Finding the Christian Church in China

When Dr. Gloria Tseng arrived at Hope College in 2003 as a Europeanist with an emphasis on France, her first course in French history was attended by one student. “On one hand, it was a good student-faculty ratio,” she says now, with a lilting laugh.

The following semester, history repeated itself: just one student, albeit a different one. “I realized, ‘You know, there’s not a whole lot of interest in French history in Holland,’” Tseng recalls, “so I needed to think more broadly. Hope has been very transformative for me.”

In time, she underwent what could be described as a religious conversion. Tseng, born in Taiwan but a longtime U.S. citizen, wrote her dissertation on the experiences of Chinese expatriates living in France during the interwar years. During that research she came across the work of Father Frédéric-Vincent Lebbe, the late Catholic missionary to China whose advocacy in the early 20th century led Pope Pius XI to appoint the first native Chinese bishops.

Shortly after Tseng began teaching at Hope, the campus began receiving an influx of international students from China. “At first these were not degree-seeking students,” Tseng recalls. “They were graduate students funded by the John Templeton Foundation at Calvin College that funneled some of their students to the Hope philosophy department. That’s when I started having connections with people from China, and because I lived across the street from Centennial Park close to campus they would come to my house for meals and company.”

Those dinnertime conversations apparently made an impact. “When I moved into a tenure-track position there was a fund to support summer research,” Tseng says, “and for some reason I didn’t go back to Paris. I went to Shanghai. And you know, to this day I still wonder why. It must have been the Lord, putting desires in our hearts.”

The student interaction, remembering Father Lebbe — it all seemed to coalesce when she  came across a book that was a directory of the holdings of the Shanghai Municipal Archives. “It specifically focused on their Christian Chinese language publications from the interwar years,” she recalls. “It was Chinese Christians who published these materials, and the municipal archives had tons of such journals. That just made me curious.”

So much so that Tseng developed a course at Hope called “Christianity in China: Negotiating Faith and Culture” and is conducting research for a book with the working title The Search for a Chinese Church: Protestantism in Twentieth-century China.

“I come from a Chinese Christian family, so I had heard of some of the Chinese preachers who were instrumental in the shaping of the Chinese church. . . For me, this has been sort of a spiritual journey, because I have been studying on an academic level my own spiritual heritage that my family is a part of.”

“When I went to China for the first time, I spoke Chinese, I looked Chinese, but it still was very foreign to me,” she says. “And the Shanghai Municipal Archives are state-of-the-art, but the archivists were very rude! But what I knew was, this was a treasure trove. There is so much there — volumes and volumes of different journals and archives of Christian colleges founded by missionaries — that I thought, ‘I could spend my whole life doing this, seriously.’”

Tseng’s academic transformation has resulted in new directions on multiple levels. “As I pursued this, my advisor from my college days, who was a great mentor, kept encouraging me,” she says. “He said, ‘A lot of what’s written about the church is hagiographical. You can do something scholarly on this, and it will have value.’ So that’s how I’ve taught on this topic.

“Even the project itself has undergone a big evolution. Initially I was going to make it a monograph on the modernist and fundamentalist controversy in the Chinese church in the 1920s and ’30s, because at that time the China mission field was influenced by what was going on in the Western church. But then I realized that what I’m actually more interested in is the evolution of the Chinese church and how the faith became Chinese, how it became indigenized.”

And on a personal level, “I think I was just drawn to it,” says Tseng. “I come from a Chinese Christian family, so I had heard of some of the Chinese preachers who were instrumental in the shaping of the Chinese church, men like Wang Ming-Dao — but we never studied them, never read any biographies or sermons. For me, this has been sort of a spiritual journey, because I have been studying on an academic level my own spiritual heritage that my family is a part of.”

The present-day state of Christianity in China “is very complex,” Tseng observes. “For much of the 20th century Christianity was associated with Western military power. All Western denominations were absorbed into the Three-Self Church (self-governance, self-support, self-propagation), which began as a patriotic movement among Chinese after the Communist takeover of China. To this day, the government-sanctioned church is called the Three-Self Church. If you go into a Three-Self Church today they are filled to the brim. Once I witnessed more than 100 baptisms in one service, so the spiritual hunger is quite palpable. There’s no official persecution, because the Chinese government does not say churches cannot exist. Yet a couple of years ago, the government was tearing down crosses on church buildings because the government said the buildings were not up to code. There are Chinese pastors in jail, but usually they are pastors who are also involved with advocating for a civil society or a rights defense.

“So, is there persecution for Christianity in China?” Tseng asks, and then answers. “Yes, but it comes in very subtle forms. There is reason to be cautious.”

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