Yangshuo, China

Christianity in China

Is Christianity a "Chinese" Religion?

“No” – The traditional view

The answer to this question would seem to be obvious, at least to some. Almost all books on Chinese religion discuss Daoism (Taoism), Buddhism, Chinese popular religions, Islam and – as a belief system that often functions like a religion – Confucianism. The same goes for college courses on Chinese religions. Publications like the Journal of Chinese Religions rarely carry full articles on Christianity, though reviews of books about it are becoming more frequent.

Furthermore, the Communist “party line” since the early decades of the 20th century has been that Christianity is a noxious foreign imposition, carried on European gunboats and opium ships and forced upon an unwilling populace.(1) Chinese culture, it is asserted, has resolutely refused to accept this “foreign” faith.

Facing reality

On the other hand, a growing number of scholars and other observers are pointing to the rapid growth of Christianity in China and amassing impressive reasons for regarding Christianity – in one form or another – as an authentically indigenous, Chinese faith. This article will argue that Christianity should indeed be regarded as a truly “Chinese” religion, part of what is coming to be called “world Christianity,” for a number of reasons.

Official Recognition

Let us start with official government pronouncements. In the People’s Republic of China, the Religious Affairs Bureau oversees the work of the “five religions” – Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism.(2) Popular folk religion has not had an official status as a “religion,” but has been labeled a “superstition.” That may be changing, as the number of practitioners increases exponentially across China.

(The same legal situation holds for Taiwan under the Republic of China, with the difference that popular religion is fully lawful.)

Actually, we could simply end the discussion right here, for even the atheistic government considers two branches of Christianity among the five sanctioned religions. They have good reason to do so, as we shall see.

History

Although not as old as Daosim, Confucianism, most forms of popular religion, and Buddhism, Chinese Christianity is not a newcomer on the scene. Several of its branches have been present in China for more than a thousand years.(3)

Missionaries from the Syrian Church of the East (formerly called Nestorians) arrived in China in the Tang Dynasty and were accorded a warm welcome by the emperor. With his permission and support they built monasteries and churches.

During the Yuan Dynasty, both Church of the East and Roman Catholic Franciscan missionaries were allowed access to the Mongol court and given leave to carry out their activities.

Under the Ming and early Qing rulers, first the Jesuits and then Franciscan and Dominican missionaries operated with increasing freedom, until an Edict of Toleration was issued by the emperor.

Beginning in 1807, Protestant missionaries traveled to China to spread their brand of Christianity. They have grown since then to number in the tens of millions, as we shall see.

Thus, believers in Jesus Christ have been preaching their message in China on and off since the 7th century. Chinese Christian history is not as long as that of Daoism, popular religion, or Buddhism, but its time span does exceed that of Islam.

Numbers

In 1949, Chinese Christians numbered around one million. Though exact figures are impossible to gather today because of government restrictions, estimates of Protestants range from 40 million to as many as 100 million, Even taking the lower figure, which most consider too conservative, we can see that Christianity has grown at an exponential rate in China in the last five decades.(4) In some parts of the country 5% of the population are Christian. Credible estimates put Roman Catholics at about 20 million. If a recent government-sponsored survey result that there are three hundred million “believers” in China can be used as a benchmark, we can at least say that a very large percentage of these “believers” are Christians.

Geographical spread

For more than a hundred years, both Protestant and Roman Catholic believers have been found in every province of China except Tibet, where only recently has a small unofficial Protestant church has been reported. Chinese Christians worship in homes and churches throughout the Chinese world. Some areas have more Christians than others, of course. Wenzhou is sometimes called “the Jerusalem of China” because of its large proportion of Protestant believers. But virtually every other region of Mainland China, and every city where overseas Chinese live, has several Chinese churches or gathering points.(5)

Class representation

Christians in China today are present in all social strata, from the lowest to the highest. As David Aikman and others have pointed out, you can find taxi cab drivers, farmers, business people, students, professors, artists, musicians, writers, and even Party officials who consider themselves followers of Jesus Christ.(6)

Starting with massive growth in the countryside, Protestant Christianity in China has mushroomed into a widespread movement penetrating all levels of the population. Tens of millions of peasants are now joined by a growing number of intellectuals in the cities. Even general officers in the PLA have secretly – and, after retirement, openly – declared faith in Christ, usually under the influence of their children, who first encounter the new faith in college or while studying overseas.(7)

Social prominence

One mark of Christianity’s rootedness in Chinese soil is the prominence of professing Christians in high levels of government. Consider: The first president of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen, was a professing Protestant believer. China’s wartime leader and sometime President, Chiang Kai-shek, married the daughter of a wealthy Protestant, Charlie Soong whose family played a leading role in the government (more on that later). Some time after this marriage, Chiang converted to Christianity, though his personal life made many doubt the sincerity of his profession of faith.(8) After his retreat to Taiwan, however, he seemed to have changed, and a number of people who knew him believed that he had become a genuine believer in Christ. Chiang was given a Christian funeral in Taiwan when he died in 1975.

