Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

For more than four centuries, the study of China and the conversion of its people have been high Christian callings. Though never a decisive influence on the course of China’s history, Christianity has managed to be on hand for some of the country’s shaping events, present at both creative and destructive moments. Today, as China’s relations with the world become ever more complex, the West’s core religious tradition has once again insinuated itself into China’s ongoing confusion, not only in a day-to-day way but as a subject for longer-term speculation. In the United States especially, efforts in both religious and political communities to make Christianity more salient in America’s international relations generally are bound to make Christianity more conspicuous in United States-China relations particularly.

The first sustained personal and intellectual linkages between the great civilizations of China and the West originated in the efforts of Catholic missionaries in the early 1600s to create a synthesis between the teachings of Confucius and Jesus that might, someday, ease China’s acceptance of Roman Catholicism. The beginning of this great project is customarily marked by the arrival of the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) in Beijing in 1601, though the indefatigable Ricci had come to south China in 1583 and was able to present himself at the Imperial court only after eighteen years of trying.

Ricci and his colleagues in China came to be known within the Church as “accommodationists.” They were responsible for the translation of Chinese classics into Latin. They established sinology as a scholarly discipline, and dominated it throughout the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth centuries. They introduced the West’s advances in astronomy and mathematics to the Chinese. They believed that much of inherited Confucian wisdom and ritual was consistent with Catholic teaching, as they understood the two traditions. This belief was as much practical as theological, for they believed that the first order of evangelization in China was securing the respect of the vaunted Confucian intelligentsia.

As it happened, the small band of European Catholics in China and the slowly growing cohort of converts lived through one of the country’s great social and political cataclysms. Precisely because the Jesuits had a high opinion of the Chinese tradition, they were as disconcerted as the Chinese themselves by the violent end of the great Ming Dynasty in 1644. Established in 1368, the Ming house began to crumble in the 1620s, leaving the country open to conquest by the Manchus, a “barbarian” people from beyond the Great Wall. The chaos created by the Manchus’ ascendancy was especially great in Beijing, but throughout the country there were acts of real and symbolic Chinese resistance, from the formation of pro-Ming secret societies to suicides born of despair. Ming loyalism retained a grip on the country’s imagination, inspiring much opera, drama, poetry, and popular fiction. It took the Manchus another forty years or so to mop up the opposition in the larger country.

Both the Confucian Chinese and the Catholic Europeans who witnessed these events and understood them in the context of China’s history appreciated their profundity. (They even had ramifications for the world’s balance of power, since the struggles among the English, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Russians for influence in Asia and, therefore, ultimately in Europe itself, were already well under way.)

What explained this great upheaval? Inside the Confucian intelligentsia, dynastic collapse and foreign conquest produced a certain loss of confidence, and some began to recast Confucian doctrine. To some degree, the demoralization was so deep that many thoughtful Chinese were unprecedentedly open to an alternative world schema of the kind the Jesuits presented. And they thought they were making progress. In 1692, the emperor Kangxi (1654-1722)”regarded now as among the greatest in China’s history”issued an Edict of Toleration. But the Emperor, perhaps because Manchu rule itself was becoming more accepted, or perhaps because he felt it advisable to identify more closely with the Confucian mainstream, came gradually to withdraw his support. His son finally proscribed Catholicism in 1724, and placed it on the list of “perverted sects and evil doctrines.” Meanwhile, back in Rome, it thus became easier for the Jesuits’ universalist outlook to come under attack from the order’s rivals, and its doctrinal assumptions began to lose ground. Eventually, this so-called “rites controversy” about the compatibility of Catholicism and Confucianism was resolved by a papal bull of 1742 that prohibited Chinese Catholics from participating in various Confucian rites.

There were no more than a half million Catholics in China by then, and the government’s sustained hostility ground that number down by about half. Still, they survived well enough”even though subject periodically to local outbursts of anti-Christian feeling”mostly because the dynasty had far more challenging problems suppressing armed rebellion and expanding imperial domains. Kangxi’s grandson, another of the great emperors, was particularly preoccupied with adding Mongolia, Tibet, and East Turkestan to his core Chinese holdings and, in the process, creating “China” as we now know it.

