Christianity in China
How it works
The unique culture of the Chinese dates back thousands of years, and even through efforts of new ideologies it has been able to retain is most valuable core principles. Christianity, for example, was a new idea presented to the Chinese. What began as a small group of missionaries grew into an accepted religion practiced in the country. The presence of Protestant Christians in China has grown ten percent annually since 1979. That percentage of the population who follow Christianity have incorporated some of these Chinese traditions into their practice, as there is a Confucian influence on their practices.
It is important to understand their unique perspective, as it allows one’s mind to remain open to new ideas that are different from your own personal ways of thinking. Christianity is a rapidly growing religion in China, and it has persevered from its jesuit origins through obstacles such as those brought on by government intervention. From its origins through modern practice, Christianity in China has grown and become more popular among citizens while having a unique twist brought on by China’s Confucian history and culture.
Jesuits are responsible for the planting of Christian ideas in China through their missionary efforts. These jesuits were members of a group called The Society of Jesus, and their goal was to spread the gospel to so-called “infidels” across the globe (Fontana, 2011). Once the first missionaries arrived in China, they began to learn about the way of life of the Chinese, including the idea of religion they already had. One finding of Matteo Ricci was that the emperor, who was considered to rule by a divine mandate, had “supreme authority. . .with the task of organizing society so as to ensure harmony between celestial and terrestrial worlds”. He dedicated the first part of his mission to learning as much as possible about Chinese culture and language. This knowledge allowed them to determine a starting point for their conversion attempts, as they needed to know what the Chinese had experience with. In order to gain converts, Jesuits explained the gospel in Chinese terms, for example, Ricci constructed a Chinese word for God,Tianzhu, meaning Lord of Heaven(Fontana,2011). The first target of Ricci’s missions were the ruling class. He decided to “seek to address scholars and officials, the cultural and political elite of the country, and show them that the Christian doctrine was based on reason”(Fontana, 2011). He was confident in his language abilities and also believed that if he can convert the upper class, the lower class would follow suit. Robert Morrison was a later Jesuit missionary with the goal of venturing to the middle kingdom in hopes of bringing the “light of science and revelation”, however, his efforts were slow to spark as less than one hundred Chinese were baptized after three decades of work(Xi,2010). Morrison, unlike the Catholic Ricci, was a protestant Christian and his translation of the Bible into Mandarin was one of his biggest successes.The mandarin bible allowed the Chinese to read and learn for themselves, and consequently were able to better understand what the missionaries taught them. It also gave a way for new converts to share with those missionaries were unable to reach. Although his initial attempts were not up to his standard, he ended his career in China leaving behind a legacy(Hallihan,2008). Each of these events created the foundation for Chinese Christianity by planting the roots of the gospel in this section of the world.
Originally, all the Christians in China were Catholic, until the arrival of protestant missionaries brought the newer ideology to the mix. Catholicism managed to remain most prominent for years after protestants arrived. Even in 1956 the ratio was approximately three catholics for every protestant. In their time as the majority, the Catholic clergy used charity works to gain their new adherents. For example, other than simple sermons there were efforts through aid to the poor and establishing schools. During the opium epidemic some even provided aid for those affected(Bays,1999). The Catholic dominance over Asia has changed in recent years with that ratio swapping in favor of Protestantism. Protestant missionaries also participated in the fight against opium. Neither group of missionaries were very successful in their fight against the drug, but both had the same idea in mind. It was all an effort to protect morality. Churches during this time, however, did not allow opium addicts to become members, with their excuse being that “it is a hindrance to their efforts to convert the Chinese to Christianity” (Lodwick 1995). A key difference in those following the protestant form of Christianity is the tendency of Chinese Protestants to reject the catholic practices as idolatry. Some claim that Catholicism “has nothing to do with Christianity”(Kitchener, 2018). This comes from the difference in practice of Catholicism versus Protestantism. While Catholics pray to and worship Mary, the mother of Jesus, Protestants directly worship Jesus. Catholicism came first, but the Protestant branch began with Jesus’s teachings. Also, most Protestant Christians in China are non-denominational, meaning they don’t identify with a specific sect of Christianity. They simply believe in Jesus and the Bible. These divisions within China are able to remain harmonious, and simply represent the teachings and efforts of missionaries over the years.
There is a history of tension between Christianity and China’s communist government. China operates under a communist party with strict regulations for its constituents. The country as a whole is officially considered atheist, despite the majority of the population practicing a religion. It is legal to practice a religion, but only those approved and supervised by the government.There are five recognized religions in China: Buddhism, Catholicism,Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism. These state-sanctioned religions are each overseen by entities that provide censorship based on the communist party’s discretion. Censorship is what led to the development of underground house churches. These house churches operate without the discretion of the Chinese government, making them illegal Governments are aware that these exist, and have sought to shut them down. As Christianity has grown, more oppression and conflict has been reported. There have been house raids, demolition of churches, and riots in order to break up the “illegal” church gatherings. These incidents are what have sparked claims of China being one of the most dangerous and difficult places in the world to be a Christian(Allen 2016). However, as long as the organization cooperates with the government and abides by the rules, there is no issue. China does have freedom of religion under their constitution. The rules is that “no one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the education system of the state”(China, 1961). The guidelines help to maintain order and preserve unity under the government’s rule.
A Chinese Christian today still remains true to their Confucian roots, as they are able to intertwine the two concepts. Many of the Confucian ideas are directly related to Christian morality, with the “Confucian standards and behavior and the need for social harmony”which correlates to Jesus’s message of loving one’s neighbor(Bays,1999). Matteo Ricci knew of the Chinese people’s strong connection to their culture, and used this to his advantage. He taught himself about the Confucian ideology and applied it to his missionary work.This way, Ricci was able to speak to the people in their own language and terms they could relate to. Many contribute the success of Chinese Christianity to this connection of the two. His accomplishment established the Christian-Confucian relationship (Young 1983). This relationship is what keeps Chinese Christians connected to their culture(Yang,2011). There are still thousands of missionaries in China today seeking to spread the gospel and keep it alive in the country. With this, China is currently one of the most Christian nations in the world based on numbers, although the the country is officially atheist. In 2030, it is expected that the population of Christians in China will exceed 247 million(Phillips 2014). This is due to that vast amount of missionaries continuing their work, as well as families passing the religion down the line. Many modern believers choose to worship in “house churches” that are not regulated by the government. House churches are not strictly held in homes, but also rented buildings and even some have built actual church buildings. In these underground organizations, believers are allowed to worship freely without limits of censorship. But the trade-off from this freedom is the potential of conflict with the state (Cheng 2018). The religion is popular and on the rise, with credit being due towards the different missionaries planting Christianity in China, and allowing it to grow to what it is today.
China’s relationship with Christianity is long term, and growing. From humble beginnings with Ricci and those who followed, the religion has imprinted itself on the people. Chinese followers are able to worship God while keeping their unique cultural identity that was there before any missionaries arrived. This allows Christianity to remain popular with the people, as culture is a huge aspect of the Chinese identity and lifestyle. This research was conducted through readings of online sources to gather information. As an end result, there is a better comprehension of China’s people and their culture. Also, more understanding of the Chinese government’s position in relation to religion in general has been acquired, which eliminated any previous misunderstandings and bias. These findings are essential in broadening perspectives of the topic to include more than just a Western view on religion. Overall, this research explains that Christianity in China is prospering through any barriers, and provides an explanation as to how Christianity made it into China, who its followers are, and what the religion has been through to get where it is today. This research challenges previous misconceptions of religion in China and provides a better understanding of humanity through the lens of the Chinese people.