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THE INTELLECTUAL AND SOCIAL
CRISIS IN CHINA
F. L. HAWKS POTT
St. John's University, Shanghai, China
The "new thought" movement in China is due to the stimulus derived from
Western science. Its center is the University of Peking. Closely allied is the new
literary movement, which aims to make the spoken language rather than the classics
the medium of education. A new and modern literature is thus being produced. It
expresses the conception of evolution, and induces a vigorous criticism of the static
and conservative Confucian culture. It boldly questions the validity of many estab-
lished ideals and customs. This critical attitude affects the work of Christian missions.
Any appeal to mere dogmatic authority becomes impossible. Christianity must
present to critical minds the vital gospel of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood
of men; the ideal of the Kingdom of God with its social message; and the Christian
conception of self-sacrifice in contrast to the Buddhist doctrine of self-renunciation.
At present in China we have a striking illustration of the
familiar saying in regard to the effect of pouring new wine
into old bottles, for what is known as the "new thought " is dis-
rupting the old institutions, and producing anarchical results.
Of course the educated class is the one chiefly affected,
but the ideas adopted by this class are spreading, and gradually
permeating the whole of society. If we base our deductions on
the life of the peasant — the farmer of Shantung, for instance —
we might conclude that China, after all, is the same old China.
The peasant lives in the same ignorance and poverty as his
ancestors, and his material outlook appears to be the same as
theirs. Yet even he has begun to get a glimmering of con-
ceptions different from those handed down by tradition, and
it is only a matter of time before the new ideas will manifest
themselves in social disturbance.
We are all apt to think of social revolutions as beginning
with the masses, but on closer examination we find that they
have their origin with the educated class. The ideas spread
from the top downward, and when they reach the lower strata
of society they become dynamic and lead to upheaval.
292 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
The "new thought" movement in China is often referred
to as the renaissance, but this is not a very accurate descrip-
tion. Renaissance implies the rebirth or reappearance of
something that has been possessed before and lost for a season,
as, for instance, the renaissance of the Greek and Latin classical
literature in the West at the close of the Middle Ages. There
has been nothing like that in China in the present revolution.
It is not a regaining of anything that had once been influential,
but the coming of something that was absolutely foreign and
altogether different from what existed before. The present
period through which China is passing corresponds more
nearly to the age of enlightenment in Europe in the eighteenth
century. It is due to the new knowledge obtained by the
study of the natural sciences, to the acquaintance with the
theory of evolution and the interpretation of everything on
naturalistic principles, and to the application of reason and
criticism to all existing institutions and problems of life.
The movement in the Chinese language is known by several
names such as sing ssu cho, "the tide of the new thought," and
the sing wen hwa yuan dong, "the new civilization movement."
One of the principal sources of inspiration is the National
University of Peking. Here the Chancellor Tsai Yuan-pei,
a remarkable man, has gathered together a group of men who
have received modern education in China, Japan, Europe,
and America. Like Oxford in the time of the humanists they
are making the University of Peking by their teaching and
writing a center of the new movement.
There has been founded in Peking by Mr. Fan Yuan-lieh,
former Minister of Education, a society called the "Shang
Chih Hsueh Huei," "Society of Progressive Knowledge,"
which has been instrumental in bringing China into relation
with the current of modern thought in Western countries. One
of the methods adopted has been the inviting of prominent
Western scholars to lecture in China, such as Dr. John Dewey
and Professor Bertrand Russell.
THE INTELLECTUAL AND SOCIAL CRISIS IN CHINA 293
The movement is spread by means of the press, for in a
place like Shanghai one can find in the book stores as many
as forty-seven magazines, including weeklies, monthlies,
quarterlies, and semi-annuals. All these are pouring new wine
into old bottles. Some of them are ultra-radical and advocate
the most advanced opinions. A wide range of subjects is
discussed, covering such topics as Einstein's theory of rela-
tivity and the latest teaching in regard to eugenics. Of the
magazines that are most influential among the student class
might be mentioned the Sing Cho or New Tide, and the Sing
Tsing Nien, La Jeunesse. With the latter Dr. Hu Suh's name
is associated, one of the young philosophers of China, who is
also a leader in the reform movement for the simplification of
the Chinese language.
