Snapshot for a New Decade: The Mind of a Chinese College Student Right Now

A Snapshot

“The mind of a Chinese college student is like a blank slate.”

This was my mantra four years ago as I prepared to move to China and work with college students. I had done some reading and the story seemed simple. It went something like this:

China has a 5,000- plus year history of complicated ancient religions and traditions, but when the communists came in 1949, they wiped all that out in the name of an atheistic government rule. The country became a religious vacuum while the government, or Mao Ze Deng, became the god.

However, as the government faltered in the following decades and Mao eventually died, new generations of students began to turn from the “government god” who failed them and seek something else. But what would they turn to? Their religious traditions had disappeared. They were open and looking. They were a blank slate. Now, since working in China for a few years, day in and day out talking to students at Chinese universities, I’m asking myself if I still hold to this blank slate theory. Rather, if I took a snapshot of the modern Chinese college student’s worldview, would it come up blank?

The answer is easily and definitively, “No.”

A Brief History of the “Blank Slate”

Since the early ‘80’s when China started opening its doors to the outside world and westerners began to quietly slip into the mainland, the blank slate theory has been a popular way to express the young generation’s openness to the Christian gospel. As a generalization, it has always been helpful in some ways and harmful in others.

Originally, it was helpful in expressing the phenomenon that began in the 80s where the Chinese appeared extremely open to hearing about the gospel, and most didn’t feel personally committed to any other worldview. This was certainly true.

However, as the blank slate theory terminology has continue to be used until the present day, it has failed to take into account the long and perplexing history of the ancient Chinese mind, nor has it adequately considered the rapidly changing nature of the modern Chinese mind. Thus over the last few decades, “blank slate” terminology has begun to communicate a depth of openness to the gospel that is simply misleading.

During the past decade, I’ve witnessed two major effects of blank slate terminology. For one, it has persuaded droves of Christians to enter the country with hopeful expectations of finding fields white for the harvest. And this is not bad. These men and women have felt a true call to “go where the Lord is working.”

These expectations of finding blank slates have been met with some serious disappointment when the fruit doesn’t seem to be falling that easily from the trees. Thankfully, and as a testimony to them, most push through.

The second and more harmful effect of blank slate terminology is that it has contributed to a consciousness that de-emphasizes the complexity of the Chinese worldview. Because oversimplifying any culture, of course, is a fatal error if you want to communicate with that culture.

Thus in assuming college students have a “blank slate” for a worldview, western friends have glossed over serious obstacles to the Chinese reception of the gospel. In consequence, this has led most believers to prefer quick-short-term evangelism over “up-stream,” long-run life transformation.

While a deep understanding of you audience is not the sovereign factor in the spread of the gospel, (because that still belongs to the Lord who reigns over ALL THINGS,) it is an obvious and wise move for anyone who feels seriously called by the Lord to make a vocation of speaking his name to those who have not heard it.

At the beginning of this new decade, I have had to admit to myself that this old terminology needs to come to an end. Whether or not it is urgent to find new terminology, what really needs to be surveyed is the complex and rapidly changing mental landscape of the modern Chinese collegiate.

This question has led me in the last month to draw up an informal survey and spend a few weeks stopping random students and asking them a few questions regarding their worldview and their views towards Christianity. The following is what I’ve found. While it is not definitive or comprehensive of China at large, I strongly believe it is an accurate snapshot of the current Chinese college student. Further, it could provide a platform to reconsider how Christians in this decade might approach evangelism with their friends in China. In the snapshot of the Chinese college mind today, here are four broad contours.

Contour #1: Conversational Openness

Unlike in America and especially Europe, Chinese students are not only willing to stop and talk to a stranger about Christianity, but they simply do not feel that it is strange or awkward to do so. I am only a few years removed from evangelism at an American liberal arts campus and in comparison there is magnificent openness to conversation about Jesus Christ on Chinese campuses.

However, there are significant mitigating factors.

Of course Chinese are open to talking to an American or other westerner about their faith. When they are approached by a white face their long standing dreams of making friends with a foreigner in order to gain social status, job opportunities, or better spoken English are suddenly put tantalizingly within reach. Most of them would talk to you about soil types if you wanted to.

So even during a global financial crisis caused largely by the United States, the west is still approaching the east from a place of power simply by its knowledge of the English language. This fact cannot be ignored. Conversational openness should be taken with a grain of salt.

The real test of conversational openness should be - are the Chinese open to talking about Christianity with their fellow Chinese?

