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Religions in China - Christianity

The origins and theology of Christianity shall not be discussed here.
There are four historical phases of Christianity in China that can be observed. The first began during the 7th century when the Oriental Church of the Nestorians (Jingjiao 景教) came to China, from Persia along the Silk Road. Although there existed some parishes we must suppose that most of Nestorian believers were not converted Chinese but foreign salesmen or missionaries in the Yiningfang Monastery 大秦義寧坊寺 in the capital Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an). Although this very small community did not have any significant religious or political influence and was forbidden in the 840es - along with other foreign religions including Buddhism, it only vanished around 1550, and the existence of Christian communities in Inner Asia within a pagane and Muslim environment contributed to the development of the legend of priest-king John who was said to reign over a Christian kingdom in Central Asia during the European Middle Age.
The second phase of Christianity came with the second opening of the trade routes during the Mongol Yuan period 13th century and slightly before. The Mongol rulers had contact to Rome and received embassadors from the Pope. Franciscan monks traveled along the Asian trade routes and arrived at the court of Khublai Khan, among them Willem van Ruysbroeck (Rubruck), Giovanni de Montecorvino who became first archbishop of China in 1307, his follower was Odorico de Pordenone. This short period of a partially successful mission of Christians in China was made possible by the positive politcs of the Mongol Khans against foreign (i.e. Non-Chinese) traders, technicians and monks. The Yuan period was also a highlight of Tibetian Lamaism in China that was protected by the Mongols.
The third period of Christianity in China was the mission of the Jesuits (Chinese: Jesuhui 耶穌會), an order especially dedicated to foreign mission, whose first representative in China was Matteo Ricci (d. 1610). Unlinke their forerunners, the Jesuits did not travel to China along the Silk Road but by ship and arrived in the Portuguese colony of Macao. Ricci had founded parishes in Guangzhou and Nanchang before he arrived in the capital Beijing. Ricci recognized that is was of important means to adapt some issues of theology, teaching and behaviour to the Chinese culture and tradition ("accomodation"). Ricci adapted a Chinese name (Li Madou 利瑪竇), wore Chinese clothes and learned Chinese. With technical presents like clocks and other machines to the Ming dynasty Wanli Emperor 萬曆 (Emperor Shenzong 明神宗, r. 1572-1619) Ricci was able to attract the attention of the imperial court and to baptize some high Chinese officials like Xu Guangqi 徐光啟, Yang Tingyun 楊廷筠, and Li Zhizao 李之藻. Many of the Chinese officials were rather interested in Western astronomy, mathematics (book Jihe yuanben 几何原本) and geography (book Kunyu wanguo quantu 坤輿萬國全圖) than in the religion brought with missionaries (Chinese: chuanjiaoshi 傳教士) like Ricci and his successors Johann Adam Schall von Bell (Chinese name: Tang Tuowang 湯若望), Joachim Bouvet (Bai Jin 白晉), and Ferdinand Verbiest (Nan Huairen 南懷仁) although there were able to fascinate the emperor's interest even after the dynastic change in 1644. The Jesuits were also the first to report true events and circumstances of China to Europe, like Ricci's book about the introduction of Christianity in China. During his studies of the Confucian Classics Ricci thought to have perceived parallels in the religious traditon of China and Europe in the manifestation of the Chinese "Heaven" (tian 天) as judging instance about good and bad. While the Jesuits accepted Chinese customs like the ancestor veneration other missionaries renounced such an adaptation to Chinese customs as being contradictory to Christian religion. The dispute about this ritus lasted the whole 17th century and was finally ended when Christian mission was prohibited in 1724. The Jesuit order was dissolved by Rome in 1773. Jesuit writers make statements about 13,000 Christians in the capital Beijing and more than 100,000 Christians in whole China in 1663.
The fourth phase of Christianity (Jidujiao 基督教) in China began in the 19th century and was directly connected with Western colonialism and imperialism. After the Western power forced China to open treaty ports in China by the Nanjing Treaty after the First Opium War, missionaries were allowed to act within these cities, and gradually - following each of the unequal treaties - more and more inside the country and among the population. Although there were around 3 million catholic Christians and 1,5 millions of Protestants in China in 1949, Christianity was always linked with the brutal force of the imperialist powers. The assassination of priests in the province of Shandong, for instance, lead to the occupation of the area of Qingdao by German troops. On the other side, pseudo-Christian movements like the Taiping uprising against the Qing Dynasty in the 1840es did not receive the expected support by the Western powers. The number of Christians in China did never exceed one percent. After 1949 religious freedom in Communist China was denied, and the Christian churches in China organized in a "Three-Self Movement" (Sanzi yundong 三自運動) to administer themselves without contact to the outside, and entered the Patriotic Union (Aiguohui 愛國會) to express their loyalty to the new China. With the reform and opening policy since the 1980s religious freedom again is possible, but the greatest problem especially for catholic Christians is the separation from Rome. During the Republic era, leading politicians like Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek were Christians. The protestant mission in Taiwan is very successful. There was also orthodox mission from Russia since the 17th century. All three churches, catholic (Tianzhujiao 天主教), protestant (Xinjiao 新教, Yesujiao 耶穌教, Jidujiao 基督教), and orthodox developed a Chinese theology (T.C. Chao, A.B. Chang, C.S. Song) and followed the principle of inculturation of the foreign religions to Chinese customs, habits, thought, and culture.

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January 17, 2014 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail