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Christianity in China

Christians in China: A.D. 600 to 2000

Jean-Pierre Charbonnier, Christians in China: A.D. 600 to 2000. Translated from the French by M.N.L. Couve de Murville. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007.Paper, 605 pages, including appendices, English, foreign-language and Chinese bibliographies, index.

T
his is a marvelous book, and represents the learned Sinology of a long line of French Roman Catholic scholars, going back for hundreds of years. Though he devotes most of his attention to the story of Roman Catholicism, the author does give fair and generous summaries of important aspects of Protestantism in China.

Charbonnier is qualified to write such an overview, having spent decades doing first-hand research both in China and in the archives of Europe, as well as traveling to Hong Kong and Mainland China more than 40 times since 1975. He is clearly at home in the Chinese sources to which he frequently refers. I wonder how many Protestant scholars could match his erudition.

His basic conviction is that “if one wants to understand Catholics in China of today, one has to know something about their past.” That is not easy, however, for most of the books on Christianity in China have focused on the work of foreign missionaries. Charbonnier wants to correct that imbalance by telling the stories of Chinese believers, which he does with admirable success. Throughout the book, we are treated to many accounts of both clergy and lay people who sought to live out their faith within Chinese society and culture.

Indeed, that is one of the main themes of Christians in China: “One … needs to ask why so many studies start from the assumption that Christianity is a foreign religion where China is concerned.” After all, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are considered two of the five religions of China by the government. So, he gives us the stories of Chinese Christians, “so as to emphasize the unfolding of a constant cultural interaction.”

In the process, he seeks to answer these questions: “How did the Church develop over many centuries in a civilization different from ours? How do Christians in China give witness to their faith? How do they contribute to the life of the Church Universal?” Such an approach requires not only a mastery of details, but an understanding of Chinese culture and the ways in which Christians have attempted to relate to their culture, both at the theoretical level and on a day-to-day basis.

One reason Charbonnier narrates Protestant efforts to relate the Gospel to Chinese culture is that he believes both they and Roman Catholics have encountered the same problems, and can learn from each other. Likewise, he includes excellent discussions of Islam in China, because he believes that the success of Muslims to root themselves in Chinese society provides useful lessons for Christians.

Indeed, as an evangelical Protestant, I have garnered a great deal from this survey of Roman Catholicism in China. One must admire the zeal of foreign and Chinese Christians alike; the painstaking lengths to which their missionaries have gone to acquire facility in, even mastery of, Chinese language and culture; their careful instruction (catechesis) of seekers and converts; their extensive travels and arduous labors; their courage in the face of persecution; and their dedication to their faith, even to the point of martyrdom.

Christians in China ranges widely, with extensive coverage of the various Catholic orders in China; the role of consecrated virgins, catechists, and converted scholars; Catholic villages; and the tangled mess of missionary work supported by the military power of foreign (mostly French) governments. He deftly handles the role of Christians in the modernization of China, and provides many examples of how Catholics participated in both social reform and patriotic defense of the country. At many points in his narrative, he emphasizes the fact that many Chinese accepted, or at least tolerated, foreign missionaries and their message because of its usefulness at the time.

He seems quite clear-sighted also about the twists and turns of 20th-century Chinese politics, including the religious policies of the Nationalists and Communists. Unlike many, he does not ignore the vital role which Christians in Taiwan have played in thinking through the possible interactions of Christianity and Chinese culture.

Charbonnier frequently expresses his own faith in the work of Christ on the Cross for our redemption from sin, and he correctly isolates this as the core message of the early Protestant missionaries and of modern evangelical Chinese believers, whom he obviously admires and appreciates. He also gives sympathetic treatment to Protestants like W.A. P. Martin and Timothy Richard who sought to follow the methods of Matteo Ricci. Throughout, his descriptions are accurate and charitable.

At the same time, this excellent volume highlights some of the significant differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Though he has absorbed, and clearly approves of, the reforms issuing from Vatican II (such as an emphasis upon Bible reading and the use of vernacular languages), Charbonnier consistently reflects his own Roman Catholic commitments.

