An Orientation to China's Reforming Churches: Part Two

Article by   February 2013
Part II: A Brief History of Christianity in China

From the Christian point of view, the true center of world history is not money or political power but Jesus Christ, and the totalizing narrative of world history is the glory of God through the salvation of his people. In other words, under Christ, the church has the lead role in this drama, with city, state, and market playing supporting roles. As Scripture insists throughout, and Augustine reminds us in The City of God, the rise and fall of nations, global empires, and economic regimes serve, above all else, this singular redemptive and theological end realized in and through Jesus Christ, for whom the whole creation exists. So, from the biblical point of view, the most important news coming out of China is not the transformation of China's political economy or the shifting balance of global poweróitís not even how Christianity is impacting these developmentsóbut rather how Christ is building his church in China in our generation.  And this, above all else, is the truly remarkable change occurring in China today and, given the scale of this change, the world order.

Among the most striking examples of how Christianity is sweeping across the global South and East, tens of millions of Chinese citizens now profess faith in Jesus Christ. The staggering growth rate of Christianity in China over the last three decades has stretched Western imaginations (9). Yet the impression sometimes cast in reports on this growth - that Christianity is new to the Chinese scene - is not true.

Early Nestorian and Catholic Missions 

It is possible, as legend holds, that the apostle Thomas brought the gospel to China by AD 64; it is certain, however, that some version of Christian teaching has been present in China at least since the Nestorian missionary Alopen arrived in Changían (modern Xiían) in AD 635, during the prosperous Tang Dynasty (10).  Nestorianism survived into the thirteenth century and was widespread, although much degraded, throughout the Mongol Empire (especially among the Ongud) and Yuan Dynasty established by Kublai Khan.

Due largely to the conquests of the Mongols and the grave threat this posed to the West, beginning in 1243 numerous evangelistic/diplomatic envoys were sent to the Khan from Catholic Europe. First, Franciscans came to the imperial court and were mostly rejected; later, Marco Polo received a request from Kublai Khan for Rome to send one hundred wise and learned missionaries to convince the Khan and his people that Christianity was the true religion.  (Meanwhile, Nestorian monk, scholar, and diplomat Rabban Bar Sauma, born in Beijing, was off to Europe, meeting with Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos, Kings Philip the Fair of France and Edward I of England, and Pope Nicholas IV.)  Rome failed to meet Kublai Khanís request, but did dispatch the very capable Franciscan, John of Montecorvino, who arrived in Beijing shortly after Kublai Khanís death.  John was received well, experienced notable success (again, especially among the now largely Nestorian Ongud), and translated the New Testament and Psalms. The Catholic faith began to take root in China and John was eventually joined by other Catholic missionaries and consecrated the first Archbishop of Peking in 1308.

The Han revolt against Mongol rule and establishment of the Ming Dynasty, however, brought an apparent end to the budding Catholic faith in China. Although Islam continued to make significant inroads, Christianity languished under systematic restrictions. These Ming restrictions, in one form or another, hindered the mission to China into the late sixteenth century.

The Jesuit Mission & Rites Controversy

Prevented from entering China legally, the famous Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier passed away on the offshore island of Shangchuan in 1552 while waiting to be smuggled into the mainland. Eventually, the Jesuit mission to China was established at the new Portuguese trading post of Macau, where Matteo Ricci landed in 1582. Ricci was a brilliant man who, along with a few companions, devoted himself to learning the Chinese language and culture. His object was to extend the Jesuit mission into the mainland, communicating Roman Catholicism in terms Chinese intellectuals would readily embrace.

Realizing that Christianity and European culture were distinct even if thoroughly entangled, Ricci and his fellow Jesuits attempted to engineer an indigenous Chinese Roman Catholicism. Also aware of just how much Chinese intellectuals - Ricci's primary target - were steeped in Confucianism, Ricci tried to show that Confucianism and Roman Catholicism were compatible.  He argued, for example, that basic Catholic doctrines were latent in the principles of Confucianism and other traditional Chinese religious beliefs and practices. Rome, he argued, could accommodate traditional ceremonies like ancestor veneration and offerings to the emperor and Confucius as mere social or civil practices and not actual pagan rites or idolatry. This stance, however, resulted in a syncretistic version of Roman Catholicism that scandalized Dominicans, and later Franciscans, who eventually saw to it that some of Ricci's compromises condemned by Pope Clement XI (11).

