Over at the invaluable Danwei, Julian Smisek’s “Hu Shi, missionaries, and women’s rights” (July 15, 2010) does a valuable service in translating Hu’s 1930 essay, “Congratulations to the YWCA,” which pays tribute to Christian missionaries for helping Chinese women.
Hu, a Columbia University PhD, won a poll in the early 1920s as the most admired “returned student” in China. But his surprising words of praise for the YWCA need to be balanced against his views on Christianity’s future in China. He elsewhere disdained the run of Christian missionaries as uneducated and narrow. They came to China because they could live well for little money, he said, and mission boards were far less careful in selecting China missionaries than Standard Oil was in selecting China salesmen and executives.
Hu’s “China and Christianity” was the lead piece in the July 1927 issue of the North American journal, The Forum. That year saw Chiang Kai-shek purge the Communists and Mao Zedong take to the countryside, setting off a generation of civil war, but the editor introduces Hu as “the leader of an intellectual movement that is permeating the youth of China and is interested chiefly in the things of the mind.” Like the “ancient sages of the East,” Hu “stands outside the current political conflict.”
Here’s the editorial in its entirety:
The future of Christianity in China is a question which should be considered apart from the question of the past services rendered to China by the Christian missionaries. The part played by the missionaries in the modernization of China will long be remembered by the Chinese, even though no Christian church may be left there. They were the pioneers of the new China. They helped the Chinese to fight for the suppression of opium which the pirate-traders brought to us. They agitated against footbinding, which eight centuries of esoteric philosophizing in native China failed to recognize as an inhuman institution. And they brought to us the first rudiments of European science. The early Jesuits gave us the pre-Newtonian astronomy, and the later Protestant missionaries introduced modern hospitals and schools. They taught us to know that there was a new world and a new civilization behind the pirate-traders and gunboats.
Many of the Protestant missionaries worked hard to awaken China and bring about a modern nation. China is now awakened and determined to modernize herself. There is not the slightest doubt that a new and modem China is emerging out of chaos. But this new China does not seem to promise much bright future to the propagation of the Christian faith. On the contrary, Christianity is facing opposition everywhere. The dream of a “Christian occupation of China” seems to be fast vanishing, – probably forever. And the explanation is not far to seek.
It is true that there is much cheap argument in the narrow nationalistic attack which sees in the Christian missionary an agent of imperialist aggression. But we must realize that it is nationalism, – the self-consciousness of a nation with no mean cultural past,– that once killed Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Manicheism in China. It is the same nationalism which four times persecuted Buddhism and finally killed it after over a thousand years of complete Buddhistic conquest of China. And it is the same national consciousness which is now resisting the essentially alien religion of Christianity.
And more formidable than nationalism, there is the rise of rationalism. We must not forget that Chinese philosophy began two thousand five hundred years ago with Lao Tse who taught a naturalistic conception of the universe end a Confucius who was frankly an agnostic. This rationalistic and humanistic tradition has always played the part of a liberator in every age when the nation seemed to be under the influence of a superstitious or fanatic religion. This cultural background of indigenous China is now revived with the new reinforcement of the methods and conclusions of modern science and becomes a truly formidable safeguard of the intellectual class against the imposition of any religious system whose fundamental dogmas, despite all efforts of its apologists, do not always stand the test of reason and science.
And after all, Christianity itself is fighting its last battle, even in the so-called Christendoms. To us born heathens, it is a strange sight indeed to see Billy Sunday and Aimée McPherson hailed and patronized in an age whose acknowledge prophets are Darwin and Pasteur. The religion of Elmer Gantry and Sharon Falconer must sooner or later make all thinking people feel ashamed to call themselves “Christians”. And then they will realize that Young China was not far wrong in offering some opposition to a religion which in its glorious days fought religious wars and persecuted science, and which, in the broad daylight of the twentieth century prayed for the victory of the belligerent nations in the World War and is still persecuting the teaching of science in certain quarters of Christendom.
It’s impressive both that The Forum published a critical piece from an intellectual in China and that Hu kept up with the latest stateside scandals and the novels of Sinclair Lewis. At a time when anti-imperialist tempers ran high, Hu coolly uses cosmopolitan liberal standards which stand above particular nations. His criteria apply to China and the US as well. But perhaps Hu should have known better than to think that rationality could combine with nationalism to save China.