By Les Taylor
Les Taylor is a member who has lived, worked, and ministered in Muslim Southeast Asia for ten years with his long-suffering (and saintly) wife and two remarkably well-balanced children. He completed his Ph.D. from a Southeast Asian university in 2009 and works as a research fellow at another Southeast Asian university.
John Sung’s Identity and Ministry amongst the Chinese Diaspora Community in South East Asia—Learning Lessons from a Unique Missional Biography
Mission Round Table Vol. 6 No. 2 (January 2011): 16-18
Beyond hagiography to critical missional biography Missionary biographies that really address the complexities, compromises and contradictions that are experienced by those who engage in cross-cultural mission are relatively rare. The reason for this may be that biographies of a hagiographic nature are felt to be more effective at encouraging others to support mission or to engage in mission. However, biographies that pay scant attention to their subject’s human foibles and peculiarities limit their ability to speak to the realities of ministry for the majority of ordinary mortals. There are other harmful effects of hagiographic accounts of missionary heroes: by treating the subjects with too much reverence, there is a tendency to pass over personal weaknesses and areas where their professional or vocational contribution were limited; the contributions to mission by national evangelists, pastors, or leaders who worked in conjunction with the missionary hero can be mysteriously absent.
By contrast, balanced and critical biographies give a truer picture of how God works through individuals and communities in mission and can encourage us to be involved (or to support others) in the long-term engagement that effective mission requires. History is our best teacher when it shines light on the shadowy areas of life as well as illumining the highpoints and the moments of glory. For readers aware of their own weaknesses and idiosyncracies, missional biography that deals with both these aspects in a balanced way like Wigram’s biography of Hudson Taylor (Wigram, 2003) are an enormous source of encouragement.
Missional Biography—the South-East Asian Context
Well-written and critical missional biographies certainly do exist: one good example is Gerald Anderson’s Mission Legacies (1994), which is widely read and favorably reviewed. In recent years, web-based biographical reference works such as the “Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity” which document the less well known stories of Christian leaders in the majority world have also contributed much to the world Christian movement. For those who are interested in mission in South-East Asia, the question remains as to whom we should view as being the real heroes of Christianity in this region.
John Sung is one of the real characters of East and South-East Asian Christianity. His story is so exceptional that any retelling of it is bound to be a good read. Patrick Fung’s concise summary of his life, with a focus on personality and ministry has avoided the pitfalls and limitations of a hagiographic approach to biography. Fung does more than celebrate the areas in which Sung excelled – he also shines the spotlight on Sung’s shadow side, giving a picture that presents Sung ‘warts and all’ but from which he emerges as a fascinating as well as effective Christian worker in the South East Asian context.
The importance of John Sung among the Christians of the Chinese Diaspora of South-East Asia is difficult to over-state. For some, he was last century’s most famous Chinese evangelist. In South-East Asia, he was appreciated for his ministry among the Chinese living among mainland, peninsula, and island Southeast Asia. Many observers have been concerned that Evangelicalism’s emphasis on the word of God resulted in forms of evangelism that did not connect fully with local people. Against this backdrop, Sung is remembered both for his for preaching and for his ministry of healing in the power of the Holy Spirit (Hwa, 2003). Evidence of the enduring interest of John Sung to this community can be seen not just in the continuing publications about him and his work but also in the forthcoming conference in 2011 organized by the Centre of the Study of Christianity in Asia to assess afresh his significance for the Chinese-speaking world in South East Asia.
In what follows, I would like to reflect on John Sung’s identity (particularly in terms of his education and background) and his relationship to the region of South-East Asia, especially the Chinese Diaspora. I will make comparisons with the New Testament accounts of mission to Diaspora communities and will consider how we approach the accounts of missional biography in terms of what we can learn from the example of others.
JOHN SUNG’S IDENTITY
Although John Sung is rightly celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s greatest Chinese evangelists, he was no ordinary Chinese. Intriguing parallels can be made with the apostle Paul. Paul was neither a Galilean rural peasant (or fisherman) nor an artistocrat from Jerusalem. Paul was a Diaspora Jew, the son of a Pharisee who himself trained as a Pharisee under Gamaliel (Acts 23:6), and a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25-28).
