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Q&A with Professor Albert Wu

'From Christ to Confucious'

Yale University Press

Professor Albert Wu came to The American University of Paris in Fall 2013 after completing his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. His first book, From Christ to Confucius: German Missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Globalization of Christianity, 1860-1950 was recently published by Yale University Press. It offers a revisionist history of European missionary work in China, telling the story of how European missionaries went from outspoken opponents of Confucianism to ardent defenders of it. The book also investigates how German missionaries and Chinese Christians jointly established an indigenous Chinese Church. We sat down with Professor Wu to ask him a few questions about From Christ to Confucius.

AUP: The central thrust of From Christ to Confucius is that you believe German missionaries traveling to China “catalyzed a revolution in thinking among European Christians about the nature of Christianity itself.” Could you explain this for us?

ALBERT WU: People have normally written about the European missionary enterprise in Asia and Africa as a moment of Europeans making an imprint abroad. People who have defended the European missionary project point to the various ways that European missionaries established schools, hospitals, and introduced Western ideas to Asia and Africa. Critics of European missionary work, on the other hand, tend to focus on how European missionary reflected the Western imperialist impulse, and instead sought to impose Western ideas and civilization on non-Europeans.

When I was doing research for the book, I became influenced by a new approach in transnational history, which focused on networks of cultural exchange, and how cultural encounters fostered dialogue between the cultures that came in contact with each other. I thus was interested in examining what European missionaries learned from the Chinese, what they brought back from their stints in China.

They learned a lot. For one, in their work, missionaries encountered other world religions; in the Chinese case, this meant Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. For more radical Christians, the meeting with other religious traditions led them to question the superiority of Christianity as a world religion, and instead argued for a fusion between Christianity and the local religions that missionaries encountered. Even more conservative Christians began to argue that one needed to at least engage in a productive dialogue with local religions.

The book thus advances the argument that the encounter with other religions pushed European missionaries to question the fundamental belief of the superiority of Christianity itself. This self-critique had a wide-ranging effect: for instance, after the Second Vatican Council of 1965, the Catholic Church conceded that there was the possibility that salvation could be found outside of the Church, and that people who had heard of the Gospel but lived a good life could also be saved. These new doctrines represented a major transformation of orthodox Catholic theology.

Over the course of your research, have you come across one historical figure that you wish was better known because of what she/he has accomplished? What is this person’s story? What do you know about her/him?

Oh, there are so many individuals that I came across in my research that I wish more people would know about. There is the Chinese pastor Ling Deyuan who was educated by conservative German Lutherans in rural Guangdong and later became the first Chinese Christian in the missionary society to run a congregation independent of Western influence. During the Sino-Japanese War, he grew sympathetic towards the Chinese Communists because he couldn’t stand seeing the corruption of the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) and he hid some Chinese Communists from persecution. After the Communists grabbed power in 1949, he became one of the early people enlisted by the Chinese Communists to manage the local Communists councils in rural Guangdong since he was one of the few people who was educated and had skills organizing people at the local level. So we have Chinese Communists drawing on missionary-trained Chinese Christians in the early years of the PRC, something that is not normally talked about in the historical scholarship.

But my personal favorite is the missionary Georg Kohls, a German missionary in China who was reprimanded by his supervisor because he did not support Hitler’s rise to power. After German missionaries were kicked out of China in the early 1950s, Kohls refuses to return to Germany, partly out of protest against his supervisor’s actions during the Nazi regime. He ends up in Berkeley, California, where his wife is in charge of running the Lutheran group on campus and he is helping at a local congregation. I felt an intensely personal connection when I discovered his files in the archives, because his address was not too far from my first apartment when I started graduate school at UC Berkeley.

When students learn about the period of high imperialism in the late nineteenth century, they learn about Western expansion and the spread of the British Empire. They rarely hear about the dramatic stories of resistance to Western imperialism, which emerged globally in the late nineteenth century.

Albert Wu
In your introduction, you say that the SVD (Societas Verbi Divini) and the BMS (Berlin Missionary Society) came to see that the fate of Christianity didn’t depend on the demise of Confucianism as much as the fates of these two beliefs were intertwined and, in your words, “inseparable.” Do you think that this is the case today?

I think in the case of global Catholicism, this is definitely still the case. In certain Catholic churches in Taiwan, for instance, the mass will end with a ritualistic bow to the ancestors, which is definitely an infusion of Confucian ideas and rituals into the Mass. I think the Catholic Church takes the idea of “inculturation” and “indigenization” very seriously.

