Who are the Ethnic Chinese? A Call for Understanding to Traditional Chinese

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Who are the Ethnic Chinese?

A Call for Understanding to Traditional Chinese

By Dr. Samuel Ling

Originally appeared in Chinese Around The World, a ministry of CCCOWE.
July, 1996


During the past 31 years I have lived, studied and ministered in North America, I participated in the struggle and growth of the Chinese Church in USA and Canada, as we faced the reality of “American/Canadian Born Chinese” and the challenge of reaching them, discipling them, and raising up leaders from among them. I have come to love many ABC’s. My wife and I planted a church for ABC’s from 1980 to 1985. Today, Covenant Presbyterian Church (Whitestone. New York) is a bicultural congregation. Then, for three years (1992-1995), I pastored the ABC congregation of the Chinese Christian Union Church of Chicago. I learned from these 220 American born Chinese; they loved me and encouraged me as their pastor. It was truly rewarding.

A thorny issue in many Chinese churches in North America has been the cultural differences between “OBC’s,” understood to be overseas (Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, and more recently mainland China) born Chinese, and “ABC’s/CBC’s,” American or Canadian born Chinese. I have visited many churches where the pastor and leaders feel helpless. How do we serve ABC’s? As we approach the 21st century, most Chinese churches have come to accept the reality that English ministries are needed: children, youth and young adults need ministries of worship education and evangelism in their own language and culture. The key to effectiveness lies in this: OBC pastors and leaders who have successfully reached and assimilated ABC’s/CBC’s are those who have reached out and partnered with ABC/CBC pastors and leaders. As leaders, we must set the example. ABC’s are our partners.

As I participated in CCCOWE conferences in the 1980’s, I noticed another trend: there are Chinese born in Southeast Asia, Europe. and elsewhere, whose primary language is not Chinese, and whose cultural orientation is different from “OBC’s”. How do we define them? How do we relate to them? Gail Law coined the term “LBC’s” in the early 1980s to refer to the fact that, from the point of view of the host country (e.g., Indonesia, Australia, or South Africa), they are “local born Chinese”. At the Ethnic Chinese Congress On World Evangelization (Honolulu, 1984), we learned that there are different host countries and cultures: some, like the United States, have been open continuously to Chinese immigration. Thus there is a constant influx of OBC’s, who in turn give birth to LBC’s. In other host countries and cultures, immigration stopped, e.g. Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Without a constant influx of OBC immigrants, the LBC’s grew up, intermingled (and inter-married) with people of the host culture, and developed churches and ministries in their host language and culture, e.g. Thai, Malay/Indonesian, English in Australia and Great Britain. In some countries, they have done all these without reference to OBC church leaders.

We noticed that not all host languages are understandable to most Chinese-speaking leaders: in Tahiti, for example, the Chinese community speaks Hakka and French. It is highly symbolic that many LBC’s have non-Chinese names (especially in Thailand and Indonesia). It was a joy for me to meet more LBC brothers and sisters at Chiangmai, Thailand, in i989, as CCCOWE’s ethnic Chinese congress ministered to their needs. A thought began to brew in my mind as I came home from Chiangmai: the very definition of “Chinese-ness” was in need of revision.

During the 1990’s China grew toward becoming a global economic power; 300,000 mainland Chinese (PRC) intellectuals are studying or doing research overseas, in North America, Japan, Australia, Europe and Southeast Asia. The OBC communities now have an added cultural element: newly arrived PRC’s. As “overseas Chinese” (both OBC’s and LBC’s) began to be noticed by westerners as one of the most strategic and powerful networks (by John Naisbitt in Megatrends Asia and others), scholars began to revise the definition of “Chinese-ness.” In 1987, I thought that anyone who wants to consider himself/herself as a Chinese can be called Chinese! Chinese-ness, more than a citizenship, is a form of cultural self-perception.

