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Chinese Christian or Christian Chinese?

Alex Tang

 

The Chinese psyche and history is strongly influenced by Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) and subsequent Confucian scholars. The Way of Confucius is based on two thesis; “that goodness can be taught and learned, and that society can only be in harmony and peace under the guidance of wisdom”. Out of these two theses are developed four precepts of the Way (dao), ritual/propriety (li), humaness (ren), and virtue (de). The Way (dao) of Confucius leads to the formation of the ideal or virtuous man (junzi), who is in harmony with Heaven and Earth.

Becoming a junzi is achievable by learning, and the cultivation of virtue and self-control. This includes the Confucian ideal of family (jia), cult (jiao), and learning (xue) When Buddhism was first introduced into China, there was a conflict with Confucianism. Gradually however it was incorporated into a syncretistic folk religion consisting of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and animism.

Many Malaysian Chinese Christians come from families that still worship this Chinese folk religion. This involves going to temples on festival days, ancestor worship and having family altars. However Confucianism remains the key to understanding the Chinese identity.

Chang Lit Sen, a Chinese apologist, theologian, scholar in Asian philosophy and Distinguished Lecturer in Mission Emeritus in Gordon-Cornell Theological Seminary, writes, “Confucius has been respected by Chinese people not only as a great sage but also as an idol in their hearts, they strive to imitate him as Christians imitate Christ.”

To be a Chinese means to embrace the latest incarnation of Confucianism. Confucianism is an inseparable part of the Chinese identity. Whalen Tai, a faculty member at the Department of Religious Studies, University of California at Davis, California makes an interesting observation between Chinese identity and Christianity.

He observes, “There is one underlying cultural link. Chinese Christians might denounce Buddhism and Taoism as pagan and superstitious but not Confucianism. Even in the most Christian of Chinese families – the notable sign of which is the greater egalitarianism between church-going spouses and generally greater freedom for the offsprings – the behavioural patterns are still very much Confucian. There is still a greater sense of filial piety, a greater stress on book learning, familial loyalty, hard work, etc. than in a typical Western counterpart which would cultivate greater individuality still, with more physical vigour, personal independence, romantic openness, venturesome traits, etc.”

Yao Xin Zhong, Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Lampeter observes, “Many Chinese converts made use of Confucian philosophy and ethics to reformulate Christian ideas.” This is true of both Chinese and English speaking Christians, though more marked in Chinese speaking Christians.

Confucianism teaches a personal moral code of ethic behaviour that finds the Protestant doctrine of unconditional personal salvation offensive. However, there is a great emphasis on building right relationships. The five key relationships in Confucianism are ruler-subject, father-son, husband-wife, elder brother-younger brother, and friend-friend. Chu Sin Jan, associate Professor of History, Chinese university of Taipei, notes, “their (Chinese Christians) Confucian way of reflecting on Christian theology shows their concern that Christians, in the pursuit of ren, be in relationship to establish their character and other people’s character as well as to live in harmony with each other and with God. Confucian values, not to mention Confucian logic and language greatly color their Christian faith. Their Confucian heritage makes them more concerned about personal and social ethics than anything else.”

Therefore Chinese Christians relate more to spiritual formation which involves relationships and community better than to personal salvation. Historian Roxbough writing about the history of the Presbyterian church in Malaysia notes that, “In Malaysia this is a church which for much of its history has rejected the idea of being Presbyterian in favour of wishing to be Chinese”. The Malaysian Chinese lives in a continuum between two cultures: Chinese and Malaysian.

One end is Chineseness and the other end is Malaysian multiculturalism. Where one is on the continuum decides one’s behaviour. Samuel Ling, President of China Horizon and researcher into cultural trends that affect Chinese Churches observes that “the Chinese model is rooted in the traditional Chinese family and clan, which sees adults as the focus, and children as appendages." This will have an effect on how Chinese in churches plan for children’s ministries.

In traditional Chinese culture, leaders and teachers are to be respected. Hence a pastor’s decision is final and accepted without arguments. Again this will create problems in many churches especially amongst the English educated who sees the pastor as an equal and call him or her by their first name. Other examples of Confucian influenced Christianity are evangelism directed to children and not families; respect for pastors and leaders; and sharing testimonies in public. Non-Christian families are often unhappy if their children become Christians; respect for leaders and pastors mean not speaking up or against them because to do so is to ‘shame’ them; and for Chinese sharing their ‘achievements’ or giving testimonies in public is taboo (“showing of”, “pride”, “disrespectful”).

So, to readers who are of Chinese origins,

Are you a Chinese Christian or a Christian Chinese?

 

|posted 8 May 2007|

               

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