Childhood and Youth
Zhang Lisheng was born in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, into a traditional religious family. His father had given up his business pursuits in order to concentrate on Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, and became a religious master in their area. His mother was a devout Buddhist. Zhang studied Buddhist literature with her from boyhood and loved hearing stories about visions which she had received from Buddha. Even as a young boy, however, he cherished great ambitions to go out from there to all parts of China and around the world. His fellow villagers laughed at this studious youth who did not join in their games but applied himself to his books.
Education and early career
He was a believer in materialism in the years 1922-24. While studying at Shanghai Baptist University, he hated compulsory chapel and “read the Bible with hatred,” so he later left the school. He eventually was graduated from Fudan University. At the time he identified Christianity with Western culture and imperialism, and sympathized with the anti-Christian movement, so much that he joined in the general attack on the church by writing articles for newspapers.
While a student in college, he published The Land Problem of China, an exposition of the teachings on national reconstruction of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China. For this reason, and on the basis of his other writings, he became Peking’s youngest professor at age 21 after receiving the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. The President of China sometimes audited his classes.
From 1925 - 32, he was a “legalist, believing that better laws would create a better
nation, “to maintain peace and order, and to safeguard righteousness and justice.” Zhang thus went to France for doctoral studies in Law at the University of Paris, and on to further research on political and legal sciences in Belgium, England (London, Oxford, and Cambridge), Germany and Switzerland, 1927-29. Upon his return to China, he became a professor of the National Central University in Nanking
Serving the Nation
After only a year, however, he was sought out by President Wang (the former Chinese ambassador to Belgium) of National Labor University in Shanghai to be his Dean. After initial hesitation because of his youth (he was 26), he “had no choice, but to accept his invitation.”
Beginning around 1932, he realized that an effective legal system had to be built on a moral foundation. After the nation’s humiliation at the hands of Japan in 1931 and 1932, he saw that “the root cause of our national humiliation was not external but rather internal, i.e., our moral degeneration.” He became a Confucianist, seeking moral perfection both for himself and for “national regeneration.”
Shortly afterwards, the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) erupted. The whole nation was in turmoil. Once a great riot broke out in school, and President Wang was very concerned, but Zhang spoke to the students with great courage, and “by the grace of God, the students listened to me and were pacified.”
From that time onward, his heart was greatly burdened by China’s national crisis, and Zhang became a dynamic speaker for national reconstruction and renovation at famous institutes and social groups in Shanghai and Nanking. Political and educational leaders were very much inspired by his speeches and praised them highly as a great blessing to the nation.
During this period Zhang wrote nearly twenty books on “National Regeneration,” “Constitutional Law,” “Principles and Practices of Constitutional Government,” “Modern Legal Systems,” and “Principles of Modern Legislation,” in addition to political and legal essays, amounting to one million words. For this reason, the Minister of Justice, Wei Tao-ming, the board chairman of Shanghai College of Law and Politics, sought him out to be their president when he was about 35 years old.
However, shortly after this, the mayor of Shanghai was appointed to be the governor of Guangdong province. It was a province of strategic importance, and urgently needed political and economic improvement. The mayor urged Zhang to go with him to plan for reformation, so Zhang started a new political career as a “reformer.”
As the war became nation-wide (1937-38), the capital moved west to Chungking. His patron was promoted to be the General Secretary of the Nationalist Party. Zhang became his chief secretary as well as a strategist of the Supreme National Defense Council to formulate strategy to defeat Japan.
In 1937, he was married to Ling Nie, the daughter of the former tutor to the last Emperor. She soon bore him two sons, Chang Qi (John Key) and Chang De.
Eventually realizing that Confucianism could not bring real change to the nation, from 1937 to 1941, he turned to Daoism. Then, in 1941, he switched his hopes to Zen Buddhism, practicing Zen exercises every day and convinced that he had attained enlightenment.
During the war with Japan, the family lived in Chongqing, where twin daughters were born in 1944. Their names “Ch’ung-hua” and “Ch’ing-hua” (Ch’ung and Ch’ing = Chungking; “Hua” = China), were given them by Chiang Kai-shek. From this came their names “June” (Ch’ung) and “Jean” (Ch’ing), which they use after moving to America. A third son, Ch’ang Wen (Joh Vincent), was born in 1945.
