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October 24, 2008

A Brief History of Christianity in China

Filed under: Religion II — himyaosui2 @ 10:35 am

The following article appeared in pbs.org Frontline. I have written to the author of this article and I am asking her for permission to publish it here in full. I am now awaiting her reply. http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/china_705/history/china.html

In A.D. 781, a Christian monk named Jingjing composed an inscription of roughly 1,800 Chinese characters on a large stone tablet, called a stela, which would become one of the richest sources of information ever discovered about early Christianity in China.

According to the stela, unearthed in the early 1600s, Christianity came to China in A.D. 635, when a Nestorian monk named Aluoben entered the ancient capital of Chang’an — now modern-day Xi’an — in central China. His arrival must have been the source of some excitement because the e mperor sent his minister of state to greet the guest and bring him to the palace. Although we do not know where Aluoben came from or why he visited China, some scholars believe that he arrived from Persia and was part of an important foreign delegation. Whatever the case, the Tang emperor issued an imperial edict three years later allowing Aluoben to build a monastery in Chang’an and to settle there with a handful of missionaries.

By the time Aluoben’s story was commemorated in stone almost 150 years later, the Old and New Testaments had been translated into Chinese, and monasteries had been founded in several cities throughout China. But in 845, an imperial edict limited all foreign religion, including Christianity. The edict triggered a period of persecution, and, by the end of the Tang Dynasty in 907, Christianity had all but disappeared from China.

A significant presence did not reappear until the 13th century, when Mongols conquered China and founded the Yuan Dynasty. The Mongol court was open to Christian missionaries and even turned over the administration of parts of northern China to Christian tribesmen from Central Asia. From Rome, the pope also sent Franciscan missionaries in an effort to establish ties with Eastern Christians and to form an alliance with the Mongol empire. Italian merchants also founded some Catholic communities in major trading centers; among them were two brothers from Venice, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, who brought along Niccolo’s son, Marco. China’s second period of Christian growth came to an end when its protectors, the Mongols, were expelled by the armies of the Ming Dynasty.

Toward the end of the Ming dynasty, a new wave of Jesuit missionaries came to China. They established schools and hospitals, and more or less openly proselytized. The most prominent among these new missionaries was the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who learned to speak and write Chinese and managed to become the first Westerner invited into the Forbidden City.

Christianity’s presence in China grew in the 19th and 20th centuries as the country was subject to greater influence by the Western powers. One of the bloodiest episodes in recent Chinese history involved a charismatic Christian convert named Hong Xiuquan, who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ and believed it was his mission to spread Christianity in China. By the mid-1800s, Hong Xiuquan had gathered a large band of followers and began an armed rebellion against Qing Dynasty rulers. The Taiping Rebellion lasted 15 years and cost an estimated 20 million lives, due to the warfare and the resulting starvation. The Chinese imperial army eventually put down the rebellion with the aid of Western military advisers.

After World War II, China turned to communism, and atheism was promoted as part of the Marxist ideology of the Chinese Community Party. Religious suppression was particularly severe during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). To regulate Chinese Catholics, the government created the Catholic Patriotic Association, expelled missionaries and forbade interference from the Vatican. For Chinese Protestants, the government created the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which requires churches to be registered with the government and subjects them to state monitoring and restrictions involving personnel, preaching topics and congregational composition.

Many Christians — both Protestant and Catholic — refused to cooperate and formed unofficial, or underground, churches. Today, there are five major government-sanctioned religions: Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. However, since the 1980s, as Chinese citizens have gradually come to enjoy greater social and economic freedoms, religious practices of all types have experienced a revival. Today, there are an estimated 10 to 12 million Chinese Catholics and 25 to 30 million Chinese Protestants. Daniel Bays, one of the pre-eminent Western scholars of Chinese Christianity writes, “Today, on any given Sunday, there are almost certainly more Protestants in church in China than in all of Europe.” Many of these believers belong to “house churches,” which are unofficial, unregistered churches that remain vulnerable to punishment by the state.

— Serene Fang

Sources: Handbook of Christianity in China (Brill, 2001); China Quarterly Essays — 2003 Special Edition; The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence (W.W. Norton and Company, 1991) ; The New York Times; Britannica Online; Time magazine.
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