CHINA AND CHRISTIANITY IN THE 21ST CENTURY
BY DENNIS OLSON
“The twenty-first century will be China’s century.” This often-repeated forecast that China will emerge as a dominant global and economic power in the decades ahead arises as China has increasingly opened its borders and engaged other nations of the world in recent decades. Modern-day China is the most populated country in the world with 1.3 billion people or twenty percent of the world’s population. (In comparison, the United States has 300 million people, or less than five percent of the world’s population.) China is a sprawling land mass populated with peoples of many different cultures, ethnicities, dialects, and religions. The land encompasses a sub-artic north, a tropical south, deserts and mountains in the west, and sprawling cities in the east (Shanghai—17 million people, Beijing—13 million, Guongzhou—12 million).
In October 2009, I had the opportunity to go on my first visit to China. Princeton Seminary’s president, Iain Torrance, who has a deep family history with China, received an invitation to send a member of the Princeton Seminary faculty to attend an academic conference and present a paper at Renmin University in Beijing. As a result, I spent an intense week of lectures, small group discussions, and informal chats with 160 scholars of Chinese literature, philosophy, religion, and the arts from all over the world. The topic of the conference was “Sinology [the study of Chinese culture] and Cross-Cultural Communication.” The conference included a number of scholars of religion from all over the world. I enjoyed a breakfast with Swiss theologian Hans Kung, who spoke to the conference about his Institute for a Global Ethics. The institute seeks to work with major religions across the globe to develop a set of values and ethical principles that are common to all of them. I also engaged with other scholars who specialized in one or more of China’s traditional religions and philosophies, including Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Chinese folk religion and ancestor worship.
RELIGION IN CHINA
China remains officially an atheist state. However, recent surveys suggest that one-third of the Chinese people describe themselves as religious believers of one sort or another. My conversations with scholars at the conference revealed a fascinating religious landscape in China. Religious beliefs in China are often viewed as personal commitments that each individual works out on his or her own, often borrowing from multiple traditions. Many, if not most, religious believers do not label themselves as exclusively Buddhist, Confucian, or Taoist. Rather, the goal is to be in harmony with the cosmos and its natural and divine forces, selecting aspects from among multiple religious or philosophical paths to achieve such harmony. You can live by the moral and political code of Confucianism at the same time as you pray to Taoist gods and spirits seeking harmony with nature. You can adhere to Buddhist beliefs about the afterlife while also going to a traditional Chinese shaman for an ancient folk remedy for healing.
Although religion in China was severely repressed under Mao Zedong’s Communist rule, especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), religious traditions remained alive, but often underground. The present political climate is now considerably more open to religion as a positive social force in China. A religious revival is afoot in modern-day China as people seek to fill the void left by the disenchantment with Communist ideology and the loss of connection to ancient Chinese traditions. As more of their material needs are being met, Chinese people are seeking spiritual direction and meaning. But there are limits to government openness to religion. Tolerance is extended as long as a religious tradition promotes social harmony and stability and not political unrest. The recent political repressions of the Falun Gong movement or the Muslim Uyghur communities illustrate the limits of religious freedom in China.
CHRISTIANITY IN CHINA
The conference in Beijing ended with 160 of us gathered around one enormously long banquet table in the Forbidden City, which was the former palace of Chinese emperors. We were treated to an evening of warm hospitality and traditional Chinese cuisine. I spent the evening seated among three people who had intimate knowledge of Christian communities on the ground throughout China. On my left was a British woman working on a Ph.D., studying the network of Protestant house churches and their social ministries to the poor. On my right was an Irish Catholic priest who had worked with Catholic house churches in China for decades as part of a Catholic missionary society. Across from me was a Chinese Christian professor of English literature at a Chinese university. Together they constituted an evening-long informal seminar on the state of Christianity in present-day China.
With roots reaching back to the seventh century, Christianity in China has often been viewed in the past as a negative presence in China’s history, associated with foreign domination and colonial exploitation by Western powers, especially in the nineteenth century. But a vibrant Christian presence has remained and grown under indigenous Chinese leadership, including Protestants, Catholics, and a small Orthodox community. And now Christianity is booming in China, part of a widespread and more general religious revival throughout the country. I saw evidence of that when I visited and lectured at the newly constructed national Protestant seminary in the city of Nanjing. I also visited the largest major Bible publisher for the Chinese market, Amity Printing Company. I toured its presses, which roll out a million Bibles every month. Even at that rate, the publishing company says it is unable to keep up with the enormous demand. I also attended a Sunday worship service at Haidian Christian Church in the middle of Beijing where the sanctuary seats a thousand people. I attended the last of five worship services that Sunday at two o’clock in the afternoon. The church was standing-room only with an additional overflow crowd watching the service on a large video screen.
The makeup of Chinese Christianity is complex and often divided into three categories. One part of the Christian movement is the officially registered Protestant and Catholic churches who operate with more freedom in China. Government leaders support these churches because they perceive that Christian beliefs have helped to fuel economic creativity, innovation, and development in the West, and they hope that perhaps the same could happen in China. Many politicians also look positively on the ways in which Christian churches provide much-needed relief aid in times of disaster or provide other social ministries for communities. This patriotic form of Christianity played an important role in preserving Christianity through the earlier decades of religious repression.
A second form of Chinese Christianity involves de-centralized networks of underground or house churches that are not officially registered with the government. Government leaders are well aware of their existence and tolerate them as long as their size remains small—less than fifty worshippers. They tend to be more evangelical and often Pentecostal in orientation and seem to be growing at a rapid rate, although reliable statistics are difficult to come by.
A third group of Christians in China are often described as “cultural Christians.” They may not be baptized or formally belong to a community of worshippers. Nevertheless, they read the Christian Bible, appreciate its teachings and ethics, and tend to be among the more educated or professional classes in Chinese society. I spent an afternoon speaking with a Chinese woman scholar working on the Book of Genesis. Her detailed questions revealed an impressive knowledge and admiration for the Bible and its scholarly study. But she did not describe herself as a worshipping Christian.
As with religion in general in China, a good deal of overlap exists among these three categories of Christians, as well as a blending with other religious or philosophical traditions. Young adults seem particularly active in these various Christian movements, which, it is estimated, currently make up at least eight to nine percent of the Chinese population.
What’s ahead for Christianity in China? Its growth will likely continue in a number of directions. The Christian movement is splintered and fragmented, which is both a strength and a weakness. It is flexible and adaptive but may sometimes lack strong leadership. The church in China needs more well-educated clergy and seminary professors to continue the rigorous work of translating the historical and theological resources of the Christian faith in dialogue with the rich, deep, and distinctive cultural and religious traditions of China. Plans are being discussed for the government to declare certain regions in China as “free religious zones” in which the state would allow greater religious freedom, even to the house churches. Some provinces and provincial leaders within China are already more welcoming to Christians, others less so. However, any hint of social unrest fomented by Christian communities would likely move Chinese politicians to return to more restrictive measures. Meanwhile, China will remain a fascinating experiment to watch as the diverse Chinese Christian movements expand within the boundaries of this growing global power in the decades ahead.
Dennis Olson is the Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology at Princeton Seminary.