Book Review: Finding God in Ancient China by Chan Kei Thong with Charlene L. Fu
“Finding God in Ancient China: How the Ancient Chinese Worshiped the God of the Bible,” by Chan Kei Thong with Charlene L. Fu, caught my eye after I had seen some interesting websites that made a connection between the Genesis flood account and Chines pictographic characters (logograms).
The thesis of the book is, “we will show that there is sufficient light peeking through the windows of general revelation in Chinese history, records, literature, and practices to convince one to take the next step, into the sunlight of God’s special revelation.”(40)
What this book is not saying
This book is not making the claim that there is more than one way to God. The claim is that the ancient Chinese had a rudimentary knowledge of the one true God that would have come from the revelation up to the point of their migration to the steps of China.
The book starts with an explanation of the differences between myths, legends, and history. The book transitions into an explanation of general and special revelation of God. These become key points and a foundation for moving forward with their thesis. The book then promises to review the “signposts” that point to their thesis.
Chapter two gives us a brief overview of the pictographic and ideographic nature of the Chinese written language. Further, the authors show how some of these characters correlate to the Genesis record and the basic tenants of sin, forgiveness, sacrifice, redemption, and salvation. The authors rightfully acknowledge that this can be dismissed as circumstantial evidence, however, “these characters should, however, compel us to seek further evidence within the Chinese culture to see if, in fact, the ancient Chinese worshipped the One True God.”(71)
Chapter three addresses the name and concept of God for the ancient Chinese. The name given to God in Chinese is 皇天上帝 (Huang Tian Shang Di) which translates to Supreme Lord of the Great Heaven. Often, He is referred to only as 上帝 (Shang Di). For the ancient Chinese, this is the Creator God who is above and distinct from all other lesser gods (shen or spirits). The chapter continues with parallels between Shang Di and the Creator God of the Hebrews and Christians.
“We saw an abundance of references that strikingly show how the attributes of Shang Di (Tian) match those of the One True God of the Bible, leading us to the conclusion that Shang Di (Tian) is the general revelation to the Chinese people of the same God worshipped by the Hebrews of the Old Testament and the Christians of the New Testament.”(105) The author finally laments “It is unfortunate, therefore, that the Chinese have not worshipped this God alone; they have also worshipped a multitude of other beings. …many Chinese around the world have fallen under the power of a host of fearful superstitions and syncretistic religious beliefs.”(105)
Chapter 4 compares the Great Border Sacrifice at the Temple of Heaven (which should actually be translated “Alter of Heaven”) with the Old Testament sacrifices to God. They conclude this chapter with this thought, “I found striking similarities in the ceremonies associated with sacrifices performed by the ancient Chinese and the ancient Hebrews. These very discoveries, though, raised further questions. Where did the concepts of substitutionary death – that is, an innocent dying for the guilty –and of atoning death – the requirement of death to pay for sin – originate?”(151)
Chapter five covers the next “signpost” which is the blood covenant. The chapter explores the parallels in the covenants in the Bible and the rituals performed by the ancient Chinese. They conclude “The parallels between China’s practice of covenants and God’s perfect revelation of covenants in the Holy Scriptures are vivid and eloquent. God uses these dramatic ceremonies to teach eternal principles that were finally fulfilled in Jesus Christ.”(179)
In chapter six, the authors explore the actions and discoveries of some of the first missionaries to China. In particular, they explore the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1550-1610) and his missional approach. Ricci’s approach was to demonstrate respect for the Chinese people and culture by such things as learning the native language. This was not common-place for most missionaries of the time. Ricci’s approach was not to convert the Chinese to a Western Culture Christianity but to a Chinese Christianity. (I have a past post on Christianity and the fact that it is culturally agnostic to a point). Ricci’s work, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, is in part, a basis for this book.
“Therefore, having leafed through a great number of ancient books, it is quite clear to me that the Sovereign on High and the Lord of Heaven are different only in name.” “He who is called Lord of Heaven in my humble country is He who is called Shang-Di in Chinese.” - Matteo Ricci, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven
Others such as Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666), Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688), and James Legge (1815-1897) built on the goodwill built by Ricci. Particular for Legge, the key to understanding Chinese thought was by reading the classic works.
“I maintain that the Chinese do know the true God, and have a word in their language answering to our word God, to the Hebrew Elohim, and the Greek Theos.” - James Legge
In this chapter the authors explore how the ancient Chinese understanding of God played a role in politics. In fact, I think this was one of my favorite chapters. The ancient Chinese had a concept they called the Mandate of Heaven 天命 (Tian Ming). This concept was that the ruler was given power by God to rule. This, however, did not mean that the emperor was free to do whatever he wanted. The concept included Tian Xia Wei Gong (Righteousness Rules), which meant that he was to be a righteous and virtuous ruler. If the emperor was not righteous in his rule, he was seen as having lost the Mandate of Heaven. This form of meritocracy is quite appealing to me. The person who was to be the next ruler was based upon that person’s merit, 禪讓 (Shan Rang), not their genealogy, wealth, or even popularity. The concept of 禪讓 (Shan Rang) is that the emperor was above all else, a servant, albeit the servant-leader.(241)
I have to admit, my biased libertarian bent, leads me to an affinity for the Mandate of Heaven.
In this chapter, aptly entitled ‘Enter the Dragon,’ the authors show how the original worship of Shang Di was corrupted by the dragon cults. As you might bet, they show there are many parallels between the dragon in the Bible and those of ancient China. Much of China’s original heritage has been lost to the dragon and today, you see the principle of the dragon prominent in Chinese culture, government, and business. “Power, pleasure, and position are very enticing. But, they do not last. Like the dragon, they do not serve us; we end up serving them when we pursue them.”(291)
The book finishes with a discussion of the parallel in the concepts of truth and some astronomy. The author relates a story of a doctoral student who made the statement, “The Chinese Shang Di cannot be the same as the God of the Bible because the latter is a Western deity.” The author, then, offers an illustration of two cups. If he made the claim that both cups are made up of the same material and you objected, how would you resolve the difference? The answer is, you break-down the composition of both cups and, if they prove to be similar or identical, then the two cups are the same. This is to say that you perform careful observation, critically examine the facts, and arrive at a logical conclusion.
“That is what we have sought to do in this chapter and indeed throughout this book. We have presented facts from China’s ancient historical records, records that secular scholars and experts agree are reliable and true, and we have arrived at our conclusions, which we have presented in this book. These facts are now before you, for you to draw your own conclusions.”(321)
I think this book is a primer for any apologetic, evangelistic or missionary work to people in the Chinese culture. The book is especially useful for contextualizing your message. I have to admit that I have a deeper appreciation for the richness of Chinese culture. I have to admit I find Chinese culture fascinating and I want to learn more about their culture.
Further, I find it absolutely fascinating how God works and leaves his fingerprints everywhere around the world. I think God is much like an artist; He loves the different cultures and expressions. It is amazing that, in each of the cultures around the world, God has “set them up” for the truth.
Other books have been written on this subject, however, this is the best treatment of the subject that I have found.