The Protestant case seems very different to me. German Protestants missionary groups effectively became akin to non-governmental organizations; they do not appear to me as that different from “secular” aid groups. What this means is that most Protestant missionary groups in China and Taiwan have adopted the form of American evangelicalism, which takes a much more hard-line view on “syncretism” and theological purity. Unless I am missing something major, I rarely find an appeal to traditional Confucian ideals in the rhetoric of American evangelical groups.

One of the things we learned about in reading From Christ to Confucius was about the Boxer Uprising of 1900. Why do you think this event, where over 100,000 people were murdered, is not better known and more talked about?

It’s a good question. In China and Taiwan, every child learns about the Boxer Uprising and the subsequent foreign intervention by Eight Nations, since it represents the nadir of China’s “century of humiliation.” I think in the West, when people think of colonial interventions around 1900, they think mainly about Africa and the brutal exploitations in the Belgian Congo, immortalized by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. There is no literary equivalent for the Boxer Uprising, and thus it rarely enters into high school curricula. But more broadly, I think when students learn about the period of high imperialism in the late nineteenth century, they learn about Western expansion and the spread of the British Empire. They rarely hear about the dramatic stories of resistance to Western imperialism, which emerged globally in the late nineteenth century. It wasn’t just China: massive uprisings exploded across the globe – throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia – as a response to Western imperialism.  

Recently the ongoing rift between the communist government of China and the Holy See has reemerged in the public eye. Even though in From Christ to Confucius, you’re writing about events that took place decades ago, it still feels like a very contemporary story that helps to explain today’s rift between these two powerful institutions. Is this part of the “schisms” between Western and Chinese Christianity you elude to?

Absolutely. The schism between the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See is rooted in the moment that I draw out in the last chapter and conclusion of my book. After the Communists took control of China, they established a “Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association,” which sought to oversee and control the Chinese Catholic population. The most important thing that they wanted to control was the ordination of bishops and other members of the church hierarchy. This demand was obviously unacceptable to the Holy See—without the ability to ordain its own bishops, the Vatican has no real power. So there was a split between the Patriotic Catholic church, whose church hierarchy was put in place by the Chinese Communists, and an “underground church” of Chinese Catholics who continued to pledge their loyalty to the Vatican.

But this immediately put Chinese Catholics in a bind: join the Patriotic Catholic church, or resist state control and go underground? It also put the Vatican in a bind—while they immediately excommunicated bishops who joined the Patriotic Church, should they recognize the Chinese Catholics who continued to attend the state-sponsored Church? The burden, as often these things go, was placed on individual church-goers to have to go underground and risk persecution from an antagonistic Communist government, or join the Patriotic Church and risk cutting themselves off from the rest of the global Catholic community.

Under Pope Francis, there has been an unprecedented move to forge a rapprochement between the Holy See and the PRC. While the facts remain contested, reports have emerged that Francis has essentially agreed to remove some of the underground bishops in favor of candidates approved by the PRC. While nothing has officially been announced and the situation is still quite fluid, it seems that Pope Francis is moving in the direction of allowing the PRC to dictate more control of ordination of Chinese Catholic bishops.

Supporters of the move argue that the boundaries between the underground church and the Patriotic Church are blurrier than ever before, and that many of the members of the Patriotic Church are now actually pro-Vatican people, and the schism is much smaller than it has ever been. Critics, on the other hand, posit that by recognizing members appointed by the PRC, the Vatican is selling out members of the underground church, both past and present, who suffered persecution from the Chinese Communist Party out of loyalty to the Vatican and the global Catholic community. I think it’s too early to pass judgment, but as a historian I see the Pope’s desire to forge better relations with China as rooted in his identity as a Jesuit—the Jesuits have a long history of missionary work in China, dating back to the 16th century, and they have a long historical tradition of “accommodating” the secular powers in China as a way to achieve their goals of forging a global Catholic communion. If Pope Francis can somehow “solve” the China problem and forge a compromise that unifies the Chinese Catholic community with the global Catholic community, that could be the enduring historical legacy of his papacy.

To discover more about this moment in history, pick up a copy of Professor Albert Wu’s From Christ to Confucius: German Missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Globalization of Christianity, 1860-1950 at the AUP bookstore or wherever you buy your books.