The new literary movement is closely connected with the
intellectual revolution. It consists in the adoption of the spo-
ken language — the pei-hua — in place of the old classical style,
for literary purposes.
The leaders of the new thought movement in Peking had
to overcome the strongly rooted prejudices of the scholars of
the old school before they could obtain recognition for the new
and simpler form of composition. Vulgate writing, especially
vulgate poetry, was regarded with contempt and ridicule as late
as the spring of 1919. But the victory has been won. At the
last meeting of the National Educational Association held in
October, 1919, a resolution was passed recommending that all
textbooks in the primary schools and a part of those in the
higher primary should be written in the spoken language;
and in January, 1920, the Ministry of Education officially
proclaimed that beginning with the next autumn the spoken
language should be used in teaching Chinese in the first two
years of the primary schools.
The use of the simpler and more natural mode of expression
of thought has led to a great increase in the literary output.
No longer cramped by being obliged to employ a highly artifi-
294 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
cial and archaic instrument, the old literary language, the
young students of China are attempting to bring about the
creation of a new literature. The pei-hua as the literary
medium for prose and poetry is obtaining a recognized place,
and becoming increasingly more popular. It has been esti-
mated that more than four hundred periodicals are published
in the spoken language. This new medium of literary expres-
sion is also used in the editorials of many of the leading
dailies and in the "supplement" pages for reports of edu-
cational and philosophical lectures and the translation of
In order to appreciate more fully this new intellectual
movement it is well to consider for a moment the character
of the long-established ethical and social system of China. It
owed its foundations to the labors of Confucius, Mencius, and
other ancient teachers. It was made to apply to the five
principal relationships into which human beings are brought :
those of ruler and subject, parent and child, husband and wife,
older brother and younger brother, and friend with friend.
Confucius entirely disclaimed any originality in laying
down ethical regulations, and spoke of himself as a transmitter,
not an originator. He held that his teaching had the sanction
of antiquity and was absolute in its nature. It was something
that could not be changed and would be of the same value
for all succeeding generations. Its general character, there-
fore, is inflexible and static and gives us the explanation of
the highly developed conservatism of the Chinese.
As long as China was isolated from the rest of the world
her ancient system worked fairly well, and its maladjustments
were not apparent. It produced a social equilibrium that
was able to resist disturbing influences. Like the Hebrew law
it was fenced about by traditions, precedents, and meticulous
ceremonial observances, which made it become increasingly
stereotyped. Few ventured to employ their critical faculties
in regard to it, and all submitted to a rigid orthodoxy. He
THE INTELLECTUAL AND SOCIAL CRISIS IN CHINA 295
who proposed an innovation was regarded and treated as a
heretic and a dangerous disturber of the peace.
Sometimes one hears the Confucian system of morality
referred to as pure ethics divorced from religious ideas. This
is, of course, a misconception and is partly due to the fact that
the average modern Chinese seem more interested in the
discussion of ethics than of religion.
The ethical principles conserved and handed down by
Confucius rest upon primitive religious conceptions such as
the following: Heaven or Shangti is regarded as the principle
of order and harmony in the universe, and obedience to this
principle (or to him, if we take a personal interpretation)
promotes order and harmony. Heaven has endowed man
with a moral nature which is good. If a man follows his
original nature, he will naturally live in the right relationship
with others and there will be "peace under heaven." A high
value is placed upon knowledge because by it man comes to
know his own nature and discovers how he may reform what-
ever is amiss in his conduct.
Ancestral worship implies the extension of the filial relation-
ship which exists in this life, back into the past, and makes it
one that is perpetual.
From this brief outline we can understand why the social
and ethical system of China has ceased to be progressive or
to adapt itself to new conditions, and we can realize more
fully the revolutionary effects of the new thought.
