Success or Failure? Christianity in China

Xinzhong Yao examines the prospects for Christianity in China based on past performance.

As far as we know, the first contact between Christianity and China was not made until the beginning of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). According to the inscription of 1,780 Chinese characters on a stone tablet which dates 781 and was unearthed in 1623, the initiator of this contact was a Syrian Nestorian called A-lou-ben (Alopen). He, with a number of others, came from, or through, Persia and arrived at the Chinese capital in 635, and thus their churches were called Da Qin Si, or, mistakenly, the temples of Persia. Nestorian Christianity won support and toleration from the government, and its success earned it a Chinese name Jing Jiao, the Brilliant or Admirable Religion. As a religion from the West, Nestorianism was taken as a sect of Buddhism, and satisfied the curiosity as well as the religious pursuit of the Tang Chinese. It became popular in some areas for a reasonably long period until the ninth century when a major persecution of 'foreign religions' was carried out and Nestorianism was, partly due to their actual or alleged relation with Buddhism, swept away from central China.

After two other major fluctuations of success and failure respectively in the thirteenth and in the seventeenth- eighteenth centuries, Christianity made its fourth attempt of conversion of China from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Christian conversion gained ground both because of the hard work and self-sacrifice of the missionaries, and because of the pressure on the Manchurian Court from the Western powers, which were clearly embodied in a series of so-called unequal treaties between the Chinese government and the Western nations. While these treaties provided legal protection for Christian expansion, a close connection between missionary work and political or military pressure proved to be harmful to the former and was often used to stir a strong resistance among the natives. In 1919, a massive protest against the Western powers broke out and made Christianity one of its targets of attack. In some sense, we may well say that this marked the beginning of another decline of Christianity in China. By the middle of the 1950s, under dogmatic Communist rule, almost all the foreign missionaries had been driven out of China, and connections between foreign organisations and Chinese churches were cut off by the 'Three Self Patriotic Movement' (self-administration, self-support and self-propagation). During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Christian activities, if not completely annihilated, were reduced to their minimum, or were carried underground only.

Since the 1970s, Christianity has recovered from its setback with the dawning of a new era. While the faithful are proud of their courage in defiance of previous suppression, the new-comers crowd into the old buildings to look for their new faith. The services, which were forbidden or reduced or changed, are restored to their full content. The churches, which were confiscated or destroyed or occupied, have been returned, rebuilt or compensated. The total number of Chinese Catholics and Protestants is not easy to give, varying between 10 million according to the official statistics and 50 million according to the unofficial estimates.

Compared with the previous period, Christianity in China now enjoys some special advantages, which contribute to its popularity and expansion. The most apparent is its connection with modernisation, prosperity and progress. One of the important reasons for Christianity being welcomed in the past was its value as a symbol of an advanced civilisation. Thirty years after 1949, during which China closed its door to the world, the Chinese suddenly found that the gap between China and the Christian Western countries, in terms of science, technology and industry as well as prosperity, did not decrease as they were repeatedly told, but increased to a surprising level. Many people began to search for reasons, and at least some of them found that Christianity promoted the process of modernisation and that there was an inherent connection between prosperity and the Christian faith.

Within Christianity now came another advantage: the missionary work which helped to bring about and sustain its previous popularity in China has been replaced by the independent propagation of the faith by Chinese priests themselves. In any of the previous periods, the channel between China and Western missionaries was essential for infusing vitality into the Chinese Church. This channel had been blocked due both to the self-adjustment within Christianity and to the peculiar situation of Christianity in China. On the one hand, Western churches on the whole have changed greatly, and their historical associations with attitudes of racial superiority and their dogmatic 'purism' in dealing with other cultures have, in many instances, given way to their universal conception of Christian faith. On the other, foreign missionary work is now of little influence in China, and the preaching and expansion of Christianity are completely in the hands of the Chinese today. Because of this, the traditional conflict between patriotism and Christianity, and between 'Chineseness' and 'Christian-ness', is moderated. The changed image of Christianity serves to remove a psychological obstacle from the path of Christian conversion.

The social circumstances have changed dramatically in favour of Christian expansion. China is more and more open, not only to the economic world but also to the religious world. The shortage of Chinese professionals, or priests was one of the reasons for the limited coverage of Christian preaching in the past. Although this disadvantage still remains, it is more or less offset by easy access to Christian information. Along with the revolution of information which is being accelerated in China, this access will be enlarged very quickly and will provide an unprecedented opportunity for Christians sending their message to ordinary Chinese people. As far as the interaction between Christian faith and the Chinese tradition is concerned the former is benefited by a much reduced resistance from the latter due to a sequence of revolutionary movements. The Cultural Revolution developed this kind of movement to its extreme, and left a sort of vacuum of religiosity in the mind of the people, especially in that of the younger generations. A chance to fill this vacancy is now open to Christianity.

