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Four Historical Stages of the Indigenization of Chinese Christian Art
He Qi
March 28, 2000

China's Christian Art have experienced four stages in the process of its contextualization and indigenization:

1. The Stage of Nestorian (The Period of The Tang and Yuan Dynasties);
2. The Stage of Catholic Jesuits (The Period of The Ming and Qing Dynasties);
3. The Stage of Semi-Colonialism (The Period of the late 19th century and early 20th century); and
4. The Stage from the 1980s to the Present.

part 1 | part 2 | part 4
Part Three: The Stage of Semi-Colonialism (The Period of the late 19th century and the early 20th century):

As the Opium War took place in 1840s, Western imperialist powers broke up the Religious Prohibition Policy of the Qing government. In 1842, the Qing government was forced to sign the first unequal treaty "Nanjing Treaty" which legalized mission activities by the western missionaries in five Chinese port cities. The "Wang Xia Treaty" that was signed in 1844, further allowed the missionaries to build churches in those port cities. Up to then, China had become a semi-colonial country. The heart of the whole Chinese nation was greatly hurt. We clearly see that the Western Christian mission activities were escalated at the company of the Western colonialists' gun power and the humiliated unequal treaties signed by the Qing government, with China's lands ceded and reparations paid. During the middle and later parts of the 19th century, Christianity in China was wrapped up in a western package. Most of the churches built in the southeastern coastal port cities were architecturally Gothic, a style which was popular in western countries. Though salvation is for all the peoples of the world, in this particular historical period, "Christianity "became thoroughly a foreign religion in the hearts of the Chinese people because of its western package and at the gunpoint of the Western powers. There was a general rebellious mentality among Chinese because of the humiliation the whole nation of China suffered. They had the tendency to repel Christianity even before there was a real understanding of the truth of the Gospel. "One more Christian, one less Chinese" was a common saying at that time. More and more religious cases took place during the middle of the 19th century, which consequently touched off the movement of the Boxer's Uprising.

Since the late 19th century, some insightful western missionaries had already realized a "self-propagation" strategy should be implemented in China. Western mission societies then gradually promoted indigenous Christian movements in China. In their art package to do evangelism, they actively promoted the local Chinese style. Among the Christian art works in the period of the late 19th century and the early 20th century, there were ten picture stories of evangelical prophesy which were held in high esteem. There were a father and son, with the surname of Dai from Hangzhou, who painted during the period of Emperor Guang Xu. In their paintings, the prophetic evangelistic stories were depicted in complete Chinese style. For example: "The Wise and Foolish Virgins" (Picture 11) and "Return of The Prodigal" (Picture12), the figures, their costumes, the scenes, the structures and the autograph verses as well as the colors, were all depicted in a form of Chinese folk stories. These paintings by the Dai father and son were exhibited in a church hospital in Hangzhou. At that time, there was a new trend for missionaries in China to run hospitals, schools, and other social services. In these services which served as windows to the society, the pictures did not directly depict the themes of the "Holy Mother", the "Savior, Jesus Christ", etc., but the painters chose prophetic evangelistic stories and packed them with popular traditional Chinese artistic forms. This represented more or less an alternative mission strategy of Western missionaries in China, who were faced with many centuries of old culture and with a nation filled with a deep patriotic national spirit. Some of the thoughtful people from Western mission societies advocated that the traditional Chinese art be used to pack evangelism in order to change the foreign image of "Christianity" in the hearts of Chinese people and to make more space for the evangelization of China.

In 1922, under the support of foreign mission societies, "The Council of the Churches in China " was established.
In 1926, the Christian artist Shen Zi Gao, a minister in the Anglican Church (later he became a bishop) set up the "St. Luke Studio" in Nanjing with the goal to promote Christian artistic creation. Artist Xu San Chun ,who worked at the Railway Bureau, came to join him, and became a baptized Christian under his influence. Xu painted many Christian art works in the traditional Chinese painting style, such as: "Visit of The Magi"," Three Wise Men Come To Worship" (Picture 13), "Jesus and the Woman of Samaria," "Washing the Disciples' Feet". In "Visit of The Magi", Xu depicted the three wise men as three typical Chinese in their traditional culture: the one on his knees was depicted as a Buddhist monk, the one who stood behind him on the right was depicted as a Confucian scholar and the one who stood in the middle with a bottle of elixir was Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism. All three schools of thought--Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism that predominated the traditional Chinese culture, their founders came to worship the christ Child. This is really a typical Chinese expression!

