The image of “The River and The Cross” as the starting point for the following reflections on the encounter between the religions of China and Christianity is meant to refer to how important the great rivers of China, such as the Yellow River and the Yangtze, have been for the development of Chinese culture. When it comes to the meeting of Christianity with the religions, or more properly speaking, spiritual traditions of China such as Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, then the symbol of “water” can be used to stand for Taosim, since according to the Daodejing, the central work of Taoism which is ascribed to LaoZi, water is the element which conquers “hardness” with its “softness”. On the other hand, for Buddhism, it is the symbol of the lotus, which produces a splendid white blossom floating on the surface of the water, the symbol for enlightenment, since it overcomes the darkness as it grows, having its roots in the black mud of the water and striving upward, once it has reached the surface of the water, it shows the full beauty of its blossoms. The connection between Confucianism and water or the rivers is less pronounced. Confucianism stands rather for the regulating power of mankind, who through discipline, the observance of fixed rules and the construction of dikes, tames the power of the waters, which is seen in the periodic floods, and constrains the rivers to remain within their fixed riverbeds. The sign of the “Cross” as the symbol for Christianity stands both as a contradiction, the instrument of the execution of criminals, and at the same time, as the symbol for the victory of life over death, which Jesus Christ has achieved in the mystery of the Easter event. With its arms reaching in all directions, the Cross stands as well for the worldwide sending of the Christian message and its missionary ambitions, which China has experienced in a variety of ways.
I. China - the "Middle Kingdom"
With good reason the Chinese - despite all radical changes and disasters in their eventful history - boast to be the longest existing advanced culture in the world. It is this common history of which the majority population of Han Chinese is proud and which all the same has given them - although they were often ruled by other peoples as e.g. the Mongols or Mandschus - an indestructible feeling of belonging together. Another important factor for this knowledge of an indestructible continuity in the Chinese culture is the ideographic script, which is independent of historical sound changes and regional language differences, and which makes it - despite smaller modifications and corrections in the course of history - nevertheless possible to read and thus hold in awareness written testimonies from times long past. Throughout the course of history we find in the Chinese society a strongly marked high esteem for education, which time and again made it also for people of humble origin possible to rise to higher offices and tasks (meritocraty). Most Chinese regard - even when they for a long time live abroad - China, the Chinese culture and language as unsurpassable (an attitude that is sometimes also called "Han-Chauvinism") and as an element that connects all of them and conveys them a strong feeling of belonging together. In its history China was time and again exposed to many foreign influences and was several times for long time ruled by peoples that came from outside. But the cultural identity of the Chinese people has not suffered by it. The foreign influences were taken up, absorbed ("sinicized") and in the end integrated. This applies to religious foreign influences like Buddhism, which came from India, but it applies in exactly the same way also to Marxism, which in China was turned into "Socialism with Chinese Face". Expression of this attitude is the appreciation and the getting through of the ideals of unity and harmony as well as the high esteem for orthodoxy, which tries to exclude all deviating elements.
The role assigned to religion(s) is primarily that they less spread their own world view or conception of God or heaven, but rather make it their major task to devote themselves - with their rites, prayers, meditations, sacrifices and other religious activities completely to the service of the "one China". For thousands of years the supreme power lay in the hands of the emperors. The emperor as "Son of Heaven" was the highest authority, which mediated between the subjects and heaven, which guaranteed the good relations with heaven and was responsible for the welfare of the country. If his rule or he personally failed he could lose the "mandate of heaven", which ultimately legitimized his rule, and it was allowed then to remove him from office also by force.
The religions and their leaders were expected to work for the welfare of the country, for the maintenance of order, the moral values and their passing on, and also otherwise for harmony in the society.
In contrast they were not expected and forbidden to practice any whatsoever prophetic mission from which they had been able to oppose the existing civilian power structure. The model of a prophetic mission, known to us in the west from the Jewish-Christian tradition, by which with reference to God and his order the civilian rule and its doings can be criticized and condemned, always remained foreign to the Chinese tradition. A statement like "One is to obey God more than men" (Acts 5.29) was never accepted in the Chinese context.
That means in practice that in China religions were seen in three different ways:
- The religion devotes itself to the service of the state and understands itself as state-supporting power that contributes by its religious activities to maintain peace and harmony in the society. In China's history that is the only form of religious practice regarded as orthodox.
