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Catholic or Christian?


When I first went to China, I was bombarded with many odd (to me anyway) questions: can you use chopsticks? How much money do you make? Why do American parents kick their children out of the house at age 18? On and on they went.

But I'll never forget the time a student asked me, "What's the difference between Catholic and Christian?"

The question itself made no sense to me; it was like asking, "What is the difference between a Volkswagen and a car?"

Back in the 1980's the confusion was perhaps understandable. Many Chinese at that time had almost no knowledge of religion, let alone western religions. Truth be told, they had no idea what either of those terms (Catholic and Christian) meant.

It wasn't until I studied Chinese that I came to realize that the oddness of the question was rooted in linguistics. Catholicism is Christianity, but in the Chinese language it has a completely different name.

In English, we distinguish between different strands of Christianity: Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. But in the Chinese language only one of those strands gets translated as "religion of Christ," Christianity.

The Chinese word for Catholicism is Tian Zhu Jiao (), "Religion of the Lord of Heaven." Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit missionary to China wrote a book called ""The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, trying to link the God of the Bible with the traditional religious notion of a supreme being, which was referred to as Heaven. It thus became known as the Religion of the Lord of Heaven, Tianzhu Jiao.

To distinguish Protestant Christianity from Catholicism, it was translated as Jidu Jiao (基督教), "Religion of Christ." This then gets translated back into English as "Christianity." Sometimes it includes the word xin (新)," which means "new" to try to distinguish it, but most of the time this is left off.

Hence the odd question about the difference between Catholicism and Christianity.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference on the Catholic Church in China. This topic came up during one of the seminars. One of the participants, a researcher and scholar on China suggested that one way of clearing up some of the confusion would be to refer to Catholicism as Tianzhu Jiao (天主教), Protestantism as Jidu Xinjiao (基督教), and Christianity (which encompasses both) as Jidu Zongjiao (基督宗教). Zongjiao is a more scholarly term for "religion," whereas jiao can be understood simply as "teaching." Eastern Orthodoxy, by the way, is Dongzheng Jiao (东正教), Religion of the Eastern Truth.

Photo by sj liew, via Flickr

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio