Theory and Theology in Chinese Literary Studies

By Sharon Kim

In the People’s Republic of China, university students take required courses in Marxist ideology, and scholarly publications are monitored in relation to Marxist structures of thought. Under the leadership of Chairman Mao (1949-1976), Christianity was commonly described as an opiate for the masses, a residue of European feudalism, or a tool of Western imperialism. Religion as a research subject was taboo, subject to censorship. Yet beginning in the 1980’s, Chinese intellectuals have shown a deep interest in Christian theology, reading avidly among western theologians such as Augustine, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and John Milbank. These scholars have not sought to denigrate religion but to find within it sources of insight into the modern condition.

What makes these studies remarkable is not simply that they exist in an inhospitable context, but that they adopt theology in ways usually limited in the United States to religious believers. In Chinese literary studies, secular scholars have engaged in theological readings of literature in much the same way that there are feminist, post-colonial, or ecocritical readings. Some deliberately combine theology with literary theory in their work: an ambidextrous approach that is rare—and perhaps even incomprehensible—in mainstream American literary studies today. Although such work exists in the United States, it does so in the margins. Standard textbooks and anthologies, for example, exclude theology as a contemporary factor in literary studies, and journals such as Christianity and Literature are housed at religious institutions. The Chinese intellectuals, however, are based at major universities such as Renmin University of China, which has a stature comparable to an Ivy League school. Officially the most Marxist of Chinese universities, it nonetheless provides an institutional home for the top three intellectuals associated with theological studies; it also publishes a premier journal in that field. The Chinese scholars involved in this work are not church-affiliated intellectuals, yet they take seriously the contributions of religion to the extent of adopting theology into intellectual practice. 

Some theological concepts that have attracted the Chinese include kenosis (the divine self-emptying of Christ), Scriptural Reasoning, inculturation, and Karl Barth’s distinction between the word of God and human discourse. Although scholars have different reasons for reading theology, it seems to provide a methodology of intellectual freedom: a counter-balance to Marxist views on scientific rationality and a corrective to the overly-proscribed guidelines associated with the Cultural Revolution. By acknowledging human finitude before the divine, theology enables critical reflection in China instead of suspending it. It is the corrective to intellectual dogma as well as political.

Literature has played an important role in this development. Liu Xiaofeng’s groundbreaking work in intellectual theology, Deliverance and Dallying (Zhengjiu yu xiaoyao, 1988), was published as a study in comparative poetry. Liu first encountered Christianity not through missionaries or clergy but through his studies: in the novels of Dostoevsky and Hugo, in philosophical writings by Pascal and Kierkegaard. Similarly, Yang Huilin, currently the most active and influential of the intellectuals addressing theology in mainland China, is a professor of Comparative Literature and Religion. Major international conferences held in China and featuring discussion of theology were organized by comparative literature or foreign literature associations. Literature seems to have provided a cover for the study of religion, deflecting censorship and legitimizing the careful consideration of theology. While theology is not recognized as an academic discipline in China, the study of it has flourished within fields such as literature, philosophy, sociology, and cultural studies.

Literary studies has proven particularly hospitable. Since ancient times, literature and religion have long been interconnected in China, and for Yang Huilin and others, the theological reading of texts finds a precedent in the Chinese concept of "jing," 经. “Jing” refers to the canon of Chinese classics (Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist), but it is also used to translate the English word “Bible” or “Scripture” into Chinese. The convergence of literature and religion in “jing” has produced a centuries-old literati culture that unites reading and identity formation. Similar to the Christian tradition of forming the spiritual self through careful readings of the Bible, the Chinese “jingxue,” or study of the classics, aimed to cultivate a fully-rounded human being, equally developed in terms of wisdom, teaching, and moral behavior. To study the classics was to deepen the moral nature as well as to advance as a literary scholar. In essays such as “The Value of Theology in the Humanities,” Yang identifies three areas in which the humanities can interact fruitfully with theology: theological hermeneutics, theological ethics, and theological aesthetics. Together, these avenues develop the intellectual, ethical, and emotional dimensions of the human through knowing (zhi), moral will (yi), and the emotions (qing).

In his essay “The Potential Value of Contemporary Theology for Literary Theories,” Yang Huilin observes that contemporary theology and literary theory have both had to confront the same crisis of meaning prompted by postmodern thought; for this reason, theology can enter meaningfully into the sphere of literary theory and also speak into contemporary thought. During the 1990s, Yang placed theology in critical dialogue with postmodern theory, arriving at insightful, theologically-based responses to Derrida, Foucault, and others that parallel the responses created in the United States but were, until recently, unknown in the United States.

Yang advocates a purely secular study of theology. As the former Vice President of Renmin University of China, and a member of the Communist Party, Yang adheres to Marxist ideology and is not interested in adopting or promoting a personal Christian belief. Yet remarkably, his idea of secular study does not evacuate Christian theology of its nature as an approach to absolute truth in Christ. Yang and Liu have both been careful to affirm the divine and absolute dimension of theology and to oppose attempts to reduce theology to an ethics, even though both have sought to derive lessons applicable to Chinese society. 

This version of a secular study of theology is so respectful of religious belief that it presents a fascinating manifestation of the post-secular. The Chinese government enforces a Marxist secularity over academic programs, publications, and conferences, yet the work of these Chinese scholars opens post-secular vistas within that structure. The same government that in 2018 initiated the burning of crosses, demolishing of church buildings, and imprisonment of prominent pastors, also funds new projects in “Literature and Religion” through the prestigious National Social Science Foundation of China and has awarded large grants for the creation of research databases in Theology and the Humanities.

The recent and conspicuous crackdown on religious freedom co-exists in China with vibrant theological conversations in literature. What is more, the study of Christianity has drawn increased numbers of younger scholars in China, and research suggests that they are more open than the senior-level scholars to having a personal religious faith. As Christianity grows in China— one estimate is 67 million Christians in the PRC—, the typical Chinese Christian has an advanced education and a strong social consciousness. This demographic reality will likely fuel new developments in the study of Christianity and Literature, both through the rise of Chinese Christian literature and in alternative theoretical models for approaching it. In the 1980s and 1990s, Yang Huilin, Liu Xiaofeng, and others sought to legitimize the intellectual study of religion and theology in China, using literature as the field in which to do so. How the next generation builds on the foundation of the older generation will be interesting to watch.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Introduction to Theory and Theology in Chinese Literary Studies: An Early Map” published in Christianity & Literature 68.1 (December 2019). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.