{24}     Christianity in China

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

        24.1.1  Overview

·         Han cross: In past centuries, repeatedly, Christianity had been planted in China, and yet repeatedly it had disappeared under conditions of isolation. The perennial barrier was the restriction by the Chinese government not allowing foreigners within its borders. The earliest evidence of Christianity in China was an iron cross with inscription about the cross, dated in the Late Han Dynasty [3rd-c].

        24.1.2  Tang Dynasty [618–907]

·         Nestorians: The Nestorians sent missionary Olopan to China [635]. Churches and monasteries were built. Based on the Chinese translation used for Christian terminology, the Nestorians wanted to appear like Buddhism which was a popular religion in China at that time. It was an attempt to make Christian faith appear Chinese at the expense of sound biblical doctrines. When the emperor of Tang Dynasty decided to wipe out Buddhism [845], Christians also became objects of persecution and they 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. The church disappeared when the Mongols were expelled with the change of government [1368].

        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. After negotiations, they were granted permission to settle in the provincial capital of Chaochin. Matteo Ricci was one of the Jesuits. He was proficient in Chinese language and culture. He began his work in Chaochin [1583] but his ultimate objective was to influence high officials. Final, he was invited to the imperial court in Beijing [1601] where he helped build a great observatory.

o        Strategy: Ricci’s strategy of evangelism consisted in penetrating into China without necessarily seeking large numbers of converts. He feared that, were he to cause a great religious stir, he and the other missionaries would be expelled from China. Therefore, he never built a church or chapel, nor did he ever preach to multitudes. 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.

o        Accommodation to culture: The Jesuits accommodated Chinese culture because they argued that Confucianism was not a religion, and that there was much in the teachings of Confucius that could be used as a point of entry for the gospel. As to ancestor worship, they claimed that this was not a true worship, but rather a social custom whereby one showed respect for one’s ancestors. Eventually, the Vatican decided against the veneration of ancestors and of Confucius [1707].

        24.1.5  Qing Dynasty [1644–1911]

·         Jesuits: Kangxi Emperor permitted the Jesuits to freely preach Christianity [1692] but he banned Christian missionaries as a result of the controversy involving Chinese rites [1721].

·         End of Catholic missions: Some monks were involved in political struggles. They helped the enemies of the emperor. The emperor therefore issued an edict to ban Christianity [1775], and the work of the RCC in China became extinct.


        24.2.1  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 with only one furlough home to England. His work was continued by another Englishman William Milne and a Chinese convert Liang Fa who was ordained as the first Chinese evangelist [1823]. After Morrison, missionary societies from many denominations sent missionaries to China.

·         Hudson Taylor 戴德生(1832–1905)—English: He founded the China Inland Mission [1865]. It accepted missionaries from all denominations. It refused to make use of the supposed advantages based on unequal treaties. After his first visit to China [1853], Taylor spent most of his adult life in China. He travelled numerous times between China and England, bringing missionary teams. He set up over 100 schools . He died in Changsha, Hunan.

o        Significance: A historian Ruth Tucker says of Taylor: “No other missionary in the nineteen centuries since the Apostle Paul has had a wider vision and has carried out a more systematized plan of evangelizing a broad geographical area than Hudson Taylor.”

o        Impact: 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—C. T. Studd, M. Beauchamp, W. W. Cassels, D. E. Hoste, S. P. Smith, A. T. Podhill-Turner, C. H. Polhill-Turner. They went to China as missionaries with the China Inland Mission [1885].

        24.2.2  Important political events

·         Opium War [1839–1842]—After the war, Hong Kong became a colony and the British were granted 5 ports. Other European powers then used their military might to force unequal treaties opening up China for trade. Unfortunately, many of the unequal treaties also made provisions for the presence of missionaries in China. The initial success of missionaries was greatly encouraging.

·         Imperialism & Christianity: The unequal treaties of 1842, 1843, 1844, 1858, 1860 included provisions for missionaries to freely preach Christianity and to receive protection from the government. Afterwards, many denominations sent missionaries to China from Europe and North America. The original intention was to evangelize the heathen Chinese but the result was accusations by Chinese against missionaries, including: participation in the military invasion of China, supplying intelligence to the invaders, invading China culturally, and possessing special privileges by appealing conflicts to foreign ambassadors. These led to enmity of Chinese against missionaries and against Christianity. On the other hand, the gospel was preached and many Chinese people were saved. Missionary societies also set up schools, universities, and hospitals in China, providing practical help to the Chinese. So there are both positive and negative impacts.

