Stephen Uhalley, Jr., and Xiaoxin Wu, Editors. China and Christianity: Burdened Past, Hopeful Future. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe. 2001. Paper. 499 + xiii pages, including forward, introduction, notes, bibliography, glossary, list of participants, index. ISBN 0-7656-0662-3.
This substantial volume includes eighteen papers from a conference on its title theme held in San Francisco under the sponsorship of the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History and the Center for the Pacific Rim of the University of San Francisco in 1999.
Arranged in rough chronological order, the chapters cover a wide variety of topics by scholar-specialists from many fields. There was no attempt at the conference, or in this partial compendium, to provide a systematic, much less a comprehensive, overview of China’s interaction with Christianity over the past several hundred years.
However, an introductory “perspective setting” essay and a concluding chapter suggesting future lines of study provide excellent brackets for this disparate collection.
Reflecting the Jesuit sponsorship of the conference, one-third of the papers deal with the Jesuits, mostly of the Ming and Qing periods, and more than half of the book reflects a Roman Catholic perspective. All the same, this Evangelical Protestant reader found at least two-thirds of the chapters quite helpful (though I must add that Christianity and China, edited by Daniel Bays, was even more useful).
The length of the book and variety of its contents preclude detailed description. In brief, the volume would be essential reading for specialists in the history of Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, in China. More than that, however, I think that all who engage in cross-cultural ministry among Chinese would profit from many of these insightful, sometimes profound, essays.
A few recurrent themes struck this reviewer: Christianity has almost always been seen as a foreign faith; usually, this has hindered its acceptance by Chinese. Those foreigners who have succeeded most in communicating the Gospel have taken the time and effort to learn the language and the culture; have lived among the people; have shown respect for the Chinese and the finer elements of their culture; and have displayed genuine love and concern.
Chinese have had various motives for accepting the Christian faith including, often, a desire for “salvation now” from disease, poverty, social injustice, and oppression. That is to say, Christianity in China often looks little different from its pagan counterparts in folk religion and millenarian political movements.
Contextualization of Christianity among Chinese involves a wide variety of processes; requires immense knowledge, understanding, and skill on all sides; is fraught with many dangers, most notably syncretism and compromise; and usually fails to achieve its intended goals. On the other hand, Christianity has become a truly Chinese religion, with adherents among all classes who see themselves as both Chinese and Christian.
Protestants and Roman Catholics in China today confront a bewildering array of challenges, and are marked by immense variety among themselves. These studies have contributed greatly to my own understanding of “China and Christianity.”
(You may skip the following synopses if you have already decided to buy and read China and Christianity. Otherwise, I recommend that you avail yourself of the many valuable insights offered by the volume’s authors by reading these summaries.)
To offer a little taste of the banquet contained in its page 500+ pages, I shall briefly survey the main points of most of the chapters in the book.
The first chapter, “Universal Teaching from the West,” highlights the fundamental tension we face: Christianity claims to possess a message of universal relevance, even authority, and yet it has come to China from “the West.” John Witke, S.J., traces the history of various forms of Christianity in China, noting the ways in which it has both gained adherents and faced rejection as a threat to the social order.
Like many others, he believes that Christians must demonstrate their commitment to the welfare of society as part of the current transformation of China. He concludes with this hopeful statement: “There is no doubt that Christianity, despite its size relative to the population, has become an integral element in the history of China.” The prominence of “Christians” in the Republican era reinforces this claim, even if Sun Yat-sen’s Jesus was “a revolutionary leading a religious cause.”
Witke also advises that we study “the role of Christianity in Taiwan as well as… in Hong Kong and Macau during the past fifty-five year period” for “insights into understanding Christianity in China’s future.”
- Zhang Kaiyuan opens his chapter, “A Brief Review of the Historical Research on Christianity in China” with a quote from Francis Wei that should be memorized by all foreigners who seek to communicate Christianity among the Chinese:
“In interpreting the Christian teachings and institutions in terms of another culture the important thing is first of all to enter into the spirit of the culture.”
He goes on to trace the study of Christianity in China by Chinese scholars over the past 100 years, listing the most important works and their authors in a most helpful survey of literature. He is encouraged that scholars in China have now largely cast off “leftist” influences, so that they can undertake their research more objectively. At the same time, he calls for increased cooperation among scholars from all parts of the world.
- Erik Zurcher describes how the Jesuit missionaries in China consistently portrayed their European homeland as a utopia ruled according to Christian laws and leaders. Their religion was thus presented as a civilizing force, similar, and even superior, to Confucianism. This idealized picture greatly influenced the perception of Chinese Christians, who concluded that their own country and civilization were inferior to that of Christianized Europe.
There is only one problem with this portrayal: Much of it was fabricated. When reality set in, disillusionment was not far behind. Fast-forward to the period after World War I, and you have a case of déjà vu.
- Paul Rule compares “Revelation in the Confucian and Christian traditions.” One particularly pertinent observation follows from the way in which Christianity “fitted only too easily into the paradigms of Chinese popular religion” (he mentions various supernatural elements of both): “It was always, and still is today, elite culture which puts up the strongest barriers.”
That elite culture placed “the prime source of contact with transcendence” – and thus the source of revelation – in “the moral nature of humanity,” especially the writers of the Confucians classics. In other words, Heaven does not speak, as does the Christian God. True, later Jesuits sought to soften this contrast by appealing to natural revelation.
“In the end, however, what determined the reaction of those presented with the Tianzhu jiao (Roman Catholic ‘religion of the heavenly Lord’) was acceptance or rejection of a unique and definitive incarnation of God in Jesus.” “Was it historical fact, and if so, why unknown to the Chinese until now? Isn’t it unseemly for Tian/Shangdi/Tianzhu to become a man?.,.. And should we worship a crucified criminal.”
