Fan Zimei was born in Suzhou in a traditional family of Confucian scholars and officials. At the age of five, he and his father migrated to Shanghai, where they lived with Zimei’s uncle’s family, who tutored him in the Chinese classics. He passed the first level of the imperial examinations at the very early age of thirteen and attained the next level in 1893 at the age of twenty-eight. By that time, the Neo-Confucian philosophy of the Song and Ming dynasties, centered on self-cultivation and social ethics, was deeply imprinted in his mind.
Concerned with practical and technological issues, however, Fan also read many translated works from the West, published by the school attached to the Jiangnan Arsenal in Shanghai. When he was unable to pass the final level of examinations, he served as a teacher in Suzhou, where at the age of twenty, he married a Miss Zhang with whom he had two sons, Fan Zhiqiu and Fan Jinhuai.
After China’s defeat in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War, when Fan was thirty, he supported the reform camp led by the young emperor, which urged a full-scale restructuring of the empire along the lines of Japan’s new constitutional monarchy.
After the Empress Dowager abruptly terminated the Hundred Days’ Reform in September 1898, Fan returned to Shanghai and threw himself into public activism, as a reporter and editor using the mass media to promote reform ideas.
When the reactionary imperial court supported the antiforeign Boxer Uprising, bringing on military humiliation at the hands of the allied Western powers, Fan was very disheartened with state affairs. Fan and many of his peers faced not just a crisis of political order, but a far deeper crisis of fundamental orientation. At this critical moment, in 1901 he met Young J. Allen (1836-1907), a Southern Methodist missionary and the founder of Globe Magazine (Wanguo gongbao), the main outlet for the Society for the Diffusion of Christian and General Knowledge among the Chinese (SDK). Allen and Timothy Richard, a British missionary and the secretary of SDK, had exercised great influence through Globe on the Hundred Days’ Reform and the journal continued to be quite popular.
Through Allen, Fan Zimei started to appreciate more than just Western technology, expanding his interest to Western institutions and then to Western religion. In 1902, Fan and his household (mother, wife, and two sons) were baptized. He became the editor of Globe, as well as one of Allen’s most important Chinese associates.
As Fan sought a totally new order for China, he now totally rejected all tradition, believing that Christianity was the only possible salvation for himself and for China. Due to the causal relationship he saw between Christianity and the West’s prosperity and strength, he now thought that Western religion was the critical prerequisite for modernization.
At the age of forty, Fan began to work toward his long-time goal of national wealth and power guided by new principles. He and other intellectuals promoted enlightenment through popular literacy and modern education. But he was unique in affirming the role of religion. His writings contrasted Christianity as “true civilization” with the Confucian “false civilization” that he blamed for China’s despotic state, society and family system.
Fan’s efforts centered on newspapers and periodicals as the “public textbooks of society,” and on new modern schools. He founded the Zhenhua (“save China”) School for the illiterate. He also taught for ten years in Shanghai’s elite McTyeire School for Girls, started by Young J. Allen in 1892. He agreed with Allen’s views in Woman in All Lands, an important work advocating the equality of women in status and rights. Believing that the weakness of China was partly rooted in the custom of suppressing women, Fan pioneered female education among the Chinese Christian community.
With the 1911 Revolution, the imperial Qing dynasty was replaced by the Republic of China. For Fan Zimei personally, that year was also a major turning point in his career. At the invitation of American YMCA Secretary Fletcher S. Brockman, head of the national YMCA in China, Fan joined its publications department as editor in chief of Jinbu (Progress), which in March 1917 merged withQingnian (China’s Young Men) to form the Qingnian jinbu (Association Progress). Fan Zimei continued in this role until the periodical ceased publication in 1932, a few years before Fan retired.
The YMCA leadership attributed all problems in China during that era to the weakness of human character and social ethics, and believed that “Christianized character” (jiduhua renge) was the ultimate way to solve the nation’s problems. Fan Zimei wholeheartedly agreed after deep self-reflection when he first heard the YMCA’s slogan, “saving the country through character building” (renge jiuguo).
He believed in the aim of the YMCA to educate Chinese citizens with higher standards that reflected the sacrificial spirit of Jesus Christ.
Fan also believed that good government at the top of society required strong voluntary associations like the YMCA at the bottom. Based on the foundation of Christianized character, Fan thought that a new society along the lines of the Christian ideal of the “Kingdom of God” could then be constructed. Fan published special issues of the magazine to arouse public action on related issues, including family, marriage, sex and children; labor conditions; and international relations and war.
In the 1920s, Fan’s intellectual ideas again changed markedly, following the Anti-Christian Movement of 1922. The experience of World War I and outrage over the West’s concession of control over Shandong to Japan stimulated Fan, like others, to rethink the values of East and West. He started to question the “myth of the perfect West,” and his “perfect paradigm” — the Christian West — collapsed. Chinese tradition became a useful paradigm to criticize or check and balance the West. Living between the two cultures, Fan on the one hand reaffirmed the contribution of Christianity for enlightenment and “saving the country through character building,” while on the other hand, he returned to Chinese tradition by promoting rejuvenation of national essence as a supplement for Christianity and the resulting indigenous Christianity as the path to world unity.
In January 1924, Fan announced the establishment of the Society of Chinese Learning, for which the Association Progress then became an important intellectual platform. Fan explained in an editorial that the journal would change its old policy of emphasizing the introduction of Western civilization by more clearly distinguishing Christianity from Western civilization and placing equal emphasis on studying Chinese values and culture, in order to synthesize the two.
The rejuvenation of national essence was also integrated with Fan’s thinking about the indigenization of Christianity. He urged reform of church structure and doctrine in order to establish an indigenous Christian church. In 1929, he published Wo de xin Yesu guan (My new concept of Jesus), which emphasized a “Sinicized Jesus” (Zhongguohua Yesu). “If Christ cannot be Sinicized, China cannot be Christianized,” he concluded.
Fan’s effort to construct an indigenous Confucian Christianity was affirmed by some Western missionaries at the time. In 1928, David W. Lyon, in the Chinese Recorder, cited Fan’s viewpoint that the followers of Jesus in China can “take the underlying conceptions of Heaven and the Ruler Above, which the Chinese have, and enrich them until they stand for the Christian concept of a Heavenly Father, who cherishes a loving concern in the highest welfare of all His creatures.”
In 1935, Fan retired from the YMCA. His life in retirement was darkened by nation-wide unrest. Manchuria had already been occupied by Japanese troops, and the Nationalist government was on the verge of war with Japan. After the outbreak of war in 1937, Japanese troops rapidly occupied Shanghai. China was in a struggle for national survival. The burden of national crisis seemed too heavy for an old man. Fan experienced deep grief over China’s national tragedy. In September 1939, Fan died in Shanghai at the age of seventy-three.
- Fuk-Tsang Ying, “Fan Zimei: Between Tradition and Modernity,” Carol Lee Hamrin, ed., with Stacey Bieler, Salt and Light: Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China (Eugene, OR., Wipf and Stock Publishers, Pickwick Publications, 2008). Used with permission.