skip to Main Content
Protestant Christianity In The People’s Republic

Protestant Christianity in the People’s Republic

Post Series: 2016: Volume 15, Number 1
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The history of Christianity in China is a remarkable tale of the encounters between two very different civilizations and of how a foreign religion survived, revitalized, and became a vibrant torrent in China today. The main focus of this essay is to evaluate the feature of Protestant Christianity in China after the Communist takeover in 1949, comprehend its process of cross-cultural movement, and testify how the simultaneous replication and transformation of the faith in a new cultural setting has finally been indigenized.

Before 1950: A Century of Missionary Work

Historically, Christianity has made several forays into China, first with Persian Nestorian monks in the seventh century, followed by Catholic Franciscans in the 12th century, and Jesuits in the 16th century, but failed each time to establish a lasting presence as anti-foreign politics and culture played a big role in how Christianity was accepted and rooted in Chinese soil.[1]

The arrival of missionary Robert Morrison (1782-1834) to China in 1807 marked the introduction of Protestantism and the fourth major entrance of Christianity to China. Coinciding with the most violent period of expansion into Asia by all the Western imperialist nations, the Protestant missionary movement remained in China for almost 150 years before the Communist takeover. Gunboats indirectly enabled the missionaries to penetrate all levels of Chinese society, but the message of their barking cannons deafened many Chinese to the serene sound of the Gospel.[2]  Nevertheless, by 1920 rapid Christian expansion had resulted in not only Protestant churches with 500,000 partisans, but also a burgeoning sense of nationalism that manifested with the birth of indigenous churches.[3] In 1922, the Church of Christ in China (CCC) organized its first National Christian Council (NCC) in Shanghai with the inaugural announcement of the Chinese Christian Movement under the “Three Self” Principles: self-support, self-governance, and self-propagation.[4] Chinese Protestant leader Cheng Jingyi (C.Y. Cheng, 1881-1939) was elected as the General Secretary and strived to promote an independent, unified, and non-denominational base for Christianity in China.[5]

The turbulent forces of history in first half of the 20th century, which shaped all aspects of China’s politics, economy, and culture, once again changed the fate of Protestant missionaries and Chinese Christians. In October 1949 the Communists took power, and under the banner of patriotism the new regime started rooting out the influence of Christianity in China. As Wolfgang Franke commented, “The Christian missionaries had to pay a particularly heavy price for the mistakes of their predecessors, and reaped the hatred that had been sown in the past.” [6] All 130 foreign missionary institutions and organizations, including schools and universities, were shut down; the missionary funds were frozen, and all foreign missionaries were expelled. By 1951 not a single Protestant missionary remained in mainland China, marking the ending of 150 years of Protestant missionary work. Left behind were 700,000 Chinese Protestants facing an uncertain future.[7]

1950-1966: From Liberation to the Cultural Revolution

In keeping with Marxist orthodoxy, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) declared itself atheist. Maoism or Mao Zedong Thought (as it is known in China) was the dominant, state-enforced ideology. As such, the Communists condemned religion as “the opiate of the people.” Christianity in particular was seen as something brought to China under the protection of Western gunships, and foreign missionaries, as its propagators, were representatives of imperialist powers. The activities of missionaries in modern Chinese history were not so much a religious or social problem as they were an international political problem, that is, “cultural imperialism.”

However, when this “foreign religion” became an integral part of the culture and life of the people, it was impossible for the government to eradicate it. Therefore, a political compromise was made. As former Premier Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) stated, the CCP government allowed domestic churches to function after 1949 as long as they would not collaborate with Western imperialism and were loyal to the government.[8] In 1954, the proclamation of the Chinese Constitution Article 88 declared that Christians as “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but they were placed under the jurisdiction of state and party bodies. [9]

No doubt, Protestant Christianity faced serious challenges when the churches desperately needed to remove the historical stigma of their religion by distancing it from its foreign heritage. As early as December 1949, Protestant church leaders had signed a long open letter entitled “Message from Chinese Christians to Mission Boards Aboard” that declared an end to the missionary era in China and the contestation of its legacy:

We Christians in China feel the urgent necessity of re-examining our work and our relationship with the older churches abroad in the light of this historical change…The Christian movement will have its due place in the future Chinese society and will have a genuine contribution to make. Its future road will not be a bed of roses…It will suffer a purge, and many of the withered branches will be amputated.[10]

Six months later, “The Christian Manifesto” was issued by the CCC in response to pressure from Premier Zhou as a “Declared Direction of Endeavor for Chinese Christianity in the Construction of New China”:

Recognize clearly the evils that have been wrought in China by imperialism; recognize that in the past imperialism has made use of Christianity itself; and be vigilant against imperialism, especially American imperialism, in its plot to use religion in fostering the growth of reactionary forces.[11]

Forty Protestant church leaders initially signed the document, followed by 180,000 members; eventually a total of 400,000 signatures would support this declaration of independence from the churches in the West. [12] The CCC also pleaded unconditional compliance by accepting the direct supervision of the State Administrations of Religious Affairs (SARA), which operated underneath the United Front Work Department (UFWD) to manage the government’s relations with domestic religious organizations. In addition, the CCC called for a new Three-Self Church that was as ecumenical as it was indigenous, a church that was patriotic while remaining committed to the tenets of global Protestantism. After the Korean War, at the first National Christianity Conference in July 1954, the CCC rebranded the Three-Self Reform Movement (TSRM) as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). It called all Christians in China to unite under the leadership of the CCP government. At the conference Wu Yaozong (Wu Yao-tsung or Y.T. Wu, 1890-1979) was elected chairman.[13]

Despite a few discordant voices inside of the TSPM, Protestant churches continuously operated. In 1958 the churches started “joint worship services” to enter a so-called post-denomination period.[14] For 17 years, Protestant Christians survived numerous political campaigns. Then the Cultural Revolution broke out.

1966-1976: The Cultural Revolution

The “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” ironically turned out not to be cultural, proletarian, or even a revolution. It was instead a manmade disaster affecting the whole country, and Protestantism was just one of its victims. Like all other religious institutions in China, the Protestant National CCC and TSPM stopped operating. Local churches, YMCAs, and YWCAs were closed. Christian life was banned, Bibles were destroyed, church buildings were confiscated, and Christian homes were looted. Christians were subjected to public humiliation, beatings, and labor camps. The catastrophe lasted for 10 years, but in the end Protestant Christians survived by practicing their faith underground.

1978 – Present: The Reform Era

The death of Mao Zedong in 1976 marked the end of the Cultural Revolution and the era of fanatical Maoism. Under Deng Xiaoping’s (1904-1997) leadership, sweeping changes took place in China that had a profound impact on Protestants.

Deng Xiaoping initiated the “Four Modernizations” movement to reform the economy, agriculture, national defense, and science and technology. He adopted a new stance on the issue of church-state relationships by calling for “seeking unity, preserving differences” through a fully utilized United Front to make constructive use of religion. Deng wanted his party to rally all positive features and social strength to advance the reform movement.[15] In so doing the Party relaxed its ideological control in Document 19:

What is primary at the moment is the common goal of building a modernized powerful Socialist State, so the difference between believers and nonbelievers at this time is secondary…According to Marxism, the religion will naturally disappear when the people are sufficiently educated and understand the secrets of science. It is useless then to persecute religion as was done during the Cultural Revolution. [16]

In Article 36 of the 1982-implemented Constitution, the government promulgated religious freedom:

Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination. [17]

The government also formulated several important documents to further clarify the intent of the constitutional clause of religious freedom, such as the Regulation on the Management of Places for Religious Activities (1994), the Regulation on the Management of Foreigners’ Religious Activities in the PRC (1994), the laws for normal missionary affairs and religious services, and the principle of separating religion from state education. The government conceded the fact that over the country’s long period of historical development, religious culture in China had become a component of traditional Chinese ideological culture.[18]

