1888  — 1979

Zhao Zichen

T. C. Chao; Chao Tzu-chen

Zhao Zichen was one of the most influential theologians in the 20th century in China, the early creator of China's contextualized theology, and the earliest advocate of "Chinese Systematic Theology"; a theologian, religious educator, poet, and writer.

Part 1: Life and Works

On February 14, 1888, Zhao Zichen was born into a small merchant’s family in Xinshi Town, Deqing County, Zhejiang Province. His grandparents were both well known, but his family was now in decline and his life was one of struggle. In his childhood, Zhao Zichen accompanied his grandmother to the neighboring Protestant church to attend worship. In his youth, he studied medicine and went into business successively.

At the age of 15, he resolutely gave up the opportunity to receive traditional education and chose to study at Suiying College, a western school with a new teaching system and advanced culture and scientific knowledge. In the same year, he transferred to a school in Soochow (Suzhou) founded by the American Southern Methodist Episcopal Church. He studied at a high school attached to the university and was successfully admitted to Soochow University a few years later.

In his early days at Soochow, Zhao Zichen was disgusted with Christianity. His anti-religious enthusiasm at that time won him the sobriquet of “vanguard”. Then in 1907, Zhao Zichen was baptized as a Christian under the influence of John R. Mott, the director general of the World Student Christian Federation, and D. L. Anderson, the president of Soochow University. At the age of 17 (1905), Zhao Zichen was ordered by his parents to marry Dingzhen, the girl of a small businessman who was two years older than he. They had a daughter, Zhao Luoyi, and three sons: Zhao Jingxin, Zhao Jingde, and Zhao Jinglun.

In 1910, Zhao Zichen graduated from Soochow (Suzhou) University and stayed on to teach middle school English, mathematics, and the Bible. He did well as a student, winning the praise of teachers and classmates. For a period of time, he was very enthusiastic about spiritual life and was also active in personal evangelism. There were many students who became believers because of his persuasion. In half a year, 17 students were baptized. After nearly two years of opposition from his family, he finally led his parents and wife to be baptized.

At this time, his journey of faith was at a stage where experience and reason were not in harmony, however, and he was often at a loss as to how to give a reasonable explanation for religious experience. In the summer of 1914, on behalf of the Southern Methodists in China, he went to Oklahoma, USA, to attend the General Meeting of the Southern Methodists. In the fall of the same year, he entered Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, USA, to study theology, while at the same time taking courses in sociology and philosophy.

After more than three years of study, Zhao Zichen received a master’s degree in sociology and a bachelor’s degree in theology. He also won a medal from the founder of the school for his outstanding performance as a student. He had become a Chinese theologian accepted by American liberal theology with the traditional mindset of the Methodists.

After Zhao Zichen returned to China in 1917, he served as a professor at Soochow University. In 1922, he was promoted to the position of Dean of the Faculty of Letters.

Faced with the scientific and rational thoughts advocated by the New Culture Movement, as well as the rising nationalist sentiments reflected in the “Anti-Christian movement” and the Northern Expedition, Zhao Zichen began his process of constructing an authentic Chinese Christianity and an authentic church. During this period, Zhao Zichen published columns in the journal of which he was editor-in-chief, “Truth and Life” and the “Wenshe Monthly” to discuss the issue of the indigenization of Christianity, and to promote the necessity and ways of the indigenization of Christianity.

Zhao Zichen published nearly a hundred papers on the construction of a true natural theology. He also published many representative theological and literary works such as Christian Philosophy, Xue Ren, and The Life of Jesus. He called his Christian Philosophy “the first book of religious philosophy written by the Chinese.” This work and The Philosophy of the Life of Jesus, which “invented the personality of Jesus”, are representative works of his early thought.

In 1922, Zhao Zichen participated in the “Eleventh World Christian Student League” held at Tsinghua University, the “Christian National Conference” held in Shanghai, and the “First National Conference of the National Aspirational Mission” held in Guling. The concurrent speech showed that Zhao Zichen already enjoyed a high reputation in the Christian academic and church circles at the time. In 1925, at the invitation of John Leighton Stuart, the president of Beijing Yenching (Yanjing) University, Zhao Zichen accepted a teaching position in the School of Religion and joined Yanjing University in 1926.

