Wise People Prefer the Waters: Notes from China

by William Edgar

“As a modern Chinese painter aspiring to create, one has to deliver a new kind of painting that has never been seen in the East or the West, and which is unique to China.” Liu Guosong’s challenging words express the sentiment of many in today’s China: one may want to be modern in many respects, but copying the West is not productive, if we are to remain Chinese.
My wife, Barbara, and I have just returned from three extraordinary weeks in China. Our host was the Chinese Christian Scholars’ Association in North America. President Zhongxin Wang and trustee Jonathan Wang were our able guides throughout.
Every first-time visitor to Mainland China is no doubt confronted by the same impressions: construction everywhere; bicycles, cars and buses vying for a place on the road; extremely friendly people; legendary hospitality; large crowds, but always orderly; everyone is industrious and concerned for cleanliness; infinite varieties of food; raising the rice bowl to the mouth and eating with chopsticks; one child per family; beautiful ancient temples; curiosity about the US; very comfortable trains and planes; traditional opera on television; science and scholarship advancing rapidly.
We were only in China for a brief time. It was humbling, exhilarating, endearing.
The purpose of our visit was four-fold. First: to learn. There is no way we could absorb the rich and deep history and culture of this vast country in such a short time, but it was a beginning.
Second: I was invited to lecture at seven universities and academies. Two papers were delivered, the first on “Europe, a Nearby Mirror? China’s Future in a Changing World,” and the second on “An Introduction to American Culture.” The request from our hosts was to explore the role of the Christian religion on the West, and assess its positive contributions as well as to be critical and wary of the perverse direction these values have taken when secularized. (These lectures are available in Chinese from the CCSANA.)
Third: to deliver a course on ethics to seminary students from the house churches. In the course we developed a way of relating Christian principles, such as God’s revelation, to the three great perspectives of moral behavior, motive, standard, and goal.
Fourth: something of a surprise, but a happy one, international diplomacy. I was often asked about US foreign policy and environmental questions, and so I was glad to have thought some of these matters through beforehand. One of the fascinating aspects of this was at times to represent a position at odds with my government’s policies. I was thus able to model the concept that we are a government “by the people.”
My work seems to have been heartily welcomed in just about every context. Here are some highlights:

  • Beijing: Met Silas Wu, world expert on revivals in China. Lectured at the Institute of World Religions in the Chinese Academy of Social Science. Lectured at Renmin (“People’s”) University. Warm reception at both. Discussed issues with students and professors alike. Toured Beijing, including the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and a bicycle ride through the old town, including Mao’s first student apartment.
  • Jinan: Lectured at Shandong University’s Department of Philosophy and Religion. The marvelous Professor You-de Fu, specialist in Jewish Studies, was our host. Discussed Taoism with Professor Jiang, the world’s expert on Lao-tze. Visited Qufu, Confucius’ home. Climbed Mount Tai (where teenagers loved to take our picture, since they had seen very few white persons). Went to church Easter morning at the registered church, and heard Handel sung in Chinese. The pastor was very glad to meet us.
  • Shanghai: A sea of buildings! Population close to 20 million. Lectured at Fudan University. Met a young student who is a fan of Cornelius Van Til, my predecessor in apologetics at Westminster. Very warm reception, especially to the idea of the separation of spheres, stressed in the lecture. Walked through the Bund, to the awesome rive side. Lectured in the Department of Philosophy.
  • Hefei: Took the night train, deeper into the interior, where we traversed many farmlands. This city hosts China’s finest technological institute. Lectured to the School of Humanities of the University on American culture. Very well received. Visited the museum of Bao Gong, the “Solomon” of China. Lectured on the same topic at the Party’s College of Administration, and was very warmly welcomed (felt like a celebrity) by some 300 students there, all destined to be magistrates in the Province of Anhui.
  • Guangzhou: Met by Professors at the university. After brief talks, they put us on the train to Hong Kong, on our own!
  • Kowloon: Mostly holiday for us, although we did spend the better part of a day with my dear classmate Wilson Chow, President of the China Graduate School of Theology. Did as much as we could in two days.

It would be impossible in a few words to summaries my impressions. The narrator of Gao Xingjian’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, Soul Mountain, is on a journey which is filled with spiritual discovery. At one point he encounters a woman whom he describes this way: “She says she doesn’t know what happiness is and that she already has everything she should have – a husband, a son, what people think is the perfect little family.” Could this be an apt description of many in the post-Mao years? Everything appears to be progressing, and while the standard of living is clearly improving for great numbers, there is still a widespread emptiness. Not the dreadful angst of European alienation, but the sense of hope without foundation. A sobering television presentation proclaimed four trends for the future: villages will become towns, residents will become citizens, proletarians will become property-owners, neighbors will become strangers.
I don’t want to exaggerate, here, though. My hosts were the leading scholars of the new China. Wonderfully learned, deeply committed to excellence, and most receptive to what I was presenting, they exhibited the joy of those who are privileged to be in that calling. We conversed about subjects such as Kant, Confucius, ecology, Judaism, music, Asian vs. Western medicines, and much else. One topic regularly engaged was David Aikman’s book, Jesus in Beijing. The thesis of his thoroughly researched volume is that the message of Christ is having an enormous impact on the country, particularly through the house churches, so much so that China could emerge as the world’s leading Christian culture in the world in the next few decades. David is a good friend, so it was doubly fascinating to hear the different reactions to his book. Many were positive, saluting his depth and insights. Others felt he was too selective in choosing his informants, and that his overall conclusions were too optimistic. Some thought he was too systematically sympathetic to the house churches, without giving sufficient due to the registered churches. A few worried he had given away specific names which would become victims of surveillance, though they said a DVD series had done more harm. I must say, without the slightest expertise, I came away from this trip with many questions about the relation between these two major branches of Chinese Christianity. It seems to me they must attempt reconciliation in some fashion.
Still, the unfulfilled quest for meaning does appear to be in the background. Chinese people are above all pragmatic. This may go back to Confucius and to Lao Tze’s teachings. Famously agnostic about whether there is a God, yet longing to know, much of the philosophy of these two monuments in Chinese history is simply practical. “Kind people prefer mountains, but wise people prefer the waters,” goes the Confucianist saying. The idea is that if you are naive you are like someone who enjoys the simplicity and beauty of the natural landscape, but if you are wise you know how to navigate the ever-changing flow of the waters of life. Confucius once said that he would give everything to know whether there is a God. But in the absence of such knowledge, one must find rules for living. Here we have neither the fatalism of an Islamic vision nor the purely economic model of the emerging European Community.
China’s contemplative tradition can still be felt, despite all the modernization. When we climbed Mount Tai, we knew the Asian connection to pines, streams, mountains, and the need to find strength from them. What a shame it would be if the Chinese blindly imitated Western models of accomplishment. Europeans struggle with it themselves. French philosopher Luc Ferry writes about How to Fulfill One’s Life. He is a best seller. He longs for more than narrow hermeneutical philosophies or exclusively economically-driven pursuits. Our trip to China confirmed that we are in the quest for meaning together.
Our strong conviction is that the purpose for organizing this trip by the CCSANA was fulfilled, and that many more should follow. Asians will surely benefit from visits of Western scholars to their prestigious academies. But Westerners will especially learn from the great traditions and the remarkable scholarship of our contemporaries in today’s China. As China looks forward to the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World’s Fair, it is struggling to find its identity. To paraphrase Liu Guosong, “As a modern Chinese person aspiring to be authentic, one has to believe a new kind of worldview that has not yet been seen in its specific terms, that is, uniquely Chinese, yet is connected to the universal message of the Christian faith, in its uniquely Chinese application.”