Church spires rise between buildings. Figures are uncertain, but it may be reasonable to accept the latest estimate of 53 million—mainly unregistered—Christians in China, of which 39 million are Protestants and 14 million are Catholics. PHOTO BY BERKSHIRE PUBLISHING.

Christianity in China remained for several centuries a marginal, foreign religion that attracted relatively few converts. Missionaries and Chinese Christians were considered a threat to the political and social order in late imperial, republican, and early Communist China. Anti-Christian agitation and conflict were not uncommon. In recent decades the authorities have permitted a degree of religious freedom, thus enabling the remarkable expansion of Christianity.

The first reliable evidence of Christian missionary activity in China is found on a famous monument—erected in Chang’an (now Xi’an) in Shaanxi Province in 781 CE and rediscovered in 1625. The Chinese and Syriac inscriptions state that a certain Alopen arrived in the capital of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) in 635. Alopen, a member of the Church of the East (called “Nestorianism” by some), translated The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah, borrowing the vocabulary from Buddhist and Daoist concepts. It became the first Christian book in Chinese. The eastward spread of the Church of the East from Persia (Iran) along the old Silk Roads to China occurred at a time of remarkable religious tolerance and cultural openness. However, after these auspicious beginnings, the Church of the East began to decline in China soon after the erection of the monument. When the Tang dynasty was overthrown in 907, China’s first Christian church vanished in the chaos that followed.

The Mongol expansion in Asia created the conditions for the reappearance of Christianity in China. The pragmatic policy of religious toleration of Khubilai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) in China, enabled the Church of the East to make a comeback. The Mongol world empire also facilitated direct contacts between east Asians and Europeans. In 1287 the Nestorian monk Rabban Sauma, an Önggüt Turk who was born in what now is Beijing, was sent on an embassy to Europe. He visited Rome, Paris, and Bordeaux, meeting the pope and the kings of France and England.

The favorable conditions of the Yuan dynasty also allowed Roman Catholicism to enter China. Pope Innocent IV and other European rulers conceived the idea of an alliance with Mongols against Islam. Several fact-finding missions were sent to the Mongols. However, the missions of the Franciscan monks Plano Carpini (1245–1247), William of Rubruck (1253), and others to the East were unsuccessful. Not until the arrival of the Franciscan friar John of Montecorvino in Khanbaliq (or Dadu, present-day Beijing) in 1294 was Western Christianity able to establish a foothold. John was permitted to build a church in Beijing in 1299. In a letter written in 1305, he reported some six thousand converts. In recognition of these achievements Pope Clement V appointed him archbishop of Cambaluc (Khanbaliq) and patriarch of the east. Subsequently a Catholic presence was established in other places. By the time the Franciscans Odoric of Pordenone (around 1322) and John of Marignolli (1342) arrived in China, the Yuan dynasty was already in decline, to be overthrown in 1368. In the next year all Christians were expelled from Beijing. Once again Christianity disappeared with the fall of a dynasty. The new isolationist Ming dynasty (1368–1644) would not tolerate foreigners and their religions, whether Catholic or Nestorian.

Planting Christianity in Late Imperial China

The Jesuit Francis Xavier, having evangelized in Japan, hoped to begin work among the populous Chinese as well. However, he died in 1552 on Shangchuan Island (St. John’s Island) off the coast of southern China before he could reach his goal. The first two Jesuit missionaries who successfully entered the Chinese empire in 1583 were the Italians Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) and Michele Ruggieri (1543–1607). After a number of false starts they were invited by the prefect of Zhaoqing near Guangzhou (Canton) to reside in his city. Between 1589 and 1601 Ricci traveled and established a number of missions in some cities of central China. Finally, in 1601 he was permitted to go to Beijing, the imperial capital. The years from 1601 until his death in 1610 mark the peak of Ricci’s achievement, setting the pattern of activity for the Jesuit mission in late imperial China.

In order to gain the respect of the Chinese ruling class (scholars and officials), Ricci and his Jesuit successors studied the Confucian classics. At the same time they strove to impress the Chinese elite with Western achievements in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, and mechanical skills (instruments and clocks) to convince them that the Europeans were no mere barbarians. This approach brought them to the attention of well-known scholars, high-ranking officials, and even some of the emperors. Because of their scientific knowledge, some Jesuits were retained by the imperial court as quasi-officials. Having gained the intellectual respect of the Chinese elite, the early Jesuit missionaries began to propagate their religion. Ricci in particular sought to avoid unnecessary conflict with Chinese tradition and questions of dogma by interpreting the terms used in Chinese classic texts as elements of Christian doctrine when doing so would be appropriate. By this means the Jesuits showed their willingness to accommodate and had limited success in converting some important scholar-officials, most notably Paulus Xu Guangqi (1562–1633).

