War, Revolution, and Chinese Protestant Intellectuals: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey

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In keeping with the recent paradigm shift, this dissertation approaches the indigenization of Christianity in China from a different perspective. Rather than conceiving indigenization as the devolution of missionary power to indigenous leaders, the study focuses on the emergence of Chinese Protestant intellectuals and their ability to engage the public space—how they have historically engaged their religious tradition to address the broader public during crises. It does so by examining the lives and works of several Chinese Christian intellectuals as they negotiated with the most transformative events in twentieth-century Chinese history: modernizing reforms in the 1910s and 1920s, prolonged resistance against the Japanese invasion in the 1930s and 1940s, and ideological domestication after 1950. With transnational and indigenous resources, these people created a captivating vision of national salvation for their country.

The first three chapters of this work reconstruct the intellectual development among mainstream Chinese Protestants in Republican China by tracing the rise and unraveling of the liberal consensus that integrated three spheres of emphasis in Christianity to lead China in progress. Such endeavor offered an inspiring message of national salvation by individual moral improvement, social implementation of reformist ministries, and transcendence of national boundaries for world solidarity. However, starting in the 1930s, a group of Christian intellectuals’ continued exploration led to increasing ideological affinity to socialism and organizational closeness to the Chinese Communist Party. Meanwhile, another group turned to conservative theology and began to advocate for a national as well as spiritual deliverance that could not be reduced to morality and social service.

The last three chapters document these Christian intellectuals’ response to an unprecedented challenge: a centralized and ideologically charged state. During the Civil War, the Christian socialists saw the Communist triumph as an eschatological victory of “light” over “darkness,” while the conservative group struggled to create Christianity’s continuing relevance in China. Despite their adaptability and courage in the early 1950s, the totalitarian regime soon engulfed public space, and these intellectuals found themselves marginalized through either bureaucratization or exile, thwarting their nation-saving longings. Failing to achieve the public intellectual mission haunted them in their last years. It also prompted many to return to the Christian faith as they tried to reorient themselves to China’s unfinished quest for modernization, which seemed yet to reveal its hidden directions.

Overall, English monographs on Chinese Protestant intellectuals are few. This dissertation aims to narrate a story of the intellectual odyssey of Chinese Protestantism in the twentieth century, from the birth of Republican China in 1911 through the height of ideological fanaticism in the Cultural Revolution. Using case studies, the dissertation shows that the evolving perspectives of these Christian intellectuals have never escaped the gravitational pull of the grand narrative of national salvation, for which they infused highly transnational influences into active public engagement. Eventually, despite seemingly within the seekers’ grasp, the vision of deliverance proved fleeting as it became co-opted by the power of the state, yet without failing to throw subsequent followers into new cycles of hope and violence propelled by the ever-present pressures for change.






Sun, Zexi (2022). War, Revolution, and Chinese Protestant Intellectuals: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/25284.


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