The truly great era of Western influence in China began in the mid-nineteenth century, and though the propagation of the faith was hardly the dominant motive of these newly influential Westerners, the role of Christianity in Chinese affairs grew in proportion to the Western presence. Over time, the freedom for foreigners to proselytize and for Chinese to practice the Christian religion became part of the treaty system that came to define China’s relations with the Western world. Once a localized phenomenon, Christianity could thus be carried deep into the interior of the Empire, and the Chinese government was obligated to protect that advance”however much it resented the obligations that the West had forced upon it. Meanwhile, the Christianization of China, once exclusively the province of Catholics, became increasingly a Protestant undertaking, first dominated by the British but, later, overwhelmingly by Americans. This reflected the relative decline of the older Catholic powers in world affairs, Britain’s leading role among Western nations in China, and the various energetic movements among English-speaking Protestants throughout the nineteenth century.

In the meantime, however, the Chinese might be pardoned for regarding the arrival of Christian doctrine as a mixed blessing. For one of the largest and most devastating uprisings in world history occurred in China in the mid-nineteenth century, and it was inspired by one Chinese man’s interpretation of Christian faith. In l837, a certain Hong Xiuquan, age twenty-three, read Chinese-language Protestant pamphlets and, afterward, understood himself to have visited heaven. His vivid recollection of his journey had powerful effects. He came to believe that he was the son of God and the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He set out to give a systematic presentation of his vision both theologically and politically, and came gradually to regard himself as the founder of a new earthly order for China. His following grew, and came to include men with natural gifts for military operations. They are known to history as the Taiping (“great peace”) rebels.

Hong began to capture important cities in the central regions of the country, enabling him to implement a Sino-Christian theocracy determined to construct an earthly utopia, “so that all can live together in perpetual joy, until at last they are raised to heaven to greet their father.” It was a complex system, often arbitrary and brutal, socially communal, and extremely puritanical. (It would be much studied, later, by the Chinese Communist Party.) At its apex was the Heavenly King, as Hong now styled himself. Over time, Hong’s realm spread close to Shanghai, the center of Western influence in China, and Western governments had to decide whether to back a Christian Heavenly Kingdom of a kind, or support the ruling Manchu/Confucian dynasty of a sort. A delegation of Protestant missionaries actually called on Hong, and examined him about his theological convictions, which, of course, they found heretical. They also judged the Heavenly King too set in his ways to recant. It took almost fifteen years, until about 1865, for this somewhat-Christian movement to be suppressed. Tens of millions were engaged on both sides of the struggle; casualties were also in the tens of millions, and the collateral destruction, by all eyewitness accounts, was enormous.

China’s devastating encounter with bowdlerized Christianity made it all the more difficult to purvey the approved thing. Relations were further poisoned by the famous “Boxer Uprising” of 1900, which fed on a kind of mass hysteria rooted in homegrown Chinese millennialism, aided and abetted by the shortsighted manipulations of a faction inside the Manchu court. The Boxers violently attacked foreigners, Western Christians and, especially, Chinese Christians. In this they were different from the Taiping rebels in more than theology; the Taipings were anti-Manchu, the Boxers prepared to live with the “barbarian” Manchu dynasty as the only practical alternative to foreigners they hated even more. One supposes, also, that in supporting the Boxers’ anti-Christian vehemence, China’s Manchu rulers were hoping finally to extirpate the pseudo-Christian sentiment that had so threatened their rule thirty-five years before. But the effort was disastrous”a war against all the major powers of the world, whose armies invested Beijing and imposed further humiliation and indemnity on the now-doomed Manchu regime.

As in the mid-seventeenth century, the psychological dislocation of dynastic decline also triggered a crisis of confidence in received tradition and a corresponding willingness to examine even “perverted and evil” doctrines. Even so, Christian teaching had to compete with a host of secular Western ideologies, all of them associated in one way or another with what appeared to be the winning side in the struggle between the “old” and the “new,” things Chinese and Western.

In retrospect, we now understand that Christianity, and especially its American Protestant variant, contributed much to the secular modernization of China. It was associated with the dominant reformist idea of the time”the social gospel”and its effects on Chinese society were profound. It was a powerful force in education, medicine, women’s rights, and, especially, in introducing younger Chinese to the world through educational experiences in the United States. So it was that the saving of Chinese souls one at a time had to mean the salvation of Chinese society as a whole. At first, this prompted occasional forays into Chinese politics by prominent American missionaries; later, it produced determined interventions into the making of American foreign policy toward China.

In our own time, it is hard to appreciate the scale of the American Protestant effort in China from, say, 1850 until the establishment of the Communist regime in l949. But it was huge, and drew upon the energies and the funds of Americans in every part of the country. It built schools, universities, and research institutions as well as churches. And, most of all, it produced the cadre that interpreted things Chinese to Americans, whether religious or secular. Before there were departments of East Asian studies, the requisite competencies were being developed among the preachers and their children. The late Kenneth Scott Latourette, professor at Yale and the most industrious chronicler of the expansion of Christianity into China, could himself recall that, in 1928, when the American Council of Learned Societies set up a Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Studies, half the members were either active or retired missionaries, or their children.

