Chao is mostly remembered for his role in RFT, which, in the words of Bruce P. Baugus, editor of China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom, “helped form a new generation of Reformed leadership within China and throughout the global Chinese church.”
From the earliest days of Protestant missions, foreign missionaries understood the need of training local pastors. The priorities given to this task varied. In many cases, circumstances helped to hasten the process.
This is what happened in Manchuria, a historical region of northeast China, in 1941, when the government forced all religious schools to close. This Yinkguo Bible Institute, which had become an isle of orthodoxy in a country where the siren of religious liberalism was attracting many.
The school’s president was J. G. Vos, son of the renowned Princeton professor Geerhardus. Before leaving for the States, Vos asked his friend, assistant, and former student Charles H. Chao (Chao Chung-Hui) to be the school’s caretaker, hoping that the situation would soon change.
Translator and Pastor
Born on August 2, 1916, Chao was raised a Christian by his mother, who had encountered Christianity in her youth. Of all her children, only Charles shared her faith. In 1935, Charles attended the first Manchurian Christian conference at the Yinkguo Bible Institute and was so impressed by the teachings of the main speaker, Wang Mingdao, that he applied to become a student at the institute and dedicated his life to serving Christ.
By then, Chao was already married. As it was customary, his marriage had been arranged by his mother. Because of the uncertain times, the ceremony took place when Chao was only sixteen. His bride, Li Yu Chen Chao (Pearl), was not a Christian but Charles’s mother sent her to a nearby Bible institute where she learned about Christianity and was baptized. Their first son, Theodore, was born in 1936.
After an internship in Northern Manchuria, Chao returned to the seminary on the invitation of J. G. Vos, who was looking for an assistant. Vos introduced him to the writings of Loraine Boettner, lighting in Chao’s heart a desire to translate them into Chinese. Following Boettner’s advice, he started with The Inspiration of Scriptures. This was just the first of Chao’s numerous translations.
After Vos’s departure, Chao took care of the school’s grounds for fourteen months, until the government claimed them. He then moved to Tashihchiao, where the local pastor needed an assistant. He stayed there until 1945, when the Japanese surrendered. The people of Manchuria rejoiced to see the Japanese leave their country. But their joy didn’t last long, because Russian troops soon replaced them.
Out of the Tiger’s Mouth
This began the long struggle between the Soviet army and the Chinese Nationalist movement. It was a harrowing time for the population, who was forced to submit to the Russians’ demands for food, services, and women. In his autobiography, Out of the Tiger’s Mouth, Chao remembers one time when the Russians asked him to find them some women. He had heard of locals who had been killed for refusing to comply. Thankfully, some unexpected circumstances forced the Russians to let him go unharmed.
Another time, right after the birth of his seventh son, William, a group of Chinese communists abducted Charles from his house and brought him to their headquarters where he and other Chinese captives were forcefully enlisted to march before their troops as a human shield. Taking advantage of a moment of confusion, Charles managed to escape.
Clearly alarmed, the Chaos decided to move to Mukden, which was under Nationalist control. There, Charles worked as an interpreter for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), shipping American relief supplies to Chinese distribution centers. It was a demanding and stressful job. Longing to put his pastoral training to practice, he was glad when opportunities arose to teach English first in a local school and later at the Mukden YMCA, where he was also able to introduce young Chinese to Christ.
During this time, he corresponded with Vos and Boettner, who encouraged him to continue his studies in the States. In fact, they had procured for him a scholarship at Faith Seminary of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), in Tacoma, Washington, and had helped him to get a visa.
What’s more, Boettner was able to arrange for Chao a plane ride from Mukden to Shanghai on a Lutheran “mercy plane,” which was meant to transport refugees out of China. The door seemed wide open and Chao interpreted it as a confirmation that God wanted him in the States.
Crisis of Conscience
His conscience, however, kept bothering him. Could he really leave his wife and seven children in a country where the Communist forces were advancing rapidly and often violently? He had been encouraged to go by his father-in-law, where Pearl and the children were staying, but doubts kept resurfacing.
He was fully aware of Pearl’s challenges. In her own words, from the time Charles had left, their family had been suffering “separation, anxiety, and all the daily inconveniences and perils of life in the middle of a civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists.”