Sunday, May 11, 2008

Religion: Church in China

(Image from Wikipedia)

For those interested in this sort of thing, an interesting article by Rob Moll, "Great Leap Forward," appears in the past week's online Christianity Today about the present status of Christianity in China.

The most surprising thing is the estimated number of Christians, even in estimates cited by government officials:
The dazzling growth of Christianity inside China began in the late 1970s at the end of the Cultural Revolution. During that period, up to 7 million people died from widespread violence and famine.

At that time, there were an estimated 3 million Catholics and Protestants in China. Three decades later, estimates of the number of Christians vary widely, anywhere from 54 million to 130 million, the higher number representing a 43-fold increase, which would be one of the largest growth spurts in the history of Christianity.

Scholars have debated for decades about the number of Christians in China. But the new estimates both come from government sources. The higher number of 130 million reportedly comes from Ye Xiaowen, the head of China's State Administration of Religious Affairs. According to reliable reports, he used the 130 million head count at two government briefings in 2006. Bob Fu of China Aid Association has cited 130 million as a credible estimate. Other experts believe any statistic reporting over 100 million Christians is not credible.
That Ye Xiaowen, head of China's State Administration of Religious Affairs, would cite 130 million Christians renders the number credible, albeit with a couple of caveats, namely: (1) how would he know, and (2) are the reports really reliable?

I recall looking into this issue of Christian growth in China back around 2003, when the higher estimate of the number of Christians was between 80 and 100 million. Most of the reasoning behind those estimates looked like guesswork to me. The number of Christians, even if 'merely' 54 million, still looks fairly impressive, given the base of 3 million in the late 1970s, for the increase would amount to about 50 million in around 30 years.

Also interesting is the Chinese perspective on Christianity's role in the West. As does the Muslim world, Chinese tend to see the West as 'Christian'. The fact that much of the West is strongly secular does not seem to strike them as significant, so they interpret the West's characteristics and actions as 'Christian'. The difference lies in the differing reactions of Chinese and Muslims, respectively.

Chinese look to Western power and ask, how can we attain that? They infer that it springs from a spiritual source and turn their attention to Christianity. Many, apparently, convert -- though whether from secular or spiritual motives, I won't speculate.

The Muslim world looks to Western power and asks, how can we defeat that? They also infer that it springs from a spiritual source and likewise turn their attention to Christianity. However, not many convert, for they have a long-standing conflict with 'Christendom' and a cultural hermeneutic of suspicion derived from their belief that Christians have corrupted the original, Islamic revelation brought by Jesus.

The Christianity Today article, by the way, doesn't speculate about Muslims and their resistance to Christian conversion. These musings are my own, based on my scattered readings over the years about Islam and Muslims.

Concerning the Chinese Christians, however, we have their own words from this article:
Hsu, a former television journalist for the state-sponsored CCTV, is a telling example of how a member of China's educated elite moves to Christianity.

Hsu told his story to CT over a meal at a crowded Beijing KFC. It began with his search for freedom -- politically and personally. The search led him to European history. "Westerners are not more interested in freedom than anyone else," he says. (page 3)

Yet the West has achieved and sustained a greater degree of liberty than any other culture. Hsu wondered what the West had that China didn't. "Before freedom comes, you have to have a foundation. In the West that foundation is Christianity."

Hsu's vision for a new China parallels his readings on the march of freedom in the West. From the 10th to 12th centuries, Hsu reasons, Europe developed legal studies, hospitals, and universities, all of which grew out of the church. These developments resulted in breakthroughs in human liberty, as seen in the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. Today, Hsu says, the church is an incubator for similar developments in China. (page 4)
Interestingly, these are the very issues about which we historians of the West debate . . . endlessly. Basically, the debate centers on a central, two-fold question: was modernity a furtherance of Medieval Christianity by other means, or was modernity a rejection of Medieval Christianity?

My own answer would be to emphasize the complexity of Modernity's relation to the Middle Ages, but for the Chinese, it seems, the overwhelming factor behind Western Modernity is Christianity. I suppose that this is partly a matter of looking in from outside.

Anyway, if this sort of thing interests you, take a look at the seven-page article -- which, of course, is journalistic, not scholarly.

