Christianity Encountered Chinese Nationalism: Deviation of the Chinese YMCA from Its ‘Non-Interventionist Political Principle,’ 1895-1937
The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) had historically pursued a ‘non-interventionist political principle’ that disallowed its city Associations from participation in partisan political struggles. This thesis argues that, between 1895 and 1937, the surge of nationalist feelings among the local leadership of the Chinese YMCA led the Association to deviate from this principle by prioritising engagement with the socio-political needs of the time. Ultimately, this accelerated the Association’s indigenisation in the ‘foreign soil of China.’
In the late nineteenth century, because of the ‘top-down missionary strategy’ adopted by the YMCA, native elites were recruited into the Association leadership to help expand its influence in China. Fervent nationalists themselves, many of these Chinese Christians had participated in anti-Qing revolutionary activities in the late 1900s and in the first decade of the twentieth century developed the politicised religious discourse of ‘Character, China’s Salvation’ (Ren’ge jiuguo 人格救國) to safeguard the country. Moreover, in 1924, they launched the Civic Education Campaign to promote Sun Yat-sen’s political ideas. During the Nanjing decade, to assist the Nationalist government in national reconstruction, the YMCA recycled and refashioned its philosophy of manhood as the spirit of the Officers’ Moral Endeavour Association and the New Life Movement. In 1935, the Chinese YMCA put forward that it stood for democracy against Communism, while it struggled to preserve itself in the precarious atmosphere of partisan conflicts and to fulfil its mission as both a character-building agency and a pro-democratic institution.
When the YMCA leadership was convinced that staying socially relevant necessitated participation in politics, the Association’s deviation from its ‘non-interventionist political principle’ and the politicisation of Christianity became inevitable. This account highlights the role of Chinese Christians in the development of the YMCA in China, along with the interplay of religious culture and political society; both are themes inadequately explored to date.