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Three Stages of Indigenization Reflection on Christian Art China
Prof. Masao Takenaka


Today any visitors to China are impressed by seeing the astonishing degree of economic and technological development such as exhibited on the east side of Shanghai.

It is very challenging to see the enormous economic development as indicated by the figure of 6% per year of national growth. Equally astonishing is the growth of the Christian population in the last 50 years. We are told that the Christian population is about 16 million including Catholic Christians which count roughly 6 million. This means the Chinese church has grown 16 times while the population increased only 3.5 times in the last 50 years.

Bishop K.H.Ting in his recent book indicates that this growth is not a result of natural course but came about through the experience of resurrection after the days of cultural revolution:

"Not a single church remained open. There was left no government organ to protect us from lawlessness. We had, no rebel group of our own to support us, nor any bandwagon to ride on. It would have been fortunate if we could just flock together. By all human reckoning Christianity, perhaps for the fourth time in Chinese history, was again breathing its last breath.
What we were blind to was that when we were weak and dying life was in the offing. As Shelley wrote, If winter comes, can spring be far behind ?' Strength is found in weakness, as life in dying. As Paul put it, what you sow does not come to life unless it dies. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power." (K.H.Ting, Love Never Ends, 2000, p.87)

We were very much impressed by participating in the vital worship service on Sunday in St. Paul Church in Nanjing in which the choir from Suchan sang beautiful Chinese hymns and songs. Over two thousand people attended three services over the weekend.

In Nanjing, at the Amity Art Center we saw precious pieces of Christian art works which are ready to ship to Austria for a special exhibition at the National Museum in Vienna to be held from September 17 - October, 2000. They are rich and creative expressions of Christian faith in the Chinese context. We are told that about 100 pieces of artworks will be displayed in Vienna including 30 pieces from the Catholic church.


While we were In China from April 29 - May 5, 2000 for the executive committee meeting of Asian Christian Art Association, we continuously pondered such questions as the process of indigenization, significance of art in the life and mission of the church and above all, what is Christian art. It seems there are three stages in the process of indigenization.

The first stage advocates the need of indigenization. Against the background of the predominant Western culture, the need to express the Christian Gospel through the traditional culture is emphasized. Many churches in the Non-Western World have advocated the need but not provided the necessary support and encouragement.

The second stage is the experimental stage. It is the stage of various attempts to express the Christian Gospel through the traditional culture. Among the various experiments, such attempts as to put Christ and the disciples into Chinese clothes is easily discernable. In Shanghai, we have received a beautiful book which contained 43 pieces of Yu Jiade. The fact that this book was published jointly by the Three - Self Committee of the Protestant Churches in China and China Christian Council indicates the considerable interest and support of the Chinese church to the effort of Christian artists. The concern to communicate the Christian Gospel through Chinese traditional culture is expressed in the following sentence of Luo Guanzong, one of the key leaders of the Chinese Church.

"Art is able to touch man's heart and soul, and is also able to connect with the long and unique history of Chinese culture. Therefore it is art which can manifest the good tidings of the coming of God's only begotten son Jesus Christ to the world through incarnation in a better way." (Preface of the book, 'Jesus, Son of Man' by Yu Jiade, 2000).

Another good example is the paper cutting works of Fan Pu, a female artist who works in the Amity Christian Art Center in Nanjing. Following in her father's footsteps, who was a dedicated pastor and calligrapher in Nanjing, she does intricate Chinese paper cutting works to express Biblical messages. She also edits the information sheets which Amity Christian Art Center publishes for the exchange of information among the Chinese artists and those who are interested In Chinese Christian art around the world.

It is very inspiring to see the development of indigenization in this stage. It is like spring to see many flowers bloom at the same time. Yet, one also needs to examine them. While some of the works contain vigorous creative power, some tend to become static rather than dynamic, formal rather than creative. They give the comfort and peace to the older generation but may not appeal to the younger generation. To put it bluntly, they put Christ in old China, but not necessarily in the new China.

The third stage tries to carry the struggle of the searching spirit to find the new frontier. It may be called the stage of new breakthrough. It is not either entirely Western nor old Chinese but tries to find new identity in the new China or the contemporary China. It openly accepts the impact of old West and old China but also attempts to find unique new expression in contemporary China. For example, I can name three prominent artists. Ding Fang (Beijing), He Qi (Nanjing) and Wang Ro (Shanghai).

They studied during a similar period at the Nanjing Art Institute. To be sure, their art works exhibit different characteristics, but indicate the struggling effort to be on the new creative front which contains universal appeal. In this stage even the term of indigenization may not be adequate, since it has universal quality in the world context. Also this universal openness provides the ground of dialogue among the people of other religions, by pointing out the ultimate source of life. Their effort is to find the new language to respond to the transcending light in the reality of the Bible.

As some of our Chinese friends expressed this is the beginning of the exercise. We like to continuously support and understand the creative expression of Christian art in China today, from which we have much to learn.


© ACAA - Asian Christian Art Association