Chinese Public Theology

Generational Shifts and Confucian Imagination in Chinese Christianity

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Alexander Chow
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Chinese Christianity has been at the margins of Chinese intellectual history and Christian theology, despite efforts by scholars like Samuel Ling and Chloë Starr to integrate it into the mainstream of both disciplines. This book is an attempt by Alexander Chow to bring Chinese Christianity into conversation with both disciplines through an examination of its recent theological developments as a “public faith” (3).

Chow’s book is carefully divided into two parts. This structure allows him to produce a useful historical discussion and cast valuable insights onto Chinese public theology. This is accomplished, in the first part, by tracing the continuities and discontinuities in the generational development of public theology from the 1950s to the present day, thereby enabling him to follow up in the second part with a theological critique of two challenges—transcendence and family—facing the public theology enterprise. 

The monograph’s structure is also aided by a number of conceptual frameworks. The primary concepts of “generational shifts” and “Confucian imagination” are its main analytical themes. Chow adopts a twofold definition of generational units, which considers the circumstances leading to the formation of each generation of Chinese Christian thinkers and how these circumstances have influenced their approaches to public faith engagement. This accounts for shifts in approach and thinking between each generation (11–12, 161). By the same token, the generational units are affected by a common Confucian “scholar-official” heritage (28–30), which has emboldened these thinkers to engage the public space and advocate for socio-political reforms. Chow also adopts David Tracy’s notion of “three distinct but related ‘publics’”—society, academy, and church—to determine how each generation publicly practiced their faith (18).

This way of crafting the book is effective, as it allows Chow to construct a novel historical theological analysis for the book’s first part. He is able to create an intellectual genealogy of Chinese public theology. By contrasting the thought and approaches of three generations of thinkers—state-sanctioned Protestantism (chapter 2), cultural Christians (chapter 3) and urban intellectual Christians (chapter 4)—he demonstrates why each generation employed varying approaches when carrying out their duties as public intellectuals. For instance, he shows that cultural Christians (mainstream Chinese scholars who engaged with Christianity) who were born in the 1950s and educated primarily in an atheistic worldview chose to practice Christianity discursively during the Reform Era, when they came to realize its value for providing China with a transcendent (theistic) moral anchor. For them, Christianity was primarily worked out in the public of the academy, and not through churches. This contrasts starkly with the generation of urban intellectual Christians who were born in the 1960s-70s. For them, their disillusionment with the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident caused them to find “existential resolve” in Christianity (96–97). Christianity became their personal faith, and they chose to practice it through urban house churches, seeing the ecclesia as an appropriate vehicle for enacting spiritual and political reform.

As mentioned, this genealogical narrative allows Chow to address public theology’s two challenges in the second part and identify certain ways that it could make a contribution to debates about China’s political future. So far, this debate has been largely dominated by coverage on intellectuals espousing Maoist, new Confucian, and Western liberal ideas (chapter 5). Chow joins this debate by comparing Christianity’s theistic framework with Confucianism’s “anthropocosmic vision of humanity” (135). He draws on the Eastern Orthodox notion of theosis, or divine-human unity, and proposes a correction to “the Confucian imagination in Chinese public theology [that] is … humanistically disposed.” This proposal aims at aiding public theology in realizing its unique potential for contributing to the Chinese intellectual sphere; that is, by borrowing the theosis framework to assist public theology in balancing both its ultimate belief in a transcendent God and its this-worldly concern for public engagement in order to attain the traditional Confucian goal of heaven-human unity—a teaching that Confucianism has struggled to achieve historically (132, 137). Furthermore, Chow suggests that Christianity can act as a “surrogate” model for the traditional Chinese family structure by reintroducing the notion of reciprocity into its rigid, paternalistic structure through Trinitarian understandings of God and God’s relationship with humans (157–58).

Overall, Chinese Public Theology incorporates Chinese Christianity into the contemporary intellectual landscape of China. By asking questions about how the faith acted as the wellspring of thought for three generations of intellectuals to engage the three publics on China’s political system, Chow shows how they became participants in mainstream ideological debates (117–19), making distinctive contributions by using religious ideas like the Anglican via media perspective or Neo-Calvinist covenantal theology to dialogue about issues such as state-religion relations and the rule of law. 

Beyond the book’s merits, a question can be raised about Chow’s conceptualization of Confucian imagination. Though it can be agreed that the scholar-official tradition of “managing the world” (28) would have exerted significant influence on the public tendencies of these intellectuals, it seems that Christian ideas played an equally important role in encouraging public engagement. Admittedly, Chow does stress that Christian starting points like transcendence and covenantal theology were central to these intellectuals’ public theologies. Nonetheless, he does not push the question of whether Christianity had any further effect on Confucian imagination. In this light, it could be worthwhile to ask whether Confucian imagination can be seen as a tradition that interacted dynamically with Christianity (and other religious traditions), rather than merely as a one-way influence on the mindsets of these intellectuals.

In conclusion, Chow’s pioneering work is a well-received contribution, serving as an important model that can stimulate much-needed future research on this topic. Chow raises crucial questions about the intellectual viability of the Christian theistic framework within China, as well as how relations between God and humanity can serve as a reasonable starting point for synthesizing Chinese and Christian modes of thought. This work facilitates constructive discussions with mainstream ideas on the future of China’s political model.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Dao Wei Sim is a doctoral candidate in History working on a transnational history of modern Chinese evangelicalism from the Faculty of Arts adn Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexander Chow is Lecturer in Theology and World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Theosis, Sino-Christian Theology and the Second Chinese Enlightenment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and an editor of the academic journal Studies in World Christianity (Edinburgh University Press).


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