AAR 2020: Chinese Christianities Unit

This is the inaugural year of our AAR program unit with a “Unit” status, as opposed to its more temporary “Seminar” status. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing public health situation, we are glad to be able to hold our two sessions in AAR in an online format. While details are available in the online program book, I have also included it here.

Negotiating Politics and Religion (Dec 1, 4:00–5:30pm EST)

This panel seeks to expand the breadth of the study of Chinese Christianities by looking at the “lesser knowns” of the field, and how they navigate the pernickety relationship between politics and religion. The first paper examines the interaction between the Nationalist discourse of Sanmin Zhuyi (Three Peoples’ Principles) in the Republican era, to argue how it was seen as compatible with a Jesus-centered public theology. The second follows the life of Cai Yongchun (1904-1983) in the Maoist era, as a Christian intellectual caught in the socialist decades of political turbulence as he strove to reconcile his Christian faith with the atheistic ideology. The final paper further problematizes the monolithic narratives of Chinese Christianities with a case study of the lawsuits of a Cantonese-speaking church in Vancouver, Canada; if Chinese Christianities are thought to be associated with conservatism, this paper challenges such a simplistic characterization in light of this church’s social activism. This panel demonstrates how Chinese Christians so often hold politics and religion in tension, as they seek to make meaning in their contexts.

Presiding: Alexander Chow, University of Edinburgh

Zhixi Wang, Shantou University
A Jesus-Centered Public Theology: Scripturalization of Three Peoples’ Principles and the Politics of Jesus in China, 1920s-30s

In recent years, there has been a surge in interest in the theologies produced by Chinese intellectuals. Only scant and fragmentary attention, however, has been focused on the role of biblical interpretation in the construction of theological discourses in Chinese contexts. This article seeks to redress this imbalance by highlighting the scriptural and hermeneutic impulse in Chinese Christianity and considering the ways Chinese Christian intellectuals aimed to make sense of the world in which they lived through the reading and interpreting of their Book. In particular, drawing from biblical reception as an analytical lens, it provides a case study of how these intellectuals in the Republican era, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, engaged with the political discourse of Three People’s Principles—Sanmin Zhuyi, that is, the triadic principles of nationalism, people’s rights and people’s livelihood—by interpreting the Gospels and shaping a public and contextually relevant Jesus. I propose to argue that a Jesus-centered public theology was crafted through scripturalization of Sanmin Zhuyi, which can be reconceived as a Chinese-style “politics of Jesus.”

Jesse Sun, Duke University
For God and a New China: Cai Yongchun’s Fateful Return in 1950

This paper focuses on a key transition in the life of Cai Yongchun (蔡詠春 1904-1983) around 1950, to capture how he struggled to reconcile in a firmly Christian framework the urge to serve his country which just came under a regime of atheistic ideology. Through Cai’s experience the paper seeks to shed light on the larger patterns of struggle by the Chinese Christian intellectuals. What is the role of Christian faith and theology in their self-conceptualization as visionary leaders of change in moment of crisis? To what extent are the Christian intellectuals also captivated by the dominant narratives of nationalism and revolution, despite their Christian faith and Western contact? In the end, when Cai set sail from the U.S., rather than having one side critiquing or overwhelming the other, his Western/Christian source of influence and his Chinese/patriotic source of influence converged to propel him to return to China and to start actively realigning himself towards the new ideology.

Justin Tse, Singapore Management University
‘A lot of Lawsuits There’: Evangelical Recollections of Chong v. Lee Among Vancouver’s Conservative Cantonese Protestants

This paper takes up the Chinese Christianities Unit’s ‘assignment for the twenty-first century’ by examining the Supreme Court of British Columbia’s 1981 case, Chong v. Lee. Revolving around the Vancouver Christ Church of China, I argue that the lawsuit enables a narrative that holds that Chinese Christianity in Vancouver is normatively aligned with a view that congregational spaces should be considered private spaces of worship instead of sites of civil society participation. In this way, Chinese Christian ‘conservatives,’ mostly students from Hong Kong in the 1970s, justify their private conception of space in contrast with an older Chinatown generation with transnational linkages to Taishan. However, closer archival examination of the case reveals that that Chinatown generation had made this church the centre of their activism against an urban redevelopment program that would have demolished the entire community. In the clash of these two Chinese Christianities, the monolithic narrative of Chinese Christian conservatism in Vancouver is shown to be problematic, because underlying it is the diversity that the assignment for the twenty-first century seeks to uncover.

