NOTE: Just a reminder of the nature of these posts. These are unedited, unaltered responses I gave in comprehensive exams last week. Each essay answer was written in 80 minutes, with no resources at hand. Thus, there are no citations, some figures will be imprecise, quotations are paraphrases, etc.
QUESTION A. As fully as you can, describe and explain the changing religious landscape of 20th century China. Consider the historical roots of that landscape and reflect on the potential of the Christian tradition for reshaping that landscape in the 21st century.
The rise and fall of Maoism (Chinese Communism) in the 20th century marked an incredible upheaval in the religious landscape of China. For nearly two millennia, the ‘Three Religions’ (Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism) had permeated the philosophical, cultural, religious, and social spheres of the Middle Kingdom; in 1949, the hold the Three Religions exerted was irrevocably shattered. Meanwhile, Christianity had been almost universally viewed as a ‘foreign’ religion, and was therefore deemed suspicious and inherently un-Chinese. Prior to the rise of Mao, Christianity struggled to make inroads into the Chinese religious landscape. The expulsion of Western missionaries in 1949, combined with a small and leadership-weak Chinese Church, led most Western scholars and observers to bemoan the ‘death’ of Christianity in China. As we will see, however, the rise of Maoism was an unexpected boon to the Christian Church in China, and the fall of Maoism revealed an explosively-growing indigenous Chinese Church.
In this essay, I will examine the historical roots of the Chinese religious landscape, exploring the Three Religions as well as the missionary efforts of Christians. I will then turn to the developments in the 20th century, and consider the radical upheavals wrought by rebellions and the rise of Communism. Finally, I will examine the contemporary status of the Christian Church in China, and explore the potential of Chinese Christianity to reshape the religious landscape of China, and the fabric of global Christianity as well.
I. Historical Context – the Three Religions in China
For centuries, Chinese thought and religious practice was dominated by the three ways – Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. While Western missionaries found it entirely incomprehensible, the common Chinese person regularly embraced all three traditions. Indeed, the three traditions fed into and off of one another, such that Confucius was found amongst the pantheon of gods and bodhisattvas, and the same idols could be found in Taoist and Buddhist temples.
A. Taoism – Philosophical and Religious
The historical roots of Taoism are shrouded in the mists of time and myth. Legend has it that Lao-Tzu (6th century B.C.) wrote the Tao te Ching, the foundational text of Taoism, upon leaving a decadent imperial court in disgust. As he was riding off into the sunset, a gate guard beseeched him to leave behind his wisdom for future generations. Lao-Tzu consented, leaving behind a pearl of wisdom treasured by Chinese for millennia to come.
The philosophical wisdom of the Tao te Ching focuses on three notions. First, the notion of the Tao – the nameless, shapeless energy source which governs and runs the world. The Tao is certainly not ‘God’, and is definitely impersonal. Beyond that, the Tao is difficult to define; indeed, its essence is indefinability. Nonetheless, the concept is that the Tao is essential unity or oneness between all things and all people. The Tao is effectually empowering through the twin poles of yin and yang, which represent several dualities at once – creation and decay, male and female, active and receptive, aggressive and passive. History is a continual cycle, sometimes yin predominating, sometimes yang. As things are, things once were, and once again will be – the cycle of history is unending and cyclically repetitive.
Second, the responsibility of persons is to be at one with the Tao, to keep from impeding the flow and harmony of nature which the Tao governs. Hence, the chief ethical notion in Taoism is wu-wei, which kind of means ‘do-nothing-ness’; although it is not a lazy or passive response to fatalism, but rather an active attempt to contribute to the harmonious flow of the Tao.
Third, philosophical Taoism generally eschews political involvement. Lao-Tzu was disillusioned with the royal court, as the legend goes, and thus leaves altogether – a pattern which is imitated by future generations of Taoists. This becomes important in regards to compatibility with Confucianism, which is inherently active and political in nature.
