The Republican Period (1911-1949) was an extremely important period for modern China. During this time, China was often politically divided, while there was no strong central government. Meanwhile, however, people in China enjoyed relative cultural, social, and religious freedom. Some people became Communists, while others converted into Christianity. Although China was generally seen as a weak and poor country by people in the West in the first half of twentieth century, some ordinary Chinese people grew increasingly aware of China’s position in the world. Among them, Chinese Christians played important roles as they could act as bridges between people in China and the outside world. Chinese Christians became more aware of the global situation, since they often enjoyed international networks.
Scholars often study Chinese church leaders, and their institutional structure, but we know little about Chinese Christians’ life experience at an everyday level. That’s where the research of our latest featured scholar on the Global History Forum comes in. Based at the University of Auckland, Dr. Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye seeks to enhance our understanding of social and cultural histories of China by studying Chinese ordinary people and in particular Chinese Christians in the first half of the twentieth century. Her research suggests that many Chinese Christians were increasingly aware of the global affairs and China’s position in the world during this early twentieth century conjuncture. How, then, did Chinese converts view the place of the Chinese nation in the world? How did they perceive events like the Great War? Like the partial disintegration of European empires following that conflict? And how were the egalitarian ideals of Christianity reconcilable with a world that still spoke the language of “yellow perils” and which often limited the circulation of Chinese into the “white man’s world” of European, North American, and Oceanian spaces?
These are some of the questions that Toynbee Prize Foundation Editor-at-Large Tiger Li discusses with Inouye in the interview that follows. In it, he discusses Inouye’s initial road from her upbringing in Costa Mesa, California to her undergraduate education at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as her graduate studies at Harvard University, where she completed her dissertation in 2011, writing about the history of the True Jesus Church and the history of charismatic Christian modes in China in the twentieth century. You might not be familiar with the True Jesus Church, but as one of the largest Christian denominations in the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan today (1.5 million members), it merits attention both as a matter of current affairs and intellectual history. Inspired by Pentecostalism, the True Jesus Church is also of interest for scholars of Christianity insofar as it forms the largest branch of Oneness Pentecostalism in the world. (In contrast to mainstream Christian doctrine, which stresses the trinitarian nature of Jesus Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit, churches like the True Jesus Church stress the indivisible nature of God and the idea that Jesus Christ is the sole manifestation of God’s personhood.) Lest we move too far away from history to theology, however, let us jump into the conversation between Inouye and Li to learn how this movement fits into an emerging wave of scholarship on China in the world and transnational religious movements.