Chinese Traditional Culture and its Influence On Chinese Theological Reflection
Bishop K.H. Ting has said, "The Word becoming flesh needed to be born of Mary as mother."(1) Likewise, Chinese theology needs to be born of Chinese culture as its mother. In my understanding, what Bishop Ting is saying is that the birth and development of Chinese theology needs the cultivation and nurture of Chinese Culture.
When God's revelation and the Christian gospel enter a particular culture, these need to be embodied within that culture. This is because people who have been nurtured by a particular culture try to understand and interpret revelation and the gospel through their own idioms, through philosophical, religious, ethical and other notions found in their own particular culture. Being firmly rooted in Chinese soil over a long history of more than five thousand years, our culture has been able to take foreign cultures into itself and make them its own. Conversely, because of its deep-rootedness, this Chinese culture is difficult for other cultures to assimilate. Zen (Chan) Buddhism in China is no longer the same its that which came from India and the number of Christians in China has never exceeded 6% of the total population. The example of Buddhism indicates that any religion that wants to take root in China must adapt itself to Chinese characteristics, while the example of Christianity shows the almost unimaginable difficulty of fitting Christianity into the Chinese cultural framework.
Christianity first came to China with the Nestorians in the 7th century during the Tang dynasty. The Yelikewen (a Mongolian term for Christians, apparently derived from the Hebrew Elohim) entered China during the Mongol Yuan dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries. Both these expressions of Christianity originated in the Eastern Church and left us some material (though scarce) for theological reflection. Catholicism was brought by Matteo Ricci during the Ming and Chinese scholar-officials like Paul Xu Guanggi (1562-1633) and Michael Yang Tingyun (1557-1627) wrote theological articles which at the time were referred to as studies of heaven. Protestant Christianity followed in the 19th century. Yet, for all this, China's own theologians did not appear until after the May Fourth Movement in 1919.
If we were to summarize theological thinking in China since the Tang dynasty, we could say that by and large, no theologian was unmarked by Chinese culture. Understandably, some complemented the culture, especially in the question of' original sin and salvation. My paper will attempt to introduce how Chinese traditional culture influenced Chinese theological reflection. I will consider four points:
Unceasing generation (sheng-sheng) and eternal return (guifan). Sheng-sheng is dynamic generation that is unceasing, a concept taken from the Yi Jing (Book of Change), the earliest Chinese classic.(2) Some of the contents and resources for this book originated with the emperor Zhou Wenwang, three thousand years ago. Its cosmology is found in the "Formation of Creation" which says, "In yi there is the tai ji (supreme ultimate). From that sprang forth two poles; from the two poles there were the four forms; and from the four forms came the eight trigrams.(3) And lastly, there was the myriad of all things. When the monk Jing(4) wrote the text for the Nestorian Monument (erected 781 CE), he ingeniously incorporated this theory of the formation of creation and explained God's creation in the idiom of Chinese culture, giving it theological explanation of the mighty acts of God and creation:
God used the Chinese ideogram for the number ten, which looks like a cross and can easily be divided into four spaces, to signify the cross.
God stirred the winds of life, separating them into two qi (energy), the yin and the yang.
God rotated light and darkness, separating heaven and earth.
God made the sun and the moon to circle each other, thus forming day and night.
After creating the myriad of things, God created the first human being.
An article written by the Yelikewen contains a further development of the concept of God as "an ever-generating God."(5) Out of the chaos came order, with the sun and moon revolving and the rotation of day and night. The dynamic movements of the revolving sun and moon resonated with that of the life of flourishing human beings-all of which movements testify to the "unceasing generation" of a living and dynamic God.
Since God is ever-generating, human beings should therefore worship God. With God's help, humans can strive for unceasing self-transformation and great achievements. The great Mongolian emperors began their correspondence with the following sentence: "O the great power of the ever-creating God!" The Yuan emperor Gui You (r. 1246-1248) wrote a letter to the Pope in Rome in 1247 in which he said, "We devote ourselves to serve God, and by God's power ... we are only human beings. But for the help of God, how else can we succeed?"