After the Manchu conquest of China in 1644, a number of Jesuit missionaries were retained in imperial service by the new Qing dynasty (1644–1912) in Beijing. Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1666) acted as director of the Astronomical Bureau. His successor, Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688), was able to gain the attention of the great Kangxi emperor (reigned 1662–1722). Indeed, the emperor’s attitude toward Catholicism during the middle years of his reign can be regarded as one of “positive neutrality,” culminating in the promulgation of the so-called Edict of Toleration in 1692. Yet soon afterward the situation of the missionary enterprise in China became increasingly precarious.

Rites Controversy and Its Consequences

The exclusive position of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in China had been undermined since the 1630s with the arrival of Dominicans, Franciscans, and priests of the Paris Foreign Mission Society (MEP). These missionaries worked primarily among the common people in the provinces. Here they came face to face with Chinese popular religion, with its pantheon of popular deities and the ubiquitous ancestor worship and geomancy (feng shui). Whereas the court Jesuits had adopted a tolerant attitude toward Chinese rites, the provincial missionaries denounced them as superstitious practices. Consequently the protracted “Rites Controversy” caused considerable disagreement within the missionary community. Another controversial issue within the missionary community concerned the nature and rendering of “God” in Chinese. Eventually the term Tianzhu (Lord of Heaven) was adopted, and Catholic Christianity henceforth became known as Tianzhujiao, the religion of the Lord of Heaven.

Because the Kangxi emperor was supporting the Jesuits, Pope Clement X sent a papal legate to China in 1704 to present the opposite position, forbidding Christians to take part in sacrifices to Confucius or to ancestors. Offended by this papal interference, the emperor issued an order that all missionaries, in order to obtain a permit (piao) to remain in China, would have to declare that they were going to follow “the rules of Matteo Ricci” in their activities. The decision of Pope Clement XI in 1715 to rule against the Jesuit compromise did not help matters. The ruling was finalized in 1742 by Pope Benedict XIV in the papal bull Ex quo singulari. The refusal by Rome to allow Christians to take part in the Confucian and ancestral rites was to have grave consequences because Chinese converts were cut off from the Confucian cultural tradition and thereby from society at large.

In 1724 the Yongzheng emperor issued an edict proscribing Christianity. Christians were commanded to renounce their faith, and foreign missionaries, except those attached to the Bureau of Astronomy in Beijing, were expelled from China. Church properties were confiscated and used for secular purposes. For the next 120 years Christianity was officially proscribed as a heterodox (contrary to or different from an established religion) and subversive cult. Catholicism retreated into the remoter parts of rural China, increasingly vulnerable to persecution. The papal abolition of the Society of Jesus in 1773 aggravated the precarious position of Christianity. The few remaining priests (Chinese and European), operating secretly in the country, provided rather inadequate pastoral supervision.

In the absence of regular priestly care, many Chinese Christians were left to their own devices for years if not decades. In any case, successful evangelization had from the beginning depended on the generous assistance of native converts. In spite of the many vexations and periodic persecutions, Chinese laypeople, especially the so-called institute of virgins, were instrumental in preserving the faith. Some 200,000 Christians are said to have existed nationwide in scattered communities at the beginning of the nineteenth century. These congregations of “old Christians” formed the vital bases from which the next phase of Catholic expansion would be launched in China.

From Mission to Church in Modern China

The religious revivals in Europe and North America at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the early twentieth centuries engendered renewed missionary interest in China. However, the Chinese people remained suspicious of and hostile toward the foreign religion, and missionary activities continued to be illegal and precarious. Not until after the opium wars and the imposition of the so-called unequal treaties was the propagation of Christianity greatly facilitated. The most important concessions were gained by the missionaries in the treaties of 1858–1860. These treaties permitted travel and evangelization anywhere in the interior of China. Particularly noteworthy here is the French treaty (especially the notorious Article VI of the 1860 Beijing Convention, containing surreptitiously inserted additional rights in the Chinese version), permitting the purchase of land and erection of churches anywhere in the country. Associated agreements exempted Catholics from contributing to communal endeavors that were thought to have a “superstitious” component. Most important, the French government assumed a religious protectorate over all Catholics in the Qing empire, including foreign missionaries regardless of nationality as well as Chinese converts.

