialness" of Chinese culture, about its lack of a sacred dimension or the transcendental other, about its being complacent and easy to compromise with the evil powers. Others, such as Yang Shi, unlike ardent promoters of Christianity, identified the similarities of Chinese culture and Christianity, but pointed out the uniqueness of Christianity, namely, agape. Still others, like He Guangho, resorted to the insights of Tillich and John Hick to emphasize the affinity between Christianity and Chinese culture, in that they all share some kind of ultimate concern: love, Tao, human-heartedness. Centered around this affinity, they can fuse with each other eventually.[15] Open-mindedness in dialogue instead of narrow-minded intolerance is what we need today.

Neoconfucian thinkers have responded to the challenge of Christianity. Li Zhehou, a leading philosopher in contemporary China, would claim that it is both impossible and unnecessary for Chinese culture to receive Christianity. Chinese culture already has its transcendent dimension: Tao. This transcendent element will be comprehended by human beings in attaining sagehood in their daily life work. Therefore, it satisfies the spiritual need and does so in a practical way. Unlike Western culture, whether the Greek type or the Judeo-Christian type, the Chinese mind does not go to the extreme, does not lead to dualism, and does not fall into desperate anxiety and anguish. This is a psychologically healthy culture full of joy. It might even prove to be a good therapy for the postmodern West.[16]

The discussion of the religious dimension in Confucianism has become a favorable topic in China now. Many arguments flowed in from the publications of Neo-confucian philosophers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and America. In fact, these arguments date back to the 1960s and they had then also been a result of intellectual interaction between Chinese and Christian scholars. As Zheng Jiadong noticed, before the 1960s, the Neoconfucians cautiously denied the religious characteristic of Confucianism. The turning point came during one event in 1958, when four leading Confucian philosophers published their Manifesto of Chinese Culture to the World. In that manifesto, they acknowledged that Confucianism does have a religious dimension, for it has an ultimate concern. Later on, Mo Zhongshan, the distinguished writer of the new generation of Neoconfucianism, argued that the transcendent element in Chinese culture is Ren, or humanity, which is "creativity itself." It is heaven. The virtue of heaven is its sincerity or integrity in keeping creation constant. In Mo's later work, however, he moved from an emphasis on the distance between humanity and the transcendent heaven to the unity of the two.[17] From the 1960s on, the younger generation of Neoconfucians, like Duweiming, Liu Shuxian, and Chen Zhongyin, have all offered their own account of the religious dimension of Confucianism.

Some scholars with a Christian background, however, are sharply critical of the Neoconfucian proposal and the superiority of "Chinese wisdom." They are very conscious of the dividing line, and argue that it is not a virtue but rather a defect for the Chinese to reduce the distance between God and the world, as expressed in the Confucian ideal: the unity of heaven and humanity. Their rejoinder can be formulated like this: Yes, in reducing the distance one may feel joy, but is it too early to enjoy the joy? When so many innocent people died in Auschwitz and the Cultural Revolution, and we are still alive, we feel that justifying our living has become a problem, much less joyful. As is said, after Auschwitz, it is savage to write poems. And one does find that in China, many new idealists have turned from aesthetics to theology. The elements that Chinese culture has consistently failed to comprehend are precisely the memory of suffering, the sense of confession, the awareness of the sinfulness in the ontological structure of every human being.[18]

Moreover, the highlighting of absolute values is also a criticism of the "deconstruction-playfulness" trend that has been prevalent among the Chinese intellectuals. Value relativism is the mainstream ethical thinking permeating the contemporary West (see McIntyre on emotivism in his After Virtue).[19] The young Chinese generation has been celebrating its liberation from the dominance of the huge, collective, "great uni-teleology." (The so-called fashion of aesthetics in the 1980s could be seen as a jubilee, an explosion of the newly freed subjectivity or sensitivity.) The vanguard intellectuals, in catching up with the latest vogue of the West, embraced postmodernism with ecstatic pleasure. They called for a total abandonment of all norms, a denouncement of enlightenment and idealism, a rejection of any criterion of making value judgment. This trend has been further reinforced by the "secularization" of commercialism in the 1990s. All these have been counteracted by Christian adversaries who still remain firmly attached to idealism, an idealism different from the old one though – an idealism that sides with the suffering and finds hope in the cross. Liu Xiaofeng has tirelessly criticized the heart-hardening vanity of existentialism, contrasting it to Christian love. Scholars like Zhao Dunhua and Sujiling write on the inner problems of postmodernism and suggest that a "sacred culture" is indispensable to the emerging new paradigm.[20]

