Thursday, August 20, 2009

Background of Chinese American churches

This article draws heavily from a sociologist Russell Jeung's Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches in tracing the development of Chinese American churches. I would further suggest that Jeung's observation of Confucian virtues being found predominantly across Chinese American churches is also true of the Chinese churches in Singapore, and perhaps in Malaysia as well.

Among the first group of students who arrived in the America to study in 1847, one of them, Yung Wing went on to establish the Chinese Educational Mission in the America in 1854 after graduating from Yale University. This mission oversaw 120 students from China who were then educated in the U.S., and some of these students eventually founded the Chinese Christian Home Mission in 1878, to transplant Christianity in their homeland.[1]

Both the Presbyterians and the Methodists set up schools to educate the Chinese immigrants along the Pacific Coast and these efforts resulted in 2 percent of the Chinese population who converted to Christianity by 1910. In the early stage of immigration, the Chinese immigrants had established clans based on their familial tie or geographic origin, and Christianity was an alternative social network not defined by clans or districts. As an alternative social association, some of the Chinese churches had to provide social services such as temporary lodging and to assist those who were departing back to China.[2] This reinforced the Chinese and Christian identities.

The rise of nation-state such as the Sun-Yat Sen’s Republican Revolution of 1911 in China provided avenues for the Chinese American Christians to envision a new China that would embody the democracy system and Christian values. However, with the Communist takeover of China in 1949, and American Cold-War anti-communist policy, the Chinese American Christians gradually came to understand their Chinese heritage in terms of cultural identity, instead of a political one. As the Chinese male laborers’ immigration declines due to the Chinese Exclusion Act imposed since 1882, the female church leadership has shifted their focus to providing better family opportunities in Chinatowns and transmitting ethnic culture.[3] The second generation Chinese Christians were trained culturally to retain their cultural identity and were raised in the education system in the American society.

There was an emergence of evangelical Chinese American churches and fellowships in the 1960s. The urge for family-centered values fits in well with the evangelicals appeal for Bible-centered teaching. Eventually the number of Chinese evangelical congregations outnumbered those in the mainline denomination. The fundamentalist churches among the Chinese Americans also thrive in this period as it was a decade that witnessed the increasing rate of divorce and decadence of American culture. The drive for autonomy from outside control provided the impetus for some Chinese American churches to become independent. However, the emphasis on evangelism; the cultural fit between Confucianism and conservative Christianity; and relative autonomy among the evangelical churches, encourage the growth of evangelical Chinese American churches in the 1960s till today.

This may be why Confucian virtues such as “family harmony, obligation to the group, and a strong work ethic geared toward education and career”[4] are predominantly found among Chinese American churches. Sociologist Russell Jeung further suggests that the motivation for Chinese American Christians to participate in group activities stems from “a sense of familial responsibility and obligation,” and the success of any festival in the church is a reflection of “people’s willingness to sacrifice for the group as a whole.”[5] This illustrates the intricate relationship between one’s ethnic culture and religion.

[1] Russell Jeung, Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches (NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 18.
[2] Ibid., 22.
[3] Ibid., 23.
[4] Ibid., 33.
[5] Ibid., 36-7.

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