- Tolerated by the state was also that followers of a religion, as Buddhist and Taoist monks withdrew from the world into the solitude of a monastery or hermitage to devote themselves in the silence to prayer, meditation or other religious exercises.
- Not tolerated but persecuted were religious groups in China's history always then, when they challenged the political system and spoke up for social and political change. A reference to a "higher power", the attempt to turn - circumventing the emperor or the then ruling political power - directly to God or heaven was always persecuted and prevented as subversive doing.
This means for the religion politics of the Chinese state that there is a surprising continuity from the emperors' era up to the present, namely in the clear definition that all religious activities always stand under state control. It is the task of the state authority to direct the influence of the religions in such a way that it remains guaranteed that they do not claim any autonomy for themselves but always remain in the serving function to be conducive to the maintenance of public order.
II. Look on the Religions in the People's Republic of China
In Tao lies the eternal law that enables men to recognize their own nature and destination and to live accordingly. Taoism is often called the original expression of Chinese thinking, which had retained forms of intuitive grasps of reality as well as holistic thinking, freedom of rational expediency, naivety and spontaneity, which were characteristic for the Chinese philosophical and religious thinking. The great topic of the traditional Chinese world view and thus also of Taoism is the harmony between macrocosm and microcosm, where heaven, earth and man (tian di ren) form a triad and stand in interaction to each other and are to be held respectively brought into harmony. It is a characteristic of Taoism that it often appears as anarchic, as a dark doctrine that can be understood only with difficulty. When one reads the central writing of Daodejing, it is time and again pointed out that Tao remains ultimately closed to the human (understanding) reason. "Who talks does not know, who knows does not talk! ", these are words of Laozi, who himself claimed to know something and nevertheless was not silent but wrote a book with five thousand words - something already the Chinese poet Bai Juyi (772-846) was surprised at. Instead of a rational comprehension of the mystery of Tao, of nature and human existence "non-acting" (wu-wei) is propagated. With these teachings it is not about the recommendation of total passivity. It is rather the request to leave things their spontaneous run, and not to intervene unnecessarily in the happenings. Metaphysically seen, "non-acting" is activity without action, the agreement with the world law of Tao, the motionless prime mover, because "Tao never does anything and nevertheless everything is done". These words express the attitude of leaving oneself to the course of nature, without making the futile attempt to resist death and futility. Within the interpersonal area "non-acting" means the renunciation of force, and the option for non-resistance. In "giving way" things will turn to the good. These attitudes are also recommended as ideal behaviour to the rulers of states.
The religious Taoism was in China always also an important element of the piety of the ordinary people. In Chinese history Taoism was politically of no importance. Today it is - because of its being in tune with nature - of greater importance in the discussion on environmental endangerment, which in the future could be of more and more importance in changing the dominant mentality. Taoist ideas and associated with them the proximity to nature are appreciated by the Chinese government as a positive contribution to the preservation of the environment and stabilization of the public health. Some of the by the Taoists represented basic ideas about healthy nutrition, as e.g. the Taoist vegetarian kitchen, have met with approval in the population.
Compared with Taoism, Confucianism as state-maintaining power appears rather as philosophy than as religion. Soberness and rationality make Confucianism a teaching tradition, which in China's history was the dominating power for social coherence, the stability of the family and for the keeping of right and order. In Confucianism the concept "heaven" (tian) is central for religiousness and ethics; as arranging power in the universe it is responsible for order and for restraining chaos. Sometimes "heaven" has also personal relations, which seem to move it into the proximity of the Christian God, but usually it is only the impersonal guarantor for eternal order and harmony. The emperors, or whoever had the power, had to have got the "mandate of heaven", so that they were authorized for the rule. When he lost the "mandate of heaven", he could be deposed and replaced by another ruler. Maintaining the harmony between "heaven", "earth" and "man" was the fundamental task of the ruler at the time. Disasters such as earthquakes, droughts and famines were regarded as indications that the harmony was disturbed, for which the rulers of the time had to be called to account.
In Confucianism the five human relations (between ruler and subjects, father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brother, friend and friend) are of great importance, since they determine the place of the individual in society. The interpersonal relations are held together by the virtue of humanity or kindness (ren). The maintenance of "unity" and "harmony" represents the highest value and determines the interpersonal behaviour.