“Today, again, the issue has arisen in the form of ‘Culture Christianity,’ with its admiration of the social and cultural utility of Christianity and the subtlety of its theology, but deep ambiguities about its truth claims.” Indeed.
- Nicholas Standaert, SJ, studies “Christianity in Late Ming and Early Qing China as a Case of Cultural Transmission” in another chapter with pertinence for today’s encounter. Contacts between Europeans and non-Western cultures have been classified in various categories, such as “cultural” contact (very brief); “collision”; and “relationship” (“a prolonged series of reciprocal contacts on the basis of political equilibrium or stalemate”). Though he considers the Roman Catholic experience of this period different from all those types, the categories are interesting.
He notes that during this period “in the exchange the aspect of external power was relatively reduced”; there was a marked “predominance of the Chinese language in the exchange”; and it resulted in “raising some fundamental questions to Chinese culture which were fully developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and which are not yet resolved.” These include “Why did scientific and technological development stagnate in China and in the West? What was Jesus Christ born in Judea and not in China? What does modernization mean for China?”
“Transmission between Europe and China can be called external, strategic, holistic, active, and cross-cultural.” That is, foreigners brought their religion from the outside, and emphasized Aristotelian philosophy more than the Bible; the Jesuits aimed to influence those in authority; they introduced not just religion, but science, technology, and arts and crafts; Chinese played an active part in the encounter; and thus both sides learned from each other.
Particularly fascinating to me were ways that the Jesuits sought to “translate” their message: Pictures of the Madonna were made to look like Guanyin; church structure was adapted to fit Chinese social structure, in which the Jesuits tried to play the role of Confucian teacher as well; Jesus was put into the genealogy of Yao, Shun, Yu, and Confucius; “Confucian and Christian stories [were] juxtaposed to illustrate Confucian Christian virtues.”
Observers of the current scene will not be surprised to learn that, in those days, Chinese religious associations, including the ones organized by Roman Catholics, were “communities of effective rituals.” “A religion proves its worth by the immediate efficacy of it is rituals. In most cases the proven efficacy of these rituals, the happy discovery that ‘they work,’ appears to be a primary motive for conversion… It was a community of mutual support, in the general fight against all kinds of fear (disease, death, demons, natural disaster.) The regular intervention of the supernatural, by way of miraculous healing, rescue from disaster, … revival from temporary death, etc., … was the way in which the efficacy of the faith was sustained.”
Or, to put it another way, a recent commentator on house churches in China today observed that “millions of Chinese believers are one unanswered prayer away” from abandoning the faith.
Some conditions in a culture favor acceptance of elements of foreign origin: The inner dynamism of a culture, for example. “Officials and scholars searched for concrete ways in which to save the country from decay. It is this preceding quest that fostered the unique interaction between them and the Jesuits…. Late Ming literati responded to the crisis and moral decadence of the society by writing and circulating morality books… Christian moral tracts that aimed at the same purpose were readily diffused by such literati….”
Another key factor is prior knowledge, which allows the recipient to fit new knowledge into familiar categories. The Chinese could thus accept astronomy but were uninterested in technology, since theirs was equally advanced.
Emotional-affective characteristics also play a vital role. “Both Western and Chinese sources indicate that Ricci’s natural gift of easily establishing interpersonal relationships must have greatly influenced the way in which he was accepted. There are other examples in which the reduced distance between teacher and disciple favored transmission.” English teachers in China today, for example?
Patterns of transmission of knowledge influence the diffusion of new ideas. Network-building (guanxi) is central to Chinese society. The mobility of the educated elite during this period made transmission possible, and opened new doors to the Jesuits as their converts moved to new locations. The role of women in the home as educators of the young also facilitated the spread of the new religion.
On the other hand, the threat of danger, even if it is only perceived, may hinder acceptance of new ideas. Christianity was seen as a challenge the social order, and thus rejected by many of the elite. The outsiders played a part in this: “Missionaries… may well overact towards certain aspects and pronounce more explicitly and more sharply their ideas in the new environment than they would in their original setting. This in turn asks for a reaction by members of the new culture.” A good reminder!
This chapter is rich in insights and concepts, as the author explores the complexity of cross-cultural interaction. I found it quite brilliant, and recommend repeated reading of it for all involved in the current encounter between China and the West.
- Li Tiangang’s treatment of the “Chinese Renaissance: The Role of Early Jesuits in China” paints a fascinating picture of the influence of Westerners upon Chinese intellectual history. Briefly stated, in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, Jesuit missionaries, largely through their translated works, set in motion new trends in Confucianism that laid the foundation for modernity in China.
The reasons are many. Important for us is the fact that the Jesuits “understood Chinese culture even better than many contemporary Chinese,” and were thus, with the strong participation of their converts, able to shape the use of terms and help to re-define the essence of Confucianism.
The connection with modernity derives from the Jesuits’ own debt to the European Renaissance, with its emphasis upon scientific study of each field. “They shared the humanistic attitudes of the Renaissance,” and so they could speak the same language as the humanistic Confucian scholars.
In addition, they “raised the ideal of global culture through cooperation with Confucianism.” They also “participated actively in the transformation of Ming dynasty scholarship.” Their overt influence waned in later centuries, but the impact of their presence remains. Quite an achievement!
- Robert Entenmann’s study of “The Problem of Chinese Rites in Eighteenth-Century Sichuan” offers insights into the ways in which Chinese Christians reacted to the Papal prohibition of the worship of ancestors in “one of the most fruitful mission fields in China.”
The Jesuits had taught that ancestor-worship rites were essentially civil, not religious, but the Pope had listened to other arguments that regarded them as idolatrous. How did Chinese Catholics respond to the ensuing edicts that forbade traditional practices? Some of them quietly succumbed to the threat of persecution by their neighbors and conformed to tradition. Others, like Antonias Tang and Andreas Ly, sought to enforce the papal commands and root out all vestiges of what they considered to be superstition and idol-worship, especially at funerals.
