Peter Tze Ming Ng, ‘Cheng Jingyi: Prophet of His Time’ (2012)

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Peter Tze Ming Ng, 'Cheng Jingyi: Prophet of His Time', in International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2012, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 14–16.

Cheng Jingyi: Prophet of His Time

Peter Tze Ming Ng

Cheng Jingyi (C. Y. Cheng, 1881–1939) distinguished himself by presenting what has been called the best speech at the Edinburgh 1910 World Missionary Conference. In his remarks he said: “As a representative of the Chinese Church, I speak entirely from the Chinese standpoint. . . . Speaking plainly we hope to see, in the near future, a united Christian Church without any denominational distinctions. This may seem somewhat peculiar to you, but, friends, do not forget to view us from our standpoint, and if you fail to do that, the Chinese will remain always as a mysterious people to you.”[1]

Jingyi was a Chinese born in Beijing on September 22, 1881. His father was a pastor with the London Missionary Society (LMS). Jingyi received education from LMS’s Anglo-Chinese College in Beijing and theological training from LMS’s theological school in Tientsin (Tianjin). Within two weeks of his graduation day in 1900, Jingyi and his family became involved in the terrible experiences of the Boxer outbreak. “Six times he had very narrow escapes from death. His family was shut up in the British Legation quarter in Peking for two months, where they suffered terrible hardships, costing the life of his little sister and permanent injury of his younger brothers.”[2] These experiences had a great impact on Jingyi’s life.

He went to England in 1903 to help George Owen of the LMS in the translation of the Union version of the Mandarin Bible. Then from 1906 to 1908 he studied at the Bible Training Institute in Glasgow, Scotland. In the summer of 1908 he returned to China and served as an assistant pastor at the Mi-shi Hutong Church in Beijing. He returned to Scotland for the 1910 Edinburgh conference, then back to Beijing, where he was ordained as pastor of this church, which was associated with LMS but was an independent Chinese church.[3] Cheng was thus working on the front lines of promoting indigenous Christianity in China. Some parts of China saw some “three-self” movements initiated by missionaries in the mid-nineteenth century, including the development of the First and Second Amoy Church in Xiamen, as well as the self-governing presbyteries under the English Presbyterian Mission in Swatow.[4] The movement was led to a second stage with the indigenous movements started by local Chinese Christians in response to the Boxer movement.

Throughout China in the nineteenth century, the Protestant missionary movement was dominated by organized missionary societies, most of them agencies of Western mainline denominational churches. (The China Inland Mission was the primary exception.) After 1900, however, there was a great increase in the amount of local, independent missionary work done by Chinese Christians. Much attention has been paid to the development of denominational Christianity in China, but only in more recent years have scholars begun to look into the growth of Chinese indigenous Christianity immediately after 1900.[5] Daniel Bays, for example, reports that “the number of Protestant Christian church members grew rapidly, from 37,000 in 1889 to 178,000 in 1906.” He also notes, “In retrospect, the most important feature of this period was the growth of the spirit of independence in Chinese Protestant churches. This had hardly begun in the nineteenth century, but it was a prominent theme after 1900.”[6]

Indigenous Movements from 1900 to 1949

Chinese Christians exhibited a strong desire for independence after the outburst of the Boxer incidents in 1900. Chinese Christians had long been accused of believing in a foreign religion (yang jiao).[7] They were criticized for being protected by Western missionaries and foreigners and for enjoying a number of privileges as a result of religious court cases (jiaoan) that arose as a result of the so-called unequal treaties made with Western governments.[8] In order to avoid these accusations, a new consciousness arose among Chinese Christians that sought a form of Christianity freed from the dominance of the foreign missionaries. Chinese Christians, including Cheng and others, were seeking a new identity for themselves. They wanted to demonstrate their independence, fostering a self-reliant Christianity that was freed from foreign funding, from foreign mission direction, and from foreign preaching and theology—that is, the churches should be self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating.[9]

As early as 1902, two years after the Boxer incident, Pastor Yu Guozhen and some Chinese Christians met in Shanghai and formed the Chinese Christian Union (Zhonghua Jidutuhui). Realizing the utmost importance of developing three-self Christian churches, in 1903 they started a quarterly magazine, the Chinese Christian (Zhongguo Jidutubao),[10] and in 1906 formed the Chinese Christian Independent Church (Zhonghua Yesujiao Zilihui), an independent, all-Chinese Christian organization. It was clearly stated that this church was to be separate from all foreign missionary societies in order to demonstrate to the Chinese people that they could run their own churches, hence becoming truly native and fully self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. By 1924 more than 330 local churches had joined the Chinese Christian Independent Church, with over 20,000 total members.[11]

