Christianity is one of the three big world religions to come to China from the west. Of the three religions, it was the second to arrive -- after Buddhism and before Islam. There have been about 6 eras when Chinese became Christians, and then the religion went underground or the Christians were driven out or killed.
The first wave was said to be soon after Jesus’ death and in the first few centuries AD. The second wave was Nestorianism starting from about the seventh century. The third wave was Catholicism that was spread during the Yuan Dynasty (1206–1368). The fourth wave was Catholicism during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1636–1911) Dynasties. The fifth wave was mainly Protestantism and Evangelicalism when missionaries arrived mainly from Western Europe and America during the 1800s and early 1900s. The sixth wave was mainly indigenous growth of indigenous Christian churches that are similar to Western Evangelicals and Pentecostals that started during the Cultural Revolution, and this may be China’s fastest growing religion now in the 21st Century.
Nowadays, there are tens of millions of Christians, but professed Christians are mainly women and mainly live in the developed Eastern Coast. The religion has been severely repressed and outlawed several times in China’s history, but it quickly growing now.
Present Chinese Christianity
During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, all religions were repressed. Churches, temples and mosques were destroyed, and many people were killed and tortured to drive people from religion. However, in the countryside in some eastern and northern provinces, Chinese Christianity suddenly started to grow very quickly as Chinese went around preaching from village to village. In some villages and small country towns, most of the people professed Christianity. The repression didn’t stop the growth, though it was usual for Christian leaders to be imprisoned.
The growth came from conversion. Unlike other Chinese religious adherents, Christians in China become Christians by change of faith and not by birth. In China, people who are born into Muslim families are considered Muslim if they simply don’t eat pork or follow other “Muslim” customs.
People are considered Buddhist or Taoist if they simply pay homage at ancestral tombs and believe that their ancestors are with them spiritually. But becoming a Christian in a hostile society is a matter of faith and is voluntary.
Chinese Christians must believe that a man born thousands of years ago and thousands of kilometers away to an unknown alien people was the Son of God. The beliefs are hard to swallow and strange to Chinese: somehow faith in a man who died 2,000 years ago in a foreign country means forgiveness of sins and salvation. One has to believe this man resurrected and created the Universe. The beliefs are strange and outside traditional ways of thinking about the nature of human life and the cosmos.
Christianity in China has always been a minority religion in a hostile society. Unlike in western countries where Christianity was the dominant religion, Christianity was never a part of the culture and almost never the religion of rulers. This may be why unlike the other religions, it seems that the Christian presence kept dying out after Christianity spread for a while.
However, in the past hundred years, Christianity has taken root. Tens of millions have become baptized Christians. During the 1970s, it was known as a religion of peasants, but after 1989, it started to quickly spread among the educated people and business people in coastal cities like Shanghai and the economic zone regions. It is said that the number of Christians has doubled since 1997, and they are now perhaps 5% of the population.
Now, Christianity in China is mainly polarized between Jidujiao (基督教, Chinese Evangelical) and Tianzhujiao (天主教, Chinese Catholics), the government supported Three Self Churches and independent “house churches,” and country churches of poor people and city churches of Chinese middle-class people, rich business people, and the highly educated. Jidujiao is far more popular than Tianzhujiao, and there may be something like 70 million Chinese Evangelicals. But it is hard to know for sure, since there has never been a religious poll taken, and many house churches that are Evangelical are reluctant of publicity. The Three Self Churches say that they have 20 million members, but the house churches where people simply meet in homes and office buildings probably have more people attending. A large percentage attends both kinds of meetings.
Chinese Christianity is different than traditional European or American Christianity in that women are usually the leaders in the churches and groups. Women are usually the majority at house church meetings or Three Self Church services. Chinese Christianity tends to be Pentecostal. This means that they regularly pray for miracles and believe in miraculous “gifts of the Spirit.” The house churches of educated and wealthy Chinese tend to be service-oriented and mindful or global issues and problems. For example, after the big earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, many house churches funded volunteers who went to rescue victims and finance their rebuilding efforts.
Foreigners in China can attend Three Self Churches, but there are some laws against foreigners and Chinese Christians meeting together, so foreigners in China usually go to foreigner-only churches. Some of these foreigner churches in big cities are large. The house churches emphasize giving money and resources and taking care of needs of Christians more than in European and American churches. The Three Self Churches are big and impersonal. The government approved “Catholic” (Tianzhujiao) Churches are not Roman Catholic because they are not allowed to have direct contact or obedience to the Roman hierarchy in Rome. These churches have little participation though Tianzhujiao Church buildings are common in the cities. Eastern Orthodoxy is little known among Chinese, except in places like Harbin close to Russia.
Jesus was the founder of the religion. He lived in a Roman territory called Israel and was born a Jew. He was born around 0 AD and died about 32 AD. He claimed to be the Son of God which meant that he himself was God the Creator in human form according to the writings of his direct disciples. Perhaps early Christians traveled to China in the first few centuries according to some legends, but it isn’t known what effect they had. Part of the problem about Christian history is that Chinese rulers and people of other religions in China usually tried to wipe out Christians or evidence of Christian history or churches, so it isn’t clear what happened in China during the first few centuries after Christ.
Jesus’s main teaching was that he is the Lord and that if people have faith in him and obey him, he would save them from the place after death called hell that he talked about and he would give them physical help and healing. His disciples wrote that his death on the cross paid for the sins of the world for forgiveness of sins. The way of life presented in the New Testament is about an extremely close and personal contact with a loving Creator who does many miracles to bless people. People are warned that without a change of heart people can’t enter heaven and that persecution is promised.
