A Bridge to China
Faculty, students, emeriti and alumni contribute to Calvin’s rapidly growing connection to this emerging nation
By Myrna DeVries Anderson '00

The history

“After World War II and following a civil war with anti-communist forces, which ended in 1949, the communist movement set up a new government in China. One of the chief concerns of that government was ridding the country of foreign or ‘imperialist’ privilege — particularly the economic and social power that accrued to Westerners. In this atmosphere of mistrust, greatly aggravated by the Korean War of 1950-1953, almost all foreign businesses folded and almost all foreigners left China. All Christian missionaries — except for the handful who were detained and actually imprisoned for a time — left China or were deported. What followed were 25 years of international isolation and radical political, social and economic change pushed by Mao Zedong, along with several ideologically charged campaigns — principally the Cultural Revolution, which caused turmoil and economic stagnation. After Mao’s death in 1976, a more pragmatic leadership took control in China. Seeing how far the country lagged behind the rest of the world, the new leaders made dramatic changes, reforming the economic system, welcoming foreign trade and sending Chinese students to study abroad.”

— Daniel Bays, director of Calvin’s Asian Studies Program

China opened up. And Calvin went in.

The teachers

I had just come off working for 20 years on a Harvard research project … and I was adequately frustrated,” reminisced Phil Holtrop, a Calvin professor emeritus of religion. “I said to Marie, ‘We have to do something radically different.’ In the summer of ’89, we visited 14 national parks. I came back, and after getting in the routine of teaching again at Calvin, I said, ‘I really want something even more different.’”

— Phil Holtrop

In 1992, the Holtrops joined the many Calvin professors, both active and retired, and alumni who had been teaching English in China since 1985 under the auspices of the English Language Institute/China (ELIC) and since 1986 through Educational Resources and Referrals — China (ERRC).

Alumni Larry ’57 and Harlean Stremler Stegink ’57 were among the first recruits by ERRC; they spent more than nine years in China. John Veltema ’55 also spent nearly a decade teaching there. “The teaching of English by graduates and retired faculty was the first and pretty much only Calvin connection with China,” said Daniel Bays, director of Calvin’s Asian Studies program.

Marie and Phil Holtrop

Emeritus religion professor Phil Holtrop and his wife Marie have helped several Chinese students to attend Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary.

Holtrop's Photo Album

The Holtrops first taught in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, and three years later in Nanning, Guangxi Province. Since Holtrop’s retirement from Calvin’s religion department in 1999, he and his wife — through ERRC — have coordinated the English program for Ph.D. students at Peking University (Beida), which draws the country’s most gifted young scholars. In their first year in Beida, Veltema and the Steginks were instrumental in helping the Holtrops adjust to the new culture.

So invested are the couple in Chinese education that, in addition to helping several Chinese students to study in the U.S., the Holtrops are also establishing (along with Calvin alumni Rose Wang and Fan Hongqi) a private, joint-venture bilingual middle and senior high school in Jiangsu.

Along with other Calvin alumni, the Holtrops have also encouraged numerous Chinese students to study in the U.S., including six who have attended Calvin and three who have attended Calvin Seminary.

“It gives somebody a very stimulating second career, and we have learned a tremendous amount from our students,” Holtrop said about their China experience.

And the couple is teaching a tremendous amount — and not only English. In 1996, Holtrop was one of nine American theologians and philosophers invited to a conference, sponsored by the China Academic Consortium, an affiliate of ERRC, which established academic programs for the study of religion in China. Since that time, using Beida as a home base, he has taught Christian theology in other universities and has contributed to academic conferences on Christian themes elsewhere in China. “The idea is to study religion objectively,” Holtrop said of these efforts. “If students ask questions, you’re free to give answers, but you’re not free to proselytize.”

This academic partnership between East and West is important for myriad reasons, Holtrop said. They include “the emergence of China — especially economically — as a leader among developing countries throughout the world, China’s articulate voice as a critic of U.S. foreign policy, and China’s long history of basically being friendly with the U.S.”

And, for the retired theologian, there is an even more compelling reason for continued friendship between the two countries: “It’s probably the largest society in the world that generally denies God or the need for acknowledging him and at the same time is crying for moral foundations,” he said.

Jana Brasser ’71 agrees. Brasser has been teaching English in China since 1995 and has developed lasting relationships with many of her students. “The Chinese have been oppressed for so long — so many nations have been in, telling them what to do. So you have this sort of searching culture. They’re trying to find their current identity.”

Nevertheless, there is something about this once-closed culture that compels both the professor and the alumnus to return there to teach year after year. Dozens of Calvin alumni and staff have now had at least some teaching experience in China.

Henry Baron, a Calvin professor emeritus of English, understands the appeal. In 1985, he worked with ELIC to set up the organization’s first summer program, visiting all of the colleges and universities in China that wanted English language instructors. “It’s almost invariably true that a piece of China, especially the people and the nature of the people, gets in your heart, and you come back different,” he observed.