Finally, the role of religious Taoism needs to be mentioned. Philosophical Taoism was an inherently elitist pursuit. There was great emphasis upon pursuing meditative and ascetic enlightenment in order to achieve oneness with the Tao; this was not something that everybody could do. The techniques of meditation were extremely demanding in both time and concentration. Working peasants were not suitable candidates for the regimen! Philosophical Taoism also emphasized strict diets and bodily discipline. Yet the tenets of Taoism appealed to the common person, and a religious superstructure developed around the foundations of philosophical Taoism. The religious structures adopted the practices of Chinese folk religion, including many of the local geographical deities. This became important when Buddhism was important into China, as popular Buddhism pursued the same practice of syncretism.
B. Confucianism – the Practical and Ethical System
Taoism governed the philosophical and religious mindset of pre-A.D. China. Confucianism governed China’s praxis. Confucianism, while not atheistic in form, was methodologically agnostic in practice. There was a strict separation of ‘church and state’, or personal religious practice and public political or ethical behavior – something which contributed to the simultaneous adherence to both Taoism and Confucianism amongst most Chinese. Confucianism governed the political practice, ethical standards, and social structures of China.
Confucius founded a system which was intended to direct the paths of enlightened rulers. The Confucian political system emphasized three roles of government: (a) to provide a sufficiently strong military to defend the empire; (b) to ensure sufficient material goods for the well-being of the populace; and (c) to maintain the good-will of the people through benevolent rule. The ideal Confucian government was a ‘benevolent dictatorship’ – an emperor with absolute power, but who ruled in the interests of his people.
The ethical standards of Confucianism emphasized two sides: (a) the inherent goodness and perfectibility of man; and (b) the need for right conduct and living. On the one hand, Confucius (and most of his disciples and successors) believed that mankind was fundamentally and inherently good. There was certainly a need for discipline, to shape and perfect the human person; but the raw material was good. On the other hand, Confucius outlined the ‘five noble virtues’ which guided right conduct and behavior. There was a strong emphasis on righteousness, right ritual, humaneness (or self-less-ness).
Finally, Confucianism directed the social structures of imperial China. The focus on filial piety – or loyalty to family and elders above all else – was central. Hence Confucianism did not object to (but even encouraged) the practice of ancestor reverence or worship which Taoism and folk religion also embraced. The Confucian educational system acknowledged all students as capable of entering into advanced education and becoming part of the civil service (imperial bureaucracy). History holds that Confucius was willing to accept students even if they were unable to pay tuition – so long as they were willing and able to learn.
C. The Introduction of Buddhism
Buddhism, though a ‘foreign’ religion, and thereby suspicious to the inherently protective and xenophobic Chinese mind, managed to permeate Chinese culture by co-opting Taoist and Confucian terminology when translating sacred Buddhist texts into traditional Chinese script.
The Buddhist notion of nirvana became the Tao; the Taoism notion of wu-wei was adopted as the equivalent of the Buddhist desire for self-emptying of desire. The Buddhist “Eightfold Noble Path” became the Confucian ‘five noble virtues’. With the exception of filial piety, the ethical standards of Buddhism were perfectly compatible with those of Confucianism. Finally, popular Chinese Buddhism adopted the pantheon of Taoist gods and immortals, thus ingratiating itself to the popular mindset. Taoism and Confucianism had provided a rational, logical path for Buddhism to enter into the Middle Kingdom.
D. Christian Missions Prior to the 20th Century
The history of Christianity in China prior to the 20th century is varied and checkered. The earliest Christian missionaries to China were Nestorian Christians from Persia. They established monasteries and churches, and gathered numerous local communities of believers. However, oppression eventually dwindled their numbers, and the Nestorian Christian communities died out.
Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits made strong attempts to contextualize Christianity in the 14th (?) century – Ricci was even accused of promoting a ‘Christianized Confucianism’. Their attempts were focused upon Chinese elites, and lack of success at that level meant there was no strong lasting impact from their efforts.
Later Christian missions in China were closely connected (in the Chinese mind, at least) with ‘gunboat diplomacy’. As European powers exerted military influence (threats) over imperial China, they gained ‘free ports’. Based in those free ports, Christian missionaries would establish a bridgehead, and launch missionary efforts outward from there. Some missionaries (e.g. Hudson Taylor) contextualized their mission, adopting Chinese dress and customs to the greatest extent they could; others remained Western in form, dress, and custom. Hence, most Christian missionaries were viewed with suspicion – they were outsiders, foreigners, guay-lo.