In that connection Confucianism had a central position, because it supplied the standard for orthodoxy since each religion had to show its fundamental agreement with the canon for religious, ritual, social and political activities in the different religious traditions fixed by the followers of Confucius, if it wanted to appear as "orthodox" and not as "subversive". Confucianism stood for the so-called "Chinese cultural imperative" (Erich Zürcher), according to which each religion was in so far regarded as orthodox as it recognized the fundamental role of Confucianism to be regulation and yardstick of orthodoxy.
The controlling influence of Confucianism was by the reformers in the country more and more questioned towards the end of the Mandschu Qing dynasty (1911). "Down with the Confucius shop!" was the war-cry of the Beijing students who protested on 4 May 1919 and regarded Confucianism as the root of the misery of the Chinese state. Instead of the encrusted Confucian structures the natural sciences ("Mr. Science") and democracy ("Mr. Democracy") were proclaimed as leading symbols for a new China. When in 1949 the Communists seized power, the rule of Marxism-Leninism and of the Mao Zedong- ideas was proclaimed, which clearly dissociated themselves from Confucianism. In the turmoil of the Culture Revolution (1966-1976) with the destruction of the old ideas and conceptions also Confucius and his ideas were called outdated and Confucian institutions were destroyed everywhere in the country. With the reform politics under Deng Xiaoping after the defeat of the Gang of Four Confucianism too was gradually rehabilitated again.
In the discussion about "Asian values" in the 1990ies the trend increased to claim Confucius and his teachings as Chinese inheritance and endeavouring to develop a new Chinese identity to "use" it more and more. On the search for the secret of the economic strength of some Asian societies (the so-called Tiger States: South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and later the People's Republic of China) values and virtues mediated by Confucianism were found as engines of the economic growth. The reference to Confucianism and its importance for an ethics of economy of Asian coinage may be exaggerated as far as facts are concerned but it is gladly used by Asian politicians to keep their distance from the west. From this view also the restoration of Confucius and his theories becomes understandable in the present situation in the People's Republic of China.
In view of the decay of moral standards, of the unbridled striving for wealth and property in China's present economic development the communist leadership of the country is scarcely any longer looking for answers in the run down "Socialism of Chinese coinage" but refers more and more back to the ethical standards of Confucianism. Above all the following elements, which originate from Confucianism, became important for the Chinese society that still calls itself "communist-socialistic":
- the emphasis on community in demarcation to individualism;
- the importance of education and formation in lifelong learning;
- the importance of the hierarchy for the maintenance of unity and order;
- order as principle of unity in repulsion of pluralism.
All these elements from Confucian sources are to help in building a "harmonious society", as that social program of the government is called at present. It is characteristic for that rehabilitation and new appreciation of CONFUCIUS and his teachings that the cultural institutes at present established abroad by the government of the People's Republic of China ("Confucius Institutes") bear the name of the great sage.
Buddhism came from India to China. The monk Bodhidharma is supposed to have brought Buddhism to China in the second century B.C.. It is amazing how quickly Buddhism was "sinicized" in China and assimilated to Chinese ideas. This development was supported by the fact that Buddhism admittedly had come from India and thus was a "foreign" religion, but in its spreading and organization it did not depend on a foreign centre. The newly converted Chinese Buddhists translated the classical writings of the Buddhist canon (Tripitaka) into Chinese, but otherwise they were free to organize an independent Chinese form of Buddhist life.
A Chinese creation is e.g. the development of Chan Buddhism, for us in the west better known in the Japanese form as Zen Buddhism. It is a school of meditation that quite deliberately does not feel obliged to any Indian tradition, but shows a new way to achieve illumination. Not least by it Buddhism became in relatively short time a religion that was regarded as genuine Chinese. It is true in history there were always also resistances against forms of Buddhist life. The emperors intervened when the Buddhist monasteries became economically influential. Groups inspired by Buddhism like the "White Lotus Sect" in the 12th century, which lent aid to the interests of the exploited farmers, were bloodily suppressed by the state authority. The ordinary faithful visited the monks in the monasteries on certain occasions to get advice and assistance. Particularly in cases of deaths they found consolation in Buddhist rites and prayers.
After the establishment of the People's Republic of China also Buddhist institutions were limited by the restrictive religion politics of the Communist rulers. In the course of the Culture Revolution it came temporarily to an almost complete extinction of Buddhist life. A special case is the Buddhism in Tibet, where the influence of the Lamas was suppressed by force. The repressions against monks, nuns and Buddhist laymen go on in Tibet until today.