Chiang’s immediate successor as President was a devout Roman Catholic, Yen Chia-kan. He was followed by Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo who, though not a practicing Christian, had been baptized; read the Bible through many times in obedience to his father’s urging; and received a Protestant Christian funeral in 1988, conducted by the same Baptist pastor who had presided over Chiang Kai-shek’s memorial rites.

His successor as President of the Republic of China on Taiwan was Lee Teng-hui, a Baptist who openly proclaimed his faith in Christ. And Ma Ying-jeou, the successful Guomingdang (KMT) candidate in the recent presidential elections, is credibly rumored to have been baptized as a Christian in a charismatic Protestant church in Taipei in 2007.

Without commenting further upon the consistency of life or sincerity of belief of these prominent figures, we simply note that most of the standard-bearers of the Guomingdang (KMT) and thus the Republic of China for almost one hundred years have either been professing Christians or (as in the case of Chiang Ching-kuo) very friendly to Christianity. At the same time, they were clearly committed to the finer values of traditional Chinese culture. Apparently, neither they nor those around them saw any conflict between the two. If Christianity were not perceived to be, in some sense, a “Chinese” religion, would these politicians - of all men the most attuned to popular sentiment, even if they ignored it - have dared to identify with a totally “foreign” faith?

Institutional presence

Before the Japanese invasion and then the anti-Christian policies of the People’s Republic of China, the role of Christians in society was visible in the thousands of church buildings, schools, and hospitals dotting both rural and urban landscape.

Many of the elite universities and hospitals of China were founded by missionaries; this heritage is rapidly being uncovered and acknowledged today. Peking University, for example, grew out of Yanching University, a missionary institution. Several colleges were moved after 1949 to Taiwan, where they operate under their former names as at least nominally “Christian” centers of higher learning. Fujen University (Roman Catholic) and Tunghai University (Protestant) are two outstanding examples. Hong Kong, likewise, boasts several Christian universities, including Hong Kong Baptist University and Chung Chi College of Hong Kong Chinese University. These are staffed and run by Chinese, with only a few foreigners helping out.

This is not to mention the large number of Christian of secondary schools in Taiwan and especially Hong Kong and Singapore.

Christian hospitals, such as MacKay Memorial (Presbyterian) in Taipei, treat patients with world-class expertise in Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

To meet the needs of the church, dozens of Roman Catholic and Protestant seminaries train workers in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, as well as overseas. These offer college- and graduate-level theological education for several thousand students around the world. Faculty members are overwhelmingly Chinese Christians with higher degrees obtained in the West or in Greater China itself.

Cultural engagement

Roman Catholics have for more than four hundred years sought to engage Chinese culture in dialogue, and to express their faith in terms that acknowledge China’s Confucian heritage. Before them, the Church of the East expressed its doctrines in Daoist and Buddhist language. Since the Protestants began working in China in 1807, they have carried on a massive literature program aimed at expressing their understanding of Christianity in a variety of ways that might speak to those imbued with traditional Chinese cultural concepts.

Influenced by the writings and Confucian learning of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci in the 16th century, Chinese literati produced a number of works which expressed their understanding of Christianity in Confucian terms.(9)

After the translation of the Bible into Chinese by Robert Morrison and others, Chinese Protestant Christians like Liang A-fa began to compose evangelistic tracts and then books in an attempt to make the faith intelligible to their compatriots. The translation of the Bible is itself a huge attempt at inculturation (or contextualization), for apposite words must be chosen to express new ideas; sometimes even new words are invented (by combining existing characters in novel ways) to convey hitherto unknown concepts.

Over the past one hundred years, Christian literature produced (or translated) by Roman Catholic and Protestant Chinese has grown into a virtual flood, with thousands of titles available today. These range from simple Gospel tracts to learned commentaries in series written, edited, and published entirely by Chinese Christians. (One of my former students has published a commentary on the Letters of John that matches the best the West can boast.)

Chinese Christian music has developed from the matching of Scripture with traditional tunes to the wide variety of styles being written and sung today, some of it quite beautiful. The most widely-known Chinese Christian songwriter is an uneducated peasant woman, Lu Xiaomin, whose compositions have captured the hearts of millions of Christians in China and overseas.

In other words, Christians of all types have labored to make their faith indigenous in the widest sense of the term.

