Culture and Religion: How “Chinese” Is Protestantism in China?

As Philip Jenkins,(1) Lamin Sanneh,(2) and many others have shown, Christianity must no longer be considered primarily a “Western” religion, if indeed, that was ever an accurate concept.(3)That Protestantism has become a Chinese religion is demonstrated by its history; indigenous leadership; contextualized literature; rapid growth; geographical distribution; numerical strength; social impact; self-propagation; and official status. I shall expand on this statement briefly before talking about just how culturally “Chinese” this relatively new faith in China is.Christianity in various forms has been present in China far longer than in the United States, arriving for the first time in the Tang Dynasty (7th century).(4) For more than fifty years, its leadership has been entirely indigenous; what the Communists enforced when they took power in 1949 has fulfilled the original dream of missionaries for a Chinese church that is led by Chinese, with foreigners playing at most an advisory role.Since the translation of the Bible into Chinese in the early 19th century, Chinese and foreign Christians have produced a huge body vernacular Chinese Christian literature. Many thousands of titles of virtually all genres, including theology, Bible commentaries, gospel tracts, devotional helps, apologetic materials, biographies and books on practical Christian living have not only been translated from English but increasingly produced in Chinese. Chinese-language Web sites carry thousands of pages of sermons, topical studies, and other resources for the growing number of netizens inside China and around the world.Whereas two hundred years ago there were only one or two Chinese Protestants, and they lived on the fringes of the Qing Empire, now Christians can be found in all parts of Greater China, and some sections even have a majority of Christians. Wenzhou, for example, is sometimes termed “the Jerusalem of China” because of the large Protestant population. The geographical spread of Chinese Protestantism is now international: Just two months ago, I preached in a Chinese church in Cambridge, England. Last month, one of my colleagues visited a church composed of street vendors in Sofia, Bulgaria.Within Mainland China, the numerical growth of Protestant Christians has been so fast and dramatic that it has caught the attention of observers on the outside. Claims of total adherents run from the very conservative – perhaps 25 million – to as many as 130 million. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and reliable estimates of around 65 or 70 million evangelical Protestants are probably correct.(5)Despite its relatively brief history in China – only 200 years – Protestantism has in the past century become a major force in society, with an impact far beyond its numbers.(6) In recent decades, moreover, the explosive growth of Protestant Christianity has rivaled or even exceeded that of traditional Chinese religions and has even alarmed the government, which has produced internal surveys indicating that there may be more Protestants in China than members of the Communist Party, much to the chagrin of those whose theory of social evolution predicts the gradual withering away of religion. What bothers them even more is that the most rapid growth has taken place among the urban elites in the past twenty years.This expansion of Protestantism in China has resulted not only from the vigorous labors of missionaries from 1807 to 1949, but also, and much more, from the initiative of Chinese evangelists and lay persons, who have intentionally carried their faith to all parts of China and much of the world. In 2006, the 7th Chinese Congress on World Evangelization met in Macao, where over 3,000 Chinese evangelical leaders gathered to lay plans for the evangelization of the entire globe, including the Muslim world.Formal government recognition of Protestantism as one of five state-approved “religions” only affirms a reality that is beyond dispute.(7) In the chapter on religion in The Cambridge Companion to Modern Chinese Culture, we find the following statement about Protestantism in China: “The church is now a Chinese religion, fundamentally independent and poised to continue its success.”(8)

The “Chinese” character of Protestantism in China

That being the case, I shall now briefly consider what seem to be a few ways in which Protestantism in China, which was brought by Western missionaries who were very much a part of their own civilization, has become a recognizably “Chinese” religion, similar to, but distinct from, its Western parent.Lamin Sanneh(9) and Andrew Walls(10) have joined many others to point out the pervasive influence of culture upon Christianity in each society in which it takes root. Some would even argue that culture plays a determinative role in shaping Chinese Christianity.(11)The main thrust of this paper is to show that Chinese culture has impressed its stamp upon Protestantism in China from the very beginning. Rather than focusing on one particular manifestation of this phenomenon, I shall briefly survey a variety of ways in which a faith introduced by Western missionaries has taken on a distinctly “Chinese” flavor. In each case I shall be very selective, my purpose being simply to provide a few illustrations of what seems to be a pervasive pattern.