Growth of Protestantism

The CCP’s new religious policy allowed Christianity to surge once again. In September 1979, the first Protestant church reopened in Shanghai, followed by 11 others in addition to four in the outskirts of the city. Every Sunday morning the total congregation worshiping at these churches was more than 20,000 people.[19] In 1980, the third National Protestant Christian Conference (NPCC) was held in Nanjing and estimated that the total number of Protestants in China exceeded two million. The NPCC called all Protestants to unite under biblical scripture while applying the “Three-Self” principles to guide church activities. The NPCC also reopened the Nanjing Theological Seminary (NTS) and, as a parallel to the National TSPM, formed the China Christian Council (new CCC) to manage church international affairs such as Bible printing and distribution, hymnal publications, and building church leadership. The Anglican bishop Ding Guangxun (K.H. Ting, 1915-2012) was appointed chairman. [20]

Reopening more churches was hardly a straightforward endeavor. Recovering church property that had been occupied by other organizations during the Cultural Revolution often proved difficult. With the aid of new policies, however, church properties were returned to respective churches with repair costs and daily operating budgets covered by the state. The reopened NTS enrolled 52 students including 20 women selected from more than 1,000 applications. Despite its small size, the NTS regularly published more than 20,000 course syllabi for use in rural areas and some cities through short-term training institutes organized for volunteers and laypersons.[21]

By 1982 more than 1,100 Protestant churches had reopened nationwide. In 1991 the CCC joined the World Christian Council (WCC).[22] The number of Chinese Christians continued to grow. In 2002, the Three-Self churches had 15 million baptized Protestant Christians. There were 50,000 TSPM churches and registered “preaching points” in the country. [23] According to the national TSPM and the CCC, by 2010 there were 53,000 TSPM churches, of which 70 percent were newly built, with almost 20 million Protestant partisans, 70 percent of them in rural areas. To date the TSPM has opened 19 theological seminaries nationwide with a large number of young clergy.[24]

In 2014, the national conference for the 60th anniversary of the Three-Self Church claimed that China has about 23.05 million to 40 million Protestants, or about 1.7 percent to 2.9 percent of the total population. Each year, about 500,000 people are baptized as Protestants.[25] The figures released by the TSPM or the CCC are routinely quoted around the world. However, they are still an extremely conservative estimate as they exclude all youth and children under the age of 18 who may attend church worship but are not regarded as church members.[26]

Political Harmonization

The 1982 Constitution provided new breathing space for the revival of Protestantism. The CCP is aware of the current popularity of Christianity in China as well as the historical contribution of Christianity to the economy in the West. It hopes that Christian faith along with Chinese traditional values can foster social stability and economic development in order to balance the pervasive materialism in Chinese society. [27] Therefore it encourages Chinese scholars to reassess the ecumenical value of Christianity and its potential impact on Chinese economic reforms.

Many Chinese scholars have answered the call. Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) found that Christianity can be an important strength in Chinese society. They report that Christianity has shaped the structure of Western society from the bottom up and has been beneficial to the development of Western civilization. They believe that Christianity could bring similar benefits to China to promote economic growth, social stability, and common morality. Among them, the market economist and ethicist Peter Zhao was the first to argue that China’s economy would benefit from the spread of Christianity. [28] His article, “The Real Story behind Chinese Economic Growth”, was approved by Premier Zhu Rongji (1928- ) as required reading for the State Council’s economist conference in 2002. Later Zhao converted to Christianity and started the Business Christian Fellowship (BCF), focusing on the urban Christianity movement in order to find roles for Christianity in China’s social transformation. Zhao claimed “God is My Chairman of the Board” and openly praised the contribution of Christianity to the expansion of world civilization and the impact by Christian missionaries in 19th century Chinese history. The BCF published Ten Commandments for Business People:

No fraudulent accounting book; no tax evasion; no adultery; treat employees fairly; no destruction of the environment; not to engage in immoral business (in terms of both products and service); no violation of covenants (including oral and written covenants); honoring your father and mother; loving your spouse, children and family; and loving your community, the earth and justice.[29]