- In his brief look at “Sino-French Scientific Relations Through the French Jesuits and the Academie Royale des Sciences in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Han Qi shows how French Jesuits “from the beginning used science to interest Chinese scholars in Christianity.”
His conclusions: With their impact upon the development of science, especially mathematics and astronomy, “their influence in Chinese was to prove more effective in transmitting science than it was in making converts to Christianity.”
- Claudia von Collani’s chapter on “China in the German ‘Geistesgeschichte’ reminds us that cultural transmission was a two-way street even long ago. “Whereas the Jesuits brought to China curiosities, Christianity, and European science, China gave to Europe philosophy, which led to the Enlightenment, Chinoiserie, Chinese language, and Chinese chronology.”
She shows how books by Jesuits about China, as well their extensive correspondence with European scholars, helped to change the intellectual landscape of Europe away from a respect for revealed religion towards a confidence in human reason and morality. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a universal genius, was largely responsible for this, but other such as Christian Wolff and outstanding Sinologists also played vital roles.
- “The Russian Orthodox Church in China” explains that the Russians were always limited in what they could do in China because of their intimate association with, and even diplomatic service of, a neighboring power. Nevertheless, many missionaries delved deeply into Chinese culture and produced worships of significant scholarship – something Protestant Evangelicals have usually failed to do.
- Jessie Lutz gives us a most helpful review in “China and Protestantism: Historical Perspectives, 1807-1949. She notes that “Scholars have been slow to recognize the growth of an indigenous Chinese Christianity,” and seeks to rectify that lack. Another new development is the study of the Protestantism in China “from a new perspective, this time with greater attention to the Chinese side of the story.” (The following pages give a rather thorough overview of her chapter; skip to the next section if you wish to move on.)
Lutz begins with the story of the intrepid missionaries who brought the Gospel to China in the early 19th century. While noting their many achievements, including translation of the Bible and wide propagation of their message, she also reminds us that “Most of the initial conversions were accomplished by Chinese.” “Chinese not only had the advantage of language facility and acquaintance with Chinese mores, but they could travel freely in the interior.”
“More importantly, they had family and lineage as avenues of approach.” As the faith spread among lineage groups, “the Christian congregation became in some ways a surrogate lineage. The Protestant missionary’s concept of the centrality of the individual gave way before the primacy of family and social harmony.”
Chinese evangelists “relied heavily on conversations with small group in informal settings. Frequently they visited tea houses or engaged in discussion on e a one-to-one basis,” though the acquisition of church buildings tended to introduce more formality.
Lutz analyzes the motives of those who converted to the new faith: Many “found the concept of a loving and forgiving Jesus attractive in the light of personal troubles and social disorder… They resisted the idea of original sin and continued to subscribe to the Confucian-Mencian concept of the essential goodness of human nature. But they readily acknowledged personal failings and they craved reassurance and hope.”
Others “were distressed not simply by their own inadequacies, but also by the widespread social and political breakdown surrounding them,” so they welcomed news of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Do we see here the seeds of the same fundamental moralism that characterizes much of Chinese Protestantism even today?
In the next era, that of “foundation building and expansion,” missionaries played a less active role in actual evangelism, which was carried out more and more by Chinese. Power and money still resided in the hands of the foreigners, however. Some outstanding Chinese Christians chafed under this situation and began to act more independently.
As time went on, “converts came slowly, while attrition statistics remained worrisome. Missionaries looked for other means to attract and retain converts. Some sought to appeal to Chinese scholars through translations of Western secular works, science demonstrations, Chinese language periodicals, and philanthropic projects. They hoped to persuade Chinese that Christianity was an essential component of a civilization with a long and respectable heritage… Other missionaries turned to education, social service, and medicine to supplement evangelism.” Does any of this sound familiar?
Opposition to foreign privileges and encroachments on the authority of local leaders finally found its most violent expression in the Boxer Rebellion.
During this period of “Good Times; Popularity and Growth,” evangelical Christianity expanded, and the Social Gospel was introduced. Chinese involved with such organizations as the YMCA “believed that dedicated Christian individuals were the key to reform and they hoped to contribute to the reconstruction of China while also attracting Chinese to Christianity.”
As the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy split the missionary community, “Christian” education played an increasing role. Most Chinese students in Christian schools, however, sought mostly to learn English and Western science “as a means to power and wealth,” and that this was “separable form Christianity,” so they eventually “found other avenues for information about the West.”
In the end, these schools “nurtured a corps of Christian leaders who acquired influential positions in education… Most were characterized by liberal theology, committed to social reform, deep Chinese patriotism, and acquaintance with Western learning and mores.” Was this what the missionaries who founded the schools had intended?
Variety grew within the Chinese Christian community, however, as people like Wang Mingdao and John Song spoke out for a traditional evangelical message without dependence upon foreign missionaries, and attracted thousands of young converts.
1925-1949 “Hard Times; An Era of National and Social Challenges.”
These turbulent years were marked by decreasing missionary dominance and growing indigenization of leadership, evangelism, and pastoral work. The Anti-Christian Movement of 1926 created a crisis for both foreigners and Chinese believers, but brought a deepening of faith in the latter. In the 19930s and 1940s, indigenous movements such as the True Jesus Church and the Little Flock gained adherents, even as independent evangelical bodies and sects “redefined Chinese Christianity as they incorporated elements from folk religion and Buddhism.”
“Christianity in all its variety had taken root in China and possessed the strength and techniques to survive decades of hostility and/or persecution.”
Ryan Dunch’s “Protestant Christianity in China Today: Fragile, Fragmented, Flourishing,” helps to penetrate the confusing variety of often contradictory reports about the Protestants in China. It, too, will be summarized in some detail.