The Bible

Let us begin with the translation of the Bible into Chinese, with examples of ways in which not only the existing vocabulary, but also cultural values, have produced an indigenous version of the Scriptures. For Protestants, and especially for evangelicals, who form the vast majority of Chinese Protestants, the Bible is the ultimate authority for faith and practice. Cultural impact upon its translation will of necessity have profound influence upon the rest of the religion.As we all know, John’s Gospel begins with the words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” To render the word “Word” into Chinese, the translators could have chosen one of several possible Chinese terms, but they settled upon a word familiar to all of us, “Dao.” Like the Greek logos, dao carries a variety of philosophical and even religious connotations. Its use to refer to the eternal Word of God, who became flesh in the man Jesus Christ, at once allows Chinese readers to connect with this concept, but also requires extensive explanation, if the influence of the Dao De Jing, where the Dao is nameless and impersonal, is not to cloud the personal essence of the Christian revelation. On the whole, it seems to me that Chinese Christians have been able to tap into existing conceptions without too much confusion.Perhaps not the same can be said for the translation of the Fifth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.” Here, rather than employing a word that simply means something like “honor” – and there are several from which to choose – the translators decided to form a combined term that imports the venerable Chinese notion of filial piety. As a result, Chinese Protestants usually believe that the way to fulfill this command is exactly the same as it is in the Confucian tradition. Chinese Christian parents often expect the kind of unquestioning obedience and lack of two-way communication that their non-Christian friends do, in ways that seem unbiblical to Western Protestants, though it does challenge our radical self-centered-ness and obsession with personal autonomy.

Society as “family”

The word for “everybody” in Chinese is “big family.” This expresses the traditional Chinese view of society as a large extended family, with the emperor and government officials seen as “father and mother” to the people.This same concept pervades Christian interaction, and flavors conversation with a lovely intimate tone. The Bible calls Christians “brothers and sisters,” all being considered beloved children of a heavenly Father. That finds distinctive expression among Chinese Protestants, as slightly older Christians are “older brother” and “older sister,” and middle-aged or elderly members are called “uncle” and “auntie,” with further age differentials, when known, being more precisely expressed as “uncle older than my father,” or “uncle younger than my father.”Though Protestants call no man “Father,” the pastor and his wife, like the former emperors and even today’s government officials, are expected to serve as “father and mother” to the entire flock. This often creates pressures which lead to great stress and even exhaustion.

Respect for age and position

Oriental courtesy is famous, and rightly so. One feature of Chinese social interaction is the deference shown to elders and those in authority. We see this in the church when younger believers address older ones with their titles, such as Pastor, or Teacher. Even people who are only slightly younger than I am call me Pastor or Teacher Dai (my Chinese surname), whereas in America college students simply call me “Wright.”Not just age, but position receives recognition. The current president of China Evangelical Seminary, where I taught Greek for seven years, is a former student of mine. He has an English name, Paul, which I use in correspondence with him, but when we are speaking Chinese with each other I always address him as “President Lai.”