According to the Nestorian Monument created beings are originally honest, humble and innocent, without evil desires. But because of deception and tempting by Satan, humans have gone astray. Therefore the death and resurrection of Christ is for humankind to create a new path and destroy death. This effort of Christ in humans is to complete God's work of creation. To be Christians, we should "according to the principle of ren (human-heartedness; benevolence), help others." But this ren differs from the ren of Confucianism, which means human relationships through human kindness and love. Instead, it is the ren of the Yi jing, which is the seed of grasses, trees and fruits. This seed is the very source of life. The theological assumption of Nestorian Christians is that all good works and virtues are meant to help people live and to live a better life.
Therefore, God is an ever-generating God who creates and sustains life and Christ is an invitation to life through the destruction of death, making life more complete and full. Christians are dependent upon the power of heaven for self-transformation and also to protect life. This is the theological reflection of Christians living in the Tang and Yuan dynasties, arrived at with the influence of Chinese traditional culture: an ever-generating God, firmly rooted in the Chinese notion of "unceasing generation."
In traditional Chinese culture there is a wholesome spirit of unceasing generation, yet there is also a deep sentiment of attachment "not forgetting one's roots." Reciprocity contains a strong emphasis on this idea of "returning to one's roots." The idea of "returning" (to one's origin) is in itself a strong emphasis in the culture.
Another Chinese classic is the Li ji, a collection of the sayings of Confucius regarding rites or rituals. Confucius defined li thus:
Li is not forgetting one's origin. The ancient sage said, When a fox dies, its head is always facing the hill to which it can no longer return.
According to the Li ji, all things originate with heaven and human beings originate from their ancestors. This means that the source of all things is the great nature. People's roots are in their forefathers. And the greater source of all these is God.
When we offer sacrifice to God in the wilderness, the importance of this act is its reciprocity and gratitude towards one's origin. Returning to one's source therefore is of utter importance.
It is not easy to explain why it is necessary to make food offerings to God (as in Lev. 3: 16; 21: 6). But the Li ji tells us:
When we offer food to God, we are returning to God. It is only by turning towards God that one very naturally makes offering to God.
When we read the five books of Moses, it is difficult to understand why God is pleased to accept the fragrance of our offerings (Gen. 8:21). This fragrance of offerings is called yan in the Rites of Zhou:
"Another meaning of yan is a sincere heart."
"Through yan we give offering to the God most high. So our offering is to return to God our sincere heart."
This seeking to return to God is a longing homesickness that is shared by both ancient and contemporary people. In some ways this longing is even more severe in contemporary than in ancient people. Several years ago a Chinese scholar identified the dilemma of contemporary people as a sense of homelessness, which lies in the lack of balance, harmony and peace of spirit. Another scholar, surveying Chinese university students, found that young people today are searching for a spiritual home. Bishop K.H. Ting has quoted the poet Tao Yuanming (365-427) in this regard, "My garden is deserted, why do I not return?" He went on to draw out the meaning for today: "Today many people feel lost in the spiritual sense. They want to find a place where they can feel loved and where they themselves can love, but they do not know where this place is." This homestead is available under the cross. It is that dwelling place from generation to generation. The problem is that people so tired and weary from life's journey do not know how to return. I have described this situation in my "Ode to Return":
Earth is filled with thorns; blood is shed.
In the wilderness the good shepherd is seeking;
Longingly at the door the loving father waits.
Amid the shadows of the mountains
Do wandering white clouds know where to go?
Deep in the ravine of the hills
Does the fatigued bird know where to return?
Even at the very edge of the ocean
The setting sun knows where it is headed.
The lost sheep is still wandering;
Why does it not return?