Professor Tu Wei-ming of the University of Hawaii distinguishes between three symbolic universes as he surveys the global Chinese community in The Living Tree: first, China, Taiwan and Rong Kong (what is now called Cultural China or Greater China); second, overseas Chinese, or hai-wai-hua-ren (better than the older term, hua-qiao); and third, economists and journalists (and we may add as Christians, missionaries) interested in China. This fits my previous definition of Chinese-ness as a self-perception. As I travel in Southeast Asia in the 1990’s, I come to know many LBC pastors and missionaries. Like ABC’s and CBC’s in North America, they are not OBC’s; but unlike ABC’s and CBC’s, their host culture is not North American. They are Asians. At the same time, when I take a fresh look at North America’s ABC’s and CBC’s, I find the idea of “Asian American ministries” taking form. My children’s friends in young adult ministry are Koreans, Japanese and Chinese; students who come to my undergraduate class in Asian history, or who consult with me in missions, are likewise Asians from various cultural backgrounds. ABC’s and CBC’s are now part of the larger ASIAN-American community. New strategies in worship, education and evangelism are being developed. Will OBC leaders understand and accept these?

As CCCOWE prepares for the 5th Chinese Congress On World Evangelization (CCOWE) in July 1996, Rev. Chan Hay-Him leads the planning committee members to prepare a separate track of the congress program for “Ethnic Chinese.” By “Ethnic Chinese” is meant those whose primary language is not Chinese, and who live in host cultures outside Chinese-speaking areas. These Ethnic Chinese (EC’s) are distinguished from Traditional Chinese (TC’s), at least by the very fact that they need ministry in different languages and cultural orientations. At this juncture I must admit that by Traditional Chinese we usually mean Chinese (Mandarin)-speaking church leaders with ancestral roots in China, who have lived much of their lives n Taiwan and Hong Kong (and in some instances, Southeast Asia). This is an empirical observation. Incidentally, the overseas Chinese church leaders (from Taiwan and Hong Kong) were the PRC’s (recent emigrants from mainland China) 40-45 years ago! In coming years, as mainland Chinese (PRC’s) become a significant part of the membership and leadership of the Chinese-speaking church, the very definition of “Traditional Chinese” will change. (That is the topic for another discussion.)

One problem for CCCOWE is to find a common language (and cultural orientation!) for all Ethnic Chinese conferees at CCOWE ’96. Will North American born ABC’s and CBC’s lead in defining, networking and strategizing for all ethnic Chinese? Where is the Asian factor? Do North American Ethnic Chinese have an adequate common base of experience with Southeast Asian Ethnic Chinese? Regardless, for CCCOWE and many mission-minded church leaders, the Chinese church must stand united – Traditional Chinese and Ethnic Chinese, together – for the sake of world evangelization.

The very definition of Chinese-ness is in need of revision. Again.


As I pondered over this often confusing situation, I began to realize that there are eight different factors which contribute to the complex problem of defining “Ethnic Chinese”. Although some of these may be obvious to many readers, I trust that this discussion, which perhaps is too long and complicated, will help clarify (rather than contribute to) the confusion.

1. Primary language: Chinese not spoken

From CCCOWE’s Ethnic Chinese Congress On World Evangelization (1984) to the 5th Congress (1996), we agree that LBC’s, or Ethnic Chinese Christians, are our brothers and sisters whose primary language is not Chinese. We have noted above that this non-Chinese language, usually the official language of the host country, can be either European or non-European. We must further distinguish between ethnic Chinese people whose non-Chinese language (e.g. English, Indonesian, or Thai) is primary; and those who are bilingual (some among them are bicultural). Currently there is a fine generation of bilingual ethnic Chinese pastors and church leaders, for example, in the Philippines (actually they are trilingual: Chinese, Tagalog, and English).