II. The Twentieth-Century Upheavals
A. From Imperial China to 1949
The first half of the 20th century saw considerable upheaval in its own right, much of which had grave implications for Western Christianity. The Boxer Rebellion vented considerable frustration (violently) upon foreign missionaries. The May 4 student rebellion was also aimed at foreign missionaries, who were perceived as corrupting the Chinese spirit and culture.
The short-lived republic of Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek was viewed by western Christians very favorably, as both men professed a Christian faith. Within China, however, the republic foundered, as Maoist Communism gained support.
B. The Rise of Maoism
After the Second World War, the civil war between Chiang’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists engulfed the country, leading in 1949 to the withdrawal of the Nationalists to the island of Formosa (Taiwan, very close in pronunciation to Tawa). Maoism was victorious within China. The effects of Communism were significant for the religious landscape of China.
First, all foreign missionaries were expelled. The thousands of westerners who had gone to China to bring the Gospel to the Middle Kingdom found themselves unwanted and forcibly deported. From a western perspective, it seemed that the Chinese Church had been killed in infancy. From all accounts, the native leadership within the Chinese Church was weak in both numbers and spiritual maturity. With the official atheism which now governed China with a perceived iron fist, the prospects for Christianity seemed incredibly bleak.
Second, Christian churches were closed throughout the country. What few believers there were, were driven underground, at least in the short term. Around 1958 (I forget the exact date), the Communists permitted the re-opening of a few churches under the auspices of the TSPM (Three-Self Patriotic Movement) Church – a Christian church which acknowledged the supremacy and benevolence of the Communist rulers, and agreed to heed government practice and regulation.
Third, Christianity was not the only religious suppressed by the Communist authorities. Taoist temples were closed, Buddhist monasteries were confiscated and turned into state museums. The official religion of China became atheism. There is no God, no gods, no bodhisattvas, no immortals, no local deities, no supernatural powers to be appeased – the Communists turned upon not only the foreign Christian religion, but also upon the native traditions which had nurtured Chinese culture and imagination for 2000 years.
Fourth, Confucianism was repudiated. Communists agreed that mankind was fundamentally good; but that was as far as its agreement with Confucian political ethics went. Family was not all-important (though it did matter) – if parents were closet Christians, they were to be betrayed by their children. Deceased ancestors did not require sacrifices or offerings or reverent remembering – they were dead and gone. The elitism of Confucian benevolent dictatorship was a bourgeois myth intended to perpetuate the subjugation of the peasantry. Only rule by the proletariat could be for the proletariat.
Thus, Communism sought to wipe clean the religious landscape of China – replacing the Three Religions with a new brand of atheistic communism. China’s soul was denied, rejected, repudiated.
During the ten-year Cultural Revolution, the aggressive stance of Communism deepened, and turned upon intellectualism and scholarship within China. The intellectual classes were arrested and forced into ‘re-education’ through intensive manual labor. While later released and permitted to resume ‘normal’ activities, many scholars lost the most productive years of their adult life; many others lost their health, some even their very lives.
In sum, the religious upheaval prompted by the rise of Maoism was not akin to a thunderstorm that wreaks havoc upon the landscape, uprooting some trees, causing localized flash flooding; rather, it was more like a magnitude-10 earthquake, which flattens every building, demolishes every home, overturns the very soil itself, leaving a landscape of nothing but rubble, dust, and hopelessness in its wake. The religious landscape of China was not merely revolutionized; it was pulverized.
C. The Death of Mao(ism)
With the fall of the Gang of Four, and the death of Mao Zedong, conditions in China began to change. The extremism of the Cultural Revolution was past; Deng Xiaoping began to institute slight liberalizations in policy – both economically and religiously. To be sure, China remained an officially atheist country; one could not be a member of the ruling Communist Party and also be a believing Christian or Buddhist or Taoist. However, the stranglehold over the beliefs of the common people was loosened.
