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History, Myth, and Missions


Every nation has its national cultural mythology, part truth and part legend. Sometimes it is in formal social consensus around a “civil religion,” like American patriotism, which sees a role for the U.S. as God-ordained defender of freedom. Sometimes it is a more explicit state ideology as in China which, under Communist rule, has been positioned as a victim of and defender against Western imperialism or American “hegemonism.”

Usually there are both myths of glory and also myths of trauma or crisis. In China, there is a widespread understanding that before the year 1500 China was a great civilization, perhaps the greatest in the world. There is a strong sense that China deserves a chance to regain its “rightful” position as a great power and influential cultural center. For much of the past fifty years in China, the Communist party-state promoted a strong sense of “victimitis” by recalling the trauma of the “century of humiliation” at the hands of the Western imperialist powers.  This was marked by a series of military defeats by Western (and then Japanese) powers after 1840 and the “unequal treaties” that gave Westerners extra-territorial rights, including the rights of missionaries to live and travel in the interior. This century is said to have ended with the “liberation” of 1949-50 when Communist forces occupied the mainland and expelled the Western powers and their “puppets” in the Nationalist government, and also, of course, the missionaries.

Despite the rapid social and cultural transformation underway with China’s continued reopening to the outside, this mythology is still alive, if not exactly well. The return to PRC sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau in 1999 was celebrated as a symbol of the final closure of the colonial era. The Pope’s canonization in 2000 of dozens of Roman Catholic missionaries and Chinese believers who had been martyred one century before by the anti-foreign martial sect, the “Boxers,” along with thousands of others including Protestants, was met with a barrage of highly emotional state propaganda denouncing all these “saints” as tools of Western imperialism—almost implying they deserved their violent fates!  Knowledgeable Chinese, embarrassed by this “over-kill,” commented at the time that the media articles seemed to have been unearthed from the files of the 1950s Mao era, dusted off and reprinted without editing. However inappropriate and out-of-date, given recent positive academic and popular reevaluation of the contributions of missionaries and growing acceptance of and interest in Christianity, these episodes reveal heartfelt attitudes lying just beneath the surface. They reflect a deep and abiding ambivalence about Western culture and the Christian faith, which is seen to be the heart and root of it.

Rising Cultural Nationalism

Believers are interested in helping to build the Kingdom of God in China. Educated Chinese in the cities, though, are focused on building up the nation of China. If kingdom-building in China is to meet the challenge of nationbuilding, I believe it is vital to redress the weaknesses in church and mission activities in a way that produces synergy rather than conflict between these two powerful currents.

On one hand, there is an unprecedented opening for Christianity to become the mainstream of belief in China. Fifty years of Communist party rule has stripped China of its traditional religion or ideology, leaving a vacuum. China is so morally empty that the greatest obstacle to China’s becoming a great power may be the lack of a shared public morality. Concerned Chinese are trying to address this problem. Trying to preserve their monopoly on power, the younger political elite is seeking to revise or “modernize” the state ideology of communism. Realizing that economic development is not all sufficient, the social elite is seeking a social philosophy for the future that will provide a better path to social and political progress, in addition to economic development. Some Chinese are seeking a “Third Way,” a path better suited to Chinese tradition than either Soviet-style communism or American democratic capitalism. Now, perhaps more than at any other time in history, is the time to hope and work for Christ to become this Third Way—their Way, their Truth and their Life.

State-sponsored Nationalism

Throughout the 1990s, the content of official political education has been shifting from socialist doctrine to “patriotism.” The positive content is pride in Chinese history and culture. Hosting the Olympics in 2008, for example, with its friendly international competition, will encourage a positive link between cosmopolitanism and patriotic values. However, there is a large negative anti-Western component as well, as reflected in a series of books on the theme, “the China that can say, ‘No.’” Especially noteworthy is that these books were written by young scholars who had studied in America but then returned to China. These young returnees resented American “bullying” of their homeland in the 1990s. These themes have captivated younger audiences, reflecting and further developing this new pride in China’s accomplishments and capabilities. To some extent, the SARS episode tempered this hubris and was a reminder of how far China still has to go. Nevertheless, the desire of the Chinese to have pride in their nation and culture remains powerful. When I asked a Chinese friend about an unusual mainland newspaper report about a Chinese seminary professor’s claim that Han dynasty stone carvings contained biblical symbols, he scoffed in reply, “Oh the press will print anything that shows China was first!”