It was reported that Xu San Chun often turned to Bishop Shen and an American female artist, I. L. Hammond for suggestions before he decided the composition of his painting. By 1934, the Studio had become an official art organization of the Church and Bishop Shen was its first chairman. The St. Luke Studio organized a series of art exhibitions in Nanjing and helped produce various crafts for sacrament uses in the churches, such as: alter crosses, candle holders, wall tapestries, and Christmas cards and so on. These useful art pieces were rich in Chinese folk art skills. The sacred table is now used in the Jinling Union Theological Seminary's chapel. It is a fine piece of art which was passed down. It was crafted by the St. Luke Studio. The relief on this wooden sacred table even took the pattern of the Chinese ideograms that mean "a clear mirror hung on high" implies "an impartial and wise judge", a pattern which the local official liked to use for office decorations. The only difference is that there is a cross engraved on the surface of the sacred table.

In 1930, Chairman Shen attended the World Christian Art Exhibition held in London, England, and also made an presentation on Chinese Christian Art there. The title of his speech was: "How the Spirit of Christianity wears Chinese Clothes". The International Missionary Council also held a Chinese Christian Art Exhibition in Madras, India, in order to promote indigenous Christian art in other countries.

In the meantime, the Roman Catholic Church also started a new movement to promote indigenous Chinese Christian art. The first apostolic nuncio archbishop Constantini (1922 - 1933) who was sent to Beijing by the Pope, was a lover of art. But when he first arrived in Beijing in 1922, he was very disappointed for not being able to find Catholic Christian artists and their works. It was not until 1928, when he went to an art exhibition held in Beijing that he met by accident a Chinese painter (who painted Chinese figures) whose surname was Chen. Chen used the traditional fine brushwork skill for narrative depiction. Though the painter knew very little about Christianity, Archbishop Connstantini still asked him to depict Bible stories in his paintings. He sent Chen a New Testament and encouraged him to paint in his own style. Meanwhile, the archbishop also shared with him some of the famousWwestern Christian art works. After that, Painter Chen started his new career of Christian artistic creation. He became a Christian and was baptized in 1932. Archbishop Constantini gave Mr. Chen the Christian name of Luke.

From that time on, Luke Chen (Yuan De) became a most impressive figure in Christian art. He was a professor in the Art Department of a Catholic University in Beijing. He educated and trained a group of Christian artists. Some of the well known artists that he trained were: Lu Hong Nian and Wang Su Da, as well as other students. Luke Chen's own works were also introduced overseas. In 1930s, an American journal "Life Weekly" gave him a special column in the paper to introduce his works. His works were deeply grounded in traditional skills, the costumes of the figures were classical in tradition, and the works also absorbed some Western style. In his paintings, the background landscapes were quite similar to the style of Wu Li, a painter in the late Qing Dynasty, the painting "Madonna"(Picture 14); the painting "The Crucifixion" (Picture 15) instead, was obviously influenced by classic Western Christian art, which put more emphasis on the accuracy of figure dissection, addition light and shadow in the painting in order to bring out good visual effect. Among his representative works, the painting "Jesus Loves Children" (Picture 16) (Picture 16a) was regarded as the best known, which even influenced the ceramic painting art of the Tao Feng Shan Christian Center in Hong Kong later on.

Luke Chen looked at his Christian artistic creation in this way:

"I believe, when I am depicting the Christian stories of the miracles with traditional Chinese painting skills, I feel the influential power on me from the theme I am painting. In the meantime, as I am painting, I am also enriching the traditional Chinese painting skills and improving them to a new level. Can I use Chinese art to enrich our church; can I use these familiar natural expressions to help our fellow Chinese get to know God, why shouldn't I be useful and offer this service to bring others joy?".

