Monday, December 26, 2011

Eleventh Book of Christmas: "Timothy Richard of China"

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: reform in East Asia.

William Soothill, "Timothy Richard of China, seer, statesman, missionary & the most disinterested adviser the Chinese ever had."

A book called Five Foreigners who Influenced China was published in Taiwan.  Of the five men highlighted in the book, the longest chapter was dedicated to a Baptist missionary named Timothy Richard.  In fact, Richard's chapter was more than twice as long as the next longest. 

Richard was a remarkable person.  He began his career preaching in the villages of Shandong Province.  Having read Mateo Ricci and James Legge, he was unusually friendly towards other religions.  In fact, the famous "Nevius Plan" for an independent, self-perpetuating local church, free of foreign control, was first developed by Richard on the model of local Chinese sects.  (John Nevius visited his mission station, and borrowed his method, then developed and popularized it.)

When famine struck the province, Richard and other missionaries set about trying to help the hungry, mostly by giving them money to buy food.  When a far worse famine struck Shanxi Province, he and David Hill attempted to apply the same methods to relieve mass starvation there.  But he soon realized that the problem was transportation: food had to reach the province over mountain ranges, which were only traversed by mules, which couldn't carry much of a load.  So he argued that China needed a system of railroads to carry heavier freight.  (Superstitious Chinese opposed trains because they disrupted Feng Shui.)  He also argued for a network of state universities. 

One of the media through which Richard preached reform was a publication called Wan Guo Gong Bao, in Engish Review of the Times.  Kang Youwei converted to the cause of reform through reading the writings of Richard and Allen in this magazine.  Kang's attempt to reform China, with Richard's (in this case somewhat dubious) help, was ultimately thwarted by the Empress Dowager. 

Some of Richard's indigenizing innovations may have been adopted in Korea (via the ‘Nevius Plan’), Wenzhou, and, indirectly, Henan (Goforth: 1943, 77), among the most successful outreaches to Confucian societies. His famine relief efforts and support for economic development and universities served as national models. His writings and advice deeply influenced the Hundred Days Reform, though his naive idea of ceding governing power to foreign tutelary advisors may have undermined its success.

Naiveté was also the charge against Richard's approach to non-Christian religions laid by his usually generous biographer, William Soothill. Harsher critics, like Hudson Taylor, suspected heresy. Richard's willingness to look for the best in every religion seemed to derive in roughly equal parts from personal kindliness and theological agreement with Legge and the Jesuits.

In 1878, the little band of Shanxi missionaries sponsored an essay contest on (in part) inquiring into the ‘decrees of Heaven.'  This led to the conversion of Pastor Xu, who helped many of his countrymen recover from opium addiction.

A statue of Timothy Richard can be seen on the campus of Shanxi University, which was established (at his insistence) with indemnity money after the Boxer Rebellion, and which he initially led.  A photo of Richard also hangs in the student cafeteria.  This is a little ironic, since students who meet for Christian fellowship on campus are persecuted.

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