Four Historical Stages of the Indigenization of Chinese Christian Art

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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 One: The Stage of Nestorian (The Period of The Tang and Yuan Dynasties)

The Nestorians came to China in the 9th year of Tang Emperor Zhen Guan (635 A.D.). Emperor Tai Zong and Emperor Gao Zong of the Tang Dynasty, courteously received and treated the Nestorians well in the Imperial Court. During the reign of Emperor Tai Zong, because of the respect the Emperor held for Olopen who was a missionary from Persia, cathedrals were allowed to be built for him and were decorated with western and central Asian hues. Indigenous Chinese decoration was not stressed. In the 12th year of Zhen Guan, Emperor Tai Zong built a cathedral specially for the Persian missionary Olopen and named it “The Persian Cathedral”. By the time of Emperor Gao Zong’s reign, there were Nestorian Cathedrals built in every prefecture. As the Nestorian Tablet recorded: “Cathedrals are in every city and the Gospel is pervasive and popular.”

From the time of the Tang Emperor Xuan Zong, Nestorians tended to strengthen the outside package of Nestorianism to be Chinese and Buddhism as well. This was done because Buddhism was strongly supported by Wu Ze Tian when she became the Empress. Buddhism had already been packed very well with indigenous Chinese traditional art in central China, which to some extent, made Nestorians frustrated in their mission in China. There were even cases where Nestorian cathedrals were destroyed. In order to have a firm stand in central China, Nestorianism had to pack itself to be Chinese and to be Buddhism also, so that it could have more space for greater development. A typical example is: The Tang Emperor Xuan Zong, had a compassion for Nestorians. He gave order to his brothers to repair a ruined cathedral. He asked that an altar to erected inside the cathedral, and more than that, he asked that the portraits of the five late emperors be put inside the cathedral as protective deities. The five late emperors were Gao Zhu, Tai Zong, Gao Zong, Zhong Zong, and Rui Zong. Because Buddhism was so prosperous in central China then, and in order to compete with Buddhism, Nestorians who came later from the West, tried in every way to absorb and mingle into their outside package some of the Buddhist plastic art. Therefore in the 5th year of Hui Chang (845 A .D.), when the Tang Emperor Wu Zong promulgated the decree to get rid of Buddhism, Nestorianism suffered as well because of its similar outside package to Buddhism.

The Tang Dynasty’s “Nestorian Tablet” (Picture 1) was a typical paradigm that survived, which demonstrated the tendency of Nestorianism to be Chinese and Buddhism. The Tablet was built in the 2nd year of Jian Zhong, in the reign of the Tang Emperor De Zong (781 A.D.). By that time, Nestorianism had already been in China for a century and a half and had finally yielded Chinese fruit. Apart from the epigraph and the format of the Tablet pattern which are so traditional Chinese, on the top part of the Tablet, there are the typical Buddhist lotus pedals encircled with auspicious clouds under the Cross, which revealed that Nestorianism in China blossomed as a Buddhist flower, but bore Christian fruit.

Four Historical Stages of the Indigenization of Chinese Christian Art

In the middle of the 9th century when Buddhists were persecuted in the period of the Tang Emperor Wu Zong, Nestorianism became almost extinct as more than 2000 Nestorian missionaries were driven out together with Buddhist monks. There is no recorded proof of the existence of Nestorianism down to the Song Dynasty. According to the study by Xu Rulei, a professor at the Jinling Union Theological Seminary, there was once an Nestorian top leader who sent an investigator to China in the early Song Dynasty (980 A.D.) and after the investigator traveled over the country, he found only one Nestorian follower. After the fierce military invasion of the Mongolian Yuan entered the central region, the Song Dynasty enjoyed only a limited part of China. From the period of the late Tang to the early Song dynasties, Nestorianism gradually removed to those regions such as the marginalized minority area north of the Great Wall, the south eastern coastal area as well as the north eastern parts of the country. It was not until the 13th century when the Mongolian minorities established their power, was Nestorianism able to spread to the central part of China and was greatly developed again. By the year of Shun Yuan (1330 A.D.), Nestorianism had a membership of over 300 thousand. At that time, Nestorianism and Catholicism which had come to China by then, were both recognized as the religion of “Ye Li Ke Wen”, though, they actually were different denominations. Further, their outside package was different as well. For example, Giovani da Montcovino, the Franciscan missionary who was sent to China by the Pope, did not agree with the tendency of Christianity being indigenous. The evangelistic materials which he brought with him were filled with illustrations of Western style art. The traditional Nestorianism on the contrary, obviously revealed its indigenous, Buddhist tendency in its outwardly wrapped package, such as the Nestorian grave stone unearthed in Yanzhou (Picture 2), the top part of which was found the form of the lotus cross which was similar to that of the Nestorian Tablet.