Responding: Chloe Starr, Yale Divinity School

Negotiating Space and Place (Dec 9, 1:45–3:15pm EST)

Presiding: Christie Chui-Shan Chow, City Seminary of New York

This panel offers a multidisciplinary dialogue about how Christian believers in various Chinese societies construct Christianities by negotiating space and place. The first paper examines the Seventh-day Adventist female missionaries and Chinese converts found meaning outside the established female domain and made space for new religiosity at a time when the nation experimented with women’s involvement in social, economic, and political arenas. The second paper is an ethnographic study of spring couplets used by Catholics and Protestants in Hong Kong, Fuzhou, rural Nanping, and Shanghai, to illustrate how seemingly identical Chinese cultural practice vary by region and denomination, and how rural and urban church communities fought for spatial presence in the face of religious suppression. Our final paper examines how Mainland Chinese “transplants” in post-colonial Hong Kong form Chinese Christian identity, theology, and lived experiences in a relatively free and multicultural environment. Together, the papers problematize Chinese Christianities as a bounded entity, and the fluidity negotiated by cultural and spatial reality.

Heidi Campbell, Baylor University
The Cut Lotus Can Still Bloom: Seventh-Day Adventist Women’s Discovery of Agency, Purpose, and Resilience as Missionaries in China from 1902-1949

When the Seventh-day Adventist Church joined other Protestant groups in sending missionaries to late Qing China, it sent out not only men but also their wives and, at times, single women. Most of the women went as married spouses without an official role, other than that of missionary wife. In their home countries, women’s roles within the church were limited, but in the mission field where manpower was scarce, these women found an expanded role in which to act. This paper will focus on these women’s experiences in late Qing and Republican China as they sought to evangelize Chinese women. Despite the political instability that led to uncertainty, at times, for missionaries and their converts’ safety and the loss of family members to the ubiquitous diseases of the pre-antibiotic era, many of these women persisted and remained in China. This paper will explore how these women found missionary work in China a liberating and driving force that gave their life purpose and the networks of relationships with other missionary women and Chinese women which gave these women support in tough times.

Michel Chambon, Hanover College
Spring Couplets and the Materialization of Chinese Christianity

Based on material collected during ethnographic field trips in 2019 and 2020, this paper presents how Chinese Christians relate to spring couplets and discusses the spatial and material display of Christian identity in contemporary China. Throughout the Chinese world, families typically hang a renewed antithetical couplet (duilian) on the sides of their home’s main door in the days leading up to the Chinese New Year. Chinese Catholics and Protestants participate in this tradition as well. This paper presents the various spring couplets that Catholics and Protestants based in Hong Kong, Fuzhou, rural Nanping, and Shanghai use. These four places are very different social environments where numerous Christian traditions prosper. Thus, they provide the foundation for a cross-denominational approach interested in comparing rural and urban practices as well as regional variations. After introducing the socio-economic background of each location, I present the various texts, physical displays, and calligraphic styles that characterize Christian couplets. The paper discusses how regional, familial, and denominational variations affect the ways individual Christians approach duilian.

Easten Law, Georgetown University
Negotiating a Lived Chinese Theology Across Boundaries – the Mainland Chinese Christian Experience in Hong Kong

Based on fieldwork conducted during the summer of 2019 in Hong Kong, this paper examines how a small cohort of Christian “Hong Kong Drifters” (mainland Chinese transplants) experience God’s presence differently and the ways these experiences orient their faith lives. The first section of this paper presents three short case studies. The second section explores how the dynamics revealed in these cases can be explained by Hong Kong’s unique socio-political context as an alternative Chinese modernity. For mainland Chinese Christians, the foreign elements of Hong Kong’s religious freedom and comparatively more individualistic culture are embedded in familiar Chinese cultural norms. These dynamics render a unique process of discernment that both displaces and expands their sense of Chinese-ness and God’s presence at work in the world. The third section of this paper explores the theological lessons these case studies have for the global church. It sketches an outline for a theology of migration and pilgrimage in the contexts of Chinese culture that addresses how the universality of God engages the particularities of cultures in an age of globalization and migration.

Responding: Joseph Ho, Albion College

Business Meeting, Presiding: Alexander Chow, University of Edinburgh