Building the Kingdom of God in West China: The Religious and and Reform Work of Chengdu’s West China Union University

Anglophone Protestant Missionaries in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Sichuan were, with a few notable exceptions, generally supportive of using modern education as a means in their proselytizing efforts in the province. In 1910, four mission boards joined together for one such educational endeavor and opened West China Union University in Chengdu. The university grew rapidly in its first decade and remained a key player in tertiary education in Sichuan throughout the Republican Era. Subsequent analysis of the role the school played in Sichuan society has tended to sway with the political winds. Previously derided as a center of cultural imperialism, it is now more often heralded as one of the vanguard modernizing institutions in southwestern China. In the former interpretation, the school created slavish followers of the foreign; in the latter, the University’s contributions to medical education or other forms of scientific/technical work is advanced as proof that it contributed to the birth of modern China. Notably, in either interpretation, the religious work of the University is rarely touched upon. While the University did have to downplay its religiosity somewhat, when in registered with Nationalist Government in the late 1920’s, it nonetheless remained a church school throughout the period, and was active in various ways in promulgating Protestant Christianity in Sichuan.

This project seeks to complicate the over-simplified understanding of West China Union University as a bastion of either cultural imperialism or modernization. It does so by bringing into focus the ongoing religious work of the institution. In particular, this project will look at the religious contribution of the University to Sichuan along two lines: First, through a study of the overtly religious activities promoted by the school, such as campus worship services, the activities of various religious clubs, and the work of the affiliated seminary which produced pastors for Protestant congregations throughout the province. Second, this project looks at the way in which Protestant doctrine was understood by many on campus as an essential foundation for modernizing reform in the city and province, and how missionaries, Chinese faculty and students cooperated with local elite and provincial and national politicians to implement a Protestant vision of reform.

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