In 1907 the Centenary Missionary Conference was held in Shanghai, with the topic of the Chinese church high on its agenda.[12] There had already been suggestions as to how to establish three-self, independent Chinese churches for indigenous Christianity in China. They included proposals for uniting independent churches and of organizing regional conferences in different parts of China.[13] In 1910 a movement was started in North China involving a comparable federation of independent churches. It was also called the Chinese Christian Independent Church, but with a different Chinese name (Zhongguo Jidujiao Zilihui); Chang Po Ling was appointed president.[14] The federation centered in Beijing and Tianjin and soon was joined by independent Chinese churches from all over Shangdong and Shanxi Provinces, including Tsingdao (1911), Jinan (1912), and Yantai (1919). These movements of the independent churches laid a substantial groundwork for a series of regional conferences throughout China. The conferences led to the first national conference of the China Continuation Committee in Shanghai between the years 1912–13, and the later development of the National Christian Council in China, which was formed by Cheng Jingyi in Shanghai in 1922.[15]

Consider some interesting statistics. Between 1910 and 1920 the number of foreign missionaries grew from 5,144 to 6,204, an increase of 20.6 percent, whereas the number of Christian believers more than doubled, from around 180,000 to 366,524. With the anti-Christian movements attacking missionary work in the 1920s, the number of missionaries dropped to 4,375 by 1928. Yet the number of Christian believers continued to rise: to 446,631 in 1928, then 536,089 in 1936, and then 834,909 in 1949.[16] Western missionaries had obviously done much good work and laid a substantial foundation for the subsequent growth of Christianity in China. But the dramatic growth in the number of Christians in the twentieth century witnesses also to the significant effort made by the various indigenous Christian groups and independent Chinese churches, not to mention individual Chinese Christians, for a Christianity that was truly self-propagating.[17]

The Quest for Indigenous Christianity

With this understanding of the development of indigenous Christianity in China as background, we now turn to what C. Y. Cheng did at and after the Edinburgh conference in 1910. At the conference he made two speeches; one was at the debate of Commission II on the topic “The Church in the Mission Field,” and the other, “Co-operation and the Promotion of Unity,” was part of the debate of Commission VIII.[18] In his first speech Cheng declared with some urgency: “The problem in China is the independence of the Chinese Church.” He assured his audience that the formation of a Christian church in China should be viewed as “a joy, not a burden.” And he made a strong appeal for support of the development of indigenous churches in China, saying: “I hope with all sincerity that this Conference will recommend and take measures towards helping the Chinese Church movement.”[19]

In his second speech, as quoted in the first paragraph of this article, Cheng restated his hope of seeing a united Christian church without any denominational distinctions whatsoever. While Western missionaries were thinking of unity as a means to the end of cooperation in mission, Cheng was saying that Christian unity—a united Christian church—should be the end of mission work in China. Cheng could see that for the missionaries, “unity” primarily applied to the denominations and various mission boards. He made it clear that Chinese Christians were more concerned with the development of a united Christian church in China that was freed from denominationalism. For the Christian churches to cooperate and to unite in China, they needed to put aside the spirit of denominationalism. As a matter of fact, “denominationalism has never interested the Chinese mind. He finds no delight in it, but sometimes he suffers for it.”[20] The statement “Your denominationalism does not interest Chinese Christians” has been often repeated and quoted.[21] It is striking that Cheng could make such a statement at the 1910 conference.

As noted, some observers thought that Cheng’s speech was the best speech of the conference. Afterward he returned to China and continued to work for the development of a united Chinese Christian church along the lines he had envisioned. With the support of John R. Mott and the China Continuation Committee, Cheng traveled widely throughout China in 1912–13, working to promote interdenominational cooperation among denominational churches, as well as to foster coordination among individual Chinese Christians. He helped independent churches attain the goals of the three-self movement and promoted the idea of federation as a first step toward union among the Chinese Christian churches.

When the China Continuation Committee met in 1913, it was attended by 1,100 representatives, one-third of whom were Chinese. Because of Cheng’s work among the independent churches, when the committee convened again in 1922, the number of Chinese representatives had increased to more than half of the total attendance. At the second meeting, Cheng proposed broadening the work of the committee and renamed it the National Christian Council (NCC, Zhongguo Jidujiao xiehui).[22] Cheng was appointed its general secretary. He also worked for the formation of the Church of Christ in China (CCC, Zhonghua Jidujiao linhui), which began operating in 1927. The CCC soon became the largest Protestant church in China, representing close to a quarter of China’s Protestant churches, including members from both denominational and independent churches. In short, Cheng had successfully labored to expand the work of the China Continuation Committee, not only for the promotion of cooperation and unity among denominational churches but also for the realization of his vision to institute the three-self principles and to accomplish the federation of Christian churches in China. The federation was formed not only for the sake of cooperation among the missionaries, but also for the sake of unity among the Christian bodies in China, while at the same time maintaining cooperative links with the missionaries.[23]


