As mentioned in my previous post, Christianity has often been and is still viewed by the Chinese government as a foreign religion, one with political connections, one to be held in suspect. When Christianity first entered China with the Nestorians during the Tang dynasty, it was welcomed. Yet only 200 years later, Emperor Wuzong studied the foreign religions existing in China at the time, determined Christianity clashed with local beliefs, and banned it.1 Three hundred years later, under the Mongol empire, Persian Christian merchants and Roman Catholics brought Christianity to China again. Yet by the mid-fourteenth century, Christianity was again seen as a foreign religion due to its association with foreigners. Once more the government banned the religion when ridding China of unwanted foreign influences.2 Christianity was distrusted as a foreign religion.
Considering certain positions and activities Western believers participated in during the subsequent centuries, it is not surprising that the Chinese government went on to hold Christianity in suspicion and not merely because it was foreign. In the 19th century, much of Protestant missions and development in China was based on rights granted by the “unequal treaties.”
The crux of the matter was the illegal opium trade. The West imported opium to China even though the Chinese government had banned the trade. As one of a series of attempts to end opium imports, in 1839, the Chinese government sent official Lin Zexu to Guangdong to crack down on the trade. The British however saw these actions not as the Chinese government’s right and jurisdiction, but rather as an imposition on free trade. War ensued.3 The British won twice, both in 1842 and in 1858.
The resulting “unequal treaties” granted Westerners the freedom to go wherever they wanted to go and proselytize whomever they might want to convert. They were granted authority to override local magistrates as well as to rule in legal cases where Chinese Christians were involved.4 And this they did. Naturally, this was not exactly appreciated by the Chinese people. One of the victories of China in the 20th century was: ridding themselves of the foreigners and their imposition on China.
In the 1980s China started opening up again. With the door finally cracking open, an urgency to save China’s millions led to an “anything-goes attitude” among many Western Christians.5 Sensational, secretive, and illegal methods became commonplace. Bible smuggling as well as “undercover” work were much utilized. Often Western believers entered China as teachers, businessmen, social workers, or language students (as this was the only way to obtain a visa). Among them were many who considered their “official” work a cover for their “real” work and skirted their “official” duties while focusing on evangelization. This served to confirm the government’s suspicions of foreigners—who they claimed to be and what they actually did were two different matters altogether.6
Repeatedly through history, the basis for distrust of Western believers was thus substantiated, leading to various policies, and monitoring the activities of the foreigners. Yet, though Chinese suspicions have been affirmed about Christianity and Western believers, this is neither the only nor the whole story. As much as there have been damaging testimonies, there have also been, time and again, Western Christians who have left behind a positive legacy. Let’s look at a few of these encouraging stories.
Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) arrived in Macao, China in 1582. Part of the Jesuit tradition, he applied Alessandro Valignano “accommodation policies” to his cross-cultural work in China. Hereby, he ardently labored to master the Chinese language and culture. He did not dismiss Chinese leadership but focused on winning the trust of the Chinese upper class, hoping even to reach the emperor. His evangelism took on an indirect approach: build relationships and reach the elites by offering European science and technology. In the process, allow Christianity to enter the conversations where it naturally fits.7 Perhaps most important to Ricci’s approach was his endeavor to present and apply Christianity with consideration of the Chinese culture. In all this, Ricci succeeded in winning the good graces of the Chinese courts. He would be the first foreigner invited to reside in China’s capital Beijing. In death, he would be honored by a gravesite outside Fuchenggate, now located at the heart of the Beijing Party School. Even after death, his methods would continue to be valued and respected by the Chinese leadership. In 1706, irritated by the Vatican’s medling in China, Emperor Kangxi decreed that those and only those who practiced the “policies of Matteo Ricci” would be allowed to remain active in China.8
Timothy Richard (1845–1919) arrived in 1870 in Chefoo, Shandong. Like Ricci, Richard worked to identify with the Chinese people by studying the language and wearing Chinese clothes. During the years in Shandong, he realized the importance of respecting and obeying the local government to win their trust. When he relocated in 1877 to Shanxi province to assist during the famine, he made a conscious decision to respect local government officials, seeking their permission before distributing his funds. Because he chose to go this route, his work initially progressed slowly. However, once the local officials realized that Richard was trustworthy and not out to “steal the hearts of the people,” his work was enabled by their support.9