As my Chinese counterparts and friends have been gracious enough to take my survey to their own friends, they are still finding conversational openness to be a reality. Though it should be understood that openness to talking about the gospel is a major blessing from the Lord who works all in all, this ought to be taken for what it is and no more, conversational openness.

So how about what these Chinese students actually think about the Christian story they are hearing?

Contour #2: God, Miracles, and other “Un-scientific” Concepts

One of the questions on my survey was “What’s one thing about Christianity that you have trouble believing or accepting?” The answer, almost unanimously, was the existence of God.

Specifically, there were things like “God created the world,” or “miracles.” One student said the concept of God’s eternal existence “just seems a little ridiculous.” What’s going on here? Materialism is going on here. Not like, “I want a car, cell phone, and new jeans” materialism, but an equally dangerous philosophical materialism that says – matter exists and all other things proceed from it. In Chinese this worldview is translated literally as weiwu zhuyi, or “only matter thought.”

If you are interested in the philosophy, this worldview is exactly what it sounds like: a belief system in which the supernatural, the spiritual, and the psychological all proceed from matter as a sort of illusion. Only matter really exists while these other things are merely products of the brain’s functions. Basically, it’s a serious and thought-out form of atheism.

If you’re interested in the practical outworking of this worldview, it means that increasingly, Chinese students think the concept of a God “who created all things” and existed before all the matter that makes up the world existed, is well… “a little ridiculous.”

In fact, I recently had a young believer in my Bible study talk about evangelism with his classmates. He was optimistic and enthusiastic about sharing his faith with them and as he excitedly told us about their response he said “they’re almost convinced, the only thing they can’t accept is the existence of God.”

A few of us laughed - most nodded their heads understandingly.

Because in modern China, the morality of Christianity, the story of a loving Savior, the societal institutions of faith, and especially the revolutionary idea of a tight knit community is all incredibly appealing to the lonely and confused college student, but they find it extremely difficult to accept the objective existence of the spiritual realm. Thus most stumble without recovery at the first words, “In the beginning God…”

Frankly, the average westerner does not take this basic objection seriously enough. Further, most of us do not possess a robust apologetic base of scientific knowledge to handle it, much less the sophisticated language ability to translate that knowledge into a convincing Chinese argument.

So while this is not at all an insurmountable obstacle, it is a definite contour in the snapshot of the modern Chinese college student. In my mind, this means an absolutely brilliant prayer request would be for serious and well educated Christian teachers of science in all levels of the Chinese education system.

Contour #3: “Wu suo wei” or “I don’t care”

The most repeated response I heard during my surveying was the phrase “Wu suo wei.” A hard, literal translation of this would be “nothing to speak of,” but colloquially, it’s used in the way English speakers might answer a question with “I don’t care either way.”

This mantra of indifference is slowly becoming an uncanny refrain on the lips of college students, and frankly it is the logical outflow of the worldview discussed above.

Because the college students in the 80s were increasingly interested in political and philosophical reform, the blank slate terminology adequately reflected not only this openness but also the passionate desire to seek out answers. Unfortunately, this sort of passionate or ever curious student is a progressively rare find these days.

This loss of passion and curiosity for new answers has multiple roots. One, Chinese traditionally have been communal thinkers, far preferring the safety of the group rather than pioneering their own way of thought. On top of that, Tiananmen Square was a clear modern day reminder from the powers-that-be that seeking too far outside the status quo is physically dangerous.

However, these two factors still don’t hold a candle to the precious hope of economic success. For the modern Chinese student today, all hopes pale when held up to the bright beacon of economic success. The hopes of spirituality, true love, friendship and sometimes even familial harmony, all dramatically pale in comparison with the hope of economic prosperity. Or at least, most see economic success as a prerequisite to the more immaterial things of spirituality, love, and bringing up children.

So while resume building clubs, job interview trainings, financial seminars and business English courses thrive on the campus like hares in the spring, attracting audiences of thousands - when asked about God most students are wu suo wei. The government of China has done a historically unprecedented bang-up job of gearing everything in China towards material rise. The one-child-policy, the educational process from pre-school on, the foreign policy and the censorship of news all are bent towards contributing to one giant centrally planned economy – and no matter if you like it or not, it is working in the realm it is supposed to work.

People are getting richer.

Because of this phenomenal success that’s brought countless millions out of poverty, it is very difficult for a student to become passionate about things outside this colossal and communal goal of a bigger economy. So while conversationally open the students may be, the opiate of wu suo wei towards all but the economy puts a quick cap on most rigorous discussion of ideology and morality.

