YDS and China: Strengthening partnerships, opening doors
By Anne Edison-Albright '08 M.Div.
"Many doors were opened on this trip, now we just need to keep them open and see what comes through," said Paul Stuehrenberg, Yale Divinity School Librarian and associate professor of theological literature. He added, "Once we start doing something it will be easier to do other things."
Stuehrenberg was referring to a March 11-23 visit to China that he made with Chi-Wah Chan, librarian for Yale's East Asia Library. The two served as "academic ambassadors" of sorts, opening and developing relationships with Chinese institutions dedicated to studying Christianity in China. After meetings in Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai, Stuehrenberg sees several opportunities for mutually beneficial collaboration and exchange.
The trip began with a consultation in Beijing on resources for studying Christianity in China. In his opening remarks, Stuehrenberg stressed the importance of documentation for both church and academy: "Gathering and preserving documentation is important for the church as that documentation represents its institutional memory. It is important for the academy as it is the raw data that the academy uses to help understand the role of religion in society."
Yale's specific interests are served as well. "Our interest is in documenting contemporary Christianity--trying to set up collaborative programs with the national church and Nanjing Union Theological College," Stuehrenberg explained. "What we are negotiating now is what we will send them in return for them sending us their current publications, whether it be things currently published about China or copies of historical materials."
Yale's historical materials are particularly valuable, because many collections in China were destroyed or neglected during the Cultural Revolution, a decade of government-imposed anti-intellectualism. Stuehrenberg said, "The Nanjing Theological College library was destroyed. [At Yale] we have more on the history of religion in China than there is in all of China."
After the Cultural Revolution, however, government attitudes toward both libraries and religion began to change. Stuehrenberg said: "The official word on religion was that it was the opiate of the people, but religion didn't fade away as fast as they thought it would. [The Chinese government] needed to understand the phenomena of religion. Now there are a number of institutes that study religion, and that study is intended to inform government policy.
"Lately the attitude toward religion, and Christianity in particular, is to not only tolerate it but support it insofar as it leads to a harmonious society. There has also been a radical change in the way the government views archives; traditionally they were kept secret, but now there's the idea that people might use them to learn something."
While the academic study of religion has been approved since the 1980's, there are restrictions on what can be studied. Chinese scholarship has been published on the Jesuit missions before the opium wars of the mid-19 th century, but there is a lack of government-approved scholarship on the Protestant missions after the opium wars, which Stuehrenberg said are "viewed as something imposed, rather than participating as equals."
In addition to state-academy dynamics, Stuehrenberg was interested in learning about the relationship between the academic study of religion and the training and work of Chinese ministers. "One of the best things this conference accomplished," said Stuehrenberg, "was introducing the notion that academic libraries should collect literature produced by the church. It was generally agreed that people should have a way of getting those publications and they should be available for future scholars."
Highlights of the trip included visits to the Beijing Foreign Studies University, the East China Seminary in Shanghai, and the Nanjing Union Theological College. Gu Jun, from the Beijing Foreign Studies University, will be a visiting fellow at Yale this year, using the archives of Samuel Wells Williams, a missionary to China and first professor of Chinese at Yale. He will also be auditing classes at YDS and working with the Day Missions Collection.
Stuehrenberg reports that the YDS library and the library's Day Missions Collection have "good reputations among scholars, and not just for the collections." Stuehrenberg met several people who "commented on the excellent service they received" from the YDS Special Collections staff. Stuehrenberg says that Beijing Foreign Studies University as well as Nanjing Union Theological College are interested in sending doctoral students to YDS to study; there may be potential for a student exchange program for Yale or YDS students who wish to study Chinese in China.
The trip to China strengthened Yale's relationship with another organizer of the conference, Trinity Theological College in Singapore. Stuehrenberg said "Michael Poon [from Trinity] took us by hand and took us to visit the church leaders. They introduced us; they already had a relationship." Stuehrenberg is working with Poon on a searchable web database, which will allow scholars to find the archives where resources on East Asian Christianity can be found. Also, a year-long student exchange is in the works with Trinity Theological College.
While in China, Stuehrenberg was also able to attend Sunday services at the Beijing Chaoyang Church, enjoy some sight-seeing with his wife, and celebrate his birthday in Beijing with a traditional Chinese banquet. Since his return to the US, Stuehrenberg has worked on an agreement with a Chinese Catholic publishing house, Sapientia, to microfilm some of their publications. He hopes that this relationship may lead to similar work with other Chinese publishing houses.
"People are very confident that the Cultural Revolution will not happen again; people are participating in oral histories," Stuehrenberg observed. "Having archives as records of what's happening, that could be a scary thing. But the attitudes towards archives are changing."