Shaping a New China: A Constitution and a University
After the war (1945), the leaders of China planned for a constitutional convention in order to launch the “constitutional stage” according to the principles of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Zhang was elected as a member of the convention to draft a constitution, of which he became a signatory.
After a long period of deep retrospection and re-thinking, however, he came to realize that the human problem did not lie in politics, but in the heart of man, so he gave up political activity, resisting repeated requests to join the Cabinet. He was “intoxicated” with Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism as were many other Chinese scholars, and became the founding President of Kiang Nan (Jiangnan) University. This was to be the center of a resurgence movement of Asian religions and culture. His purpose in starting a new university was “to revive Asian religions and to destroy Christianity.” He was 45 years old.
Conversion to Christianity
In 1950, he was invited by a university in India founded by the Indian philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) to give a special lectureship; he accepted, aiming to unite their leaders to join him in launching his religious resurgence movement. Unable to obtain a visa to Indonesia, he found himself stranded in Java, and his family got a house just beside a church which was under construction.
They often took a walk after supper. One evening in 1951, they heard beautiful music coming from within the church, and the children suggested that they find out what was going inside. A deacon of the church came out to talk with them, and invited them to attend the inauguration service on the coming Sunday, knowing that Zhang was not a Christian and would not like to go to a regular worship service. But out of curiosity, he decided to attend the special service. To his amazement, during prayers he was “deeply touched by the Holy Spirit; and from that time on, [he] could not stop going to church, and was eager to search the truth and to read the Bible avidly, often with tears of repentance and joy.”
He soon became a news item in Christian circles, with a number of Christian leaders wanting to interview, amazed at his knowledge of the Bible. From that time on, he was often invited to preach in different churches throughout Java. His audiences responded in two ways. Some said that this must be another Zhang Lisheng with the same name. It could not be the same anti-Christian Zhang Lisheng! But other people said that if Zhang Lisheng, the enemy of the Gospel could believe in the lord, they had no reason not to believe.
At that time he was also chaplain of a Christian school in Melang, Indonesia, founded by Dr. and Mrs. Leland Wang. There he met a teacher, Rose Wong, who had graduated from Gordon College and was a missionary from Park Street Church in Boston, who told him about her alma mater.
From 1954-56, at the invitation of Dr. Andrew Gih, president of the Chinese Evangelization Fellowship, he served as Professor of Philosophy at the Southeast Asia Bible College. From 1955-56, he taught concurrently as Professor of Comparative Religions at the Baptist Theological Seminary of the American Southern Baptist Mission in Semarong.
In 1956, he enrolled in Gordon Divinity School, Wenham, Massachusetts. Almost immediately he was asked to teach, but he insisted on studying full time at the seminary and teaching only a few courses on Comparative Religions at Gordon College. He was invited to join the faculty as soon as he finished his M.Div. degree magna cum laude in 1959. For the next two decades he taught Missions and dedicated himself to writing theological works.
After leaving mainland China, he was in deep distress for his nation. “However, in my prayer I again heard God’s voice: ‘I can open the door to China from heaven!’ So I started a radio program, ‘Seminary of the Air,’ and wrote to Dr. Paul Freed, president of Trans World Radio,” who immediately replied, stating that he had just built a station in Honolulu, aiming China as their main target. They were searching for a qualified person to cooperate with them, and were happy to have Zhang join them.
When he retired in 1978, he was honored as a “Distinguished Lecturer in Missions Emeritus” in a special ceremony attended by many Christian leaders and American political dignitaries such as the Speaker of the U.S. Congress.
Work habits, divine healingHis wife wrote, “Litsen was a real gentleman; he had no bad habits at all. He loved to write every day. He spent the whole day at his deskHe vomited a flood of blood, and for many years could not eat solid food; he could only drink some juice and milk. He writes, “As I had been working hard day and night since my youth, before my conversion I endeavored to save our nation. After my conversion, I dedicated my life to serve the Lord, to preach the Gospel and to save souls. Moreover, in order to redeem my time lost in pagan darkness for 50 long years, I took my supper as my ‘second breakfast,’ so I could work another day after 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. I only got 2 hours of sleep a day.”