In 1978, the Chinese Communists began allowing the re-opening of churches, temples, and monasteries. Some confiscated property was returned. By the mid-80s, it became clear that religion had ‘returned’ to China. What emerged stunned observers – in the West and in China alike.
Christianity had not been extinguished in Communist China. Rather, an underground church of primarily house-church networks had literally exploded in growth. The church in 1949 comprised approximately one million native Chinese (Catholic and Protestant combined). By 1978, the official number of Chinese Christians was around 12 million; by 2000, the official government numbers of TSPM Christians was over 20 million. Unofficial estimates, which include not only TSPM Churches but also unregistered churches, range between 50-100 million. Christianity is approaching 5 to 10% of the Chinese population.
The fall of Maoism also opened the door for the revitalization of the Three Religions which traditionally had governed China. And they certainly did emerge. Taoist rituals were once again openly celebrated; Buddhist monasteries reopened. Even Confucian rituals were practiced openly. But things are not the same as they once were.
One primary change within the Chinese psyche has been an irrevocable loss of the Confucian ideal of the inherently good, perfectible man. The horrors perpetrated upon the Chinese people, by the Chinese government, served as existential disconfirmation of the truth of Confucian anthropology. Remember, Confucian government had three purposes: (a) military defense; (b) material provision; and (c) the goodwill of the people. Under Communism, millions of peasants starved to death, primarily due to misguided Communist policies, and the increasing corruption and hypocrisy of the Communist oligarchy was acknowledged and reviled by all. The only success, by Confucian standards, was the strong military put in place by the Communists (although even there, Formosa remained a thorn in their side). That a Chinese government could so systematically and completely fail its people, and govern in its own interests even while professing to be in power for the good of the proletariat, was a shock to the Chinese system. In such a context, the Christian doctrine of original sin and total depravity gained newfound credibility.
D. The Emerging Chinese Christian Church
The church which emerged from the rubble of Chinese Communism was not at all what western scholars expected. There are several noteworthy traits.
(1) Indigenous. Foreign missionaries were expelled in 1949. Contact between Chinese Christians and foreign Christians was forbidden and nearly impossible. The growth of the Chinese Church under Communist rule was therefore led by fully native Chinese leaders. This had significant impact in two ways. First, it meant that Christianity could no longer be perceived within China as a purely foreign intrusion. The suspicion that attached to Christianity during the imperial age was lessened. Second, it meant that Christianity was fully contextualized. Certainly there were elements within Christian worship that were adopted and maintained from previous European missionary efforts. But even these elements were Sinocized. Christianity in China became fully Chinese. While the expulsion of foreign missionaries in 1949 seemed to be a regrettable and devastating blow to the kingdom of God; it turned out, on the contrary, to be the means which God used to bring about massive growth within His kingdom.
(2) Holistic. Western Christianity is sometimes accused of tending towards one of two extremes: a dry rationalistic faith; or a contentless emotivism. Chinese Christianity seems to embrace the whole person. It is deeply rational and full of content; but at the same time Chinese worship is passionate and emotional.
(3) Socially Concerned. Christianity gained credibility under Communist rule partly due to its social concern. When the Communist authorities neglected the physical and emotional needs of the population, the Church did all it could to step into the void and provide for the poor and the downtrodden. There are numerous testimonies of conversions that came about through relationships formed when local Christians provided for the needs of a local family.
(4) Theologically Conservative. Chinese Christianity, particularly in the unregistered church, in unapologetically conservative and biblical. There has been a strong and conscious rejection of western liberal biblical scholarship, and an adherence to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and authority. While there are still elements of liberalism within the TSPM churches and associated seminaries, even there, there has been a substantial return to orthodox evangelicalism.
III. The Prospects For the 21st Century
What does the future hold for China? It is always dangerous to prognosticate, as we do not know the sovereign intentions of God. I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, and I certainly cannot claim to know what the Church will look like in China in 100 years. Nonetheless, it is the place of scholars and observers to make ‘educated guesses’, hoping that the emphasis falls more upon educated than guesses.