This national and cultural pride has also brought about a resurgence of interest in Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. There is a strong fascination and interest in native products, a search for cultural “roots,” and an academic focus on “national studies.” The Tang dynasty especially holds a high current level of interest.

Chinese Disillusionment with the U.S.

Unfortunately, some of this nationalistic intensity, with its positive and negative aspects, is a reaction to the activities of American political and cultural conservatives, including Christians. In raising concerns about religious rights abuses in China, these conservatives lobbied the federal government to use tactics of economic pressure and public shaming against the Chinese government. The Chinese people viewed such actions as antiChina, not just anti-communist—actions  such as opposition to U.S. funding for China through the U.N. Population Fund, to China’s bid to host the 2000 Summer Olympics, to renewal of China’s Most Favored Nation (MFN) status (now called Normal Trade Relations or NTR), and to China’s membership in the WTO. Being cynical about their own politics and politicians, the Chinese were likewise cynical about ours; no one believes these actions were motivated by genuine concern.

It proved both ineffective and even counterproductive to use the U.S. government as a bully pulpit against religious freedom violations. Let me stress here that I favor more, not less effort by all of us (especially creative involvement of nongovernmental actors) to keep religious freedom on the front burner. However, political pressure should be the last resort, not the first. Such involvement of the U.S. government fueled Chinese resentment of U.S. hypocritical “preaching” and aroused old suspicions of American and Chinese Christians as pawns of foreign political interests, undermining the image of Chinese Christianity as indigenous—won through Mao-era sacrifice and suffering.

As the Chinese government has encouraged nationalistic pride and the confidence that China will regain its “rightful” status as a great power by mid-century, younger Chinese have become more nationalistic and more supportive of the regime—which then feels freer to oppress the church. I am worried that a new wave of persecution is building up, as has happened before, as the government becomes more concerned about social instability and is threatened by the mass appeal of the Christian social movement.

A Warning From History: China’s “Disappearing Church”

There have been four waves—each with about a 200-year duration—of Christian missions and church growth during long eras of relative state toleration of religious pluralism (see box).

Four waves of Christian missions and church growth

  • Church of the East (Nestorians) during the Tang dynasty (7th–9th centuries)
  • Church of the East (Nestorians) revival in the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty (13th–14th centuries)
  • Jesuit and other Roman Catholic Missions in late Ming —early Qing (Manchu) dynasties (16th–18th centuries)
  • Protestant missions in the modern era. (Soon it will be 200 years since Robert Morrison’s arrival in China in 1807)

Within each period, there were shorter cycles of relative growth and repression.  But following these larger waves of missions and church growth came waves of persecution in the name of purifying China from foreign implants and with the goal of imposing a monolithic indigenous state religion or ideology. The banning of Christianity and other religions led to long eras of silence when believers went underground or disappeared, awaiting another chance. It is possible, and historically supportable, that such a wave of persecution could happen again.

Lessons to Learn from Missions History

History shows us that it is impossible to insulate the church from context, and that domestic and international politics can bite you. Mission leaders have been too quiet in the U.S.China policy debate leaving the field to extremist voices and ignorant advocates. It is necessary to be savvy and involved in shaping your own political environment.

Mission cultural strategies make a big difference. Insistence on Western cultural patterns for the church, such as the monasticism and asceticism of the Nestorians and Roman Catholics, put them in opposition to the Chinese family-centered culture and failed to build on biblical values and patterns found in indigenous beliefs and history. Here American evangelicals seem particularly vulnerable. There is little awareness that Christianity arrived in China earlier than in most countries— in the early part of the 7th century. Thus, Christianity in China is centuries older than the American Christian experience or Chinese communism. Encouraging Chinese to recover their own ancient traditions—about which future archaeology may tell us still more—could be a powerful approach to evangelism.

Certainly, though, our priority should be to allow the Chinese church to set the agenda based on its own experience and expectations for the future.

Image credit: Open Window by Josh Vaughn via Flickr.

Carol Hamrin

Carol Lee Hamrin, Ph.D., serves as a research professor at George Mason University and a senior associate with the Global China Center. She served under five U.S. administrations as the senior China research specialist in the U.S. Department of State and in 2003 received the Center for Public Justice Leadership... View Full Bio