“There are indeed deep complexities and contradictions within the Protestant experience in China… while on the one hand the Protestant church is flourishing in China, it is at the same time both fragmented …due to the great diversity of theological, practical, and regional streams that make up the contemporary Protestant church, and fragile due to the limited role which the church, despite its growth, plays and can play in Chinese social and cultural life.”
He begins by noting that different “interested parties” define Protestantism in China according to their own interests and outlooks, and settling for the “self-representation” of each group “as the chief criterion for inclusion” in his study.
He categorizes the main strands of Protestantism in China according to their historical origin: “the mission-founded churches, the indigenous Chinese Protestant movements of the early twentieth century, and the new Protestant movements that have emerged in the PRC since the 1970s.”
The mission-founded churches were marked by “ relative richness of resources…” producing “on the whole a well-educated population with a large representation among the modern professions.” Western connections and Western control over money created tensions between Chinese believers and the missionaries, and within the Chinese themselves.
These churches employed a professional, “educated clergy leading worship services in churches on Sundays, stressed preaching from Biblical texts, and featured some sort of liturgy…, and hymns consisting of Western tunes and translated Western texts.” These characteristics are still “evident today, especially at urban centers, where most congregations are descended from the pre-1949 mission-founded churches.”
Partly in reaction to these mission-founded churches, a significant number of “independent and indigenous Protestant sects” arose. Their common features included the mission-church background of many of their leaders; a “stress on the direct access of the believer to God’s word in the Bible”; and “considerable interpenetration of membership between the indigenous movements and the older missionary churches.”
The last, and latest, stream includes “some of the most energetic Protestant movements in China today,” which were “begun by Chinese Protestants with no institutional links to the older churches, under the conditions of suppression of all open religious activity in the latter stages of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).”
“They are heavily experiential and revivalist in emphasis, stressing direct personal experience of God, centered on literal reading of the Bible, spread by itinerant preachers with little in the way of formal education (theological or otherwise), but a great deal of dedication and enthusiasm. Suspicion of the state, and of the TSPM/CCC for its ties to the state, are characteristic, as is an other worldly and often eschatological orientation.”
For a variety of reasons, including increased mobility among the Chinese middle class, “Institutional fragmentation has been a major trend in the history of Protestantism in China since the 1920s.” Such fragmentation has allowed, and been abetted by, the great number of Western groups which have sought to “conduct missionary work of some nature in China.”
Some of these efforts are open, such as English teaching. Many are secret, working directly with unregistered churches, “and not always on very sound missiological principles.” Example: One foreign group supplies laptop computers and scholarships for the study of English, to facilitate communication with English-speaking missionaries.
Demographically, Protestants are “most numerous in three distinct areas: the coastal provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Shandong, which were centers of missionary work before 1949; the provinces of the central China plain, particularly Henan and Anhui; and among the minority peoples of southwest China.” The newer movements seem to be “more numerous in central China…”
Most Christians are found in rural areas, and composed of the so-called “four manys”: old people, women, sick, and illiterate. Women constitute 60 – 80 % of most churches. Recently, urban congregations composed of educated younger people have proliferated, however.
Is there anything we can call “Chinese Protestantism”? Dunch finds two “common orientations”: “an experiential emphasis and Biblicism. He cites evidence to support the view that “man Chinese Protestants, particularly in rural areas, understand their Christian faith in terms drawn from Chinese popular religion. Jesus functions much like a Chinese deity, and is a source form which to seek healing for illness and other supernatural help.” That accounts for the heavy emphasis upon healing, exorcism, and other supernatural manifestations in much of Chinese Protestantism, including the newer movements.
The Bible is considered to be the inspired Word of God, and “plays a central role in preaching.” On the other hand, the absence of commentaries and other aids to interpretation, coupled with indigenous methods of handling a text, have led to widespread use of allegory and “spiritual” interpretation of the Scriptures, “without regard to the context of traditional interpretations.”
The problem of indigenization of Christianity and Chinese culture has plagued Chinese believers for centuries, and Protestants for at least one hundred years. Dunch notes several different approaches: Some attempt to find parallels to, and support for, Christian teachings in the ancient Chinese classics. Others note the trend towards connecting with popular culture, especially through hymnody and song.
Still another definition makes distance from the Western missionary as the mark of the indigenous church, though this approach contains some major problems. The communists, of course, consider only those Christians and their writings which support socialism as indigenous.
Dunch comments: “The difficulty of defining indigenization can be traced, I believe, to the difficulty of defining Chinese culture,” with all its variety. Popular and elite culture split, as the elite characterized the former as superstitious and a barrier to modernization, creating an identity crisis persisting to the present. The default definition has become nationalism, and Chinese Protestants continue to struggle with the perception that theirs is a foreign faith, with connections to foreign – and not always friendly –powers.
Indeed, “the problem of indigenization is ultimately a matter of perception rather than ‘reality,’ since it flows from the subjectively experienced tension between Chinese and foreign identities among some sectors of the Protestant church in China; where no such tension is experienced, the question of indigenization is answered.” This sage remark agrees with my own experience among Chinese Evangelicals, many of whom no longer see Christianity as a “foreign” religion at all.
Dunch, whose book on Protestants in Fuzhou highlighted their prominent role in society, looks closely at the present position of Chinese Christians in society. He shows, first, that “it lacks a well-developed awareness of its own history,” which means that Chinese believers do not see their religion’s deep roots in Chinese culture over the past 200 years. Even more important, what sense of history they do possess is “a separate history, not as one embedded in the history of modern China.”
The relationship of the church to the state in China is particularly perplexing. All Protestants “experience state pressure and intervention in their activities.” The TSPM, which conducts its affairs openly, does so under government scrutiny. Unregistered churches find themselves subject to harsher treatment, as is well known.
