Purdue University

Interview with Professor Daniel Bays

Daniel H. Bays is Professor of History and Director of the Asian Studies Program at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He is Professor Emeritus of the University of Kansas, where he chaired the History Department.  His major publications include China Enters the Twentieth Century (1978), Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (ed., 1996), The Foreign Missionary Enterprise at Home: Explorations in North American Cultural History (co-editor with Grant Wacker, 2003), his most recent book China’s Christian Colleges: Cross-Cultural connections, 1900-1950 (co-editor with Ellen Widmer, forthcoming), and numerous articles.  He has directed major research projects, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, on the history of Christianity in China and American missionary movements.


1.  Please briefly tell our Chinese readers about your research and career. When and why did you begin to study Chinese Christianity?
I attended Stanford U. and majored in history, took a lot of European and U.S. history courses, and discovered China in my 3rd year. This was 1962, it was impossible to go to China. So I started Chinese language study, went to graduate school at university of Michigan, and went to Taiwan in 1965-66, 15 months, to study advanced language. Back at U. of Michigan, I finished my M.A. in 1967, with a thesis on land reform in Guangdong 1950-53. I worked under Albert Feuerwerker and Ernest Young in the history dept., and did my fields of study in modern China, premodern China, modern Japan, and Russian history. I did my dissertation on Zhang Zhidong and late Qing politics, and later published this as a book, China Enters the 20th Century (1978).  I went to the University of Kansas in 1971 as an assistant professor, and stayed until 1999. Then I came to Calvin College in 2000. I developed an interest in the History of Christianity after I tired of late Qing politics. During the late 1970s no one else was studying it. By the early 1980s it was clear that religion was still very healthy in China, and more people got interested in it. So I was part of laying the foundation for this field of study.


2.  Indigenization of China’s Christianity is your main topic of interest. In an article published in 1982, you argued that in 19th-century China, Christianity should not be seen only as a “foreign religion”, it can and should be seen as a variety of the wide-range of heterodox religion or sectarianism. Could you please explain a little bit about that?
Christianity was treated by the Imperial government as a heterodox sectarian religion. Recent scholarship by Lars Laamann, and Thomas Reilly, and earlier work by Robert Entenmann, shows that before the 1840s, the remaining Catholic Christians in China were viewed by the state very much as the white Lotus was viewed—as an evil sect, or xiejiao.


3.  Is China’s Protestantism foreign religion or Chinese religion? This is a very interesting question. Could you please tell us more about that?
Yes, we can talk more about this question of Protestantism being “foreign” or “Chinese”.  I think that before 1840 and after approximately 1970 (the middle of the Cultural Revolution), Christianity functions as a Chinese religion (but not the same in city and countryside). Between 1842 and the 1960s, it is seen by many Chinese as “foreign”.  I will talk more about this at the Beijing Summit.


4.  Could you please tell us about the growth of independent Christianity in China in the first couple decades of the 20th century, the historical role of this independent Christianity, and their realistic influence to China’s Christianity today?
In the period of early 1900s to 1930s, some independent Chinese Christian movements were formed, completely separate from the foreign missionary societies and their churches. These included the True Jesus Church (Zhen Yesu Jiaohui), the Jesus Family (Yesu Jiating), The “Little flock” (Xiao Qun) or “local Church” of Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng), and a few other well known Christian pastors or leaders who were entirely independent from foreign leadership or foreign funds. The important thing was that this created an alternative to the foreign–controlled churches during the mass nationalism of the 1920s, and afterwards hit the old churches very hard. And these independent Churches have all continued down to the present. They have been an important part of the religious revival since 1980.


5.  What do you think about foreign missionaries in China?
Historically, of course, foreign missionaries had a key role in bringing the gospel to China, translating the Bible, etc. but for Protestants, I think it was necessary for the missionaries to leave before the Chinese church could develop on its own. It’s important to remember that there were several occasions where missionaries did leave and the Chinese Christians had to manage themselves. In 1900-1902 in northern China, in and after the Northern Expedition, 1927-1929, and in the war of resistance, 1937-1945, and then finally the last exodus of 1951-52. If the missionaries had not left, the Chinese church would not have become sufficiently Chinese.


6.  As part of world Christianity, what is distinctive of China’s Christianity?
Actually in many ways Protestantism in China, with parts of it being sectarian, millenarian, focused on miracles and healing, is very similar to Protestantism in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. More unique to China is the division of both Protestantism and Catholic into registered and unregistered sectors. That creates some tensions and complicated situations that do not always exist elsewhere.


7.  What can we learn from the history of state-church relations in China?
The history is very important. One has to go back and see that the Tang dynasty had mechanisms for registering all the clerical personnel of the empire, and all temples, and monitoring them. Succeeding dynasties down to the Qing also had such offices and aims of control and supervision. Even Chiang Kai-shek’s government forced all Christian schools and the independent churches to register, even though Chiang himself was a Christian. So it is unrealistic to expect China to have a kind of “separation of church and state” such as in the West. The tradition points otherwise.


8.  What is the situation of social scientific study of China’s Christianity in America, or the English world in general?
25 years ago, only a handful of scholars in English areas (North America and UK) were working on such topics, and they were all historians. Now, every year there are at least a couple of PhDs finished, still mostly in history, but increasingly in sociology, anthropology, and political science.  There are sufficient numbers of scholars in this field to have group meetings at professional meetings, and to organize panels.

Finally, Christian history in China is no longer missionary history (although it does not exclude missionaries), but rather a part of Chinese social and cultural history. And increasingly it will become useful to see Christianity in China as a species of “world Christianity,” with some common characteristics as well as differences. This means that scholars in this field must learn about the Christian experience in other places around the world, as well. 

(Interview conducted by XIA Changqi)


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