All this was to have its effect on world politics and on world history. As it happened, the single most important shift in American sentiment affecting East Asia actually occurred between the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and the end of World War I in l9l8. For it was in that period that favorable sentiment shifted from Japan to China. Even as early as l915, active American Protestants in China realized”in advance of most, it would now seem”that Japan was set on a predatory course, that China was to be a victim and not a beneficiary of Japan’s rapid modernization, and that the United States ought to line up on China’s side. These feelings intensified in the next quarter century as the United States did indeed involve itself ever more forcefully on China’s behalf.

The growing psychological and material involvement of Americans in China’s affairs was decisively influenced by two powerful personalities shaped by their personal experience of the Protestant enterprise in China. The better known is Henry Luce (1898-1967), founder of Time, Inc. and, in his time, the most influential of American publishers. Luce spent the first fourteen years of his life in China, where his father was a Presbyterian missionary. Time itself, which Luce started in l923, succeeded quickly, and became but the first in a series of prominent magazines. With the success of his ventures so rapidly consolidated, Luce began to convey through his magazines his strong opinions about the convergence of China’s future with Christian and American ideals. He settled upon the Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) as the embodiment of this bold East-West synthesis. Chiang’s wife, Soong Mei-ling (b. 1897), a formidable figure in her own right, was a member of China’s most prominent and prosperous Christian family and facilitated Chiang’s conversion to Methodism in 1930. Chiang’s political mentor, Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), was a Hong Kong-trained physician who had himself been baptized, and who had spent some of his earliest years in Honolulu. Luce’s advocacy on the Chiangs’ behalf fit nicely with an American avidity for Christianizing purposes in Asia.

Luce’s rather expansive vision of China’s destiny was balanced by the more down-to-earth renditions of Chinese life created by Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973.) Mrs. Buck, also the child of a Presbyterian missionary, grew up in China, was effectively bilingual, and created a sensation with the publication of her novel The Good Earth in l931. Though only barely into her literary career, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in l934. More than any other product of the missionary experience, Mrs. Buck”her relative obscurity today notwithstanding”created the enduring American image of the long-suffering though indefatigable Chinese peasant. Like Luce, she was to find herself at the center of a vast enterprise that brought moral, financial, and political support to China during the l930s and l940s. Later, these two renowned American sinophiles would come to a parting of the political ways; Mrs. Buck was far the more modishly liberal of the two, in the end a pessimist about Chiang’s prospects, whereas Luce is remembered as an unrepentent supporter of Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang, the “nationalists.”

Still, what we might call the golden age of Presbyterianism in Chinese-American affairs had one final and dramatic episode left to it and, with that, the onset of a generation of disillusionment about China and its prospects. John Leighton Stuart (1876-1962) descended from generations of Presbyterian churchmen. His father, who had come to China in 1873 at age twenty-eight, would serve there for forty-five years. Stuart, born in China, would spend his youth there, travel abroad, and then return in 1905 after completing his university education in the United States. In the ensuing decades Stuart would rise to become President of Yenching University in Beijing, flagship of the many American higher education institutions in China. He lived through the Japanese occupation of the city, as their prisoner, from late l941 until Japan’s surrender in l945. In l946, at the instance of George Marshall, Stuart was made U.S. Ambassador to China, but fled the Chinese mainland in 1949 when the Nationalist regime collapsed. By Christmas 1950 the United States and China would be at war in Korea. There would not be another full-fledged American Ambassador in Beijing until l979, though linkages were never wholly broken; two of the subsequent U.S. Ambassadors to the PRC, James Lilley (served 1989-1991) and J. Stapleton Roy (served 1991-1995) were both China-born, Roy the son of a Protestant missionary.