Science with its theory of evolution makes its appearance,
showing that everything has been the result of a gradual
development. The critical faculty is aroused, and begins to
examine the use and value of general customs and social
institutions. The currents of thought from the West flow
into the country, questioning the old values, and advocating
the reform of old institutions. Everything appears to be
thrown into the melting-pot; or to use again the familiar figure
with which we began, the new wine breaks the old bottles.
296 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
Some would discard the past entirely and attempt the impos-
sible feat of starting de novo.
The family which has been the great social unit in China
is threatened with dissolution. The spirit of democracy dis-
places the paternal idea of government. Freedom of inter-
course between the sexes — even free love — is substituted for
the oriental subjection of women. Religion is regarded as
superstition, and aesthetics are deemed sufficient for the
stirring of the higher emotions. A philosophy which is
materialistic or naturalistic makes a strong appeal, and is
proclaimed as that which will meet China's need in the days
Dr. Hu Suh in summing up the tendencies of the new
intellectual movement in China writes "As I see it, there are
three such tendencies, first a movement toward democracy;
second a movement for educational reform; and lastly a
change in the general intellectual attitude." In regard to
democracy he points out that a mistake has been made by
the student class in confining their attention too exclusively
to political matters, and urges the necessity of democratizing
society. To quote his own words :
We still have the masses to educate, the women to emancipate, the
schools to reform, the home industries to develop, the family system to
reshape, the dead and antiquated ideas to combat, the false and harmful
idols to dethrone, the many, many social and economic wrongs to redress.
Referring to educational reform, he speaks of the influence
exerted by Dr. John Dewey by his emphasis on the child's
natural powers, on self-activity, and on the social aim of
education, and he adduces many evidences of the rapidly
growing interest in education manifested by the introduction
of popular lecture forums, night and half-day schools, indus-
trial schools for poor boys and girls, and the free schools estab-
lished by the Students Union.
In regard to the change in the general mental attitude Dr.
Hu Suh says :
THE INTELLECTUAL AND SOCIAL CRISIS IN CHINA 297
It has been justly said that the greatest obstacle to progress in China
is the deductive habit of mind; that is, the willingness to accept things
on authority, and acquiesce in ideas and ideals without questioning
whence they are derived and whether they are true or not. A quotation
from the classics is sufficient argument for a national policy, and a
spurious saying of Confucius is good enough to justify the existence of
any obsolete custom or institution. This habit is the most formidable
enemy to innovation and progress. Its best antidote is found in the
scientific attitude which seeks to find out truth for one's self and refuses
to believe in anything without sufficient evidence of its credibility. It
seems that this scientific spirit is beginning to make itself felt in the
Chinese intellectual world today. It first shows itself in the attitude
of doubt. The question " why " is heard everywhere. Why should we
believe in this or that idea ? Why should this or that institution still
exist to-day ? . . . . Truly we are today transvaluating all our values,
literary, social, intellectual, and moral. 1
The spread of the new thought is beginning to have its
effect on the work of Christian missions. To a large extent
the Christian community has been left in entire ignorance in
regard to the currents of modern thought. This has been due
to the fact that a large majority of the pioneer missionaries
were men and women who were earnest propagators of what
is now sometimes called the old theology. One of the firmest
articles of their creed was the verbal inspiration and the
infallibility of the Bible, and this was handed on to their con-
verts. The danger connected with such teaching was not
apparent at first, but now when the Christian Chinese are
called upon to face the new thought movement they are apt to
find their religious beliefs shaken and to become unsettled.
Unfortunately there is a split in the ranks of the missiona-
ries themselves. The older and more conservative are clinging
to the theory of verbal inspiration and to an antiquated
theology, and are in bitter opposition to all liberalizing tend-
encies. They do not perceive the signs of the times and are
just as much seekers after infallibility as the ultramontanist
1 See Article, "Intellectual China in 1919," Chinese Social and Political Science
Review, Vol. IV (1010), p. 353.