Finally, the assertion of the absolute value of agape is a criticism of traditional teleology and the new utilitarianism. Teleology does not entertain the value of individuals. It sees everything in its function to another end, without its own intrinsic worth. This implies the danger of justifying the infringement of human rights, for it tends to view human sacrifice as the necessary cost. Both Maoist teleology and Neomarxist utilitarianism share this outlook. They can be traced to the Hegelian idea of historical reason, which claimed that reason will actualize itself in history. However, on its way, the flowers and grass will be trampled down. Perhaps this mentality partly explains why many intellectuals, not to say the masses, tolerate injustice today. History will lead to a better end, and the movement of the wheel of history is powerful. Morality should give up when it conflicts with history. Deontological thinking disagrees with this consequentialism. After the cultural revolution, philosopher Li Zhehou called for the return from Hegel to Kant.[21] However, his voice was neither comprehended by many, nor perhaps by himself, for he also firmly insisted on historical reason that does not show high regard for individual worth. Deontolology presupposes the sacred value of each person. This conviction is difficult to affirm if there is no God who dies for human beings. It needs to be borne in mind that in the Christian religion, the love of God is revealed in God's suffering together with the meek and poor and hungry, with those nonpersons who for generations have been dehumanized and marginalized. Joining the anti-Hegelian movement, Liu Xiaofeng argued first that history and nature do not show "rationality" themselves, so they should not be deified. Second, no matter what benefits history will get, the suffering and death of individual persons should not be cast away as a necessary cost. Each person is unique. He or she encounters God by himself or herself. God died on the cross to save him or her. Christianity does not save nations but persons.[22]

This essay has sought to provide a glimpse into the way intellectual controversy is carried on in China today and some indication of the range of Christian ideas at work. The channels of their work are diversified and often unpredictable, including sometimes the indirect impact on the liberals or even the feedback response from Neoconfucians to Christian thought in the early times.[23] Their influence on the mainline discourse of paradigm shift is beyond question. It has brought Christian value resource into the emerging pluralistic public discourse. Of course, there is a multiplicity of cultural booms. Other value resources, such as Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, are also surfacing, both in the form of intellectual study and the popular practice of "Chi Gong" (breathing control). 

What about the future of Christian thought? If one notices that the active promoters of Chinese Christian scholarship started to work only about ten years ago, their participants are very energetic, and since large scale translation projects are now underway, one could imagine that they will exert more influence if they develop well. That future development depends on several things, including sound training of more scholars in this field. Communication between intellectual Christians and churches is also important. Elsewhere, I have discussed a strange phenomenon that the two types of Christians (intellectuals and common people) tend to be prejudiced against each other and rarely notice what the other side is doing. In fact, they can learn a lot from each other. For instance, the intellectuals can think about the development of churches as models of volunteer communities, which will form a civil society necessary to any democratic system (Tocqueville). On the other hand, the churches and seminaries may start dialogue with the humanity-oriented theologians and develop their intellectual dimensions, changing their habit of remaining out-of-step with the dominant mood of the country and having little, if any. appreciable effect upon the life of the country as a whole.


[1] In his essay "Barren Rock, Central Plains, Island across the Strait: The Hong Kong Mainland China-Taiwan Connection," Peter K. H. Lee said: ". . . lamentably few are the professed Christian men and women in Hong Kong, mainland China, and Taiwan who could participate in high-level discussion with economists and other social scientist." "As in economics, so in social philosophy, are there Christian people who can rise up and be counted on what they have to say in public? In Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China, Christians well trained in social philosophy and political theology are scarce." The Princeton Seminary Bulletin 18 (1997).

