From Christ to Confucius

German Missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Globalization of Christianity, 1860-1950

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Albert Monshan Wu
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , November
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In From Christ to Confucius: German Missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Globalization of Christianity, 1860-1950, Albert Monshan Wu sets out to answer why German missionaries radically shifted from denouncing Confucianism and traditional Chinese culture in the 19th century to embracing them by the 1930s. In doing so, Wu situates his findings within the broader context of modern Chinese history and world Christianity, allowing him to spell out a number of broader implications for this shift, not only for missionaries in China, but also for Christians in Europe and around the globe. As a result, Wu’s work is as far-reaching in its conclusions as it is in its historical and demographic range. Thankfully, however, this broad scope is carefully dealt with in a way that does not oversimplify for the sake of the larger narrative. 

The structure of From Christ to Confucius is chronological, beginning with a succinct overview in chapters 1 and 2 of Christian mission movements up to the 19th century, followed by discussion of the two German mission societies on which the book focuses—the Protestant Berlin Missionary Society (BMS) and the Catholic Society of the Divine Word (SVD). As chapter 2 explains, the BMS and SVD, from their entrance into China in the 19th century, were among the most anti-Confucian German mission societies operating in the Middle Kingdom. In Confucianism these champions of Christendom saw a spiritual adversary holding sway over a vast empire; thus, to convert the Chinese en masse would require the downfall of their most revered sage. Nevertheless, what the rest of the book recounts is a dramatic transformation of missionaries’ attitudes over the next century. As Wu puts it, “the missionary encounter with China catalyzed new ways of Christian thinking” (9).

In particular, Wu argues, it was German missionaries’ “sense of failure” that led them to reflect self-critically and to engage in dialogue with Chinese Christians. As chapters 2 and 3 show, slow conversion rates, coupled with a rise in anti-Christian sentiment in the 19th century, led missionaries to reconsider their tactics and institute reforms, yet a “general attitude of suspicion toward Confucianism and traditional Chinese culture” remained (71). In fact, the death knell of the Confucian order struck by the Chinese Revolution of 1911 seemingly confirmed the inferiority of Chinese traditions to many missionaries. 

However, as chapters 4 and 5 discuss, with the ravages of World War I and a global rebalance of power, German missionaries in China were forced yet again to rethink their approaches, alliances, and attitudes. With the rise of nationalism, secularism, and communism, along with a popular resurgence of Buddhism, missionaries went on the defensive. Attempting to respond with an indigenizing agenda, German missionaries found themselves embracing their former foe, Confucianism, as an unlikely ally. Wu shows in chapter 6 that by the 1930s, missionaries within the very same societies that had previously seen Confucianism as a rival now “saw the fates of Christianity and Confucianism as inseparable” (162). 

Multiple factors influenced this shift, as a fluctuating power balance overlapped with changing understandings of Confucianism “not as a religion, but rather as a cultural force” (186). Wu only briefly mentions some of the reasons for the latter change, and it is regrettable that he does not spend more time exploring why Confucianism was reinterpreted so. While he treats the evolution of missionaries’ views with great nuance, less attention is given to how Confucians experienced a similar transformation in the evaluation and reconstruction of their own tradition in light of modernity—a transformation that, no doubt, impacted the way Confucianism was perceived by foreign observers. Future research would do well to ask what influence Confucian intellectuals’ reinterpretations of Confucianism in the 1920s and 1930s had on missionaries’ reinterpretations. In what ways did the reforming work of Confucian scholars serve to make Confucianism more amenable to Christians, whether intentionally or unintentionally?

Despite these monumental shifts, Wu shows in chapter 7 that much of the missionaries’ deep-seated suspicion—of Chinese Christian leaders, of liberal Chinese approaches to indigenous churches, and of Chinese spirituality—persisted. As Wu insightfully argues, however, this suspicion was not entirely the result of cultural chauvinism; on the contrary, Chinese Christians were often reluctant to see the withdrawal of missionary support and leadership. Moving on to chapter 8, Wu discusses two Chinese Christian figures associated with the BMS and SVD, respectively: Ling Deyuan and Chen Yuan. This final chapter provides a helpful balance, shifting the narrative from a focus on foreign missionaries in these two societies, while also shedding light on dynamics involved in the societies’ eventual fates with the expulsion of missionaries from China in the 1950s.

Despite his primary focus on German missionaries, Wu does not miss the forest for the trees. Instead, by maintaining such a focus, he masterfully shows how “German missionaries—as well as European missionaries more broadly—and Chinese Christians simultaneously shaped, and were shaped by, their encounter with each other” (3). Wu’s compelling arguments, bolstered by extensive research, challenge a number of narratives about the “success” or “failure” of Christian missions in China, the evolving attitudes of Christian missionaries toward traditional Chinese culture, and, more broadly, the optimistic assertion of many scholars of world Christianity that Christianity has an inherently unifying, diversity-embracing power. The reality that Wu presents is much more nuanced and fragmented. Most compellingly, he shows how the history of Christian missions in China has been replete with unintended consequences, one being how “Christian missionaries laid the foundation for the decline of their own religious authority” (253). Through rethinking their theologies of mission and religion, they rather ironically played a role in the very process of secularization they ardently sought to combat. As if such groundbreaking scholarship were not enough, however, what sets this book apart is Wu’s elegance of presentation. Whether or not one comes away agreeing with all of Wu’s conclusions, one will certainly feel the journey was worth the time.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ryan Pino is a graduate student in Religion at Yale Divinity School, focusing on World Christianity and Chinese Religions.

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Albert Monshan Wu is Assistant Professor of history at the American University of Paris. He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Review of Books and CommonwealHe lives in Paris, France.


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