On the last day of 1899, the nude body of Sidney Brooks, twenty-four, was found in a ditch in northern China, his head sawed off and his limbs rent apart. He was the first victim of Boxer fighters, who lusted after the blood of foreign missionaries, whom they blamed for China’s humiliation by Western powers. Claiming immunity to bullets and other supernatural abilities, the Boxers attacked Beijing months later, illuminating their warpath with the kerosene-soaked, burning bodies of captured Chinese Christians.
The Boxer Rebellion did not end until eight colonial powers, enraged by the attacks on their embassies and missionaries, shipped an expeditionary force to China, ending a fifty-five-day rebel siege of Beijing’s Legation Quarter. By then, the Boxers had slaughtered two hundred Western missionaries and tens of thousands of Chinese Christians. Peace was won with a lopsided treaty that infuriated the Chinese, especially in the context of the concessions already imposed after the nineteenth century’s Opium Wars.
Sidney Brooks’ story has haunted me. He died for Christ at twenty-four; at twenty-five, I moved to China, writing about Christianity as a Robert Novak Fellow with the Phillips Foundation. To some extent, our experiences bookend the changing history of Christianity in modern China. He had come to spread the Word; I had come to report back on how the Word was doing. He was an unwelcomed ambassador of a foreign religion; when I arrived, I was foreign but my faith was not. Christianity had endured and adapted, becoming one of the few cultural commonalities I shared with my sources.
I crisscrossed China, attending state-sanctioned churches and “underground” or “house” churches and talking with Catholics and Protestants. And through my travels, I discovered that Christianity in China is entering a new phase: Where it once carried thick association with Western cultural influence, it has now developed into something truly Chinese. It is no longer a niche religion, either, having become something with mass appeal.
Christianity has struggled to find its place in China for centuries. And although the message of Christianity is culturally neutral, the medium rarely was. Western missionaries long sought cultural converts to Christianity. The Jesuit Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606) was among the first to articulate missionary policies, not only emphasizing the importance of “accommodation and adaptation to Chinese culture,” as historian Daniel H. Bays writes, but also “indirect evangelism by means of science and technology to convince the elite of the high level of European civilization.”
But the Chinese already had a high civilization when Christianity arrived, so the religion was often viewed as a cultural threat. This tension intensified particularly beginning with the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s. European missionaries faced a moral dilemma. On one hand, they had witnessed the drug’s deleterious effects on Chinese society and understood the push ?for prohibition.
On the other hand, European victory in the Opium Wars meant greater opportunity for spreading the Gospel. Indeed, the first round of treaties, from 1842 to 1844, stipulated that Westerners be permitted to build churches, schools, and other community buildings in five key coastal cities. The second round, from 1858 to 1860, granted Western missionaries extensive travel rights, and included, explicitly or implicitly, the right of Chinese to become Christians.
The result was to link Christianity to colonialism, which would bear catastrophic consequences. The Chinese despised the treaties imposed upon them, reasonably considering them humiliating and unequal. And Beijing already feared faith for legitimate reasons; historically, religion had already played a central role in the Yellow Turban, White Lotus, and Taiping rebellions.
The Boxer Rebellion was the first violent national expression of these frustrations. The ensuing violence undermined the legitimacy of the beleaguered Qing dynasty, contributing to its collapse in 1911. The second expression began in 1949, when Mao Zedong founded the decidedly atheist People’s Republic of China. He sought to purge the country of superstition, religion, and foreign influence. Christians became a special target. Foreign missionaries were expelled, and the Church’s fate fell to the indigenous leaders who had emerged since the Boxer Rebellion.
Persecution was most intense during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), years when Christian faith could become a death warrant, as it was for Chinese pastor Wang Zhiming, executed in 1973. In Liao Yiwu’s God is Red, which recounts the struggles of the Chinese Christians in the Maoist and post-Maoist years, the pastor’s son recalls how, because of their faith, his family was beaten, bound, and spit upon during public condemnation meetings. The communists then cut out the pastor’s tongue so he couldn’t preach, paraded him around the village, and shot him.
Christianity was forced underground. Most believers from this era are dead or elderly, so I rely on the second-hand stories of those who inherited their faith. A church worker in Beijing repeated to me the tale of a church that had worshipped in a cave during the Cultural Revolution. These Christians had somehow saved a single Bible from destruction, but they lived in terror that it, too, would be lost. So the believers each memorized a book—as long as they lived, so did the Word.
Ironically, persecution strengthened Chinese believers’ faith and determination, and religion eventually proved stronger than its opposition. Document 19—one of the primary policy statements on religion in China, derived from the same party gathering that established Deng Xiaoping’s rule—states that “those who expect to rely on administrative decrees or other coercive measures to wipe out religious thinking and practices with one blow are even further from the basic viewpoint Marxism takes toward the religious question. They are entirely wrong and will do no small harm.”
That’s an incredible acknowledgement of failure from the government. Since Deng Xiaoping, Beijing has attempted to manage and control religion through an elaborate religious bureaucracy, all the while predicting religion will die out naturally.