Contour #4: The (Invisible) Body of Believers

After I asked students questions about their own worldview and what they knew about Christianity, I made sure to throw in one simple yes or no question – “Do you know any Christians?”

The overwhelming majority of students answered “No.”

Given my survey sample size, this is not conclusive evidence that most college students don’t know a Christian, but it is indicative of the situation of the Chinese church. That is, because of persistent and even in recent months worsening government oppression, the church is largely still operating underground, and is thus, largely invisible.

It’s hard to estimate how deeply this affects the modern Chinese student perspective towards Christianity, and surely it would take significant and difficult research to answer that question. But it can easily be said that the current invisibility of the church is a huge obstacle for students coming to know Christ.

Because even in a culture where the very existence of God is a major obstacle, I have encountered numerous Christians who could not accept the Christian faith until they saw lives being changed by it. In fact, never in my life experience, have I seen a greater testimony to Christ’s words, “love one another, by this all men will know that you are my disciples.”

Here are two examples. As I interviewed a few of my Chinese Christian friends, I found one of them originally lied about believing in God just so he could come to a Christian fellowship meeting and see what it was about. He has come back every meeting since, and long ago underwent a true conversion to following Jesus Christ. He now professes the existence of a Creator God and walks with Christ, but only after experiencing the love and community of Christ’s body.

Another friend said that when she first “prayed the prayer” to accept Christ as her savior, she simply didn’t believe God really existed. She thought it was a nice idea and didn’t want to disappoint her American friend who shared the gospel with her. Later, after experiencing life in the body of Christ, she began to see God manifested in Chinese lives and she began to have her questions about the plausibility of God’s existence answered by other Chinese believers who had overcome this struggle. This former college student is now a church leader who is a great evangelist and teacher, leading droves of her fellow people to belief in, as Schaeffer put it, “the God who is there.”

It must be understood that while the average student may be outright opposed to the existence of God and rather apathetic about discussing it, the power of love within the body of believers is an overwhelming influence that the average student still has not yet encountered.

In a generation of single children where success is built on personal achievement instead of contribution to the public good, encountering a body of people that put God and neighbor before themselves is shocking. It is enough to make most students stop dead in their tracks and at least consider the supernatural. What else would make a group of modern Chinese students care for each other so deeply? What else would make them yield to each other, actually wile away hours of leisure time together, talk about an all powerful God together and still care about their studies and careers?

What to do about this oppression of the body is probably the stickiest Chinese conundrum both for foreigners in China and for the local church. What the students and everyone else needs is to see the Body! The message of Christ seems like a theory until it is demonstrated in changed lives, and Chinese students are acutely aware of this. But when the Body becomes too visible, foreigners get sent home, churches get broken up, and students get put into a range of difficulties, including physical, social and economic harassment.

While this essay is more a snapshot than a proposition for the way forward for the underground church in China, I believe the most significant thought and prayer needs to be given to this subject. How long is long enough for the church to remain underground? How wise is it to be “safe” by hiding the church? What persecution needs to be faced, in order for the cause of Christ to be advanced? Is the Kingdom better advanced by patience and long-suffering in quiet house churches, or by bold stances for the message of the Lord Jesus Christ?

These questions must be asked, but they also must be answered slowly. They must be steeped in prayer and they must be answered by Chinese believers themselves.

Taking Action: The Changing Mosaic

In conclusion, a snapshot of the current Chinese college student does not come out as a blank slate, but rather as a changing mosaic.

They are open to conversation about the gospel, but very dubious of a creator God. They are dispassionate about most things spiritual, but very affected by seeing the body of Christ in the flesh. And in light of this changing mosaic, there are clear applications.

The first would be to begin reflecting on the current complexity of the Chinese mind in our language and terminology. Stopping blank slate terminology, and initiating robust discussion on the changing mosaic of the Chinese mind is a good start.

Second, and for anyone serious about the Lord’s work in China, the strongest application is the action of prayer. We must pray that the Chinese would remain open to talking about the gospel and that there would be workers sent to share this gospel. We must pray that the Holy Spirit would open the hearts of the Chinese to the fact of the existence of God, and pray for Christian science teachers as well as for well-prepared apologetics from the Chinese church. We must pray that the Lord would dismantle the idol of material success, and that Chinese students would begin passionately seeking truth.

Finally, we must pray for wisdom for the Church in the face of real pressure and plead that the Lord would grant them more freedom.. We must ultimately pray that whether or not the restrictions are lifted, the church would continue to become a city on a hill, shining the light of the glory of the King to all the millions in China and beyond.