Christian beliefs for modern Chinese minds: how come is this imported religion thriving?
Note of the author: the present article is not aimed at expressing any opinion on Christianity, Christian believers, or the validity of the aforementioned faith. Its only purpose is to analyze the recent rise of Christianity on the Chinese soil from both historical, sociological and anthropological perspectives.
If asked about which religious beliefs inhabit Chinese minds, most of us would answer Confucianism, Daoism, or Buddhism. We would obviously be right, yet would overlook one thing; the fastest growing religion in China is Christianity.
The rise of Christianity in China, data aggregated by the author.3
Christianity’s presence in China is not recent. It can be traced back to the 7th century Nestorian missions, although more famous and fruitful was the work of Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri in the 16th century.
However, the history of Christianity in China is not without turmoil. Isolationist periods, numerous instances of rising anti-Christianity movements, or the campaigns against superstitions have indeed made the spread of this dogma quite hectic.
How then can we explain the rise of Christianity since the 1980s?
Imported yet not so foreign anymore: a triple Sinicization
The main drawback of Christianity in the case of China is obvious: it is a foreign religion. This feature hinders its relatability and thus its appeal. But is today’s Chinese Christianity that foreign? Not so much as it has undergone a triple Sinicization:
By missionaries themselves. Since Matteo Ricci’s efforts to find common ground between Chinese culture and his religion, many missionaries have dedicated themselves to adapting their discourse and finding innovative ways to make Christian and thus foreign concepts understandable.5
By the Chinese Christians during the Maoist era and the anti-superstition campaigns. Chinese believers grew a more personal connection with their faith as they had to practice it in secret. In turn, because they were cut from missionaries’ influence, they integrated more traditional and folk elements into their belief.6 As such, a second wave of Sinicization, this time grassroots, took place.
By the Chinese government when it took control over both Catholic and Protestant activities after relaxing the repressive policies against religions in the late 1970s. Beijing indeed clearly signaled its intention to foster a Christianity compatible with the country’s path of socialism, adapted and integrated with the Chinese culture.7 Consequently, government-handled Three-Self Patriotic Movement administrates Protestantism (reintroduced in 1979, it relies on self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation),8 while the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association administrates Catholicism (e.g., the appointment of bishops).
In short, the first wave of Sinicization came from the west and laid the basis for the Christian gospel to be understood; the second came from the Chinese people who took over the administration of their faith; the third from the Chinese government, which reduced Chinese Christianity’s ties with the west.
A Christian “salvation” for those lost in the Chinese market
Christianity’s Sinicization cannot, on its own, account for it seducing so many believers. Indeed, why Christianity instead of a religion more rooted in Chinese culture?
The answer is two-fold: spiritual vacuum and fellowship.
In a research conducted in December 2020 on the WeChat official account of 上海大华教会 (Shanghai Dahua Church), I came across now-deleted weekly testimonies which are a valuable account of why members of the community find appeal in Christianity.
In all of the testimonies, people state the sense of purpose they have gained by joining the Church, how their belief has filled a spiritual vacuum they sometimes didn’t even know existed.
“Before, I always felt that I had no special needs. Everything was harmonious. Why did I come to the Church and start believing in the Lord? Isn’t it just another layer of constraint? […] Even if we had a good education, a stable job, and a harmonious family, in an environment like ours, none of this can save our soul or fill the emptiness inside.”
In parallel, 45% of them stated clear life improvement since they have joined the Church (a husband has quit drinking, a wife has reconnected with her spouse, a disease has been cured, a monetary issue has been solved).
“I, like a sheep, had strayed from my path. Fortunately, I came to Dahua Church to listen, discuss, and think, thus becoming enlightened,” said an interviewee.9
Such statements can partly be explained by the socio-historical context they were formulated in. At the beginning of the reform era, a general interest in spirituality arose among the Chinese population. The latter was caught between the collapsed traditional beliefs (which felt backward after the attacks they had undergone),10 the partly discredited Communist ideology, and the rise of capitalism. The introduction of the market economy, which marked the end of the danwei, and the dawn of heated competition, left people in dire demand for security, meaning, and order. The Christian doctrine, by recognizing individual struggles and ambitions, promising earthly benefits, and giving each and everyone’s life meaning according to a Godly plan was perfectly fit to fill this spiritual vacuum.11
The article “Lost in the market, saved at McDonald’s: Conversion to Christianity in urban China” shows that, contrary to popular belief, the educated urban youth is also sensitive to the Christian discourse for the reasons cited above. Moreover, these young urbans associate Christianity with a sense of globalized modernity perfectly fitted to the job market and society they evolve in.12
My research also showed that 38% of the testimonies emphasize the sense of community they have gained. Indeed, apart from the previously-mentioned socio-historical elements, the rise of individualism and the ever-growing work migrations have often left people cut from their normal social interactions and families.13 No wonder that the opportunity provided by the Church to socialize with a tight, like-minded community seduced many, in addition to providing the opportunity for families to connect over a common practice and ethos.
The rise of Christianity in China, aside from its Sinicization, is the product of the reform era and of the liberalization of the economy. To those whose financial and job stability eroded, it promises that good deeds will save them in this life and the other. To those who feel alone, it provides community. To those who lack meaning, it provides a godly design.
If the growing Chinese Christian community tells us one thing about contemporary China, it has to do with the consequences of the reforms initiated in the 1980s. More precisely, how individuals coped with change, losing their work life, social and ideological landmarks.
References / To go further
Tao Yu, "A Solo, a Duet or an Ensemble? Analysing the Recent Development of Religious Communities in Contemporary Rural China," ECRAN: Europe–China Research and Advice Network (2012).
Eleanor Albert, “Christianity in China,” Council on Foreign Relations (2015): 7.
Albert, “Christianity in China,” 7. Sun Yanfei, "The rise of Protestantism in post-Mao China: State and religion in historical Perspective," American Journal of Sociology 122, no.6 (2017): 1664-1725.
Jean-Baptiste Aubry, Les chinois chez eux, Imprimerie de Saint-Augustin, Descleé, de Brouwer, (1892).
Chen Zhang, “Serving more than two masters: contextualization of Christianity in contemporary China and the multiple identities of translators” (master’s thesis, HKU, 2019). Julia Ching, Hans Küng, Joseph Feisthauer et al., Christianisme et religion chinoise (Seuil, 1991). Li Hui, "Jesuit Missionaries and the Transmission of Christianity and European Knowledge in China," Emory Endeavors in World History, no. 4 (2012): 48-63.
Albert, “Christianity in China”, 7.
Jones Kitagawa, “Documents of the Three-Self Movement: Source Materials for the Study of the Protestant Church in Communist China,” Church History, no. 33 (1963): 503.
Shanghai Dahua Church 上海大华教会, “生命见证,神的拣选让平凡变不得平凡 上海大华教会,” WeChat, October 10, 2020, https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/sinTxcGDFk78bAtWRqR2oA.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee, “Christiantiy in contemporary China: an update,” J. Church & St., no. 49 (2007): 277.
Fenggang Yang, “Lost in the market, saved at McDonalds: Conversion to Christianity in urban China,” Journal for the scientific study of religion 44, no. 4 (2005): 423-41.
Yang, “Lost in the market,” 423-41.
Yang, “Lost in the market,” 423-41.