Patterns of leadership

We are all familiar with the imperial tradition of Chinese government, a style of governance that has only changed names and some outward forms in today’s authoritarian state, and which has recently been declared as non-negotiable by a top official. This top-down approach reflects Chinese patriarchal and generally authoritarian form of leadership in general, which has been a regular feature of Chinese civilization from its earliest days.We find a similar pattern in most Chinese Protestant churches. House churches in China, for example, are typically led by one man – or one woman – with almost total power. Co-workers assist the leader, but power and authority are generally vested in one person; there are few elections and little turnover at the top; and decisions made by the leader are expected to be followed. Some of these leaders preside over vast networks of believers, with hundreds of congregations and millions of members across several provinces.In the more traditionally-organized churches outside of China, though there is more semblance of Western-style “democratic” organization, de facto power still lies in the hands of the man at the top. As we have seen, he is expected, like former emperors, to be “father and mother” to his people; to care for them faithfully; and to lead them by example and precept.We are not surprised to learn that such a monopoly on power produces frustration among the more gifted and energetic assistants, with schisms and splits the inevitable consequence. Since currying favor with the ruler has always been the most reliable way to advance one’s career, fierce competition among peers is not uncommon.Furthermore, many institutions, such as schools, hospitals, and seminaries, established by Western missionaries with some “democratic” features at the beginning were turned into autocratic fiefdoms when leadership was turned over to Chinese Christians.

Ways of dealing with conflict.

Chinese rightly describe themselves as lovers of peace, valuing social harmony more than individual expression. This tendency carries over into dealing with conflict within the church also. It is true that most Western churches do not follow the procedures spelled out by Jesus for responding to someone who has offended us.(12) It seems, however, that Chinese Protestants are even more prone to avoid personal confrontation than we are, and to go around each other to others in order to convey anger or overcome an enemy. The usual practice is for an offended party to tell someone else, who is given the unpleasant task of conveying the message to the alleged offender. Again, we are not surprised to learn that this method usually fails to solve the problem.

The Confucian emphasis upon ethics

Since the time of Confucius, Chinese philosophy has largely concentrated not upon epistemology or ontology, but upon ethics. Ever practical, Chinese want a theory of life that tells them what to do more than what to believe. You find this in sermons and books by Chinese church leaders. Though they hold to the same doctrines as Western Christians, they spend much more time communicating the commands of God than they do in expounding upon the doctrines of the Bible or the promises to those who believe.Even such a staunchly-orthodox preacher as Wang Mingdao, who sternly criticized Chinese Protestants in the 1930s and 1940s who had accepted Western “liberal” theology, filled his oral and written messages with practical instructions on how to live, so much so that an analysis of them reveals the essentially Confucian orientation of his theology.(13)Though conservative evangelical Chinese still insist upon adherence to the creeds of the ecumenical councils and can give reasons for their belief, you find much less of the doctrinal wrangling among Chinese that fills the pages of Western church history. At a recent colloquium on Biblical interpretation in China, held at King’s College, London, I was struck by the consistency with which the papers pointed out the consuming passion of Chinese Christians for ethics, as distinct from doctrine.(14)Chinese pre-occupation with group identity, as opposed to Western individualism.Observers of the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics commented upon the ways in which large numbers of people had been mobilized for each part of the event. The director, Zhang Yimou, said himself that this could have done elsewhere only in North Korea! We saw, also, how the athletes, though surely eager to gain individual glory, voiced their aspiration to enhance the status of China in the world by their performances.To a degree which Westerners, including Western Christians, find hard to understand, Chinese tend to locate their sense of identity and worth in their membership in a larger group, such as a family or the nation itself. That leads to another feature of their culture that can be frequently observed among Chinese Protestants:

Sacrificing self and family for the group

Whereas Western Christians see themselves as discrete individuals whose first duty is to maximize their own happiness by making autonomous choices, Chinese, and Chinese Protestants in particular, will be more inclined to value the submission of the individual to the group, even to the point of sacrificing one’s personal interests for those of a larger social entity. The church benefits from this attitude of, as Chinese Protestants set a pace of service and an example of hard work that few Westerners can match.In the church, this shows up in the ways in which both leaders and ordinary members are expected to place the good of the congregation above the personal preferences of the individual. For example, church members will be assigned tasks not on the basis of their gifts or inclinations, but upon the current needs of the congregation. Absence from meetings is considered unspiritual, whatever the reason, and abstention from group activities, including outings for recreation, may be seen as disloyalty and selfishness.Leaders, in particular, must be willing to forego personal pleasure and even family responsibilities in order to serve their flocks. One pastor I know was roundly criticized for taking a two-day vacation over the weekend, thus missing the Sunday worship. Notable evangelists such as John Song in the 1930s and 1940s,(15) and “Brother Yun”(16) in the 1980s and 1990s, followed the example of ancient Chinese heroes(17) by spending most of their time on the road, expecting their wives to bring up the children and manage the household in their absence.