Historians and social scientists studying religious movements routinely enquire about the identity of actors in these movements. Issues of identity are more complicated (and therefore interesting) than many appreciate. Just as there are shades of grey between black and white, Luke describes a range of Jewish and Gentile actors in his description of the composition and identity of the early church – the first “insider movement.”
The early church’s composition included Judean Jews (such as Peter and James), Hellenist Jews (like Paul and Barnabas), and Gentile converts to Judaism (proselytes). On the Gentile side, although the overwhelming majority of Gentiles had no knowledge of the God of Israel, Gentile God-fears like Lydia (Act 16:14) also existed Was Paul a Jew? Of course! However, James was unlikely to have been as comfortable as Paul among Diaspora Jews of Asia Minor.
Although Paul regularly visited Jerusalem, this was not his base, rather his mission journeys started from Antioch. New Testament scholarship offers a portrait of Paul as a more marginal figure visà- vis the Jerusalem elders. Paul was a Diaspora Jew who not only boasted impeccable credentials as a scholar and activist, but was able to be more mobile than many Jews in Jerusalem because of his Roman citizenship. Even the briefest glance at a map will reveal that Tarsus and Antioch are only a short distance apart.
Similarly, Sung was no peasant worker from rural China. In religious terms, he was not only raised in a Christian home, but his father was a Methodist minister. Sung was evidently intelligent and had the opportunity to pursue an advanced tertiary-level education, gaining a doctorate in science from an American university. Like Paul, John Sung ended up being a mobile, multi-lingual, educated, cosmopolitan character comfortable in more than one world, and well-suited to making a contribution among Diaspora communities.
John Sung’s ministry amongst the Chinese Diaspora in South-East Asia
Diaspora communities are noted for their openness to new ideas. In Antioch, the Gentiles heard the gospel from Hellenized Jews (Acts 11:19-21), and Paul’s custom was to make the synagogue is first port of call (Act 17:2). As the earliest Christ-followers in Asia Minor were Hellenized Jews, Proselytes (or converts to Judaism), and God-fearers, the earliest Protestant presence in many parts of island, peninsula, and mainland South-East Asia have been among Chinese. Anyone entering the most established churches in Thailand’s main urban centre will immediately be struck by the fact that they are dominated by Thai-Chinese. This is also the case in Thailand’s Southern border provinces where Chinese had been established as the most influential mercantile class (King 2007; Montesano 2008).
Diaspora communities are also vulnerable to uncivil elements during times of political instability. John Sung preached to South Thailand’s Chinese Diaspora at a time when Field Marshall Phibun Songkram had come to power (Suwannathat-Pian 1995; Suwannathat- Pian 1996). Songkram was concerned about the influence of ethnic minorities in Thailand and in particular, the role of the Chinese who at the time constituted Thailand’s largest ethnic minority. In Thailand, from 1932 onwards, Chinese schools were closed, Chinese newspapers banned, and Chinese names could not be registered (see Skinner 1957; Skinner 1958). Personal communication with workers familiar with Chinese Christian communities of the Thai-Malaysian border confirm that John Sung has left a legacy that lasted decades after his untimely death.
In this regard, we can note that although Fung portrays the reality of personal vulnerability and suffering that Sung experienced (despite exercising a ministry of healing, Sung succumbed to intestinal tuberculosis at the age of 42), nevertheless, he is silent on the vulnerability of the South-East Asian Chinese to whom Sung preached and for whom he prayed. Many social scientists studying Christianity in South-East Asia have argued that conversion to Christianity by South-East Asian Chinese was one way that they were able to resist assimilation which occasionally resembled culturally alienation. To what extent did this context positively contribute to the warmth of welcome, and response that Sung received in Southeast Asia as he ministered among the Chinese Diaspora?
John Sung’s story is so exceptional that any retelling of it is bound to be a good read. Although we can affirm Sung as one of the true heroes of South East Asian Christianity, Fung has presented an account of Sung that brings the following into focus: although a man of the word, of prayer, and power, he was an unusual character, in fact Sung seems to have been a highly idiosyncratic missionary.
It is never easy to work with unconventional, non-conformist characters. Sung seems to have learnt to celebrate his strengths while also working on his weaknesses. Despite being unkempt, unconventional, abrupt, and rude, Sung appears to be a man who was conscious of his sin and as hard on himself as he was on others. Nevertheless, because he had a Shepherd who called him by name (Jn 10:3), he was willing to give himself for others.