The arrival of Protestant missionaries, starting with Robert Morrison of the London Missionary Society in 1807, added a new dimension after 1800. Prior to the treaties these missionaries were confined to Macao and seasonal residence in Guangzhou. In both locations their religious activities were severely restricted. The Treaty of Nanjing (1842) enabled the Protestants, mostly from the United States and Britain, to establish themselves in the newly opened five treaty ports and Hong Kong. After 1860 the Protestant missionary presence grew rapidly in size and complexity. Mission stations were established in all the new coastal and riverine treaty ports and spread from there into the interior. By 1900 foreign Protestant missionaries and their wives in China totaled about three thousand, representing several denominations and more than sixty agencies from Western countries. Female missionaries (married and single) outnumbered male missionaries and played an active role in the dissemination of the Christian message.

The growth of the missionary enterprise did not go unchallenged. In spite of the continuous expansion of Christianity, its native adherents amounted to only a fraction of 1 percent of the total population of China. However, they were protected by the treaties, backed by foreign diplomatic and sometimes military intervention. Their increasingly powerful social and political role was, however, resented by both rural elites and common people. Moreover, Christian beliefs and practices undermined long-established traditions and provoked the anger of non-Christians. Anti-Christian agitation, fed by inflammatory rumors, created fear and suspicion that resulted in violent incidents. These increasingly endemic local tensions reached a climax in the intensely xenophobic Boxer Uprising of 1900 in which many missionaries and thousands of Chinese Christians were killed.

Chinese Christianity in War and Revolution

The aftermath of the disastrous events of 1900 brought about significant changes in China’s relations with the West. Traditional anti-Christian sentiments subsided significantly, and missionaries and Christians were able to play a more constructive role in Chinese society. At the same time Protestant Christianity became much more diverse than it had been before 1900. Many new Christian mission groups established themselves, including Pentecostals and Adventists. Many more independent or “faith” missionaries came to China. Meanwhile, the mainline mission societies and their churches, schools, and hospitals also grew substantially.

In the early twentieth century, against the background of growing Chinese nationalism, the contours of an emerging Chinese Protestant Christianity began to take shape, as indicated by the growth of independent Chinese Protestant forces. The early 1920s brought the formation of an interdenominational Church of Christ in China, a Sino-foreign body with a significant degree of Chinese leadership and responsibility. The National Christian Council, a Protestant coordinating and liaison body, was also a product of this period. However, these changes did not really constitute a great deal of movement toward an authentically indigenous Chinese church. Attitudes of missionary paternalism remained strong and were exercised primarily through financial control.

Around 1920 a rather more radical independent sector of Chinese Protestantism came into being, including the True Jesus Church, a Pentecostal church founded in 1917; the Assembly Hall (Little Flock), organized in the mid-1920s and led by Ni Tuosheng (Watchman Nee); and the Jesus Family, a unique Pentecostal communitarian church started by Jing Dianying in rural Shandong Province in the 1920s. In addition, several individual evangelists and teachers emerged, including Wang Mingdao, famous for his conservative theological stance and outstanding moral rectitude, and the radical revivalist preacher Song Shangjie (John Sung).

In spite of the growing number of Chinese priests in Catholic missions, the move toward greater leadership roles for them was rather slower than among the Protestant establishments. The Belgian Vincentian missionary Vincent Lebbe pleaded passionately for greater involvement of indigenous clergy in the running of the Catholic enterprise. His concerns are reflected in the apostolic letter Maximum illud issued by Pope Benedict XV in 1919. It deplored, among other things, the effects of European nationalism on the Catholic church in China and called for the elimination of entrenched prejudices of Western priests as well as eventual ecclesiastical administration by the Chinese clergy. The lack of enthusiasm among the Catholic missionary community notwithstanding, the process gained momentum with the consecration of six Chinese bishops in Rome in 1926.

Although the rising tide of nationalism and revolution fostered the radical anti-Christian movement in urban China in the mid-1920s, the prevailing chaos caused by political instability and military conflicts during the early republican period (1912–1927) created new opportunities for foreign missionaries and Chinese converts. The Christian organizations were able to expand their routine social service operations, especially during the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945). Another important development occurred in 1939 when Pope Pius XII reversed the fateful ruling of 1715 and permitted Catholics to participate in ancestor worship. Thus, the way was clear for the emergence of a Chinese Catholic church. In this connection Japan’s attempts to control Chinese Christian establishments and remove all other foreign influences in areas under its occupation forced Chinese Christians to assume greater responsibility for maintaining church life. In many ways this development was another important step toward realization of the “three-self” ideal.

