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Christianity in China

Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power
David Aikman
Regnery, 2003

“[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.

22 comments to Christianity in China

  • James

    Perhaps a case of out of the (Marxist) frying pan, into the (Christian) fire, to coin a pun from another Comments thread?

    Probably not surprising that “new” religions and ideas are being experimented with in the slightly more open China. I seem to remember the evangelist Morris Currello going on about visiting the “underground churches” in China back in the 1990’s.

    This sort of thing is to expected I suppose. Let’s hope they don’t spend as much time making this mistake as we did.


  • Shawn

    It sadly speaks volumes when the Chinese have a better appreciation of what has contributed to the greatness and success of Western civilisation than most Westerners do.

  • karen

    A Christian China heavily influenced by fundamentalist christianity as we know it in the US, also implies quite a bit about the future of the mideast crisis. The world’s new superpower, China will have a plurality of the population, like the old sole superpower, the US, who are reflexive supporters of the state of Israel.

  • Susan

    It’s a mirror of what’s happening in Europe. Marxism destroyed and discredited Christianity in Europe, and Islam is moving into the vacuum.

    Marxism destroyed and discredited Buddhism in China, and Christianity is moving into the vacuum.

    Interesting times we live in, no?

  • Guy Herbert

    It is not entirely surprising that the house church movement that Aitken discovers is about to transform China corresponds closely with the sort of conservative evangelical religion he lauds in other contexts. Is this any more than wishful thinking?

    A lot of evangelical protestant Churches have grown very fast in other parts of the world, but often it has been merely at the expense of other, softer, denominations. Fifteen years ago house churches were going to transform Britain, too. It hasn’t happened. They grew fast, gobbled up dissatisfied and unaffiliated Christians, then stopped. That they are making the pace in China against officially recognised churches might be expected.

    The broad numbers claimed would put the number of Christians in China at most at around 100M, roughly 8% of the population. Even assuming these numbers are sound and represent uniform penetration, trebling the proportion of the population in a generation looks like a tall order, given the competition presented by liberal humanism, Buddhism, Islam in the Western provinces, and traditionalist cults such as Falung Gong (which has grown fast despite official persecution). While of course it is “possible that Christians will constitute 20 to 30 percent of China’s population within three decades” (my emphasis), it doesn’t seem all that probable.

  • Interesting review. But my comment is on the pronunciation of transliterated Chinese words and names. One of the best descriptions online can be found here. It’s not simple, but it will tell you why Q (as in Qing) is not pronounced quite the same as “ch” in English, and that “hs” doesn’t really tell you how to pronounce X (as in Xu). Lot’s of other tricky ones besides these (such as the Chinese R sound – as in Rui, and the C sound – as in Cai), but I agree, for those who don’t speak Chinese, X and Q present problems. Now you know how non-Chinese speakers felt when they had to ring my friend Cui Qi when he moved to Australia. Was he Mr Cui or Mr Qi, and how the hell did you say it anyway…?

  • Mark Ellott

    Like James, I hope they don’t spend too long on it – the last thing the world needs is more Christian preaching.

  • Ron

    On the contrary, I think the ongoing personal repentance of bad behaviour and diminishing of self-importance that becoming a Christian entails has a positive effect on a country when it is practiced honestly by a large proportion of a country’s population.

    This is not to say that other religions don’t have positive effects on people’s behavior, and that Christianity has always been immune to malign influences such as the medieval Vatican and modern-day money-grabbing televangelists.

    However, a country with a high proportion of people with a constant watch on the quality of their own behavior is likely to be less criminal and scrounging – and therefore less necessary to need a large criminal and welfare system that we hate paying our taxes for.

  • Amos

    Christianity has a tendency to produce productive and sane societies, or at least lay the groundwork for them to emerge.

    Islam uniformly produces poverty, ignorance, hatred, war and dictatorship, and Marxism is a giant murder and robbery racket posing as an ideology.

    I’m glad China is turning more Christian, they could really use it. And I think you’re underestimating the power of the ‘good news’, it crossed the entire world, often in the face of opression and persecution.

    The Romans once killed Christians for sport in their arenas, now the cross they made Jesus carry overlooks their capitol. Think they saw that coming? As comfortable, secular westerners you’ve forgotten the power of this faith, it spreads and it conquers. A murdering little has-been pissant ideology like Marx’s is never going to stand up to it.

    And in case you’re wondering, I’m an atheist myself. But I’d rather live next door to Ned Flanders anyday than a muslim or a goddamn commie.

  • Mark Ellott

    But I’d rather live next door to Ned Flanders any day than a muslim or a goddamn commie.

    I would quite happily live next to any of them providing they kept their creed to themselves. But that’s the problem, isn’t it?

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Speaking as somebody who has some experience in this(english language major) and as a native Mandarin speaker, I’m afraid to say that the Q in mandarin is different from the Ch in english. It’s not the same.