Furthermore, Chinese Protestants mostly lack an intellectual frame of reference for participation in society, since their faith focuses on private, or narrowly parochial, concerns. A strong Pietistic background has fostered the view that one should not think about “unspiritual” matters.
Dunch provides a very helpful discussion of “civil society” in China, and the role of Protestants, especially the unregistered churches, in creating such a realm outside the direct control of the state. Though the churches do not engage in politics, they affect the political scene in at least two ways: (1) They withdraw from what they consider to be a corrupt system, which they cannot change, and devote their energies to personal and family renewal, seeking thus to reform society from the bottom up.
(2) Moreover, by not entering into the political system, they implicitly deny the Communist claim to ultimate allegiance and total domination of the nation. Dunch does not rule out the possibility that these a-political Christians might exert influence suddenly and unexpectedly, as happened in Eastern Europe – which is just what the leaders in Beijing fear.
When we look at Chinese Protestantism in World Christianity, “it is striking how little is unique about” it. In particular, like Protestantism around the world, it is “an increasingly individualize faith.” The author cites scholars who view Pentecostal movements, with their “emphasis on the self,” as part of a religion seen as “commodities in a religious marketplace, oriented towards satisfying the needs of the religious consumer-self. Observers of the American scene will find nothing strange here!
Dunch wonders how such an individualized, fractured Protestantism can “maintain an agreed core in the absence of an overarching authority structure.” Can international conferences, frequent conversations among leaders, and literature prevent further fragmentation?
He concludes that “Protestant Christianity has an established place in “ China, as well as in “the transnational reality of Chinese culture, in the middle-class churches of Hong Kong and the overseas Chinese communities, and as a focus of interest and cultural inquiry among Chinese intellectuals… In the fluid mutations and recurring patterns which make up Chinese culture today, there is an undeniable Protestant element which will continue to develop in tense and dynamic interaction with that culture.”
For me, one of the most enlightening chapters, and one which fills out hints in others, examines “Catholicism as Chinese folk Religion.”
Richard P. Madsden makes a good case that “Catholicism in China, especially in the rural areas where the vast majority of Chinese Catholics live, is as much folk religion as world religion.
The early missionaries, led by Ricci, taught that all folk religion ought to be avoided. The coined the term mixin – “deviant belief,” now translated as “superstition, and sought to portray Confucianism as “'an agnostic doctrine or moral wisdom, a philosophy that had already recognized the existence of the Supreme Being and that lacked only the revelation of the Gospel.’”
Contemporary Confucian scholars, however, discriminated between “the heterodox religion of certain folk-Buddhist sects and the relatively harmless worship of ancestors and village gods.” Madsden believes that “Chinese Catholicism eventually assimilated elements of both kinds of folk religiosity.”
Chinese governments have almost always held to one “orthodox” view of reality, branding all others as “heterodox.” But Madsden quotes Paul Cohen to the effect that Catholic Christianity was itself considered heterodox by many of the literati, because of “its foreign origin, its fundamental nonadherence to [Song and post-Song] Confucianism, the miraculous content of some of its doctrines, and its suspected motives of political subversion.” Does any of that remind you of the current situation?
Late-Ming – early Qing “heterodoxy” can be seen in the White Lotus sect of Buddhism. Its stress on the need for salvation, worship of an “Eternal Mother,” and millenarian aspirations made it politically subversive. Some sects emphasized present salvation, including healing and exorcism, sometimes through qigong; others focused more on religious matters.
But all were voluntary associations which preached a universal salvation “irrespective of family or lineage or village. Women usually played an important role in them,, they ”built extensive networks of communication across long distances…” and they “drew members from almost all social strata.” Partly for this reason, “they sects lacked a systematically educated leadership” partly because they lacked the opportunity to train their leaders openly.
All these features made them potentially powerful politically, and sometimes they “did indeed provide the impetus for massive peasant rebellions.”
Catholicism as “heterodoxy”
Likewise, Roman Catholicism in China took on many of the same features: After losing their status with the elite, they “focused their missionary efforts on uneducated rural people, whose religious imaginations were imbued with the mentality of the folk religion.” After the missionaries were expelled , “there were no opportunities to train native priests.” Laypeople did most of the training, which “increased the pososibilities for developments in doctrine and spirituality which would fit more closely with the characteristics of traditional rural mentalities than the foreign missionaries would have wanted.” Add to that the threat of state persecution and the need for secrecy, and you end up with a group that is forced “to think of themselves as in opposition to official authorities,” and thus “heterodox.”
This, in turn, “Put pressure on them to shape their lives in similar ways to other religious groups that were so classified. One can see this influence in folk-Catholic beliefs, institution structures, and in a general attitude of Catholics toward the rest of society.”
Beliefs: “Chinese Catholic thinking seemed to be more dominated by the search for salvation than the quest for ethical perfection.” While not worshiping the “Eternal Mother” of Buddhism, they did develop an extraordinarily strong “devotion to Mary.” They “have their own magical waters and supernatural powers of healing…[and] apocalyptic visions.” They practice healing and exorcisms, and have a strong sense of the imminent end of the present world order.
Structures: Lay leadership is predominant, which often leads to much more effective evangelism based on intimate contact with non-Catholics. Women play a prominent role.
Finally, they see themselves as not only independent of the state and its “orthodox” beliefs, but in some ways opposed to it.
Catholics and Communal Folk Religion
Before the 20th century, Catholics had trouble fitting into rural communal society because of their opposition to most of its religious practices, but in recent decades they have begun to “blend in more fully into the fabric of family and village culture,” especially after the Vatican gave permission to engage in some form of “ancestor worship.”