Since the days of the Jesuit missionaries the Christian mission was rather unfavourably disposed towards Buddhism and mostly saw in it a theory full of superstitious practices, with which to argue was actually not worth the trouble. The common history of persecution of all religions in the People's Republic of China since 1949 and above all the drastic events during the Culture Revolution changed this attitude. But also today there are few meetings between Buddhists and Christians. Earliest there are meetings in connection with the meetings of the "Political Consultative Conference of the Chinese People", a committee established by party and government, to which representatives of all religious and social groups must belong.
4. The Phenomenon "Unity of the Three Religions" (san jiao heyi)
The marked effort to preserve "unity" and "harmony" becomes also apparent in the syncretistic tendencies in the Chinese tradition. The ordinary faithful found themselves at home in all three traditions and according to the circumstances - made "use" of these or those elements. One talked of the "three religions" (san jiao) as of a syncretistic unity. In concrete terms this meant that the faithful did not commit themselves to one religion, but according to the conditions of human life with highlights such as birth, illness and death rituals (rites de passages) of this or that religious tradition were performed and the services of the different religious communities used.
Islam already in the seventh century for the first time reached the coastal towns in the east of China by Arab traders. The obligation to read the Koran in Arab meant from the outset that Islam could not simply be "sinicized". Also the obligation to the hadsch to Mecca made the foreign character and the lasting relation to a foreign centre clear. So Islam never became a religion that was simply regarded as a Chinese one.
China's Muslims today belong to ten different nationalities. By far the largest groups are the Chinese-speaking Hui and the Turk-speaking Uigurs. In the last years the Islam in the western provinces, particularly in Xinjiang, is partly suspected by the government of separatist activities and terrorism.
III. The Meetings of Christianity with China
1. Nestorian Mission (7th - 9th Century)
The first meeting happened already in the seventh century, as monks of the East-Syrian (Nestorian) Church came to the then capital Chang´an, today's Xi´an. The Tang emperors were well-disposed towards the monks and permitted them to build monasteries and churches. There are few testimonies of Christian life during the Tang time. When the Jesuits in the 17th century discovered the famous stone of Xi´an, on which the fundamental features of the "Religion of Light", as the Nestorians had called the Christian doctrine in Chinese, were entered, they met with disbelief. In enlightened Europe the claim that Christian institutions in China had already existed that early, was considered as an invention of the "shrewd" Jesuits, who with it wanted to convince the Chinese of the age of the relation to Christianity.
However that may be the Nestorian mission remained in China a temporary phenomenon. [About the history of the East-Syrian church in China, see also the contribution of Fang Hao in the Historical Notes. Note from the editor.]
2. The Franciscan Mission (12th - 13th Century)
That applies also to the mission of the Franciscans in the 12th - 13th century. It was the time of the Mongols' rule in China, when John of Montecorvino (1246-1328) was appointed archbishop of the then capital Kambalik, today's Beijing. With the dynasty change, which ended the Mongols' rule, the Catholic mission too came to a standstill again.
3. The Jesuit Mission (16th - 18th Century)
The next attempt happened under the Jesuits in the 16th century. Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and his companions made a new beginning of preaching the Christian message. First they appeared - in imitation of Buddhist monks - in monk's habit. But soon they decidedly turned their backs on the Chinese Buddhists and radically changed their appearance, by putting on the garment of the Confucian scholars. By imparting western sciences such as astronomy, mathematics, geography (maps / atlases) and mechanics (clocks etc.), they found admission and hearing among the scholars and finally also at the imperial court.
The strong separation from Buddhism, which in its ethics, in its monastic life and the high esteem of meditation has some strong points of contact with Christian traditions, is somewhat surprising. It has probably to do with the appearance of Buddhism at that time, which had integrated strong people-religious elements. Also Taoism with its strong connections with magic practices, superstition and other elements of a rather popular religiousness was no serious interlocutor for the Jesuits.
