The Lasting Effects of Mission in China

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.

6 responses to “The Lasting Effects of Mission in China”

  1. mrchopstik says:

    For the record, Ricci’s dictionary was a Chinese-Portuguese dictionary.

    And, if I may play devil’s advocate for a moment, while you have pointed out many of the good things that resulted from Christian missionaries, there are other less savory results that also came about. The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1865) is certainly one notable event that can be tied back to the introduction of Christianity and its misunderstandings by Hong Xiuchuan (I believe that is the correct pinyin spelling). Also, the open persecutions of many missionaries during the Boxer Rebellion in the early 1900’s should provide some evidence as to how their works were perceived by both the Chinese leadership as well as their followers.

    This is not to argue that missionaries did not do good but that there are two sides to every discussion.

    • Tom says:

      There were definitely some unsavory bits, which I left out partially for reasons relating to the length of the post.

      Hong Xiuquan, lead what was one of the bloodiest rebellions in the history of the world, with tens of millions killed. He believed, through a very rough and faulty interpretation, that he was the literal brother of Jesus. So Christianity was a tiny part in the rebellion. Had there not been a declining gov’t oppressing China’s peasants though it would be hard to imagine that a delusional peasant from rural Guangxi would have been able to amass an army large enough to conquer half of China. Interestingly Mao took this as a prototype for peasant led revolts in China, and conveniently left out the loose Christian tie in, even though it was known as the heavenly kingdom.

      The Boxer’s were an anti-foreign group, which had initially included the Manchu Qing gov’t. However the empress managed to turn their focus to the large foreign enclaves in Beijing. This revolt was partially in response to the unequal treaties and to a rapidly changing society. The Boxer’s were named such because they believed they possessed a special form of Kung fu that actually would protect them from bullets. I think this can be seen throughout world history, when a powerful group is in decline they often blame the newest arrivals (look at current US feelings towards China).

      There are clearly two sides to the discussion, and it’s clear that as a missionary I would have to believe that mission has been a net good for China, but I also don’t see any value in ignoring the mistakes we’ve made in the past.

      Today the attitude in mission, in my denomination at least, is that it is not the missionary who should push radical change in a society for the better, but to support those who do. As guests in a foreign country we shouldn’t try to emulate people like Liu Xiaobo, or Ai Weiwei, but when they are arrested arbitrarily by a gov’t that fears criticism, it is our job to point out that injustice.

  2. Yaxue C. says:

    While researching on a piece of writing recently, I came to a full realization that the infrastructure of China’s modern high education were almost entirely built by Christian churches, majority of which American. These churched-founded universities–all of them–were broken up in 1952, their faculty and students dispersed into other universities.

  3. […] run with the assumption that religion is counter to stability without first seeking to understand the possible benefits of religion. By disrupting the typical role of religion in local communities, they have lost the services that […]

  4. Lorin Yochim says:

    A couple of points caught my eye in this post, Tom. Of course I’m reading it months later as you just linked to it, so bear with me!

    “Many of them arrived in China completely unprepared for their new lives, but felt called to the work.”

    Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? I’m sure you meant it to, as you follow up with “in the late 1800′s this work included a variety of mission activities that might be labelled as “social justice” today” and recognition of how your denominational principles guide your approach to life in China. Given these comments and another, “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,” another interpretation is in order. By the way, as you know, it is not only Chinese history books that portray things this way, and for good reason. Imperialism or colonialism is a set of facts on the ground and is not defined by the opinions of those who found themselves embroiled in and sometimes promoting it. It brings to mind the institution of residential schooling in Canada ( That the missionaries who ran these schools felt that they were doing the right thing is beside the point. They were agents of a colonial state and they committed an atrocious cultural genocide. At times they did so in a very “kind” manner”; at other times, very cruelly. Presuming that the former was the dominant mode, they nonetheless did something very wrong, something that has had terrible consequences.

    The basic problem with this view on the missionary past is that the missionaries understanding of what they were doing is not the final word on either a) the larger motives behind and b) the effects of their practice. Just as those missionaries’ altruistic motives were sullied by their (unintentional, from their perspective) connection to imperial projects, so too is our own present-day altruism compromised by our ultimate role as bearers of “the word” of globalism (a little imprecise, I know). This does not, of course, make our efforts to be good be people and do good things in our daily lives any less important. The message is not that we ought to go home. Nor is it that Chinese agents are powerless or not somehow implicated in these events. Still, we ought to try at least try to “know well” and to become aware of the negative and unintended side of the mission that we are on.

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