[2] Cf, Benjamin 1. Schwartz, "Transcendence in Ancient China," Daedalus 64(1975).

[3] See Bao, Limin, Different Paradigms of Value Formation: China and America (Hangzhou University Press, 1996), especially sections 3.3 and 4.2.

[4] For the discussion of "Cultural Christians," see Chen Cunfu and Edwin Hui's "The Phenomenon of Cultural Christians – an over-view and evaluation" in Regent Chinese Journal 4 (1996). For a succinct summary of the debate on the issue, see Peter K. H. Lee's "The Cultural Christian Phenomenon in China: A Hong Kong Discussion," Ching Feng 39 (1996).

[5] Ji Tai, "Is there a Chinese Theology?" China News Update (September 1997).

[6] Peter K. H. Lee, "Barren Rock."

[7] Su Jiling, "The Search of Value in the Change toward Modernization," Intellectuals (Spring, 1993).

[8] Liu Xiaofeng, "God is God," Dushu, no. 11 (1988).

[9] Zhu Xueqing, "The New Political System cannot be Deduced from the Confucian inner Ideal – On the Political Philosophy of Neo-Confucianism," The Twentieth Century, no. 2 (1992).

[10] Gan Yang, “Give up Democracy and Science, establish Liberty and Order," The Twentieth Century, no. 2 (1991).

[11] Liu Xiaofeng, "No Illusion, Yet Not Despaired,” Dushu, no. 1 (1989).

[12] Yu Yingshi, The Modern Religious Ethics in China and the Spirit of Merchant (Taiwan: Lianjing Publishing Corporation, 1987); Du Weiming, Confucian Ethics Today: the Singapore Challenge (Beijing: Shanglian Books, 1989).

[13] Huang Shaolun, ed., Chinese Religious Ethics and Modernization (Hong Kong: Shangwu Books, 1991) and Tang Yijie, ed., Chinese Religion, Past and Today (Beijing: BUP, 1992).

[14] See Wang Rensen, Modernization and the Spirit of Modern Ethics (Guangxi: Guanxi Renmin Publishing House, 1989), 218.

[15] See He Guanghu, "What This World Needs Most is Love," Dushu, no. 6 (1989).

[16] Li Zhehou, "A Revaluation of Confucius," and "On Chinese Wisdom," in Anthology of Lizhehou (Heilonjiang: Heilongjiang Education Publishing House, 1988), esp. 15, 33, 101, and 510.

[17] Mo Tsung-san, "Confucianism as Religion," in Douglas Lancashire, ed., Chinese Essays on Religion and Faith (San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center, 1981). Zheng Jiadong, "On the Issue of the Religious Dimension of Confucian Thought, "in Zheng Jia Dong and Ye Haiyan, A Critique of Neo-Confucianism, vol. 2 (Beijing: Chinese Guangbodianshi Press, 1995).

[18] Liu Xiaofeng, "Memoria Passionis," Dushu, no. 9 (1990).

[19] McIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), Chapter 3.

[20] See Zhao Dunhua, "Secular Culture and Sacred Culture," Philosophical Research, no. 7 (1996).

[21] Li Zhehou, "Kantian Philosophy and an Outline of Establishing Subjectivity," in Anthology of Li Zhehou (Hilonjiang: Hilongjiang Education Publishing House, 1988), Chapter One.

[22] Liu Xiaofeng, "Participating in the Suffering of God," Dushu, no. 2 (I 989) 2

[23] There is a type of "Cultural Christian" whom I have not discussed in this essay. I mean the scholars who are basically sociologists and historians working at universities and institutes of social sciences. Their work in the last twenty years has focused on the positive reevaluation ("Pinfan") of religions, including the missionaries, in China. The representative book is Luo Zhufeng, ed., The Religion Problem in The Chinese Socialist Period (Shanghai: Shanghai Academy of Social Science Press, 1987). Though these scholars are hardly enthusiastically "Christian," their work has helped the public to appreciate Christianity objectively.