But in preaching the gospel the Jesuits tried to find starting-points for the Christian message in Confucius' teachings. Confucius was presented as representative of a "natural religion" and "ethics", whose doctrines in their central points agreed with Christianity. That's why they pointed out to the Chinese who converted to Christianity the continuity of their previous view of world and man, which was only deepened by Christianity and brought to completion. Therefore the newly converted were allowed to go on with the practice of the veneration of their ancestors. The Jesuits studiedly called the memory to the dead and the rites associated with it ancestor veneration, to emphasize the in principle civilian character of those practices. Whereas the opponents of this tolerant attitude used the term ancestor cult, which implied that those practices were strictly religious acts that constituted the case of idol worship or idolatry and therefore for a Christian as mortal sin had absolutely to be refrained from. There was also the fact that the Jesuits made no difficulties when Christian Chinese took further part in the veneration of the great teacher Confucius. The Jesuits attached great significance to representing the Chinese catechumens the conversion to Christianity rather as fulfilment of their previous religious convictions than as radical break with pagan customs.
4. The Importance of the Rites Controversy for the Meeting of Christianity with China
The resistance against the Jesuits' policy of adaptation by a positive assessment of fundamental cultural and religious traditions and practices in China primarily came from the ranks of the Franciscans and Dominicans, who as missionaries were rather active in rural areas. The rituals of ancestor veneration practiced in the villages by the ordinary people appeared to them not only as expression of respect for the ancestors but as acts of idolatry, which from Christian view had absolutely to be classified as sinful and at any rate to be avoided by the newly converted Chinese Christians. The vicar apostolic for South China Charles Maigrot MEP (1652-1730) e.g. could discover nothing good in the classical writings of the Chinese tradition, not even in Confucius, but everywhere saw only superstition, atheism, materialism and untruth.
About the problem with the ancestors as well as the question about the appropriate name for God in Chinese an argument lasting for more than one hundred and thirty years (1610-1749) flared up, which as Rites Controversy went down in history. There is no room here to deal with the details. But it must be recorded that the Rites Controversy was of fateful negative importance for the history of the meeting of Christianity with China - but also with Japan, Korea and Viet Nam, where the ancestor veneration had and has a similarly great importance.
The Rites Controversy is a very special, unique test case for the meeting of Christianity with the foreign, highly developed philosophical and religious world of China, in which both sides broke new ground. The arguments made clear that on both sides crucial preconditions were missing that would have made possible a deeper understanding of the respective other position. There were missing e.g. linguistic preconditions as well as hermeneutic insights, in order to be able at all to approximately understand the philosophical and religious positions of the respective "other side". For all Christian missionaries it was natural that the gospel of Jesus Christ was - directed to all people and cultures as final message of salvation, and was the fulfilment of everything true and salutary that could be found in other traditions, cultures and religions. Although God in his general salvation-will had not remained unattested in other traditions, the traces of his working were nevertheless imperfect and aimed at the fulfilment in the church of Jesus Christ. The Jesuits in China claimed to be able to differentiate between elements that genuinely originated in the primal revelation e.g. in Confucianism and later wrong additions added due to ignorance and malice. Whereas the Chinese took offence at the Christian faith that the redemption of whole mankind was exclusively bound to the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, who had lived in an obscure small country like Palestine at the edge of world history. This for them in the "Middle Kingdom", which because of its great cultural and religious traditions laid claim to world-wide standing, was an unacceptable impertinence. Up to a certain degree the Jesuits were ready to show consideration for this Chinese touchiness. That's why they in their preaching of the Christian teachings concentrated on the rational aspects of God's existence and his working everywhere in the world, and less on the historical facts of Jesus' life and his seeming failure on the cross, which with difficulty can be passed on to Chinese. That is why they completely put their trust in the tradition of Confucius, who for them was a representative of a "natural religion" that proceeded from a natural goodness of man. Taking up his teachings also the substantial Christian teachings could be passed on. But the Jesuits were not only "western scholars" in the tradition of Confucian mandarins, they were also missionaries and priests and celebrated the liturgy with their newly converted Chinese Christians and administered the sacraments. In the Chinese scholars' opinion they therefore appeared in a difficult to be understood double role: on the one hand as scholars determined by reason and then again as men practising rituals that were completely on the line of the Taoists and Buddhists despised by them.