The influence of folk religion

Traditional Chinese religion can be fairly described as “instrumental,” in that the worshiper goes to the temple for tangible benefits – a job, a son, physical healing, revelation of the winning lottery number. Those temples which “produce” material benefits in answer to prayer and the offering of incense receive the greatest number of visitors and donations.A number of researchers have noted that much of evangelical Chinese Protestantism, especially in rural areas, resembles its non-Christian counterparts in the emphasis upon miracles that occur in answer to prayer. Millions of Protestants have been attracted to the faith because they or a family member have been healed from disease which medicine could not cure, or which they could not afford. Virtually every account of popular Protestant Christianity emphasizes the prominent role that miracles play in the explosive growth of the churches. The “negative” side of this phenomenon is the tendency of this sort of Christianity to focus not on salvation through faith in Christ, or the promise of eternal life, but on the hope of a better life in this world – a very “Chinese” pre-occupation.(18)

The ways in which a this-worldly orientation is reflected in the content of evangelistic messages.

This very pragmatic approach to religion is seen in the content of evangelistic messages to both uneducated and educated Chinese alike. In my visits to churches composed almost entirely of Chinese intellectuals, I have frequently been told that many people who are baptized fail to attend worship. Inquiring into the cause, I discover that these folks have encountered some difficulty in life, and Christianity has not “worked” for them. Probing a bit, I learn that they had been told that if they believe in Jesus, things will go well with them. That is precisely the message of Chinese popular religion.

The capacity to endure suffering

When I was first studying Mandarin, I was told that Chinese see themselves as a people who can “eat bitterness” – that is, suffer hardship without complaining or breaking. From the very beginnings of Protestantism in China, when government, neighborhood, and even family opposition to turning to Christ was intense, up to the present, when persecution of Protestants and Roman Catholics alike is still a very real danger for Chinese Christians, this capacity to suffer has enabled the Chinese church not only to survive but to thrive.One professor who leads a house church in a major city in China was told by his dean to close it down. He had already been denied promotions because of his open Christian activities, but this was a further threat to his very job and personal security. He responded to this demand by quoting a passage from the Bible that enjoins regular gatherings upon all believers. That ended the discussion, and his living room is stilled crowded every Sunday with students and fellow faculty members.


For almost two hundred years, Chinese Protestants sang songs that had been translated from English and other European languages. To some degree, that is still the case, as their hymnals consist mostly of texts familiar to most American Protestants. Increasingly, however, Chinese Christians have composed their own songs. In Taiwan, they set these to tunes that sound a bit like what I call the “easy listening” popular music that you might hear in a taxi, though much of it is deeper and more melodic. On the mainland, however, millions of house church Christians now use the thousands of original songs composed by a simple Chinese country woman with a remarkable musical gift, Lu Xiaomin.(19)Her songs are set to tunes in the traditional Chinese pentatonic scale, with its haunting melodies and often somber tone. The lyrics also reflect traditional Chinese themes, including images from the natural world, but thoroughly Christianized by words and themes from the Bible. Unlike the music emanating from Taiwan, where believers have enjoyed religious freedom for decades, these songs speak of hard work, commitment, dedication, a desire to take the Gospel around the world, and a willingness to suffer anything in order to serve God and follow in the footsteps of Christ. It is hard to listen to these without being deeply moved.Rudyard Kipling declared that East and West would never meet. Well, they have met in the countless congregations of Chinese Protestants who share a common faith with their Western co-religionists, but they continue to be distinctively East and West!