The Legacy of Chinese Christianity and China's Identity Crisis

I would like to begin with a review of the history of God’s interaction with the Chinese people, including the centuries-long efforts to bring the Gospel to China since most Americans, even most Chinese people, are very unaware of the long legacy of Christianity in China:


  • General Revelation to the Chinese people: biblical O.T. symbols found in Chinese characters.
  • early monotheistic worship (including by Confucius and Mencius) of Shang Di who resembles Yaweh as a personal, sovereign God; the writings of Lao Zi, founder of Taoism, who mentioned a “future saint” who resembled a messianic Christ figure
  • First Century contacts between the East and West in the period when the Han Dynasty was contemporary with Rome (200 B.C. - 200 A.D.):
    • Chinese envoys explored the Silk Road route to the Kabul valley 48 B.C. and by 97 A.D. were on the frontier of “Da Qin” (the Roman Empire), having reached the Black Sea.
    • South Indian Christians claim that St. Thomas established their church in 52 A.D. and then traveled on from India to China.
    • A Chinese Christian seminary professor has written in recent years about possible evidence of a very early Christian presence, including an iron cross dating to around 220-250 and biblical symbols of Middle Eastern style in Han bronzes and stone tomb carvings, one with a dynastic date equating to 86 A.D. [This would make Christian influence simultaneous with Buddhist influence, which entered China in 65A.D. and by 400 was the dominant religion of 90% of the population.]
  • First – Sixth Centuries: Trading missions likely brought some witness of Syrian Christianity (Aramaic-speaking) to Central Asia or even further into China.
    • Legend of Prester John (ruler of a “Christian kingdom” in Cathay)
    • Western Syrian Church [“Jacobite” church]. Patriarch based in Antioch (within Roman empire), the western terminus for overland trade. Sent missions to the Arab peninsula, Palestine, Syria and Egypt and perhaps eastward as well.
    • Eastern Syrian “Church of the East” (the “Nestorian”Church) Patriarch based first in Persia [at Seleucia-Ctesiphon in today’s Kurdistan] and then after 775 in Baghdad, with schools and libraries in Edessa and Nisibis. Adopted the Nicene creed in 410, and as of 424 was given equal status to those in Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. Adopted a Nestorian confession of faith in 484, and sent missions to Arabia, India, and Central Asia (after 498). [The Church of the East advanced along with two other Persian religions:-- Manicheaism and Zoroastrianism.]
      • Church of the East documents beginning in the 5th century record contact with the Chinese.
      • In 549, the “white Huns” (linked to Tibetans) requested that the Patriarch send them a bishop, since they had converted to Christianity (no details known).
      • In the early medieval period, the Church of the East was the most widespread “wing” of the church in the world, crossing many cultural barriers. Yet by the late middle ages, it was nearly exterminated and forgotten (drowned in a sea of Islam, leaving little in the way of archival records) until the 19th century. There are tiny communities of Assyrian Christians in the Syrian Khabur Valley, in Kurdistan around Lake Urmia, and in Mosul and Baghdad, as well as in the West.

Historical Evidence:

1. 7th c. Tang Dynasty Toleration: An official mission of the Church of the East mission [perhaps from Central Asia] arrived in today’s Xian, then the capital of China, in 635 at the request of the new Tang Emperor. Although the official state religion was Taoism, as the new dynasty claimed descent from Laozi, it appears that Christianity -- called the “luminous religion” or “religion of light” [jing jiao]was given a privileged position for a time, following a period of official review of its newly translated scriptures. There was general toleration of all religions.

    a. The “Nestorian stele” (a carved stone pillar), which was discovered in 1625 and still is housed in a Xian museum, is an official Tang “document” from the year 718 recording a brief history of the “Religion of Light” and the Emperor Tai Zong’s permission to freely teach throughout the empire (which then included Kryrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan),. By the end of the 7th century, the Church had established churches in ten Chinese provinces, and had powerful patrons, including a powerful Prime Minister/General who founded churches and whose daughter became Empress. Emperors even periodically attended services.b. South of Tang territory, by the 8th century a strong church existed in the huge Tibetan empire (which then included today’s Tibet plus several neighboring provinces including Xinjiang, and also northern India and Pakistan). Meanwhile, Nestorian M’s had also gone on to Korea and Japan. [There are said to be resemblances in the rituals of Nestorianism and Lamaism; Buddhism arrived in Tibet in 640, and did not become dominant until the 13th century.]c. In 1998, a major Nestorian church and monastery complex was found 50 miles west of Xian within the Tang imperial tomb complex, suggesting its special status. The derilect library pagoda has been shored up and the site is now being excavated.d. There are a very few extant Chinese translations/compilations of some of the Nestorian scriptures that were written from 640-720. The Nestorians in China as of 641 were using a calendar centered on Christ’s life, which likely is its earliest recorded use anywhere (twenty years before adoption by the British church).e. In 843 and 845, however, Tang Emperor Wu Zong issued a ban on the monastic religions of Mannicheaism and Buddhism, which also gravely damaged the Church of the East, as all monks were returned to secular life. A Nestorian monk sent by the Patriarch one hundred years later [in 987] to minister in China found no churches or Christian communities and returned to Baghdad. Meanwhile, Islam had spread in China [in the late ninth and early tenth centuries.]

2. Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty (1206-1368) Toleration: The Church of the East again made a major mission advance along the Silk Road among Turks and Mongols in the 10th and 11th centuries, and its revival spread widely in China proper. Northwest China had a major Church presence. (Sutras from the Dunhuang Caves in the Gansu corridor testify to this period). Historical documents from 1076 to 1281 refer to monasteries, bishops, churches, and imperial court appointments as scribes, physicians, and artisans.

    a. Marco Polo mentioned finding Christians in parts of China, including in Xiamen, Fujian on the East Coast, and returned to Europe in 1260 with Kubalai Khan’s request for 100 Christian missionaries.b. Shortly thereafter [1280], two Nestorian monks from Beijing started out on a pilgrimage to the West; one was appointed the Patriarch of the whole Nestorian Church, and the other conducted a diplomatic mission for the Great Khan emissary to Constantinople, Rome and Paris, during which the Pope and the King of England both received communion with him.c. From 1300-1370, John of Montecorvino (who arrived by sea and was later appointed by Rome as Archbishop of Beijing and Patriarch of the East) and his successors established a major Catholic community (mainly Mongol) in Beijing and other major cities, until expelled from China.

3. Early Ming Dynasty (1369-) persecution: By 1400, however, the institutional Church of the East again had been extinguished in China through a general persecution of “alien” religions, while it was devastated throughout Central Asia and the Middle East by Timurlane (1336-1405). Islam became the dominant religion in Mongolia and Central Asia, and by the early 16th century only Islam and Tibetan Buddhism had influence in Xinjiang. ---200 year hiatus--4. Late Ming-Qing (16-18th Century): Jesuit Missions became the first to make significant numbers of Han Chinese conversions (vs. ethnic minorities and the foreign community) and also made major inroads in the educated court elite as “foreign experts” and “Confucian scholars”:

    a. Matteo Ricci (in China 1582-1610) first obtained permission in 1600 for the Jesuits to live in Beijing, as well as other major cities, not just their base in the Portuguese colony of Macau. He was surprised to find (around 1605) Christian relics (a bell in Beijing inscribed with a cross) and pockets of Christian communities in Central China, including Kaifeng and Nanjing, but these Christians had limited knowledge of their faith (just the psalms) and only a few customs (the sign of the cross).b. Adam Schall as next leader of the Jesuits by 1640 had several thousand converts, including around 200 members of the imperial court. In 1644, when the Ming was overthrown, he feared the loss of decades of effort, but was relieved when the new Manchu rulers (Qing Dynasty) retained Schall’s services in the Calendrical Dept. and also appointed him head of the Bureau of Astronomy. Yet after showing great interest in Schall’s teachings for a time, Emperor Shun-chih turned toward Buddhism; following his death in 1661, the Jesuits were accused by their enemies of heresy, espionage. Schall’s alleged “one million converts” were said to be plotting rebellion. Schall and his successor Verbiest were placed under house arrest, and all other missionaries were expelled and Catholicism banned.c. When the Kangxi Emperor came to the throne at the age of 14, Verbiest quickly gained his confidence by displaying his calendrical expertise over competitors and by 1669 he held Schall’s old position at court. Verbiest assisted other orders to enter China, and helped negotiate the Sino-Russian Treaty of Nerchinsk The emperor showed the Jesuits special favor and issued an Edict of Toleration for Christianity in 1692. After this time, Russian Orthodox Christianity entered China as well, and from 1730-1930, its Chinese followers grew from 50 to 10,000.d. Unfortunately, in-fighting between Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans led to papal interference, which greatly alarmed and offended the Emperor, leading to elite hostility and local persecution, and finally a ban on Christianity as heresy in 1724, which persisted under the son and grandson of Kangxi. For a while, scattered Catholic communities in Shandong, Sichuan and Guizhou continued their practices, until violent persecution forced Christianity totally underground. By 1800, there were perhaps 40 Catholic M’s and 40 Chinese priests left in all of China.

