H. L. Zia (Xie Hunglai, 1873-1916)


H. L. Zia (the Shanghai spelling of Xie Hunglai, which he always used in publications) was born in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, the oldest of seven children of a Chinese Presbyterian minister. His early education was in the Confucian classics. In 1892, he enrolled in the Buffington Institute (later Suzhou University), a Methodist college, where he studied English, mathematics, and science. He graduated in 1895 and was hired to teach physics and mathematics at the Anglo-Chinese College in Shanghai.

While teaching at the Anglo-Chinese College, Zia started his publishing career. He assisted college president A. P. Parker with translation work, and to help with this, he acquired a reading knowledge of French and German and studied Japanese extensively. In 1900, he took a part-time job with the Commercial Press in Shanghai, where he translated and edited textbooks in science, mathematics, and geography.

Zia’s interest in people, particularly youth, led him to begin working for the YMCA, which had been established in China in 1895. He was named secretary of the national board in 1904, a position which he held for the rest of his life. Further, his work with the Commercial Press led A. P. Willard, the director of the YMCA, to put Zia in charge of the YMCA’s publication department. In 1906, he resigned his position at the Anglo-Chinese College to devote himself full time to the work of the YMCA.


Under Zia’s leadership, the YMCA Press in Shanghai became one of China’s leading publishers. He was personally responsible for writing or translating over 104 publications over the course of his short working life, a pace of about 10 per year. These included everything from short pamphlets less than 25 pages long, to substantial volumes of over 200 pages. Zia also edited the Chinese language edition of China’s Young Men, both published by the YMCA, from its beginning in 1904 until his death.

Zia was a big believer in the value of reading: he believed that books opened a window onto the world and enabled the reader to transcend the boundaries of space and time. Not surprisingly, his writings covered a wide range of subjects, including religion, social service, health, personal development, politics, education, social commentaries, biographies, and stories.

Zia wrote in what was known as the “easy classical” style. He adopted forms from traditional Chinese writing with which his audience was familiar, inserted Christian values and moral lessons, and broke up his more serious discussions with stories and memorable comments and quotations.

This proved to be a very popular and effective approach, and it made Zia China’s first major Christian author.

One of his earliest works was Pioneers of the Cross. It was a relatively short work of 64 pages that contained a collection of short biographies of important evangelists, including William Carey, Robert Livingston, and Billy Sunday. The goal of the book was to provide Christian role models for youth in place of the traditional Chinese heroes.

Zia did not limit himself to Christian biography, however. His later work, World Leaders, followed the same pattern as Pioneers of the Cross, but included such diverse figures as Booker T. Washington, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Carnegie, along with some Christian leaders such as John Mott. The men who were selected had all risen from modest backgrounds to become important leaders through hard work and perseverance.

Last years

These two books are good illustrations of Zia’s approach to teaching ethics and to mentoring youth: he preferred to teach by examples of action rather than simply making statements about ethics or philosophy. These books are also examples of the focus on ethics and living in this world that Chinese Christians inherited from Confucianism and that is still an important part of Christianity in China today.

Unfortunately, Zia had never been in robust health, and in 1907 he contracted tuberculosis (known in that period as consumption). He went to Colorado for the better part of a year in 1909 to recuperate, then returned to China and took up residence in the mountains of Jiangxi. He had earlier written on health and hygiene; while in Jiangxi, he wrote another medical work, Consumption: Its Prevention and Cure.

Zia was aware that he would not recover from his tuberculosis, but he was determined to spend his last years continuing the work that God had called him to do. He moved to Hangzhou to return to his duties as editor-in-chief of the YMCA Press.

Zia had published a number of earlier works on issues related to science and religion, including Evolution and Christianity and Relation of Science and Religion. In fact, Christianity and science were the two major influences on his life and thought. He returned to these subjects in his final years in the book, Christianity and Science, published in 1915. Unlike most thinkers of his day, Zia argued that science and religion were not opposed to each other but were simply two different paths to arrive at ultimate truth. He argued that scientific methods yielded important and valuable insights into the natural world, and suggested that similar methods could be used in religion.

Despite his failing health, Zia continued to be involved in the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF). He was one of the Chinese delegates to the Federation’s conference in Tokyo in 1907. Most of the organization’s conferences were for national churches; the Tokyo conference was a rare international gathering featuring John Mott, one of the primary leaders of both the YMCA and the WCSF and a future Nobel Peace Prize winner (1946).

In 1914, Zia prepared Bible study materials and taught Bible classes in Hangzhou as a follow up to WCSF meetings in China. He was also chosen as one of 21 Chinese Christian leaders to join with missionaries in the China Continuation Committee, to promote missions work in China. Zia was the only writer on the committee, and was asked to chair the sub-committee on theological terminology, one of only two headed by native Chinese. When the work was done, Zia asked to be relieved of his duties due to failing health.

Even with his health problems, however, Zia continued to work: at the request of the local YMCA secretary, he began a Fortnightly Club in Hangzhou in 1914 to bring together the city’s business and civic leaders to discuss philosophical and ethical issues.

Zia died of tuberculosis in 1916 at the age of 43. He was so highly regarded that more than twenty memorial services were held in his honor.

Worldview and legacy

The incredible range of Zia’s work stemmed from his understanding that a fully formed Biblical worldview encompasses all of life. This was more than abstract ideas for him, however. In an age in which China was experiencing tremendous trouble and hardship, he saw in the Gospel the solution to China’s problems, as evidenced by his books such as What Christianity can do for China and The Need of Christian Education for China.

Zia’s lively curiosity, his understanding of China’s history, culture, and needs, and his thorough grasp of the full implications of the Gospel of the Kingdom led him to make a tremendous contribution in the early years of the Republic of China.

Next Steps

Zia sought to influence people for the Kingdom by every means available to him. Would you describe your own life in this way? Share Glenn’s article with a friend, and meet to discuss this question.


Order your copy of Glenn’s latest book, Portals, from our online store. You might also like to watch Chuck Colson’s Two-minute Warning, “Worldview 101.”

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