Ricci's influence over Roman Catholicism in China, however, is felt to this day in notable ways.  The most striking of these is the crisp distinction Chinese make between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Protestantism is commonly called Jidujiao which means the religion (jiao) of Christ (Jidu) or simply Christianity; Roman Catholicism, however, is called Tianzhujiao, which means the religion of the Lord of Heaven (Tianzhu). Ricci argued that the long-established, complex traditional Chinese term Tianzhu referred to the Christian God in his catechetical dialogue, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (1603).  Although every available term for deity in the language of any un-Christianized culture will be freighted with unhelpful connotations, Ricci's use of this term, together with his accommodation of Confucian philosophy and devotional practices, was controversial and has sharply distinguished post-Jesuit (and post-Reformation) Roman Catholicism from Protestantism in China till today.

The Protestant Mission: 1807-1949

Protestant missionaries began arriving in China with the landing of Robert Morrison of the London Missionary Society in 1807 (12).  At first, they too were confined to certain coastal districts, but with Hudson Taylor's famous push inland and the altered relations with the West (epitomized by the opium wars and unequal treaties), Protestant missionaries were working quite openly throughout eastern China and penetrating the countryís interior by the end of the century (13).

Morrison was a studious man. Steeped in Scottish Presbyterianism he trained diligently, as best he could while still in England for his life's work as a pioneering missionary. Raised in a working class family, Morrison was neither as highly educated, nor as accomplished as were John of Montecorvino or Matteo Ricci when they set out for China. Nevertheless, ordained as a Presbyterian minister in a London congregation of the Church of Scotland just before departing, Morrison more than rose to the occasion. In the twenty-seven year span of his ministry - the rest of his life spent mostly in the vicinity of Guangzhou and Macauohe - he translated and published the Bible in Chinese, wrote a catechism, produced a Chinese grammar and massive Chinese-English dictionary, started a newspaper, helped found a college, served as the official translator for the British government and the otherwise anti-missionary British East India Company, and along the way "became a major, if not the foremost, Sinologist of his day, and the leading interpreter of China to Western nations." (14) And yet he only knew of ten Chinese converts to Christianity through his labors. Still, he laid the foundation upon which other successful Protestant missionaries would build.

The Protestant mission to China was at times deeply entangled in European mercantile interests, including the opium trade (15), and suffered from association with the heretical and revolutionary Taiping Kingdom. The Taiping Kingdom was founded by Hong Xiuquan in the midst of the Jintian Uprising - itself the opening episode in the Taiping Rebellion. Influenced by Protestant missionaries who struggled with how to react to his rise, Hong claimed, on the basis of a revelatory vision, to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ and Chinese Son of God.  

Despite these associations, the Protestant mission made slow but steady progress and was joined by more and more denominations and missionary-sending organizations from an increasing number of nations. The accumulated effect amounted to a major push by Protestants, including many Presbyterian and Reformed missionaries, from about 1870 through 1940 to evangelize what was already recognized as the world's most strategic mission field (16).
Though not defined by the kind of spectacular growth of more recent decades, this phase of the Protestant mission to China was a great success, even when judged by the often narrow and at times misguided desiderata we tend to use in such matters. The mission to China transformed Protestant cross-cultural missions, too. The story of Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission is well known, but only one example of just one aspect of the transformation hammered out in the world's largest cross-cultural mission experiment. Also, despite at times widespread and fierce opposition (17), it was during these decades that an indigenous Protestant Chinese church was born. This church, as tenuous as its existence sometimes seemed, would survive the turmoil of the communist revolution and coming collapse of the mission.

The collapse of the Protestant mission to China in the 1940s seemed unthinkable just a few years before. The number of foreign Protestant missionaries in China hit the "high-water mark of more than 8000 in the 1920s," while "Chinese Protestants . . . [were] reaching about 500,000 before the storms of mass nationalism hit." (18) After the Xinhai Revolution of 1911-12, through which over two millennia of dynastic rule gave way to the Republic of China, Chinese Christians found themselves enjoying American-style liberties like the freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and the ability to participate fully in public life as citizens. Some even held top-level positions in the government. (19)  The future looked promising, also. Nearly 250,000 Chinese students were enrolled in Protestant mission schools, blazing a trail toward China's much desired modernization. Some American observers of the time openly discussed the prospect of China becoming a Christian nation. (20)

Yet, not all was well. By the turn of the twentieth century, theological liberalism was sweeping mainline Protestant denominations in the West and the mission to China suffered the effects.  Bays notes that "the world-wide 'Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy' began in China in the summer of 1920, with acrimonious disputes over Biblical authority, higher criticism, evolution, and the like breaking outî between missionaries in various places." (21) By the 1930s, the situation had so deteriorated that "all but the most firm fundamentalists among American Christians . . . [had] second thoughts about the legitimacy of foreign missions." (22) Meanwhile, Pentecostals began flooding in and several deviant indigenous movements emerged from within.(23)

