Between Two Worlds: J. Hudson Taylor and the Clash between British and Chinese Customs, Cultures, and Laws

(A paper presented to the Yale-Edinburgh Group for the Study of the History of Missions and of Non-Western Christianity, Yale Divinity School, July, 2009)

J. Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission which he founded in 1865 are well known for their adoption of Chinese dress, in contrast to most foreign missionaries at the time and afterwards.

What may not be as well known is the connection between wearing Chinese-style clothing and other aspects of Taylor’s unusual approach to conducting foreign missionary work in China, namely, eating Chinese food with Chinese implements; living among the Chinese in Chinese housing; the high standards which he and the CIM set for acquisition of the languages of those whom they intended to reach; care to observe local customs and etiquette; and refusing protection from British consular authorities and the military power at their disposal.

In this paper, I shall try to show that these were all natural products of one basic motivation: the desire to imitate Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word of God, who “became flesh and dwelt among us.” Hudson Taylor believed not only in the theological truth of this creedal affirmation, but also in its missiological necessity and the numerous practical advantages which flowed from following the example of Christ.

Hudson Taylor was harshly criticized at the time for several of these practices, for being too “Chinese,” but – ironically - has even been faulted in recent times for failing to express sufficient respect for Chinese culture.[1] Then as now, Taylor has been a controversial figure more often either idolized[2] or caricatured[3] than understood. This paper seeks to redress that balance to some degree.

Let us now look at the various elements of Taylor’s unconventional approach in the context of current British assumptions.


When Taylor himself adopted Chinese dress, including shaving his head and wearing a queue (bianzi), his countrymen in Shanghai considered him a madman.[4] Many foreigners in Shanghai responded the same way when the first party of CIM missionaries arrived with the Taylors in 1866.[5] One of them recollected in 1890 that “Shanghai papers ridiculed the ‘pigtail mission’ and dubbed [Taylor] a fool or a knave, but he answered not a word.” This veteran missionary then added, “I for one feel ashamed of my attitude towards Mr Taylor in those early days.”[6]

Taylor, on the other hand, saw that the usual way of adhering to European customs would not win the hearts of the Chinese. As one of his early critics later wrote, “His missionary colleagues dressed and behaved like European clergymen. They belonged, visibly, to the same world as the merchants and the administrators and the soldiers whom the Chinese collectively classed ‘red-haired foreign devils’. The fist step was obviously to get out of devildom by looking and behaving as much like a Chinese as possible and thus approaching one’s potential converts on their own terms.”[7]

Taylor himself put it this way:

In (Chinese dress) the foreigner though recognized as such, escapes the mobbing and crowding to which, in many places, his own costume would subject him; and in preaching, while his dress attracts less notice, his words attract more.[8]

Partial vindication of this policy came when some members of the CIM reverted to foreign dress and a riot ensued, forcing Taylor to re-insist upon conformity to their agreed-upon guidelines.[9]


Taylor insisted that his workers not only dress like the Chinese, but adopt their eating style as well. This caught the attention, and won the approval, of their neighbors, one of whom sought from a Chinese Christian an explanation of who these people were, who “not only dressed as Chinese, but ate like Chinese, enjoying food cooked in the Chinese way.”[10]


Despite the difficulty of obtaining rented premises in cities away from the treaty ports, Taylor persisted in settling his missionaries in Chinese buildings among the people they wished to reach, rather than concentrating them in the foreign settlements on the coast, where they could enjoy the comforts of European-style accommodations.


Taylor’s own experience had taught him that adoption of Chinese customs was necessary to overcome well-founded prejudices against European ways. For example, he instructed prospective candidates in this manner:

Husbands and wives may not walk out together arm in arm, nor even walking separately may they be unattended. In walking out among the Chinese, persons of both sexes will have to adopt the slow, orderly, sedate gait of educated natives; otherwise they will lose influence with the people, and be thought ill-brought up, unmannerly and ignorant.[11]


Hudson Taylor himself set a high standard of language acquisition by acquiring the ability to preach in four dialects – Mandarin, Shanghainese, Cantonese, and the Ningbo dialect. His knowledge of the Ningbo tongue was so colloquial and exact that he was able to revise the existing vernacular version of the New Testament, composed in a romanized script that was easy to teach to illiterate Chinese.[12]

