Chinese Church VoicesChurch and State

The Sinicization of Religion

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.


When speaking about religious policies, Chinese authorities and official media outlets can throw around a heavily loaded word: “Sinicization.” In very simple terms, “Sinicization” can mean to “make Chinese” or even “China-fy,” but that’s just on the surface. Going deeper, that word carries stronger connotations related to government intervention in religious activities. For as much as the word is used, and for as much meaning as it carries, many are still left wondering what Sinicization actually looks like.

As we’ve written about in the past, the concept of Sinicization (and its alter ego “nationalization”) is familiar. But, with new religious regulations coming into effect in February 2018, it’s worth taking another look in order to help frame the context for the regulations. For Chinese Christians in particular, it’s important to understand what it might mean practically for the church when the government uses the word “Sinicization?”

This article from Christian Times reports on one Chinese scholar’s proposal for how to “Sinofy” Christianity. Professor Zhang Zhigang from Peking University gives three propositions for how to adapt religion to Chinese socialist society. This article has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Chinese Religion Expert, Professor Zhang Zhigang: Three Propositions of the Sinicization of Religion

"Only when truly rooted in the soil of Chinese culture, will Chinese Christianity have a future."

Professor Zhang Zhigang, head of the Institute of Religion and Culture at Peking University, visited Shanghai University on the morning of October 26th and gave a lecture titled "Three Propositions of the Sinicization of Religion."

Zhang pointed out that "Actively guiding religion to adapt to socialist society involves insisting on its Sinofying direction" is not a simple slogan, but contains deep "theoretical basis."

To that end, Professor Zhang Zhigang laid out three propositions concerning religions' Sinicization.

First proposition: Only when we stand firm on Chinese culture, Chinese nationality, and Chinese society can we profoundly understand the importance of "insisting on our religions' Sinofying direction."

Professor Zhang Zhigang noted that religious Sinicization requires actually accomplishing the "three-fold assimilation": assimilating into Chinese culture, Chinese nationality, and Chinese society. He explained that this theory is essentially "cultural identity, national identity, and societal identity," and that this is something international academia is deeply concerned with in the age of globalization. Among these, "cultural identity" is the most basic.

Professor Zhang pointed out that, undoubtedly, the various religions currently existing within the Chinese nation and Chinese society need to be rooted in Chinese culture, so as to build upon Chinese culture's strong traditions and make positive contributions to national society.

Second proposition: We must observe the history of world religions, so as to objectively recognize the inevitability of "insisting on our religions' Sinofying direction."

Professor Zhang Zhigang emphasized that when investigating religious phenomenon or discussing religious issues, we must first recognize and follow the common laws of religious existence and development. From the perspective of the history of world religions, the primary condition or premise for the widespread dissemination of the world's major religions is that they are able to adapt to different cultures, nations, and social circumstances, and are able to express actual localization, nationalization, and contextualization in various ways.

Professor Zhang referenced the theory of a critically-thinking contemporary Catholic theologian and philosopher, Hans Küng, that the liberal ideas of civilized and religious dialogue are important and necessary to "religious localization." Drawing on Hans Küng, Zhang concludes as follows:

A. Only when truly rooted in the soil of Chinese culture will Chinese Christianity have a future;

B. That is to say, we must oppose "evangelistic activities" or "churches" that have tendencies toward colonialism or imperialism; we must oppose the Westernization of China; we must oppose Christianity that is imported missionary-style; we must oppose the direct translation of Western theology to a Chinese mindset. Instead, we should contemplate and practice the Christian faith within China, so that we can merge its values with our national culture and benefit human living.

All this should be accomplished within an independent church, as appropriate in the current conditions of Chinese society and culture. This independent church should be able to "self-support, self-govern, and self-propagate."

For this purpose, Professor Zhang gave a few academic examples, one of which was "Christianity's Hellenization." He explains that during the time of "Christianity's Hellenization," Christianity flourished through the missionary activities of the apostle Paul, since that was when "Hellenized gentiles" were first called Christians, and when the church was established. Paul's letters were written in Greek, and so was almost the entirety of New Testament scriptures.

Because of these localization efforts, Christianity completed the transition from "Jewish Christianity" to "Greek Christianity," and so "a Christianity reconciled with Greek culture" had the chance to develop into "a global religion," "a religion that can reach all nations and all cultures."

Third proposition: "Religious Sinicization" is in line with the fine traditions of Chinese culture.

Professor Zhang Zhigang explained that "truly integrating into Chinese culture,” that is "truly acknowledging Chinese cultural traditions," is the primary factor and fundamental requirement for religion to truly integrate within the Chinese nation and Chinese society. International academia have recently been giving more and more attention to research of Chinese cultural history. They realize the greatness and importance of this culture. This ancient and rich cultural tradition can also be said to be "the only uninterrupted and unbroken" one in the history of world cultures. Therefore, if we consider "cultural identity" to be any civilized society's "basic identity" or "highest identity," then academic investigation into Chinese cultural traditions is all the more important.

Finally, as a scholar himself, Zhang offered a piece of advice to researchers of religious studies: "Be people-centered, agree to differ, be inclusive, be tolerant. The sea is vast, because it can hold many waters." Zhang indicated that we should have an open, ready-to-learn attitude, and accept all things excellent and good.

Professor Zhang Zhigang Profile:

Peking University Distinguished Professor of Humanities, advisor to doctoral students in Philosophy and Religious Studies, Head of Peking University Institute of Religion and Culture, expert on the expert advisory group of United Front Work Department, Distinguished Expert to State Administration for Religious Affairs, Vice President of Society of Chinese Religions. Served as senior researcher at Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, Frankfurt University DAAD guest lecturer, etc. Main research focus: religious studies, religious philosophy, religious culture, Christianity, comparative studies of philosophy and religion between China and the West, contemporary Chinese religion and policy research, etc.

Original Article: 中国宗教学专家张志刚教授谈:宗教中国化的三个命题, Christian Times
Translated, edited and reposted with permission.

Image Credit: Aidan Mak via Flickr.

ChinaSource Team

Written by members of the ChinaSource staff.  View Full Bio


Do you usually have a cup of coffee while reading the latest ChinaSource post? For the price of a cup of coffee, make a donation to support our content so that we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.

Donate