Project Canterbury

Handbooks of English Church Expansion


By Frank L. Norris

London and Oxford: A. R. Mowbray, 1908.

Chapter I. Heathen China

"IN the beginning God made China. Read "Heaven" for God, and the sentence not inaptly expresses the Chinese idea of the superiority of China as compared with the rest of the world. Heaven, having made China, set a Son of Heaven on the Chinese throne, and to this day there has never been wanting a monarch who thus claims what may be considered the divinest right to a throne that any earthly monarch has ever put forward.

Let us enter the gateway which leads from the main road of the Chinese, or outer, city of Peking into the sacred precincts of what is known to foreign visitors as The Temple, to the Chinese [1/2] themselves as The Altar of Heaven. Hither, once a year at least, in person, oftener by deputy, comes the Son of Heaven, the reigning Emperor. Passing under a magnificent avenue of trees, he is carried over a little marble bridge into the courtyard of the Hall of Fasting, where he passes the night, and keeps the vigil of the great day of sacrifice by abstinence from all flesh-meat. Before the sun has risen on the morrow, lighted on his way by torches, he repairs across the park to the southern end of the Altar of Heaven. Three huge lanterns hanging from as many lofty poles throw a dim light off the concentric marble terraces which rise with twenty-seven steps to the platform at the top of the Altar. Away to the right, below the terraces, but within the encircling wall, are the burnt-offerings: a black bullock, rolls of silk, and the like, smoking in the green-tiled furnace, or in the great iron baskets.

Step by step the Son of Heaven mounts the stair that leads to the platform. At every nine steps he is bidden to kneel and prostrate himself, touching the ground nine times with his forehead (the ceremony known as the three kneelings and nine kotows), and so in deep abasement he enters the presence of his nine great ancestors. For [2/3] there, on the sacred platform, are ranged nine tablets, four on either side, and in the highest place, right in front of the kneeling Emperor, the tablet of the great parent of all, the tablet of High Heaven, the Supreme Ruler. Nothing but tablets--simple pieces of wood, with a few characters inscribed on each--signifying the presence of those whom they represent, much as to the Israelites of old the Shechinah was the symbol of the Presence of Jehovah.

Prostrate on the marble floor, beneath no other roof than the dark vault of the sky above him, the youngest and latest "Son of Heaven" kneels before his great "forefather"; taking on himself the sins of all his people, he confesses them there, and prays for heaven's blessing on himself and on the nation.

It is soon over: he and his retinue retire, and in an hour or two he is back in his palace within the Tartar city, and the daily routine of the Court and the city is resumed, to-day as it was yesterday, and as it will be on the morrow.

The great mass of the nation knows nothing of this wonderful worship: the great majority of the courtiers even, who take their part in waiting on the Emperor, fail utterly to [3/4] appreciate what it is in which they are privileged to share. But we--who are only allowed to hear of it, who can only piece together fragmentary and imperfect information in order to try and realize it: we who are Christians and who have learnt to worship God through the teaching of the only-begotten Son of God--may well stand awestruck at the spectacle which is presented to us. Here in the capital of China we mark the relic of a time when the ancestors of what is now a most heathen nation knew better, perhaps, than any heathen have ever known, what worship it was fitting should be offered to Him "from Whom and by Whom and through Whom are all things in heaven and earth."

Is it a vain dream to hope for the day when the Emperor of China, Emperor by the grace of God, no longer under the delusion that to him alone pertains the rank of "Son of Heaven," surrounded by a vast congregation, all by baptism God's children, will find himself kneeling in Christian worship before " our FATHER which is in heaven"? Is it a vain dream to hope for the day when he will confess, in form as now, but in spirit a thousandfold more consciously, the sins of his people: when he will [4/5] ask in words as now, but in faith a thousandfold more confidently, for the outpouring of the FATHER'S blessing upon himself and upon his Christian people? It may be but a dream as yet, but wilder dreams, even as that of Jacob, who dreamed of an open heaven and of angels ascending and descending upon a Son of Man, have been fulfilled ere now, when the fullness of the time had come.

