Chinese Christian publisher and political reformer
Huang was born in 1844 to a poor family in a small town of Minqing County west of Fuzhou in the province of Fujian. His father, Huang Qingbo, was a carpenter who also tilled the land. Huang came into contact with missionaries from the American Methodist Episcopal church in 1861 and was baptized as a Christian convert on 16 December 1866. He then proceeded to travel with Reverend Xu Yangmei on his preaching circuit for the next two years, at which point he was granted a probationary preacher’s license, and continued in ministry until 1872.
From that year, Huang began to help the missionaries with translation and literary work, since he had received a basic education in the Confucian classics and wrote well. Apart from helping to translate the Bible, from 1874 Huang became the key helper with a Chinese newspaper the missionaries started that year called Zion’s Messenger (Huanshan shizhe yuebao). Huang used the newspaper as a platform to write articles advocating a number of modern reforms. His was one of the first Chinese voices to call for using vaccinations against smallpox, as well as for putting an end to the practice of foot-binding. In addition, he was a strong advocate of mission education who favored instruction in English so that Chinese Christians could tap into Western knowledge and the field of commerce. The education of women was part of his vision and he established two private schools, one 1873 and the other in 1885, to educate his own children, including his daughters.
Starting from the early 1870s, Huang decided to prepare for China’s traditional civil service examinations. He chose this course because he saw the numerous conflicts that Chinese Christians experienced with local society and how they were discriminated against and marginalized by local gentry. Huang believed that if there were Christians who were members of the gentry it would improve the situation. He studied hard and in 1877 obtained the basic shengyuan degree, which was followed in 1894 by the much more difficult juren degree. This was quite an achievement, given the stiff competition for degrees in the latter part of the Qing dynasty. When Huang traveled to Beijing in 1895 to take exams for the highest level jinshi degree (which he never obtained), the Sino-Japanese War was underway, and he suffered the pain both of China’s defeat and the loss of his younger brother, who was a sailor in the navy. Huang then joined other scholars in Beijing in support of Kang Youwei and his call for China to reject a peace treaty with Japan and to immediately seek ways to strengthen the nation.
Upon returning to Fujian, and in light of the dangers facing his country, Huang decided to leave his work at the Methodist Episcopal mission and instead seek to promote a Christianized China through political and educational reform. To this end, in 1896 he used his own funds to launch a secular Chinese newspaper called Fubao, which was the first newspaper started by a Chinese in Fujian. It was a two-page paper published twice a week and it advocated adoption of such reforms as a parliamentary system and a free press. However, after a year he had to shut the paper down because it was losing money.
Three years later, Huang was in Beijing again to take the jinshi exams when the 100 Hundred Day Reform movement led by Kang Youwei started. He not only actively supported this, but through a friend from Fujian who was very close to Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, he became directly connected with the leaders of the movement. He himself submitted eight petitions to the Guangxu Emperor, one of which recommended adopting pinyin to help with the study of Chinese characters. However, when the reform movement met with a conservative backlash and some of its leaders were arrested and executed by the government, Huang was forced to flee quickly to Fujian, since he was number eleven on the most wanted list.
Shortly thereafter, Huang decided to start a new settlement of Chinese in Malaysia in order to escape China’s despotism and Fujian’s poverty. While in Singapore considering where he might establish such a colony, Huang met Sun Yatsen and the two soon became good friends. Huang’s translation into Chinese of a book on American history won Sun’s respect, and Huang admired Sun’s democratic ideals and commitment to Christianity. In 1901, Huang traveled with settlers from Fujian to Sibu, where he founded New Fuzhou. Before long New Fuzhou had a population of over one thousand Chinese, two-thirds of them Christians. Huang spent the next three years attending to myriad administrative tasks needed to get the community established. Unexpectedly, in 1904 he returned to Fujian, in part because his administration of the settlement did not generate enough profit to satisfy the local ruler who had supplied the land.
Back in Fujian, Huang founded the Fujian Daily News and was a leader of Fujian activities during the nation-wide anti-American boycott of 1905, which protested the adoption of exclusion laws by the United States preventing Chinese laborers from entering the country. While he avoided harsh anti-foreignism, Huang did not hesitate to strongly and publicly condemn the American policy.
By this time, Huang had also shifted his political views from favoring reform, as he had in 1898, to supporting revolution. Young J. Allen, the missionary editor of the influential Chinese language Globe Magazine in Shanghai, was a key person in convincing Huang that support for revolution was a legitimate Christian position. Huang then began to distribute tracts calling for revolution and became an active supporter of Sun Yat-sen, sending information on revolutionary activities in Fujian to Sun’s agents in Singapore, who then reported it to Sun in Tokyo. Huang joined Sun’s Revolutionary Alliance in 1906 and was a key figure in planning the Huang Gang uprising and recruiting many of those who participated in it.
From 1907 to 1911, Huang focused primarily on promoting educational reform by founding 34 Chinese secondary schools in the Min County region of Fujian, which he made sure taught Western subjects and inculcated nationalism. Also, in 1909 he was elected to the Fujian Provincial Assembly, which was part of the constitutional reform program that the Qing government had been forced to adopt. Huang became one of the leading members of the legislative body and he proposed numerous reforms, for instance to ensure better use of Fujian’s natural resources, to counter opium and gambling, and to introduce penal reform.
In 1911, after the 1910 Wuhan Uprising began to unravel Qing rule in China, Huang began to spread revolutionary ideology among students at the Methodist Anglo-Chinese Academy in Fuzhou, where he was Dean. In addition, he established the Fuzhou Qiaonan Physical Training Society as a front for the Fujian Revolutionary Alliance where it could train the students who joined the movement. On the 9th and 10th of November 1911, Huang and the Fujian Alliance fought against and defeated the Imperial Army in Fuzhou with the help of these students, and thus brought Qing rule in the province to an end. As a supporter of Sun, Huang was appointed head of the Board of Communications for the provisional Fujian government in November 1911, but his high-level public service soon came to an end when Yuan Shikai deposed all Sun’s supporters in September 1912.
Huang spent his remaining years engaged in various community projects, serving as head of the Board of Trustees for the Fuzhou YMCA, helping to edit a political newspaper, and being sought out as an adviser to government officials. He held his Christian faith to the end. As he lay on his deathbed, he asked his wife to hold up a picture of Christ for him to see, and asked that the picture be laid on his chest as he died on 22 September 1924.
Huang Naishang was one of the most influential and impressive Chinese Protestants of the Imperial era. His experience in ministry and his two decades assisting missionaries in literary work instilled in him a strong faith and an informed Christian worldview, as well as a familiarity with modern knowledge. His Confucian upbringing and success in the civil service examinations were extremely rare for Chinese Christians at the time and allowed him to have significant social influence. Huang used this influence to seek the reform and Christianization of Chinese society through educational and political change. He described his motivation to do these things as Christian altruism, which combined Christian notions of personal sacrifice for the benefit of others with Confucian ideals of public service. Huang’s many years of ministry and community involvement touched numerous lives and did much to enhance the credibility of the church and of Christianity in China.
By John Barwick, Ph.D., Research Associate with Global China Center and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
This article is taken, with permission, from the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity.
Anne Pang (Huang Biyao), “Huang Naishang: Revolutionary with a Vision for a Christian China,” in Carol Lee Hamrin with Stacey Bieler, eds. Salt and Light 3: More Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 17–37.