Four Historical Stages of the Indigenization of Chinese Christian Art

The Nestorian outer Buddhist package was also clearly found on several other Mongolian Yuan Nestorian crosses unearthed in the He Tao area, Gansu Province (Picture 3). These crosses were usually used by Nestorians as entombed articles. The crosses were decorated with Buddhist Transmigration ideograms of “nedemktion “, which implied that Nestorians had put the Buddhist Transmigration doctrine into the Christian teachings of redemption and everlasting life. According to the newest archaeological findings, there were pictures of Nestorian angels unearthed. There is no archaeological proof, however, that these angels were similar to the Buddhist Fei Tian in China.

Four Historical Stages of the Indigenization of Chinese Christian Art

Part Two: The Stage of Catholic Jesuits (The Period of The Ming and Qing Dynasties)

During the first 200 years after the Mings came to power (1368 – 1644), they drove out the Mongolian Yuan from Central China. Nestorians and Catholics, both of which were once courteously treated by the Yuan Mongolian minorities, were also dismissed. During the period of the Ming Emperor Wan Li, a Catholic Jesuits missionary, Matteo Racci came to China. He came three years after Michael Ruggieri came in 1552. Catholicism thus returned to China and so did Western Christian Art. At that time, the Jesuits took a mission strategy of zealously following the Chinese customs and culture, and trying hard not to offend the Chinese people. Though their China strategy was criticized by other mission societies, the Jesuits unfolded a Chinese scroll painting of Christian Art in the last part of the Ming Dynasty. At the initiation of Jesuits missionaries, four representative paradigms of Chinese Christian Art works were created by using the brushwork on Chinese paintings.

1. “Chinese Madonna” Scroll Painting by Yi Ming ,1582 – 1600?
2. The four-piece”Treasured Imagine” of “Cheng’s Elect Specimens of lnk” by Matteo Racci , Published in 1600, the period of the Ming Emperor Wan Li.
3. “The Method of the Rosary” by Jean de Rocha, Published in 1619.
4. “The lllustrated Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ” by Julio Aleni Published in 1637.

In the late 19th century, a missionary named Berthold Lafer found a scroll painting in Xian titled, “The Chinese Madonna” (Picture 4). This painting was recognized by missionaries to be on the same level as the “Nestorian Tablet” which was also found in Xian. The style of the painting is, to some extent, similar to those murals which still exist in the Church in Rome. In this painting: Madonna wore a cape which covered her hair, shoulders and back. She had fine, delicate features. However, a Chinese baby was in her arms. According to the research done by Dr. Mu Xiao Ye, Matteo Racci often displayed this kind of painting of Madonna when he was in Zhaoqing (Guandong Province) and Nanjing. He said, “Many people enjoy this painting because of its great elegance, its hues, its lines and its vivid posture, etc” (Note 1). The painting was found about the same time as the Nestorian Tablet which was also found in Xian. Because of that, some missionaries thought it was a sacred painting which wae influenced by Nestorianism. However the painting, obviously, followed those of the Italian Renaissance style and was recognized as the painting done by Jesuit missionaries in the late Ming Dynasty, which was created near the end of the 16th century.