As we have already remarked, the great mass of the nation know nothing of, and care nothing for, this worship at the Altar of Heaven. Their religion, their worship, their faith, move on an altogether lower level. Buddhism, with its countless images, its foreign language, its unworthy monks, has for centuries had a vast influence in China, and an influence not for good. Taoism, a mystical philosophy mixed up with wide-reaching superstition, with its innumerable spirits and its many unknown terrors, has likewise played but an evil part in the religious life of the nation. Confucianism, in spite of its freedom from actual idolatry, in spite of its lofty moral teaching, in spite of, or perhaps because of, its influence in making what we call "ancestral worship" the most prominent of all religious rites [5/6] in China, has not only failed to raise, but rather tended to lower to a more materialistic level, the spiritual traditions of the Chinese people.

In the western hills near Peking, in the great Lama temple within the city itself, in the monasteries on the various sacred mountains, and in temples innumerable, we may attend the daily prayers of Buddhism, repeated by rote in Chinese sounds which struggle to correspond with the sound of the original Sanskrit, droned out by the monks in the presence of the idols, by men who vie with the idols themselves in their ignorance of what they say and do. It is true that the empty, vicious shell of formalism which marks the Buddhism of the North, is somewhat redeemed in other parts of China by individual lives which are as lights shining in dark places. Sakyamouni's example has not been altogether without fruit; and the attractions of heaven, no less than the terrors of hell, have served to influence minds naturally religious, and to overrule the inherent tendency to evil which marks our fallen state. But, none the less, as a religion, Buddhism is in China profoundly disappointing. A recent writer, long resident in China, can say no better of it than this: "Its essential doctrines are the vanity [6/7] of all material things, the supreme importance of love, the certainty of rewards and punishments by means of the transmigration of souls. But its adaptation to Chinese needs arose from its supplying the vacancy due to the cold and heartless morality of Confucianism, and the gross materialism of Taoism." [Rex Christus, p. 67.]

Side by side with Buddhist temples, in the villages and towns of China, stand the rarer but still almost universal temples of Taoism. Taoist shrines and Taoist monasteries--innocent as they are of any apparent effect on the nation in the direction of common worship, signs rather of an ignorant superstition multiplying itself in manifold directions--serve at least to remind the people of powers unseen, which are fateful in the lives of men. The Chinese confess to this influence in many ways: in none, perhaps, more strikingly than when at a funeral, after the Buddhist monks have sung the service of the dead, the Taoist priests are bidden to say their office also, lest its omission should be fraught with any unknown risks from the wrath of neglected, and therefore angry, unseen powers.

Confucianism it is wrong to call a religion at [7/8] all, even as the sage himself expressly disclaimed the role so boldly adopted by Mohammed. It is rather a philosophy of life, based on a high moral code, but fatally confined to life on this side of the grave. Lord Elgin put the contrast between Confucianism and Christianity none too strongly when, in reply to a memorial presented by the Shanghai merchants in 1858, he said: "Christian civilization will have to win its way among a sceptical and ingenious people, by making it manifest that a faith which reaches to heaven furnishes better guarantees for public and private morality than one which does not rise above earth." [History of the Church Missionary Society, ii. 302.] For it is just this earthliness of Confucianism which robs it of power. It inculcates the highest virtues, but it can do no more than recommend their practice. It fails absolutely, as judged by its fruits--it does not even attempt, as judged by its great literature--to save the sinner from his sin. It has won the respect, the loyalty, even the devotion, of the Chinese people; not by its power as a religion, not because it satisfies their souls, but because it claims to represent the past, because its teaching appeals to man's natural conscience, if not to his infirmity, and because it [8/9] is enshrined in a literature which has been for two thousand years the only literature of the Chinese race.

If we turn from these "systems" to what is undoubtedly the commonest form of worship to be met with in China, from the Emperor at the Altar of Heaven to the lowliest peasant amid the mounds of earth which mark his family graves, and ask what ancestor-worship really means, the question is hard to answer. That it is an attempt to satisfy the religious need of the human soul is certain: and it follows an elementary instinct in its recognition that the spirits of men continue to exist after death, somehow and somewhere otherwise than here. But it is held down by a superstition which vitiates its claim to be in any sense a true expression of religion. For its dominant motive is at least as much fear as love: its sacrifices are propitiatory rather than of pious affection: and it is a standing witness to ignorance of the truth that "perfect love casteth out fear."