The existence of bilingual and bicultural Ethnic Chinese (LBC’s), whether in Asia (Philippines) or in the West (e.g. USA), compels us as Traditional Chinese Christians to recognize that we cannot polarize Traditional Chinese and Ethnic Chinese into two distinct categories. As Chinese culture is in flux, so is the Chinese church. The existence of bilingual and bicultural Christians (whether OBC or LBC) has given us a tremendous opportunity to promote partnership and understanding, and to model the unity of the Body of Christ as we cross cultural barriers to bring the gospel to the world. More on biculturalism later.

2. Immigration history of Traditional Chinese

Most Ethnic Chinese are 2nd generation or 3rd generation Chinese. “2nd generation” is defined by the fact that the “1st generation” emigrated to the host country, giving birth to the 2nd generation. In the Korean-American community, for example, the 2nd generation is called “2.0”. They have further defined a generation of “1.5”. These are Korean Americans who were born in Korea. and came to North America in their childhood or earlier youth.

In North America there have always been two parallel waves of immigration from China/Asia, a succession of student generations, and a parallel history of worker generations. Both students and workers have been coming to USA since the 1850’s. The first Chinese to graduate from an American university was Yung Wing: he graduated from Yale in 1854. This was during the Gold Rush when many workers fled difficult conditions in China and came to the US in search of a better life. Since then, students and workers have both settled in North America, giving birth to ABC’s (Ethnic Chinese).

Another variable is the immigration policy of the host country. In some countries, Chinese immigration has been continuous. In others, there was a period of interruption, e.g. in the United States. the Chinese have the distinct honor of being the only people group who were barred from immigrating from 1882 to 1943, thanks to the Exclusionary Act passed by Congress in 1882. Then there are countries where immigration stopped, e.g. Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. There are other countries where immigration stopped, and now it is open again, e.g. Singapore, where there are 100,000 recent immigrants from mainland China today.

With each immigration wave, and with each “closing” of a country to Chinese immigrants, we witness a distinct generation of Ethnic Chinese born to Traditional Chinese immigrants.

3. Cultural orientation of Ethnic Chinese

Ethnic Chinese usually identify with the culture of their host country, which may be Asian/Third World (from Singapore to Brazil), or Western (from North America to Europe and Australia). As Asia is modernizing at a dazzling pace, the distinction between Asian/Third world culture and western culture is beginning to fade.

Most Ethnic Chinese are citizens of the country of their birth. A small number, however, in certain periods of history, have returned to mainland China and resumed Chinese citizenship (e.g. Indonesian Chinese in the 1950’s and 1960’s). We also notice that the names of many Ethnic Chinese, especially in Thailand and Indonesia, are no longer in the Chinese language.

We have been using the term “bicultural” to refer to those who not only can speak two languages (e.g. Chinese and English), but who can move between two cultures (e.g. Chinese and Canadian) with great ease. In recent years I have come to appreciate a new concept: “Third Culture Persons”. Many bicultural Ethnic Chinese are not just bicultural, they have created a third culture which is neither Chinese culture, nor the culture of the host country (Indonesian, Brazilian, Canadian). This is especially true if the Ethnic Chinese are born of one Chinese and one non-Chinese parent (though a biracial marriage is not a necessary factor in producing bicultural children).

If we accept the concept of “Third Culture Persons”r, we must further refine our strategies to reach, disciple and raise up leaders from Ethnic Chinese people groups.

Some Ethnic Chinese have experienced three cultures, e.g. Chinese born in Taiwan, who grew up in Brazil and then moved to North America for high school or university studies. These are “Fourth Culture Persons”. Is the (Traditional) Chinese church ready to embrace them, love them, assimilate them, and share with them to demonstrate the love of Christ and the unity of His Body? What a tremendous potential missionary force waiting to be prepared and sent!

4. Ethnic Chinese lifestyles: Modern, Post-modern

When Ethnic Chinese clash with their Traditional Chinese parents, very often it is a clash between traditional Chinese culture and modern (or western) culture. The Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” is a helpful illustration. The poor Jewish farmer in Russia has four daughters: one asks for the father’s permission and blessing in marrying a poor Jewish tailor; the second asks for the father’s blessing only (not permission!); the third informs the father about her marriage; the fourth elopes with her groom. From traditional to modern. we see a continuum (a spectrum) of possible lifestyles. The overseas Chinese church is like this farmer: the difference is, all four daughters want to get married on the same day! We have every shade of lifestyle, from traditional to post-modern.

