{24}     Christianity in China

ERA 7 << Modern Church (3): Ecumenism & Adaptations (AD 1900–2000) >> SESSION 3

24.1  Early Catholic Missionaries

        24.1.2  Tang Dynasty [618–907]

·         Nestorians: The Nestorians sent missionary Olopan to China [635]. The Nestorians wanted to appear like Buddhism which was a popular religion in China at that time. When the emperor of Tang Dynasty decided to wipe out Buddhism [845], Christians also disappeared from China at the end of 9th-c.

        24.1.3  Yuan Dynasty [1271–1368]

·         Father John: Franciscan missionary John Montecorvino visited Beijing [1294], making about 10,000 converts. By 1342, there were about 30,000 Christians, but most of them were Mongols.

        24.1.4  Ming Dynasty [1368–1644]

·         Matteo Ricci 利馬竇(1552–1610)—At the end of 16th-c, the Jesuits came to southern China. Matteo Ricci was proficient in Chinese language and culture. He was invited to the imperial court in Beijing [1601]. It was in his home that he gained his only converts, all of them members of the intellectual elite. They eventually helped convert others to Christianity. By 1700, the Jesuits in China claimed to have 300,000 followers.

        24.1.5  Qing Dynasty [1644–1911]

·         Jesuits: Emperor Kangxi permitted the Jesuits to freely preach Christianity [1692] but he banned Christian missionaries as a result of the controversy involving Chinese rites [1721]. The emperor issued an edict to ban Christianity [1775], and the work of the RCC in China became extinct.

        24.2.1  Protestant Missionaries

·         Robert Morrison 馬禮遜(1782–1834)—Scotsman: He settled (and eventually died) in Guangzhou [1807] and devoted his life to translate the Bible and Christian books into Chinese. He served for 27 years in China.

·         Hudson Taylor 戴德生(1832–1905)—English: He founded the China Inland Mission [1865]. The China Inland Mission was responsible for bringing to China over 800 missionaries who founded 125 elementary schools for Christian children and directly resulted in 18,000 Christian conversions.

·         The “Cambridge Seven” 劍橋七傑—7 Cambridge graduates joined the China Inland Mission [1885].

        24.3.1  Anti-Christian activities

·         May 4 Movement [1919]: It was an anti-imperialist, cultural, and political movement. Because Christianity was regarded as part of imperialism, the movement also opposed Christianity.

·         Anti-Religion Coalition [1922]: It was formed by academics who opposed and criticized Christianity. Large scale labour strikes were organized. Many foreign missionaries were forced to leave China.

        24.3.2  Establishment of independent churches

·         The Church of Christ in China 中華基督教會[1927]

·         Christian Tabernacle 基督徒會堂[1925]: It was founded by Wang Ming Dao王明道 in Beijing.

·         Local Church 地方教會[1927]: It was founded by Watchman Nee倪柝聲 in Shanghai.

·         Jesus Family 耶穌家庭[1919]: It was founded by Jing Dian Ying敬奠瀛 in Shandong.

        24.3.3  Chinese theologians

·         Cao Zi Chen 趙紫宸(1888–1979): In his early career, he stressed that Christianity is about love. He tried to harmonize Christianity and Confucianism. In his late career, he turned to the Word of God and accepted supernaturalism in the Bible although he still believed in establishing the kingdom of God on Earth.

·         Wang Ming Dao 王明道(1900–1991): He held to evangelical doctrines completely, emphasizing the study of the Bible, the inspired Word of God. His first priority is to lead non-believers to repentance and born-again lives. He strongly opposed any injustices in Chinese society and he emphasized living a holy life.

·         Watchman Nee 倪柝聲(1903–1972): He was influenced by the Quietism of Guyon and the Holiness Movement of Pember. He always stressed more on the “inner-life” issue in a believer’s life rather than the “outward-work”. His doctrine on the church followed an authoritarian model under the apostle (himself).

        24.4.1  Period 1: Reorganization [1949–1960]

·         Three-Self Movement: When the communists took over China, there were about 3 million Christians in China and 3,000 foreign missionaries who were all expelled by 1951. The communist government pushed for the formation of the Three-Self Movement [1954] and suppressed those who did not join the movement. All public churches were controlled by the communists and became instruments of political indoctrination.

        24.4.2  Period 2: Persecution [1960–1976]

·         Corruption: Under the government, the Three-Self Movement became a propaganda tool of the communists.

·         House churches: House churches were founded, beginning in the 1960s. The government suppressed these churches. The Three-Self Movement cooperated with the government by exposing the location of house churches. The house churches met in secret places and grew exponentially.

·         Cultural Revolution [1966–1976]: All public churches stopped worship services. Bibles, hymn books, and books were all burnt. Leaders of the Three-Self Movement were purged. Yet the house churches did not stop meeting. Miracles frequently occurred, leading to new converts. They were more developed in rural areas.

        24.4.3  Period 3: Adjustment [1976–  ]

·         Change in policy: The government reversed its policy towards religions. Worship services in the public three-self churches started [1978]. The printing of Bibles began again. New churches were built; new seminaries were opened. The government, however, still periodically suppressed the church.

·         Recent situation: In 2006, the government forced all house churches to register with the government and they started a new cycle of persecution. Despite the suppressive policies, the Gospel continues to convert thousands of new Christians everyday. The present estimated number of Christians is between 80 and 100 million.

        24.4.4  Contextualization (Indigenization)

·         Meaning: Contextualization refers the process where foreign cultural elements are adapted and accepted into the native culture. Here, it refers to the amalgamation of elements of Christianity and elements of traditional Chinese culture so that Christianity can be more acceptable to Chinese.

·         Early emphasis: Attempts included: [1] adding Chinese style into liturgies, [2] finding a commonality between Christianity and Chinese philosophy, [3] building churches with the principle of “three selves”—self-government, self-support, self-propagation, [4] stressing the contribution of Christianity in helping the nation.

·         Conservative direction: Conservatives go in the direction of criticizing Chinese traditional culture, stressing the contribution of Christianity in modern society, as a reforming force of Chinese culture.

·         Need for balance: The intent of contextualization is a well-meaning one but it could go too far.


[1] treasure our heritage

The gospel of salvation was brought to China by selfless western missionaries who were called by the Holy Spirit.

[2] appreciate God’s providence

The number of Chinese Christians increases rapidly, despite cycles of persecution by the communist government.

[3] avoid past errors

Corruption occurs when the church links too closely with the government.

[4] apply our knowledge

Both Wang Ming Dao and Watchman Nee emphasized the commitment of Christians to live a deeply dedicated life.

[5] follow past saints

For working to expand God’s kingdom, many Chinese Christians died or were imprisoned for 15-30 years.