Four Historical Stages of the Indigenization of Chinese Christian ArtJamie Kelly, left, and Tina Gessler roll up a recently restored Chinese scroll painting of the Madonna and Child at the Field Museum in Chicago. source

When Matteo Racci came to China, he brought with him several copies of the West European copper plate engravings. These engravings were not one single copy. In 1598, Matteo Racci left Nanchang for Nanjing to go with the foreign minister Wang Zhong Ming to Beijing to meet the Chinese Emperor. He returned to Nanjing in 1599 after having failed to get a meeting with the Emperor. While in Nanjing, he got to know a well known businessman named Chen Da Yue (aliased as You Bo and Jun Fang). Chen was an ink stick maker and worked with Zhu Shi Ling, an official from the Foreign Ministry Burean.
Racci sent Chen four copies of the West European Christian copper plate engravings as a present. Why did Matteo Racci send art works to Chen? The answer could be he had a “mission motive.” In the 23rd year of the Ming Emperor Wan Li (1595), Chen You Bo published “Cheng’s Mo Yuan”?Cheng’s Elect Specimens of lnk? which was an album of woodcut paintings for the ink stick commercial business. The book was complied of 6 volumes and 12 chapters, and was divided into 6 sections: The Sky, The Earth, Human Figures, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. With Mateo Racci’s four copies of the copper plate engravings included, the book could be recognized as a “complete” one. A famous Belgiun copper plate carver, did the copper plate engravings in 1532 – 1603.

It was recorded, Chen You Bo invited a famed painter, Ding Yun Peng, to re-draw Racci’s copper plate engravings, and then invited a famed carver by the name of Huang Ling from Hui Zhou to engrave them again before he published them in “Chen Yuan Mo Bao” Volume 6, Book 2.

The first three pieces were originally engraved by a renowned Belgium copper plate carver. The last one “Madonna with the Baby on Her Breast”, according to Boucher’s research, Jean Nicolao, a Jesuit painted it in 1597 at the Nagasaki Jesuits Painting Institute in Japan. Matteo Ricci added Latin phonetics to the verses on the painting. Though these four works published in “Chen’s Mo Yuan” are only copies, they have indeed become part of the Chinese folk craftman’s vocabulary. This is especially true with the painting “Strolling in the Sea with Faith, Sinking when Doubting”?.

Though the painting is the Renaissance style of focal perspective composition, the remote mountains, the disciple’s dress as well as their face features are evidently the Chinese folk woodcut style. In contrast to this painting, the “The Method of the Rosary” which was edited and published by Jean de Rocha in 1619, has actually walked out of the imitation cage to become more creative in its expressions to Christian themes by using Chinese traditional art. This is the earliest and most typical series of Chinese Christian art works that exist so far.

Dr. Gianni Criveler once had a relevant comment on the book: ” Marks of a successful fellowship among the first group of Chinese Christians.” The book uses Jesus Christ as the main character, and depicts him as a role model in filial duties. The disciples often used the holy name of Christ, his image as well as his crucifixion and his resurrection as a guide in their prayers. The book helps Chinese Christians to know God better through prayers and pictures. This was also what Jesuits passionately wanted Chinese Christians to know” (Note 2).