Encouraged by these advantages, Chinese Christians have been working hard to push the new wave of conversion to its peak and to make the big breakthrough into Chinese communities, long dreamed of. The Western churches optimistically believe that a new age of Christianity in China is approaching. However, four of its major historical weaknesses remain.

Christian inability to integrate with Chinese culture leaves it a 'foreign religion' for most Chinese people as it was before. Its basic tenets have not yet been accepted as part of the cultural and religious life of the Chinese as a whole. Correspondingly, the converted Chinese have remained a very small proportion of the population, and Christianity's acceptance is essentially confined to its traditional bases and the rapidly developing areas in the south-east of China, which are more directly exposed to Western influence. This shows that Christian faith in China is still a religion from without. not yet a religion from within in the past the foreign nature of Christianity did not appeal to the Chinese people: the message for today is that Christianity cannot he embraced without integrating with the native culture.

As a 'brought-in' religion, Christianity has not yet established its own identity in China. The tree of Christian propagation still needs nutrition from native faiths in order to grow up, and thus, its success or failure, in some sense, still depends on whether or not its resemblances with the latter can be accepted. The lack of a strong identity means it is harder to win over new members and to appeal to the ordinary people.

Divisions within Christianity are more strikingly manifest in Chinese culture than in any other context. It is a historical fact that the development of Christianity itself produced major divisions, and Catholicism and Protestantism purposely or unintentionally cultivated a divisive vision in Chinese Christians, which is so dominant that their common origin seems to have long been ignored. From the division came two names for Christianity, two versions of the Holy Scriptures, two terms for God and two 'religions' for Christianity: The religion of the Lord of Heaven (Catholicism) which worships Tian Zhu (Lord of Heaven) and the religion of Jesus Christ (Protestantism) which takes Shang Ti as their God. In China, there is a long tradition which insists that proper names be a guarantee for harmony, for correcting the chaotic situation and for restoring social stability. Therefore, the confusion in Christian terminology as well as in its doctrine not only leads to an unfavourable opinion of its faith, but also is held to represent its prematurity in China.

There is no doubt that the surveillance over religious matters today has been much relaxed and religious communities have been granted more freedom than ten years ago. However, as a 'foreign religion', Christianity is more suspect as a possible faith leading to social disorder than other religions and therefore more easily attracts suppression. The suspicion and suppression mainly focus on the secrecy of its communities and on its involvement with foreign churches or organisations. Suspiciously guarded from within and frequently cut off from the outside, Christianity in China is left in a vulnerable position in today's society.

Many people are exploring the root of these weaknesses. For some of them, it is very convenient to conclude that it is the political regime that should be held responsible for its shortcomings. A deeper exploration, however, reveals that Christianity has not yet been accepted by the majority of the Chinese as part of their culture. To this end it is worth noting that Christianity has achieved only slow progress in other Chinese communities, such as in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Some Christian theologians, both European and Chinese, with this problem in mind, are calling for a so-called 'Contextual Chinese Theology' (Hans Kung) to help make it possible for Christianity to become a part of Chinese culture, as Buddhism did nearly 2,000 years ago. The Chinese Christians are also endeavouring to give a Chinese characteristic to their faith, however insufficient these efforts are.

While a 'Chinese Christian theology' presents a hope for the enhancement of Christian 'indigenisation', it does not allow us to overlook the resistance from Chinese spiritual quarters. A strong challenge to the spread of Christianity in China finds its origins in the revival of Confucianism. With its long history as the state orthodoxy, with its deep roots in intellectualism, and with a model from the former Confucian countries in East Asia, Confucianism is being revived to promote China's prestige and to strengthen the national self-confidence. The first interaction between Confucianism and Christianity in the seventeenth century began with mutual displays of sympathy and admiration for each other and ended with their becoming enemies. This was one of the most important factors leading to the Christian retreat from China in the eighteenth century. Today, people look back at this incident and feel grieved for many of the counter-productive policies that sprang from both sides, and believe that this first full-scale attempt to understand each other made by Christianity and Confucianism perhaps could have gone the other way and brought us a quite different history, if one or the other, or both, had adopted a more flexible attitude. While we cannot rebuild history, we should be able to do better for the future. Confucianism may become a severe rival to the Christian faith if Christianity and Confucianism fail to co- operate, or it could become an ally with Christianity in their fight against the old superstitions and the new 'modern diseases' if they can co-exist harmoniously.

The possibility of a new era of Christianity in China and an appreciation of the Christian faith for the Chinese lie in the successful integration of Christianity with Chinese culture and in its efforts to co-exist and co-operate with Chinese traditions.

Xinzhong Yao is Lecturer in Chinese Religions and Ethics at St David's University College, Wales and Deputy Director of the Institute of Ethics, People's University of China, Peking.

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