He expected all his workers to learn to speak, read, and write Chinese as well. Soon the CIM became the “gold standard” for missionary language learning, and its curriculum was adopted by other missions. Completion of a six-part course was required of all workers within two years of arrival in China. Even the usually-critical Austin, who provides details of the subjects to be mastered, comments on the CIM’s exacting standards, and acknowledges that those who passed the test “had remarkable freedom to get close to the people.”[13]


In 1867, as the number of applicants to the CIM increased, Hudson Taylor addressed a long letter to all who would seek to join him in this new work.[14] Here he clearly and forcefully expressed his convictions on adaptation to Chinese ways, beginning with a reminder of the example of Jesus Christ himself:

Surely no follower of this meek and lowly One will be likely to conclude that it is ‘beneath the dignity of a Christian missionary’ to seek identification with this poor people… Let us rather be imitators of Him (who washed His disciples’ feet). We have to deal with a people whose prejudices in favour of their own customs and habits are the growth of centuries and millenniums. Nor are their preferences ill-founded. These who know them most intimately respect them most; and see best the necessity for many of their habits and customs – this being found in the climate, productions, and conformation of the people. There is perhaps no country in the world in which religious toleration is carried to so great an extent as in China; the only objection that prince or people have to Christianity is that it is a foreign religion, and that its tendencies are to approximate believers to foreign nations. I am not peculiar in holding the opinion that the foreign dress and carriage of missionaries – to a certain extent affected by some of their converts and pupils – the foreign appearance of the chapels, and indeed, the foreign air given to everything connected with religion, have very largely hindered the rapid dissemination of the truth among the Chinese. But why need such a foreign aspect be given to Christianity? The word of God does not require it; nor I conceive would reason justify it. It is not their denationalization but their Christianization that we seek. We wish to see Christian (Chinese) – true Christians, but withal true Chinese in every sense of the word. We wish to see churches and Christian Chinese presided over by pastors and officers of their own countrymen, worshiping the true God in the land of their fathers, in the costume of their fathers, in their own tongue wherein they were born, and in edifices of a thoroughly Chinese style of architecture. It is enough that the disciple be as his master (Jesus Christ). If we really desire to see the Chinese such as we have described, let us as far as possible set before them a correct example: let us in everything unsinful become Chinese, that by all things we may save some. Let us adopt their costume, acquire their language, study to imitate their habits, and approximate to their diet as far as health and constitution will allow. Let us live in their houses, making no unnecessary alterations in external appearance, and only so far modifying internal arrangements as attention to health and efficiency for work absolutely require.

He concludes with the other motivation for such a course, “Our present experience is proving the advantage of this course,” and goes on to describe the practical benefits of thus identifying with the Chinese.

Later in that same letter, he returns to the primary motive for such adaptation: Rather let the love of Christ constrain you to seek to commend yourself and your message to the Chinese, as becomes the followers of such a Master. Let there be no reservation; give yourselves up fully and wholly to Him whose you are and whom you wish to serve in this work; and then there can be no disappointment.[15]

Consular protection

Now let us turn to Hudson Taylor’s stance towards Chinese law and the treaties which had been signed between China and the Western powers.

At the beginning of his missionary career, he violated the stipulations of the treaties by traveling and preaching outside the boundaries of the designated treaty ports, as he admits himself in his brief autobiography.[16]

But in a another letter to prospective missionary candidates in 1875, Taylor wrote that the CIM was looking for men who

Believe the Bible to be the Word of God, and who, accepting the declaration, “All power is given unto me,” are prepared to carry out to the best of their ability the command, “Go…teach all nations,” relying on Him who possesses “all power” and has promised to be with His messengers always, rather than on foreign gunboats, though they possess some power.

He guaranteed “a harvest of souls and a crown of glory hereafter ‘that fadeth not away,’ and on the Master’s ‘well done’ to those who were “prepared to take joyfully the spoiling of your goods, and seal your testimony, if need be, with your blood.”[17]

After the conclusion of the Second Opium War in 1860, the Peking Convention allowed for the opening of nine more ports to foreign commerce, and legal travel and residence in the interior of China. More importantly to missionaries, the propagation of the Christian message was also allowed.[18] Teachers of Christianity were “entitled to the protection of the Chinese authorities” and persecution of them prohibited. Sixteen years later, the Chefoo Convention of 1876 provided “that foreigners were at liberty to travel in any part of the emperor’s dominions, that they did so under his protection, and were to be received with respect and in no wise hindered on their journeys.”[19]

Hudson Taylor and the CIM counted on these provisions to open doors for them to travel and live in every corner of China. When threatened with violence by ordinary citizens, they appealed to local officials for protection, but they did not, like many other missionaries, appeal to their government for reprisals against offenders, much less demand that they be sheltered by foreign military power. In other words, they placed themselves under the authority of the laws of China.