What does “modern” mean? The Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization has devoted a study to modernity”. One of the most important characteristics of “modern” is free choice: we can choose, for example, what to eat, how much to eat, where to eat, how frequently to eat, whether to eat (or lose weight!). Choices characterize the life of a modern person.

When we say that Ethnic Chinese people are “modern,” we must qualify this further. Some Ethnic Chinese are modern, with a tendency to identify with traditional Chinese culture (e.g. those American Born Chinese who can speak Chinese with a great measure of ease, or who spent a significant number of years in Asia during their childhood). Other Ethnic Chinese are modern, with a tendency to move toward post-modern culture. As a matter of fact, many Ethnic Chinese are already thoroughly post-modern. Interestingly, post-modern Ethnic Chinese can be found not only in New York, but in Hong Kong, though Hong Kong is reverting to China!

As Chinese churches struggle with worship (music) styles, we witness the clash between traditional, modern and post-modern cultures. As more Ethnic Chinese become comfortable with traditional Chinese culture (not because they reject modern culture. but because they choose to appropriate Chinese culture into their lives), there is hope that traditional, modern and post- modern may be bridged.

Meanwhile, we need a massive educational campaign to help many Traditional Chinese pastors and parents understand the contemporary post-modern phenomenon. In USA. we call our present generation of young people “Generation X”. They are children of divorce – many of them are grandchildren of divorce. They grew up in a broken world, and a broken home. We – the adult generation – are going to turn over to them a country with a skyrocketing national debt, crime in the cities, drugs and condoms in the schools, and an uncertain economy. The spiritual condition of the US (and of the west in general) is horrible. Generation X people know this. And they are specially hungry for relationships. Urbana ’93, Inter Varsity’s triennial mission convention, was geared for this generation. In some places (like Wheaton College, spring 1995), their relationship with God broke forth into a spiritual awakening!

Will the Chinese church – the entire Chinese church – reach out to them, on their terms?

5. Ethnic Chinese attitudes toward traditional Chinese culture

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, American born Chinese sociologists Stanley and Gerald Sue helped us understand ABC’s more clearly, by delineating three possible attitudes ABC’s may hold toward Chinese culture.

The first type of ABC’s have a “traditional” orientation. They are comfortable with Chinese language and culture; or perhaps they were conditioned to become comfortable by family and school. (Some ABC’s have spent many years in China!)

The second type of ABC’s have a “reactionary” attitude toward Chinese culture. They go to a Chinese language school and hate the experience. They reject Chinese culture. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many ABC’s held this attitude.

The third type of ABC’s have fully assimilated into American culture. For them, Chinese culture is not an issue; it is not part of their conscious adult life. Many ABC’s of this type intermarry with non-Chinese. They do not visit Chinatown. They have no need of the Chinese community.

Since I moved in 1992 from New York (where there is a large Chinese community of over 300,000) to Chicago (with 50,000 Chinese), it has been interesting to notice more ABC’s of the third type. However, as America turned generally conservative in the 1990’s, I have noticed that the first type is dominant. As I speak to Inter Varsity student groups at Yale, Brown and the University of Illinois, I find American born Chinese college students welcoming me, and identifying me as an OBC church leader. They are not ashamed to tell me their OBC church background. Many of them are studying Chinese at the university. Some even will serve Christ in Asia/China.

It is naturally encouraging for me, a bicultural OBC North American Chinese, to see that ABC college students are not rejecting Chinese culture, but are willing to work with Chinese culture, and with the Chinese church. However this is a gift from the Lord – not something we can coerce by social engineering.

