China’s spiritual life is not dominated by Le Shan’s laughing Buddha, Taoist Temples, or a zeal for the Communist party. The numbers reported by the Chinese government are often extremely low, but current estimates of the number of Chinese Christians–both Protestant and Catholic– vary from the government provided statistic of 25 million to larger estimates of 60 million or more. What makes these figures even more striking is that every single one of those reported as Christian practices regularly. For Serene Silin Li, a freshman at Yale from Beijing, “being Christian is the way of living. It’s just our lifestyle. I never really thought about it.”
A facet of life so fundamental to Serene, and the one thousand other Christians that sit by her side listening to the Sunday sermon in the Beijing International Christian Fellowship’s theater, is shrouded in mystery to Americans. How can we continue to believe that Christianity belongs to the “global north” when millions of Chinese like Serene and her family are making contributions to their own unique strain of the Christian faith?
The story of Chinese Christianity isn’t a recent one; it is one that the Western world has been ignoring for over a millennium. The Nestorian Stele, an 8th century stone tablet serving as the first evidence of Christianity in China, proclaimed that Christians had reached Xi’an, the capital of the ruling Tang Dynasty, in 635. Here, they continued establishing churches and spreading their faith within Tang China for two hundred years until Emperor Wuzong declared in 845 that all religions disseminate and forfeit their assets to the state. Its modern incarnation began after British contact during the First Opium War in 1842. Although Christian influence in ancient China may have played a minor role when compared to the great indigenous influences of Buddhism, Taoism, and the divine right of the ruler, Christianity has been very much present in the groundwork and history of Chinese society. It is not a foreign influence that has recently invaded a new land, but rather an indigenous force that is now experiencing its largest wave of revival.
The Christian revival is not simply a byproduct of China’s market revolution. Rather, it has been building steadily since China first came into major contact with the West in the mid-1800s. In 1850, Christianity was already a shaping influence on Chinese politics, with Hong Xiuquan–the self-proclaimed younger brother of Jesus–leading the Taiping Rebellion and establishing a Christian state in the surrounding areas of Nanjing that was destroyed a decade later by a coalition of British and Chinese forces. For the next century, with the help of missionaries, indigenous Chinese Christianity slowly evolved until the shock of Maoist control and the Cultural Revolution.
Ironically, Mao’s reign and destruction of all religious institutions was arguably the greatest contributor to the recent Christian revival in China. Professor Xi Lian, a Professor of World Religion at the Duke Divinity School, speaks of a “crisis of belief,” explaining that the inspiring Communist ideology served as “almost a religious sort of promise of a new heaven, a new earth, a new kingdom, a new society of justice, equality, and liberation,” that was subsequently crushed during the violence of the Cultural Revolution and later, for intellectuals, during the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. Professor Lian explains that Christianity as a faith was positioned perfectly to fill the gaping void of trust and faith that the Cultural Revolution so devastatingly created, saying “its system of values, with its sense of the dignity and worth of individuals, and with its doctrine of love,” was attractive to a population who felt as if they needed to rekindle both a sense of individuality and community after an immense betrayal.
The Christianity that has developed as a strain unique to China reflects these emotional needs at the close of the 20th century. Chinese Christianity is exceedingly Pentecostal and exuberant, reflecting the need for an outlet for religious zeal that was previously directed at the Communist party and Mao as an individual. This exuberation manifests itself in Serene’s church through the use of rock-pop worship teams who perform hymns on stage in front of the whole community. For Serene, who has already individually released an album of Christian pop songs, participation in these worship team performances makes her feel most connected with her faith.
The Pentecostal nature of Chinese Christianity is reflected in the popularity of faith healing. The belief in faith healing captures the ways in which Christian faith has responded to a disappointing state: when the state cannot provide adequate health care, the Chinese people have turned to faith healing to maintain a sense of security. According to Professor Lian, Chinese strains of Christianity are also characteristically messianic, which may reflect a 20th century yearning for a miracle to elevate China back to its former glory.
In the past twenty years, China has transformed into a country hardly recognizable when compared to its early 20th century turmoil or its post-Mao crisis of belief. However, young people born after the death of Maoist zeal are still finding Christianity a very attractive set of beliefs. Chinese Protestantism is gaining a growing contingent of youth and college student believers, who find that Protestantism provides them with direction in their battles for human rights protections and democracy. Especially after 1989, when the government crushed progressives’ dreams of a more democratic China, the urban, educated elite have turned to Protestantism as both an outlet for frustration as well as a guiding tool for comprehensive societal change. This popularity among China’s younger generations bodes for a growing Christian influence in the years to come, compounding on the already entrenched church-going population, rural elderly women.
But it would be an exaggeration to put so much emphasis on the scripture itself. For Serene, her church community of worldly, liberal young adults is one of the greatests draws for her in Church participation. “I just like being there and working with these people, she says. “They are all working in society right now. They are so humble and hardworking.” Serene’s Christian community has supplied her with a group of intellectuals with international experience and a passionate love for Jesus that keeps her coming to Church even after a long day at her rigorous music conservatory in Shanghai. For Serene, Christianity has absolutely nothing to do with politics; it is simply a personal relationship between her, her faith, and her church community.
Yet, this private relationship may not extend to all Chinese Christians. China has had a long history of religion influencing politics: Chinese emperors held power by the “mandate of heaven,” whereby popular spiritual belief that the emperor is no longer in god’s favor would cause a dynastic change. To some extent, protestant youth are using the same spiritual basis to incite change in Chinese society. The parallel extends with regard to state control of religion as well. In ancient China, the emperor occupied a status between mortals and gods; he was deified to the point that he maintained complete religious control. China, whether as a remnant of its ancient past or of a continued influence of centralized Communist power, still reserves the right to religious oversight.
The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Three Self Patriotic Movement, both established in the early 1950s, are government regulatory agencies that control Catholic and Protestant churches, respectively. All churches must register with their respective governing body or risk being shut down by the local authorities. According to Professor Lian, beyond the name “state-controlled church,” there is not much difference between the practices of registered and unregistered churches. It is largely a precautionary device to prevent citizen assembly under the radar of the government. In light of Muslim Uighur rebellions in the Northwestern Xinjiang autonomous region and Buddhist self-immolation protests, the Chinese government is keen to the power of religious protests, and is reluctant to give up control over the growing Christian revolutionary contingent.
However, as reflected in many other aspects of Chinese society, the government is steadily losing control of its previously strict regulatory abilities. Unregulated “house churches” are emerging via bribery and relaxed local official government oversight. The research of Professor Fenggang Yang, Director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University indicates that there may be more young people attending house churches than state-controlled churches, creating an underground community of young, educated Chinese who assemble to discuss Christianity’s potential revolutionary ideas.
With two great world forces, Christianity and China, coming together, it is hard to neglect that great change is brewing. How this great body of unique Chinese Christianity will influence the structure of the Church worldwide we cannot know, nor can we predict the force of organized youth in using the teachings of Protestantism to drive China in a more democratic direction. Or, it may just be one more way in which the world is getting flatter. As a daughter of born-again Chinese pop-stars growing up educated in a conservatory in Beijing, it may be difficult for Serene to find commonalities on this side of the globe. But when she asks herself, “Why do we like to be practicing religion?” her answer, “Because it makes us happy,” is universal.
This article appears in the April 2014 issue of China Hands.