The Forgotten Story of…Christianity in 19th Century ShenzhenPosted: 05/21/2014 10:15 am
The Communist Party is not so much allowing faith to grow as it is trying to keep up with it, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker writes in his new book. As the object of worship in China continues to move from Mao to the market, people are shopping around for something to believe in. In this climate, Christianity has probably become the country’s leading form of non-governmental organization, and China is set to become the world’s largest Christian nation “very soon.”
With its South China Sea coastline and proximity to Hong Kong and Macao, Guangdong has long been a popular portal through which Christian missionaries entered China. An estimated 40% of those converted by missionary group The Chinese Union in the 1840s were in this province. Italian Jesuit priest and Bible translator Matteo Ricci settled in Zhaoqing in 1583 where his cartography skills were welcome.
The territory now known as Shenzhen, which was designated in the late 20th century to be China’s most outward looking city, played its own part in the spreading of Christianity in the 19th century. This heritage is still visible today.
The Chinese Union and The Rhenish Mission
Although there had been earlier missionaries such as Ricci, this particular story begins with Prussian military translator, spy and colonial official Karl Gützlaff. Gützlaff was described by one Sinologist as being “a cross between parson, pirate, charlatan and genius, philanthropist and crook.”
After gaining a reputation as a swashbuckling missionary and authoring “Journal of Three Voyages along the Coast of China,” Gützlaff’s mastery of several Chinese dialects made him useful to the colonial establishment and British business ahead of the first Opium War. Despite his wide range of talents and responsibilities, evangelical activities remained his primary passion and his admiration of Chinese civilization made spreading the gospel in the Celestial Kingdom something of an obsession.
Convinced that only Chinese people could spread Christianity in China, Gützlaff founded the Chinese Union, a Hong Kong-based network of missionaries trained to go deep into mainland China and use translated biblical texts to attract converts. Gützlaff needed good European missionaries to train them and in 1846 sent for Ferdinand Genahr and Heinrich Koster of the Rhenish Mission along with two other missionaries from The Basel Mission.
Upon arriving on March 19, 1847, they were all assigned a southeast Chinese dialect to learn and Chinese missionaries to train. Koster would be dead by September and Genahr made his own way up to Guangdong, setting up his own school for evangelists in Taiping in November 1847. In 1848, he opened a school in Xixiang Village, which is in modern day Bao’an District, and the following year he opened stations in Fuyong, Nantou and other locations in the Shenzhen area from which to spread the word.
Disassociating himself from the Chinese Union proved to be good judgment. Karl Gützlaff’s upstart status and prickly personality led his political enemy James Legge to call for an investigation into the practices of the union. It turned out many of the Chinese missionaries were just staying in Hong Kong and using their travel expenses to feed their opium addictions. In 1851, Gützlaff died in Hong Kong due to a punishingly hectic lecture tour of Europe and the shame of being publicly discredited.
For all his unscrupulousness and tireless self-promotion, Gützlaff was a committed Sinophile. His tomb in Section 13 of Happy Valley Cemetery in Hong Kong stands out because the epitaph is written in Chinese. Moreover, he was on to something when he said that only Chinese could convert Chinese.
One of the more honest members of the China Union was Guangdong-born Wang Yuanshen, who lost his father as a child and failed in several businesses before moving to Hong Kong. There he discovered Christianity and was baptized in 1847, becoming a member of the union.
Genahr, one of the few foreign missionaries who dared venture out of Hong Kong, appointed Wang to do missionary work in Fuyong, which is in Bao’an. When he first arrived, Fuyong was a haven for pirates and particularly hostile to Christians. Things improved, however, after Wilhelm Lobscheid, another Genahr appointee, impressed locals with the medical care he was able to give.
Wang Yuanshen spent a decade in Fuyong, holding daily evening services in his home, which was next to the school that Genahr had established, and holding alternative Christian celebrations during Spring Festival. Although Wang Yuanshen did not accept ordination, he was delighted to see his sons ordained.
His eldest son, Wang Yuchu, was physically frail and had shown no academic promise in his childhood or youth. But he graduated from a Rhenish school in Xin’an (Bao’an District) in 1864 and was formally ordained in 1884 due to his outstanding work at the Foundling Home. Sun Yat-sen was a fan of Wang Yuchu’s services and the Wangs would go on to become an influential family during the republican era.
The Basel Mission and the churches that survive today
Genahr saw his work interrupted by the Second Opium War (1856-1860). It was during this time that he published “Dialogues with a Temple Keeper” 《庙祝问答》 which was particularly influential among the Hakka, directly causing one literate Hakka man to be the first person baptized by John Campbell Gibson in 1885.
As important as Genahr’s work for the Rhenish Mission was, the oldest church in Shenzhen – The Langkou Church in Bao’an District – was established by The Basel Mission in 1866. The Basel Mission’s members had been dispatched by Gützlaff to eastern Guangdong, where its missionaries did particularly important work for the conversion of Hakka to Christianity.
The identification of The Hakka as having particular potential to be good Christians was what brought French missionary Charles Piton of The Basel Mission to Langkou where he served as pastor at The Langkou Gospel Hall from 1866-1884. It was during this time that he worked on a translation of the Bible combining the Hakka dialect with Chinese characters.
Piton was initially critical of the lack of missionary zeal of the locals and wrote back to the mission explaining why he was delaying the baptisms of some whom he suspected of having “economic motives.” After he went back to Europe for health reasons, Piton published a book about infanticide in China that was widely ridiculed at the time.
He may not have loved his adopted country, but the church that Piton founded thrives today. After a long and turbulent history that saw it severely damaged during persecutions in the warlord era in 1917 when two foreign pastors were killed and later used as an administrative hall during the Cultural Revolution, the Gospel Hall reopened during the Reform & Opening Up Period. In August 2003, a new church building was opened on neighboring land after a three-year fundraising campaign and the old gospel hall is preserved as a historic building.
The history of the other churches in Shenzhen, though not as long, tends to be no less colorful. The one in Langkou is not the only one worth visiting to get a sense of local history. A visit to one of these places can dispel the notion that Shenzhen’s history began in 1980 and since then it has all been about skyscrapers, migrant workers and nouveau riche.
The Scottish academic Alastair McIntosh advocated the idea of “digging where we stand,” that is learning as much as we can about the place we are in to gain universal insight. Mathematician Jacob Bronowski wrote in “The Ascent of Man” that if we keep digging what is buried, we won’t find tens of metres of soil, but tens of metres of civilizations. Although this author is not religious, there is something admirably subversive these days about preserving history for its own sake.