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It's Also about the History


Ian Johnson, in his article in The New York Times notes "Christianity, however, is seen by some in the government as a colonial vestige at odds with the party's control of political and social life."

The colonial period in China, roughly from the beginning of the first opium war in 1839 to the founding of modern China in 1949, does not conjure up favorable images of expansion, ascendancy or prosperity. To China the time is known as the "Century of Humiliations"a dark stain on an otherwise glorious 5,000 year history during which China was carved up and exploited by foreign powers.

This period of humiliation also saw a sharp increase in foreign missionary activity in China as well as a significant increase in the number of Chinese believers. To the Chinese government (and many Chinese) foreign intrusion and the Christian faith came to be seen as basically inseparabletwo sides of the same coin, as it were.

In an article titled "Is Christianity a 'Chinese' Religion", G. Wright Doyle says " the Communist "party line" since the early decades of the 20th century has been that Christianity is a noxious foreign imposition carried on European gunboats and opium ships and forced upon an unwilling populace."

So, when Ian Johnson mentions that Xia Baolong, the provincial party secretary who visited Wenzhou, " was reportedly disturbed [emphasis added] that a religious building [Sanjiang church], especially one seen as representing a foreign belief, dominated the skyline" or that China's Communist Party is " increasingly suspicious of Christianity and the Western values it represents" what can we infer from such sentiments?

Given the high context nature of Chinese communication (i.e. meaning is often implied), it is possible Mr. Xia's "disturbance" and the Party's growing suspicion stem from several concerns. Yet, it is likely that most, if not all of these concerns, are being interpreted through a historical lens that is highly distrustful of the "foreign religion" known as Christianity and its possible alternative agenda.

For anyone working in China (or with Chinese outside of China) as well as those seeking a deeper understanding of the Church in China, it is helpful to recognize the influence that the historical interplay between China and Christianity has on what is happening today in China.

Photo Credit: Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

Mark Totman

Mark Totman is an expat with over a decade of experience living in China. He enjoys writing on a wide range of China-related subjects including language, culture and history, particularly as these subjects facilitate greater understanding of the Chinese context and encourage beneficial lives of cross-cultural service. View Full Bio