Last week we looked at many of the misunderstandings about Christianity in China (1, 2,3, 4), so today I thought we would wrap up by looking at mission in China just before the fall of the last emperor.
The era we will be looking at though is not the start of Christianity in China, which first arrived around the 8th century. The following dynasties seemed to fluctuate between banning the practices, embracing them, or just flat out ignoring them.
Matteo Ricci was the most successful of the early missionaries to China. In 1601 he was the first westerner to ever enter the Forbidden City, but it was the scientific knowledge he possessed that most interested the court. His efforts to understand Chinese culture, and adapt Christianity to it, as well as compiling the first Chinese-European dictionary (I’m not sure which European language), contributed considerably to later mission efforts.
By the mid 1800’s missionaries were eager to reach China, because it offered the largest concentration of possible converts. They started by learning Chinese (probably Cantonese) and spreading the gospel around Guangzhou and Macao along with the few other port cities that were open to foreigners (most of China remained off limits to them).
These limits were removed by the unequal treaties that were signed after China’s defeats in the Opium Wars. For the first time missionaries were given full access to the entirety of China, and thousands left for the mission field.
Note: the Opium wars were fought to allow British opium to be sold in China, a terrible thing. The treaties are still very much a sore spot for the Chinese. I do not mean these unequal treaties were good for China, but simply that they opened China to foreigners.
Many of them arrived in China completely unprepared for their new lives, but felt called to the work.
In the late 1800’s this work included a variety of mission activities that might be labelled as “social justice” today. Missionaries fought to end foot-binding and built schools for the education of women (which was considered scandalous at the time). They built dozens of hospitals throughout China, and began medical training programs. Many of these hospitals are still functioning today, serving millions of patients each year. Their goal was not only to convert Chinese peasants, but to help develop a more equitable country.
The aim of much of this work was not to colonize China, as it is sometimes portrayed in Chinese history books, but to create institutions for the benefit of the Chinese people. This is evident in the fact that many of the schools and hospitals were under Chinese leadership by the late 1920’s.
Many institutions came under foreign leadership again in the 1930’s when the Japanese began their invasion of China. Many of the missionaries who stayed behind sacrificed greatly to protect the people they had come to serve.
During the Rape of Nanking (Nanjing) 22 foreigners stayed behind to establish the Nanking International Safety Zone, which ultimately saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chinese. The majority of these foreigners were missionaries working at the hospital or nearby universities.
By the time foreigners were forced out of China in the early 1950’s the missionaries, working alongside Chinese Christians, had already established a strong base of believers. So when religion was effectively banned during the cultural revolution, the faithful continued believing in secret, despite the persecution of their leaders.
In the 1970’s when churches were once again allowed to open their doors, Christians came flooding back.
It is estimated that there are more than 50 million Christians today in China (including members of unregistered churches), and that number is steadily growing due not only to the actions of foreign missionaries, but also because of strong Chinese Christians.
One of my Chinese friends likes to point out that in the US churches will claim 500 members and have 200 people in church on Sunday morning, while in China a church will claim 500 members and have 2,000 in church.