But statistics, however fuzzy, suggest precisely the opposite has happened: Christianity’s growth in China has been dramatic. Some believers worship in the state-sanctioned churches, but most still worship in so-called house or underground churches, which operate outside the sanctioned system—making them tough to number. But there are rough estimates. The Chinese government’s lowballed statistics numbered twenty-three million Protestants and 5.7 million Catholics. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported fifty-eight million Protestants and nine million Catholics; other plausible studies suggest the total number of Christians has surpassed one hundred million.
It’s true that persecution still endures—and it’s been meticulously documented each year by the Texas-based ChinaAid, an organization founded by a former Chinese house-church pastor who was himself targeted once. I saw that persecution myself, visiting the Qiao Tau Mang Catholic Church in Wenzhou. Two months before my visit, the local police had essentially kidnapped the underground bishop, Peter Shao Zhumin, taking him to Sichuan Province, where Catholic leaders had bent to Beijing’s control. It was an attempt to coerce Shao to likewise yield to government control, but it failed, and he was eventually returned to his congregation.
Church members spoke to me about how the government had cut them off from the Vatican and the global Church, and how their isolation weighed on them. They met relatively openly—in a five-story building next to a state-run hospital—but were ever aware of the potential for a crackdown.
But, to my surprise, I learned through my reporting that as Christianity finds its place in Chinese culture, its adherents are less defined by how they cope with state-sponsored adversity.
Part of that is Christianity’s unique theology: Its fundamental prerequisite is belief, not adherence to specific rules or customs. As a rule, the Christians I met wanted to both honor God and obey the government whenever possible. One businessman I met was part of the underground church, and he prided himself on his openness with the local officials. He invited them to Christian functions and notified them when he was hosting a big event, essentially acting as a PR rep for God and trying to persuade them that they had nothing to fear and much to learn.
Other Chinese Christians avoid politics altogether. I met a young man in Beijing who led a Bible study at a house church. He was endearingly blunt, talking to me over pizza about his mother’s illness and how it had led him to God, and about his longing to find the wife God had reserved for him. But when I brought up politics, he clammed up completely. Chinese Christians invite trouble when they get political, he suggested before changing the subject.
Nevertheless, Christianity’s explosive growth has undeniable potential for political reform. Religious practice assumes freedom of speech, assembly, and even some property rights.
And Christians are also working to improve rule of law; a disproportionate number of Chinese rights lawyers are Christian. Some theorize this is because legal theory drove them to natural law, which in turn directed them to God. Others speculate it’s exactly the opposite. Nearly all these supposed subverters of state power work within the existing legal framework, trying to reform China by forcing it to adhere to the laws established by existing authorities. Of course, the powerful and politically connected are the ones undermining rule of law, but challenging them takes courage, which rights lawyers often derive from their faith.
But Christianity’s biggest legacy may be its restoration of the nation’s fractured civil society. China’s Christians, I observed, feel compelled to change every aspect of their lifestyle once they convert. They are radical in their dedication to service. They define themselves by the way they change their own lives and the lives of others. And that has a cultural impact.
It’s hard for a Westerner to understand just how morally destructive communism has been. Famine drove many to thievery, and neighbors murdered or beat neighbors under the guise of revolutionary heroism. One simply doesn’t ask elderly Chinese about the sixties; some speculate the whole generation has post-traumatic stress disorder.
Interviewing migrant workers at the Beijing West Railway Station earlier this year, I met an old man with twisted hands and a compelling face who was willing to talk about his life. He briefly referenced the Maoist era, and I pushed the topic. His friend nearly slapped the chopsticks out of his hand—there’s peer pressure to stay silent, too. And earlier this year, a sixty-one-year-old official in Jinan, Shandong Province made international news when he printed an apology—“despite huge family pressure,” as media accounts noted—for acts of violence he had committed as a teenage Red Guard.
The enduring ethic from this era became self-preservation at all costs. Older generations view money as the only guarantor of safety, and younger generations were raised to revere wealth. Greed is prolific, and power is envied and abused. Occasional horrific news stories hint at the me-first legacy of Maoism: A toddler was run over by a car, and no one stopped to help; a greedy company put melamine in milk destined for baby bottles; a Red Cross worker apparently pilfered funds meant for victims of the Sichuan earthquake, spending the money on designer bags and fancy cars.
Christianity becomes an appealing answer. Both Catholic and Protestant churches are extraordinarily charitable, creating communities by engaging in philanthropy and social work. They also forge kinship in China’s urban centers, where mass migration has left many feeling isolated. These developments, though not directly political, have the potential to change China by addressing some of the most fundamental material, emotional, and spiritual needs of its people.
And, to bring it full circle, Chinese Christians are now sending missionaries of their own. They’re avid proselytizers within their own borders, spreading the Word across provinces. Many feel a special calling to bring the Word back to the Middle East; others become unintentional missionaries as their work carries them to the West and beyond. Christianity has become Chinese. Now, its converts are paying it forward.
Jillian Kay Melchior reported on Christianity in China as a Robert Novak Fellow with the Phillips Foundation.