Writing for a mostly Roman Catholic audience, it seems, the author naturally uses a host of technical terms which most Protestants would not understand. He assumes the entire Roman Catholic system of doctrine and practice, including adoration of Mary, prayer to the saints, strict ecclesiastical hierarchy, relics, pilgrimages, the efficacy of sacraments, and especially the supreme authority of the Pope, who is considered to be the Head of the Church on earth.

This last doctrine has become, of course, a point of intense contention since 1949, for the Communists have insisted upon severance of all organizational ties with foreign church bodies, and total autonomy for Chinese Catholics, who are thus no longer to be considered “Roman.” Consecration of bishops by prelates in the “Patriotic” Association has flown in the face of papal claims of exclusive authority to appoint the higher clergy. Likewise, recognition of bishops and naming of cardinals by Rome has angered the Chinese government, which sees such moves as unacceptable interference in the Chinese church. The “underground” Catholics in China continue to meet separately, to train and ordain clergy without approval from the state-recognized church, and to hold on to their fidelity to the Pope - all to the consternation of both the government and the state-sponsored hierarchy.

Charbonnier shows how the tensions between Rome and Beijing, and between “patriotic” and “underground” Catholics, have eased from time to time, and how each tries to reach out to the other, but he also relates ways in which the two sides continue to irritate each other. Only the future will tell the outcome.

Christians in China relates the story not only of ongoing cultural encounter between Christianity and Chinese culture, but also of the continuing cost of faithfulness to one’s faith. He makes no bones of his loyalty to the Pope, nor does he spare readers details of the sufferings of loyal Roman Catholic clergy and laity since the Communists came to power.

For me, both the most helpful and the most problematic feature of this volume has to do with the author’s really superb analyses of the intersections of Chinese culture and the Christian message at various times in history. Beginning with the oldest surviving documents of the Church of the East (formerly called Nestorians), up to very recent years, Charbonnier draws upon his own extensive knowledge of Chinese culture, including Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, to assess how faithfully missionaries and Chinese believers expressed their understanding of the truth in ways that would communicate to their contemporaries.

His judgment that the Syrian Christians did, in fact, preach a biblical message, though using many Buddhist terms, can be compared with the analysis of Samuel Moffett in A History of Christianity In Asia. Moffett agrees with Charbonnier that the Syrian Christians were essentially orthodox, but thinks also that they did engage in “compromise and accommodation beyond the usually acceptable limits of missionary adaptation.” (I, 310) .

The author explains the 18th-century Rites Controversy in a way that lays bare the multiple complexities of the decades-long dispute about whether Chinese Catholics could participate in ceremonies in honor of Confucius. He properly notes that the Jesuits, who worked mostly with the literati, sought to declare their version of Confucianism compatible with Christianity, whereas the Dominicans and others, who worked mostly with the lower classes, saw the rites as idolatrous. The Kangxi emperor’s judgment that the rites were civil in nature, and not religious, must be decisive for an understanding of his interpretation, but whether he voiced the beliefs of the masses who engaged in those rituals must be doubted.

In the end, the Jesuits’ accommodating approach was accepted by the Chinese ruler, but condemned by the Pope, only to be endorsed again by Pius XI in 1935. (What this does for the doctrine of Papal infallibility the author does not say.) Throughout the process, the Jesuits displayed far more understanding of official Chinese Confucianism, and indeed of Chinese literate culture itself, even if they did not quite grasp what was going on among the people as a whole. Their opponents were shamed by the exposure of their ignorance of classical Chinese documents when examined by the emperor. His scathing rebuke of the papal legate stands as a warning to all foreigners who would seek to enter into dialog with Chinese about their own culture: “Europeans cannot understand the meaning of our books correctly, but want to discuss them. They are similar to people standing in front of a door and wanting to discuss the things inside the house.”

A few pages later, to be sure, we are reminded of “the religious aspects of Confucianism” as the Yongzheng emperor contemplating the creation of a state creed based upon a mixture of Buddhism, and Taoism, and Confucianism, all under the supremacy of the monarch. Perhaps the matter is not as simple as some have thought.

While I am not sure I would agree with Charbonnier’s approach to the contextualization (inculturation) of the Gospel in Chinese culture – he speaks approvingly, for example, of a Chinese scholar who sought a “fusion” between the Gospel and Chinese culture, the tradition of the Jesuits - I greatly admire his learning, balance, insight, and core commitment to Nicene Christianity. I most highly recommend this volume.