Chinese Christianity

Last updated by david at 2014/5/18

The ending of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao Tse-tung saw a surprisingly rapid re-emergence of the Churches, in some respects seemingly strengthened by their ordeal.

Church at Shashi on the bank of the Yanzi River

Church at Shashi on the bank of the Yanzi River

Churches were reopened and rebuilt, though because of the shortage of priests and trained teachers their resources were limited and they came to depend upon the fervour of the faithful laity, small in number.

The Protestant Churches, except for a few conservative evangelical groups, worked together in a common understanding.

Stripped of their former associations the Churches became more essentially indigenous Chinese institutions, and seemingly spiritually the stronger for the process.

Chinese Roman Catholics were less advantageously placed since the quasi-independence from the jurisdiction of the Vatican which they had developed aroused Rome’s suspicions while the Chinese authorities resented Rome’s recognition of Taiwan where the Church flourished.

In Taiwan where the Catholic Church had concentrated its missionary energy the membership grew at speed, from 12,326 to some 290,000 in a decade.

The story of relationship between Christianity and China is a long one (about 1,500 years long!), a story of trial and error, of attempts, partial successes, failures and new beginnings. The last decade of the twentieth century seemed to mark one of these new beginnings.

The history of Christianity in China records the meeting of two very different civilizations.

The West had been deeply influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition and China by the Confucian belief.

Is Christianity a foreign religion as far as China is concerned?

One could say yes, because of the very nature of the Gospel message, which is a revelation of the transcendent God who saves sinful humanity.

A history of salvation seems in many ways alien to the Chinese religious tradition, both Taoist and Confucian, which is a search for the ritual harmony between heaven and earth.

But one can also say no, because Christianity has been rooted in Chinese soil since the Tang dynasty, more than thirteen centuries ago. The monks of the Syrian Church, who came from Persia in the seventh century, although they were few in number, brought with them the message of God’s kingdom.

Upper Part of the Xi’an Stele made in 781 A.D.

Upper Part of the Xi’an Stele made in 781 A.D. which records the coming of monks from the East Syrian Church to Xi’an in 635 A.D. 

 

Christianity in China over its long history has been interpreted according to different cultural schemes.

These first Christians to reach China came by way of the Silk Road, along which were many Buddhist temples. Christianity was rejected by Confucian China, however, together with Buddhist institutions in the ninth century, but it survived in the northern steppes, where it became associated with the Mongols.

When a Mongol dynasty, the Yuan, came to power in China in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Christian churches were opened in various parts of the country, and it was then that Christian missionaries from the Latin West first reached China.

These first Christians foundations should not be considered as being of purely archaeological interest.  They belong to the living tradition of Christianity in China, a country that is especially relevant today as a privileged place of meeting for the great religions of the world.

The Christians of China belong to a people who have been melded over the centuries by rich cultural and religious traditions. Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism must always be taken into consideration as the cultural stock onto which Christianity has been grafted in China.

Christians may have rejected the practices of these religions, but they have been deeply influenced by them as regards their view of morality, their spirituality, and also their way of living the Christian life.

In the past twenty-five years, the Chinese people have shown an increasing interest in Christianity, in ways never before experienced.

The Christians of China belong to a Chinese culture. It they are sometimes labelled as “foreigners”, that is because they belong, like Christians in every country, to a kingdom that is not of this world, which does not prevent them from fulfilling their task conscientiously and working actively for the renewal of the society they live in.

The Christians of today’s China are aware that they belong to a modern and independent country and that they are a local Church, free from control of foreigners that she had known in the past.

The moral and spiritual movement that has followed the extraordinary economic progress of China in recent years has had the paradoxical effect of producing what could be called a “religious fever”.

Even though little known outside China, this religious revival may hold lessons for all of us. It seeks alternatives to worldwide capitalism and the society based on it.

Emerging from it are some particularly interesting ideas, from which theologians throughout the Christian world might take advantage and learn from it.

"In the second half of the nineteenth century, Christianity (this time in its various streams of Catholic, protestant and orthodox denominations) regained a chance for expansion in China."

The Church of the Holy Redeemer, Beijing

 

The Church of the Holy Redeemer, Beijing; called Beitang, “the North Church” - formerly the church of the French Mission in Beijing.

For God So Love the World

For God So Love the World

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