Steadfast action and sincere devotion. Traditional Chinese culture places strong emphasis on concrete action. All scholarship has to be manifested in steadfast action (6), and must be an integral part of being human. This is a cultural characteristic which is even reflected in the translation of the Bible. Early Missionaries like Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China in 1807, translated logos as yan (word). Later it was translated as dao, "the Way." There are roughly two reasons for this change: 1) Lao Tzu had said that the Dao is before the creation of heaven and earth (chapter 25) and is everlasting and transcending time and space. Chuang Tzu said that Dao is without limits or boundaries, and yan is not everlasting, therefore it has its limits (chapter 2). In the Han language, the word Dao means a road, a path that one can walk on. It also means rules and regulations and can mean speaking or sayings, but this is not its main meaning.
According to the scholar Xie Fuya (1892-1992), the Hebrews are a people of faith, while the Greeks and other Westerners are people of knowing, but the Chinese are a people of action. "For more than 1800 years, the West has used the method of knowledge to prove the faith, and has created a glorious, illuminating Christian theology. Yet, in our manifesting faith in action, we should be able to create a Chinese Christian civilization." (7) Jia Yuming (1880-1964) went a step further by integrating knowledge and action. "What I believe is what I know; what I know is what I believe and also what I do. With actual experience I will know what I believe and do what I know." (8)
"But the good works or actions advocated by Christian faith are not merely ethical virtues. They are the very sacred fruits of a life saturated by the truth, filled with the Holy Spirit and radiating the fragrance of Jesus Christ." (9) What is required is the inner cultivation of one's spirituality: Attention is on the spirit reborn, sanctified, resulting in the nurture and growth of the inner person. How we cultivate and concretize the inner spiritual energy (qi) is the strength of Chinese Christianity and a much-needed characteristic for the church in China. (10)
In addition we need to address the problem of a transcendent God who saves us (on earth). T.C. Chao (Zhao Zichen; 1888-1979) said, "The salvation of humankind comes only from God who is the initiator, from above to below, of a heavenly grace and revelation that is through the word made flesh." (11) Bishop Ting again: "Between the concrete realities of the human morality and the highest aspirations hoped for there exists an unbridgeable chasm ... Such an unfortunate situation, attributable to human nature, is rightly regarded as `sin' by Christian faith. Human beings cannot depend on themselves, but will have to depend on God's salvation to free themselves from this captivity ... The change in social system (in China) has not eliminated this condition of spiritual poverty." (12)
We have already mentioned how Jia Yuming advocated the cultivation of the inner heart. This we can trace back to the neo-Confucian philosophy of the Song and Ming dynasties. According to Wang Yangming (1472-1528), "A myriad of things with their principles is not far from the heart and mind of humans." For knowledge in "essence is in the heart and the mind." He also said, "When a tree is planted, the root is the heart of the tree."
In China there are many Christians who pay much attention to the inner spiritual journey. By this sacred path they come close to God. T.C. Chao once said, "How can there be real religion, if humans do not come close to God?"
According to Chinese tradition, steadfast action and sincere devotion are two complementary, not contradictory, manifestations. On this point, Xie Fuya said, "The inner spiritual strength of a person can be cultivated to the point of communing with the cosmos and even integrating with it. By so doing, the person will gain support and strength from this great cosmic union." And the person would have courage to withstand hell or high water, willing to be immersed in the fallen world in order to rescue the lives of millions. "Forgetting self and dedicating oneself to the spirit of the great cosmos with little self-interest or self-gain, a person's inner self would be pulsating with that of the cosmos. In non-attachment, everything becomes secondary success, fame, power, prestige, profit-even to the point where one's physical body is no longer regarded as one's own. This state reached in selflessness is sometimes referred to in the philosophy of religion as `otherworldliness.' But this otherworldliness is not negative, it is not emptiness. Instead it is so positive that one is ready to leap into the bitter sea to rescue those who need rescuing."
