- Mahāyāna Interpretation of Christianity:A Case Study of Zhang Chunyi (1871–1955)
Mahāyāna Buddhism is one of the most popular religions in East Asia. It reflects the characteristics of the culture of East Asia and has had a tremendous impact on the culture(s) of the region. When Christianity was introduced into East Asia, it did not enter a religious vacuum. Because the people of East Asia have their own culture, including their worldviews, values, and preunderstandings of religion, it is expected that they may interpret the Christian religion in a way significantly different from the Western interpretation of Christianity. One of these possible ways of reinterpreting Christianity is facilitated by the Mahāyāna Buddhist framework.
This paper consists of an analysis of the Mahāyāna interpretation of Christianity made by Zhang Chunyi (1871–1955).1 Zhang was a rather well-known Sinologist who published several commentaries on Chinese classics, including Mozi, Laozi, and Zhuangzi. Though he had been well trained in Chinese classics, he was attracted to Christianity, with the hope that Christianity might contribute to the social reform of China. He even received baptism in an Anglican church in 1905. However, because of his in-depth study of Buddhism and his disappointment with the actual practices of the Christian churches at that time, he eventually converted to Buddhism during the 1920s. From that point, he formally promoted the slogan "Buddhicizing Christianity" (Fohua Jidujiao). His proposal for Buddhicizing Christianity includes a severe criticism of the "foreign" form of Christianity being "imported" to China mainly by the Western Protestant missionaries who, according to Zhang, preached a simplistic and even distorted "gospel" for they lacked the spiritual training (nei xue, lit., "inner learning") as well as the intellectual ability to understand sophisticated Chinese philosophy and genuine Christianity. Partially under his influence, some of his contemporary Chinese Christians were converted to Buddhism. In fact, he published at least eight books on interpreting and reforming Christian doctrines from the perspectives of Buddhism, Confucianism, and so on.2 He was probably the most prolific writer on the subject of his generation and one of the pioneers [End Page 67] in what is now called Mahāyāna theology. This brief outline of his rather unusual religious journey might have indicated the importance of the study of his Buddhist interpretation of Christianity. However, owing to mainly sociopolitical turmoil as well as the religious atmosphere at that time and in the subsequent decades, his Buddhist interpretation of Christianity has not been formally studied for decades.
In recent years, more and more studies of Buddhist-Christian dialogue take place in the Chinese context.3 It is important to study previous cases of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, Mahāyāna theology, and so on. Some of these cases, including Zhang's, have been studied.4 This paper aims to examine Zhang's thought critically and to show that although Zhang advocated a Mahāyāna interpretation of Christianity before and after his conversion to Buddhism, his interpretations before and after his conversion to Buddhism are significantly different. It is proposed that whereas his interpretation before his conversion aimed at the indigenization of Christianity and thus, the evangelization of the Chinese, his interpretation after conversion was made with a view to converting the Christians to Buddhism, even though both aimed at the reformulation, or even reform, of Christianity.
Zhang's Proposal of "Buddhicizing christianity"
Zhang was a scholar of classical Chinese literature, active during the Republican era. He was knowledgeable in Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and Moism. His study of Moism remains highly regarded.5 Zhang became a Christian and worked for the Christian Literature Society for China (Guan xue hui) in Shanghai for some years. He published several books with a view to indigenizing Christian theology by interpreting it through Chinese philosophical and religious concepts. Zhang's attempt aimed at reinterpreting Christian doctrines within the Buddhist framework in order to make Christianity more acceptable to the Chinese. However, in the 1920s, he himself converted to Buddhism and began to promote his proposal of "Buddhicizing Christianity" (Fohua Jidujiao),6 aiming to convert Christians to Buddhism.
Because Zhang had...