In his address to a national conference of religious leaders in 2016, Chinese leader Xi Jinping decreed that religion in China needed to be “Sinicized.” The term literally means to “China-fy,” or to make more Chinese. As others have noted, the motivation for this endeavor—although often couched in terms of contextualization or cultural relevance—is very much a political one.
In response, the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the officially sanctioned organization charged with overseeing China’s Protestant believers, launched a five-year campaign to promote the Sinicization of Christianity. The TSPM’s five-year plan covers a range of activities, touching on theological education, worship styles, art and literature, and, of course, promoting the Party’s “socialist values” in order to nurture patriotic Christians (which has been a key part of the TSPM mandate all along).
The main takeaway for most foreign observers, however, has been that China is going to rewrite the Bible!
A raft of articles in both the secular and religious press following the release of the five-year plan featured alarming headlines such as “In China, they’re closing churches, jailing pastors—and even rewriting scripture.” A commentary by the Washington, DC-based Heritage Foundation entitled “Preserving the Integrity of the Bible in China” warned that “China’s attempts to secularize religion have spilled over into rewriting the Bible.”
But does the TSPM’s five-year plan really say this?
The plan instructs TSPM leaders to “conscientiously cultivate researchers of the Bible to set about laying a solid foundation for reinterpreting the Bible or writing scriptural annotations.”
According to this provision, the TSPM ought to be in a position to reinterpret or annotate scripture in light of China’s own cultural realities. To do so, however, requires “laying a solid foundation,” which itself requires having researchers who are qualified to reinterpret or annotate scripture. The main task outlined here is one of training, not translation. Rather than a definitive mandate to produce a new Chinese Bible, the statement itself could be seen more as a tacit admission that the TSPM currently lacks sufficient resources to undertake such a project. Whether TSPM leaders honestly believe they can get to this point—and, if so, whether they would actually attempt a wholesale reinterpretation of the Bible—is an open question.
A more pertinent question, even if they were to succeed at such a herculean task, is whether anyone would read it. Given that most Chinese Christians are deeply committed to the Chinese Union Version, even to the point of rejecting other contemporary Chinese translations undertaken by reputable Bible scholars, it is highly unlikely that they would embrace a new edition of the Bible provided by the Chinese government.
While the premise underlying the “China rewriting the Bible” story is, at best, shaky, it serves a role in buttressing the familiar Persecuted Church narrative. Placed alongside church closures, arrests of pastors, and expulsions of foreign Christians—all sobering realities under Xi’s authoritarian rule—the specter of “China” rewriting the Bible itself cuts to the heart of evangelical sensibilities.
Such sensationalism may help to confirm deep-seated suspicions about China. In doing so, however, it obscures the real issues facing Christians in China. It also calls into question the credibility of foreign Christians who, in the eyes of China’s leaders, seem all too eager to bend the truth in order to fit their own China narratives.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio
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