·         Taiping Rebellion 太平天國[1850–1864]—The rebellion was influenced by Christian writings. Because of the impoverished living conditions of the people, a group rebelled establishing a kingdom using Christian principles of sexual equality, with laws prohibiting prostitution, adultery, binding of girls’ feet, opium, tobacco, and alcohol. While many teachings were doctrinally incorrect and heretical, it did lead to the spreading of Christian ideas. For a time, they became the government around Nanjing. They were weakened by internal conflicts and eventually crushed by the imperial armies, with the help of western powers.

·         Boxer Rebellion 拳匪之亂[1899–1901]—It was an uprising by a group called the Society of Right and Harmonious Fists. It was originally established against the Manchu government. Gradually, it shifted to opposing foreign influence in areas such as trade, politics, religion and technology. They were encouraged by Empress Dowager. They burnt foreign churches, schools, and hospitals and 189 missionaries and their children were killed. The rebellion ended when the Eight-Nation Alliance invaded China and occupied Beijing.


        24.3.1  Anti-Christian activities

·         Background: When the republic was established in 1912, there were tens of thousands of Protestant missionaries in China, with flourishing churches in every province. The future appeared so bright that some observer spoke of a conversion of the entire nation similar to what had taken place in the Roman Empire under Constantine’s reign.

·         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. It was a reaction to the conference of World Student Christian Federation in Beijing. Later in 1924, the prohibition of Chinese from city parks led to demonstrations. Then, conflicts in schools and factories between foreign nationals (Japanese and British) caused the death of over 20 Chinese. Large scale labour strikes were organized and foreigners were boycotted. Many foreign missionaries were forced to leave China. The number of missionaries reduced from 8,000 in 1922 to 3,000 in 1928.

·         Results: To fight against the accusation of being a superstitious foreign religion, the church adopted the policies of: [1] Liberal theology: emphasizing the ethical aspects of Christianity and abandoning the supernaturalism. [2] Contextualization: attempting to fit Christianity into traditional Chinese culture. [3] Founding three-self churches: establishing independence from western churches.

        24.3.2  Establishment of independent churches

·         The Church of Christ in China 中華基督教會[1927]: The church began from the separation of 10 Presbyterian churches from their mother church in the West [1922]. With the help of western missionary societies, the Chinese churches promoted a union of churches from different denominations. Many churches joined the movement. The first national council met to establish the church [1927] which represented 120,000 Chinese Christians, one-third of the national total. It adopted the three-self model. Each church must follow 3 basic doctrines: [1] Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour. [2] The Bible is the inspired Word of God and the highest authority for doctrine and practice. [3] The Apostles’ Creed is accepted. Each church could decide on their own government and liturgies.

·         Christian Tabernacle 基督徒會堂[1925]: It was founded by Wang Ming Dao王明道 in Beijing, following evangelical doctrines. Born again experience was emphasized, as well as a life of faith and virtue.

·         Local Church 地方教會[1927]: It was founded by Watchman Nee倪柝聲 in Shanghai, following evangelical doctrines, stressing inner Christian life. The church government was under the leadership of apostles.

·         Jesus Family 耶穌家庭[1919]: It was founded by Jing Dian Ying敬奠瀛 in Shandong, emphasizing commitment to live for Christ and to share all private properties with the church.

        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. He believed that Christianity can reform the society through preaching the gospel of peace and participating in social work such as education, medicine, and helping the poor. 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 criticized any shortcomings of the Chinese churches as well as society. He strongly opposed any evils or injustices in Chinese society and he emphasized that Chinese Christians should live a holy life.

·         Watchman Nee 倪柝聲(1903–1972): He was influenced by the Quietism of Guyon and the Holiness Movement of Pember. In his gospel preaching and ministry, he always stressed more on the “inner-life” issue in a believer’s life rather than the “outward-work”. He believed that to be a Christian is altogether a matter of the divine life. His doctrine on the church followed an authoritarian model under the apostle and he himself was an apostle.


        24.4.1  Period 1: Reorganization [1949–1960]

·         Periods: History of the Chinese Church in the communist era can be divided into 4 periods based on the change in government policies: reorganization of the church, persecution of the church, Cultural Revolution, and adjustment in the church.

·         Situation in 1949: When the communists took over the government of China, it was estimated that there were about 3 million Christians in China. There were still over 3,000 foreign missionaries. By 1951, all of them were expelled.

·         Three-Self Movement: The communist government pushed for the formation of the Three-Self Movement in order to eliminate all foreign influence [1951]. After the establishment of the Committee of Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement [1954], the suppression of those who did not join the movement began. The most famous were long sentences of imprisonment for Wang Ming Dao (22 years) and Watchman Nee (15 years), being classified as “anti-revolutionaries”.

·         Government control: All public churches were controlled by the communists. Political indoctrination became the main form of education in three-self churches. Under the Great Leap Forward [1958], all private properties were confiscated. It became necessary for pastors to work for their living. Most Christian seminaries and publishing companies were forcibly closed.


