Exploring Chinese History
- Religion -




Christianity in China has developed since at least the 7th century CE. The introduction of Nestorianism, a Christian sect, around 635 is considered by some to be the first entry of the Christian religion into China. Today, the population of Chinese Christians constitutes at least 3% of the general population, but Christian demographers in the West estimate the Christian population numbers 80 million to 100 million because they claim that there are many "underground houses" of worship. The Christian population in China comprises Protestants, Catholics, and a very small number of Orthodox Christians.


Earliest Period

Traditional Christian thought suggested that St. Thomas, known as "the Apostle of India" or possibly St. Bartholomew were the first to spread the Christian gospel in China. Third century Christian writer Arnobius mentions in a text a people known as the "Seres" as being among the groups (he enumerates also the Persians and Medes) which had been evangelized at that time. While there is evidence that Christianity existed in Mesopotamia and Persia by the early fourth century, there is no documentation that it had entered China.
Nestorianism in China was spread by European or Middle-Eastern travelers who arrived in the seventh century CE or earlier, as documented by the Nestorian Stone of Xi'an (then called Chang'an), dating from 635. Through several ups and downs it survived until the end of the Yuan dynasty.

Medieval Period

In 1289, Franciscan friars from Europe initiated mission work in China. For about a century they worked in parallel with the Nestorian Christians. The Franciscan mission collapsed in 1368, as the Ming Dynasty set out to abolish Christianity (Nestorian and Catholic) in China.


The first Jesuit attempt to reach China was made in 1552 by Francis Xavier, but he died the same year on the Chinese island of Shangchuan, without having reached the mainland. In 1582, Jesuits once again initiated mission work in China, introducing Western science, mathematics, and astronomy. One of these missionaries was Matteo Ricci.
In the early 18th century, the Chinese Rites controversy, a dispute within the Catholic Church, arose over whether Chinese folk religion rituals and offerings to the emperor constituted idolatry.

In Tibet

Catholic Capuchin friars settled in Lhasa between approximately 1719 and 1745.

Modern Age

The Missionary Period

During the 1840s, Western missionaries spread Christianity rapidly through the foreign occupied coastal cities; the Taiping Rebellion was connected in its origins to the missionary activity. British and American denominations, such as the British Methodist Church, continued to send missionaries until they were prevented from doing so following the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Protestant missionaries played an extremely important role in introducing knowledge of China to the United States and Britain on the one hand and the United States and Britain to China on the other. The book The Small Woman and film Inn of the Sixth Happiness tell the story of one such missionary, Gladys Aylward.
It is recorded that the first martyrdom of a Protestant Christian Chinese occurred in 1871 in Poklo, Guangdong. Che Kam Kong (or Chea Kunkong) visited Hong Kong in 1865, and in 1866 became a Christian. He proseltyzed extensively over the next five years, allegedly bringing about the conversion of over a hundred people in Poklo. Town elders, concerned with this abandonment of tradition, warned Che to stop, yet he refused. He was kidnapped and tortured in 1871 in an attempt to force him to give up his beliefs. He is said to have declared, "You may kill my body but you cannot destroy my soul". He was taken outside the city gates and killed; his body was cut up and thrown into a nearby river.
One of the major points of contention about the Chinese missions, and about the missionary movement in general, regards the development of independent native churches. Since the beginning, Chinese and foreign critics have accused the 19th-century Christian missionaries of keeping the native churches dependent on the mission boards in Britain and the U.S. for financial support and clerical leadership alike. In some cases, the criticism is warranted, but much can be attributed to jingoism and xenophobia on the part of succeeding Chinese governments, and in the West to ideological rejection of perceived Victorian era priggishness and paternalism. The survival of the Christian movement through such upheavals as the Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese occupation, and the Cultural Revolution suggests that most of this criticism is unfounded. This topic is addressed repeatedly in the journal of Dr. Nathan Sites, a missionary who served in Fukien (Fujian) province from 1861 until his death in 1895. Dr. Sites, like many other missionaries, argued and labored for the creation of a strong and independent Chinese church. In this effort, he ordained many of the earliest native Christian ministers, most famously a former Confucian scholar by the name of Sia Sek Ong. After his ordination, Rev. Sia toured the United States, where he was feted with honorary degrees and an audience with President Grover Cleveland.
(Sites, Sarah Moore (1912). "Nathan Sites: An Epic of the East." New York: Revell.)

Protestant Missions in China

Church Education

Both Catholics and Protestants founded numerous educational institutions in China from the primary to the university level. Some of the most prominent Chinese universities began as religious-founded institutions.

