Saying that Christianity has a long and complex history in China may be one of the understatements of the year. From the Nestorian missionaries of the seventh century to the contextualization work of Matteo Ricci in the late 1500s and early 1600s to the arrival of Protestant missionaries in the early 1800s to the burgeoning indigenous mission movement in China right now, there are many layers of history, politics, and theology to dig into in order to get a true understanding of how God is working. For session two of our “ChinaSource Summer School” series, we’re going to attempt an overview of this rich history.
The first recorded contact that the Chinese people had with Christianity was with a group of missionaries from the Church of the East (sometimes called the Assyrian or Nestorian Church). There is a stele in Xi’an which relates the history of the Church of the East and the Tang Dynasty. In a 2019 blog post, Todd Godwin wrote about the stele and its political and spiritual significance, while highlighting its historical context. He has several recommendations for further reading in the footnotes.
Understanding China is impossible if you don’t understand Confucianism, which deeply underpins Chinese attitudes toward relationships, education, and work ethic. One question that has cropped up many times through the centuries is whether Confucianism is a religion or merely an ethical system. Behind that question is whether Christians can continue to observe rituals like ancestor worship.
The question was first debated between the Jesuits and the Dominicans in the 17th and 18th centuries in what came to be called the Rites Controversy. These debates have been renewed once again, and Joann Pittman covers the positions of several thinkers. There’s a lot to consider here about issues around enculturation and contextualization.
This one goes way back. It’s a supporting article from the winter 2001 ChinaSource Quarterly, called “Listening to the Chinese Church.” In his piece, Larry Roberts discusses Matteo Ricci’s method of contextualizing Christianity and appealing to the upper echelons of society to spread the gospel. Roberts then goes on to draw parallels between Ricci’s methods and the Protestant missionaries of the 19th century. Finally, he looks at lessons modern cross-cultural workers can take from their forbears in taking the gospel to the Middle Kingdom. Be sure to check out the rest of the issue of CSQ. Though it’s several years old, there are still a lot of interesting questions posed and varied experiences shared.
This article comes out of our column Chinese Church Voices. It was originally published in the online journal ChurchChina. We translated it and published it in 2013. Author Gao Zhen looks at the cyclical nature of Christian history—periods of persecution are followed by periods of acceptance. There are often internal debates among Christians about the role of the church in society and the correct attitude of Christians toward unfriendly governments and attempts to bring the church to heel. Gao Zhen analyzes the legacy of the Nestorians, Matteo Ricci and other Jesuits, Robert Morrison, and Hudson Taylor. He also examines the influence of Wang Mingdao, Watchman Nee, and the Jesus Family movement. His conclusions about some of the earlier Christian workers are quite different from other articles I’ve linked to, so be sure to check this out to see things from a different angle.
Laura de Ruiter has been contributing posts for her series “China and Me.” She weaves together her personal experiences of growing up in China with perspectives on the history of Christianity in China, as well as contemporary issues. In “A Positive Legacy in China,” she examines Matteo Ricci and Timothy Richard and their contributions to Christianity in China and the lasting fruit that came from their work. She also relates a story about the Beijing Olympics and an organization that had earned local authorities’ trust.
This is a review of Richard Cook’s book Darkest Before the Dawn: A Brief History of the Rise of Christianity in China. Reviewer Dr. Abraham Chan summarizes the chapters, highlighting historical figures and events, as well as practical field insights. The book also includes recommendations for further reading in each chapter. This is an excellent introductory book.
Rachel Anderson serves as the Assistant Content Manager at ChinaSource. Though she has never been to China, her ancestors were missionaries in East Asia and passed on a deep love and respect for those cultures. Rachel lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their five delightful children. View Full Bio
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.