Anyway, the arguments of the Rites Controversy made clear the fundamental differences, misunderstandings and disdain between the Chinese cultural and religious conception of itself as Middle Kingdom to stand on the height of the cultural development and the claim of Christianity to be the only true world religion. Deep wounds were left by the arrogance with which e.g. the papal legate Mailard de Tournon accused the great Confucius of gross errors and wrong teachings before the Chinese emperor Kangxi. Asked by emperor Kangxi to prove with the help of Confucius' writings given to him the asserted errors the papal legate, who was absolutely ignorant of Chinese, did not even know how to hold the writings, let alone that he was able to prove his assertions with the help of the texts. What is more, Emperor Kangxi had already come far to meet the Roman objections in his argumentation that the veneration of the ancestors and of Confucius were only "civilian" and not "religious" actions.
The categorical refusal of the ancestor veneration was for the Chinese state more than only a controversy on a religious question, it was at the same time a political issue of the greatest significance, since it shook the foundations of the Chinese society. Giving up the institutional respect for the ancestors was a break of tradition, to which the state authorities could not refrain from reacting, because by it the internal cohesion of the state necessarily appeared to be endangered. Whereas the Christian church made the rejection of the "ancestor cult", which it called idolatry, the religious obligation of each Chinese Christian, the Chinese state could not help seeing this only as an act of civilian disobedience and resistance against the authority of the state. We here touch the delicate question of martyrdom, which became so important for the Chinese, but also for the Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese Christians; they were taught that the rejection of the ancestor veneration was the crucial test for the authenticity of their faith, for which they had to be ready to sacrifice their life in resistance against the state power. Over it the Chinese Christians got into a fundamental conflict with the state authority, which they refused to obey in an important point with reference to their conscience and their better insight. Christianity appeared as a religion that with reference to God and led from a centre in the faraway Rome questioned fundamental elements of the Chinese culture and society. The reference to a divine mission, which was to allow Christian missionaries from the western countries the preaching of the Christian teachings without control and against existing laws, was by many Chinese as arrogant and dangerous for the existence of the social order rejected and fought against.
5. The China Mission in the Time of Imperialism and Colonialism (19th /20th Century)
To the final condemnation of the ancestor veneration by the Roman instances in 1742 the Chinese government reacted with the expulsion of all foreign missionaries and other measures against the Christian mission, which admittedly could not completely destroy the Christian life in China, since smaller communities survived in the country. But as a result of the Rites Controversy the propagation of Christianity came to a large extent to a standstill. In the middle of the 19th century the situation changed, when the western powers began to secure by force the access to Chinese ports in order to obtain new commercial possibilities. It was the time of imperialism and western colonialism, in which European powers again tried to mark out and extend their spheres of influence in Africa and Asia. The "Middle Kingdom", which was inwardly weakened, had scarcely means to oppose this tendency, as the Opium War (1840-1842) shows, and the international "unequal" contracts with England, France and later also with Germany enforced by it.
In the opinion of the Chinese also the Christian mission played a negative part in those arguments and treaties, since the European powers, which at home often had little sympathies for the Christian churches, in China showed off as the protectors of the mission. On those occasions they were certainly not interested in spreading Christianity, but in securing further influence possibilities by the protection of missionaries. Though the Christian missionaries had not directly asked for this support, they nevertheless made use of the privileges secured by the treaties. So the missionaries enjoyed immunity from the Chinese jurisdiction, a protection that could also be taken advantage of by Chinese who had converted to Christianity. This strengthened the attraction of the Christian religion, since it happened quite often that well-known criminals "became converted", probably less moved by inner conviction or the Holy Spirit but rather by completely pragmatic considerations, to escape so from the Chinese justice. Also the widespread practice to make the faith instruction "attractive" for prospective converts by offering them meals again increased in a doubtful way the persuasive power of the Christian mission. The talk about the so-called "Rice Christians", as such converts were called by their fellow citizens, in any case shows how this mission practice was seen by the majority of the Chinese.
The connection with the colonial powers, which showed off as "protectors" of the mission and shamelessly used "mission incidents" to enforce their territorial and economic interests, in addition worsened the reputation of Christianity. An example concerning Germany is the acquisition of the port of Qingdao and its environment as German colony in 1898. It was preceded by the murder of two German missionaries, which the German government took as an opportunity to assert as compensation and reparation territorial claims to China. The acquisition of an ice-free port in China had already been planned for a long time and could now be realized in connection with the murder of the missionaries.
That's why the missionaries often appeared to the Chinese as vanguard of the following soldiers, traders and politicians. "One Christian more - one Chinese less" - this slogan makes clear that Chinese converts to Christianity were by their compatriots regarded as "traitors" and no longer as "patriots".