Chinese Church under Communism

Although the Chinese Communists had tolerated Christians and missionaries to some extent during the War of Resistance against Japan, their attitude changed dramatically after 1945. After the Communists had gained control of state power in 1949, anti-Christian campaigns were organized throughout the country. By 1954 the foreign missionaries had been either expelled from the country or imprisoned. However, China’s Christians continued to constitute an ideological and organizational challenge to the Chinese state even after the removal of the foreign missionaries. In response, the new government established the Religious Affairs Office (later Bureau), staffed with religious specialists to oversee and control religious affairs. To this end the government sponsored the Catholic Three Self Movement of 1950–1951 to establish a self-governing, self-supporting, self-propagating church free of all foreign influence. The state obtained its objective with the establishment of the National Patriotic Catholic Association (now known as the “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association,” CCPA) in 1957 and the consecration of government-sponsored bishops in 1958. Officially the Chinese Catholic Church had severed all links with the Vatican.

Many Chinese Protestants had welcomed the Communist victory and were actively involved in setting up a national church body in 1951, for which the name “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” (TSPM) was adopted in 1954. It was utilized by the state to eliminate foreign influence, unite Protestants in one organization, and promote Communist policies within the church. Many of its leaders had been active in the YMCA and YWCA in the 1930s and 1940s. In spite of the willingness of many liberal Chinese Protestants to cooperate with the Communists, opposition remained strong among the more conservative elements. Many of the indigenous Protestant groups and charismatic evangelical leaders resisted coerced unification or collaboration with the new state. In response the TSPM organized a series of denunciation campaigns against unaffiliated groups and individuals in the 1950s. Jing Dianying, Wang Mingdao, and Ni Tuosheng were some of the prominent victims.

The period from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s was a time of great suffering for Chinese Christianity as a whole. The nationwide mobilization campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960) and the calamitous Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) in particular adversely affected the Christian churches. These events led many outsiders to assume that the Christian faith was doomed in China. Yet by the late 1970s it became clear that it had survived, essentially in the form of clandestine “underground churches” and family prayer meetings. Since then an explosive growth of Christianity has occurred in many parts of the country, both within officially recognized church organizations and unregistered communities. This so-called Christianity fever has been particularly prevalent in Chinese Protestantism. Exact figures are difficult to establish because many Christians do not wish to register with the government-sponsored TSPM or CCPA. Discounting wildly inflated figures, it may be reasonable to accept the latest estimate of 53 million—mainly unregistered—Christians in China, of which 39 million are Protestants and 14 million are Catholics. Yet when considered against China’s total population of 1.3 billion, it is clear that numerically Christianity has remained a marginal religion, accounting for a little over 4 percent of the total.

At the same time Christianity faces a number of problems in China. The process of improving Sino-Vatican relations has been tortuous and slow and in turn has prevented the unification of the official and underground Catholic churches. The severe shortage of priests has placed great responsibility on the laity. Protestant churches are facing similar problems. The reemergence of denominationalism (this development explains in part the persistence of unregistered “house churches” in China) hinders moves toward greater unity and cooperation. Moreover, rapid Christianization has also encouraged certain sectarian tendencies, such as false teachings, extreme doctrines, and immoral practices. Nevertheless, Chinese Christianity as a whole (Protestants, Catholics, and a small number of adherents of Russian Orthodoxy) may emerge as a major force in world Christianity in the twenty-first century.

Further Reading

Standaert, N. (Ed.). (2001). Handbook of Christianity in China. Vol. 1: 6351800. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Tiedemann, R. G. (2009). Reference guide to Christian missionary societies in China: From the 16th to the 20th century. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Whyte, B. (1990). Unfinished encounter: China and Christianity. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse.

Source: Tiedemann, R. G.. (2009). Christianity. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 387–393. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Chinese Christian burial site in South China. In the early twentieth century, against the background of growing Chinese nationalism, an emerging Chinese Protestant Christianity began to take shape; after 1949 and the establishment of the People’s Republic under Communist rule, anti-Christian campaigns were organized throughout the country. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

A Chinese Christian pastor and family Canton (Guangzhou) c. 1900. Christian missionary interest in China sparked after religious revivals in Europe and North America at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the early twentieth centuries. The Chinese people remained suspicious of and hostile toward the foreign religion. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

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