Discouragement from without was plentiful too.  As Rodney Stark notes, smug secular scholars dismissed Chinese converts: 
Through much of the twentieth century, it was widely believed among Western intellectuals that the Chinese were immune to religionóan immunity that long preceded the communist rise to power. When, in 1934, Edgar Snow quipped that ìin China, opium is the religion of the people,î many academic and media experts smiled in agreement and dismissed the million Chinese claimed as converts by Christian missionaries as nothing but ìrice Christiansîócynical souls who had frequented the missions for the benefits they provided. Then, in 1949, Mao Zedong came to power. Religion was outlawed, and it was widely agreed among social scientists that China soon would be a model of the fully secularized, post-religious society. (24)
The Protestant mission to China collapsed with Mao's ascent.  The few institutions that survived were re-organized under the bureaucratic umbrella of the TSPM. (25)  

The Protestant Mission: 1949-Present

In 1966 a brutal campaign against all perceived challenges to Maoist orthodoxy was unleashed on the nation. Young radical zealots, the Red Guards of Mao's Cultural Revolution, were especially vicious and Chinese believers were frequent victims of their fanatical rage. "In countless places, Christians were put through such abuse that many did not survive the ordeal." (26)

During this decade-long crusade it seemed that Christianity (and other religions) might be wiped out in China, leading Richard C. Bush to pronounce communism the victor in 1970. (27) A religion unto itself, he argued, communism had vanquished Christianity and all other religious competitors, even Confucianism, and ushered in the most thoroughly secular society the world had yet seen. The future of China had been forged in the Cultural Revolution, which Bush viewed not so much as a program orchestrated from above as an organic, fanatical religious outbreak - a kind of popular Maoist jihad.

Although Bush also noted that Christianity continued to persist at some level in the personal devotions of private individuals or tiny gatherings scattered across the countryside - wherever the priests of Maoism were a bit lax - the foreseeable future for China appeared utterly secular.
But it wasnít to be. Instead, belief in a coming post-religious China turned out to be the opium of Western intellectuals. The Chinese Christians of 1949 - those ridiculed in the West as rice Christians - were so "insincere" that they endured decades of bloody repression during which their numbers grew. And as official repression has weakened, Christianity has been growing at an astonishing rate in China. (28)
What appeared to Bush and many others to be flickering flames ready to burn out were, it turns out, glowing embers ready to be fanned into a fire that academics and authorities did not and perhaps could never have predicted.

Admitting "Christian history in China" during the Cultural Revolution is "still a black hole," Bays estimates "that Protestants increased their numbers by a factor of five or six . . . from 1966 to 1978." This "very rapid growth rate" translates into roughly "five to six million Protestants" by the end of a decade when many were actually predicting the end of religion in China. (29)
Mao died on September 9, 1976; less than a month later the notorious Gang of Four were arrested and the era of the Cultural Revolution was brought to a close. After what turned out to be the brief, transitional premiership of Hua Guofeng from 1976 to 1978, a new era of reform began in earnest with the ascent of Deng Xiaoping. TSPM churches were allowed to reopen around Christmastime 1978 and in 1982 "Document No. 19" was issued, expounding the party's new official policy on religion and establishing a framework that remains in place till now. (30)  Although a significant advance over the pre-Deng era, the framework erected by "Document No. 19" remains unnecessarily restrictive and a great hindrance to healthy church development in China today, a point we shall return to below.

As we have seen, by 1978 Bays estimates there may have been as many as six million Protestants scattered around China, and almost no Western missionaries in the country. But the rapid rate of growth he proposes in the late 1970s continued through the 1980s. (31)  Almost all of this growth occurred in China's thickly-settled countryside.  Then, during the 1990s, an even more remarkable and unexpected turn occurred: as the rate of growth in rural China moderated, the church began to thrive in urban areas, among the well-educated and culturally influential classes. By 2000, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) reported 89,056,000 Christians in China. In 2008, The Economist cited "Zhou Xiao, a former Communist Party official and convert to Christianity," claiming "there are up to 130m Christians in China." (32)  This number, the article reports, was supposedly confirmed to ChinaAid, also in 2008, by the director of the government bureaucracy responsible for overseeing religion. Others have offered somewhat lower numbers, but even CSGC's conservative estimate projects there will likely be 135,190,000 professing Christians in China by 2025.(33)