“The Method of the Rosany” was edited and published by Jean de Rocha. “Evangelical Picture Stories” was drawn by a renowned European Jesuit wood print carver. Jerome Nadal had the original copies in Nanjing, Rocha invited the late famous Ming artist Dong Qi Cang (1555 – 1636) or maybe one of his students, to re-draw the originals and then to make woodcarving prints. “… … we have been amazed by those elegant carvings which are so unique in their method of deductions. There is no doubt that these new refined carvings will bring the echoing sound from Chinese readers. The unique Chinese style painting composition makes more vivid pictures in which features of different figures (including Jesus, Mary and the disciples), their dress, the buildings as well as other depictions such as: gardens and lakes, are all Chinese features” (Note 3.) Chinese wood carving prints in the Ming Dynasty became more popular as the printing technology and the civil culture became more developed. Nanjing was then recognized as the wood carving prints center. In the period of Wan Li, folk wood carving print business was very popular in the cities of Huizhou, Hangzhou, Wuxing, Suzhou and so on. The wood carving prints of Huizhou were particularly well known. Businessmen and carvers from Huizhou were everywhere in China. “Stories of Pi Pa”, and “Stories of North Xi Xiang” by Wang Guanghua were the best representative works of the Hui School wood carving prints and were used for book illustrations. The Jinling wood carving prints which had a strong Hui School influence were known for its picture illustrations for opera and novel books. Jean de Rocha’s “The Method of the Rosary” specially represented the use of the folk wood carving prints for book illustrations in China. For example: the Chinese style gardens and the method of space division unfolded in the painting of “Annunciation” and the painting of “Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth”. They are exact copies to those illustrations in the book. People can easily associate the skills and the composition of the hills and woods in the painting “Praying at Gethsemane” to the illustrations in the book “Pilgrimage to the West”.

One thing that is worthy to mention is that in Rocha’s “The Metnod of the Rosary”, there is a painting of “The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ” shown for the first time in China. Before that, even in ” Chen’s Elect Specimens of lnk”, among the four works of “Treasured Imagines”, there is no theme as “The Crucifixion of Jesus”. As a matter of fact, this is sometimes related to evangelism work of the Jesuits in China. In the 27th year of the Ming Emperor Wan Li (about 1600), Matteo Racci was in Beijing waiting to meet the Emperor. He clearly saw the strong resentment from Ma Tang, an imperial eunuch and a Chinese traditional apologist when he presented “The Crucifixion” to him. Ma Tang resented the “nude” Jesus on the cross. Hence, in order not to hurt the Chinese’s feelings, the Jesuits often jumped over the part of the cruel “crucifixion of Jesus” in their teachings in China. They never taught “Jesus died on the Cross” to non-Christians. Even to seekers, they would not teach this part until the person as to be baptized.” So, at this point, it is imaginable that among the four paintings which Matteo Racci presented to the ink stick maker, Chen You Bo, there was not a single painting of “The Crucifixion of Jesus”.

Dr. Gianni Criveler once had a wonderful comment on the book “The Method of the Rosary”, published by Jean de Rocha. He said,”Among other things, explanations would be given from the Chinese perspective even to the same element, such as: to assort more than one picture together to make one piece. These pictures are absolutely able to display Dong Qi Cang’s style, which is to display the corner of a person’s heart. In his painting, he kept a central idea and left much empty space. This is not only for the sake of highlighting the central idea, but also to make a mark which symbolizing the sacred meaning. We could use the “Crucifixion of Jesus” as an example. The Chinese painter, Dong Qi Cang put two of Jerome Nadal’s works together to produce an amazing effect. In the painting, on the top of a barren hill (inside Jerusalem’s city walls) there one cross was erected, and the two other crosses on which there were two thieves crucified disappeared. Only the cross, the cross on which Jesus was crucified, stands strikingly up to the sky and down to the earth, so alone that it seems He is the only one left in this world, and only His Heavenly Father is His witness. Those who surrounded the cross represents the humiliation, the cruelty and the apathy of the soldiers who killed Jesus; the indifference of the people in power who insulted Jesus, as well as the compassion and lamentations of the women who were with Jesus to the end. The general appearance of the picture is an expression of strong perception, and is also a Chinese understanding of the crucifixion of Jesus. It also state how Chinese understood the miracles of Jesus in the early period of evangelization in China, especially the sufferings of Jesus. In Jean de Rocha’s painting album, Jesus has Chinese features and lives in the Chinese context” (Note 4).

To omit the two crucified thieves from Jerome Nadal’s original painting “The Crucifixion of Jesus” and to state the main theme so directly is a way that expresses the Chinese style of appreciation of art. This painting has actually omitted an extra explanation as to why Jesus was crucified with two thieves.

In 1637, 18 years after the publishing of “The Method of the Rosary” by Jean de Rocha? there was a “lllustrated Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ”which was edited and published by Julio Aleni, It was published in Fuzhou.

