Christianity in China

Handbook of Christianity in China, Vol. II: Continued

Review of Handbook of Christianity in China, Volume Two: 1800-present, edited by R. G. Tiedemann. (continued)

he contents of this magisterial volume deserve careful reading by everyone interested in Chinese Christianity, but the length and cost of it will probably be deterrents, so I offer this series of rather thick reviews in order to give a taste of its riches, and perhaps entice a few more to buy and feast upon it.

We cannot understand the residual resistance to Christianity among educated Chinese without a knowledge of the material covered in this section on the late Qing scene.

Late Qing Scene

Having been introduced to the main “actors” of 19th-century Chinese Christianity, we turn now to the “stage” on which they played their many roles.

There was a “Roman Catholic Revival” beginning in the 1830s, especially in France, whose missionaries promoted “the modern ‘mission civilisatrice’” of France,” under the powerful protection of the government. (281) Popes decreed that they should make the training and empowerment of Chinese clergy their highest priority, but this was resisted by the missionaries for almost a hundred years. “Depending for their work on French military protection, the[y] often saw their mission as an intimate extension of French economic and political interests.” (282)

Meanwhile, the Protestant world experienced widespread religious revival, one of the fruits of which was the modern Protestant missionary movement, in which there was “a remarkable degree of unity of purpose and international co-operation.” (283) They differed among themselves, of course with some looking for speedy, and perhaps superficial, conversion, while others, notably Calvinists and members of denominational societies, preferred a slow and steady approach that would yield solid growth. Over time, another debate arose, concerning whether missionaries should limit themselves to evangelism and church planting, or whether they should also engage in “good works” such as medicine and education. What would become a wide theological fissure was already starting to open.

Once again, the remarkable growth of the China Inland Mission receives notice, and once again the claim is made that the CIM engaged in only “extensive” itineration and evangelism, “promoting relatively superficial proclamation of the gospel,” rather than “intensive” and “in-depth building of churches.” (287) One has to wonder where this misconception comes from, for it could not be the result of a careful reading of the sources. The concluding paragraph of this chapter also records, without qualification, charges made against “faith” missions by spokesmen for “classical” societies that they worked without close coordination with a sending board at home which could properly select missionaries, and somehow failed to see to “appropriate distribution of . . . contributions” and to provide “an adequate supply of information from the mission field.” (289). At least for the CIM these statements are utterly inaccurate, and could easily have been known to be so at the time.[1]

Otherwise, this chapter, like all the others, is a model of concise and comprehensive clarity.

Chinese Historical Context

From the beginning the Qing dynasty government relied upon a small group of elite officials supplemented by a much larger, though still relatively small, class of educated mandarins and their employees. By the end of the 18th century, “administrative decay had set in,” aggravated by immense growth of the population “and the consequent overall scarcity of opportunities.” (292) To make matters worse, “the quality of most local office holders seems to have deteriorated as ineptitude, mismanagement and malfeasance spread,” widely. Worst of all, “corrupt practices were particularly prevalent amongst the sub-bureaucratic yamen clerks and runners.” (292) The whole system relied on a very delicate balance between local and central power, and between official administrators and members of the local elite.

When disaster struck, the entire structure could collapse. Floods, famine-causing droughts, and uprisings, which were all too common and quite devastating, could eviscerate the core of social and governmental control and lead to social breakdown. At all times, growing scarcity of resources exacerbated existing tensions between clans, villages, and factions, leading to collective violence, rural unrest, rebellions, and accelerating dynastic decline.

When foreign powers began to intrude, the situation became both more complex and more volatile. If, as often happened, local Christians could leverage connection with a foreign power – usually France – to protect or even advance their interests in competition with others, their success further fed anti-foreign rage. A worldwide silver shortage led to economic decline and prompted foreigners to import even more opium to make up for the shortage, further enraging Chinese officials, who linked opium to missionaries. The “scramble for concessions” begun by the so-called “Unequal Treaties” only intensified after the devastating defeat of China by Japan in 1895. As imperialist governments expanded their presence in China and ate away at the sovereignty of the nation, patriots fumed at the aggressors and the missionaries who depended upon the treaties for their multiplying stations in the interior. The further into the country they penetrated, the more Chinese connected them with the horrible disasters which were killing millions and impoverishing many more.

The Treaty System

The treaties which were extracted from a defeated Qing government both inserted new foreign rights into Chinese official and public life and forever implicated the missionaries who either assisted in the negotiations or benefited from the provisions, as each nation insisted on “most favored nation” treatment. In particular, when missionaries insisted on implementation of treaty “rights” for themselves and Chinese Christians, both local officials and non-Christian citizens resented the intrusion of foreign power.

The Sino-French negotiations in the 1840s not only led to removal of the ban on Christianity but also the return of confiscated properties that had been confiscated in the previous century or more, leading to bitter disputes over land as the Roman Catholic missionaries sought to obtain better property. The French led the way again in 1860 concessions that allowed missionaries to travel freely, demand punishment for those who injured missionaries or Chinese Christians, and build on property which they purchased. This final provision was surreptitiously inserted into the French version of the treaty and only discovered later. When it was, however, missionaries from other nations demanded that they, too be allowed to acquire land and build structures of all sorts. Naturally, “it incurred the indignation and a general distrust of the messengers of Christianity and French diplomats in China,” an attitude that was soon transferred to all foreign powers and Christian missionaries who reaped the results. (300)

French missionaries were in time granted assistance by consular officials in their frequent conflicts with Chinese authorities over land and taxes, and then ordained clergy received the right to dress like government officials and be treated as equals, further challenging the social order and antagonizing Chinese elites. Protestant missionaries “insisted, however, that they were entitled to the same privileges as Catholic priests and continually urged” their consular authorities “to secure equal rights for them.” (302) The major exception, again, was the China Inland Mission.