Such diligence and self-denial were not without cost, for Zhang neglected his health .” Constant overwork and lack of rest resulted in a very serious bleeding ulcer in the stomach, and also a bleeding hemorrhoid. Almost all care of the family was left to his wife.
He explains the reason for such strenuous labor in this way: “Before my conversion, God, in His ‘negative preparation’ (a term used by theologian Louis Berkhof) has trained me to write nearly five million words, so as ‘to give an answer to every man a reason of hope that is in (us)’ (cf. I Peter 3:15), and to ‘earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints’ (Jude 3).
In 1975, he broke his hip. After hearing a word from God, he was miraculously healed, but the doctor advised him to take a long rest, and he added that this was a “forced vacation” from God, sorely needed because he had been working too hard. After six months of rest, his bleeding ulcer and hemorrhoid were healed. A heat attack many years later was seen as chastening by God, after which he wrote, “Since then, I was drawn nearer and nearer to God and began to see more and more of His glory and my infirmity. I could hear His still small voice: ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and in trust shall be your strength’ (Isaiah 30:15). I began to see that the life of faith is not a life of mounting up with wings, but a life of trusting and obeying. He must increase, I must decrease, so that people may see God more and more, in my life and through my work. I should stop hewing out the broken cisterns, but go to the fountain of living waters (cf. Jeremiah 2:13).”
Readers, students, and listeners to his preaching from around the world testified that they had been greatly impacted by Zhang’s ministry. Many were converted through his evangelistic books in Chinese.
He published works in English also. He writes: “After World War II many people in the west were frustrated and disillusioned with their culture and religion. They began to be intoxicated with Asian religions and cults. Dr. Carl F. H. Henry, the founding editor of Christianity Today, came to Gordon, urging me to write a book to awaken the West. In my early 20’s I was in France; I never learned to write in English. But upon his earnest petition, I had no choice, but yielded to his request. The result was a book, Zen Existentialism: The Spiritual Decline of the West,” which Billy Graham called “a valuable contribution to the west.”
Spiritual life, personal character
His wife wrote that after Zhang graduated from seminary in 1959, “he never stopped writing and preaching. He would never receive a penny for his preaching; he always returned his honorarium.”
Zhang sometimes heard what he deemed to be a direct voice from heaven. Aside from the healing mentioned above, he gives other examples: “Years ago, in my devotional time, I suddenly heard the clear and tender voice of God: ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33). Since I was deeply inspired by His word, I wrote a book entitled Philosophy of Suffering: The Secret to Overcome the World.”
Zhang’s writings are marked by vast scholarship, ranging over both Chinese and Western religion, history, philosophy, and theology; a learned and lively, often polemical, style; penetrating insight into the contrasts between biblical teaching and other religious and philosophical systems; insistence upon the authority of the Scripture; a focus on the saving work of God in Jesus Christ and the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit; a Reformed conviction that the Bible applies to all of life and thought; and a zeal for the
conversion of unbelievers.
He constantly referred to his own conversion from “paganism” to Christianity as an
instance of God’s great mercy, and longed for other Chinese intellectuals to find the peace, joy, and purpose in life that had been granted to him.
His major published works in Chinese include Systematic Theology (eight volumes) and Comprehensive Christian Apologetics (four volumes).
Books in English include:
- Strategy for Missions in the Orient
- Zen Existentialism: The Spiritual Decline of the West
- Asia’s Religions: Christianity’s Momentous Encounter with Paganism
- What Is Apologetics?
- Critique of Indigenous Theology; Critique of Humanism, in Wise Man from the East: Lit-sen Chang, edited by G. Wright Doyle (forthcoming from Pickwick Publications)
Illness and death
From about 1980 onwards, Zhang suffered from several bouts of ill health. He finally died in 1996, survived by his wife and children.