The Jesuits from the beginning (1491-1556) had used the methods of visual art as a means to evangelize and to rely on these images to meditate more deeply on the Holy God. Julio Aleni published “The True Record of the words and Deede of the Lord of Heaven Become lncarnate” in 8 volumes in 1635, and two years after, he published “The lllustrated Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ”. The book was recognized as a successive copy to the former one, in which a series of picture stories systematically depicted the life and deeds of Jesus in a form of wood carving prints. The book illustrations were popular among the Chinese. There were altogether 57 pictures. “The Method of the Rosary” was also edited and included
Jean de Rocha’s pictures of the wood engraving prints. He also used Jerome Nadal’s “Picture of Goskel Stories” as the original copy in his book. But Aleni chose something closer to the original copy, something more like a simply Chinese folk wood engraving than to copy the western ones. Though Aleni’s “The Illustrated Life of our Lord Jesus Christ” would be printed over and over again, it still can not compare with “The Method of the Rosary” edited and published by Jean de Rocha in artistic achievements and in the uniqueness of its artistic expressions which the Chinese wood engraving print possesses. So, without the involvement of Chinese masters of art like Dong Qi Chang, the Chinese style artistic originality of “The Illustrated Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ” has been greatly reduced. They are at most simply the copies to Jerome Nadal’s works. Though they are just like the copies, they do not really carry on the achievements of the West European Renaissance in Art: the manner of realism-emphasizing the figure anatomy, the focal perspective as well as the western costumes and western architectures. “The Illustrated Life of our Lord Jesus Christ” opened a window as far as the development of Chinese traditional art is concerned, and offered as a display that there were exchanges between China and the West in the field of wood engraving prints. The one exception is that in the last work “The Coronation of St. Mary”? (Picture 10)? , Aleni intentionally highlighted the Chinese features in the upper part of the painting, at each side of the Holy Mother, the Holy Father and the Holy Son, he added more than ten Chinese angels; in the lower part, fifteen Chinese figures stood at the left side, opposite to a group of western figures at the right side. Among those western figures, the Pope and one European monarch were included; among the Chinese figures, there were different people who wore different hoods and represented people from different walks of life. There was even a military man and a child with forehead hair. In the distant, there was a ray of European and Asian architectures (buildings, palaces and temples) between the people and the clouds. At the lower part of the painting, a footnote was written: [Emperors, kings, soldiers and people from different countries hope that the Holy Mother will be the Mother of Grace for the whole world; churches and cathedrals were built on earth to worship the Holy Mother and wish to be protected by her.]

The information which Julio Aleni wanted to pass on was: “Chinese are part of the church today, they should have equal status with others, and their exclusion from redemption would not happen again. China would finally become a part of the church universal and become members in redemption history. Through this painting, Jalio Aleni cleared up the suspicions of Chinese being excluded from God’s salvation plan”.

