Christianity has a longer history in China than many in the West realise. The Church of the West was established by the 7th century, thanks to Syriac-speaking missionaries who brought the Gospel to the people of China. Christianity was officially tolerated by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty along with many of his successors, allowing the faith to thrive in China for more than 200 years.
The Church underwent persecution in the late 7th century when Wu Hou, the former emperor's widow, used her political power to promote Buddhism as the state religion. Persecution appeared again after a decree issued in 845 by Emperor Wuzong, a committed Taoist, stating that religions from outside the kingdom were to be banished. By 980 it was believed by missionaries who had travelled from the Middle East that Chinese Christianity was extinct.
Surprisingly, the Church of the East flourished under the Mongol Empire in the 13th and 14th centuries – some of the Mongol leaders themselves became Christians – but Christianity was again outlawed after the 1368 revolution that brought the Ming Dynasty to power. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries Western missionaries such as Matteo Ricci helped to restore Chinese Christianity. These were followed in the 19th century by men such as Hudson Taylor and Robert Morrison, who translated the Bible into Mandarin. Hudson Taylor was among those who demonstrated respect for Chinese culture, but many Western missionaries were sadly flagrant in their disregard and contempt for Chinese ceremonies and values. The Taiping Rebellion between 1850 and 1864 also created the lasting impression that Christianity was opposed to Chinese interests.
In the opium wars between 1839 and 1842 – and again between 1856 and 1860 – European powers fought to force China to accept opium imports and to open ports to European shipping. The treaties of Tianjin (1858) to which China was forced to agree with France and Great Britain, gave the imperial powers extensive rights over trade within China and denied China's right to control its own commerce and economic activity. The construction of railways across China caused offence and resentment towards the West, for lines were often built across land that was considered sacred, including burial grounds. The treaties also guaranteed freedom of movement for missionaries, thereby linking Western evangelism with Western imperialism. Some missionaries behaved like imperial overlords, some demanded payment from the local population and in Shandong one even declared himself governor!
China has its own religions, which are quite different in outlook from both Christianity and Western philosophies. The “three pillars” of ancient China were Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Although there are key differences, when combined they still exert an enormous influence. Confucianism is derived from the teachings of Confucius (551-479 BC) who set out rules and guidelines for Chinese social behaviour. Confucius taught that all people had unavoidable obligations to other people and to society as a whole. The overarching of his principles was to sustain social stability, harmony and wholeness, and although it's more about the proper ordering of society than any afterlife or spiritual realm the Confucian principle of obligation to ones own family – including reverence for elders – linked well with the ancestral worship of ancient Chinese folk religion.
Taoism – the other major religion to emerge in China – is associated with the philosopher Laozi, who lived in the 6th century BC. Later Taoist thinkers developed the idea of yin and yang (dark and light) which together make up a cosmic whole. Taoism is much more spiritual than Confucianism and represents a push against the strict customs advocated by Confucius, but it does share a commitment to wholeness and unity that has shaped Chinese culture.
Buddhism, with its origins in Nepal and India, became popular in China during the 1st century AD. Buddhist teachings further emphasised harmony, and Taoists and Buddhists in China continued to engage in ancestor worship. Chinese people in general would not regard themselves as belonging to any one of these three religions, but would draw from all three along with other religious and philosophical ideas. This leads to opposition to Christianity in several ways. Firstly, the Gospel – which separates humankind into saved and unsaved – is seen as divisive; opposed to the unity and harmony so valued in Chinese culture. The exclusive claims of Christianity – one God, one Saviour, one true faith – are quite different from the Chinese view of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism as distinct from one another but mutually compatible. Secondly, converts to Christianity no longer worship their ancestors, regarding this as idolatry no matter how much they love and revere their elders. This can lead to hostility from family members and from the wider culture, especially as the refusal to continue with rituals around the traditional ancestral tablets or household altars is considered to be disrespectful.
Thirdly, Chinese society is more focused on family ties, social obligations and duties to others than the individualistic West. Western society is often radically individualistic, atomistic and self-centred. Christianity – generally associated with Western values by those in other parts of the world – may therefore be treated with suspicion. And fourthly, the presence of Christianity may be a slap in the face to national pride. One convert to Christianity recalls being asked by family members why she would choose a foreign religion when there are China's own religions from which to choose.
China has been an officially communist state – governed by the Chinese Communist Party – since 1949. The rise of communism in China creates an additional context for persecution of the church. Religion is viewed by Marxists as a means of subjugation. Marxist theory stipulates that Christianity is a man-made system designed to blind the working class to their need for revolution. Man makes religion: religion does not make man. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the 'illusory' happiness of the people is required for their 'real' happiness. Once established, communism usually results in an authoritarian one-party system that tolerates no competing world views. The Soviet Union engaged in anti-religious propaganda against its people for this reason, and barred the teaching of religion to children. In some ways Maoism – the ideology of Mao Zedong, who ruled China from 1949 until his death in 1976 – was an even greater threat to Christianity than Soviet communism.
The Chinese church grew rapidly throughout the years of persecution in the second half of the 20th century, and the period from the 1990s until the mid 2010’s can be considered a relative 'golden age' for Chinese Christianity in terms of freedom of worship, church planting and tolerance from both the Chinese government and Chinese society. Sadly, from the mid 2010’s onwards the environment began to worsen for Christians and the authorities became less willing to tolerate unofficial churches. Official churches faced pressure to teach what the authorities demanded they teach. Pastors must “love the motherland, support the leadership of the Communist Party, support the socialist system and practice the core values of socialism.” All religions – whether their origin was in China or elsewhere – are targeted. Persecution of the church may not be at the same level as it was under Mao: certainly not as horrifying as in North Korea, but the tide is gradually turning against Christians in China.
Chinese suspicions that Western powers may be behind anti-government activity may well be justified. Xi Jinping and the Chinese authorities know only too well how Christianity was misused as a tool of Western oppression in the 19th century, and how Western powers still use the principle of religious freedom as a means to achieve their own foreign policy aims. Western attitudes towards China may also be overly harsh. One example is the response to China's new regulations on online religious content, which came into force on 1 March 2022. Organisations and individuals in China wishing to provide religious information online must gain permission from their local Department of Religious Affairs office, while foreign organisations and individuals will not be permitted to operate online religious information services within Chinese territory.
It could be argued that the reason for these regulations is understandable. Western nations know only too well the scourge of extremist online material – much of it religious – whether it's in the form of Islamist or far-right content. In situations like this we should follow the wonderful example of our Chinese brothers and sisters who, long before these regulations came into force, were making plans to adapt and/or change their ministries in order to continue their brave stand for the Truth that never changes – the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.