Self-government, self-support, self-propagation

In the People’s Republic of China, Christians carry out almost all their activities without the financial support of foreigners – the exceptions being some very limited help with literature, training and charitable work. The day of missionary domination and nurture is over, and has been for more than fifty years.

Not only so, but Chinese Christians long ago started taking responsibility for the further spread of the faith, both within China and around the world. In recent decades, Chinese house churches have sent thousands of evangelists to faraway provinces to carry the Gospel to people who have never heard. The “Back to Jerusalem Movement” represents a sense that Chinese should “complete the circle” of missionary work by completing the last leg of what they think of as a “west to east” advance of Protestant Christianity. Initial efforts were mis-guided and have generally ended in failure, but training schools have now begun to equip Chinese Christians to evangelize Muslims in their own nation and beyond.(10)

Overseas Chinese Protestants have organized a Chinese Coordination Centre of Worldwide Evangelism, which maintains an office in Hong Kong and holds large meetings every five years.(11) The last gathering, held in August of 2007 in Macau, featured both a tribute to the coming of the first Protestant missionary to China in 1807 and fervent declarations by the 3,000 participants of their intention to take their faith to people of all nations. In the United States, Ambassadors for Christ convenes a similar conference every three years, “China Mission,” at which hundreds of mostly younger Chinese are exhorted to break out of their natural cultural ghettoes and share their faith with people of other ethnicities both in North America and around the globe.(12) Both of these conventions feature displays by dozens of Chinese-run evangelistic, literature, medical, and media organizations seeking recruits and support.

Conclusion

Chinese Christianity is a very broad-based movement, with a history that spans more than a thousand years, extensive geographical spread, deep penetration of all social strata, conscious indigenization/contextualization of thought and practice, varieties of institutions, and intense zeal to propagate itself around the world.

Chinese Christianity is thus another branch of what has come to be called “World Christianity” by a growing number of historians and sociologists. It is part of the massive turning to the Christian faith that has transformed the religious landscape of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In short, Christianity can no longer be considered a “Western” religion – if, indeed, that appellation was ever accurate.(13)

To put it another way: If Buddhism can, despite its foreign origins and relatively “late” arrival in China, be regarded as a “Chinese” religion, then must we not also accord the same status to Christianity?

Notes

  1. For a representative statement articulating the view of the state-sponsored Three Self Patriotic Movement, see Luo Weihong, Christianity in China (Beijing: China Intrercontinental Press, 2004), pp. 2-41.
  2. White Paper; Religious Freedom in China: http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/zt/zjxy/t36492.htm In addition to the books cited in the notes above and immediately below, see Werner Burklin, Jesus Never Left China: The Rest of the Story – The Untold Story of the Church in China Now Exposed (Enumclaw, WA: WinePress Publishing, 2005) and John S. Peale, The Love of God in China: Can One Be Both Chinese and Christian? (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2005).
  3. For more detailed accounts, see David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc. 2003); Daniel H. Bays, editor. Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996); Jean-Pierre Charbonnier, Christians In China: A.D. 600 to 2000 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007); Ralph Covell, Confucius, the Buddha, and Christ: A History of the Gospel in Chinese (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1986); Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, Two Volumes (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1998, 2005); Stephen Uhalley, Jr. and Xiaoxin Wu, Editors, China and Christianity: Burdened Past, Hopeful Future (San Francisco: M.E. Sharpe, 2001).
  4. For the rapid growth of Christianity in China since 1949, see Aikman, Jesus in Beijing; Tony Lambert, The Resurrection of the Chinese Church (Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1994), and China’s Christian Millions: The Costly Revival (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Monarch Books, 1999); and Lamin Sanneh, Pillars of World Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 243-270.
  5. For details, see Lambert, China’s Christian Millions.
  6. Aikman, Jesus in Beijing, pp. 245-262; Samuel Ling and Stacey Bieler, Editors, Chinese Intellectuals and the Gospel (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1999).
  7. For conversions to Christianity by Chinese living in North America, see Fenggang Yang, Chinese Christians In America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 1999).
  8. Jonathan Fenby, Chiang Kai-shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003), p. 191; Jay Taylor, The Generalissimo’s Son: China Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), p.223.
  9. See Jean-Pierre Charbonnier, Christians in China, pp. 159-174, 201-21; Covell, Confucius, the Buddha, and Christ; Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations, pp. 243-270.
  10. Aikman, Jesus In Beijing, pp. 193 ff.; Paul Hattaway, Back to Jerusalem: Three Chinese House Church Leaders Share Their Vision To Complete The Great Commission (Carlisle: U.K., Piquant, 2003).
  11. http://www.cccowe.org/eng
  12. http://www.afcinc.org
  13. On “World Christianity,” see Peter Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxvord University Press, 2002) and Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, d2008).