Happy new year everyone! We are delighted to have Tim Yung as our first guest writer in 2019. A PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong, Tim’s research concerns South China Anglican Identity in the early twentieth century. Here’s Tim telling us how and why he works on this fascinating project:
When walking around Hong Kong, I could not help but notice a curious abundance of schools whose names involve Christian themes or names of saints. Another such curiosity occurs in common conversation: upon learning that I attend church, the follow-up question is frequently whether I am a ‘gei1 duk1 gau3’ or ‘teen1 zyu2 gau3’. To the best of my knowledge, the question refers to whether one is a ‘Protestant’ or a ‘Catholic’, though many opt to translate the former into ‘Christian’. In contrast, during my undergraduate studies in the UK, schools tended to be named after localities rather than saints, whilst in common conversation, I would be asked to which ‘denomination’ my church in Hong Kong belonged. It was striking to see the vast difference in local experiences of the Christian faith despite the professed unity of the worldwide church. It is upon the backdrop of this wider question that I began my doctoral studies on South China Anglican identity. What does it mean to be both ‘Chinese’ and ‘Christian’? It would take a lifetime (if not longer) to answer the question properly. Consequently, it hardly would have been ideal to try this as a PhD project. The next best thing within the given time and resources was to reduce it to a smaller area and scope – and so the research on South China Anglicanism began. To facilitate this journey was the timely establishment of the archives of the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui (Hong Kong Anglican Church) as well as a recent series of historical studies of Anglican Christianity in China.
I wonder if there exists a term that describes my experience – namely, that of Chinese who grew up in Hong Kong but attended international school then studied abroad. It is, therefore, rather difficult to answer the question, “Where are you from?” These days, I take the liberty to tell a story that goes around the world in a few minutes. There was a time when such a question would tap into my insecurity and lead me into further confusion about my identity. Turning pain into gain, it turns out that the experience of cultural entanglement has enabled to become a researcher with an enhanced awareness of historical agents caught between cultures. This very entanglement characterized the process of Christianity in China in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially as Protestant missionaries grew in number following the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing.
When observing sources about foreign missions in Hong Kong or Chinese clergy in Guangdong Province, it is never simply a case of ‘East meets West’ or ‘imperialism’. Instead, one sees the unfolding of a relationship where historical agents thoughtfully pick and mix aspects of Christianity that are consistent with the main creeds yet practicable in their cultural context. For instance, entire treatises were written on the integration of Chinese marriage customs with Christian theology. Go-betweens and betrothal gifts were maintained, but personal freedom and monogamy were adopted. “It will be an excellent plan if in future parents will consult with their children before betrothing them”, said Bishop Frederick Graves of Shanghai. In effect, my research merely involves what all historians do: to listen carefully to the voices of the past and to present it in a coherent way. A novelty of my research is how the sources are scattered from Lambeth Palace to Lan Kwai Fong (the Sheng Kung Hui archive is just above it!), from Yale Divinity School to Worcester Cathedral Library. It never ceases to amaze me how interconnected the world was in the early twentieth century, especially within the Anglican Communion and how contemporaries understood their place in the world.
For the wider enterprise of historical research, learning about South China Anglican identity enriches one’s understanding of how Hong Kong is best understood in connection with China and with the world. To see things as Chinese Christians and missionaries in the early twentieth century saw them provides a whole new perspective on what Hong Kong was – and is. Equally, a study of South China Anglican identity acts as a regional point of comparison to the growing field of World Christianity, where researchers from around the world go about discovering not only what makes churches worldwide unique, but also what unites them.