“They honor their ancestors, not by offering sacrifices of food on the ancestors’ graves, but by praying fervently to them on the Feasts of All Souls and All Saints, by having priests say Masses for the Dead, and by offering Catholic prayer in front of their graves at the Qing Ming festival.” The celebrate “all the main festivals of the agricultural calendar” and engage in “many pf the same customs, although they [give] them a somewhat different interpretation…”
Though alert readers will have noticed many similarities to the newer Protestant movements in rural China, no better contrast between Evangelical Protestant Christianity and Roman Catholicism in China today could be painted than Madsden does towards the end of his most illuminating essay:
“For most rural Catholics most of the time, the faith is completely melded with the structures of family and village life. One becomes a Catholic by being born into a Catholic family in a Catholic village, not by making any faith commitment to a doctrine of universal salvation. Such Catholics seem indistinguishable in terms of mentality, morality, and lifestyle from non-Catholic villagers, the only major difference being the performance of different rituals to make important events in the life cycle.”
What of the relationship of folk- Catholicism to the state? Catholics are, on the whole, peaceable and submissive to the government. “At other times, perhaps because they have been outraged by government persecution or perhaps inspired by rumors of visions and miracles, Catholics will rise up in opposition to established authorities, and sometimes these uprisings are coordinated over wide regions by the networks of the ‘underground Church.’ Therefore, even when Catholics are sincerely peaceful and law abiding, the government mistrusts them and tries to inhibit them. But this makes it even more likely that the Catholics will react negatively.”
My own observation: Almost every sentence in this chapter will strike a chord with observers of the Protestant scene in China, and provide food for thought, not to mention grounds for anxiety.
- The overview of Roman Catholic educational efforts in China by Jean-Paul Wiest traces the changes which have taken place over the course of time. The opening paragraph of “From Past Contributions to Present Opportunities: The Catholic Church and Education in Chinese Mainland during the Last 150 Years” neatly summarizes the earlier impact of both Protestant and Roman Catholic education in China and deserves quotation in full:
No history of China’s past 150 years would be complete without mentioning the role played by Christian schools in the modernization of the country and the reform of its educational system. Protestant and Catholic missionaries alike opened the way to new disciplines of study in sciences and technology as well as in medicine. They were the first to make music and athletics an integral part of curriculum. They popularized the study of foreign languages. Academically, the run [sic] outstanding private schools that ranked among the leading institutions of the country. Socially, they opened education to all strata of the Chinese society, including women. Morally, they were deeply concerned with character building before government schools began grappling with problems of probity and discipline. Spiritually, they nurtured the faith of millions of followers and trained a Christian leadership for their Church as well as the Chinese society at large.
Over time, three strategies have driven Roman Catholic educational policy: The first is to nurture the faith of Roman Catholic believers. The second, to try to convert non—believers through the medium of Catholic schools. The third, to “cultivating civil virtues” as part of the nationwide attempt to modernize Chinese society.
While the first of these has continued, and the second has proven to be a failure, the third “became the cornerstone of the educational strategy of the Catholic Church at the secondary and tertiary levels.”
Today, with both greater openness than in the first few decades of the Communist regime and the continuing restrictions upon religious schools by the government, Roman Catholics have found several ways to strengthen their own followers as well as to influence society.
By serving the needs of disadvantaged folk in the community (the elderly, the unemployed, the poor) through practical help and instruction, the Catholics have gained a positive image for themselves among non-believers. Equally important is the move to encourage more believers to participate in public education. Periodicals, conferences, and continuing education have equipped these adherents to make a more effective contribution to society and to present a Catholic point of view through informed, effective service and winsome character.
- “Christianity and China’s Minority Nationalities – Faith and Unbelief,” by Ralph Covell, examines various factors which might make a people receptive or resistant to the Christian message. Though the number of minority people in China is relatively small, the areas in which they live comprise much of China’s territory, and they have received a great deal of attention from Christians overseas.
Covell’s summary and conclusion, reflecting the observations of a number of scholars, states that the variety of conditions which might lead a people to receive, or to reject, the gospel of Christ include “political, personal, practical, strategic, sociological, cultural, and religious or theological” situations present when the message arrives. In particular, he believes that “the relationships among dominant and subordinate groups have played a major part in the resistance or receptivity to the Christian faith.”
Specifically, if the Gospel seems likely to benefit a people, and particularly to give them a new sense of identity, they will be more likely to welcome its messengers. Likewise, if the missionaries are sensitive to, and knowledgeable of, the culture of their hearers, they are more likely to win adherents. The new faith will be more readily received if it comes from people who are not seen as a threat to social order; offers liberation from spiritual oppression or economic poverty; provides new forms of recreation or beauty; seeks to win entire families rather than isolated individuals; and comes at a time of cultural or social weakness, even disintegration.
From the chart adapted from Charles Kraft on page 279, the reader will see at once how this decade offers a unique opportunity for the spread of Christianity in China, and why the field may be harder in the future.
- Zhou Xinping, director of the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, provides an excellent “Discussion on ‘Cultural Christians.’” Some intellectuals in China categorize “three kinds of Christians in contemporary Chinese churches: The first kind are the so called elite Christians, who have a high level of education and theological knowledge.” They are few in number, however, so “the Chinese church still lacks these ‘elite Christians’ for reconstruction and development in China today.”
Second are the “so-called church Christians,” whose theology and piety are sound, but who mostly “have no academic concern for the destiny and significance of Christianity in China.” Finally, the “folk Christians” comprise the largest majority, especially in rural areas. They are mostly “charismatic” in emphasis, asking God for “personal salvation from trouble, illness, and death, and also for a harmonious relationship in family and in community.” They lack much understanding of their faith, however. “Some of them only combined their traditional folk religions or local beliefs with the outer form of Christianity” – a theme we have met before in this volume.
In this context, Chinese intellectuals who are interested in, even attracted to, the Christian faith, but who do not want to identify with any of the above sorts of “church Christians,” have been called “cultural Christians.” Eager to study Christianity, and often quite knowledgeable, they yet usually do not belong to a church or even profess to be followers of Christ.