Some Traditional Chinese parents and pastors force their children to adopt (and identify with) Chinese culture. This is true especially of recent immigrants from mainland China and Taiwan. The young people, however, will grow up by the grace of the Lord, to adopt any one of the three attitudes. They may adopt their parents’ preferred option, or they may not. As Ethnic Chinese move into adult-hood, parents will lose their control or influence over which option their children will adopt. Parents can only pray that the Lord will turn the hearts of their children toward home – but cultural orientation is ultimately not something they can choose for their children.

6. Marriage partners

How would I react if one day my children bring home a non-Chinese fiance/fiancee? It may or may not happen, but whether I prefer this or not, I must be ready.

Many Ethnic Chinese will marry a Chinese partner. It is interesting that, in many churches where Traditional Chinese and Ethnic Chinese work well together, we find that they intermarry. In the church which my wife and I planted in New York City, the present pastor and several other ABC men married Chinese-speaking women. The ABC men have adapted to the traditional Chinese church and community (the pastor drives his wife to practise Cantonese opera!); the Chinese wives, on the other hand, have adapted to their husband’s Americanized lifestyle. Both Cantonese and English are spoken in the home, interchangeably (more Cantonese by the wives, more English by the husbands). In Singapore and the Philippines, I have also noticed Traditional Chinese and Ethnic Chinese intermarrying. For me, this is a healthy trend; it bridges the two subcultures for the church and the community.

A great number of Ethnic Chinese, of course, will marry other Ethnic Chinese from their own host culture, e.g. American Born Chinese with American Born Chinese. As this continues to happen, churches need to be ready to reach, disciple and raise up leaders from among Ethnic Chinese. Ethnic Chinese churches will continue to be needed. This has been the need in the US and Canada. This need has been successfully met in Singapore and Indonesia (where the Ethnic Chinese churches are larger, and greater in number, than the Traditional Chinese churches!).

Many Ethnic Chinese will marry a partner who is a westerner, or a non-Chinese Asian, or a spouse of mixed racial origins. My prayer is that, as interracial marriages become more common around the world, the entire Chinese church will learn to accept, embrace, love and share with these dear brothers and sisters. Let us shed our Chinese prejudices and truly practice the unity of the Body of Christ.

7. Where ethnic Chinese worship?

As I travel beyond the confines of OBC churches in North America, I am amazed to find Ethnic Chinese in a variety of churches and worship services:

A number of Ethnic Chinese worship in a Chinese-speaking worship service. They do so either because there are no Chinese churches with worship services in their primary language, or because they make a conscious choice to identify with the Chinese-speaking church. Still others are there (especially children and youth) because their parents want them to worship in Chinese.

Many Ethnic Chinese worship in a bilingual service. The entire service is translated between Chinese and the host country’s language (English, Indonesian, etc.). Translation is necessary, in some places, because of government regulations; in others, it is done because there is a shortage of pastors for the Ethnic Chinese.

Many Chinese-speaking pastors and church leaders prefer translation in order to keep the entire church family together. They prefer this to separate worship services in English. (Whether or not to have a separate English congregation has been a controversy among Chinese churches in North America for the past 15 years.) These bilingual services are mostly influenced by Traditional Chinese culture and spiritual style – the gospel songs of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The platform leadership – worship leader, song leader, choir members, and the person making announcements – is dominated by Chinese-speaking adults. I worshipped in one such service in Toronto, Canada.

Then there is another type of bilingual service, which is oriented toward the host country’s culture (or modern culture). In one Chinese church in Singapore I worshipped in a service which, for all practical purposes, follows modern styles and forms. The music is a combination of traditional hymns and contemporary music drawn from the l970’s and l980’s. In this particular congregation, Traditional Chinese and Ethnic Chinese worship together, and many intermarry. A few non-Chinese can be found in the worship service, too. I predict that worship services such as this one will move toward the non-Chinese cultural pattern in the next 10 years.

The point is: while some Chinese churches prefer bilingual services in order to preserve some measure of Chinese culture, these bilingual services may, over the course of time, develop into non-Chinese-speaking forms.