From the late Ming to the early Qing Dynasties, there wasn’t a discontinuation in the Jesuits’ mission of evangelizing China. The German Jesuit missionary Johann Adam Schall von Bell who came to China in the late Ming Dynasty continued to be held in high esteem. Emperor Shun Di of the Qing Dynasty once appropriated special funds to purchase him a piece of land in Xuan, Wu Men Gate in Beijing, and in the spring of 1650, a Chinese style cathedral was built at the site of the first Catholic Church in Beijing, named “Nan Tang”(later changed to western style architecture). During the period of Emperors Kang Xi and Qian Long, there were Jesuit missionary painters who served, off and on, in the Imperial Court. Among them, the Italian painter, Giuseppe Castiglione was the best known one who advocated the “Chinese painting techniques being used in western paintings”. Within half a century of his stay in China (1715 – 1766), he used his western painting skills to paint traditional Chinese paintings. Apart from drawing the political, historical, bird and flower and animal paintings for the Imperial Court, he left some valuable Chinese style paintings with Christian themes. The representative ones are: “The Leading Angel”? (Picture 11?), and “Michele Defeating the Demon” (Picture 12). In his painting, Giuseppe Castiglione not only gave special attention to the dissection of structure proportions, focal perspectives, light and shadow effects as well as effects of trio-dimensions, but also absorbed the skills of traditional Chinese realistic painting with a detailed fine brushwork. In his paintings, the appearance of human figures are soft in color, and the landscapes which served as backgrounds in the paintings have obviously been influenced by the Chinese traditional landscape paintings. One thing noteworthy is that in the painting, “Michele Defeating the Demon”?Giuseppe Castiglione intentionally avoided the direct visual image of the dragon when he painted . Angels led in defeating a vicious monster –a big red dragon, which is a biblical story found in “Revelation”, and a very popular Christian theme among western Christian churches. Giuseppe Castiglione,who knew traditional Chinese culture well, was certainly unwilling to draw the dragon as a vicious symbol which was also a symbol of the Chinese Emperor who was the “real son of the heavenly dragon” and a totem of the Chinese nation who claimed to be the “offspring of the dragon”. In order not to be offensive to the traditional Chinese culture, Giuseppe Castiglione used the implicit method to draw only an obscure dragon tail behind the monster, so that the Chinese work would not lead the ordinary Chinese to connect the vicious monster with the dragon.

Besides Giuseppe Castiglione, there were other Jesuit missionary painters who served in the Imperial Court in the period of Emperor Qian Long, such as A Qimeng (1708-1780) and Wang Zhicheng and Pan Tingzhang. They served respectively at the South Cathedral, the North Cathedral and the East Cathedral. The one thing different is that they were not as influential as Giuseppe Castiglione. Because the “rituals dispute” became more intensified during the reign of Emperor Kang Xi, the Qing government thus implemented a prohibition policy towards Christianity. Jesuits, however, still had space to survive because of their respect for traditional Chinese customs and rituals. The Roman Catholic Pope repelled the Jesuits mission strategy and gave orders on July 21, 1773, to ban the Jesuits. The Jesuits left when the orders arrived in China in 1775. To this end, after two hundred years of painstaking efforts, the Jesuits who came to China in the late Ming Dynasty pulled off of this historical stage, and left behind them their successful fruit of evangelization with respect to the indigenous Chinese culture.

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” and “Return of The Prodigal”, 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”, “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 Constantini 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”; the painting “The Crucifixion” 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” 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”, 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”, there were boats in the reeds rather than the desert travelers which were common in western paintings; the “Good Samaritans”, depicted stones, pines, cascades and mountain roads in the clouds which were used in Chinese landscape paintings; in the painting “Madonna”, 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”, 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”, 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. 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. 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 Four: The New Historical Stage of the Eighties in the 20th Century

Since the late 1970s, the leftist idea represented by the “Gang of Four” has been thoroughly rejected. As order were restored in every field, and the religious freedom policy was gradually re-instated, Christianity also revived in the early 1980s. Indigenous Christian art thus made a firm come back. As we are in this new historical era in which everything is in a developing state, it is too early to draw conclusions.

As a matter of fact, some highly influencial Chinese Christian leaders have a vision to advocate and develop indigenous Chinese Christian art. The start could be traced back to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement launched in the early 1950s. The three principles of “self-government, self-support and self-propagation” has shaken off the manipulation of church affairs by foreign mission societies, and has educated Chinese Christians to understand how to first be Chinese.

This is a right choice for the context of China and for the progress of the Chinese society. In old China, especially from the Opium War to the Attack of Beijing and Tianjing by the Western Eight-Allies, Chinese Christians who received baptism in churches run by foreign missionaries and who hid there to seek protections when there were religious violence, were accused as “traitors” by the ordinary Chinese. There was a saying,”If China gains one Christian, it will lose one Chinese.” It would be difficult for the churches to successfully spread the Gospel in new China if it did not change its image as a “foreign religion”. From the perspective of church history and theology, “Self-Propagation” is always an issue the which churches need to face. Only when the universal Good News mingles with the local culture, will it be possible for it to be accepted by the local people.

