China’s Struggles to Reconcile Church and State are Rooted in History

The Chinese State is cracking down on global religions, but why?

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4:56 AM HKT, Wed January 30, 2019 4 mins read

It’s not an easy time to be Christian, Muslim, or, as of this month, Jewish, in China. Universalist religions are under attack in the PRC.

In an article published earlier this month in Foreign Affairs, scholar and journalist Ian Johnson, who has written extensively on religion in contemporary China, argues:

“China is not retreating to the era of high communism under Mao Zedong but lurching toward a messy future shared by many authoritarian states. Today’s China seeks not to marginalize competing groups and belief systems, the way Beijing did during the Mao era, but to co-opt them. Indeed, the events of the past two years show that for the first time in a century and a half, religion is firmly ensconced in the center of China’s social and political life.”

Johnson further argues, correctly, that what is happening has imperial echoes. The co-opting of religious belief was an essential tool of state control during China’s imperial era. Emperors and their surrogates used patronage, coercion, proscription, financial support and official condemnation to bring religious belief within the acceptable boundaries of State orthodoxy.

There are tens of millions of Christians in China and many more people whose religious and spiritual life is informed by some aspect of Christian theology. The government is concerned about religions like Christianity and Islam which have a global reach.

In an article by Lily Kuo for The Guardian, Professor Lian Xi of Duke University described the policy shift against Christianity in terms starkly familiar to those who are tracking what is happening to Muslim residents in China’s western regions. “The government has orchestrated a campaign to ‘sinicise’ Christianity, to turn Christianity into a fully domesticated religion that would do the bidding of the Party.”

This is also not new.

As historian Daniel Bays has argued, “Christianity was usually not seen only, indeed not even primarily, as a “religion” or belief system, but as a behavioral phenomenon which could cause endless trouble.”

Lunar New Year decorations with Christian imagery in rural China

The focus, at least in much of the coverage of the recent crackdowns, has been about Christianity’s perceived foreignness. As Johnson and others have pointed out, the State has increased its support for “indigenous” religious institutions and practices — so long as they toe the Party line.

But Christianity has been in China, in one form or another, for nearly 1,400 years. Chinese Christians have also sought ways to indigenize Christianity, often putting them at odds with Christian missionaries and other foreign institutions seeking to spread Christianity within China. The most famous, and destructive, was the Taiping Kingdom of the 19th century. The spread of Christianity has been both a story of a non-Chinese religion spreading within China and an example of cross-cultural accommodation between Chinese and non-Chinese Christian communities.

Given the State’s preoccupation with controlling and co-opting religious practice, it’s unsurprising that the Chinese State has been more open to people of different faiths at those times in its history when China was strongest. The Tang capital of Chang’an was a veritable spiritual smorgasbord of temples, shrines, mosques, chapels, and even synagogues.

But after the An Lushan Rebellion nearly toppled the Tang Empire in the middle of the 8th century, subsequent rulers became increasingly suspicious of outside elements. (It didn’t help that An Lushan was a Sogdian.) Christian, Muslim, and even Buddhist communities were persecuted over the next few centuries. Buddhism and Islam, better established in China than Christianity at the time, survived. It would be another five centuries before sizable Chinese Christian communities reappeared in the historical record.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the government’s recent policy shift has been a focus on the Bible. According to the Guardian article by Lily Kuo:

One of the goals of a government work plan for “promoting Chinese Christianity” between 2018 and 2022 is “thought reform.” The plan calls for “retranslating and annotating” the Bible, to find commonalities with socialism and establish a “correct understanding” of the text.

Translating the Bible into Chinese has always been a fraught process. In the first decades of the 19th century, there were no fewer than five translations of the Bible into Chinese. Missionaries and linguists including Robert Morrison (1782-1834), W.H Medhurst (1796-1857), and Karl Gutzlaff (1803-1851) were among the most famous translators of the Scripture into Chinese. There were also many, often unrecognized, Chinese translators who after the fashion of today’s news assistants rarely got an author credit for their essential work.

Translators worried about rendering the Bible into a literary style which would impress readers while at the same time trying to stay as close as possible in meaning and interpretation to the original. Concepts like what to call the Christian God, whether to use something from the Chinese canon or come up with new terms, bedeviled the translators.

They were also not above throwing a little shade at each other. One missionary referred to an earlier competing translation as having “degenerated into a style of composition intolerably idiomatic and disfigured by a profusion of barbarisms.”*

(The pettiness reminds me of a talk at The Beijing Bookworm a few years back where a well-known literary translator of Chinese made an off-handed — and not altogether untrue — critique of another renowned translator: “This guy if he translated ‘Moby Dick’ would have rendered the first line as “Hi, there! My name is Ishmael!”)

The missionary project also complicates the legacy for Chinese Christian communities today. Despite the efforts of many of those communities to assert their independence from the missionaries in the early 20th-century, the taint of Christianity as a tool of Western Imperialism and of Chinese Christians being lackeys or stooges still colors the discourse within China.


While it is true that missionaries conflated “universal values” with “Western values,” that is not necessarily the case today. But the missionary legacy means that the Party can encode the creeping menace of Westernization with any belief system that makes claims to the universal. Global religions are scary not just because they fall outside the scope of Party power, but because universalism challenges fundamental ideas of political orthodoxy in China.

The emperors often had trouble understanding the universal pretensions of Christianity and Islam. It’s worth noting that the Qing emperors were often excellent at co-opting some of their subjects, whether Tibetan Buddhist or Chinese Confucian, but could never seem to grapple with the complexities of Islam and Christianity. In the case of Islam, this led to a cycle of rebellions and coercion. In the case of Christianity, proscription until the gunboats came and forced the Qing State into an accommodation which, rightfully given how it happened, still rankles to this day.

Whether the current Chinese leadership has the cultural confidence and political courage necessary to be genuinely multi-cultural in their understanding of Chinese nationhood remains to be seen. But recent events strongly — and tragically — suggest otherwise.

* Quoted in Hanan, Patrick. “The Bible as Chinese Literature: Medhurst, Wang Tao, and the Delegates’ Version.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 63, no. 1 (2003): 197-239. doi:10.2307/25066695.

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