298 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
in the Roman church. That section of the missionary body
which has come into contact with modern thought is alive
to the fact that if Christianity is to influence the new educated
class in China it must be presented as a rational creed and one
that can stand the test of experience.
To return to the present situation in China, we find the
new thought movement one that is full of vigorous life and
is calculated to have far-reaching results. China is passing
through a period which was absolutely necessary in order that
once again she may enter on the path of progress. We must
avoid the danger of exaggeration and not give the impression
that the movement has spread farther than it really has. At
the same time we would be blind if we did not see that it is
gathering momentum and that very rapidly.
The pragmatic test is being applied to everything. The
Chinese influenced by the movement are inquiring in regard
to the present social and moral order. What is its origin?
What value has it? Should it be retained or discarded?
In regard to religion they are asking: Is it necessary? Has
its day passed ? In regard to the present industrial system
they question: Would not socialism or bolshevism be better ?
The greatest value connected with the present movement
is the growth of a readiness to receive new ideas, and the
revolt against the principle of authority to which the Chinese
mind has been enslaved for so many centuries. The greatest
danger is that it may lead to the adoption of a materialistic or
naturalistic philosophy of life — one that will chill idealism
We come now to the main object of this article, the con-
sideration of what the Christian religion has to offer China
at the present time. Once more we would emphasize that the
propagation of a narrow and outworn theology will be of little
value, and that the presentation of Christianity in a dogmatic
way will not influence the thinking classes. By a dogma we
mean the presentation of a doctrine as something that must
THE INTELLECTUAL AND SOCIAL CRISIS IN CHINA 299
be accepted on authority as absolute truth and that must not
be scrutinized by reason.
The fundamental teachings of Christ are what China needs
as well as the rest of the world. It will be found that his
teaching is like a treasury from which old and new things may
be drawn. In an age of general skepticism, the human heart
responds to something that helps to remove doubt and offers
light amid the darkness. It is well to remember that one of
the reasons for the triumph of Christianity in the western
Roman Empire was the clarity and defmiteness of its mes-
sage amid the confused jumble of religious and philosophical
What is the great message that the Christian religion has
to offer to China at the present time? First and foremost,
the gospel of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of
man. The phrase "the fatherhood of God and the brother-
hood of man" is often used glibly without any real perception
of its connotation. The fatherhood of God was the truth
to which Christ came to bear witness, not only by his teach-
ing but by his life and death. He was the " author and captain
of faith," for in the darkest hour of trial, when the forces of
evil seemed to overwhelm him, with a faith that could not be
destroyed, he persisted in the belief that God was his father.
One cannot read the accounts we have of his teaching in
the four Gospels without realizing that this faith permeated
all he said. His great desire was to bring men and women
into filial relationship with God, and to declare God, not as an
absolute sovereign, but as one who cared for each one of his
children. The brotherhood of man follows as a necessary
corollary and gives us the great conception of the human race
as one family. This is the basis of his ethics, arid this the
principle upon which social relationships are to be developed.
In so far as the world has not yet comprehended his gospel, it
has not yet become Christian. What we call Christian civiliza-
tion is still so largely pagan, that it has been said with much
300 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
truth that Christianity cannot be called a failure because it has
never been really tried.
This surely is a gospel that China needs. It is the spiritual
foundation upon which true democracy rests, and it is a
historical fact that the development of democracy and the
spread of teaching inspired by Christ have been closely con-
nected. It alone gives us sufficient reason for the belief in
the value of the individual and a powerful incentive for seek-
ing the welfare of our fellow-men.
The second great truth to which we would refer is the
gospel of the Kingdom of God — the great social ideal of Jesus
Christ, the ideal of a society in harmony with God, taking
as its highest values righteousness, truth, and beauty, and
actuated by the golden rule of loving our neighbors as ourselves.
The Kingdom of God has been fittingly compared to an ellipse
with its two foci, the love of God and the love of man.
Is the cosmic process meaningless or has it a purpose?