And, said Holtrop, it beats the national park tour: “One cultural adjustment I have coming back to the states is seeing how retired people want to spend too much time playing shuffleboard and on golf courses, when life could be so much more stimulating. There’s tremendous potential that could be used.”

The philosophers

I agreed to teach Chinese philosophy, but I had never read a sentence of Chinese philosophy until the day I started my interim class. I opened up Confucius’ Analects. This book is second only to the Bible in terms of the numbers of people affected by it. I started reading it, and I thought, ‘I have no idea what’s going on here. I’m teaching class in four hours, and I have no idea what’s going on here.’ And every book I used, I had exactly the same reaction. I thought, ‘Why did anyone ever think this is an important book? Why would it influence the entire Asian culture?’ … I got a lot of secondary sources, and I read Chinese philosophy morning, noon and night. I just immersed myself in it. And what happened was I grew to really love it. And not just philosophy. I grew to really love China. And I devoted a lot of time over the subsequent years to developing an expertise in Chinese philosophy. We can’t just be cultural exporters. We have to be cultural importers, too.”

— Kelly Clark

While on sabbatical in St. Andrews in 1995–1996, Calvin professor of philosophy Kelly Clark made a China connection that flourishes with Calvin’s philosophy department to this day. Clark befriended a professor from Xiamen University and returned to Calvin with the idea for an academic exchange. The philosophy department at Calvin had been trying without success to forge a partnership with Peking University. Clark pitched the idea of working with Xiamen instead.

“Within a few months, a colleague and I were flying over to Xiamen to do a seminar with grad students. China is desperate to learn about the West, and most of the best philosophy in the past 200 to 300 years has been in the West,” said Clark. Soon after, Clark taught the interim course that gave him so much homework, part of which was hosting a Chinese professor from Xiamen.

“Part of the assignment was that they had to do something with this professor outside of Calvin. I wanted them to learn about Chinese culture. My students took him out to the mall, took him bowling,” he said. Over the last six years, nine Calvin professors have taught graduate seminars in Xiamen, and five Chinese professors have taught at Calvin. For five years, outstanding Chinese M.A. and Ph.D. students have attended Calvin for a year. “We’re trying to identify future professors,” Clark explained. He has also widened the program to allow other U.S. colleges to host Chinese students, aiming for the goal of 20 colleges hosting 40 Chinese students a year.

In 2004, the Calvin philosophy department switched its exchange program to Peking University, widely regarded as China’s Harvard. That same year, Clark taught an intensive mini-course in philosophy of religion at Wuhan University. “It was such a great teaching experience. They wrote a letter to me and read it out loud, and they were so grateful. I came home from that so excited about the opportunities for people to teach short-term in China.” In 2004–2005, Clark’s newest program allowed 11 Christian philosophers (including himself and two others from Calvin) to teach all over China.

In addition to these programs, Clark has since 1999 coordinated the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) conferences, rotating them among the elite Peking, Tsinghua, Wuhan and Fudan universities. Alvin Plantinga, Calvin professor emeritus and a luminary among Christian philosophers, participated in both the first and 10th anniversary conferences.

Literature is another facet of the philosophical exchange between Calvin and Chinese higher education. Last year, Peking University Press published Chinese translations of Clark’s Return to Reason and Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, and the publisher is now planning a series of books on the philosophy of religion. Clark’s book sold more copies in six months in China than it did in 10 years in the U.S.

More Online
Calvin teaches both Chinese and Japanese.

An Asian Studies program is available.

A semester-long program is available in China.

Read the entire history of Calvin's longtime connection with China.

While enjoying these many successful academic collaborations, Clark also acknowledges the challenges that come with them: “Philosophers seemed especially at risk in the Cultural Revolution,” he said. “The government sent them to prison; they were sent to farms to work.” The people who took their places in the classroom were communist party regulars. “So, you have untrained people, basically, teaching communist dogma and calling that a philosophy education.” Another part of the educational mix is the Chinese method of pedagogy, which relies heavily on memorization. “You still get students who are sort of passive receivers of the truth. They don’t think for themselves. They aren’t taught to think critically. We expect them to think for themselves and defend their views, and it’s very foreign to the Chinese students.”

And despite considerable successes in building a philosophical bridge that spans east and west, Clark himself still doesn’t “get” the culture. At the 10th anniversary SCP conference, his attempt to honor a Chinese philosopher went awry: “We gave him a clock, a really nice clock. It turns out in China, the one gift you don’t give anybody is a clock, because the word for clock has the same sound as the word for death, and when you give somebody a clock, it means you think they’re going to die. Their time is up. Fortunately, when he opened the gift, he just laughed and laughed. All the Chinese who were there found it really funny — but they knew we had made this big faux pas…. The chair started calling me Kelly Clock.”