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At 10:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was surprised when a few Chinese acquaintances identified themselves as Christians and asked if I went to church. I had this sort of exchange all the time in Korea but didn't expect it in China. The Catholic and Lutheran cathedrals are architectural treasures in Qingdao and filled with Chinese and foreign worshippers on Sundays. Foreigners are allowed to worship freely, but foreign-organized services are off-limits to Chinese nationals.

Christian missionaries get a bum rap in the official view of Chinese history, but as in Korea, Christian missionaries to China brought modern education and medicine, and their legacy lives on today in top universities like Qinghua, established by the YMCA to prepare Chinese students for enrollment in American universities. Canadian Dr. Norman Bethune, son of a Presbyterian minister, is a hallowed name in China.

China forbids foreign missionary activity among locals, so missionaries come in as English teachers, medical professionals, or even businesspeople and work undercover. I was grateful for the services of two American missionary doctors at our local hospital. Both were affiliated with a local Christian school for expatriate children. This organization has several schools in China. They are able to get local licenses for their schools by using an IT firm as a cover. The IT company tells the local government, "We'll do business here but only if you let us open a foreign school for our kids." As long as the missionaries don't stand on street corners or organize Bible study or worship services for large numbers of locals, they fly under the radar, mostly witnessing by example or by forming friendships which open the door to discussions about Christianity.


At 10:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder about Asian (or other groups') concept of "Christianity."
Do they mean a personal belief in Jesus as the promised Messiah, the redeemer of Israel, and the one who vicariously paid the penalty for the sins of the world, and the provider of eternal salvation for those who adhere to this belief? Or is it based on considering European and American nationality? Some would call the USA a 'Christian' nation in a general sense. What is your view?

At 11:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sonagi, this blog showed O comments, but while I was writing my questionnaire, you sneaked in ahead of me, partially answering my blog. It makes me appear even more ignorant.......I should cry "foul" but that would be Unchristian? Thanks for the info anyway.

At 4:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, thanks for the information.

I knew about the role of evangelical Christians going as 'tentmakers' to China, i.e., much as St. Paul earned his living by sewing tents (Acts 18:3) while pursuing his true vocation as witness for Christ, these evangelicals teach English (or act as doctors, etc.) while quietly witnessing about their Christian faith.

But I'd never encountered anyone who had been to China and met such people, so you're a first, Sonagi. I myself have never been to China, but from your comment, I gather that I would easily encounter such people and also many Chinese Christians.

(One of my cousins and her husband, a medical doctor, went as tentmakers.)

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, the Christianity of most such Asian Christians sounds a lot like American evangelical Christianity, at least here in Korea.

Undoubtedly, motives differ from individual to individual. Some might 'convert' out of hopes for success in the world, especially if they think that 'Christian' ideas led to the West's success -- a point that I raised in this blog entry.

More significantly, perhaps, is the subtle way that cultural ideas shape Asian Christianity. Korean Protestantism is very hierarchical, with the pastor having enormous power over his congregation. Sunday school Bible teachers in the church are elevated, too. Both of these stem from Korean Confucianism. The obvious downside is lack of congregational oversight, to keep the minister honest, and lack of real discussion Sunday school, to ensure true learning.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you lived in China, you would easily meet quiet witnesses for Christ. You would meet some, but not many Chinese Christians. Most Chinese are agnostic or atheist although curiously enough, they are highly superstitious and genuinely believe in ghosts or spirits. Our school always had a firecracker lighting ceremony on the first day of school to scare away the evil spirits that might bring harm to the school. One year we had a number of freak accidents, so the school had a second firecracker lighting ceremony. "Didn't work the first time!" I hollered down from a second floor window, eliciting smiles from fellow Western teachers while the Chinese staff were oblivious to the joke. The rest of the year was accident-free, confirming to the Chinese staff that their second firecracker ceremony had chased away the spirits.

Since the Chinese already believe in spirits, I suppose they could be moved by the Spirit.


At 8:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Meanwhile, when the Europeans got ahold of gunpowder, they quickly turned it into an effective means of rapidly increasing the population of the spirit world.

There must by now be a lot of angry spirits to scare off.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Meanwhile, when the Europeans got ahold of gunpowder, they quickly turned it into an effective means of rapidly increasing the population of the spirit world."

Another brilliant one-liner!

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks . . . um, Sonagi?

Jeffery Hodges

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