If We Say Chinese Have No Sin, We Deceive Ourselves

It began last summer. I awoke to read an email suggesting that Danny Hsu’s article is “now required reading for all who work among Chinese.” Hsu is a sound scholar of Chinese history. So, I read with curiosity. According to Hsu, I (and others) “question the compatibility between Chinese culture and the idea of sin.”[1]

public domain

public domain

This was surprising news to me, since I’ve never held that belief. I fully believe Chinese can understand the biblical notion of sin.

I’m not a heretic (in case you doubted)

Hsu never accuses nor implies that I’m a heretic. But someone might infer as much if (per Hsu’s claim) I believe Chinese cannot understand sin. I say this just in case some reader accuses me of being soft on sin, which I’ve written about here, here, and here.

Key idea: Understanding “sin”, however, is not the same thing as quickly grasping the significance of one type of metaphor for sin.

In contrast to Hsu’s argument, I and others simply contend that legal explanations of sin may not best suit Chinese culture. To be clear, I affirm:

  • Chinese people are able to understand “sin.”
  • “Law” is one legitimate biblical metaphor for “sin.”

Thankfully, the editor(s) of Studies in World Christianity allowed me to write a response to Hsu, which is now published in the journal’s most recent issue.

My article is called: “If We Say Chinese Have No Sin, We Deceive Ourselves: A Rejoinder to Hsu’s ‘Contextualising “Sin” in Chinese Culture’.”[2] Here is my opening comments:

…Danny Hsu challenges the idea that Chinese cannot comprehend the Christian concept of sin due to various cultural factors, including optimistic humanism and a cultural aversion to law. Hsu’s article, however, suffers from a few fatal flaws.

Because he misunderstands my views and those of others, Hsu largely presents a straw-man argument by opposing ideas not held by those he presumes to challenge. At times, his rhetoric could subtly mislead readers to agree with his conclusions, particularly when he begs the question when talking about sin.

In this rejoinder, I correct key points in Hsu’s discussion concerning the contextualisation of ‘sin’ in Chinese culture. Given space limitations, I primarily address his comments about my arguments, although there is certainly overlap between myself and other writers whom he critiques.

For Hsu’s follow-up response, see his “Much Ado About Nothing? A Reply to Jackson Wu”, which is also in the April 2017 issue.

Subtle but Significance Differences

Hsu is an excellent scholar. His recent article in Missiology is a good reminder that many aspects of Chinese culture are a hybrid of sorts. Nevertheless, his response still misses the point that I and other make about sin and Chinese culture.

credit: public domain

credit: public domain

Given the subtly of Hsu’s reply, I need to clarify a few misleading statements (in my opinion) on his parts.

1. Am I guilty or just confused?

Hsu states,

He [J. Wu] also argues that I have falsely accused him of saying that Chinese cannot understand the Western idea of sin (that is, a forensic-laden concept of sin). Wu states that he is not aware of anyone who says, “Chinese are utterly incapable of understanding legal metaphors.” If Wu never makes such comments, then I am puzzled as to how to understand the following passage…. [He then quotes from SGF (p. 171).][3]

Hsu misunderstands what I mean in saying “Chinese people do not think in terms of law.” When speaking of typical habits of mind, I do not deny one’s cognitive ability to think in other ways.

By analogy, Chinese struggle to understand why Americans put their parents in nursing homes. They think Americans are unloving to their parents. A Chinese person might have difficulty grasping why placing a parent in a nursing home could be loving thing; yet, (s)he can still understand the rational upon hearing a more thorough explanation about Americans’ reasons and the different social conditions that exist in America (compared to China).[4]

There is another obvious reason I do not deny Chinese’s ability to understand legal metaphors. In SGF, I myself cite instances where Chinese historically use laws to enforce or convey social standards. But I repeatedly emphasize that such laws serve other ends, e.g., the preservation of honor, shame, harmony or family solidarity. For example, I note,

The Tang Code made it illegal (and punishable by death) for (grand)children to accuse their (grand)parents of a crime. In fact, the younger generation was obligated to hide such criminal activity. She adds the Tang Code permitted families even to help family members “evade legal sanction.”[5]

I discuss Chinese views of law on pp. 88–93 of SGF.

2. “Incapable”?

Hsu says, “Wu, intentionally or not, is declaring that Chinese are incapable of understanding legal metaphors.” Again, “incapable” is simply too strong a word.

In order to communicate the gospel in meaningful ways, we need to speaking in terms that are not merely intellectually comprehensible. We must communicate in ways that naturally cohere with people’s typical patterns of thinking. This means using images and themes that connect with people at an emotive and volitional level. We should address concerns that touch upon daily problems.