In North America, English worship services have been a trend in the past 10-15 years. If we take a longer historical perspective, many Chinese churches had English-speaking young people, and services tended to be bilingual. Then came the immigration wave of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the needs of the English-speaking young people became relatively neglected, until a chorus of concern began to be heard all across the US and Canada. Now separate English worship services often featuring contemporary music by worship teams, can be found in many cities. Compare this with the contemporary phenomenon in Singapore and Indonesia: the English worship services have developed far beyond the Traditional Chinese cultural environment.

Can we still call these churches “Chinese churches”? Probably not. What does it matter? Christ is proclaimed, and for this we need to rejoice, and again rejoice! It is noteworthy that pastors such as Rev. Lawrence Khong of Singapore, have taken intentional steps to reach out to the Chinese-speaking churches with words of repentance and reconciliation – what a role model! As Chinese-speaking church leaders, we need to reach out to them, and thank God for how He has used our brothers beyond our Chinese-speaking church walls. When will Traditional Chinese leaders reciprocate Rev. Khong’s gestures of peacemaking’?

In many places in the world, we can find Ethnic Chinese in western, English-speaking churches. In North America, of course, this means the main-stream-culture American/Canadian churches, often with a Caucasian majority. However in other places – from Hong Kong to Beijing to Washington, DC – we will find “international churches” seeking to reach people from around the world.

We thank God that these congregations are reaching out to “internationals” or “expatriates”. In these congregations we will find Ethnic Chinese and, very often, Traditional Chinese. This is mission! This is mission work “from Jerusalem!”

8. How effectively have the Ethnic Chinese been reached?

In certain parts of the world Ethnic Chinese are well evangelized. Witness the fact that in some medical schools in Singapore the vast majority of the students are Christians. In other parts of the world, however, evangelizing the Ethnic Chinese has been a struggle – an outstanding example would be USA. In still other parts of the world, evangelizing the Ethnic Chinese is a new pioneering work – for example, in Great Britain.


In 1984 I published “The Chinese Way of Doing Things” in Chinese Around The World, outlining ABC vs. OBC lifestyle patterns. In 1985 I wrote “Beyond the Chinese Way of Doing Things,” offering further classification and some theological reflections. Why write another article in 1996? Haven’t we said enough?

As we can see from these eight factors, the Chinese world is becoming a terribly complex community. I even wonder if we can call ourselves the “Chinese community,” if many Ethnic Chinese do not identify with Traditional Chinese culture. As I said in the 1980’s, Chinese-ness is a matter of self-perception and self-definition. We cannot force it on people. We simply note who they are, what they are like – and move on to ask: how can we evangelize them, serve them, and reach the world in partnership with them?

Many readers will ask: Is the term “Ethnic Chinese” a helpful designation? For many Ethnic Chinese themselves, the answer is “No,” or “It does not matter”. They will appropriate whatever elements from Traditional Chinese culture which they find relevant, and leave the rest behind. They will serve Christ in their own churches and mission agencies, and leave the Chinese church behind. Traditional Chinese church leaders must accept this fact. Instead of trying to change them, let us learn to love and serve them.

The challenge for Traditional Chinese church leaders is to learn to accept certain realities:

(i) Ethnic Chinese are Third Culture Persons, with their own identity;

(ii) the host country’s culture will influence Chinese people greatly as to their lifestyles, thought patterns and ministry models;

(iii) as modernity gives way to the post-modern mindset, the Chinese church must stand ready to minister to, heal and challenge “Generation X” and other post-modern people; and

(iv) Ethnic Chinese, when discipled and trained, make a wonderful missionary force, with whom Traditional Chinese must learn to have partnership. When God gives the Traditional Chinese church opportunity we must disciple and train them for service.

Ethnic Chinese are family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Even if they are not aware of it! Even if Ethnic Chinese from different parts of the world do not recognize each other! We all have a role to play in world evangelization. And as we reach out to the world, we may find one another on the mission field. Praise God for that!