        24.4.2  Period 2: Persecution [1960–1976]

·         Corruption: Under government control, the Three-Self Movement gradually became a propaganda tool of the communists. When the Great Leap Forward starved 25 million to death, the movement spoke out on the side of the government, denying deaths. Many Christians withdrew from the churches.

·         House churches: In order to free the churches from the domination by the communists, house churches were founded, beginning in the 1960s. The number of house churches boomed and quickly surpassed those in the Three-Self Movement. Their zeal of evangelism brought millions of new believers. The government suppressed these churches by sending church leaders to long imprisonment. The Three-Self Movement cooperated with the government by betraying and exposing the location of house churches. The house churches resorted to meeting in secret places. Despite these suppressions, house churches continued to grow 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. Because they had to meet secretly, they were more developed in rural areas.


        24.4.3  Period 3: Adjustment [1976–  ]

·         Change in policy: After the Cultural Revolution, the government reversed its policy towards religions. Formal religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism) were declassified from the rank of superstitions. Previous suppressions of religions were attributed to the sins of the “Gang of Four”. Religions were accepted as a contributing force to build a better society.

·         Reopening: The Three-Self Movement was reorganized. Worship services in the public three-self churches started [1978]. The Nanjing Seminary was reopened. The printing of Bibles began again.

·         Document 19 [1982]: The central communist government issued the document to re-state its Marxist policy toward religions. According to Marxism, religion is the opiate of the people and will eventually disappear. In the meantime, it was to be tolerated and religious leaders would be recruited to help improving the society. Members of the communist party, however, were forbidden to join any religion.

·         Growth in the 1980s: The reopening of three-self churches and the toleration of house churches led to continuous growth of Christianity. New churches were built; new seminaries were opened.

·         Document 6 [1991]: This document issed by the central government was a partial reversal of the 1982 document. It restricted expansion of religion and closely monitored contacts with foreign organizations and people.

·         Recent situation: The 2 documents (1982, 1991) represent the 2 different attitudes of communists towards Christians. They lead to the constantly changing policies, resulting in cycles of suppression and relaxation. In 2006, the government attempted to have better control of house churches. They forced all house churches to register with the government and they started a new cycle of persecution against those who do not register. Despite all these suppressive policies, the Gospel continues to convert thousands of new Christians everyday. The present number of Christians is estimated to be 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 to contextualize Christianity since 1900 were in the directions of: [1] adding Chinese style into Christian buildings and liturgies, [2] finding a commonality between Christianity and Chinese philosophy—both are general revelation from God and are complementary to each other, [3] building churches with the principle of “three selves”—self-government, self-support, and 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 better alternative and as a reforming force of Chinese culture.

·         Communist direction: The emphasis is on the cooperation of Christianity and socialism.

·         Need for balance: The original intent of contextualization is a well-meaning one. For example, an exposition of the complementarity of Christianity with traditional Chinese culture (particularly Confucianism) helps to make Christianity more acceptable. On the other hand, contextualization could go too far. There are essential Christian doctrines based on the Bible. If a Christian allows a compromise of these doctrines, his Christian identity will no longer be authentic. For example, in Africa, contextualization led to a toleration of polygamy. This is excessive and unorthodox contextualization. One can be fully Chinese and fully Christian. The alien background of Christianity does not bring any harm to the community. In fact, Christian elements can contribute to the modernization of Chinese culture and make it fuller.



[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.



        Was Matteo Ricci’s method of evangelism in China a good way?

o        Ricci never built a church or chapel, nor did he preach to a large audience. He relied on personal contact to convert his powerful Chinese friends. It had one advantage of converting intellectual elites who could then influence many other people. But the process was too slow. Nevertheless, his other consideration was to avoid being expelled. This might be a justified reason.

        What should our attitude be towards Confucianism (is it a religion?) and ancestral worship (is it idolatry?)?

o        Confucianism is a moral philosophy, not a religion but some people later developed it into a religion, though only by a minority. Many principles in Confucianism are in fact similar to those in the Bible, such as emphasis on virtues such as honesty, promise keeping, filial piety.

o        Ancestral worship’s main intention is to show respect to ancestors and to reinforce those attitudes of respect. It was originally not a deity worship but later did develop into idolatry. Christians should keep the attitude but refrain from participating in it.

        How should our attitude be towards the Three-Self Churches vs the House churches?

o        The Three-Self Churches did betray Christians during the Cultural Revolution. Yet if they are truly repentant, they should be forgiven. It is also important to discern whether they were true Christians by requesting a confession of their faith.

o        The Houses Churches are composed mostly of true Christians. They need our prayers and practical help. We need to pray for them asking God to relieve them from persistent persecution by the communist government. We should also provide all the help that they need, including money, Christian resources, training, people.