History, Society, and the Sacred: Protestantism in Twentieth-Century China

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 12:10 PM
Room 205 (Hynes Convention Center)
Gloria Tseng , Hope College, Holland, MI
Chinese Christians of the twentieth century were at the crossroads of traditional Chinese culture and various paths to Western modernity.  Even though modernity has been increasingly understood by many since the nineteenth century to be synonymous with secularism, Christian missionaries to the non-Western world and new converts to Christianity paradoxically became representative voices of Western modernity and found themselves at the forefront of bringing modern science, technology, and institutions to countries impacted by the missionary tide.  However, the social, cultural, and political implications of Christianity in the lands under the sway of the great missionary movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries exceeded the grasp of contemporaries, and this was very much the case with the tortured history of Protestantism in twentieth-century China.             In this paper, I will use the ideas of Michel Foucault, René Girard, and Lamin Sanneh to examine and analyze two aspects of this history: first, Chinese Christians’ role in the halting development of a civil society prior to the establishment of a Communist regime in 1949 and in the post-1949 evolution of state-society relations; second, the idioms, and concepts of Christianity as the medium of a new and yet distinctively Chinese cultural sensibility and spirituality.  I will argue that each author offers an important analytical lens for coming to grips with these two aspects of the Christian impact on twentieth-century China: Foucault’s emphasis that religion is not a separate realm, but integral to culture, or more specifically, to the structure of a culture’s power-knowledge; Girard’s provocative interpretation of history through the lens of the Gospel narrative in his various works on violence; and Sanneh’s thesis that wherever Christianity is preached, the culture to which it is preached becomes the medium for the practice and expression of the faith, and hence its natural extension.
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