Some government officials have echoed the CASS scholars’ perceptions of Christianity. These CCP cadres, although bonded with the atheist Communist ideology, also believe that the borrowing of Christian practices from the West will bring positive effects on Chinese society. In his Religious Media and Social Harmony, Zhuo Xinping, director of the Institute of World Religion of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), stresses the ecumenical values of Christianity in the current Chinese society as these values help with social harmony. [30] Wang Zuoan, director of the SARA, also points out that Christianity promotes love, peace, and mutual understanding among peoples, which makes it a facilitator to enhance the relationship between China and the United States. [31]

Methods of Religious Control

The receptiveness of Christianity in Chinese society seems to not be in conflict with the CCP political agenda of building the “Harmonious Society,” although the churches are still under the direct supervision of the SARA and subjected to national, provincial, and local regulations. In fact, the CCP has not relinquished control of religion, as it still believes that religion is the social ideology opposite to Marxism, and Christianity is one of the major elements among foreign enemy forces to subvert Communism and undermine the regime. Therefore “peaceful evolution” and foreign infiltration of Christianity must be condemned and the government must control and supervise the degree and extent of religious activities. [32]

Indeed, the Chinese state tolerates Christianity only if it is developed along the principles of the TSPM without any outside interferences, such as foreign missionary work, in the administration. This is particularly true regarding the nation’s numerous underground churches. [33]

The underground churches organized as independent churches in the 1950s. Most of them are rural or urban house churches not registered with the official TSPM. The government views them as legal entities. Some unregistered churches, such as True Jesus Church, Little Flock, and Seventh Day Adventists, are not registered but still operate in the TSPM format. The CCP certainly knows the exact locations of these churches and their respective organizers, but their non-affiliation with the TSPM does not seem to endanger operations. These churches actually enjoy a limited autonomy. However, unregistered churches, such as the Conditional Church, Basement Church, the Shouters, the Established King sect, the Disciples Sect, Three Grades of Servants, the Lightning of the East, Weepers, China Gospel Fellowship, and Fangcheng Church, do not enjoy the same tolerance from the government and are constantly watched by the local police. The leaders of these churches are frequently interrogated, their teaching materials are confiscated, and members are persecuted. The government claims that the punishment is “meted out in accordance with the law to those who know of the matter but did not report and to those who masterminded the scheme.”[34]

Conclusion

Protestant Christianity has a burdened past in China, yet it not only has survived but also has become the fastest-growing religion in contemporary China. Today, Protestant Christianity is a significant part of Chinese culture. Combined from all denominations, this vibrant Chinese Christian Church has become the most diverse religious institution in the world.

Nevertheless, popular Protestant Christianity also brings tensions between nationalism and cosmopolitanism.[35] In 2013, the National Committees of the CCC and TSPM announced a five-year campaign of indigenization of Protestant Christianity through the construction of Chinese Christian theology.[36] At the 2014 Shanghai Forum of “Sinicization of Christianity,” SARA Director Wang Zuoan reminded the TSPM leaders that the implementation of the government’s religious policy made possible the fast development of Protestant churches in China. The government would continue to boost the development of a unified indigenized Protestantism with Chinese characteristics. Thus, the five-year campaign of construction of Chinese Christian theology must adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture.[37]

Apparently, the rapid growth of Protestantism in China and the popularity of Christian culture are particular troublesome for the CCP given the fact that its own virtual abandonment of Marxism has created an ideological vacuum. In its place, the CCP has increasingly turned to Chinese nationalism as the ideational complement to economic growth and prosperity. Thus, a five-year campaign of “Sinicization of Christianity” would be consistent with its drive to push Chinese nationalism. On the other hand, the campaign could simultaneously help the government to crack down on the large network of underground churches in China, especially 14 “evil cults” listed for eradication. Moreover, the drive to nationalize Christianity could be aimed at cracking down on foreign religious influences in China.