In 2008, the Olympics were held in Beijing, China. Leading up to the Olympics, China’s security measures increased. Visas were hard to keep or come by, simply because China tightened up the borders to prevent trouble and ensure security. One Western-founded Christian non-profit similarly faced losing most of its visas. No bureau seemed to be able to help (read: willing to take responsibility for the visas). As a last-ditch effort they reached out to the secretary in the commercial bureau. The secretary called the director. The director called the bureau head. She ordered the non-profit be given the necessary visas, because “they are the best foreign company in the entire province.” Years of having worked respectfully with the culture and the government had given them a good name. While others were facing closed doors, they found themselves with opportunity.10
These stories are just a few of many throughout history that left behind a positive testimony of Christianity in China. In my last post I emphasized the importance of being aware of the negative legacy that Christianity has left in China to be informed and warned. Likewise, we should also consider the positive testimonies and be encouraged. While insensitive cross-cultural work has often resulted in closed doors or deportation, sensitive and authentic cross-cultural work has time and again won over the hearts of the Chinese people. It has opened doors. It has led to opportunities. By these stories, we might also be inspired to work wisely and respectfully to leave a positive record and testimony.
Bays, Daniel. H. A New History of Christianity in China. West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
Beaver, R. Pierce. “The History of Mission Strategy.” In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 4th ed., edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, 223-238. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 2009.
Davey, Bob. God’s Reddende Kracht: De Geschiedenis van het Christendom in China. Heerenveen: Groen, 2011.
Dikötter, Frank, Lars Laamann, and Xun Zhou. Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China. London: C. Hurst & Co., 2004.
Doyle, G. Wright. “China.” In Sorrow & Blood, edited by William D. Taylor, Antonia van der Meer, and Reg Reimer, 267-273. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 2012.
Falkenstine, Mike. The Chinese Puzzle: Putting the Pieces Together for a Deeper Understanding of China and her Church, 2nd ed. China Resource Center Press, 2012.
Kaiser, Andrew T. The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2016.
Laughlin, Tabor. “Reaching Educated Chinese through Teaching English.” In In China’s Harvest Fields, edited by Tabor Laughlin, 25-30. Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2020.
Love, Rick. “Identity with Integrity: Apostolic Ministry in the 21st Century.” In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 4th ed., edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, 477-481. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 2009.
Sunquist, Scott W. “Asian Christianity: Facing the Rising Sun.” In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 4th ed., edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, 239-243. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 2009.
Swells in the Middle Kingdom. “Social Service Ministry in China.” In In China’s Harvest Fields, edited by Tabor Laughlin, 47-64. Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2020.
- Bays, A New History of Christianity in China, 10.
- Davey, God’s Reddende Kracht: De Geschiedenis van het Christendom in China, 28; Sunquist “Asian Christianity: Facing the Rising Sun”, 241.
- Dikötter, Laamann, and Zhou, Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China, 45.
- Doyle, “China”, 269; Falkenstine The Chinese Puzzle: Putting the Pieces Together for a Deeper Understanding of China and her Church, 27; Kaiser, The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876, 76.
- Kaiser, The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876, 236-237.
- Swells in the Middle Kingdom, “Social Service Ministry in China”, 52; Love “Identity with Integrity: Apostolic Ministry in the 21st Century”, 477-481; Laughlin “Reaching Educated Chinese through Teaching English”, 27.
- Beaver “The History of Mission Strategy”, 230; Sunquist “Asian Christianity: Facing the Rising Sun”, 241.
- Bays, A New History of Christianity in China, 30.
- Kaiser, The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876, 13.
- Due to the current situation in China, the identity of this organization is kept anonymous.
Laura de Ruiter grew up in China (1997–2010). She completed her BA in Biblical exposition at Moody Bible Institute in Spokane, US in 2016, then earned her master’s degree in strategic leadership and change management in 2017. From 2018 to 2019 she worked as a pastor in Frankfurt with a …View Full Bio
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