Has post-Mao China Developed a Liberation Theology?

In 1985, Bishop K. H. Ting (丁光训) introduced to students at Nanjing Seminary several foreign theologies that he felt could inspire Chinese Christians.1  Though he was particularly drawn to process theology and the theology of Teilhard de Chardin, his comments on Latin American liberation theology were quite curious.  He believed that, rather than focusing on an otherworldly theology that asks whether ‘one goes to heaven or hell after death. The central theological problem should be the human world, how we enable people to live a life of human dignity once they are in the world.’2  Ultimately, however, Ting believed China did not need a liberation theology because China was already ‘liberated’ through the communist victory of 1949.3

Yet liberation theologies (e.g., Latin American, Black theology, Minjung theology, Dalit theology, etc.) often emphasise two reformulations of classic Christology: Christ as a liberation and Christ as a fellow-sufferer.  While the more triumphalist understanding of Christ as liberator may not be prominent in post-Mao China, Christ who accompanies those who suffer has.

This has been seen in Chinese house churches which have developed a kind of ‘theology of the cross’.  Jonathan Chao (赵天恩) believes that this has arisen through the persecution experienced by (house) churches.4  While I may agree that part of this is due to the persecution, it is also a theology expressed throughout all the churches in China.  A message of suffering is heard in sermons and the indigenous hymnody5 of house churches and TSPM churches alike.  Even Bishop Ting, who does not like the notion of ‘liberation’ theology, has borrowed language from Minjung and Latin American liberation theologies to describe the importance of a hamartiology that focuses on the ‘sinned against’.6  This reality is so poignantly captured by Zhuo Xinping (卓新平), a non-Christian scholar of Christianity, who writes:

The collapse of the relation between God and humankind is reflected in the individual’s feeling of being lost; it manifests itself in the abnormal existence of whole societies, the absence of absolute values and standards, where confusion, uncertainty and disorder reign. This is the state of ‘original sin’.7

Chinese society has had the collective experience of unrest, experienced through the struggles of the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square incident, and current pursuits of industrialisation.  It is not a ‘liberation theology’ as we have seen in other parts of the world, but in Mainland China, Christianity has provided solace for the sufferer, with Christ as the ultimate fellow-sufferer.

  1. K. H. Ting, ‘Inspirations from Liberation Theology, Process Theology and Teilhard de Chardin’, in Love Never Ends: Papers by K. H. Ting, ed. Janice Wickeri (Nanjing: Yilin Press, [1985] 2000), 192–222. 
  2. Ibid., 194.  In comparison, the Catholic Bishop Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian (金鲁贤) believes China needs to develop its own liberation theology.  ‘China-Appointed Bishop Says China Needs a Liberation Theology’, UCA News 27 July 1988, available online
  3. The communist victory over the nationalists (KMT), ending the civil war in 1949, is known in Chinese historiography as ‘Liberation’ (解放). 
  4.  Thomas F. Taylor, ‘CONVERSATIONS: China’s Cross: Jonathan Chao’, Christianity Today 21 June 2007, available online
  5. For example, this theme of suffering can be heard in the Canaan Hymns (迦南詩歌) – songs composed by Xiao Min (小敏), which are sung in both house churches and TSPM churches throughout China. 
  6. K. H. Ting, ‘Human Collectives as Vehicles of God’s Grace’, in Love Never Ends: Papers by K. H. Ting, ed. Janice Wickeri (Nanjing: Yilin Press, [1979] 2000), 44-45. 
  7.  Zhuo Xinping, ‘Original Sin in the East–West Dialogue: A Chinese View’, Studies in World Christianity 1.1 (1995): 84. DOI 10.3366/swc.1995.1.1.80.  I discuss the phenomenon of Chinese academic interest in the doctrine of original sin in this article: Alexander Chow, ‘The East Asian Rediscovery of “Sin”’, Studies in World Christianity 19.3 (2013): 126-140. DOI 10.3366/swc.2013.0048