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The presenter taught an "Introduction to the Bible" course to over 200 undergraduate students in Peking University, Beijing, China, in the fall 2003 semester. Due to the great success and popularity of the course, the university administration requested the presenter to offer the same course again in the spring 2004 semester. The presenter earned his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Cornell University. In this presentation, he provides some observations from his experiences in teaching such a course for the first time in a university setting in China. Issues arise, such as how to teach the Bible in Chinese in a country where the Bible is a banned book, how the students react to such a course, the composition of the class, and the social and academic consequences of such a course in China. In addition, he also gives his thoughts on how the international community of biblical studies scholars can assist in such a pioneering effort to bring this field of study to China.

The Historical Setting
I still remember the days when I was in college in Beijing in the early nineties, majoring in Hebrew Language and Literature. I tried to purchase a copy of the Bible, either in Chinese or in English translation, to be used in my Hebrew courses given by an Israeli teacher. I visited over a dozen bookstores, but had no luck. Back then, going onto the Internet was not an option. A classmate overheard from a Christian friend that at a nearby church copies of the Union Version Chinese translation of the Bible may be bought with advance reservation. Eventually, each one of us who were in the Hebrew class managed to purchase a copy of the Bible in Chinese translation a month after the initial contact with the church. My copy has been glanced through many times by friends and dorm mates, though no one in particular showed any interest in borrowing and reading it, since it is not very interesting to read after a brief flipping through.

The Demands
By the request of the instructor, who underestimated the potential enrollment for this course, a classroom that can hold 150 students was assigned for the two hour per week "Introduction to the Bible" course in the fall of 2003. The course was at the undergraduate level and open to the whole university. There were over 460 students who showed up for a session to seek information about the course, and the final head count of those who signed up for the course was over 350 students. However, since the university administration was not able to switch to a larger classroom, only senior and junior students were allowed to take the course. When the course was given a second time in the spring of 2004, there were again over 200 students who signed up for the course, and only 150 who could be accommodated.

The Format of the Course
The course was taught once a week in two consecutive hours, for 15 weeks. Since the author's training is mainly in the Hebrew Bible, only the last half hour of the last class covered the Greek Bible. The course was given in Chinese, and the reading materials are the Bible and the draft copy of a text book the instructor was engaged in writing: a general introduction to the Hebrew Bible incorporating the latest relevant historical, archaeological, and textual discoveries. There was no requirement as to the version of the Chinese translation of the Bible. Students were encouraged to seek out Bible texts over the internet, and a handful of URLs were offered to the students from which they can download free texts of the Chinese translation of the Hebrew Bible. There were two close book prelims and one short term paper (1-2 pages).

The Methodology
The teaching is primarily based on the reading of selected passages of the Bible. During the teaching, mainstream methodologies, such as literary analysis, historical analysis, and tradition analysis, were employed. Some passages were explained from linguistic perspectives, some from comparative literary and archaeological perspective.

The Feedback
Students loved the course. Several students volunteered to organize an online discussion forum for the course and secured hosting web space from the university authority. Almost all students actively participated in the discussion forum. In the official survey organized by the university, with anonymous student feedback, the course was graded 4.8 out of 5, among the top five percent of over 150 introductory course offered across campus to all undergraduates. The author has no intention of discussing here the factors the instructor himself contributed to the great success of this course; instead, he wants to explore the subject matter's contribution to the success.

Student Composition
Students who elected this course were from all different departments and majors. Peking University admits students in the fields of natural science and social science, as well as in the humanities. The composition of the students in this course was more or less compatible with the general student population. There was no overweighted number of students from the humanities. This demonstrates the general interest in the Bible among Chinese university students. Not to my surprise, among the students, there were many Christians. The exact number cannot be calculated, since it is not my intention to ask. I gathered only from students who voluntarily told me that there were more than a dozen Christians among the students.