This led to hundreds of so-called jiao’an – religious legal cases — in which missionaries and their Chinese converts were involved, as they asserted rights to property and protection in the courts. As a result, though “anti-missionary conflict was to some extent part of the growing resistance by the Chinese people to the increasing pressures exerted by the foreign powers, it should also be recognized that anti-Christian violence tended to be intimately linked to existing tensions within and among local systems.” (303. Emphasis original.)

Another cause of anti-Christian conduct was the growing perception that Christian missions presented a fundamental challenge to the Confucian social order, as missionaries in general “launched an uncompromising attack on the Confucian value system.” Furthermore, missionaries “affiliated with the ‘classical’ missions . . . advocated their version of ‘modernisation’ (for example, Western learning; the provision of medical services; promotion of individualism) as China’s way forward to ‘salvation’ – if need be at the point of a gun.” (305). The CIM, once again, is the major exception, though there were others.

Sectarian movements which could merge with Christianity were yet another source of official opposition. Often rebellious, these also tended to de-stabilize social order. When sectarians joined the Christian movement, and then aligned themselves with foreign powers, they were properly seen as subversive, and evoked strong persecution at the local level. Of course, many former members of sects became Christians because they found the answer to their spiritual quest. But when they refused to join in temple sacrifices or even pay taxes to support temple activities, they aroused the ire of their neighbors for withdrawing from the social fabric.

Religious cases also stemmed from attempts by Protestant missionaries to acquire property in the interior like their French counterparts, and then called in consular authorities to back up their claims. Some missionaries were not reticent about their opinion that change would come to China only if it were imposed by force from the outside. After the outrage at Yangzhou in 1868, the CIM resolutely refused to seek help from either local or foreign authorities, preferring instead to trust in God’s protection.[2]

Provoked to the point of exasperation by these repeated insults to their national integrity, the Chinese government’s Zongli Yamen circulated a Memorandum in 1871, asserting that the missionaries’ right of exemption from local laws (extraterritoriality) was the core problem, aggravated by criticisms of Confucianism and interference in legal cases. The foreign powers rejected this overture, laying the ground for the furious response of the Boxer Rebellion at the end of the century, which was supported by the Qing government.

The CIM is singled for its missionaries’ adoption of Chinese dress, living among the people, and distance from foreign government help. Even when, as with the CIM, missionaries did not interfere with the local administration, their very presence irritated officials who resented what they represented. Contrary to the impression given in this chapter, however, popular response was usually quite warm and favorable, even if converts were relatively few. Except in a few places, such as Hunan and Shandong, missionaries found many who welcomed their message and their acts of charity and love, and a solid foundation was being laid for the growth of today’s Chinese church.

Missionaries of other societies, alas, were not always known for their appreciation of local customs. “Among the Americans, for example, there seems to have been an explicit sense of cultural superiority in their refusal to blend into their Chinese surroundings.” (318). Living in a foreign compound in foreign-style buildings, separated from their Chinese neighbors except for those whom they employed, they stood out as foreigners in every way. And yet, despite the impression given in this chapter, most Protestant missionaries seem to have been generally appreciated by those whom they came to serve.

Female missionaries

Especially with the CIM, but also among Roman Catholics and, later, denominational Protestant missions, female missionaries assumed a growing role, until they comprised two-thirds of the total foreign missionary presence. On the one hand, they were able to reach women and children as men could not, and were greatly loved; on the other hand, their counter-cultural lifestyle, especially when they were unmarried, shook the roots of Confucian society, and even more when single Protestant women taught Chinese girls in missionary schools.

Protestant advance into the interior

Charitable work, particularly famine relief, brought a sharp reduction in anti-missionary and anti-Christian feeling in the latter part of the 19th century. Both the CIM and other societies worked together with the government to alleviate the horrible suffering of those whose lives were devastated by floods, drought, disease, and famine. These “good works” earned a great deal of good will, though anti-foreign feeling could re-surface quickly.

That brings us to motives for conversion to Christianity. These included material incentives, not just during famines but also when Roman Catholics could get privileged access to land; other Christians were given legal protection; many were employed by missionaries; and there was prestige and power attending association with foreigners. Spiritual incentives included a sense of having found the truth and life-changing power that they had been seeking in other religions.

On the other hand, those who resisted the missionaries and their Chinese converts usually did so because they saw the missionaries as “formidable political actors” and their followers as agents of the foreign interloper. (325) When religious cases were settled in favor of the Christians, large indemnities might be imposed. In some instances, Chinese officials who had failed to prevent violence were removed or even punished. When a large number of American missionaries later became involved in diplomatic and consular work for their government, they naturally wanted to see their former colleagues protected, and further convinced the Chinese elite that missionary and military officer were co-conspirators in a plot to destroy china as a sovereign nation.

The Boxer Uprising

No one should have been surprised, therefore, when all these irritants finally converged to produce the Boxer Uprising, which is well described in this section. Though an awful drought precipitated widespread social violence, the slaughter of thousands of Chinese Christians and a few hundred missionaries must be attributed to decades of rising resentment and fear.

(To be continued)

G. Wright Doyle


  1. The last five volumes of A.J. Broomhall’s Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century (now published as The Shaping of Modern China) provide ample evidence of the tight but flexible organization, strong home council involvement, financial frugality and accountability, and almost unparalleled dissemination of information from the field from the inception of the CIM, in strong contrast to the Chinese Evangelisation Society with which J. Hudson Taylor was first connected.
  2. Alvyn Austin once again gives a false impression by claiming J. Hudson Taylor changed his story after the event.