Thus much it has seemed well to say, by way of explanation, of the religious need for Christian Missions to the Chinese people. No attempt can be made at any more detailed examination of [9/10] what are commonly called the religions of China. But it may be well to remark in passing that while foreign writers not unnaturally speak of "the three religions," and the Chinese themselves are no less ready in conversation to differentiate between them, yet in reality most Chinese in one way or another recognize them all. Dr. Arthur Smith quotes another writer's dictum that the Chinaman is a religious triangle; and wittily remarks that one can imagine the converse thesis being equally maintained that the Chinaman is rather an irreligious triangle. [Rex Christus, p. 80.] It is the truth of this latter statement which has made it seem worth while, at the outset of this little record of the English Church's work in China, to draw attention to one or two points in the religious life of the nation. On the one hand there is the wonderful survival of an ancient worship such as that which is still offered by the Emperor at the Altar of Heaven; on the other there is the failure even of that, and much more of whatever else there may be of religion in China, to satisfy the needs of men. These needs are universal: our own consciousness of them testifies to this, and the apparent unconsciousness [10/11] of millions of our fellow-men affords no solid argument against its truth; for even in heathen China there are earnest seekers after truth; and if they are apparently fewer in proportion than they are amongst ourselves, it is only because they have been less favoured than ourselves in the knowledge of how to seek, because they have been left longer in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Before we pass on, however, to set forth the record of the part which the English Church has played in the endeavour to bring the light of the Gospel into China, there is one characteristic of the people which calls for special mention, namely, the solidarity of the Chinese race. While it is true that natives of different parts of China differ widely in language, dress, employment, manners, and even character, there is, notwithstanding, an essential unity amongst them which differentiates the Chinese people from all other peoples, which binds together northerner and southerner, the emigrant who lives side by side with the Englishman at Singapore and the mandarin who has never left Peking, the scholar steeped in classical lore and the beggar clad in apologies for rags. "The Chinese nation is the only nation [11/12] which has throughout retained its nationality, and has never been ousted from the land where it first appeared." Dynasty after dynasty has succeeded to the throne without affecting the nationality of the people. Even a foreign dynasty like the present Manchu dynasty, which began by conquering the Chinese from end to end of the Empire, has failed, after centuries of rule, to make the nation anything but Chinese.

The causes of this solidarity, in which those believe most who have lived longest in the country, are manifold; but they are moral rather than physical, and they owe more to the unity of the written language which has enshrined the classics of Confucius than to any unifying pressure from without. For over two thousand years the Chinese race has had in the teaching of Confucius a common standard, not, it may be, containing in itself a very ennobling force, but yet forming a real rallying point which has made for national solidarity. In this respect we may perhaps find the truest parallel in Judaism; and, again, an even more illuminating comparison in Mohammedanism. For in this latter case we can mark the conflict of forces in China itself, and the result is extraordinarily definite. The Chinese [12/13] Mohammedan is a Chinese first and a Mohammedan afterwards; and, if history is any guide, he will always remain so. Again and again there have been Mohammedan risings and rebellions; everywhere to-day the Mohammedan Chinese are distinct from their fellow-countrymen; yet the rebellions have come to nothing, and the very distinction which we cannot fail to mark only makes more wonderful the solidarity which prevails against it. If any further proof were needed, it is to be found in the impression made in every land to which Chinese have emigrated--in America, in Australia, in Singapore, in India, or in islands like Honolulu or Trinidad. Like the Jews of the dispersion, these Chinese settlers, however prosperous, however intimately bound up with the life and activities of the land wherein they sojourn, remain to the end a race apart, and, though often technically of other nationality, are really still fundamentally Chinese. It is to such a people, one in all their diversity, bound together by subtle ties more strong than any of the forces that make for disintegration, numbering hundreds of millions, inhabiting a country whose coast-line, long as it is, is but the fringe of an even vaster hinterland, that the English Church and the sister Church of America [13/14] have for three-quarters of a century been sending forth their missionaries. The object of this little book is to trace in broad outline the expansion of this missionary work in China. But if the lessons of this little bit of Church history are to be read aright, if these pages are to be fruitful in truer views of the task still waiting to be done in China, this fundamental idea of the solidarity of the Chinese race must be ever borne in mind. For it carries with it an inevitable corollary. The efforts of the English Church, the aims of its Missionary Societies, the labours of its individual missionaries--and as of the English so also of the Americans--must not be limited to the conversion of individual souls, must not be devoted to any attempt to transplant the Church of England (or of America) into China: but must be faithfully and whole-heartedly directed towards the establishment throughout the length and breadth of this solid nation a no less solid Church of China. Thus, and thus only, shall the command of our LORD to "make disciples of all the nations" find its true fulfilment.

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