The Religious Outlook in China

A reply

It may be objected that I have done injustice to the Christian religion in treating the results of Western civilization and its religion as two independent entities, between which I have found apparently little connection. The objecter would say that it is impossible to conceive the one without at the same time thinking of the other. I readily admit that Western civilization is the product of the Christian religion, and not an independent development; but I admit this only with reservations and limitations, especially as I find that Christian ideals have so far failed to influence the political actions of the different powers in their relations with my country.

Everyone will admit that, without Christianity, at the time when the ancient world collapsed, the beginnings of the new European civilization would have been very different. Society was then steeped in barbarism, people were incessantly engaged in merciless slaughter, and all was chaos. It was Christianity, and that alone probably, that supplied the moral stimulus, elevated the feelings of the tribes above their mutual antipathy and hatred, and brought them together in a bond of peace and brotherhood. With the progress of the centuries, the religious influence became so strong that for all practical purposes it had the entire control of the greater part of Europe. Culture and civilization were almost wholly the results of Christian beneficence. Art, literature, philosophy, and all the finer elements of human life were fostered and encouraged, and Christianity was such a potent factor that everything was regarded as ancilla theologiae.

But after the days of the Augsburg Confession and the subsequent separation of Church and State, so that the affairs of everyday life were no longer subject to the spiritual power, is it not true that the spirit of religion and of practical matters concerning the state began to diverge from one another? Is it not true that Church and State made laws unto themselves, which were sometimes in no way reconcilable? Is this not tantamount to saying that Christianity, in its collective and corporate sense, and Western civilization, as we know it for the last four centuries or so, became two independent entities? Nay, more than that. When the Church saw that it no longer enjoyed the prestige and power that it once had, did it not resign from the high seat of the Areopagus, and, instead of compelling everything to obey its commands, condescend to make itself the ancilla rei publicae? Further, is it not true that, because the Church ceased to exert its autocratic influence over the affairs of the State, the scientific developments, the intellectual diversity and conflict of succeeding ages, and the political expansion and the acquisition of power in distant lands by European countries, especially in the nineteenth century, were made possible?

Speaking of the pathetic position into which the Christian religion has fallen, Mr. George Santayana has this to say: ‘Religion [he is speaking of Christianity in particular] no longer reveals divine personalities, future rewards, and tender Elysian consolations; nor does it seriously propose a heaven to be reached by a ladder or a purgatory to be shortened by prescribed devotions. It merely gives the real world an ideal status and teaches men to accept a natural life on supernatural grounds.’

The eighteenth century in Europe, in the judgment of another writer, a historian, was the most unchristian of all centuries. Of the nineteenth century, he says: ‘The characteristic of political life was its gradual penetration by the principles of democracy proclaimed by the French Revolution, which make the nineteenth century the age of constitutionalism and parliamentary government in its various modifications. In its intellectual life, the idealistic philosophy of the beginning of the century did not permanently prevail, nor did any definite conception of the universe, to the exclusion of all others; it was dominated the empirical-positivist, rational-naturalistic tendencies of thought, which make it the century of the natural and historical sciences. In the field of morals, the striving for the complete autonomy of the individual personality asserted itself far more strongly, and as a necessary consequence, the rejection of the idea of authority, and resistance to the authoritative regulation of the individual’s inner life. Finally, social life was marked by the full development of national­ism, which brought the differentiation of the Occidental peoples to a kind of conclusion, and raised to a hitherto unknown pitch the national sentiment, the consciousness that each nation has in it certain special endowments and conditions, and has a right to demand its place in the concert of peoples. There can be no doubt that all these factors were necessarily unfavorable to the religious life.’ (Italics mine.)

Of what Christianity is doing for the twentieth century, we have seen not a little; and if observations do not lead us to Nietzsche’s conclusion, that the Gospel died on the Cross, they ought to convince us that the spirit of the Christian religion is none too powerful, particularly if we keep our eyes on the political actions of the European nations on the East. I use the word European advisedly, because America, so far as China is concerned, may well be proud of the example she is setting to Europe in trying to observe the elements of morality.

But even with Europe I am not confusing the morality of the nation with the morality of the individual; for although I find nothing in the history of Chinese relations with the so-called Christian powers that would recommend the Christian religion to our attention and appreciation, I can testify that there have always been individuals who lived up to the principles of Jesus. However, if Christianity hopes ever to win a respectable position in China, individual morality will do little to achieve the desired end; for it is always those actions which are performed in the name of the nation that produce the greatest effect upon the destiny of our people; and so long as these are irreconcilable with the teachings of the Bible, it is useless to think that sensible Chinese will take account of the Christian religion.

