After over 20 years of economic reform, nothing seems to really catch the eyes of the Chinese today. Walking along the streets of Beijing packed with towering five-stars hotels, bright computer software stores, a shining McDonald’s arch and other fancy neon signs, with cars of many different makes scurrying around under skyscrapers surrounded by expressways, one may think, “Everything the West has, we have here as well.” From news regarding potential US presidential candidates and the Australian referendum concerning ties with the British royal court to NBA sports and the World Cup qualifying games, it is all available on television in any corner of China. If you have a minute to chat with an ordinary Chinese walking along the street, you might be surprised to find that he knows as much as you do about Wall Street’s ups and downs and the latest moves of Bill Gates. For Pabst Blue Ribbon beer-drinking, Marlboro-smoking, jeans-loving Chinese, Western contacts have become as frequent as the daily soap operas. Is there anything that Chinese have no knowledge about or any issue left that causes them to pause before expressing an opinion? There should be. For most Chinese, one of these hard questions is, “Do you know anything about the Christian church, and how do you look at it?”
At the mention of the word “church,” a complex and cautiously subtle expression will come over the face of an ordinary Chinese person. Church? The moment the word is uttered you suddenly realize that you have trespassed into a land of seriousness. This term is not an everyday one; it is associated with so much information and imagination that for some Chinese it is a very sensitive word.
The history of Christianity in China can be traced back to at least the Tang Dynasty(618 - 907A.D.) with the Nestorian presence in Chang An (now Xi’an), the capital of the empire. From the time of the Ming and Qing dynasty periods, when many missionaries entered China, churches began to appear in different parts of the country. By 1949 China had 5 million Christians. However, the Chinese government has never responded positively to the presence and growth of the church during either the church’s “debut” under the Ming and Qing Dynasties, or during the Republic (19111949) era and communist rule. The history of evangelism in China is full of man-made mistakes, prejudice and persecution. During the time of the Cultural Revolution in the 60s, the church as the “residue” of the Reactionaries was declared “cleaned up” by the government. People back in those days would immediately associate the church with imperialism and the superstitions held by a bunch of backward older men and women who knew nothing about science and truth.
However, by the end of the 70s when the Cultural Revolution was over, Christianity was expanding at a speed no one had anticipated. China, at that time, did not officially have even one foreign missionary, yet the church was quietly revealing itself in every corner of China. From coastal provinces to inland areas, from urban centers to rural counties—there were church activities everywhere one would go. The miraculously revived church was like scattered patches of new green growth, vibrant and full of life in the barren land of a dead society held under the tight control of the communist regime. If one mentioned the word “church” to people at that time, their response would have been that the church was a mysterious, curious phenomenon, and no one could make sense of why so many were emerging in China. Though there was prejudice against the church, people no longer thought of it as reactionary.
Since the end of the 80s and the decade of the 90s, the church has continued to grow though at a lesser speed than that of the 70s. The government has changed its attitude of indifference toward the church; instead of despising or belittling it, the government has engaged in an effort to search for a counter policy and the means to control it. Gradually, ordinary people have found that they have some sense of tolerance and, even respect, for the church.
Today, at the end of the 90s, after five decades of atheistic government indoctrination, people, especially the young, are embracing the church, and Christianity is becoming their faith and pursuit. Without favors from the media, or the benefit of publicity from open debates or overwhelming promotional brochures, the Chinese church has thrived as thorns in the desert and reeds in the marsh, becoming deeply rooted in this great land of the East. Young people’s pursuit of Christianity and their faith in Christ has no resemblance to the Red Guard’s impromptu expressions of excitement during the Cultural Revolution; their choice is based on careful reasoning. Their link with Christianity does not compare with joining the Communist Youth League and the Party, which bring about opportunities for bureaucratic promotion. That older people embrace Christianity indicates a re-evaluation of their lives, and now they are excitedly making up for the lost years while their church affiliation is a silent statement of protest against the injustices they suffered during the last few decades. Still more are coming with a heart to pursue truth and freedom. Most have started by observing the Christians around them in whom they have seen new hope radiating and the great power of love.
The church is no longer a synonym for the anti-revolutionary, the backward, the superstitious, the feudal or the running dogs of imperialism. However, Christianity in China is far lower in status than, for example, science and technology, which are encouraged by the government and allowed to be openly discussed. Although less prejudice and discrimination are imposed on the church than previously, lack of knowledge about the church is very common among the public.
The public is fed up and furious with the corruption of the Party-controlled government. They are asking if the church might not be an option to solve their social problems. Can the church help change their status quo? These questions reflect a Chinese tradition of pragmatism and utilitarianism that remains the major stumbling block in their path of pursuing the truth. For those who otherwise would have no prejudice towards the church, this tradition is like an invisible wall that keeps them away from church pews. To them, the Church remains intangible and unreal, hard to define. These good, practical citizens of China believe little of what the government has been telling them through propaganda in the media and school texts and do not wish to say anything negative about the church; however, for the present, watching from the sidelines is as far as they are willing to go. They constantly experience their spiritual life as a two-fold torture stemming from the thirst of their soul alongside their engagement in worldly gains. They are waiting, pondering, and comparing as they waver back and forth.
What is the church? To ordinary people in China it is such a simple, and yet puzzling, question. On the one hand, you have the appearance of booming mini-churches and meeting places combined with the public’s gradual realization of the church’s benefits to society while, on the other, the government is imposing a higher degree of control over, and continual propaganda against, the church. While all this makes church-related issues controversial, at least one thing has become less controversial: the church is no longer a stranger to Chinese society.
Huo Shui is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China. Translation is by Ping Dong.