For the next quarter century, China was governed substantially at the whim of Mao Zedong (1893-1976), a demonic megalomaniac who, in his own way, sought to complete the work of the failed Heavenly King. For Maoism was to socialism what the Taiping creed was to Christianity”a bizarrely sinified version of Western doctrine which, when implemented by its Chinese creator, brought about astounding human misery. Even so, after Mao’s death, his successors gave “socialism” another try””socialism with Chinese characteristics,” as the late Deng Xiaoping named it”though in practice it resembles in many respects the kind of capitalism practiced by China’s East Asian neighbors

Just as Westerners have had trouble comprehending the scale of any of China’s modern convulsions, whether Christian-inspired popular rebellion or Marxist-inspired social revolution, so too has the great turmoil produced by today’s continuing experiment, now twenty years running, gone under-appreciated. In that time, the size of the economy has more than quadrupled. Hundreds of millions of people have moved from one part of the country to another. Consumer products of every description have become commonplace. International exchange of goods and people and ideas has grown exponentially. And while China’s new “socialism” was moving from one success to another, the Soviet Empire collapsed, followed by the Soviet Union itself, followed by Communist doctrine overall.

No wonder, then, that a nation of more than a billion and a quarter souls turned upside down and inside out demographically, economically, environmentally, culturally, and ideologically should find itself somewhat confused about the proper interpretation of these developments. The ruling regime uses its persuasive resources to urge economic growth, ethical and cultural advance, and the creation of something it calls “spiritual civilization.” Sometimes, China’s high tradition is invoked in support of these ends, but that is made awkward by a regime whose higher cadre remind no one of a refined Confucian literatus . At other times, the appeal is to political thought of more recent vintage, but that, too, seems self-discrediting when invoked by a moribund Communist Party.

We in the jaded West recognize this syndrome, and so do the Chinese. The regime, as a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist police state, is doctrinally atheistic and intermittently brutal to religious believers of all kinds. Yet it is also a principal sponsor of discussions of the moral vacuum in the country, an indication that it senses its own rule may be precarious. At one such event in June 1996, one of China’s best-known writers, the novelist Wang Meng, spoke about the spiritual thirst of ordinary Chinese and, especially, of Chinese artists and intellectuals. He attributed the popularity of some of the younger writers to their religiosity””better the rigid adherent of any religion than a man whose spirit has totally collapsed . . . . What an interesting phenomenon it is! One becomes a Christian believer. Another claims to be possessed by the devil. Still another becomes a disciple of Chan (i.e., Zen) Buddhism.”

Wang had more to say about what he called the “new craze of ultimate faith,” and, given his own personal and political history, he is clearly on to something. He first gained fame in l957 when, in his early twenties, he took advantage of a brief thaw to write a novel critical of the Party’s pomposity. In and out of favor ever since, he was appointed Minister of Culture in l986, and then removed in l989 after the Tiananmen massacre, since he was thought too liberal. Seven years later, however, his remarks in mid-l996 were not troublesome enough to prevent his election as Vice-Chairman of the Chinese Writers Association at the end of the year. And yet l997 began on a disquieting note”a bitter personal attack against him published in one of the Party’s many journals.

The contemporary situation of Christianity in China is no less ambiguous. It is obviously capitalizing on the spiritual disorientation of a country that is experiencing an example of the power of capitalism’s creative destruction, one whose scope is unprecedented in world history. But it also benefits from the fact that there has been religion as such in China for a very long time, and not just the “folk religion” and “state religion” beloved of social and political anthropologists. Chinese Buddhism is heir to a complex organizational structure of temples, monasteries, seminaries, estates, and endowments. The institutional Buddhist base of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule is well-known in the West. There have been Muslims in China for more than a millennium; the number today is small”about twenty-odd million”but they are strategically located in the country’s far northwest and increasingly connected to the stirrings throughout the Islamic world.

But, in the end, it is Christianity’s Western origin and Western connection that make it a devilish problem for a China that really is “opening up” to the outside world. The older Party line on such worldliness was that Christianity was nothing but a subversive adjunct of Western imperialism; the most recent Chinese scholarship is far more appreciative of Christianity’s “progressive” influences. The regime now recognizes that its own de facto “edict of toleration,” dating from the late l970s, has allowed for an upsurge in Christian adherents, though we do not know how many. The regime itself uses a figure of about ten million”six million Protestants, four million Catholics”but the real number is certainly higher.

There is, likewise, a range of church-state relations, from furtive underground congregations harassed and hounded, to officially sanctioned “patriotic” churches and church organizations. The People’s Republic and the Papacy, especially, have been locked in a fifty-year struggle over the Communists’ refusal to acknowledge the Vatican’s right to name China’s bishops. Meanwhile, the Holy See still maintains formal diplomatic relations with the Nationalist government on Taiwan, a China card of its own that may someday be played in support of those Chinese Catholics who, in Pope John Paul II’s words this past December, “have not given in to a church that corresponds neither to the will of Christ, nor to the Catholic faith.” The Pope suggests that his Chinese flock poses no threat to the civil authority if religious freedoms are respected. Meanwhile, Chinese Catholics are unusually prominent in the ongoing struggle for democratic rights. One thinks, for example, of the exiled activist (now an American citizen) Harry Wu, and of Martin Lee (once a British subject), Hong Kong’s most outspoken critic of Beijing’s plans for governing the city it has recently re-acquired.

