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China, Christianity, and the Question of Culture

China, Christianity, and the Question of Culture

Thomas Jansen12 Nov 2014Leave a comment


Written by Naomi Thurston.

Yang Huilin. China, Christianity, and the Question of Culture. Edited by Zhang Jing. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2014. x+264 pages. Hardback, US$ 59.95. ISBN 978-1-4813-0017-9.

China, Christianity, and the Question of Culture is the second English volume introducing recent works by the Chinese contemporary scholar of comparative literature and religions Yang Huilin 杨慧林 (b. 1954) that deals with different intersections of Chinese and Christian culture. In this book, comprising a collection of essays originally published in English between 2004 and 2012, Yang offers discussions on three relevant points of contact, namely: the role of language in cross-cultural and religious dialogue, interaction and meaning-making; the significance of introducing a theological hermeneutics into Chinese humanities discourse; and the critical question of ethics and (false) universals. All three concerns might be subsumed under the heading of a “Search for Meaning,” rather than introduced as a representative sampling of the author’s “work on the contextualization of Christian thought in China today,” as suggested in the foreword. Any reader expecting the voice of a Christian spokesperson, a new contextual theology or a specifically Christian assessment of the Chinese context will instead find that the collection features the philosophical reflections of a post-modern comparativist approaching aspects of Chinese as well as Christian culture while finally remaining committed to the practice of interpreting rather than to one interpretive angle; that Christianity can be seen here as conversing both with the Chinese tradition and contemporary context but as ultimately never wholly internalized by either; and that the conversations the text participates in are left open-ended and the Christian theological-Chinese philosophical tensions extracted from a wide range of sources remain intentionally, explicitly unresolved. The book is of much interest to theologians, missiologists and more generally to any readers eager to learn about a new engagement with Christian thought in contemporary Chinese intellectual discourse as well as to scholars of comparative philosophy and religion, to critical theorists, and finally to translatologists and historians of China. “Although Christianity already plays an extremely important role in the Chinese people’s religious beliefs,” writes Yang, “its legitimacy in the Chinese cultural context has never been truly resolved, at least not from the perspective of non-believers” (p. 42). This key assessment should be kept in mind when confronting such texts as deal with the “Interpretation of Christianity in the Context of Chinese Culture,” the “Value of Theology in the Humanities” or the “Possibilities and Values of ‘Scriptural Reasoning’ Between China and the West.”

The fourteen-chapter book (every chapter is a self-contained essay) is divided into three parts, each focusing on a different setting and its relation to theology and Christian culture. Broadly, the focus of the first is that of Chinese culture, the second the Chinese academic-intellectual realm and the third the sphere of cross-cultural exchange and intellectual transfer, including the Christian missionary endeavor and its pioneering work in biblical and Chinese classics translation in the nineteenth century. Yang converses with an array of theorists and contemporary or near-contemporary theologians, most of them well known twentieth-century “continental” thinkers, though he also frequently interacts with the work of the Japanese scholar of religion Masao Abe as well as a number of North American theologians and philosophers.

Part I, “Christianity and Chinese Culture,” covers a range of thematic concerns from Buddhist-Christian dialogue to the problems, or limits, of “ethicization” in constructing what Yang refers to as “Chinese-language Christianity” (Hanyu Jidujiao 汉语基督教) to a parallel investigation into themes of guilt, forgiveness and responsibility in the Verarbeitungsliteratur, the literary engagement with war, national upheaval or, in these cases, national trauma and guilt – or the lack or insufficiency of such literary and intellectual discourses – after the Holocaust and in the decades following the Cultural Revolution. Yang draws on the thinking of Jewish philosophers such as Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas and juxtaposes understandings of evil after Nazi Germany with Chinese interpretations of the nature of evil in the so-called “scar literature” of the late 1970s and other assessments by Chinese intellectuals of the Cultural Revolution years.

In Part II of the book, the reader encounters an innovative engagement of theological concerns in which theology becomes an interpretive aid, though not a handmaiden, to the Chinese humanities, for example as an “exten[sion] to thinking” (p. 74) or in the discovery of new ways of coping with “the erosion of definite meaning that arises from a varying discourse context” (p. 98). Here, Yang repeatedly introduces the concepts of Barth’s “Wholly Other,” Derrida’s différence and Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” as a means not of negating universals but of rejecting certainty in discursive interpretation, whether literary, philosophical or – Yang integrates all three – theological discourse; a rejection that requires continuous interaction, re-interpretation and deferral of discursive power.

The third part of the book introduces readers to the practice of “scriptural reasoning” extended from its original project of enhancing understanding among the three Abrahamic faiths through inter-faith interpretation to dialoguing in a similar fashion between the monotheistic religious and classical Chinese textual traditions. Yang thus explains the rationale:

The “reasoning” of those interconnected, overlapping, yet varying “scriptures” in different religious traditions obviously requires thorough self-examination. Nowadays, it is of vital importance…to promote mutual understanding between different religious traditions, and for these religious traditions to re-understand themselves upon the basis of such mutual understanding. (P. 164)

For Yang, the negotiation of meaning is a central concern both for theology as well as for contemporary Chinese intellectual discourse. Here he quotes Reinhold Niebuhr, who, according to Yang, “sets the ‘search for meaning’ as the fundamental task of Christian theological ethics” (p. 59) and points to Chinese contemporaries whose articulation of the present “crisis of faith” in Chinese society, Yang holds, is in fact best rendered as a “crisis of meaning.” Throughout the essays of this collection, Yang subtly alternates between different disciplinary registers, placing inherent value on the angle of interdisciplinarity itself: no one methodological approach owns or should govern the discourse. This explains why the author, in several texts writes about “the humanities” in a collective sense and theology as something distinct and particular, brought in to comment on, add to and be assessed within broader cultural debates on language and meaning.

The discussions raised in Yang’s work are of particular interest to Western theology partly because they are not singularly theological – not at least to a traditional Western mode of thinking: the in-depth examination of a contemporary scholar in the Chinese academy who as a public intellectual intentionally draws attention to what contemporary Chinese thought and experience have (through history) and can have (through deliberate and continued interaction) in common is an important starting point for non-Chinese theologians who want to understand the Chinese intellectual context today: in the opinion of this reviewer, the ‘Chinese soul’ that a Christian theology might want to engage is not buried chiefly in ancient text – though this is certainly where it has its roots – but must be actively sought in the thinking and intellectual approaches of Chinese contemporaries. Contemporary Western theological thought arguably has far more in common with Chinese intellectual discourse today than either has in common with its respective ancient tradition. However, where opportunities to improve our yet partial and obstructed understandings of each other’s multifaceted and increasingly complex contexts present themselves, as in the work of a Yang Huilin, they ought to be noted and embraced.

A drawback of the work is that it would benefit form further editing in its entirety, particularly where English or French translations of specific terms and phrases, such as authors’ coinages, are not used consistently across texts. The ample bibliography lists sources in Chinese, English and French. German and Spanish sources are cited in English or Chinese translation. The book is not a light read; each essay demands time for reflection, rereading and, ideally, time devoted to a deeper understanding of the author’s work in light of its PRC academic context and discursive aims.

Naomi Thurston
University of Wales, Lampeter/Renmin University of China

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