Cai Erkang was a significant Chinese figure in the Christian Literature Society for China (CLS), serving as principal translator and editor for Young J. Allen, American Methodist Episcopal missionary and CLS principal, between 1894 and 1902. Though never a professed Christian, he played an important, behind-the-scenes role in the history of modern Christianity in China.
Cai was born in 1852 to a family which took a great interest in his education. However, he failed examinations at the prefectural level and joined many other unsuccessful candidates in accepting a low-status job in the world of Shanghai journalism. There he fashioned a reputation for himself that caught the attention of Western publishers and likely gained some proficiency in English from his years of contact with missionaries and others in the international community.
After joining the CLS in 1892, and over the next ten years, his name, along with those of director Timothy Richard, and Allen, would be inextricably linked, in the minds of Chinese readers, with the organization. He earned plaudits in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War when he assisted Allen in the preparation of a history of the war, penning many articles in his own name. When reform gained momentum in 1897, Cai was asked to assist the movement as a teacher and editor. However, his skills were those of an editor and he was not the thinker that some of his readers supposed him to be. By most accounts, Cai was restless throughout his career, believing that he deserved more recognition and bouncing from one editorial position to another. He remained in the Shanghai settlement milieu his entire career, there being nowhere else in China where he could both pursue his career interests, and indulge his fancy for the bohemian life of tea houses, taverns, and brothels.
Though not a baptised Christian, he took a genuine interest in the work of the CLS and, in 1896, became only the fourth Chinese name on the Society’s membership list. By 1902, however, he was no longer the chief editor and his association with the CLS ended quietly but for unknown reasons, in 1906, when his name disappears from the membership list.
Cai is a figure worthy of greater scholarly attention if more sources of information can be uncovered, particularly about his later life. He belongs to the small but significant group of educated, littoral men, of whom Wang Tao and earlier CLS editor, Shen Yugui, are further examples, who were semi-Christianised by their contact with Protestant missionaries. These men typically had the courage to associate with Westerners in the face of opposition from conservative Confucians, but lacked the resolve or conviction to repudiate their ideological heritage and accept the tenets of what was still regarded as a foreign faith. Cai, and a few others like him, nevertheless proved indispensable to the successful development, for a time, of a flourishing Christian press in China.
- J. Ma, Cai Er-kang yu Wanguo gongbao (Cai Erkang and the Wanguo gongbao) in Jindai Zhongguo Jidujiao Yanjiu Shuban (Journal of the History of Christianity in Modern China), Vol. II, 1999.
- Joining the Global Public: Word, Image, and City in Early Chinese Newspapers, ed. R. Wagner, State Univ. of New York Press, 2007.