Finding God in Ancient China – Review

Chan Kei Thong and Charlene L. Fu. Finding God in Ancient China. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2013. Print.

A number of years ago I read The Discovery of Genesis by C. H. Kang and Ethel Nelson, a book on how many Chinese writing characters or ideograms represented ideas found in ancient history as presented in the Bible. For example, the Chinese word for ship is represented by a character that means “eight mouths in a vessel.” The word for temptation is formed by a character that means “reveal two trees.” That book was interesting as far as it went.

Finding God in Ancient China goes well beyond that. It is thoroughly researched, using many Chinese classics to demonstrate that not only does Chinese history corroborate similar Biblical history, but that traditional Chinese culture was monotheistic. Even after the introduction of Buddhism and dragon worship, those various spirits were seen as lower spirits than Shang Di, literally Lord of Heaven, Creator of everything including those spirits. Until the last emperor abdicated in 1911, nearly every Chinese monarch for over four thousand years offered sacrifices to the King of Heaven.

Besides briefly covering some of the same ground as The Discovery of Genesis in one chapter, this book is a survey of Chinese belief. It emphasizes that Confucius, Mencius, Lao Zi, and most other classical Chinese scholars and writers recognized a great creator God and that a ruler’s mandate was from Heaven. In the West, we tend to equate the Chinese Mandate of Heaven with the Divine Right of Kings that appeared in Europe in the late Middle Ages. There is a difference. The Divine Right meant that the monarch could do pretty much anything he or she wanted and was only answerable to God. To oppose a monarch was to oppose God’s representative on earth—hence the language of the American Declaration of Independence.

The Mandate of Heaven was that God gave the monarch the authority, but the monarch’s position was conditional. He had to rule righteously. If the people were dissatisfied by injustice or if the ruler ruled unjustly, that was a sign that the ruler had lost his mandate. Indeed, that was why the Emperor was normally motivated to offer sacrifices to the Lord of Heaven, to cover for any sins he might have committed. The chiefest of these sacrifices was the Border Sacrifice, done annually from about 2200 B.C. until A.D. 1911 with few breaks. Even the most wicked rulers would still offer this sacrifice. Chan and Fu tell us one especially evil ruler died almost immediately after offering such a sacrifice.

It is interesting to note that unlike most monarchs who ruled in polytheistic cultures (Japan, Egypt, Rome, ancient Greece, Persia, etc.), Chinese emperors were never seen as gods or offspring of gods. They were always seen as human beings, subject to the Creator and His laws.

Finding God in Ancient China is primarily a history book. It includes summaries of the findings of the Revs. Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary of the 16th century, and James Legge, a Scottish missionary of the 19th century, who both encouraged missionaries to China to learn the Chinese traditions of Blood Covenant and sacrifices to Shang Di in order to more clearly present the testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament to Chinese. The authors maintain that to a culturally aware Chinese person even today, Christianity is no “foreign religion,” but simply the fulfillment of the traditional Chinese worldview.

There is one chapter that is a little weaker. The book tries to connect certain Chinese astronomical observations with Biblical events. It proposes that a certain comet recorded by the Chinese was the Star of Bethlehem that brought the Magi to the infant Jesus. Not only does the timing seem a little early (5 B.C.), it is also true that in most cultures comets are a sign of bad luck. Even in Chinese, a person who is a family troublemaker is called a comet.

That chapter also suggests that a certain solar eclipse recorded by the Chinese in A.D. 31 may have corresponded to the darkness at noon during the crucifixion of Jesus. There is a major problem with that. Solar eclipses only happen during a New Moon (which is noted in the source that the book quotes), but Passover, the day Jesus was executed, is celebrated during the Full Moon. Whatever that darkness may have been, it was no solar eclipse. Some authorities, in fact, see Acts 2:20 “the moon [shall be turned] to blood” as a sign of a lunar eclipse, something that does happen when the moon is full.

Aside from the astronomical speculations, Finding God in Ancient China, originally written in Chinese as The Faith of Our Fathers, is well worth reading for anyone interested in ancient history or the mysterious Middle Kingdom.

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