Cheng died on November 15, 1939, at the Lester Chinese Hospital in Shanghai at the age of fifty-eight.[24] He indeed understood accurately the situation in China and saw the need not only for the pursuit of cooperation among missionary churches, but also for the development of indigenous, three-self churches. Despite his youth and his being a Manchu working among the Han people, Cheng demonstrated great leadership in relation to the foreign missionaries and Chinese Christians and in moving them toward a unified Christian church.[25] Cheng was indeed a great man and a great prophet of his time.[26] Much of what Cheng said in Edinburgh and much of his subsequent work remained of immediate relevance for decades. To this day, the issues he perceived as important in 1910 are central to the development of Christianity in China.


[1]. “Report of Commission VIII,” in Reports of Commissions I to VIII and The History and Records of the Conference, 9 vols. (Edinburgh and London: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1910), 8:196. The Boston Missionary Herald judged it “without question the best speech” (106 [1910]: 354); see Brian Stanley, The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), p. 108. The picture of Cheng Jingyi on p. 14 is from U. W. Schreiber, ed., Die Edinburger Welt-Missions-Konferenz (Basel: Verlag der Basler Missionsbuchhandlung, 1910), opposite p. 56.

[2]. C. L. Boynton et al., “Dr. Cheng Ching Yi: Resolution—Reminiscences,” Chinese Recorder 70, no. 12 (1939): 691.

[3]. The Chinese church attained full independence, financially and in every other way, while maintaining the most friendly relations with the parent mission (ibid.).

[4]. See, for example, research work done by David Cheung (Chen Yi Qiang), Christianity in Modern China: The Making of the First Native Protestant Church (Leiden: Brill, 2004), and George A. Hood, Mission Accomplished? The English Presbyterian Mission in Lingtung, South China (Frankfurt: Lang, 1986).

[5]. See, for example, Daniel Bays, ed., Christianity in China: The Eighteenth Century to the Present (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1996); Jessie Lutz and R. Ray Lutz, Hakka Chinese Confront Protestant Christianity, 1850–1900, with the Autobiographies of Eight Hakka Christians (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1998); and R. G. Tiedemann, “Indigenous Agency, Religious Protectorates, and Chinese Interests: The Expansion of Christianity in Nineteenth-Century China,” in Converting Colonialism: Visions and Realities in Mission History, 1706–1914, ed. Dana L. Robert (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 206–41.

[6]. Bays, Christianity in China, p. 308.

[7]. “The Christian religion is the only one of the religions of foreign origin for which the Chinese reserve the designation ‘foreign religion.’ The foreign taste of Christianity is perhaps too strong for the Chinese people to like it” (C. Y. Cheng, “The Development of an Indigenous Church in China,” International Review of Missions 12 [1923]: 371).

[8]. Reports of jiaoan (religious cases) can be found in Paul A. Cohen, China and Christianity: The Missionary Movement and the Growth of Chinese Antiforeignism, 1860–1870 (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1963), and Joseph W. Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987).

[9]. It should be noted that foreign missionaries had long been relying on the “unequal treaties” as guarantee and protection for all missionary activities in China. It was extremely difficult for missionaries to understand the feelings of Chinese Christians, who demanded a truly Chinese church independent of the foreign control. From the missionaries’ perspective, the Chinese were simply trying to seize power.

[10]. There was much discussion among Chinese Christians, and their opinions were expressed in this magazine. The Shanghai Municipal Archives contains a full set of the magazine (in Chinese), nos. 2–60, from 1904 to 1915 (U128-0-1 to U128-0-11).

[11]. See Duan Qi, “The Development of Christianity and the Independence Movement in the Early Twentieth Century” (in Chinese), in Duan Qi, Historical Documents of the Indigenization of Chinese Christianity (in Chinese) (Taiwan: Cosmic Light Publication, 2005), pp. 127–32.

[12]. Centenary Conference Committee, Records of the China Centenary Missionary Conference (Shanghai: Methodist Publishing House, 1907).

[13]. Cheng had been so impressed by the movement that he wrote an article for the Chinese Recorder even before he attended the Edinburgh conference: “What Federation Can Accomplish for the Chinese Church,” Chinese Recorder 41, no. 2 (1910): 156–60.