The missionary will immediately re­ply that he and his colleagues have certainly done much to carry out in China, on a large scale, the altruistic ideas of the Founder of their religion. The establishment of schools, the erection of hospitals, and the numerous other ways in which they have helped the Chinese People – are they not proof enough that they are working with a disinterested love for the welfare of the country? They have, perhaps. with their knowledge of science and their superior power of organization, alleviated the pain and suffering of many wretched people, and enlightened many young men as to the splendor of the West; but do they realize the many abuses that have sprung in the trail of the missionary and as a result. of missionary work? It was in connection with missionary work that Kiaochow was taken by Germany – a wrong for which the European powers at the Peace Table have not seen the necessity of apologizing. It was because of this example, set by Germany, that the other Christian nations of Europe sought the lion’s share, and wrought evil which as yet has shown no sign of diminishing.

The missionaries are usually proud of the schools and colleges which they have helped to establish; but they should spare a little pains to find out what the intellectual Chinese think of their educational projects and undertakings. It is only natural to accord to the missionaries the warmest welcome and appreciation if they are doing things in their proper directions. But the fact remains that missionary educational institutions have always been looked on with suspicion by men of perspicacity and insight, and sending students to their care has never been encouraged. The missionary may wonder why the Chinese have shown such insolence in maintaining an indifferent attitude to what seem to them positive benefits to the nation. The reason is simple. The missionary school, in its anxiety to vindicate the principles of Christianity and the ‘superiority’ of Western civilization, gives the young men a one-sided education, consisting of a smattering of things European or American, which makes them fit for little more than to become intermediaries between Chinese and foreigners in business transactions. The missionary school has never endeavored sufficiently to make useful citizens of the young men whom it takes into its custody; for, instead giving them a wholesome education, with due recognition of their national tradition, it has filled their minds with the superficialities of Western civilization, which neither assist them to appreciate its intrinsic value, nor stand them in good stead in their struggle for a respectable position in Chinese society.

The products of the missionary instruction, the missionary would say, have not been so despicable; for many of the leading public men in China to-day have partaken of the benefits of missionary education. They have become responsible persons, however, not because of this education, but in spite of it. And the fact that they escaped from the effects of their unhealthy education speaks well only for their own intelligence. The missionary has no reason to claim the honor of the result, he who had arranged their educational plans in such a way that they might know as little as possible of the grandeur and dignity of their own national genius, the force and beauty of their own civilization, and the splendid character and discipline of their own great men, to whom the noble and sublime elements of that civilization are due – their accomplishments in literature, art, music, and morals.

This is the reason why I said that Christianity has much to do and much to show before it will appeal to the Chinese intelligence, and be seriously considered. We have always observed a strange gap between the teachings of Christ and the spirit in which the Christian nations do their work in China. The two have not seemed to us to be congenial companions, for what the one professes, the other hastens to contradict in its actions.

James Legge, one of the noted sinologists, once recounted a personal experience with his Excellency Kwo Sung tao, Chinese Ambassador it at the Court of St. James’s in 1877. “You know,” the ambassador said to me. “both England and China. Which country do you say is the better of the two?” I replied, “England.” He disappointed, and added, “I mean looking at them from the moral standpoint — from the standpoint of benevolence, righteousness and propriety, which country do you say is the better?” After some demur and fencing, I replied again, “England.” I never saw a man more surprised. He pushed his chair back, got on his feet, look a turn across the room, and cried out, “You say that, looked at from the moral standpoint, England is better than China? Then how is it that England insists on our taking her opium?

This little anecdote is significant in many ways; but for our purpose it is a crude example of what I mean by the gap. China may be ‘stationary’ and ‘stagnant’; but, as a nation and as individuals, the Chinese people, as the case of the ambassador shows, desire to live according to the spirit of those moral principles which, through Confucius, have been handed down to the present day. Nor will it ever be the intention of the people to cast away that invaluable ethical heritage, which has elevated the soul of China and formed the one great discipline for so many centuries. The present upheaval in the different parts of the country – the clamor for reform, for modernization largely in the fashion of the West does seem to promise a new society, which is likely to leave little room for religious and moral tradition. But the far-sighted leaders of the people realize the importance of adopting, above all, those mechanical devices of organization, of invention, of management, which have given so much power to the West. The spiritual force, the bond of life will remain substantially as it has been in the history of China. It is to this task, forced upon them by the iron hands of necessity, that the great multitude of thinking men are dedicating their lives. Japan has succeeded, with great credit, and China is doing the same thing in building up a material civilization adequate to cope with the forces from without.

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