The expatriates

I started in 1995. I took my son, Michael, with me, who was sixteen when we went — a junior in high school. I thought, “Let’s do something together.” I signed up, and we went, thinking it would be a one-year experience we could always think on and talk about. I did come back after my one year, but I came back very tearfully, because I realized that one year working with the people there was a very small amount of time. There were relationships that were just starting to be developed. Some of my students — it wasn’t until just before we were ready to leave that they started asking questions.

— Jana Brasser ’71

She’s been going back to China ever since, and, in addition to teaching English and English composition at Shandong University and Shandong Teacher’s University, Jana Brasser is continually answering her students’ many questions. “The Chinese students are just great,” she said. “It’s changing, and I don’t know that it’s going to be like this in two years. The university students — there’s still a wonderful innocence to them.”

Calvin alumni and families
Calvin alumni and families gather at the January conference for teachers in China.

Yet Brasser, who lives in China for 10-and-a-half months of the year, can sense the encroachment of the less-than-spiritual side of Western culture. “There is such a need to show people there that Hollywood is not what America is. There is such a spiritual void there.” So in addition to showing her students family-friendly movies and censoring the language they learn from other kinds of films, she spends time talking to them about their personal lives: their goals, values and dreams.

And for two years, Brasser has been able to watch as her son’s goals, values and dreams unfold from an easily navigable distance (“ten minutes by taxi, half-hour by bike”). Michael ’01, who lived in Grand Rapids while he attended Calvin, relocated to China in 2003 to work for Beijing d-Ear Technologies Co., Ltd., a software company in Beijing.

Michael, who majored in Asian Studies before it was an official Calvin major and whose wife, Christie Felsch ’01, works for Beijing International Christian Fellowship, said of his relocation: “I feel like I have the chance to learn new things every day, and the chance to teach others new things…. It seems like this is a place where God can use my specific abilities well, and a place where I’m challenged to continually grow in my faith.”

He finds some of the cultural adjustments amusing, “things like how to make sour cream from scratch, the best way to call family without spending too much money, and finding a bathing suit that isn’t ‘Speedo-style’ for swimming.” Other adjustments, said Christie — like “not understanding everything that goes on around you, getting stared at a lot,” using public transportation to go everywhere, and, most of all, being separated from family and friends for long periods — are not so easy to take.

The couple finds support in, among other things, the strong international Christian community at their church, Beijing International Christian Fellowship, where they worship among people from 60 different countries. “In that sense we are privileged to get a view of what heaven might be like that many people don’t get to experience,” Michael said.

“It’s one of the world’s oldest and most fascinating civilizations. China’s got the Great Wall. It has an ancient history and a vast culture. It also has the best food in the world. It also has some lovely, lovely people.” — Larry Herzberg The Brassers, all three, are part of a growing trend of Calvin students who are seeking opportunities in China, said Calvin professor of Asian languages Larry Herzberg: “There is a tremendous amount of job opportunities in an economy that’s growing so fast and that has rapidly joined the rest of the world. So we’ve seen a number of Calvin grads, in the last five years or so, decide that they want to move to China to work.”

“He loves it,” Brasser said of her son. “He’s the only foreigner working in his company. He’s a strong leader with good morals, and I think he has been a real testimony that way.”

And even though she, too, loves her adopted country, Brasser feels the pressures of providing something that, to the Chinese, is a valuable commodity: “Sometimes you get caught in this kind of feeling like you’re an English machine, and your value is only that you speak English…. If anyone wants to get a sense of what it feels like to be a pop star, they go to an English corner (a public area where Chinese people practice speaking English) because you get surrounded by Chinese people who want to hear what you say.”

But she also feels the value of the other lessons she provides: “The first year that we were there, a student said to me before we left, ‘You know, in the way you and your son interact, I can tell there’s something different. And, you know, you treat all of the students equally, and somebody said that has something to do with your religion. Is that true?’ He had just adopted Buddhism. I told him yes. And he said, ‘I guess I need to look at this religion stuff more.’”

The student

I got accepted, and I came.— Lin Xu '05

He actually came from California, where he attended high school. But Lin Xu originally hailed from China’s Sichuan province, where he was a sometime TV star. He came because “a foreign education will be more to my advantage. Calvin is a wonderful, wonderful school.” While he studied business, Xu also demonstrated his virtuosity on the accordion at Calvin’s jazz vespers services, at local nursing homes and in various concert settings. He graduated in 2005, and in his current job, working as an interpreter and project coordinator with Chinese delegations to the U.S. for Washington D.C.–based Triways Enterprises, he’s grateful for the foundation he laid at Calvin: “I’ve come to appreciate the whole liberal arts education after working. It requires the balanced knowledge instead of knowing one thing in one area.” Of his native land, he said, “I think it’s economically developing and … kind of trying to look up to these other foreign countries to become like them in a way. And there are a lot of things China still needs to catch up. I think the change overall is very positive.”