Chinese-Christian Cross-Cultural Learning in Higher Education

This guest blog is written by Ruth Hayhoe, Board Member of Global Scholars Canada, Professor at the University of Toronto and Secretary of the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia from 2003 to 2010. You can read her biography, including the chronicle of her decades of bridging work between East and West, in this previous blog.

China’s Christian Universities

Nearly 100 years ago in 1922 the United Board for Christian Higher Education in China was set up in New York as an office to channel funds from multiple Christian denominations in North America for the support of thirteen Christian universities in China, the earliest having been established in 1879. After the Chinese Revolution of 1949 and the subsequent Korean War, these institutions were closed and their beautiful campuses were given to public universities, many of them normal universities with a special mandate for teacher education. This was a time when the whole higher education system was reorganized under Soviet influence with specializations designed to serve a socialist macro planning process. Under the Communist rhetoric of the time, the contributions of the Christian universities were viewed as expressions of Western cultural imperialism, to be critiqued and forgotten in what was termed “the new China.” 

Surprisingly, however, 70 years later there is now an extensive scholarship by contemporary historians, sociologists and educationists in China on the lessons that can be learned from these Christian institutions. One of the foci is on the liberal arts, and the ways in which these were promoted on the Christian campuses. This is an area seen as especially valuable in the current period of globalization when young people need to develop strong values of moral and social responsibility as well as coping with rapidly changing employment options in what is called a “socialist market economy.” The narrow specializations introduced under Soviet influence in the 1950s have given way to a broadening of curricular offerings with significant elements of general education in areas such as culture, literature and philosophy. Another focus is on the way in which Western ideas were integrated into the Chinese context through intensive efforts of the missionaries and Chinese Christian academics as they worked together in supporting China’s development over a tumultuous period that included such cataclysms as the Sino-Japanese War, the Second World War, and China’s Civil War. A third significant emphasis was equity for women, and women’s leadership in higher education.

Lessons for Missional Academics

If current Chinese scholars in the social sciences feel there is much to learn from this history, it struck me that missional academics in North America who are connected to the work of Global Scholars Canada and their partners might also have something to learn. As I am now engaged in a translation project around these Chinese texts, I was pleased to be invited by Peter Schuurman to write a guest blog about what we might be able to learn about cross-cultural communication and the sharing of our Christian faith as academics. Let me begin with some comments on two of the campuses that were built in the 1920s and 1930s, where one can see the beauty of traditional Chinese architecture, with Western features integrated into it in harmonious ways. 

The first was the South China Women’s University in Fuzhou, a major Southeast city on China’s coast looking towards Taiwan. Here you can see such Western elements as arches, pillars and even a Greek-style portico beautifully set within a Chinese gestalt that emphasizes connections among earth, heaven and humanity. This is now the campus of Fujian Normal University.

The second campus is in Southwest China, the city of Chengdu. West China Union University had a strong medical faculty largely staffed by missionaries from Canada. Here again you see the beauty of the Chinese frame, with a clock tower in place of the traditional Chinese bell tower and French-style dormer windows that are perched harmoniously on a Chinese style roof. This is now the campus of Sichuan University, a major public comprehensive university. 

By contrast, when the Soviet Union imposed a total revamping of Chinese higher education in 1952, the linear and mechanistic forms of modern architecture that reflected socialist construction and industrialization were imposed everywhere on Chinese campuses. The addition of a Chinese roof as a kind of indigenous decoration for this university in NE China suggests a form of socialist imperialism much less respectful than the so-called cultural imperialism of the North American missionaries. This is Northeast Agricultural University built in the 1950s after the Chinese Revolution.

So what are the lessons we can learn as Christian scholars based in universities in North America when we become engaged in academic support for institutions and individuals in cultures very different from our own? How can we function in ways that may have a lasting legacy such as that now being researched and celebrated in China seventy years after the mission support came to an end and the institutions were closed down?

Here are some of the thoughts coming to me as I work on the translation of these fascinating texts. One of the leading Chinese scholars, Zhang Kaiyuan, was a historian who graduated from one of the Christian universities. He was later appointed president of the normal university on the campus of another Christian university, where he established a centre specifically oriented to the historical study of the Christian institutions. There he trained numerous doctoral students who now teach in other excellent Chinese universities. One point that comes across clearly in his research is how much the high academic standards established in these institutions were valued by China’s scholarly community and its educational leaders. In areas such as agriculture, journalism, social work, medicine and women’s education they were seen as pioneering institutions in their time. 

Another key point was the commitment of these institutions to teaching the Chinese classics, alongside of the Bible and other religious and philosophical texts. This made possible the development of an indigenous Chinese theology as well as stimulating research on inter-religious dialogue. The latter went back to encounters between Syrian Orthodox monks who crossed the Silk Road to China in the 7th century CE, Italian Catholics such as Matteo Ricci who travelled to China by sea in the later 16th century and Welsh Baptists such as Timothy Richard who supported China’s higher education development in the later 19th century. It was possible to find parallels in the Chinese classical concept of Heaven, and the Christian prayer to “Our Father in Heaven” that have given Chinese Christianity authentic and deep cultural roots. Zhang Kaiyuan, whose photo is below, passed away at the age of 95 on May 28, 2021.


The Normal University and Chinese Culture

Finally, one of the lessons I have learned from this history is how an undervalued and largely misunderstood Western concept may take root and grow into something of great value in another culture. Six of the thirteen Christian universities had their beautiful campuses given to normal universities in 1952. The école normale was invented by the French after the 1789 revolution as a purposeful alternative to universities, which were highly elite, excluded women and favored pure disciplines and traditional professions. Normal colleges and universities, by contrast, prepared female as well as male teachers for the burgeoning new national education systems where every child had a place. They blossomed in Europe and North America for a time, favoring cross-disciplinary knowledge, accountability to national governments and a strong commitment to the public good. They were then superseded in the 20th century massification of higher education, except in France where the Ecole Normale Supérieure remains a leading institution. 

In East Asia, however, normal colleges and universities took deep root, with the French term normale translated as shifan, meaning “the teacher as a model” in the early 20th century. This reflected the high status of education in classical Confucianism, with integrated knowledge patterns oriented towards knowledge in action for the social good, not just individual career advancement. There are still five leading national normal universities in China as well as many more at provincial and prefectural levels. As comprehensive universities that have a strong commitment to moral formation, community service and global citizenship education, they embody a university model quite distinct from the German/American global research university that informs most university ranking systems. China thus has something to bring to the world that expresses many dimensions of its rich Confucian culture and that arose from an early and effective integration of French and Chinese educational patterns. This is a holistic and historically Chinese approach to education that is focused on the whole person, where academics, skills, and character are equally valued. In some ways it mirrors the ideals of the Christian liberal arts university.

My takeaway from this brief presentation of a current translation project is simply to emphasize how demanding are the requirements of genuine cross-cultural understanding in terms of language, architecture and other forms of material expression, and how essential is deep level cultural engagement and respect to the impact of the Christian message we may be trying to share. Not only have the Christian universities left a legacy that is still treasured within China, but there are dynamic Christian communities throughout the country that have persisted and become stronger in spite of severe political constraints. We have much to learn from them!

After the rupture of US-China relations in the early 1950s, the United Board for Christian Higher Education in China was re-organized to serve Christian universities throughout Asia. Their website gives an interesting picture of all the dynamic interactions among Christian academics that are being supported: With the restoration of US-China relations in 1979, Chinese universities also became active participants in many collaborative projects with both Asian and North American university partners.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s