China's Millions of Christians

For what it is worth, let us adopt an estimate of roughly 105 million professing Christians in China today. If this figure is anywhere close to accurate, then about 8% of the Chinese population now professes faith in Jesus Christ, meaning there are more Christians in China today than there are atheists (the officially endorsed and publicly taught religious position) or Buddhists (the best known traditional religious alternative). Even the low estimate of 70 million preferred by Stark, Johnson, and Mencken, means the Christian population is as large as the Communist Party, despite the clear political and economic advantages of belonging to the latter, and disadvantages sometimes attending the former.(34)

Whatever the number comes to, this much is clear: "more people go to church on Sunday in China than in the whole of Europe." (35) China appears to be home to more evangelical believers than any other nation, and the church continues to grow and make inroads in every level of Chinese society, from the peasant farmers and factory workers to party officials and the cultured elite. While still laboring under persecution and official harassment, tested by many temptations, and occasionally upset by heresy, the church in China has courageously continued to worship and obey the triune God. Although none of us knows how history might turn as God works out his redemptive purpose, the church in China is already emerging not just as a place of vibrant Christian faith but a significant missionary force in the world.  And yet, as Chinese ministry leaders and informed visitors clearly and consistently report, the need for church development is both profound and urgentóboth for the health of the church in China and the future of Christianity in the world.

Dr. Bruce Baugus is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.

Notes:
9. In addition to numerous articles in the popular press, book length treatments documenting this development are plentiful, including David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2006); Daniel Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012); Nanlai Cao, Constructing China's Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2010); Liao Yiwu, God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China (New York: HarperOne, 2011); and Mikka Ruokanen and Paulos Huang, eds., Christianity and Chinese Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).  It is also a major theme in more general works on religion in China such as Fenggang Yang, Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule (Oxford: Oxford university Press, 2011) and Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer, The Religious Question in Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

10. For an enlarged account of the history of Christianity in China see Bays, A New History. On whether Thomas made it to China, Bays notes that it "has never been questioned by the Mar Thoma church in India" whose "books and church traditions clearly have Thomas in the 60s CE coming to India, then to China, and back to India, where he died," p. 5. Though other hints exist, the matter remains uncertain, unlike the seventh-century Nestorian mission.

11. The Rites Controversy, as this episode is known, is a notable and instructive moment in Roman Catholic missiology. In response to Dominican complaints about Jesuit practices, Pope Clement XI forbid Roman Catholic participation in traditional Chinese rites in 1705 and followed up with Ex Illa Die, a papal bull condemning certain rites as inherently ìheathenî and forbidding the use of traditional Chinese terms for deity.  This stance was largely reversed by Pius XII in 1939, and in 1958 Pope John XXIII upheld Ricci as an example for Roman Catholic missionaries to follow.

12. The decision of Pope Clement XI in the Rites Controversy, and the incompetent and callous manner in which it was communicated, infuriated the Qing dynasty emperor, Kangxi, who until then had been very supportive of the Jesuit mission.  Bays, A New History, writes that "the emperor grew increasingly irritated, then angry, at the message from the Vatican. In fact, as far as can be determined he was quite outraged by what he saw as gratuitous interference in his state and culture, with foreigners who spoke no Chinese presuming to dictate to him the meaning for his subjects of Chinese rituals and cultural practices" (pp. 29-30).  The fall out resulted in a significant setback for the Roman Catholic mission in China that was ongoing as Protestant missionaries began arriving in the opening decades of the nineteenth century.

13. A series of "unequal treaties" followed China's defeat in the First Opium War in 1842. For more on that see below. For comparisons between the earlier Roman Catholic mission and Protestant mission see Bays, A New History, who argues that, despite obvious differences, early Protestant missionaries grappled with many of the same problems and had similar experiences as Roman Catholics in earlier generations. He also suggests that Protestants could have learned from the history of the Roman Catholic mission if not for anti-Catholic prejudice, p. 50.

14. Bays, A New History, p. 44.  His catechism, based loosely on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, has been recently translated into English.

15 As David Aikman notes, "a monstrous albatross for Protestant Christianity in China for more than a century, was the association of Western missionaries with Western traders who came . . . to make money trading opium," Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2006), p. 51. Already engaged, the opium trade increased steadily under the Canton System, beginning in 1756 and culminating in the First Opium War (1839-42) and Treaty of Nanking (1842). The terms of this Treaty were reworked to China's even greater disadvantage in the Treaty of Tientsin (1860), and other "unequal treaties," after the Second Opium War (1856-60). This began the so-called "century of humiliation," when China was subjected to the mercantile interests of certain Western powers including the United Kingdom and United States. This was the backdrop of the Protestant mission to China prior to 1949 and no doubt haunts the mission to this day.