    How to explain it? There is less of the fricative that makes up the entire affricate sound ‘Ch’. In fact, I believe Q in chinese is a plosive, and not an affricate at all.

    As for X, it’s not as bad. It’s so close to the ‘s’ fricative of english that you can consider them the same for all intents and purposes. In fact, many of the chinese words that start with the ‘s’ sound use ‘x’ instead in the pinyin classifcation, while the words in pinyin that start with ‘s’ are a meagre handful(not including words that start with ‘sh’).

    The Wobbly Guy

  • Brock

    The english translations of Chinese are also particularly annoying because it was done twice. It’s now been several years since I last read up on it, but basically a couple missionaries (Wade and Giles?) created one system, and then a native Chinese who learned english created another.

    The Wade-Giles system chose the letters somewhat randomly, so that what sounds like a “b” they assigned to “p” Why they did something so idiotic I have no idea.

    So the Chinese capital spelled in Wade-Jiles is “Peking,” from whence we get Peking Duck.

    The Chinese capital spelled in pin-yin (the other sytem) is “Beijing” and appears in stadard English to be much closer to the actual pronuciation.

    The pin-yin system also has a system of slashes that go above the vowel (up, down, flat, and down-up) that represent the four tones Mandarin uses. Without the tones you could not tell the difference between ma, ma, ma and ma; which mean “mother”, “horse,” and I forget the other two, respectively. Similarly if you tell a Chinese street merchant “Wo bu yao” it could mean “I don’t want any, but if you tell him “Wo bu yao” it would mean “I don’t bite.” See the difference?

    Yes, tone deaf Westerners have a very difficult time learning Chinese.; and no, there are no tone-deaf people in China. Apparently tonal distinction is a potential all humans are born with, and may be lost if not used in childhood.

  • limberwulf

    critical people, and preachy people are everywhere, and Ive had plenty of atheists preaching in my face, as well as capitalists, libertarians, democrats, republicans, marxists, bhuddists, white power racists, black power racists, keynesians, christians, satanists, and just people that want to tell my why they are right and no one else is. Its not a problem of any particular religion, or even of religion in general, its a human problem. In fact, it may not even be a problem, since it doesnt really bother me when its someone I agree with, i.e. an eloquent libertarian. Where is the line between teaching and preaching? Perhaps that is what needs to be addressed.

  • Brock, you’re right; there’s lots of ma sounds (in four tones and a neutral): wipe, mum, hemp, horse, yard, curse, and so on.

    Pinyin literally means to “combine sounds [into syllables]” and refers to the alphabetic system of writing Chinese characters.

    There are actually quite a number of systems for the Romanisation of Chinese characters. The most obvious ones are pinyin and Wade-Giles, but others include Yale, GuoinII, Bopomofo, and Gwoyeu Romatzyh.

    So, the Great Helmsman’s name would be
    Romanised thus:

    Pinyin: Mao Zedong (I can’t insert tone marks, but it shoud be Mao2 Ze2dong1)

    Wade-Giles: Mao Tse-tung

    Yale: Mau Dze-dung

    GuoinII: Mau Tze-dung

    Bopomofo: This system uses phonetic symbols that will come up as gibberish on most computers

    Gwoyeu Romatzyh: Maur Zer Dong

    You should be thankful for pinyin 🙂

  • Shawn

    Limberwulf, you need to learn to speak the language of poltically correct liberalism.

    When anyone speaks their mind, voices their opinion, or publicly campaigns for their views (as libertarians like Mark do), its called teaching, free speech and democracy in action.

    When Christians do exactly the same thing its called preaching, forcing their views on others, and religious arrogance.

    Mark has this double standard down pat.

  • Ron

    “The US is powerful and religious; the EU is weak and secular.”

    See Mark Steyn’s One nation under God article in the Spectator…

  • Mark Ellott

    Mark has this double standard down pat.

    Wrong. I’m more than happy for you to worship whatever mythical deity you want and to hold whatever views you wish. Indeed, I would actively support your right to do so.

    What I object to – and will do so vigorously – is your suggestion that this superstition is responsible for the western civilisation (it isn’t) and that we “must” (your words) return to the roots of this superstition in order to restore its greatness. that’s preaching (it’s also bunkum).

  • Mark Ellott

    Limberwulf, I think the answer lies in intent. I’m more than happy to chew the fat over religious matters – I dislike them all equally – and will cheerfully use argument to put across my point. Providing it is with people equally willing to discuss the matter in open debate. Preaching is where people try to convert by whatever means. Christian missionaries or Muslim Jihad are equally obnoxious – so too, are those folk who knock on my door attempting to show me the way to Jesus. Try engaging them in reasonable debate 😉

  • Robert MATTHEWS

    Yes, tone deaf Westerners have a very difficult time learning Chinese.; and no, there are no tone-deaf people in China

    Should be No and Yes. Chinese tones have very little to do with musical tones. I have met quite a few Chinese people who are tone deaf — they are quite unable to carry a tune, and yet they speak perfectly intelligible Chinese. The reason many Western people have trouble learning Chinese is because they (and their linguistically unsophisticated Chinese teachers, unfortunately) don’t know what to listen for. Gwoyeu Romatzyh makes tones perfectly clear without strewing numbers and slashes all over the place.

