Zhao, Zichen, born in Deqing, Zhejiang (Chekiang), China in 1888. He had a solid classical Chinese education. Although he came from a Buddhist family, he attended a missionary middle school where he was introduced to the Christian faith and joined the church, although he was not baptized until 1908. Then he studied at Suzhou (Soochow) University, a missionary institution, graduating in 1911. A few years later, he went to the United States where, in the years 1914-17, he received M.A. and B.D. degrees from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1917, he returned to the Methodist Dongwu University in Suzhou and taught there for six years. In 1926 he moved to Yenching University in Beijing (Peking) as a professor of theology. He became dean of the School of Religion in 1928, a post he held until 1952, when he was denounced politically and removed.
From 1910s until 1940s, Zhao, along with other colleagues such as Liu Tingfang (Timothy Lew), Xu Baoqian (Hsu Pao-ch’ien), and Wu Leichuan (Wu Lei-ch’uan), tried to make Christianity relevant to the needs of Chinese culture and society and tended to strip it of all supernatural elements. He was recognized in China by the mainline churches before the coming of the new government as one of its leading theologians. He was concerned that the church be purified both institutionally from its denominationalism and doctrinally from its many nonscientific views. He was also concerned that Christianity be related to Confucianism or, more broadly, to humanism.
During these decades, he was active on national Protestant scene, attending major conferences and organizations, including the National Chinese Christian Council and YMCA; participating in the International Missionary Council (IMC) meetings in Jerusalem in 1928; in Madras in 1938; and the first assembly of the World Council (WCC) at Amsterdam in 1948, where he was elected one of the six presidents of the WCC, representing East Asian churches. He resigned from this post in 1951 due to the break out of the Korean War.
Zhao went through several phases in his theological journey. In his early works—-Christian Philosophy (Chinese, 1925) and The Life of Jesus (Chinese, 1935)—-he espoused a liberal theological perspective. In his later writings—-An Interpretation of Christianity, The Life of Paul (both in Chinese, 1947), and My Prison Experience (1948) —- he became more conservative in faith, especially after his imprisonment by the Japanese for several months in 1942. He also wrote many articles in English, especially for the Chinese Recorder in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1947 Zhao was awarded an honorary doctorate from Princeton University.
Zhao reconciled himself to the new Communist government after 1949 and participated in the China People’s Political Consultation Meeting as one of five Christian representatives. When the Three-Self Movement was launched, he was one of the 40 church leaders who signed the “Three-Self Manifesto.” In 1956 Zhao was accused of siding with American mission boards in their imperialism toward China and was forced to resign from his position as professor and dean at the School of Religion at Yanjing University. After that he descended into obscurity and apparently lost his faith long before his death. In many ways he was a liberal theologian, although Western terms do not do justice to his thought.
Zhao died in Beijing on November 21, 1979. He was rehabilitated officially a short time before his death.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from A Dictionary of Asian Christianity, copyright © 2001 by Scott W. Sunquist, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
- Covell, Ralph R., Confucius, the Buddha, and Christ: A History of the Gospel in Chinese (1986).
- Gluer, Winfried, “T. C. Chao 1888-1979: Scholar, Teacher, Gentle Mystic,” in Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, ed. Gerald Anderson, Robert Coote, Norman Horner, and James Phillips (1994).
- Gluer, Winfried, Christliche Theologie in China: T. C. Chao, 1918-1956 (1979).