It is certain that from the 1950s to the 1970s, the use of traditional Chinese art as a means to practice “self-propagation” and to change the churches’ “foreign image” was not placed on the agenda by churches in China. In the 1950s, because of the movement of “thoroughly reform oneself” initiated among churches which were promoting the “Three-Self” Principles, churches were not able to spend time thinking about Christian art. And also, because of the interference of the Leftist Line, from which China suffered – – from 1960s to 1970s, all churches in China were completely paralyzed, let alone think about Christian art. It was not until the 1980s when the churches were revived after the Cultural Revolution, and the principle of “Operating the Church Well” was on their agenda, that the cause of indigenous Christian Art was promoted and supported by some of the outstanding Christian leaders. Not long after the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary was reopened in 1981, K.H. Ting, then President of the Seminary, suggested a class of Chinese calligraphy and painting be taught at the seminary and that famous Chinese calligraphers and painters be invited from Jiangsu Province to teach the course. It was the hope that indigenous Chinese Christian art be used to express the Christian faith to the seminary students. Famous calligraphers and painters came to give lectures to the class. Some were Professor Hung Yanghui, a famous painter from the Provincial Chinese Painting Institute; Director Zhu Kui, the Director of the Provincial Fine Art Museum; Professor Fan Baowen and Professor Luo Jianzao, both were from the Art Department of Nanjing Normal University. I, myself, have been blessed to be able to teach in the Seminary since the spring of 1983, and to participate and witness the work of Chinese Christian Art under the leadership of these Chinese Christian leaders. It could be said that indigenous Chinese Christian Art in the 1980s was developed under the special care of Bishop Ting at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. Besides, some local churches also gave their support to the development of indigenous Chinese Christian Art. For example, the Jiangsu Provincial Christian Council has tried for a long time to use the Chinese style paintings with Christian themes to publish their New Year calendars. Though most of these paintings have not gotten rid of the western style imitations because of the historical western influence, their painstaking efforts can obviously be seen, and which we regard as the prelude to real Chinese Christian art works.

In 1993 a Chinese Christian Art Meeting was held in Nanjing. Dr. Han Wenzao presided at the meeting. The Amity Christian Art Center was established (previously it had been under Amity Foundation).
From that time, the development of indigenous Chinese Christian art has progressed to a new and solid stage. From 1993, the Amity Christian Art Center has organized three national level art exhibitions. They were held in Hong Kong, Nanjing and Vienna.
Bishop Ting wrote the forewords for the three exhibitions. The Shanghai Three-Self Movement Committee published Mr. Yu Jiade’s “Paintings Album of Water and Ink”. In Nanjing, the Amity Christian Art Center published the book “Amity Christian Art Painting Album” as well as Christmas cards and other Christian folk handicrafts. Bishop Ting and Dr. Han wrote respectively the “Amity Art Painting Album’s”, preface and foreword.

At this time, please allow me to use the words of the preface from the Amity Art Painting Album written by Bishop Ting in April, 1995, as the concluding remarks of this composition:

“Every religion known to humankind employs the language of art to convey its message. In the course of the process, art is transformed by religion. Because of this, religious art cannot but be organically linked to human culture.

In the past 40 years, Chinese Christianity has striven to divest itself of its western image, replacing this with an eastern, Chinese identity, thereby becoming one of the components of Chinese culture. ‘Three-Self’— self–government, self-support and self-propagation is the name we have given to this effort. We feel this is the only means by which a Christianity with a Chinese identity can spread the Gospel among our people and enrich the church. It is also in this way that a Chinese Christianity can best become involved in and enrich the Church Universal.”

Notes:
1.”The Complete Works of Matteo Racci” Volume , p. 414, Taipei Guang Qi Publishing House
2-5..Daniel Yohnron Flemirg,by Gianni Criveller, published in “Tripod”, Volume 18, No.103, pp. 29, 30,32
6-7.”Each With His Own Brush,” published in 1938, by New York Union Theological Seminary, fifth print, 1946, pp. 11-12.

by He Qi

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