Currently, Protestant Christianity is following the TSPM’s principles to harmonize with the Chinese political and cultural climate. It is ironic that in an era of continuing restrictions on the freedom of religion, Protestantism in China recognizes its ultimate challenge is not about survival or religious freedom, but a meaningful and realistic evangelization to “encourage more believers to make contributions to the country’s harmonious social progress, cultural prosperity and economic development.”[38]

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Central People’s Government of PRC. “History of Christianity in China.” Accessed July 18, 2015.

 http://www.gov.cn/test/2005-07/26/content_17214./htm.

China Christian Council Three-Self Patriotic Movement. “History of the NCC and the CCC.” Accessed July 18, 2015. http://www.ccctspm.org/.

— “The Third National Christian Conference Resolution.”

Merwin, Wallace C. and Francis P. Jones. Documents of the Three-Self Movement: Source Materials for the Study of the Protestant Church in China. New York: National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, 1963.

National Christian Conference in Shanghai 1922: The Chinese Church as Revealed in the National Christian Conference. Shanghai: Oriental Press, 1922.

National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. “CCP’s Religious Policies.” Accessed November 11, 2015. http://www.cppcc.gov.cn.

State Administration for Religious Affairs of PRC. “Religious Freedom in China.” Accessed November 11, 2015. http://www.sara.gov.cn/zwgk/17839.htm.

Secondary Sources

Aikman, David. Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2003.

Bays, Daniel H. A New History of Christianity in China. UK: Wiley-Blackwell Publication, 2012.

Franke, Wolfgang. China and the West: The Cultural Encounter, 13th to 20th Centuries. New York: Harper Torchbook, 1967.

Ho, Louis K. The Dragon and the Cross: Why European Christianity Failed to Take Root in China. UK: Xulon Press, 2009.

Johnstone, Patrick. Operation World. London, Paternoster, 2001.

Lambert, Tony. “Counting Christians in China: A Cautionary Report.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 27:1. CA: Biola University Press, 2003.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christian Missions in China. New York: MacMillan Company, 1929.

Lee, Joseph Tse-Hei and Christie Chui-Shan Chow. “Christian Revival from Within.” Christianity in Contemporary China: Socio-cultural Perspective, ed. F.K.G. Lim. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Shen, Guiping. “Long-term Policy of Religious Freedom – Commemorate 30th anniversary of Document 19 Issued by the CCP in 1982.” Chinese Nationalities, March 13, 2012.

Wang, Hongyi. “China Plans Establishment of Christian Theology.” China Daily, August 7, 2014.

Wang, Zuoan. “Protestantism We Want to See. China Religions, No. 12, 2006.

— “Preaching, Expansion, and Future of Christianity in China.” China Religions, No.11. Beijing: State Administration for Religious Affairs of PRC, 2010.

Wenger, Jacqueline E. “Official vs. Underground Protestant Churches in China: Challenges for Reconciliation and Social Influence.” Review of Religious Research, Vol. 46, No. 2, 2004.

Wenhan, Jiang. “The Present Situation of Christianity in China.” Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XI, ed. Rich Starcher. CA: Biola University Press, 1983.

Yang, Fenggang. “Between Secularist Ideology and Desecularizing Reality: The Birth and Growth of Religious Research in Communist China.” The Association for the Sociology of Religion, Vol. 65, No.2, 2004.

Zhao, Xiao. “Christianity and China’s Transformation.” Accessed January 15, 2015.

http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/events/2014/06/03-christianity-in-china/zhao-xiao-ppt.pdf.

Zhuo, Xinping. “Religious Media and Social Harmony.” China Religions Academic Network. Accessed November 11, 2015. http://www.sara.gov.cn/zwgk/17839.htm.

[1] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christian Missions in China (New York: MacMillan Company, 1929).

[2] David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2003), 44.

[3] Daniel H. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (UK: Wiley-Blackwell Publication, 2012), 94.

[4] National Christian Conference in Shanghai 1922: The Chinese Church as Revealed in the National Christian Conference, Shanghai, 1922 (Shanghai: Oriental Press, 1922), 495-503.