Two years later, he succeeded Liu Tingfang as the dean of the School of Religion until the end of the university in 1952, a total of 26 years. During this period, he visited and preached to churches at home and abroad, and participated in various conferences. In the summer of 1932, Zhao Zichen went to Oxford University to study for a year. In 1933, he attended a meeting in Edinburgh, where he gave a speech on the theme of “The Reality of Jesus and God”. He participated in three Chinese Christian delegations to the World Council of Churches (Jerusalem in 1929; Madras, India in 1938; Whitby, Canada in 1947).

From 1939 to 1940, at the request of Bishop He Minghua (R. Hall) of the Hong Kong Anglican Church, Zhao Zichen took his family to Kunming and preached in Wenlin Church of the Anglican Church there for a year. He arrived in Hong Kong from Kunming in July 1941. In the same day, Bishop Hall laid his hands on Chao three times and held a ceremony for him to be confirmed as a member of the Anglican church, ordained as a Deacon, and ordained as a Priest (Presbyter). He was appointed as the member of the council, and he was appointed as a pastor. He was transferred from the Southern Methodist to the Chinese Anglican Church. The bishop of the Diocese of North China then appointed him as a priest there.

On December 8 of that year, when Japan launched the Pacific War, Zhao Zichen and a dozen professors from Yanjing University were arrested by the Japanese military police. They spent half a year in prison. Six months of life behind bars constituted an important opportunity to for Zhao to reflect. This unique experience of God pushed his theological thought to a point of crisis. He had relied on reason, science, Chinese culture, and religious experience in the past, but now he had to give it all up. He stated many times that he sensed God’s presence and will in his prison life. This belief gave him the courage to survive and the strength for him to struggle with death. He even believed that God showed his presence and comforted him many times in his dreams. The fulfillment of the dreams amazed Zhao Zichen. He said, “I can’t find explanations outside of religion for the magical things between heaven and earth. I don’t care at all about what scientists say about these things” (Zhao Zichen: In the Prison, pp. 71-72).

On June 18, 1942, after Zhao Zichen came out of the Japanese jail, he lived in the Anglican Church at Xuanneigouyan in Beijing. He had more time to write and teach about theology and the biography of Paul to a small number of theological students. After the victory in the Anti-Japanese War, Yanjing University reopened. Zhao resumed his original position as the Dean of the School of Religious Studies. He also served as a professor of Chinese literature at Yanjing University.

During this period, the Chinese Christian community was facing severe challenges: the lack of pastors, the relative shortage of materials and financial resources, and the departure of believers from the church. In the face of a dying state and church, Zhao Zichen readjusted his theological stance and reinterpreted Christian theological issues such as the nature of God, the nature of man, and the meaning of salvation. During this period, he published From Chinese Culture to Christianity; Progress of Christianity; Life of St. Paul; Christian Ethics, The Interpretation of Christian Doctrines; The Meaning of Christianity; Four Lectures on Christian Theology.

Several of his works still have a wide and far-reaching influence in today’s Christian intellectual and religious academic circles. Among them, the Progress of Christianity, which “escapes the ramifications of Western narration and establishes the banner of Han independence”, and the Four Lectures on Theology, which is a “Chinese experiment in theology”, are representative works of Zhao Zichen’s later thought.

In 1947, when Princeton University commemorated the 200th anniversary of the founding of the university, it awarded Zhao Zichen an honorary doctorate in theology, which affirmed his academic status. The certificate read: “T.C. Chao is the foremost leader, writer, religious thinker, poet, and mystic of Eastern Christian scholarship” (“Tianfeng” No. 79). In 1948, when the World Council of Churches held its first meeting in Amsterdam, the only representative of China was Zhao Zichen. He gave a speech and was elected as one of the six presidents, representing the rising church in Southeast Asia. During this period, Zhao Zichen went to more than 20 countries and regions including the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, to conduct educational activities to promote cultural exchanges between the East and the West.

Later, because the Central Committee of the WCC issued documents supporting the Korean War, Zhao Zichen resigned his position as president in 1951 in protest. After the liberation of Beijing, Zhao Zichen took the initiative to lead teachers and students from the Religious Studies Institute to the church to preach the Communist Party’s religious policies. In September 1949, as one of the five representatives of the Chinese Christian community, he participated in the first National Committee meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. In the church reform movement in the early days of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Zhao Zichen, as one of the main church leaders, put forward a series of ideas for church reform.

