Chinese Christianities: Assignment for the 2020s

At the end of 2019, the AAR Chinese Christianities Seminar had concluded its fifth and final year under the “seminar” status. We needed to therefore submit a proposal if we wanted to continue in the future as a “unit.” We were successful (yay!), and the Chinese Christianities Unit now has a 2020 CfP. (You can follow us on Facebook too!) In the process of writing our proposal, we had to make an intellectual argument as to why such a group was needed. Here is an excerpt of that text, jointly produced by our steering group.

Christianity is the fastest growing religion in mainland China today, and arguably the religion of choice for a growing number of Chinese around the globe. “Chinese” is an expansive term, often including mainland China as a contested “homeland,” and a large, linguistically, and culturally diverse “Chinese diaspora,” totaling more than a fifth of the world’s population. The Chinese Christianities Unit aims to offer an academic forum to interrogate what can and has been classified as “Chinese Christianity,” or “Chinese Christianities,” in all its diverse, pluriform expressions.

Along with the increasing critical mass of Chinese Christians, scholars have been arguing for the last half century of the urgency of the academic field. The Harvard historian John Fairbank gave his presidential address in 1969 to the American Historical Association on the “Assignment for the ‘70s,” pleading for historians to take account of missionaries returning from China and their impact on American history. While the literature during this period initially tended towards Cold War discourse, by the 1980s and into the 1990s when China was in the “Reform and Opening Up Era,” scholars such as Jacques Gernet (China and the Christian Impact [1985]) and Daniel Bays (Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present [1996]) focused on how Chinese Christianity came to be, through the encounter between foreign missionaries and Chinese Christians. This coincided with the increasing interest on Chinese Christian agency, mainly (but not exclusively) produced by Chinese scholars in the United States such as Ng Lee-ming (“Christianity and Social Change: The Case of China, 1920-1950”[Princeton Seminary ThD, 1971]), Samuel Ling (“The Other May Fourth Movement: The Chinese ‘Christian Renaissance,’ 1919-1937” [Temple PhD, 1981]), Jonathan Chao (“The Chinese Indigenous Church Movement, 1919-1927” [Pennsylvania PhD, 1986]), Nicolas Standaert (Yang Tingyun, Confucian and Christian in Late Ming China [1988]), Philip Wickeri (Seeking the Common Ground [1989]), and Kwok Pui-lan (Chinese Women and Christianity, 1860–1927 [1992]). By the mid-1990s and into the 21st century, with the growth of Asian American studies, other Chinese scholars in the United States queried the role Chinese Christians played within the Asian American context, through historical (e.g. Timothy Tseng [“Ministry at Arms’ Length: Asian Americans in the Racial Ideology of American Mainline Protestants, 1882–1952” (Union Seminary PhD, 1994)] and Jonathan Tan [Introducing Asian-American Theologies (2008)]) and social scientific studies (e.g. Yang Fenggang [Chinese Christians in America (1999)] and Russell Jeung [Faithful Generations (2005)]). This same period saw growing scholarship on mainland China from a social scientific approach (e.g. Richard Madsen [China’s Catholics (1998)]) as well as historical and theological lenses (e.g. Jean-Paul Wiest and Edmond Tang [co-editors of The Catholic Church in Modern China (1993)]). By the second decade of the 21st century, the field has witnessed a notable surge in new studies, largely developing along the three major disciplinary clusters of history, social sciences, and theology; but this has still been dominated by historical studies.

While the field has grown in the last half century—and especially in the last decade, there is perhaps a new assignment for the 2020s—one which this Unit hopes to take on. In part, this comes out of the challenges raised by tightening restrictions on religion in China today, harkening back to the period of the Cultural Revolution when Fairbank was speaking, creating new restrictions around what can still be studied within the mainland. Furthermore, Chinese Christianities is developing as a diverse and ever-changing worldwide phenomenon. These practical realities have seen a proliferation of studies, especially microstudies; but the tendency has been to not step back and offer more critical analyses as to the broader academic significance of the subject matter of the field. Hence, this is an opportune time to pause and reconsider the state of the field, which has tended to operate in silos of disciplinary, confessional, and regional lines. The Chinese Christianities Unit and the five-year Seminar before it attempts to redress these limitations in a number of ways.

  • Multi-disciplinary. The Unit aspires to bring together scholars of the three major disciplinary clusters together. While historians and social scientists have other major academic societies where Chinese Christianities are often discussed, the AAR strategically brings together historians, social scientists, and theologians interested in the field, to offer a forum for cross-disciplinary conversations.
  • Multi-confessional. It attempts to move beyond a Protestant-centric focus in the field, which, to a large part, is due to the focus on Anglophone (as opposed to Francophone) mission history. Given the diverse confessional foci of scholars in AAR, the Unit can draw together the rich historical and contemporary Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, “heterodox,” and other more diffused developments of Chinese Christianities.
  • Multi-regional. From land routes such as the Silk Road to water routes with its vast 15th century naval fleets, Chinese have for a long time been a people on the move. Sizeable Chinese communities have been established throughout Asia, Europe, the Americas, and, more recently, Africa. The Unit hopes to engage Chinese Christianities in these many locales, as well as through transnational and transregional networks that facilitate their existence.