One of Luke Chen's students, Lu Hong Nian's Christian artistic creation stuck more to the traditional style in skills and in landscape composition. For example, in his painting "No Room in The lnn" (Picture 17), Mary and Joseph were depicted to be in a Chinese village inn yard when they looked for a place to spent the night; in the painting "Fleeing to Egypt" (Picture 18), there were boats in the reeds rather than the desert travelers which were common in western paintings; the "Good Samaritans" (Picture 19), depicted stones, pines, cascades and mountain roads in the clouds which were used in Chinese landscape paintings; in the painting "Madonna" (Picture 20), the Holy Mother was depicted as an ancient Chinese fairy who flew to the moon; the most brilliant one is "Annunciation", "Angel Brings Good News" (Picture 21), the Holy Mother was depicted as the Buddhist God of Mercy, and the angel became a small Chinese child, who with open wings, strains forward to present a bunch of lilies to Mary. This Christian painting completely depicts a feature of traditional Chinese painting.

Another one of Luke Chen's students was Wang Shu Da. He was from a Christian family. In his "Annunciation" (Picture 22), Mary, the Holy Mother was depicted in a Buddhist Temple reading by a lit lamp.

There were more than 180 Christian art works produced in the Art Department of the Christian University where Luke Chen taught as reported in a survey taken. From the year, 1935 to 1938, the art department organized three exhibitions each year for three consecutive years. It organized and conducted a series of itinerary exhibitions in Budapest, Vienna and the Vatican (Rome) in 1938. Besides the paintings exhibited, church's publication materials with Chinese style packages were also in the display.

Among Western mission societies that were committed to the promotion of Chinese indigenous Christian art, the Hong Kong Tao Feng Shan Christian Center stood at the front. The founder of the Hong Kong Tao Feng Shan Christian Center was a Norwegian missionary, Dr. Karl Ludvig Reichelt, who arrived in Hunan, China, in early 1904. In 1912, during the time he was teaching at the "Ni Kou Lutheran Seminary" in Hubei, he was, like those Jesuits who came to China in the late Ming dynasty, filled with great enthusiasm to evangelize Chinese Buddhists. He established the Jing Feng Shan in Nanjing in 1922, and moved it to Hangzhou in 1927 because of the turmoil of the war. Later in 1930, he founded the Tao Feng Shan Christian Center in Hong Kong (Picture 26). Dr. Karl Ludvig Reichelt specially invited a famous Danish architect Johannes Prip - Moller to design the Tao Feng Shan Christian Center buildings in a Buddhist Temple style architecture in order to attract the local people. He wanted to attract Buddhist priests in particular, to come study Christianity and to learn more about universal evangelism. Dr. Karl Ludvig Reichelt did a lot of preparation for the Tao Feng Shan building designs. As early as the 1920s, Dr. Karl Ludvig Reichelt visited many Chinese Buddhist temples, and made a serious study on Buddhist architectures. His sketches, photos as well as essays published were all important papers in the study of Chinese Buddhist architecture.

One thing worth mentioning was that he not only left behind a large number of Chinese style Christian architecture, but in the meantime, he also established a Christian artwork production plant - The Tao Feng Shan Pottery Plant. The typical handicrafts produced in the plant were Bible story paintings on plates, their artistic styles were fine brushwork paintings handed down from Luke Chen 's time, that is to depict the Bible stories in Chinese folk tales (Picture 27). Several famous painters worked in the plant during the 50 years of its' history, 1947-1998. Some of the famous painters were: Xie Wu Zhong, Zhou Yi Hong, Xu Miao, and Zhong Li Kun.

Looking back at these three historical stages of the development of Chinese Christian art, because of its Western mission societies background, and also as what an American church historian said, No matter what kind of efforts made, Christianity in China was a "foreign religion". Because the mission movements, the training, the church organizations and the basic theological thoughts were western in essence, the image of Christianity as a foreign religion could not be changed in the hearts of the Chinese people even if it was packed and wrapped in forms of traditional Chinese art. Today, though the desire of those missionaries from Western mission societies to help promote Chinese indigenous Christian art were understandable, it was not excluding that some of the works were based on the interest of those missionary painters. This was well represented in the paintings that the Bible story figures were depicted as Chinese wearing ancient clothing and living in ancient times. Though it looked very Chinese, there was a disconnection between the depictions in the paintings and the present social reality. It was difficult for them to gain acceptance in the Chinese context. What the paintings depicted were no more than "imagined legendary stories "which belonged to a part of history but had very little to do with the present day society and the daily life of most ordinary Chinese.

part 1 | part 2 | part 4


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