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Religion and Control in Chinese History


The rigid control structures comprising the "box" within which China's church currently operates are often assumed to be merely a function of China's Leninist political system. Were this system to be dismantled, one might argue, the "box" would come apart and China's Christians would enjoy genuine freedom of religion.

Yet is important to note that control over religion has been a feature of Chinese society for nearly the past 1400 years. In the words of Daniel Bays, "the point here is that in terms of the most fundamental level of assumptions of the state toward religion, there has hardly been a Chinese political regime from the Tang dynasty (718-907) to the present that has not required a form of registration or licensing of religious groups or has not assumed the right to monitor and intervene in religious affairs." In fact, for a thousand years, from the Song Dynasty to the end of the Qing in 1912, the Board of Rites functioned much as the Religious Affairs Bureau (now known as the State Administration for Religious Affairs) has under the present regime.1

Thus, according to Bays, the period roughly from 1900 to 1950 may be seen as an anomaly in Chinese history when the central government was simply too weak to exert its customary supervisory function over religion.

Again quoting Bays, "Religious monitoring and regulation by the state in the recent past and present is not only a "Chinese Communist" phenomenon but also "Chinese state" one. Attitudes of suspicion and systematic policies of regulation or suppression (or both) toward grassroots religion have characterized the mind-set of all Chinese political regimes."2

Understanding this historical precedent may help to shed light on the government's insistence on control in this one area religion even as so much of the rest of society is opening up. Taking a historical view, it would seem the foundations of the "box" go deeper than China's current political system. Dismantling it will likely require not simply legal reforms, but also deeper reflection on the role of religion in society.

1 Daniel Bays, "A Tradition of State Dominance," in Jason Kindopp and Carol Lee Hamrin, Eds., God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tensions, 2003, pp. 26-27.

2 Bays, p. 35.

(Excerpted from Brent Fulton, "A Tale of Two Churches," in Bruce P. Baugus, ed., China's Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014. Available on Amazon.)

Image credit: Joann Pittman

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of... View Full Bio