A naturalistic philosophy is without teleology. As Dr. F. C. S.
Schiller in one of his essays says:
If there is certainty about any prediction of science, it is surely, as
I have elsewhere put it, this, that our racial destiny is to shiver and to
starve to death in ever deepening gloom. If the view of mechanical
science be the whole truth about the universe, the race is of just as
little account as the individual; suns and stars and the hosts of heaven
will roll on in their orbits just as steadily and unfeelingly whether we
prosper or perish, struggle or resign ourselves to despair.
The ideal of Christ fills us with a noble enthusiasm, assures
us that the cosmic process has a purpose and that men may
be workers together with God in the gradual realization of
this purpose. Without some such belief we are left despond-
ent and without incentive to struggle for social reforms.
We hear much about the social application of Christianity
and it is often referred to as a new conception. The church
has often been so busy with formulating orthodox doctrine
and developing its own institutional machinery that the
THE INTELLECTUAL AND SOCIAL CRISIS IN CHINA 301
social significance of the teaching of Christ has been obscured.
The founder himself, however, gave us a social ideal than
which no greater is conceivable. In China where so much is
needed in the way of social reform and readjustment, what
is to be the incentive? Are expediency or utilitarianism
sufficient motives ? Will not the great social ideal of Christi-
anity prove of the greatest value ?
In the third place the gospel of Christ proclaims the great
truth that we must die to live. The Christian doctrine of self-
sacrifice differs from the Buddhist doctrine of self-renunciation.
The latter implies that we must die to all desire so that finally
we may be absorbed in the absolute. The former tells us
that through death we pass to life, that through sacrifice of
the lower desires comes self-realization, that through sacrifice
in the service of others comes the salvation of the world.
Scientists have dwelt almost exclusively upon the doctrines
of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest.
Christianity emphasizes that which has been overlooked. In
nature we find in a rudimentary stage the principles of co-opera-
tion and vicarious suffering. These are developed in many ways
more fully, until we come to the conception of the strong
bearing the infirmities of the weak. The great forward steps
in the progress of humanity have been rendered possible by
the willingness on the part of some to spend and be spent in
the service of others. The gospel of the death and resurrection
of Jesus Christ is the supreme and typical example of the
great truth that life comes through death.
China certainly needs this gospel at the present time. It
furnishes inspiration for patriotism. Men of unselfish charac-
ter alone can save China. The criticism leveled at those who
are in power is that for the most part they are self-seekers, and
that few really care for the uplift of their countrymen and the
salvation of their nation. Lastly, Christianity offers to China
a spiritual dynamic. As has often been remarked, Christianity
is primarily a religion of a person not of a doctrine. It brings
302 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
to bear upon men's lives the spiritual influence of a living
Christ, and thus provides a spiritual dynamic. The life of
God is mediated to man through one who called himself Son
of God and Son of Man.
Hence it is the religion of experience, and one that can be
put to the test. It exerts a regenerating force upon character,
by bringing men into relationship with the spirit of Jesus
Christ "who is the same yesterday, today, and forever."
We are sometimes told that what China needs above every-
thing else is a moral reformation. In order to effect this
there is an earnest striving on the part of some to revive
Confucianism. Others advocate the spread of Buddhism; and
a cult of neo-Buddhism has been established. As in the days
of the decline of the western Roman Empire, so now in the
days of the disintegration of the old Chinese civilization
serious attempts are made to resuscitate the old cults and to
seek in them the moral force the nation lacks. China will
find in Christianity the spiritual and moral dynamic sufficient
to promote the true reformation of her people.
These then in brief are some of the things Christianity
offers to China. As we have said, above all it is a way of life,
but at the same time it is a philosophy of life. As a philosophy,
when tried by the pragmatic test, it works, it brings inspiration,
it brings harmony and purpose and strength. It is a reason-
able philosophy, but ultimately it rests upon faith. It makes
the claim that he who makes the venture of faith will not be
disappointed, but will come to discover more and more "the
unsearchable riches of Christ."