Guns and Gospel: Imperialism and Evangelism in China

Written by Ambrose Mong Reviewed By Andrew T. Kaiser

Ambrose Mong, a Dominican priest and research associate at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, is known for his theological writings addressing issues related to religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue. In his latest book, Guns and Gospel, he employs his theological perspectives in an attempted evaluation of the interplay between imperialism and evangelism throughout the history of the Christian missionary project in China.

With prose that is easy to follow, Mong organizes his exploration of the relationship between mission and imperialism in China into eight chapters. Chapter one provides a brief overview of the global spread of Christianity from the early church up to the nineteenth century. Mong is primarily concerned in this book with Protestant mission efforts, though he does discuss Catholicism at times with mixed success. While his references to the Ming dynasty Jesuits seem organic and relevant to the overall argument, the Vatican II references feel forced and out of place. Historians may not be satisfied with Mong’s breezy summary in this first chapter, but he tries to cover a lot of territory at a brisk pace in order to reach his main area of interest: Christianity in China during the modern era.

In chapter two, Mong focuses on the opening of Protestant missions in China, exploring briefly the eighteenth-century European craze for Asian art and design before discussing early trade between Britain and China as viewed through the East India Company and the Macartney Embassy of 1793. The second half of the chapter explores the interplay between politics and economics in the opium trade, and the complicit relationship between early China missionaries and the trade itself—culminating in the first Opium War of 1839. Chapter three then examines the conflicts in the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and the Boxer Uprising. As he highlights “the impact of Christianity on Chinese soil, which on the whole was disastrous and tragic” (p. 44), Mong stresses the ways in which western military, legal and cultural intrusions into China drove various segments of Chinese society to resist—at times violently.

Each of the remaining five chapters examines a seminal figure in the Protestant mission to China, evaluating the degrees to which their varying approaches to mission contributed to the imperialist exploitation of China. Chapter four opens the biographical evaluations by examining Robert Morrison who, in Mong’s reading, was implicated in the imperialistic overreach of the East India Company’s work in China by virtue of his employment as their interpreter. Next, chapter five looks at the controversial early missionary Charles Gutzlaff. Without ignoring the compromises involved in Gutzlaff’s relationship with the opium trade, Mong admires Gutzlaff for his determination to see Chinese evangelists building the Chinese church and for his embrace of a “minimalist Christianity” that facilitated contextualization of the gospel.

In chapter six, Mong considers Protestant missionary legend James Hudson Taylor and his China Inland Mission. Taylor’s emphasis on adapting to local cultural practices is signaled out for special admiration, while the CIM’s efforts to distance themselves from the political aspects of the British imperialist push is presented as exemplary for the Christian mission to China. Chapter seven presents the life of noted China missionary Timothy Richard, although with emphasis on Richard’s later years and, in particular, his work related to interreligious dialogue. Here Mong finds a kindred spirit, looking past the evangelical nature of Richard’s first twenty years on the field to focus on his accommodationist attempts to connect aspects of Mahayana Buddhism with the Christian faith. Mong closes his biographies with a chapter on Pearl S. Buck, the influential author and missionary child. Although Buck rejected her missionary calling, Mong combines her criticism of her missionary contemporaries with the controversial 1932 Hocking report to support Mong’s glowing endorsement of the early twentieth-century Social Gospel influence on the China mission.

Mong concludes his study with a theological reflection on Christianity’s future role in China. Drawing on his background in interfaith relations and religious pluralism, Mong discusses at length the potential for a dialogue between Christianity and Marxism to produce a “Christianity with Chinese characteristics” (p. 159) free from the burdens of imperialism and suitable for China in its present circumstances.

Guns and Gospel provides lay readers with a statement of the now classic imperialist critique of the China mission project. While the historical relationship between imperialism and Christian mission is real and worthy of close study, this book and its main argument seem strangely behind the times. Much of the source material used for the book is outdated, and in some instances the absence of more recent research affects the argument. Mong’s lack of engagement with the growing body of scholarship on the (early) rise of indigenous, independent Chinese Christianity and its relationship to the missionary effort is particularly glaring. Scholars will also notice that Mong’s representation of the contemporary Protestant church in China is trapped in the western academic discourses of the 1980s, divorced from current life in the mainland Chinese Christian community and offering little acknowledgment of the house church phenomenon—let alone the current wave of missionaries from China.

The most glaring problem, however, is the omission of scholarship over the last fifteen years that questions and complicates many aspects of the dated imperialist critique Mong presents. As one example, Ryan Dunch’s insightful and now fairly standard essay (“Beyond Cultural Imperialism: Cultural Theory, Christian Missions, and Global Modernity,” History & Theory 41.3 [2002]: 301–25) is relegated by Mong to a footnote as “an interesting critique” (p. 26). Mong’s text does not adequately acknowledge, let alone address, Dunch’s contention that older historical narratives of the missionary movement (precisely the materials Mong relies on for his research) were themselves colored by nationalistic biases that fixed missionaries as agents of western modernity. Nor does the book acknowledge Dunch’s observation that Chinese people were active agents on their own terms, as evidenced in the many Chinese Christians who shaped their nation’s development over the last two hundred years.

Mong’s writing is clearly more competent in the sections where he explicitly views the history of Christianity in China from an interfaith perspective. In this sense, Mong’s contribution lies not in his insights into the relationship between imperialism and evangelism but rather, for those interested in Mong’s theological viewpoint, in his exploration of the intermingling of accommodationism and pluralism within the China mission.

Andrew T. Kaiser

Andrew T. Kaiser
Independent Researcher
Taiyuan, Shanxi, China

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