The Observations
(1) Little Knowledge about Popular Biblical Stories
One big difference between the undergraduates in American universities and those in Peking University is that general knowledge of biblical stories is lacking among the Chinese students, even though the students in Peking University are considered the best read in China. Therefore, in the first several classes, there was considerable time spent telling the students the biblical stories. This is generally not necessary in the United States. In order to save more time in the class, it was required that the students do the readings in advance, so that every one was on equal footing before they came to class. Therefore, on average, Chinese students need to spend more time preparing for the class.

(2) Typical Questions Asked by the Students

  • Questions about faith. Since most students were raised in an educational environment where Marxism was taught throughout the years, and atheism is common in China, most students are very curious about the belief in God. Many students raised questions concerning the faith of God in the Bible, mostly about the illogical instances written in the Hebrew Bible, especially the creation of the world described in Genesis. Since my course is not about Judaism nor Christianity, I always tried to avoid answering questions of this type. I would normally say this class is not about faith, but is an academic introduction of the Hebrew Bible.

  • How the reading of the Bible made the westerners so rich and strong. This pragmatic question reflects one of the most popular motives for the students to elect such a course: to learn the culture behind the Bible and to try to see why China has been left behind in the last century's competition with the world's greatest economies. Unfortunately, this is not a question I can answer, nor is it a typical topic covered in such a course in American colleges.

(3)Lack of Multimedia Educational Material
When teaching this course in American colleges, there is a large variety of material, from Hollywood movies based on biblical stories to documentaries made by PBS or the Discovery Channel, available for instructors to choose from in order to augment the course. However, due to the language barrier, these materials easily accessible to Western students are not so easily understood by Chinese students, especially when we consider that the English language used in these types of multimedia materials is not everyday English, but filled with a large number of biblical or religious terms that are unfamiliar to most Chinese students. If there were more English- language multimedia materials dubbed in Chinese, the course could have left the students a more lively impression.

(4)Social and Academic Consequences of such a Course in China
When the course was offered in 2003, it was the first time such a course was taught in Chinese universities since the Communist Party took control of China in 1949. It took great courage on the part of the university authorities to allow it to be offered. Students had been asking for such a course for many years before 2003, but there were not many instructors trained in this field. When Peking University started to offer this course and received surprisingly positive responses from the students, other universities started to follow. Demands for instructors in this field are increasing. The students who are preliminarily trained in the Hebrew Bible found it helpful in their English learning as well as their study about Western cultures. The instructor believes that after the students start to work and when they have opportunities to interact with Westerners, they will find that their knowledge about the Hebrew Bible will benefit their communication with their counterparts from the West. This type of interaction between Chinese and Westerners is becoming more and more common due to China's booming economy and increasing international trade.

The author believes that the future of continuing to teach this course is exciting. Since the audience for this paper is the western academic community, the author wants to take this opportunity to call for help from all of you. China, a country that has forbidden the teaching of the Bible for over fifty years, has lifted the sanction. We hope international biblical studies scholars will keep an eye on the development of such a pioneering effort to bring this field of study to Chinese universities. The following difficulties are facing the current instructors in this field in China:
  1. The lack of books in this field of study is already hindering the research efforts of scholars. Lack of independent research by the instructors will eventually harm the quality of teaching.
  2. The lack of multimedia materials.
  3. Rarity of national and international conferences in this field held in China. This hinders communication and discussion between international scholars and their Chinese counterparts.
The author hopes that international scholars will visit Peking University in China to give guest lectures on this topic, donate more books to China —despite the better economy, the price tag of books in this field is still too steep for Chinese scholars, who are making about $300 (American) a month—as well as consider visiting China for a conference on teaching the Bible and related topics in university settings.

Yiyi Chen; Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, Peking University. Peking, China.


1. Not until the mid 1990s did privately owned bookstores come into being in China. Before then, all bookstores were government-run entities that got their supplies from government-owned publishing houses. Even today, there are no private publishing houses in China; any publishing company run by private investors needs to purchase publishing rights (ISBNs in China are controlled solely by the Chinese central government and their branch publishing houses) from the government in order to publish a book, or a magazine for that matter. However, today privately run full service bookstores are to be found throughout Chinese big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Citation: Yiyi Chen, " Teaching the Bible in Peking University, Some Observations," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2005]. Online:


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