[5] Ibid., 19-22.

[6] Wolfgang Franke, China and the West: The Cultural Encounter, 13th to 20th Centuries (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1967), 138

[7] The Central People’s Government of PRC. “History of Christianity in China,” accessed July 18, 2015,

 http://www.gov.cn/test/2005-07/26/content_17214./htm.

[8] Louis K. Ho, The Dragon and the Cross: Why European Christianity Failed to Take Root in China (UK: Xulon Press, 2009), 108-09.

[9] Bays, A New History of Christianity in China, 159.

[10] Wallace C. Merwin and Francis P. Jones, Documents of the Three-Self Movement: Source Materials for the Study of the Protestant Church in China (New York: National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, 1963), 18.

[11] Merwin and Jones, Documents of the Three-Self Movement, 19-20.

[12] Bays, A New History of Christianity in China, 162.

[13] China Christian Council Three-Self Patriotic Movement, “History of the NCC and the CCC,” accessed July 18, 2015, http://www.ccctspm.org/.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ho, The Dragon and the Cross, 110.

[16] Shen Guiping, “Long-term Policy of Religious Freedom – Commemorate 30th anniversary of Document 19 Issued by the CCP in 1982,” Chinese Nationalities, March 13, 2012.

[17] State Administration for Religious Affairs of PRC, “Religious Freedom in China,” accessed November 11, 2015, http://www.sara.gov.cn/zwgk/17839.htm.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jiang Wenhan, “The Present Situation of Christianity in China,” in Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XI, ed. Rich Starcher (CA: Biola University Press, 1983), 259-65.

[20] China Christian Council Three-Self Patriotic Movement. “The Third National Christian Conference Resolution,” accessed July 18, 2015, http://www.ccctspm.org/.

[21] Jiang, “The Present Situation of Christianity in China,” 264.

[22] State Administration for Religious Affairs of PRC, “Religious Freedom in China.”

[23] Tony Lambert, “Counting Christians in China: A Cautionary Report,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 27, (CA: Biola University Press, 2003), 1:7.

[24] China Christian Council Three-Self Patriotic Movement, “History of the NCC and the CCC.”

[25] Wang Hongyi, “China Plans Establishment of Christian Theology,” China Daily, August 7, 2014.

[26] Patrick Johnstone, Operation World (London, Paternoster, 2001), 165.

[27] Wang Zuoan, “Protestantism We Want to See,” China Religions, No. 12, 2006; Joseph Tse-Hei Lee and Christie Chui-Shan Chow, “Christian Revival from Within,” in Christianity in Contemporary China: Socio-cultural Perspective, ed. F.K.G. Lim (New York: Routledge, 2013), 45-58.

[28] Zhao Xiao, “Christianity and China’s Transformation,” accessed January 15, 2015,

http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/events/2014/06/03-christianity-in-china/zhao-xiao-ppt.pdf.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Zhuo Xinping, “Religious Media and Social Harmony,” China Religions Academic Network, accessed November 11, 2015, http://www.sara.gov.cn/zwgk/17839.htm.

[31] Wang, “Preaching, Expansion, and Future of Christianity in China,” China Religions (Beijing: State Administration for Religious Affairs of PRC, 2010), No. 11.

[32] “Religious Policies by the CCP,” The National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, accessed November 11, 2015, http://www.cppcc.gov.cn

[33] Wang, “Protestantism We Want to See.”

[34] Ho, The Dragon and the Cross, 116.

[35] Jacqueline E. Wenger, “Official vs. Underground Protestant Churches in China: Challenges for Reconciliation and Social Influence.” Review of Religious Research, Vol. 46, No. 2 (2004):169-82; Yang Fenggang, “Between Secularist Ideology and Desecularizing Reality: The Birth and Growth of Religious Research in Communist China,” in The Association for the Sociology of Religion, vol. 65, no.2 (2004):101–19.

[36] Wang, “China Plans Establishment of Christian Theology.”

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

Back To Top
×Close search
Search