There was one early exception to this attitude, when Taylor wrote a letter to the British consul in Ningbo to protest the outrageous actions of a mandarin who had refused to protect several of his workers and their Chinese associates. He went so far as to say, “I would fain hope that you may see it right to vindicate the honour of our country, and our rights under the treaty of Tientsin, by requiring such a proclamation to be put out, as shall cause our persons and our passports to be respected, and shall give the natives confidence in rendering us their legitimate services.”[20] As Broomhall goes on to note, however:

By the standards he later set himself, it was the immature letter of a harassed man with no precedents from working under the new treaty conditions. With experience in more riotous circumstances, Hudson Taylor was quickly to reach a balance of co-operation with the well-meaning consular authorities and the mandarins in the best interests of the Mission, its members and the cause they existed to promote. The vindication of national and religious rights ceased to concern him.[21]

To be sure, these laws were promulgated at the point of a bayonet, and resulted from the hated “unequal treaties” forced upon the Chinese by foreign imperialists. From that standpoint, we may say that the missionaries were indirectly relying on the results of military victories won by their governments against the Chinese. A few of them, indeed, gloated in the successive defeats of China and the resultant opening of ports and later the inland to merchants and missionaries alike. To my knowledge, however, these chauvinists did not include any members of the CIM, or Hudson Taylor himself. They deplored the rapacity of their national governments and waged long campaigns against the odious opium trade. They were, nevertheless, willing to take advantage of what they viewed as the providence of God in allowing them to spread the Gospel among the Chinese under the provisions of treaties which had been signed under duress.

But what else could they do? Remain in the port cities while hundreds of millions of souls perished without the knowledge of Christ? That they could not endure, so they went forth into all corners of the Chinese empire, not without danger even though supposedly guaranteed protection by Chinese magistrates. They were urged on not only by their evangelical faith and evangelistic zeal, but by the warm welcome accorded them in countless cities, towns, and villages by people whose lives had been ravaged by the Taiping Rebellion and other shocks to the old order. In general, when the literati had not succeeded in arousing the populace against them, the missionaries found ready and eager audiences for their messages, and many converts were being formed into congregations presided over by Chinese leaders. That is to say, they did not sense that they were being rejected by the people; persecution usually came only when the leaders of society violated the new laws. In seeking help, the missionaries were operating within the legal system itself.

But Hudson Taylor would not countenance seeking help from a consul, even for redress after a riot in which damages were suffered. After the nearly-fatal riot in Yangzhou, the foreign press distorted the facts and provided fuel for the British authorities in China to demand reparations, hoping that a refusal would justify military action, but all of this was contrary to Taylor’s express wishes.[22] The violent retribution for which the newspapers clamored, and which might have sparked yet another war, was only averted by compromise by the Chinese and British alike.[23]

As Austin, in his usual ironic style, puts it:

In the apocalyptic struggle for China’s soul, the British consuls might be doing the devil’s work. By threatening to revoke passports, by sending gunboats, by high-handedly degrading provincial governors, by demanding minatory concessions, the flag obstructed the gospel. Out there in the countryside, the CIM knew that ultimately its protection came from the blind eye of the Chinese officials: one could travel better as a lamb than as a wolf.[24]

Aside from the mis-use of the word “minatory,” this passage, though accurate about the deleterious effects of British intervention, overlooks the consistent testimony of Taylor and his colleagues that they looked for protection, not to myopic mandarins, but to Almighty God, as we saw in the statement quoted above.[25]

As we all know, the CIM, consistent with Taylor’s lifelong principles, refused to demand, or even to receive, compensation for losses after the horrors of the Boxer Rebellion, in which fifty-eight of its adult members and twenty-one children were killed, while dozens of others had passed through harrowing experiences. This attitude, though approved by the British Foreign Office, stands in stark contrast to the actions both of the allied powers who had sacked Beijing and of many other mission societies.[26]