[14]. See Charles E. Ewing, “The Chinese Christian Church in Tientsin (Tianjin),” Chinese Recorder 43, no. 5 (1912): 282–85. It should be noted that before Cheng attended the Edinburgh conference in 1910, he had been working for two years as assistant pastor at the Mi-shi Hutong Church, in Beijing, where he would definitely have been involved in and influenced by this independence movement. This background helps explain his strong appeal at the Edinburgh conference.

[15]. See Wang Zhixin, Concise History of Chinese Christianity (in Chinese) (Hong Kong: Chinese Christian Literature Council, 1959), pp. 255–57.

[16]. For all these figures, see Jonathan Chao, “Seeing Church Growth from the Development of the Chinese Church” (in Chinese), in Essays on Christianity and Modern China (in Chinese), ed. Peter Chi Ping Lin (Taiwan: Cosmic Light Publication, 1981), pp. 350–62.

[17]. There were also other great evangelists in those years such as Shi Meiyu (Mary Stone, 1873–1954), Song Shangjie (John Sung, 1901–44), and Chen Chonggui (Marcus Cheng, 1884–1964). See, for reference, Bays, Christianity in China, pp. 314–15.

[18]. See “Report of Commission II” and “Report of Commission VIII,” in Reports of Commissions I to VIII, 2:352–53 and 8:195–97.

[19]. “Report of Commission II,” 2:352. Cheng further elaborated his points in a subsequent article, “The Chinese Church in Relation to Its Immediate Task,” International Review of Missions 1, no. 3 (1912): 381–92. John C. Gibson, who was an active leader in both the Shanghai (1907) and the Edinburgh (1910) conferences, also had the following remarks: “The time is well within the memory of working missionaries when we had to labour with the Home Church and persuade it to believe that there was such a thing as the Chinese Church in existence. . . . It was now beyond doubt that the Chinese Church was an important adjunct to the Christian Missions in China.” He also recalled: “When the Centenary Conference of 1907 met, the minds of missionaries were fully prepared for this recognition. The organizers of the conference touched the core of the matter when, in drawing up the programme, they set down as the first topic: ‘The Chinese Church,’ and appointed a representative Committee to deal with it and allotted to it the whole of the first day of the Conference work. . . . It was impossible that the Chinese Church should any longer fail to be recognised as holding the foremost place among the forces which are now creating a Christian China” (“The Part of the Chinese Church in Mission Administration,” Chinese Recorder 43, no. 6 [1912]: 347–49).

[20]. Stanley, The World Missionary Conference, pp. 277–79.

[21]. See, for example, Chinese Recorder 70, no. 12 (1939): 689.

[22]. Meanwhile, the editor of the Chinese Recorder commented, “Has the Christian movement in China during 1922 found a new pivot? Yes! The transfer from missions and Western Christians as a pivot to the Chinese Church and Chinese Christians has been made. The Survey and Commission reports are set up mainly in terms of missions and the contributions of Western Christians. The outlook of the National Christian Conference and the National Christian Council, however, together with their program are painted in colors of the Chinese Church and Chinese Christians” (“The Christian Movement in China During 1922,” Chinese Recorder 54 [1923]: 8).

[23]. Both Cheng’s outlook and level of involvement can be seen in Cheng Ching-Yi, “The Continuation Committee Conferences in China: II. A Chinese View of the Conferences,” International Review of Missions 2, no. 7 (1913): 507–12.

[24]. For further information on the life and ministry of Cheng Jingyi, see Nelson Bitton, “Cheng Ching-yi: A Christian Statesman,” International Review of Missions 30, no. 4 (1941): 513–20; Howard L. Boorman and Richard C. Howard, eds., Biographical Dictionary of Republican China (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1967), 1:284–86; Cha Shi Jie, “Cheng Jing Yi,” in Brief Notes on Characters of Chinese Christianity (Taiwan: China Evangel Seminary Press, 1983), pp. 121–28; Francis P. Jones, “Cheng Ching-yi,” in Concise Dictionary of the Christian World Mission, ed. Stephen Neill, Gerald H. Anderson, and John Goodwin (London: Lutterworth Press, 1970), pp. 120–21.

[25]. Cheng also attended the International Missionary Council (IMC) meeting at Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 1918; the IMC meeting at Jerusalem in 1928, where he was elected a vice-chairman; and the IMC meeting at Madras, India, in 1939. He was the only Chinese to be present at all three of these great world missionary conferences.

[26]. At Cheng’s death an editorial in the Chinese Recorder commented, “Many times he [Cheng] had been likened to be a prophet—a really true and great prophet like one of Old Testament times” (70, no. 12 [1939]: 689).

Peter Tze Ming Ng was a professor in the Department of Religion, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), from 1985 to 2008. He now serves as Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Religion and Chinese Society, Chung Chi College, CUHK.—



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