    Pinyin: Mao Zedong (I can’t insert tone marks, but it shoud be Mao2 Ze2dong1) …
    Gwoyeu Romatzyh: Maur Zer Dong
    You should be thankful for pinyin 🙂

    No, you should be sorry that your ability to spell tones clearly has been crippled because you are not using an intelligently-designed romanization. Pinyin is suitable for Chinese people who already know tones. It causes terrible problems for Westerners, who invariably blame themselves for being “tone deaf” instead of blaming the clumsy system they are stuck with because of stupid political games. Some minority languages of China use tonal spelling systems. They’re “safe” because they were not designed by stinking “bourgeois” linguists.

    Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR) is a tonal romanization system designed by Chao Yuanjen and promoted by the “evil” Nationalist government — it was rejected in favor a “proletarian” toneless system called “Sin Wenz” used to teach illiterate Chinese peasants working in the USSR to read. Sin Wenz was later modified — discardable tones were added and some spellings were changed (“sin” became “”xin,” for example. The new system is what we now call Hanyu Pinyin. Long live the Proletarian Revolution!

    The Gwoyeu Romatzyh spelling quoted above

    Gwoyeu Romatzyh: Maur Zer Dong

    is wrong. The correct GR form is compact and elegant:

    Mau Tzer Dong (only ONE letter more than Pinyin).

    Note that the tone need only be explicitly marked on the 2nd syllable.

    1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tone examples:
    mhau, mau, mao, maw = CAT, HAIR, “NOT HAVE” {Cantonese}, HAT

    2nd, 4th tone:
    tzer, tzeh = CHOOSE, OBLIQUE (tone)
    [the r and h have mnemonic value. The second stroke of the “r” is a reminder that the 2nd tone is rising. The second stroke of the “h” is a reminder that 4th tone is falling.]

    1st, 3rd, 4th tone:
    dong, doong, donq = EAST, UNDERSTAND, MOVE
    [The double “oo” is a reminder that the third tone is the longest of all]

    I have written material in English and Chinese explaining why GR is such a wonderful romanization. I plan to put up a website explaining how GR works in the future. Anyone who is interested can write to me for details.

  • Sage

    This scares the crap out of me. I live in a very, VERY conservative Christian American mid-west town. I am somewhat of a Buddhist after leaving that Christian crap behind me forever and I’ve become somewhat of an outcast – nobody here knows me anyway, but since so many of the social networks are based around the local Assembly of God, I really can’t meet anyone.

    The people in my town (and my country) are thrilled over this development in China. Convert the Buddhist heathens! Love Jesus! Hate homosexuals! Read Bibles! Burn Harry Potter! It saddens me that a religion/philosophy/way of life that stresses peace, nonviolence, and respect for animal life (and all life) such as Buddhism is endangered by this fundamentalist BS. How can anyone stop this? It seems hopeless.

  • Eric Vinyl

    Gwoyeu Romatzyh is horrible. For American English speakers, Yale romanization is where it’s at.

    (And for the record, the evil Nationalist government now uses tongyong pinyin, not GR.)

  • Bubba

    To Sage: A Christian myself, I sympathize with you. Certain of the worst elements of the fundie-crat thing have hung a ‘kick me’ sign on my back. It has embarassed Christians who are compassionate, sane, moderate, rational people.

    There are humane, rational Christians who have studied the Bible much better than the ones you have had to know. There are universalist Christians, and live and let live catholics who have no opinions about Buddhism at all.

    I do not proselytize. I do encourage reading and study of the Jesus story. I encourage people to search for works on Christian ethics.

    Give a Bible to a criminal, and all you have is a criminal with a Bible. Give a Bible to a fanatic, and all you will have is a fanatic with a Bible.

    Give Christian religion to a statist, and they will endorse statism disguised as godliness.

    To Amos, I actually loved your comments. There are atheists who have fought oppressors, and done acts of compassion and charity. There have been atheists in foxholes. I tend to defend the live and let-live atheists, such as Gennedy Stolyarov at rationalargumentator.

    To Mark, you have a valid point. Western thought, learning, and customs are mostly Greek and Roman.
    However, historian Christopher Dawson made a case that our liberal, humane values were formed by Christian belief.

    I do think that there is a difference between religion and superstition. Religious people can and do exercise critical thought and reasonable self-restraint, whereas followers of superstitions often have no concept of any one else’s boundaries.

    Ron made good points also. I do however think that because Christian belief survived the destructive, fanatic elements of torquemadas, televangelists, puritancial bigots, and pro-slavery pseudo preachers, there are Christians who are more respectful of human difference