Sung’s educational background and his overseas experience seems to have prepared him a special way as a Christian worker to be able to function (and to be welcome) in the Diaspora communities of South-East Asia. His contribution is still remembered and is still being assessed. Since the time of the New Testament, God has used those with a Christian faith nurtured in multi-cultural environments, and educated in cosmopolitan centres to shape the ongoing mission of the church.
My final thought is this: reflecting on Sung’s life and his educational background has reminded me of the importance of student and diaspora ministry in our contemporary context. It is in these spheres that contemporary witnesses to Christ Jesus come into contact with mobile, multi-lingual, educated, cosmopolitan characters, comfortable in more than one world. If we want to reach out to all layers of society, we must also make our presence felt in these diaspora and cosmopolitan communities.
Hwa Y. 1999. Beyond AD 2000 – A call to Evangelical faithfulness. Kuala Lumpur: Kairos Research Centre.
Hwa, Y. 2003. “Sundar Singh, John Sung and the future of Asian Christianity.” Methodist Message October 2003: 7-9.
King, P. 2007. “Chinese Enterprise and Malay Power: Nineteenth-Century Central Malaya from a Regional Perspective.” Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies 1(1): 197-105.
Levi. 2008. The Journal once Lost – Extracts from the Diary of John Sung (translated by Thng Pheng Soon). Singapore: Genesis Books.
Lyall, L. 1954. Flame For God – John Sung and Revival in the Far East. London: Overseas Missionary Fellowship.
Montesano, M. J. 2008. Capital, State, and Society in the History of the Chinese Sponsored Education in Trang. Thai South and Malay North: Ethnic Interactions on a Plural Peninsula. Singapore, NUS Press: 213-274.
Shubert, W. E. 1976. I remember John Sung. Singapore: Far East Bible College Press.
Skinner, G. W. 1957. Chinese Society in Thailand: An Analytical History. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.
Skinner, G. W. 1958. Leadership and power in the Chinese community of Thailand. Ithaca, N.Y., Published for the Association for Asian Studies by Cornell University Press.
Skinner, G. W. and E. M. Bruner 1959. Local, ethnic, and national loyalties in village Indonesia: a symposium. New Haven, Yale University
Sunquist, S. W. ed. 2001. A Dictionary of Asian Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Suwannathat-Pian, K. 1995. Thailand’s Durable Premier: Phibun Through Three Decades, 1932-1957. Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press.
Suwannathat-Pian, K. 1996. “Thai Wartime Leadership Reconsidered: Phibun and Pridi.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 27.
Tan, E. K. B. 2001. “From Sojourners to Citizens: Managing the Ethnic Chinese Minority in Indonesia and Malaysia.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 24(6): 949-978.
Tarling, N., B. Barrington, et al. 1997. Empires, Imperialism, and Southeast Asia (essays in honour of Nicholas Tarling). Clayton, Vic., Australia, Monash Asia Institute.
Tow, T. 1985. John Sung – My Teacher. Singapore: Christian Life Publishers.
Vaughan, J. D. 1971. The Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements. Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press.
Wade, G. 2008. China and Southeast Asia. New York, Routledge.
Wigram, C.E.M. 2007. The Bible and mission in faith perspective: J. Hudson Taylor and the early China Inland Mission. Zoetermeer Boekencentrum.
 These include the Dictionary of African Christian Biography (http:// www.dacb.org/), and Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity (http://www.bdcconline.net/en/).
 John Sung’s impact on Singapore and Malaysia – 27th–28th September 2011 CSCA, Trinity Theological College, Singapore. For materials about Sung see Lyall 1954; Shubert 1976; Tow 1985; Hwa 1999; Hwa 2003; Sunquist 2001; for works by Sung, see Levi 2008.
 For a general study of Chinese in Southeast Asia, see Wade 2008. The following deal with the Straits Chinese of Penang, Malacca, and Singapore: Vaughan 1971, Tarling, Barrington, et al. (1997). Those interested in the Chinese of Indonesia can refer to Skinner and Bruner 1959; Tan 2001. The standard works on Chinese in Thailand are provided by Skinner 1957; Skinner 1958.