While the long view of China’s history may be consoling in providing instances of tolerance and cosmopolitanism, not just of repression and xenophobia, the most recent anti-Christian episodes in China are no less challenging than those faced by earlier generations of interested Westerners. Like the European arrivals in Beijing in the seventeenth century, we ponder whether there is any fundamental commensuration between the Chinese and Christian traditions and, if not, how then to develop long-term political and diplomatic strategies.

In contemporary America, the question acquires political saliency by the day. The growing involvement of evangelical Christians in political life has mostly concerned domestic problems, but the same people are increasingly active internationally in proselytizing and in humanitarian work. But many of these are people who are also associated with a kind of isolationist outlook that takes as its point of departure a rejection of the legitimacy of most trans-national political and economic arrangements subsumed under “the new world order.” The rejection extends not only to the instrumentalities of the United Nations but, oftentimes, to workaday arrangements for international trade and communication.

Yet, in this regard, the most influential of their predecessors who worked in China saw few distinctions between the secular and religious components of their activity. Their Christian militancy, far from being in opposition to the Wilsonian world vision, was for the most part an affirmation of it. As in the case of John Leighton Stuart, a man could be both ardently anti-Communist, devoutly religious, and ardently Wilsonian at one and the same time; after all, Woodrow Wilson himself was all of these.

But this particular understanding of the secular and the religious is far older than that. America’s first Protestant missionary in China was Elijah Coleman Bridgman, who was sent there in l829 and who, for many years, wrote extensively both in English about China and in Chinese about the United States. Michael Lazich, who has made a study of these writings, concludes that Bridgman viewed the worldwide expansion of human knowledge as a key part of universal redemption. And even in his day, he saw an emerging international order, under which all nations would enjoy equal rights and be bound by equal responsibilities, as a natural accompaniment of the prophesied Christian millennium.

Obviously, these notions worked their way through the American political system, producing great debates about the country’s role in world affairs. Insofar as the involvement of American Christians in the problems of China is concerned, the nineteenth-century outlook, so powerful in shaping attitudes in the first half of the twentieth century, seems not to have much purchase on the eve of the twenty-first.

Rather, the emerging China-related political program of contemporary Christian activists seems curiously disembodied. If it seeks only tolerance for Christian believers in China, then the case for it, as a political/legal matter, can derive only from that vast compilation of international treaties and covenants which define American-style civil and human rights in a multinational context. If their program seeks also the larger renovation of China’s political regime, such that it respects these norms out of conviction, not out of occasional expediency, then the arguments for the larger “engagement” of China cannot be so readily dismissed.

But, in fact, the fundamental premise of the concern has also changed. Previous generations of committed Christians were pro-Chinese, disturbed by China’s weaknesses and determined to eliminate them. Today’s activists, to the extent that any well-thought-out position has actually crystallized among them, think that China has already become too strong, and that greater Sino-American intimacy will make China stronger still. Powerfully expressed concerns for the welfare of Chinese Christians could well improve their lot from time to time, but will also disrupt Sino-American relations to some degree, thereby constraining American contributions to the growth of Chinese power.

Strategic analysis aside, the assertion of an American interest in Chinese affairs that is Christian in its origin is apt to have complex consequences. If it proceeds from the idea of the United States as a “Christian nation,” it will certainly depart from our well-established convictions about the way in which world peace might be secured, contributing instead to a sense that current struggles are indeed the manifestation of irreducible conflicts among religions, cultures, and civilizations. But if it proceeds on the basis of an ecumenism, either secular or religious, it must confront its current estrangement from the more conventional ways the country has managed its international relations. Can we imagine America’s evangelical Christians returning to their internationalist one-world roots and concluding that “the new world order,” much of which is their creation in the first place, is their friend and not their enemy?

Meanwhile, as we have been doing for centuries, we must continue to calculate the West’s ability to make a forceful impression on the East. In past eras of Western self-confidence, even self-certitude, the consequences of our interventions were often profound, but never quite what we had in mind when we started. As for the United States in particular, if, in its present condition of confusion and self-doubt, it embarks again on a China mission, the country will be hard-pressed to equal even the ambiguous success of its prior crusades.

Charles Horner is Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.