Austin writes:

As usual, the CIM bucked the imperialist rhetoric of the time, affirming Hudson Taylor’s dictum that faith in God was better than a revolver. According to the Principles & Practice, the CIM refused to ask for reparations or to accept them… As a result, it gained respect in the eyes of both the foreign and Chinese officials.[27]


In summary, we may say that Hudson Taylor sought to implement a consistent policy, which he expressed briefly in another letter to prospective candidates for service:

Pray that we may daily follow Him who took our nature that He might raise us up to be partakers of the divine nature. Pray that this principle of becoming one with the people, of willingly taking the lowest place, may be deeply wrought in our souls and expressed in our deportment.[28]


  1. For example, A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century, Book Seven, pp. 138-143, addresses in detail the oft-repeated charge that Taylor was the major opponent of more “liberal” views towards ancestor worship, proving that others shared his views and that the debate involved a variety of complexities. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989; the entire series of seven volumes appeared; and was later re-published in two volumes by Piquant under the title, The Shaping of Modern China).

  2. The biography by his son and daughter-in-law is often cited as an example of missions hagiography, though a recent reading has caused me to modify an earlier impression. Careful attention to detail will reveal that the authors did acknowledge Taylor’s weaknesses and the many criticisms directed his way, though they do not objectively note his faults in the manner of modern writers. As A.J. Broomhall notes, “The paucity of source material showing his shortcomings is a matter for regret as it makes a balanced picture of him difficult to attain,” though he assures us that in his own treatment, “nothing is suppressed.” A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century, Book Four: Survivors’ Pact, p.7.

  3. Alvyn Austin’s China’s Millions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), though positively reviewed by distinguished historians, suffers from a strong negative bias against its subjects that renders its treatment fundamentally inaccurate, despite masses of useful information in the text. See my review at

  4. See Austin, p. 76, for Miss Aldersey’s irate assessment of the man who would woo her (presumed) ward, Maria Dyer.

  5. See Austin, p. 122, 123

  6. Broomhall, Book Four, p.227.

  7. George Woodstock, The British and the Far East, quoted in A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century, Book Four, p. 226.

  8. Broomhall, Book Four, p. 358. On the different types of Chinese attire donned by Taylor and his missionaries, see Austin, pp. 120-123

  9. Broomhall, Book Four, p.283.

  10. Broomhall, Book Four, p.256.

  11. Broomhall, Book Four, p. 357.

  12. Perhaps we should note here that Taylor was also able to read French, German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and regularly studied the Bible in the original languages.

  13. Austin, China’s Millions, p. 249; see also 228-229, and pp. 250-254, Appendix 3: Course of Study for Probationers; though in his text (p. 248) he speaks of new arrivals being given only a “smattering of language and cultural training” – a typical example of his negative bias contradicting both the facts and his own (albeit limited) recording of them.

  14. Quotations taken from Broomhall, Book Four, 355-356

  15. Broomhall, Book four, 358.

  16. Hudson Taylor, Looking Back. Littleton, Colorado: OMF International, 2003 (formerly title, A Retrospect), p.59.

  17. Both quotations from Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission, Volume Two: The Growth of a Work of God, p. 228.

  18. Broomhall, Book Four, p. 26-27

  19. Growth of a Work of God, p. 242.

  20. Broomhall, Book Four, p. 282.

  21. Broomhall, Book Four, p. 282. After another riot in Huzhou, Taylor appealed to the district prefect and then to the provincial governor for protection under treaty rights, and did again – but for the last time – refer to his rights as a British subject under treaty provisions. Broomhall, Book Four, pp. 397-398.

  22. Broomhall, Book Five, pp. 92-125.

  23. See Austin, pp. 128-132.

  24. Austin, p.132.

  25. See also Growth of a Work of God, p., 129: “ We had to cry to God to support us…, “ and “God was our stay and He forsook us not”; Looking Back, pp. 63, 118, and countless other references to their trust in God to protect them.

  26. Growth of a Work of God, p. 493. An editorial in China’s Millions, the CIM magazine, went so far as to blame the Western powers for provoking the Chinese to violence; Broomhall, Book Seven, p. 454-455, 458, and passim.

  27. Austin, p. 425; Broomhall, Book Seven, pp. 468-470.

  28. Growth of a Work of God, p. 195.