The first clear historical evidence of Christianity in China dates to about 600 AD. There were schisms in early Christianity concerning doctrines and authority. A patriarch or top Christian leader of Constantinople that was the capital of the Roman Byzantine Empire who was named Nestorius differed with other leaders about certain doctrines about the year 430. Many leaders and churches sided with him when there was a division. Some Nestorians moved to Persia. The Nestorians called their church the Church of the East, and it spread widely in Central Asia and spread to China in the 7th Century.
We know about the existence of Nestorians in China and about their activities through archeological discoveries of a Nestorian church and Nestorian wall paintings near Turpan in Xinjiang, old church remains in China, Marco Polo’s observations and other accounts, and a monument that was carved in 781. The monument explained the extent of Christianity in China and how a missionary named Alopun came to Chang An that was then the capital of the Tang Empire in the year 635. The monument describes in some detail both the teachings and growth of the religion. The monument was discovered in Xian in the year 1625. The monument said that a Tang emperor named Taizong (599-649) approved of the preaching of the religion all over the empire and ordered the construction of a church in Chang An. The doctrines explained on the monument are recognizable as Christian teachings to modern Christians, but they also seem strange in their emphasis and incomplete.
Alopun journeyed on the Silk Road route through the Gansu Corridor to reach Chang An. He traveled through Xinjiang. A Nestorian church was discovered outside the ancient Silk Road city of Gaochang. That and some wall paintings showed that Nestorian Christianity was a religion in the area at one time. The Uighurs arrived in Xinjiang and took it over about the year 842. Some of them became Nestorian. In a few places in Tang China, there may have been more Nestorians than Buddhists. At the end of the Tang Dynasty, the Tang rulers became intolerant of “foreign religions.” Emperor Wuzong (814 – 846) who was a Taoist decreed that all foreign religions be banned, and Christians and people of other religions including Buddhism were persecuted. In 907, the Tang Dynasty was destroyed, and trade and travel along the Silk Road route largely ended.
In 1279, the Mongols captured China and established the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 A.D). They reopened Silk Road trade though Xinjiang, and Marco Polo journeyed to China. When he went back to Europe, he reported that there were a large number of Nestorians in southern China, in Beijing that was the capital of the Yuan Empire, and in major trading cities that he visited. The Catholic pope sent a missionary to Beijing in 1294. The Mongols were tolerant of various religions, and they allowed the Catholics to build churches. By the end of the Yuan Dynasty, there were a lot of Catholics in Beijing and another city. However, the Chinese resented the Mongols, and when they rebelled against the Mongols, they also attacked the Nestorians and Catholics. During the Ming Dynasty, both kinds of Christians were expelled.
Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, Catholics came to China again. There was a “Reformation” of Christianity in Europe, and a group of educated Catholics called Jesuits sent missionaries to Asia. In 1582, a Jesuit named Ricci landed in Macau. He then went to Beijing. He said that by 1605, there were a thousand converts. By 1615, there were 10,000. Some of these converts were members of the Ming court. The Manchus conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty in 1644. The number of Catholics increased during the Qing Dynasty (1636–1911). By 1724, there were 300 Catholic churches in China, but again a Qing emperor ordered that the churches be destroyed or confiscated. There were an estimated 300,000 Catholics then, but the numbers dwindled down again.
After this, in the 1800s, Protestant and Evangelical missionaries arrived from Europe and America. The British government forced the Qing rulers to give them treaty ports. These were places where the missionaries first settled. Then they started to travel around inland. Hudson Taylor risked his life many times, and was among the first to pioneer missions outside the European port areas. By 1895, Hudson Taylor’s organization had more than 600 missionaries in China. Many other missionaries established schools and hospitals. These schools educated thousands of Chinese, and the hospitals and modern medicine saved perhaps tens of thousands of lives.
The Taiping rebellion against the Qing Dynasty (1636–1911) was started by people with some Protestant Christian beliefs in 1850. This rebellion was at first successful, and they conquered much of the country and set up a rival capital in Nanjing. The Qing rulers defeated the rebellion with foreign aid. Then in 1899, the Boxer Rebellion started. The Boxer Rebellion started with Chinese Kungfu artists and armed groups attacking missionaries and Chinese Christians. The Christians rarely fought back. The rebellion turned into an open attack on foreign armies in conjunction with the Qing army. The attack failed, and in 1901, the Chinese Boxer Rebellion leaders, Shaolin monks and others started to flee to other countries.
The Qing Dynasty (1636–1911) became increasingly unpopular. Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925) was born in 1866 in Guangdong. He is called the “Father of Modern China” because he helped to organize resistance and rebellion against the empire and was China’s first president, and he might have been the most prominent baptized Christian in Chinese history. It is said that when he was young, he listened to stories about the Taiping Rebellion and their goals from a former Taiping soldier. When he was 13, he went to Honolulu, Hawaii. He returned to Guangdong after graduating from a school in Hawaii. He had learned Christian beliefs, and when he arrived in Guangdong, he hated what he thought was superstitious Chinese idolatry and damaged an idol in a temple. He fled Guangdong after that, and enrolled in a Christian academy in Hong Kong in 1884. He became a Christian doctor. Political, social and religious change was the main goal of his life. He started traveling around the world to organize people and collect funding. He helped to organize a revolution against the Qing that was successful, and in 1912, Sun Yat-Sen became temporary president of the Republic of China. His capital was Nanjing.
After he died, the Chinese government divided into Communist and Nationalist factions. The Nationalists initially controlled most of the country. Chiang Kai-shek was another Chinese president who was a baptized Christian. He was baptized in 1930. By the time the Nationalist government was driven out of China in 1949, it is said there were 3 million Chinese Catholics and almost a million Chinese Protestants. After that, harsh repression and extermination of Christians drove many Christians into hiding. During the 1970s, the number of native Evangelicals quickly increased.