First, it seems clear that the Chinese Church is poised to become the largest body of evangelical believers in the world within the next generation. Indeed, some argue that there are already more evangelical Christians in China than there are in America. Thus, the impact of Chinese Christianity upon global Christianity needs to be evaluated and assessed. This is not the time or place for such assessment, but it is an item of pressing interest.
Second, Christianity is approaching a type of ‘critical mass’ within China. If estimates are correct, there are close to 100 million Christians in China, a little less than 10% of the population. The church has grown at least 50-fold, and perhaps 100-fold, in only sixty years. It is clear that God has been doing a great work within China since the rise of Maoism. What implications does this critical mass have for the landscape of 21st-century China?
Third, Christianity is now viewed very differently by the educated elite in China than it was 60 years ago. Prior to Communism, Christianity was feared, viewed with suspicion. It was a foreign religion, unsuitable to China. Christianity was inextricably associated with gunboat diplomacy. Missionaries were suspected as potential ‘foreign spies’. All that has changed. Indigenous leadership now leads an indigenous church which is authentically Chinese. Furthermore, the demise of Confucian ideals has opened the door to a culturally-elite acceptance and respect for Christianity.
Indeed, an item of significance for the future of Christianity has been the rise of ‘cultural Christianity’ in China. In North America, ‘cultural Christianity’ carries with it the negative connotation of someone who professes to be Christian because of their familial or cultural heritage – a cultural Christian in America is someone who claims Christianity on their census form but carries no sincere or authentic Christian belief. Chinese ‘cultural Christianity’ is completely different. The term is applied by Chinese ‘cultural Christians’ themselves, and carries with it the notion that Christianity is culturally advantageous, and would be beneficial for China to adopt as its official religion. Scholars and other cultural observers within China acknowledge the cultural (and political and economic) benefits which have accrued to nations with a strong Christian heritage; they also observe the lack of similar benefits which have come to nations embracing Islam or atheism (Communism). Hence, they draw the conclusion that there is something about Christianity that works for the benefit of the people within that nation. As a result, these ‘cultural Christian’ trumpet the benefits of Christianity, even if they themselves are not avowed evangelical Christians. Many ‘cultural Christians’ are also members of registered or unregistered churches; but others are not. What is absolutely stunning, however, is the radical change in perspective within China’s elites in the space of a few generations. Christianity has gone from being a despised foreign religion, to being snuffed out as an ‘opiate of the masses’, to being now acknowledged as the greatest thing that could happen to China. This reflects not only a changing perspective on Christianity, but also disillusionment with the three native traditions which previously held Chinese elites in sway.
Despite these positive signs which indicate a powerful future for Christianity in China, there are a few areas of concern. First, Chinese Christianity is predominantly rural. The church has made less evangelistic headway in the major cities, particularly Beijing. In some ways, this makes sense, as the major cities are centers of Communist influence and power, and one still needs to be a professing atheist in order to be a party cadre. In other ways, however, this is a worrisome trend which bodes ill for the future of the church in China. Urbanization shows no signs of slowing; a church which fails to reach the cities will fail to reach the future of China.
Second, there are concerns amongst observers regarding the transmission of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the younger generation. From a western perspective, Sunday school programs and other children’s ministries are very weak (often nonexistent) in China. The concern is that youth are not being discipled – hence, they may not emerge as authentic believers. The lack of children’s ministry in China may be a relic of the church under communist reign, when teaching children about Jesus was a capital offense. Regardless, there does need to be a focus upon equipping the younger generation for faith and ministry.
What are the ultimate prospects of the Christian church in shaping the 21st-century religious landscape of China? Only God knows. However, it seems clear that Christianity is here to stay. The church is in no dangers of dying. If the explosive growth of the past 60 years continues unabated (which I doubt it can, just given the rapid scope of past growth), Christians will represent a distinct majority of the Chinese population by 2050. Christianity has already radically altered the post-Communist landscape of China. Emerging from the rubble created by the Maoist earthquake is rising, not the three-headed dragon of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, but rather the Cross of Christ and the Triune God of Christianity.