5. 19th c. Protestant Missions, growing out of the 2nd Great Awakening: Late-comers to missions, British and American Protestants began their arrival in China with Robert Morrison, who joined the Western traders restricted to Macao and Canton in 1807 -- 200th anniversary Sept. 7, next year. Protestants also experienced cycles of relative persecution and toleration (often obtained only by the force of Western government and military coercion.

    a. Slow gains of the first Chinese converts came in the face of negative social reaction to the unequal treaties of the 1840s after the Opium War that forced China to open up some coastal ports to trade, and allow both missionary work and Chinese conversions.b. The Taiping Rebellion with its capital in Nanjing took over most of So. China in the 1850s-60s, raising missionary hopes at first until they realized it had become a pseudo-Christian cult. The loss of 20 million lives and the devastation of whole provinces tarnished the reputation of Christianity.c. Despite such tragic conflicts, both Missionaries and Chinese Christians made major contributions to China’s modernization by leading campaigns against famine, illiterary, foot-binding, the use and sale of opium, and the unequal treaties, as well as by founding modern media, universities and hospitals -- still China’s best today. Timothy Richards was an advisor to the late Qing reformers of 1898, and Republican revolution against the Qing was led by Chinese Christians, including the “father” of modern China, Dr. Sun Yatsen. There is renewed interest today in progressive ideas and practices from the Republican era of the 1910s and 1920s, when Chinese Christians shared the optimism around the world that liberal democracy and Christian moral culture would bring the world together.d. Such hopes were dashed in China by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which betrayed Chinese interests by giving away Shandong and other Chinese territory; this sparked the anti-imperialist nationalism that still colors the Chinese mindset today.e. Major Christian revivals accompanied the anti-Japanese and Civil Wars, led by missionaries like Marie Monsen and Chinese evangelists like John Sung -- perhaps God’s preparation of His church for the 1949-51 Communist takeover and expulsion of all foreign missionaries. At that time, there were an estimated 3 million Catholics and 1 million Protestants.f. 1960s-early 1970s church completely underground, all religious belief or practice banned until 1980….

5. The rapid and continuing post-Mao revival and expansion in only 25 years has led to 12 million Catholics (combining registered and underground), 20 million registered Protestants, and around 40 million unregistered (total 70 million). This has occurred under limited political toleration but an open economy and society; with gradual growth of foreign “tent-making” missions and Chinese evangelism and cross-cultural missions within and across China’s borders.

Let me share some reflections to summarize this long and complex legacy:

(1) There is a much longer history leading up to the church in China today than most Chinese or outsiders generally are aware of, if we give full credit to earlier mission efforts and the contributions of Chinese Christians through the ages. Basically, Chinese have been told since 1949 that Christianity is a foreign religion that has served the cause of Western imperialism since the 19th c. Meanwhile, Protestants have focused on blaming the “failure” of the Nestorians and Catholics on heterodoxy or syncretistic practices rather than appreciating what they accomplished against great odds. Samuel Morrison translated the whole Bible into Chinese for the first time, based on a Catholic text in the British Museum with much of the New Testament. Hudson Taylor followed Catholic practice when he shed the clothing and lifestyle of the coastal port Westerners to live and dress as a native in the interior.(2) Despite periods of complete extinction of the institutional church in China, there may well have been a continual presence of SOME witness to the gospel since at least the 1200s and possibly earlier. After periods of silence (when believers went underground), historical evidence often later showed that some DID survive and persevere, to be “discovered” during the next tolerant period. I think there will be new finds about this history in the near future, as archaeologists and historians start looking (e.g. Nestorian ruins in Xinjiang that have been mis-identified).(3) The spread of the gospel in China has occurred through fierce spiritual warfare in cycles of freedom and repression by the state -- Edicts of Toleration” and bans -- rather than in steady progress. We can see this dynamic in today’s China as well (1990s relatively open, repressive again since 2000). We tend to preach a gospel of personal pietism or even of prosperity, when we should be learning from the theology of suffering -- “the theme of the cross” of the Chinese church. It seems that the Kingdom of God sometimes grows out of the tragedies from conflict among the worldly kingdoms (Tiananmen, SARS).(4) There is an important history of religious toleration and harmonious co-existence among religious groups in China that could be drawn on as precedent for a new policy of religious freedom. If the Tang Emperors in 635 and the Qing rulers in 1692 could allow religious freedom, is it too much to expect in China today?(5) The Jesuits’ famous 16th century strategy of serving the state as “foreign experts” bringing in new ideas and technology, which helped sustain political tolerance and was well received by the social elite, actually was the role played earlier by the Nestorians and later by the pioneer Protestants as well. Robert Morrison later was the first modern “China expert” serving as interpreter and translator for both officials and traders. In fact, every generation of missionariess and Chinese Christians also have wrestled with balancing evangelism with ministries of service. The church is always affected by trends in international trade and politics, and we need to be more aware of these.(6) The key moments in Chinese history - the collapse of the Ming dynasty and later the Qing dynasty - were periods of openness to Christianity, as the elite sought to find a new social philosophy and ethics to suit new circumstances. This is happening today, as communist system is corroding and people hope Christian teachings can contribute to a moral renewal and a new post-communist modern Chinese identity . There is great interest in China in Christian faith and ethics, and efforts to publish the stories of the missionaries and research the lives of Chinese Christians.