From that time on, he also actively participated in launching the Christian “Three-Self” (self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating) patriotic movement, and in 1954 he was elected as a standing member of the Chinese Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee.

Zhao Zichen suffered adverse treatment during the “three evils” and “five evils” movements that began in 1951 and the ensuing ten-year catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution. He was finally “rehabilitated” (i.e., exonerated of all wrongdoing) in 1979.

He died in Beijing on November 21, 1979, at the age of 91. The Hong Kong Anglican Church held a memorial service for him at St. John’s Cathedral in Hong Kong on February 10, 1980.

Zhao Zichen has had a far-reaching influence on literary publications and religious thought. He was skilled in expressing Christian theology in traditional Chinese cultural forms. He had a profound knowledge of Chinese classical literature, especially poetry, opera, and calligraphy. Among his many academic accomplishments, he received a PhD degree in literature from Soochow University.

As a theological educator, Zhao was in charge of the School of Religious Studies of Yenching University for 26 years, where he was diligent in preaching and teaching. His speeches and writings are beneficial to everyone, and they are well-known at home and abroad. He promoted the cooperation of the universal church by his writings, and attended important international conferences many times, winning the recognition of church leaders from all over the world.

During his career, Zhao penned more than two million characters, including eighty-nine articles in English. In addition to the above-mentioned works on Christianity, his English works appear in various journals such as Chinese Recorder, Chinese Christianity Yearbook, and International Review of Missions. It is said that he wrote more than 5,000 poems and hymns, most of which were lost during the Cultural Revolution. Fifteen of these hymns are preserved in hymn collections such as “Hymns of Universal Praise” and “Hymns (New Edition)”. According to Chinese Christian Theologian Zhao Zichen by Dr. Gruh of Germany, Zhao Zichen’s works amount to more than 170 varieties. Zhao Zichen’s career and achievements in his life make him an outstanding leader of Chinese Christianity.

Part II: Theology and Further Evaluation

T.C. Chao belonged to a group of Chinese theologians in the twentieth century who sought to create a truly Chinese theology. Others included Wu Leichuan, Xu Zonge, and, later, Ding Guangxun. These thinkers and writers were steeped in the Chinese classical tradition and wanted to relate Christianity to both the literary and socio-political contexts in which they lived. In general, we can say that they read the Bible through the lenses of Chinese culture and society rather than starting from the Bible to understand and critique their culture.

As we have seen, Chao’s religious and theological ideas took shape within the liberal paradigms of Southern Methodists and Anglicans.

According to Peter Ng, there were “three stages of development in T.C. Chao’s indigenous theology, namely: during the years 1922-1937; 1937-1949; and in the years after 1949” (Ng, 169). He goes on: “Many scholars considered the first period as the golden period of Chao’s theology, as Chao could develop his theology more freely … and he could construct his indigenous theology from a purely philosophical and rational context” (169-170). He attempted “to show the relevance of the Christian faith to the … Chinese culture and society of his time… [In these years he was] mostly concerned with the interpretation of Christianity so that it could be accepted by Chinese intellectuals, especially within the Confucian cultural context” (171).

In Chao’s eyes, a modern Chinese religion must “keep pace with life in its cosmic and mundane progress” (Lam, 21). For Christians, that meant that their faith must now reflect a social consciousness. The former “individualistic message of personal salvation was modified into a social doctrine… The salvation of China needed involvement, rather than detachment,” of Christians (22). This new religion reflected a humanistic eschatology, in which “man is the sole agent” in ushering in the kingdom of God (23).

Nevertheless, Chao’s theology was Christo-centric. “Christ remains our sole and universal object of faith … Christianity means a Christ life, or a Christ consciousness, the content of which is a definite relation of men as children to God as Father, with all that it involves.” The task of Christianity, therefore is “to give the Christ-life to China, that she may also be received into this kingdom or brotherhood” (Chao, “The Appeal of Christianity to the Chinese Mind,” quoted in Lam, 30).