16. In a lengthy discussion on the years 1860-1950, Bays, A New History, pp. 66-149, helpfully subdivides this era into three parts: "Expansion and Institution-Building in a Declining Dynasty, 1860-1902"; "The ëGolden Ageí of Missions and the Sino-Foreign Protestant Establishment," 1902-1927"; and "The Multiple Crises of Chinese Christianity, 1927-1950".  There are numerous studies on the efforts of particular missionaries or mission-sending bodies, or of the Protestant mission in particular locations or among particular groups of people in China, or in relation to certain other factors or historical developments dating from this eraótoo many to list here. One example worth noting, however, is Selles, A New Way of Belonging, which documents the involvement of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Though entering the mission to China relatively late, China was the first foreign nation this small Reformed denomination engaged. Selles's narrative of this decision is very insightful and illustrates the kinds of motives often at work in this era across denominational lines. 

17. Several notable episodes of violence against Christians, missionaries and converts, erupted in this era. The most famous is the Boxer Rebellion or Uprising (1898-1902). The uprising involved the siege of the Legation Quarter in Beijing and murder of "all foreigners and Chinese Christians in north China within their reach" outside the capital city. Roughly 250 foreigners perished, nearly all missionaries, and 30,000 Chinese converts, before the uprising was put down by the intervention of a foreign military alliance who occupied Beijing into 1902, and the nearby city of Tianjin until 1906. Bays, A New History, pp. 85-86.

18. Bays, A New History, p. 94.

19. Sun Yat-sen, celebrated father of the Republic of China by both Mainlanders and Taiwanese, was baptized by an American Congregational missionary and deeply influenced by the Protestant mission.  Bays, A New History, also reports that several members of the first National Assembly were Christian, p. 95.  

20. Bays, A New History, pp. 92-94.

21. Bays, A New History, p. 106.

22. Bays, A New History, p. 122. Bays highlights Pearl Buck's tirade against foreign missions and William Ernest Hocking's Laymen's Report as "the two biggest flashpoints" in the debate that eroded confidence in cross-cultural missions, especially to China.  See also Daniel H. Bays and Grant Wacker, eds., The Foreign Missionary Enterprise at Home (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2003); Lian Xi, The Conversion of Missionaries: Liberalism in American Protestant Missions to China, 1907-1932 (University Park: Penn State Press, 1997); and Kevin Xiyi Yao, The Fundamentalist Movement among Protestant Missionaries in China, 1920-1937 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003).

23. Among these, The True Jesus Movement, The Jesus Family, and Watchman Nee's The Little Flock.

24. Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the Worldís Largest Religion, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011), p. 405. See also Stark, Byron Johnson, and Carson Mencken, "Counting China's Christians," First Things (May, 2011).

25. The TSPM was established in 1954 as the only legally permitted Protestant form of Christianity in China. Congregations had but three choices: join, fold, or go underground.  Though functionally an arm of the party, even the TSPM was suspended from 1966 to 1978 during the Cultural Revolution. In 1980 a sister organization, the China Christian Council (CCC), was founded. The "two organizations" (lianghui) are largely redundant.

26. Hays, A New History, p. 185.

27. Richard C. Bush, Jr., Religion in Communist China (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970).

28. Stark, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 405. See also Stark, Johnson, and Mencken, "Counting China's Christians," First Things (May, 2011).

29. Bays, A New History, pp. 185-86.

30. Bays, A New History, p.  190.

31. Fenggang Yang, "The Red, Black, and Gray Markets of Religion in China," The Sociological Quarterly 47 (2006), p. 105, offers these estimates culled from the cited sources: "In the early 1990s, a very careful study suggested that the total number of Protestants in both TSPM and house churches was likely to be 20 million or more (Hunter and Chan 1993:66n71)."  Later, by "the end of the 1990s," a count using a careful methodology "concluded that there might be a total of 50 million Protestants (Lambert 1999)."

32. No author, "Sons of Heaven: Inside Chinaís Fastest-growing Non-governmental Organization," The Economist, October 2, 2008.

33. See their report, "Global Top Ten Lists on 145 Major Missiometric Categories" at http://www.gordonconwell.edu/resources/documents/listings.pdf, accessed March 13, 2012.  Rodney Stark, Byron Johnson, and Carson Mencken have published results of a survey conducted by Horizons, Ltd. in China, corrected by them in cooperation with Peking University, and conclude that it "seems entirely credible to estimate that there are about 70 million Chinese Christians in 2011."

34. Stark, Johnson, and Mencken, "Counting Chinaís Christians," First Things (May, 2011).

35. Tim Gardam, "Christians in China: Is the Country in Spiritual Crisis?," BBC News Magazine, Sept 11, 2011: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14838749 (accessed on May 26, 2012). 

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