Liu Tingfang was a prominent Protestant educator and church leader in China during the first half of the twentieth century. He was born in Wenzhou on 23 December 1892 to a family with a rich Christian heritage, where he represented the third generation of Protestants on his father’s side and the fourth on his mother’s side. Liu’s father, a Christian doctor trained by the China Inland Mission (CIM), died when Liu was only nine years old, which led his mother to take a position as the head of a CIM girls’ school in order to raise Liu and his five younger siblings.
Liu Tingfang was an exceptional student as he pursued education at mission schools, doing his high school study at Wenzhou yiwen zhongxue (operated by English Free Methodists), and his college training at St. John’s University in Shanghai (run by American Episcopalians). He was also a precocious writer who from the age of fifteen penned articles that were published in missionary newspapers. One of these caught the eye of the prominent American Presbyterian missionary John Leighton Stuart and resulted in Stuart becoming an important friend and mentor to Liu.
Liu Tingfang went to the United States in 1910 to continue his studies, with Stuart helping to arrange his financial support. After finishing his undergraduate studies with a year at the University of Georgia, he received a Master’s degree in education from Columbia University, then a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, and a Ph.D. in education and psychology again from Columbia University. While a student, Liu was involved in the Chinese Students Christian Association, serving as president in 1916. He also played a leading role in two Christian secret societies dedicated to “the uplift of China” through research and social reform. Members pledged to help each other in their careers back in China.
During these years Liu met and fell in love with his wife, Wu Zhuosheng, who had grown up in China as the daughter of a Christian businessman in Shanghai and like Liu was in the United States for further study. Liu was also ordained a minister by a Congregational church in Manhattan before he returned to China in 1920.
Originally Liu was planning to work with his mentor John Leighton Stuart at Nanjing Seminary, but when Stuart accepted an offer to become the president of the newly-established Yanjing University in Beijing, Liu joined him there instead. As the first Chinese with a Ph.D. to join the faculty, Liu was instrumental in attracting other Chinese of similar academic caliber to the school, many of them also graduates of Columbia University. Within a year, Liu had been appointed head of the School of Religion at Yanjing, which was rare at a time when Chinese seminary faculties were still staffed mainly by Western missionaries. He also taught psychology and served as Stuart’s most trusted Chinese adviser.
Liu also became involved in a wide variety of other activities, perhaps the most important being his prominent role in Life Fellowship, a group of Protestant intellectuals based in Beijing made up primarily of Chinese, but with some Western missionaries as well. The group was committed to engaging from a Christian perspective the remarkable intellectual revolution that had started in China at the time, commonly referred to as the New Culture movement. Liu was chief editor of their journal, initially called Life Journal but later changed to Truth and Life. Becoming one of the most influential Protestant periodicals in China, it was published on a monthly basis until 1941, a remarkable longevity compared to most Chinese journals of the time.
Liu’s prominence as a Christian educator at Yanjing and editor of Life Journal made him an influential spokesman for Chinese Protestantism. He was selected to serve as the presiding minister at Sun Yat-sen’s funeral, for example. Sun had passed away in March 1925 in Beijing, where he had traveled to promote the unification of China. Since there was a strong anti-Christian movement sweeping China at the time, many of his key lieutenants opposed holding a Christian funeral, but Sun’s wife and son insisted on one, which was held in private and followed by a large public secular funeral. Liu’s role reflected not only his prominence in church circles, but also his close ties to the Song family and the fact that he was a minister in the same (Congregational) denomination in which Sun had received baptism as a young man.
Liu Tingfang contributed in many other significant ways to the development of the Protestant church in China. He played a critical part, along with Cheng Jingyi and Zhao Zichen, in the founding of the National Christian Council in 1922, which missionaries and Chinese Protestants formed to enhance cooperation between a wide variety of Christian groups in China and to address common concerns such as evangelism, rural life, the family, indigenization of the church, and international harmony. He was also the first Chinese to be chosen as head of the China Christian Education Association, in which role he succeeded in preserving a place for Christian education in China, despite the insistence by many Chinese nationalists that Christian schools be taken over by the government. He urged schools to register with the authorities, appoint Chinese leaders, and make all religious classes and activities voluntary. A third area of influence was Liu’s work as the main editor of Hymns of Universal Praise, the most popular Chinese hymnal of the period, selling over 300,000 copies in its first five years. Liu personally translated 164 of the more than five hundred hymns it contained, and six were hymns that he personally wrote.
Liu Tingfang became an important voice for Chinese Christianity overseas, joining or leading delegations to major Christian conferences, including the Conference on Faith and Order at Lausanne in 1927, the World Mission Conference in Jerusalem in 1928, the Oxford Conference on Life and Ministry in 1937, and the Madras Conference on International Christian Education in 1939. At times, Liu also addressed Western Christians on sensitive issues in Sino-Western relations, such as his powerful indictment of the Unequal Treaties at a conference sponsored by the World Council of Churches in Germany in 1927. At a time when Chinese were rarely given access to Western academic circles, from 1926 to 1928 Liu not only lectured in the United States and England, but taught as a visiting professor at such institutions as Boston University and Hartford Theological Seminary, while receiving honorary degrees from Middlebury College and Oberlin College.
Liu was appointed assistant to the Chancellor at Yanjing University in 1928, but his many outside activities, including part-time teaching at other institutions, strained relations with colleagues who thought he was setting a poor example and neglecting his commitments at Yanjing. This led to Liu’s resignation as assistant to the Chancellor in 1931 and departure from Yanjing altogether in 1936, when he was appointed a member of the Legislative Yuan.
This body was one of five main branches of the Nationalist Government, tasked with drafting specific laws in conformity with Party policies. Liu continued his work as a legislator, along with Christian ministry, even after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, when he was forced to flee with the government to Chongqing. After the Japanese began heavy bombing of the city in 1939, Liu’s weak health was unable to take the strain and he was able to get a seat on a flight to Hong Kong, where he received urgently needed medical treatment, before reuniting with his wife and daughter Grace in Shanghai. In 1941, right before Pearl Harbor, Liu and his family fled to the United States, where he spent the rest of the war helping to raise funds for China’s Nationalist government and speaking about Christianity in China. Liu contracted tuberculosis in 1946, was sent to a Presbyterian solarium in New Mexico for treatment, but succumbed on 2 August 1947 at the age of 54.
Liu Tingfang was in many ways unique among Chinese Protestants of the early twentieth century, combining leadership in Christian ministry, in education, and in broader social engagement with remarkable effectiveness. His many talents served a great deal to build up the Chinese church and Chinese society, while shaping the intellectual life of the Protestant church in China. He was part of a new generation of Chinese Christian intellectuals that helped to make the church more indigenous in leadership and in thinking, as well as a force in the area of modern social reform. Liu gave a voice for the Chinese Church both in the West and elsewhere the world, thereby greatly enriching the global Church. Though he did not enjoy a long life, his strong faith and intellectual gifts left a lasting mark on Chinese Christianity.
- John Barwick, “Liu Tingfang: Christian Minister and Activist Intellectual,” in Carol Lee Hamrin with Stacey Bieler, eds. Salt and Light 3: More Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China(Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 59-80.