For Chao, however, this “Christ” was “the perfect expression of humanity,” the ideal man (Lam, 37). “It is not as God or the Son of God that Jesus attracted me: rather He commanded my attention and interest because He was a thoroughly human being” (Chao, “Jesus and the Reality of God,” quoted in Lam, 37). He thus rejected the doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation, believing that the full humanity of Christ was “the very stuff of divinity itself” (Chao, “Jesus’ Conception of God,” quoted in Lam, 38).

He interpreted Jesus’s words, “I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17) in a new way, to mean that Jesus came to fulfill human culture. For Chao, this meant to fulfill the moral teachings of Confucianism. Since Confucianism “sought perfection in humanity”, and Jesus was the perfect example of the ideal man, there was no conflict between the two systems of thought. Chao’s goal was then to portray Jesus as the model for China’s youth to emulate. In this way, “a truly indigenous theology would be the basis to the social reconstruction of China” (Ng, 170).

Perhaps the best known of his early works is his Life of Jesus, first published in 1935, which reflects the liberal nature of his theology at that time. “Shedding the conventions of the west,” and seeking to escape the confines of the Bible, “with its tangled threads and fabricated, wild tales,” Zhao composed a “life” of Jesus in the form of a novel (Starr 74). As a novelist, he allowed his creative imagination to re-interpret Scripture and add new details and emphases.

One of these emphases – indeed, the central one - is that Jesus is the ideal human. As a theological liberal, Chao downplayed the deity and miracles of Christ. “A noticeable effect of the novelizing of the scriptural text is to downplay the supernatural” (Starr 86). As part of this strategy, “[n]atural explanations of miracles abound.” Throughout this novel, “all is governed by a principled agnosticism regarding the rupturing of scientific laws” (87).

In keeping with his lifelong support for the Communist Party, Chao portrays Jesus as a liberator from earthly troubles. “The messiah’s role, as Jesus comes to understand it, was to enlighten the masses, fighting against those who have political power, with a consciousness of God’s truth. The King of Heaven is the life of the masses” (Starr 89).

Nevertheless, Chao says that “the salvation of Israel absolutely could not rely on military force … the only means of salvation was a new human life, a new mentality” (Starr 90). This new life, embodied in Jesus, would come to people as they imitated Christ, and not through faith in a heaven-sent savior from sin.

Seeking to create a truly indigenous theology, Chao “quotes Chinese proverbs and parables and alludes to the classics” (Starr 92). He also places his Life of Jesus solidly within the social and political context of early twentieth-century China. Still, we must not simply identify Chao with revolutionary nationalism: “Certainly, a strong patriotism is at work, but Jesus is not subordinated to the cause of Chinese nationalism. Zhao’s prime bequest to his youthful readers is an encouragement to look within their textual traditions for the means of expressing and understanding Christ” (97).

Jesus’ life was the “model of social service and object of moral imitation” (Lam 48). Although Chao saw great overlap between Christian and Confucian ethics, in contrasting the two he wrote that the “greatest contribution that Christianity can make to Confucian culture is its experience of Christ revealed in the Word Incarnate, Jesus, the Christ” (Chao, “Christianity and Confucianism,” quoted in Lam, 71).

In presenting the Christian message to Chinese, who were very this-worldly and practical, Chao believed that speculative ideas should be avoided. Instead, Christians should proclaim Jesus as the ideal man whom we are to imitate. At this point in his career, Chao was very optimistic that China could be transformed by such a gospel.

Though he later eagerly supported the Communist Party’s program for China and the Christian church, in 1926, as the Nationalist government was launching its Northern Expedition to unify the country, he stated that the church should not conform itself to any political ideology. “The Church transcends parties and organizations, for its voice is a judgment of right and wrong, advocating righteousness and opposing wickedness” (Chao, “A brief explanation of the Gospel,” quoted in Lam, 137). Instead, Christians should live lives of sacrifice and altruism.