Everlasting Spirit and Universal Love. Traditional Chinese culture includes a search for an ideal and independent human characteristic. Mencius refers to this characteristic as an eternal spirit. This spirit is "not weakened by prosperity, it is unshaken by poverty and unbent by power or violence." T.C. Chao said the same thing in theological terms. "This quest for a higher spirit on the part of human beings is based on the fact that they are created by God. We are the object of God's love and we are God's progeny. We are made in the image of God, therefore we have this characteristic." (13)
Contemporary intellectuals concerned with this traditional Chinese quest for higher human characteristics invariably were attracted to Christianity precisely because they saw these characteristics in the person of Jesus. One of the earliest Chinese Marxists, Chen Duxiu (1880-1942), pointed out, "We should internalize the great characteristics of Jesus and his profound concern for humanity and make these genetically a part of our own inheritance." (14) What Chen Duxiu understood to be Jesus' superior characteristics and concern were the latter's spirit of sacrifice, forgiveness, equality and universal love. Wu Leichuan, the first Chinese president of Yanjing University, pointed out, on the eve of the outbreak of war with Japan, that Christianity can nurture the leadership needed in China today and that people who can imitate Christ and his superior character can transform society. (15)
Y.T. Wu (Wu Yaozong; 1893-1979) accepted Christ as savior because he was moved by the great character of Jesus. That was in 1917. After World War 11, however, Wu said, "only a progressive and revolutionary Christianity can truly manifest the spirit of Jesus Christ. The mission of Christianity today is to transform a society that enslaves and makes tools out of human beings into a society that fully respects the worth of every human being." (16) Even before this, Y.T. Wu had written many articles and spoken out many times from the biblical and personal faith perspective, despite threats to his own life. He criticized the political corruption and moral decadence of the Chinese society of his day.
Deeply influenced by traditional Chinese culture, the theology of T.C. Chao shows the close link between the everlasting spirit and universal love. For him, the supreme character of God is that of prime mover and motivating force of the ever-changing cosmos, forever renewing and creating. The motivating force is not a blind force, but one led by love and moving towards love. God made humans in God's image. Therefore, people also have this characteristic of growing towards love and being driven by love. (17)
In ancient China it was the philosopher Mo Tzu (478-376 BCE) who spoke about love. "How do we know that God loves all people on earth? Because God lets the sun shine on everyone, giving all people life and feeding them." Nurtured by traditional Chinese culture, it is very easy for Chinese people to understand Jesus' words about "making the sun to shine on both the good and the evil, and the rain to fall on both as well" (Mt. 5: 45).
In the Chinese Church today there is a tendency to limit God's love to the confines of the community of faith. Therefore it is necessary for the church to address the question of love or universal love from a theological perspective. On this point, Bishop Ting has said, "Our starting point is God's love, or the God who loves. This love of God is compelled to create, to educate, to forgive, to save, to sanctify so that more and more people can find this source of love." (18) In Bishop Ting's theology, God is not only the fountain of love that created all things, but the home of love to which all things eventually return. In all of human history, we are in God's love that leads us, keeps us, accepts us and reigns over us. This shift in theological reflection (from source to dynamism), is closer to traditional Chinese thinking which emphasizes the activating and inclusive nature of universal love.
1 In Preface to Wang Weifan, Chinese Theology and Its Cultural Sources.
2 Yi jing, xi chi, Chapter 5. “Ever-generating change of Yi.‿
3 Ibid., Chapter 11.
4 A Syrian monk born in China, well versed in the Chinese classics.
5 An article on the temple of Zhen Jian, written by Liang Xiang of the Han dynasty.
6 This idea is found in the Doctrine of the Mean.
7 "Christianity and Culture", and "A Collection of Christian Thoughts in My Late Years."
8 The Study of Theology.
11 Interpreting Christianity.
12 "Theological Mass Movement in China.‿
13 Christian Theology.
14 In "Christianity and the Chinese People," in New Youth, February, 1920.
15 Christianity and Chinese Culture.
16 The Mission of Christianity," in Tian Feng, August 10, 1946.