Recent decades have witnessed a huge increase in the study of religion, including Christianity, as a social phenomenon. Scholars from various disciplines, usually without theological training, investigate the history of Christianity, especially its “cultural value and significance… towards human beings, and …its historic and social function in the development of human society.”
These “Scholars in mainland China studying Christianity” (SMSC), while appreciative of some facets of Christian teaching, are often quite critical of the current church in China. They seek something that will contribute to spiritual civilization in China, without necessarily intending to convert to this new faith.
Many SMSCs also want to understand Christian theology in the West, as part of their own research in philosophy, religion, history, literature, etc. Since most church leaders have no time for such theological investigation, those outside the church often know more about Western theology than do “church Christians,” which creates a gap, of course. Once again, we see an attraction to the “cultural” side of Christian theology, rather than merely to its traditional dogmas.
There are different sorts of so-called “Cultural Christians,” and different responses to the term. Nevertheless, though they are few and still face misunderstanding, SMSCs are making a significant contribution.
1. They are both evidence of, and a further impetus to, a more favorable attitude towards Christianity in China. They serve as a “bridge between government and religious circles for mutual understanding and exchange.”
2. The SMSC movement “promotes political and cultural understanding of Christianity in the Chinese mainland,” so that now one may speak openly of the contribution of Christians to society.
3. They have contributed to “academic progress in religious, and especially Christian studies” by popularizing “Christian knowledge among the people.”
4. This movement “helps the inculturation and contextualization of Christianity in Chinese culture,” holding out the prospect of a truly “Chinese” theology.
5. Finally, by showing the role of Christianity in Western society, it points towards ways in which Christianity may take its part “in the process of Chinese modernization and its cultural reconstruction.”
- “The Catholic Church in Post-1997 Hong Kong: Dilemma in Church-State Relations, by Beatrice Leung, considers three issues: “Catholic educational and social welfare services; the political participation of Catholics; and the bridge-building effort of Hong Kong Catholics between China and the Vatican.”
During British colonial rule, and especially after 1949, the Roman Catholic church in Hong Kong cooperated with the government on a “contractual” basis by supplying essential social services and by offering a Christian-based and anti-communist educational program. At the same time, it tried to build a bridge between Roman Catholics in China and the Vatican.
Furthermore, the Roman Catholic church supported the efforts by the British to introduce a greater degree of democracy in the colony after the signing of the 1984 Sino-British Agreement on the future of Hong Kong. During and after the 1989 Tiananmen incident, Christians of all stripes joined to support the democracy movement in China, thus arousing the ire of the Communists.
In their desire to strengthen the Roman Catholic church in China, both government-sponsored and “underground,” Hong Kong Catholics participated in the training of clergy, distribution of literature, and financial aid. Again, this sort of outside “interference” in “domestic” affairs displeased Beijing, whose leaders believed that “religion is employed by international subversive forces to ‘Westernize’ and “divide’ China. (The same is true of similar Protestant activities, of course.)
The revival of Roman Catholicism in China since 1983 “was impossible without the aid of the bridge-building endeavor among overseas Catholics.”
After 1997, however, political and bridge-building activities have been at odds with the policy not only of Beijing, but also the new leaders in Hong Kong. Communists fear “the ability of religious organizations to promote, in the name of religion, a particular political view,” and thus seek “to curb any civil organization including religious organizations as a means to secure state control of the society.”
As in China, so in Hong Kong, social service efforts by churches receive a warm welcome; nothing has changed in this respect since the handover.
As part of its generally anti-Christian stance, the new government in Hong Kong downgraded the status of all Christian church leaders, and created a holiday commemorating the birth of Buddha. The latter move showed a desire to “stress the importance of oriental as well as Western religions.”
After 1997, Roman Catholics faced a difficult situation: Heavy government funding for educational and social service activities had created a dependency that rendered criticism of official policies hazardous.
Thus, the Roman Catholic church was in a dilemma: How to maintain a friendly relationship with the government in Hong Kong and in China while remaining true to official Catholic teachings, which had by now included a stress upon the social implications of Christianity?
The dilemma was resolved with the response of the Catholics to the 1999 ruling of the Court of Final Appeal which allowed all Mainland children born of Hong Kong permanent residents to live in Hong Kong. When the new government appealed this ruling to Beijing, church-led protests broke out. Choosing rather to uphold principles of social justice, Cardinal Wu, backed up by his successor, then-Bishop Zen, challenged the government’s stance.
Only the future will tell where this bold criticism of government policy will lead, but it does seem to have garnered a great deal of support for Roman Catholics in Hong Kong.
- In “Christianity in Modern Taiwan – Struggling Over the Path of Contextualization,” Peter Chien-main Wang notes the slow growth of both Roman Catholics and Protestants in Taiwan. After pointing to the common claim that the progress of the Gospel among Chinese has been hindered because it is viewed as a “foreign religion” with connections to outside power, he laments the lack of attention given to the history of Christianity in Taiwan, especially since both Protestants and Roman Catholics have promoted contextualization.
Boldly, he states that “the slow growth of Christianity in Taiwan cannot be blamed on lack of contextualization.”
To explain this controversial stance, he looks first at the relatively rapid advance of the Christian faith after 1949. He reports the observations of various scholars who have assigned various reasons for this early success, chief among them being the huge influx of foreign missionaries, most of them experienced workers from mainland China. They found a people who were quite unsettled by post-war conditions, and were encouraged and sometimes aided by the Nationalist government.
Looking more closely, we find that most of the receptivity was among the refugees from China who came with Chiang Kai-shek, and among aboriginal peoples, whose lives were disrupted in the new ear.
