AURIANE FAURE probes into the integration of Christianity in China through a historical lens.

An architectural mixture of Western Gothic cathedrals and Chinese temples, Xishiku church, Beijing, 2014

“Christianity is like coffee, in the past it didn’t exist in China.” This remark from a Chinese priest of Beijing’s Xizhimen Catholic church insists on the foreign origins of Christianity in China and its recent development in the history of the country. In fact, the introduction of Christianity in the Middle Kingdom dates back to papal missions of the 13th century, but it is at the end of the 16 th century that strong exchanges began with the first Jesuit mission in the country. The Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci brought a significant contribution to China’s evangelization, with a preaching from the elite to the masses reflecting the strong hierarchy in Chinese society. Protestants then played an important role in the country’s evangelization after the 18th century.

After Mao’s persecution of religious groups, Christians have been benefiting from an increasing tolerance since China’s Opening in 1978. As a result, the number of Christians (both Protestant and Catholic) in China has risen sharply in the past decades, although it is still difficult to quantify them since their activities have remained mainly informal. The Communist Party estimates that there are between 20 and 40 million Christians in China, though foreign sources assert that there are more than 80 million. With these rising numbers, Christianity has progressively become a more important element of Chinese society.

The first step in the integration of Christianity into Chinese society is its adaptation to the Chinese cultural and political contexts. This implies a dialogue between Chinese and Western cultures. First, Christianity in current China is different from the traditional religion that the missionaries imported from Western countries several centuries ago. It has its own characteristics, starting from the name in Mandarin given to Christian beliefs. The Catholic Church is referred as “Tianzhujiao – 天主教”, which literally means “Religion of the Lord of Heaven.”

The adaptation of Christianity to Chinese culture leads to different kinds of syncretism between Chinese and Western Christian culture. Christian buildings in Beijing, and Catholic churches in particular, have become interesting places to observe them. For example, the architectural style of Beijing’s Xishiku church is a mixture of the styles of both Western Gothic cathedrals and Chinese temples. Visitors are welcomed by two sculptures of imperial lions.

A stained-glass window depicting Chinese characters proceeding to a baptism, Xizhimen church, Beijing, 2014

Inside the church, some Chinese Catholics are praying Our Lady of China, who is both Jesus’ mother and China’s empress. Also in Beijing, the Catholic church of Xizhimen is decorated with stained-glass windows depicting Chinese characters in famous scenes of Christianity. Although Christians are a minority in China, estimates say that there are over 70 million Christians in the country, and churches are crowded during masses. A Chinese Catholic working as a volunteer at the church in Xizhimen reports the following paradox, “In Europe, Catholicism is more related to the culture than to deep beliefs, and a lot of people define themselves as Catholics but they never go to church, unless for Christmas and Easter. But in China, Catholics are strong believers.” According to the French sinologist Jacques Gernet, Chinese Christians’ pious practice of their religion can be partly explained by the predisposition of Chinese people to follow rituals. The concept of “rite” is also important in Confucianism, a doctrine that has had a significant influence in China as the state doctrine from the emperor Han Wudi (from approximately 156 BC to 87 BC) until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and that is still strongly entrenched in contemporary Chinese society.

Our Lady of China, Xishiku church, Beijing, 2014

The perception of Christianity has evolved in China. Gao Shining, professor at the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, comments that during the Cultural Revolution, “Christian” and “Chinese” were two different terms that could not be part of the same identity. “One more Christian is one Chinese less,” he says. Christians were perceived as “fake foreign devils” and had their rights denied. Nowadays, being Christian is compatible with being Chinese, and it has even become a part of Chinese society: “It’s here, I am here,” said Father John from the Xuanwumen cathedral in Beijing (following the priest’s demand, his name has been changed in order not to reveal his identity), “It is not a foreign doctrine, it is a doctrine coming from outside. Some Chinese don’t have faith in this religion, some others practice it, others still follow traditional customs and consider that those doctrines are different from ours, but anyway, it’s here,” he comments.

Today, Christianity is under the control of the Chinese government. To benefit from the government’s recognition and to legally practice their beliefs, Chinese Catholics have to worship the “Patriotic Church,” which is overseen by the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, and which does not admit the Catholic Church ruled by the Pope. Nevertheless, it seems that this distinction does not make a large difference for Chinese Catholics. In fact, a priest from the Xuanwumen church even said, “I consider there is only one Church.” Those who refused to be affiliated with the Patriotic Church still practice worship during private services organized at home.

It is important to understand that Christianity, in the mind of Chinese Christians, is no longer considered under the paradigm of the Chinese versus Western worlds. Chinese Christians highlight the universal aspect of their religion, and as a result, Christianity is gradually “de-westernized” and is no longer defined by them as a foreign belief. “It’s global, it’s across borders,” said a Chinese student who identifies as Protestant. Another Chinese Catholic student insisted, “Jesus and God are universal.” However, a priest at the Xuanwumen Catholic church doesn’t fully agree with this stance. In his view, it is a question of generation. “Each person has a different opinion. People with more modern ways of life are more tolerant and won’t consider it as a foreign religion coming from Western countries,” he argues. He then continues, “But if you ask more conservative people, they are more likely to consider Christianity as a Western doctrine.”

The place of Christianity in Chinese society is still debated. Tang Yi, professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, summarizes the situation, “Christian Churches in China are now part of Chinese society…but Christianity cannot (if it wants to be itself) be totally assimilated to the Chinese culture. In China, Christianity remains the foreign belief of a minority.”

Since 1949, the Communist regime has been closely monitoring religions in China, and Christianity today still has more restrictions than in Western countries. Although the Chinese Constitution mentions freedom of religion in its article 36: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. […] The state protects normal religious activities […]”, Joann Pittman, author at China Source, an online publications on Christianity in China, highlights that the state still decides which religion is normal or not. Since 1949, the Communist regime has been officially recognizing five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. In May 2014 in Beijing, the head of Xizhimen church’s volunteers, Mr. Wang, said that he noticed significant changes after the Cultural Revolution. However, he insisted on the relativity of the current freedom of religion in China: “In comparison with Mao’s regime, there is freedom. But it doesn’t mean it’s the same freedom than in Western countries.” He underlined the non-existent diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican, as well as the absence of religious teaching in the country.

A Chinese Catholic worshiping Virgin Mary after the Easter Mass, Xizhimen church, Beijing, 2014

Recently, Chinese Christians have feared to be the victims of a new wave of persecutions with the campaign to demolish crosses launched by the Zhejiang government. From 2013 on, the “Three Rectification and One Demolition” campaign has been aiming at destroying illegal structures, but it has clearly turned out to target mainly religious sites, and in particular crosses and churches. According to local Christians, officials proceeded to arrest people, destroy churches and remove crosses, particularly in Wenzhou, a city with a large number of Christians known as “China’s Jerusalem.” In The Guardian, activists claimed that more than 1 200 crosses have been removed since the beginning of the campaign.


The content of this article is taken from a dissertation work based on field researches and interviews conducted in Beijing between September 2013 and July 2014 : “Christianity in China : a dialogue between China and the Western world ?”. First published in French on the Mandarin Magazine website, it has been updated and translated in English for China Hands.