Japanese Occupation

As a result of being separated due to World War II, Christian churches and organizations had their first experience with autonomy from the Western-guided structures of the missionary church organizations. Some scholars suggest this helped lay the foundation for the independent denominations and churches of the post-war period and the eventual development of the Three-Self Church and the CCPA. After the end of the war, the Chinese Civil War began in earnest, which had an effect on the rebuilding and development of the churches after the close of Japanese occupation.

Christianity in the Contemporary PRC

Today, the Chinese language typically divides Christians into two groups, members of Jidu jiao, (literally, Christianity) Protestantism, and members of Tianzhu jiao (literally "Lord of Heaven" religion), Catholicism.

Official Christian Organizations

Since loosening of restrictions on religion after the 1970s, Christianity has grown significantly within the People's Republic. It is still, however, tightly controlled by government authorities. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council (Protestant) and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which has disavowed the Pope and is considered schismatic by other Roman Catholics, have affiliations with government and must follow the regulations imposed upon them.

House Churches

Many Christians choose however to meet independently of these organisations, typically in house churches. These fellowships are not officially registered and are seen as illegal entities and are often persecuted heavily. For this reason some meetings take place underground, coining the term "underground church". These Christians have been persecuted throughout the 20th century, especially during the Cultural Revolution, and there remains some official harassment in the form of arrests and interrogations of Chinese Christians. At the same time, there has been increasing tolerance of house churches since the late 1970s.

Contemporary Trends

Chinese Christian Brother Yun's book "The Heavenly Man" achieved the Christian Book of the Year award in 2003. The book describes Yun's life from his call to preach the gospel across China and the enlargement of the house church movement.
Estimates of Christians in China are difficult to obtain because of the numbers of Christians unwilling to reveal their beliefs, the hostility of the national government towards some Christian sects, and difficulties in obtaining accurate statistics on house churches.

International Visitors and Christianity

In large, international cities such as Beijing, foreign visitors have established Christian church communities which meet in public establishments such as hotels. These churches and fellowships, however, are typically restricted only to holders of non-Chinese passports.

American officials visiting China have on multiple occasions visited Chinese churches, including President George W. Bush, who attended one of Beijing's five officially-recognized Protestant churches during a November 2005 Asia tour. United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended Palm Sunday services in Beijing in 2005.


A high proportion of Christians are concentrated in Hebei province, in particular Catholics. Many internationally-reported arrests of Catholic leaders have occurred in that province. Hebei is also home to the town of Donglu, site of an alleged Marian apparition and pilgrimage center.

A famous magazine Christianity Today, brought out that demographers estimate that an average 20,000 Chinese people convert to Christianity today meaning that it is the fastest growing religion in the nation, and has outpaced the Communist Party's population of 70 million people.

Orthodox Christianity in China

There are a small number of adherents of Russian Orthodoxy in northern China, predominantly in Harbin. The first mission was undertaken by Russians in the 17th century. Orthodox Christianity is also practiced by the small Russian ethnic minority in China.

Names for Christianity and God

Chinese-language terms for God have, since the introduction of Christianity to China, proved a point of contention for Chinese Christians and non-Chinese Christians in China, especially missionaries.

Names for Christianity

The modern Chinese language typically divides Christians into two groups, believers of Jidu jiao (基督教), Protestantism, and Tianzhu jiao (天主教), Catholicism. The terms originate with different terms for God used in Chinese. Jidu jiao is also commonly used to refer to Christianity as a whole; in this case, Protestantism is called Xinjiao (新教), literally "New Religion", to disambiguate. The current term for the Protestant denomination refers to the Mandarin Chinese translation of the word "Christ", Jidu (基督) and is literally called "Christ Religion" contrast to Catholic's name "Lord of Heaven Religion".

Names for God

Shangdi (上帝, literally, "Sovereign King Above") is one of the most prevalent terms for God in modern Chinese, used by non-Christians in conversations as well as Christians. The Catholic Church historically favored Tianzhu (天主, literally, Lord of Heaven) over Shangdi, more commonly by Protestant Christians. Mandarin Chinese translates the word "Christ" as Jidu (基督).
In most modern Chinese Bibles, the word 神 (Shen, a reference to a supreme being) is used widely as well as Shangdi. The space used before the character "神" is intentional, in order to demonstrate reverence. The Chinese Bibles also used 灵 (Ling, which means "spirit") to refer to spirit. When it is referring to the Holy Spirit, a word 圣 (sheng, holy) is used before the word spirit to refer to the Holy Spirit. An evil spirit will have a modifier "evil" before the spirit. In addition, the Hebrew word "YHWH" is translated into 耶和华, pronounced like "Jehovah" in Chinese. Some versions translate this term as 上主 (shang zhu, Sovereign Lord Above), similar to the translation decision made as capitalized "LORD" in NIV.


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