Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Not the least of the pleasures of going to another country is the way it decenters your view of where you're coming from. (When I tell every intellectually serious student I can to try to spend time abroad it is in large part for this "reverse culture shock" effect.) I already got a whiff of this regarding China from a fascinating article by a philosopher in Shanghai named 张庆熊 Zhang Xingqiong. (Yes, he's at Fudan too!)

In an essay called "Sino-Christian Theology: The Unfolding of ‘Dao’ in the Chinese Language Context,” Zhang suggests that the story of China and Christianity may have the shape of the story of China and Buddhism. It took several centuries for Buddhism to become integrated enough into Chinese culture for new Buddhist movements like Chan (Zen) and Pure Land to emerge. Zhang describes three stages (127): mission (where the foreign tradition is transmitted and translated into Chinese, initially mainly by non-Chinese), determination of teachings (where Chinese try to make sense of the variety of transmissions coming their way) and then finally establishment (where new indigenous Chinese forms of the religion emerge). He thinks China's encounter with Christianity is still at the first and second stages.

The second stage is described as panjiao 潘教, a reference to the ways Chinese traditions (especially Tiantai, founded in the 6th C. CE) cataloged and ranked all the Buddhist teachings they had received. They weren't ready to dismiss anything, so produced what became the largest canon of Buddhist texts in the world. Qiong makes a few predictions about what Christianity "established" in China will look like, but I'm as taken by the image of a new canon of Christianity coming out of Chinese scholars' attempts to make sense of all that is coming their way. There were multiple panjiao for Buddhism, different rankings of the same non-Chinese legacies, each with a different sutra as its apex. Chinese scholarship has now generated multiple accounts of the Christian tradition, each with a ranking of its own: some scholars think the existentialist the truest and most all-encompassing of the articulations of Christianity, others the postmodern or the neo-orthodox or the evangelical. Yet Only when Chinese Christian scholars realize that the theological doctrine already existing in the West is not enough to answer the questions that Chinese people face themselves … and make efforts to establish their own system of theological narratives and concepts, only then can Chinese theology in its true sense appear. (129)

This reminds me of some of the things I learned while in Japan over the years 1992-93, trying to appreciate what it was like for the first generations of Japanese philosophers to encounter the entire western philosophical tradition at once. Aristotle, Kant and Marx were translated at the same time. Thought systems which a westerner would expect to have little to say to one another, coming from such widely different times and contexts, in Japanese reception were contemporaries - and, potentially, contemporaries of the scholars now encountering them, too. It was like my wonderment at the range of 20th century philosophies Japanese scholars were encountering, mixing "continental" and "analytic," and reading widely among contemporary Russian, Italian, French and English thinkers in ways we didn't (even couldn't, having a weaker translation culture). Some nuances are lost, no doubt, but the enclaves of western thought come out looking very provincial, too - even within a western context.

I can imagine something similar will happen - is happening - as people (not just in China) encounter the sprawly wealth of Christian thought and tradition. This lines up with various other questions I find interesting, from the "invention of world religions" (and indeed of "religion") to the way "Buddhist modernism," especially in the West, is jumbling and rejiggering Buddhist traditions. What fun and illuminating discussions await!

“Sino-Christian Theology: The Unfolding of ‘Dao’ in the Chinese Language Context,"
in Sino-Christian Theology: A Theological Qua Cultural Movement in Contemporary China, ed. Pan-chiu Lai and Jason Lam (Frankfurt am Main etc.: Peter Lang, 2010), 123-37

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