“[W]e have realised the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. … We don’t have any doubt about this (p. 5)”. Fifty three years after China went Communist, such is the view of a thirty-something Chinese social scientist in a top establishment in China’s capital. The former Chinese President, Jiang Zeming, asked what would be his last decree if it could be enforced, grinned and (according to an anecdote which cannot be dismissed out of hand), said, “I would make Christianity the official religion of China” (p. 17).
The first remark may not come as a shock to those who know their Weber and Tawney and combine it with a thorough disillusionment with Marxism, the presumed state of our Beijing academic. The second suggests that the ex-President was aware of the political U-turn, early in the fourth century, of Constantine the Great, son of the colleague of the Emperor Diocletian, last of the great Roman persecutors of Christians.
Aikman does not ask us to regard these reports as more than straws in the wind, but his own investigations lead him to state: “China is in the process of becoming Christianised … [i.e.] it is possible that Christians will constitute 20 to 30 percent of China’s population within three decades” (p. 285). His conclusion results from an intensive period of travelling and interviewing within China during 2002 and 2003 and an interest and residence in China off and on during the last three decades, including a stint as TIME’s chief in Beijing. He knows the language (though he also employs a translator) and, while plainly sympathetic to his subject, the state of Christianity in China today, is reticent regarding his own religious beliefs. China was mainly evangelised during what has been called “China’s Open Century”, 1850-1950, by missionaries from Europe and North America, both Protestant and Catholic, a religious division that has remained ever since, with little interaction, positive or negative. The Protestants were less divided amongst themselves than one might suppose, since their evangelical tenets, tending to be Bible-based and fundamentalist, were held more in common by workers in the field than by their co-religionists at home. Their converts having taken on the same guise, have become united in a way the denominations that engendered them can never be. Their loose, non-hierarchical organization facilitates the spreading of their beliefs since every member, according to his or her commitment and talent, may do so. Catholics were in a more difficult position, with a need for ordained priests to minister to the lay believers. It was admitted by them that Protestant numbers had grown faster than theirs, almost certainly for this reason. It would be fair to say that Jesus in Beijing concentrates on the Protestants; the Catholics are confined to a Chapter (Ch. 11) to themselves.
Both Christian branches have been split by the attempts of the Communist Party at all levels to control them. The result for both is “official”, communist licensed, “patriotic” churches and clandestine, illegal “house” churches. The dissident Protestants see the officially recognized pastors, and their flocks, as compromised by association with a party and government dedicated to atheism, often suspect them (in some cases rightly) of actually being party members and therefore not true Christians, and disagree with their tendency to a “liberal” theology. The Catholic position is more clear-cut: the official hierarchy had to repudiate its allegiance to the Pope, though it is generally understood that by now, openly or secretly, all Catholics acknowledge the Pope as the head of the Church. However, relations between the “official” and the “house” churches have not been unrelentingly hostile, and there were times when both were persecuted, particularly during the Cultural Revolution (1966-70), when all suffered alike, and all “official” church buildings were closed and given over to other uses. As for numbers, these are very nearly impossible to estimate. With 15 million Protestant and 6 million Catholic baptized members of officially recognized churches, it is claimed that “house church” membership is three to four times that. In 1949, when there was no need of concealment, Catholics were numbered at over three million and Protestants at rather less than a million. Most of the growth seems to have taken place since 1979, when persecution greatly relaxed with the rise to power of the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping.
Back in 1950, after all missionaries had been expelled, taking with them their spiritual and financial support, “to many Chinese Christians, and certainly to many foreign observers, it seemed that Christianity was going to vanish … The assumption turned out to be wrong, but it took quite a few years before that became clear” (p. 45). They may all have underestimated the extent to which Christianity had cut its umbilical cord to “the West” and become truly indigenous. Aikman gives moving biographical accounts of several of the “patriarchs”, born in the early years of the century, who were still living near its end. These men suffered greatly – some with harsh imprisonment for more than 20 years – for evangelising independently of the officially recognized, registered Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), which they refused to
join from a mixture of theological and political reasons. Of these the the most interesting, impressive and charismatic was Wang Mingdao (1900-91), the first of the patriarchs described in Chapter 3, whom Aitken met and interviewed in 1985.