In the mid-1960s, however church growth slowed, and has remained level almost to this day. Wang cites several possible reasons for this phenomenon: The missionaries “did not have a thorough and thoughtful plan for the evangelization of local people;” “they did not encourage the laity, a truly indigenous leadership, or a self-supporting spirit.” Seminaries “accepted many low-quality students,” whose graduates could not serve effectively in a rapidly-modernizing urban environment.
As people migrated to the cities, they were not integrated successfully into churches. Meanwhile, an anti-Christian climate had arisen among the intellectual elite; affluent people “began to pursue material gains and no longer pursed spiritual satisfaction. At the same time, the traditional Chinese religions which lay strong emphasis on Bao (retribution) became popular as people became wealthy or established.” [Perhaps the idea of unmerited grace would not appeal to such self-made successful people; nor would the promise of a better life after death.]
In response, Protestants began to study church growth theory and practice, inviting prominent papstors from other nations to come to share their ideas. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have visited Korea to learn from Paul Yung-chi Cho, and still more have gone to Singapore to find out how to establish “cell churches” from Dr. Ralph Neighbor.
Nevertheless, the total of Christians of all sorts remains less than 4 per cent, including baptized infants recorded by Presbyterians, Methodists, and Roman Catholics.
Next, Wang describes efforts by the Taiwan Presbyterian Church to contextualize the Gospel. They made a new translation of the New Testament into Taiwanese, the official language of the denomination, and they sponsored translation of the Bible into various tribal languages.
To ensure that foreigners could not control their churches, the Presbyterians categorized missionaries as “providers of expertise” without any administrative, financial, or supervisory authority.
Most of all, they have adopted a strongly political role in Taiwanese society. While the KMT was in power, they called for political reform and greater democritization. From its inception, they have supported the Democratic People’s Party with finances, manpower, preaching, and prayer. In one statement after another, they have promoted the independence of Taiwan as a separate nation. Indeed, “’Making Taiwan a new and independent country’ has become the highest standard and goal of the Presbyterian church.”
The Presbyterians have also tried to formulate an indigenous theology, one which centers upon the social implications of the Christian faith, and leads to further participation in politics. These activities they consider to be “participating in God’s politics of construction.”
In all of this, they have limited themselves to a “Taiwan-only” orientation, being concerned to construct a truly “Taiwanese” church as part of the overall program of creating a Taiwanese national identity. As the DPP has had to moderate its formerly strong backing of independence, the Presbyterians have found themselves in opposition as they advocate faithfulness to its original separatist platform.
In spite of these attempts at political contextualization, the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan “has not experienced any significant growth for the past fifteen years.”
Roman Catholics have also been seeking to indigenize their methods and message over the years. The first group of priests who arrived from the mainland after 1949 spoke Mandarin, and thus naturally reached out to the new refugees from China’s civil war. At first, they concentrated upon provided the essentials of life, such as food, clothing, and education, so much so that some called Catholicism “powdered milkism” or “[baking] flourism,” and the church was known as “the flour church.”
Just as reliance on outside funds pointed to the “foreign” nature of Roman Catholicism, so did a failure to train and deploy native priests, and the use of the word “China” in its official name. A close association with the Nationalist government – the very opposite of the Presbyterian position – also kept Roman Catholics from developing a strong presence among Taiwanese-speaking people.
After 1970, however, Roman Catholics in Taiwan actively sought to adapt to Chinese culture in a process they called “inculturation.” Theretically, theologians tried to show similarity between Chinese cultural concepts (such as love, filial piety, etc.) and traditional Christian doctrines.
Practically, Roman Catholics have reversed the results of the famous Rites Controversy in China. In 1971, Cardinal Paul Yu Bin “formally promoted honoring of Heaven and the ancestors in the Chinese Spring Festival, saying, “Chinese customs may be incorporated in Christian celebrations.” While retaining the highest worship (Latria) for God, and the second highest (Hyperdulia) for Mary, Roman Catholics now allow “Dulia” for saints, angels, and ancestors. Thus, in a stunning vidication for Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits, ancestor-worship (“jizu”) has now been deemed merely reverence and not idolatrous.
These moves, along with church buildings that reflect traditional Chinese style, were meant to appeal to the local populace. Nevertheless, “The promotion of cultural contextualization did not have any positive effect on the church growth. ON the contrary the Church began to lose members in 1970…”
The decades of the 1990s saw a heightening of tension in Taiwan as the DPP, supported by the Presbyterians, pushed hard for a new national, fully “Taiwanese,” identity. The Roman Catholics have responded by changing their official name to “the Chinese Regional Bishops’ conference in Taiwan,” and Taiwan was allowed to have its own Cardinal. Old attempts at “inculturation” with Chinese culture have been replaced by an emphasis upon Taiwan culture.
As with the Presbyterians, so with the Roman Catholics, however: Neither “political contextualization” nor “cultural contextualization” has resulted in church growth.
The author concludes, “The judgment as to what kind of contextualization is best for the Church and for society must be left for future historians to make.”
To put the matter bluntly: This provocative article raises fundamental questions of missiology that deserve the attention of the best minds in all branches of Christianity.
In his concluding chapter, “Christianity and China: Toward Further Dialogue,” Philip Wickeri names several key issues which kept surfacing in these papers: (1) Whether, and in what sense, Christianity can be considered a “universal teaching from the West”? (2) The relationship between Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism among Chinese Christians, which includes the matter of contextualization; (3) Christian contributions to Sinology: (4) the importance of popular Christianity in China; (5) and “Christianity and Chinese cultures,” including the degree to which all theologies are, of necessity, “hybrids.”
He lists several issues deserving further study: Women in the Experience of Christianity in China; The Bible in the Study of Chinese Christianity; and Dialogue with Chinese Themselves – a reference to the difficulty still facing Christians within and outside China in actually talking to each other in public.
Re-reading this hefty volume increased my appreciation for its wealth of information and insights. I highly recommend it to all serious students of China and Christianity.