Zhang Lisheng (Lit-sen Chang) voices a sharp criticism of Chao’s theology. Quoting from several works, he says:

Also reflecting the colors of modernist theology is Zhao Zichen, dean of the Department of Religious Studies of Yanjing University, who thinks that Christianity can “help China preserve the ideal of the ‘whole world as one community,’ and ‘the whole world as one family.’” “The church is an instrument that can change with the times … Besides, many of its teachings are superstitions that can be considered excrescences, and to reject them is entirely proper! … God is revealed through man; man can reveal God, and be worthy of heaven; indeed, “that the sage is worthy of heaven is an ancient and original Chinese idea.”
“From now on, the Chinese Christian church needs to have a philosophy and a worldview of life that is constructed by Chinese themselves.” He criticizes “fundamentalist Christians for making religion into a messy mass of old dogmas.” On the one hand, he promotes “accommodation to the spirit of modern science, emphasizing reason and the Social Gospel,” and on the other, he seeks to “obtain a way to provide a religious explanation from China’s nature experience,” urging that we “never forget to repay a debt of gratitude to our forebears for their thought, ethical concepts, and mystical philosophy.” Clearly, he is influenced by liberal theology. (Chang, 50)

Later, after his imprisonment by the Japanese, Chao adopted some features of Neo-orthodox theology. In this period, he was a great admirer of Karl Barth. His Life of St. Paul expresses a more orthodox Christian position, including the divinity of Christ, salvation from sin, and the transcendence of God.

Ng calls this the second period of Chao’s theology, 1937-1945, when, as he witnessed the invasion of China by Japan and the cruel treatment of Chinese by Japanese soldiers, “the whole foundation was shaken.” He had to give up his previous optimism about human nature and give up his liberal theology. “Rather than pointing to the similarities between Chinese Confucianism and Christianity, Chao become more concerned with the uniqueness of Christianity and believing that Christ’s divine nature and the message of the Cross was the key to answer questions about human nature” (Ng, 171). His book, In the Prison, gave voice to this new direction in his thinking.

Now he was more focused on the doctrine of the Incarnation and the doctrine of justification by faith. Books written in this period give “more attention to the evil nature of humankind and stressed the fact that man could not be saved by his own right, but must be justified by the grace of God” (Ng, 173). At this time, “Chao had shifted his concern from theology of culture to theology of the Christian Church. Representative works of the second state are: In the Prison (1942), The Interpretation of Christian Doctrine (1947), The Life of St. Paul (1947), The Meaning of the Christian Church (1948), Christian Ethics (1948), and Four Lectures on Christian Theology (1948)” (Ng, 173).

The third stage of his theology took place after the founding of the People’s Republic of China by the Communist Party. We have seen that Chao took an active and prominent part in the formation of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and seemed happy to cooperate with the new government. His willing support of the communist regime was not surprising, for the Anglican bishops and most of the Anglican clergy in China had declared their enthusiastic reception of the Communist government.

In this period, he sought to express ways in which Chinese Christians could change themselves to work with the new government. Thoroughly engaged in the process of reconstructing China’s religious and social order, he had no time to write books on theology.

As we have seen, when Chinese Christians who had been associated with missionaries came under attack, he had to endure denunciation meetings and “re-education.”

There seems to be a consensus among those who have studied Chao that he abandoned the Christian faith in the latter part of his life.


Part I:

Li Zhigang, “Zhao Zichen’s Interaction and Influence with Hong Kong Christians”, Christianity and Modern Chinese Characters, Taipei: Cosmic Light Holistic Care, July 2006 first edition.

Lin Ronghong, “Qu Gao and Wu: Zhao Zichen’s Life and Theology”, Hong Kong: Chinese Academy of Theology, first edition, June 1994.

Tang Xiaofeng, “Research on Zhao Zichen’s Theological Thought”, Beijing: Religious Culture Press, November 2006.

Part II:

Chang, Lit-sen (Zhang Lisheng). Critique of Indigenous Theology, in G. Wright Doyle, editor and translator, Wise Man from the East: Lit-Sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pickwick Publications, 2013.

Lam, Wing-Hung. Chinese Theology in Construction. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1983.

Ng, Peter Tze Ming. Chinese Christianity: An Interplay between Global and Local Perspectives. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Starr, Chloe. Chinese Theology: Text and Context. Yale University Press, 2016.

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

Director, Global China Center; English Editor, Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.

Zhang Junmin

Nanjing Union Theological Seminary; Seoul Presbyterian Theological University; current Chinese worship preacher at Saemoonan Presbyterian Church in Seoul, South Korea.