“Understand two men, and you will understand Chinese Christianity … Wang Mingdao and Ding Guangxun,” an old Chinese Christain told another, unnamed reporter not long ago. (p.143). Throughout Chapters 7 and 8 Aikman gives considerable attention to Ding Guangxun (born 1915) the head of TSPM, who flourished at the same time as the patriarchs were suffering and seems to have been only mildly inconvenienced during the Cultural Revolution. Not unnaturally, the persecuted Christians question his Christianity and even claim he was a Communist before the Revolution, though Ding has denied it to Aikman himself (pp. 143-6). In
fact, there is little need to see Ding as in any way distinguishable from many a Western cleric – and he is, after all, a consecrated Anglican bishop. “I know that socialism is the best social system to have appeared in human history” (p. 175), he has said, an unexceptional sentiment amongst bishops here. Just as unexceptional would be, perhaps, a bishop preaching a sermon in a seminary at Easter without mentioning the Resurrection (p. 173). But in Nanjing, the students objected. On the other hand, the loose, relatively non-hierarchical relationships between believers seems to mean that there is little difficulty in yielding prominent positions to women, who tend to outnumber the men by more than two to one, though, as with most societies, Christianity as a movement remains male-dominated.
Who are these Chinese Christians? It would be absurd to say they are an organized body with uniform beliefs and opinions on everything, yet Aikman’s book leads to certain generalisations. They regard themselves as truly patriotic, tending to support their government politically, with the exception, perhaps, of being very pro-American and pro-Israel. Both preferences stem from their religious, rather than their political beliefs. Their theology particularly with the “house church” Protestant Christians, is Biblical and fundamentalist, and the churches with which they are linked in the United States are their equivalents. To some extent the reason for this is that fundamentalists see evangelism as an urgent matter – to save souls from hell – in a way that their “liberal” co-religionists, with their less exclusive attitude to the matter of salvation, do not. Such help, spiritual and material, as does come from foreign Christians, will tend to come from such evangelicals, who are mostly Americans. Part of the fundamentalist package, millenarianism – the belief in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to reign for a thousand years, regarded as probably an imminent event – includes a necessary, though uncertain role for the Jews. Other features widespread amongst Chinese Christians are the “speaking in tongues” and claims of miraculous healing and exorcism. Aikman does not mention it but it seems fair to add that such Christians will reject Darwinism. If, as seems likely, they adhere to the Christian morality brought to China by the missionaries, they will also preach chastity before marriage and fidelity within it, and abhor homosexuality and abortion. All these are positions that have long been compromised or abandoned in Western Christendom, but in China would be welcomed by any government as desirable virtues, apart from, presumably, the last.
It is important to emphasise that Christians of this kind do not have a political or social programme and that their activities are directed to the spiritual salvation of themselves and of others. They would not regard it as right to manifest “respect for other religions”, in our current jargon, or believe there are many paths to salvation. Aikman heard the wish frequently expressed that Chinese Christians should evangelize the Muslim world. To this end, numbers of Chinese Christians are learning Arabic. “Muslims prefer Chinese to Americans. They don’t like Americans very much,” explained one of them. There is a considerable Chinese diaspora and within it, Christians seem to have even more impact and gain more converts than they do back home. And some of the diaspora is in Muslim lands.
Secular readers will approach this book with a good deal of caution and finish it more informed on a subject they almost certainly knew very little about. Though scepticism about its thesis – “that Christianity will change the nature of China in many different ways over the next several decades, and in doing so will change the world in which we live (p. 292)” must be justified, it cannot be dismissed out of hand. Every Chinese, in his heart, knows that Marxism has failed, and though that may not mean he is ready to adopt another set of beliefs, many must feel there is an ideological vacuum that cannot be filled by capitalism alone. It is the awareness of this that causes some Chinese intellectuals to call themselves, or perhaps more accurately, be called by others, “Cultural Christians”, about whom there is a very interesting discussion (pp. 249-252). Such persons would perhaps like to have the “unintended consequences” claimed for Christianity by Deepak Lal, in his book of that name, without subscribing to its beliefs. It would take us too far from the subject of this book to debate whether this is possible. And it should be read for simpler, more human reasons.
It is a pity that few, if any, books on China give guidance on the pronunciation of transliterated Chinese words and names. The most obvious (and unexplained) stumblingblocks are the assignment of the redundant Latin letters Q and X to the sounds Ch and Hs. A (British) academic said to me: “Those who know will know and the others will just have to muddle along with it.” He also explained that the Chinese cultural authorities felt that if the transliteration got too straightforward and accurate, the Chinese themselves might ask “Why do we have to learn all these characters?” When the officially-approved Northern “Mandarin” dialect becomes universal an answer will become more urgent.