One is entirely accurate to claim Chinese typically do not think in absolutist legal language (even though they can understand it). Why? People make moral decisions primarily out of a concern for relationships and face, not because of the dictates of a law-maker.

By analogy, I previously shared the story how I didn’t understand what a coach meant when he told me to “kick off.” The phrase means something different in soccer compared to “American football.” Likewise, listen in on a conversation between Americans and British English speakers. So many words have different meanings or emotive connotations (e.g., “smacking” a kid vs. “spanking” a child). The same words feel different, even if they are intellectually comprehensible.

Simply put, “law” language, at the level of worldview, is less impactful than expressions that concern “face” and relationships.

3. Worn-Out?

Hsu adds, “Wu makes the worn-out claim that translating sin as zui confuses Chinese because they do not see themselves as ‘criminals.’”

credit: public domain

credit: public domain

“Worn-out” does not mean “wrong.” There’s a reason this claim is well worn. It’s because both Christians has experienced and largely continue to experience conversations that prove the confusion of zui with “crime” continues to exist.

This is not merely my ongoing experience. When I raise the issue, my students vigorously shake their heads in agreement and/or share similar stories about the difficulty non-believers often have with the meaning of zui. I’ve found long debates about whether someone is a “criminal” (i.e., “sinner”) have drastically reduced as I use more honor-shame language.

Yale scholar Chloë Starr makes a noteworthy observation in her review of Alexander Chow’s book:

Although one of the earliest and best known Protestant translators, Robert Morrison, translates sin, or transgression, as (fan) zui in his early translations of scripture and the prayer book, continuing earlier Roman Catholic usage of the term, he switched to (fu) zhai (debt, burden) for subsequent editions, a stance followed by the majority of nineteenth-century Protestant translators (Starr 2008: 405–6). It was presumably precisely because of problems with the connotation of criminality, and a closeness to Buddhist terms, that Morrison and others chose to use an alternative term, but the existence of other possibilities raises interesting questions over reception.[6]

In other words, both scholars and practitioners see this problem. I’m not sure why Hsu think it is “worn-out.”

4. False Inferences

For those who care about the details, I’ll mention two last items.

First, Hsu says he disproves my claim that the Chinese conception of morality has “never been theocentric and is entirely oriented towards his or her community.” I simply respond in this way––the fact that theism (in Chinese history) at a point had some relationship to morality hardly proves that Chinese morality was or is theocentric. Appeasing the “gods” could be an aspect of a community’s moral code for sure; but that fact does not suggest people make daily decisions about right & wrong are made by seeking the will of God.

Specific instances of religious thought and practice does not a tradition make.

Throughout Chinese history, governing authorities have maintained the prominent right to social power over the varied religious ideologies that have come and gone. Thus, to characterize traditional Chinese culture, we need to consider aspects of the culture that transcend specific religious expressions. Appealing to select religious phenomenon in history does not necessarily prove a pervasive attribute of traditional Chinese culture.

Second, Hsu (p. 90) inexplicably makes assertions about what I “suggest” or “imply”, although I’ve never breached the subjects of “Daoist-Buddhist synthesis of purgatory and rebirth” nor have I said Wang Mingdao has not relevance to the contemporary Chinese church.

A Constructive Conversation

I’m grateful for Hsu’s candor and rigorous scholarship. I tired of reading books and articles that tip toe around an issue and say very little. So, I appreciate Hsu’s directness and thoughtful engagement. Our discussion illustrates the importance of interdisciplinary dialogue.

Now, it’s your turn. Comments?


[1] Danny Hsu, “Contextualising ‘Sin’ in Chinese Culture: A Historian’s Perspective”, Studies in World Christianity, p. 106.

[2] If you have problems connecting to my article via the SWC page, click here.

[3] Danny Hsu, “Much Ado About Nothing? A Reply to Jackson Wu”, SWC 23.1 (2017):88.

[4] Here are two more trivial examples. As a theologian, I tend to think in certain ways (e.g., using particular methods, themes, etc.). This routine way of thinking does not make me incapable of understanding concepts from other fields, e.g. sociology, biology. Likewise, a stereotypical male jock is not incapable of understanding the concept of nurturing or fashion, even if these are not his most natural modes of thinking.

[5] Wu, Saving God’s Face, 92; citing Dora ShuFang Dien, The Chinese Worldview Regarding Justice and the Supernatural: The Cultural and Historical Roots of Rule by Law (New York, N.Y.: Nova Science Publishers, 2007), 5.

[6] Chloë Starr, Studies in World Christianity 19.3, pp. 278–79. Online: http://dx.doi.org/10.3366/swc.2013.0061.