Here the negative sides of the then usual mission methods are not one-sidedly to be denounced. Today scientists in the People's Republic of China increasingly often also point to the positive contributions of the missionaries for the modernization of the Chinese society, e.g. in education and health service. But it is important to show that in the opinion of most Chinese of that time the Christian churches appeared as organizations promoted from abroad, and often showing little understanding for the Chinese culture and particular nature. With the Catholics as well as the Protestants the decision makers were mostly foreigners. In the Catholic Church it took up to 1926, until - after long arguments - the first Chinese bishops could be ordained in Rome. With the Protestants the influence of foreign mission centres for a long time remained decisive. At any rate it came to the establishment of a number of independent churches like the "Little Flock" and the "True Jesus Church". In the mission method one began to stress the independence of the native Christians by emphasizing the Three Selves" - i.e. self-government, self-preservation and self-spread. A development that later in the People's Republic of China as Three-Selves-Movement played a leading part respectively was also used as a tool by the state.
6. Christian Churches and Religion Policy in the People's Republic of China
The Communists' seizure of power in 1949 meant for the Christian Churches that they found themselves on the side of the "defeated". In their large majority the Christian Churches had supported the Kuomindang under Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Dock Shek), who as a nominal Christian together with his likewise Christian wife enjoyed the sympathies of the Chinese Christians. It is understandable that the Chinese Christians had trouble with declaring their belief in a decidedly atheist state the policy of which was to let - by building a socialist state - the religions gradually die. Mao Zedong, the founder of the new state, had already early given out the slogan: "The farmers themselves have put up the idols; they themselves will also smash them, if we properly enlighten them." The enlightenment about the real role of the religions as "opium of the people" and part of the exploitative feudal system took place though not only via "instruction", but also via direct persecution and many kinds of repressive measures. In 1950 Zhou Enlai, the Prime Minister of many years' standing had given his view opposite Protestant Christians somewhat less radically when he stated:
We will give you the liberty to try and convert by your teachings the people. After all, we are convinced that truth will gain acceptance. We know that your teachings are wrong and that we are right. For that reason people will reject them and your church will disappear. If you were right, people would believe you, but since we are sure that we are right, we can run that risk.
The Christian churches were forced to found patriotic associations, which were appointed by the state religion offices and served as control organs of any religious activity. The expulsion of the entire foreign mission personnel, the end of the financial support from abroad and of the contact with foreign church authorities, as e.g. the Vatican, meant for the Christian churches that they for the first time under less favourable conditions had to realize the 'Three Selves' of self-government, self-preservation and self-spread.
The excesses of the Culture Revolution (1966-1976) meant the end of the already rather restrictive religion policy, because de facto any public practice of religious actions was outlawed and mercilessly persecuted by the Red Guards. The Red Guards in no way distinguished between Christians from the Underground or the House Churches or representatives of the Patriotic Church, since for them it was of no importance whom they met. Their ideological sense of mission to be called to destroy all "old ideas" was so strong that they indiscriminately rained blows on everything that smelled of old religion. It is probably not wrong, if one wants to discover quasi-religious features in the radicalized Red Guards' veneration of the person of the great chairman and steersman Mao Zedong. The small Red Bible with the "Words of the Chairman Moa Zedong" was read by the young people like a book of revelations and consulted in all decisions like an oracle. According to Mao Zedong the given ideal "to serve the people" was to lead to the creation of the "new man". The disillusionment on the part of the youth tempted by this campaign was then also accordingly deep. A whole generation mourned the lost ten years, which had given the activists of this campaign a correct "red consciousness", but scarcely any practical or scientific training.
7. Continuity in Religion Policy
The reform politics of Deng Xiaoping brought back order and protection by laws, which also positively affected the role of the religions. The fundamental orientation towards building a socialist state in which the religions had lost their functions remained unchanged, but it was nevertheless granted that the religions could - for the time being up to their disappearance - play a supporting part in the implementation of a policy of modernization. Iron principle, which in the end applies up to this day, was that any form of religious activity must be controlled by the state, i.e. it has to take place in the public area within clear limits given by the state. Here the People's Republic of China shows a fundamental difference in the understanding of the human right to freedom of religion. In the west the freedom of the individual person in practising its freedom of religion comes first. The individual has the right to decide against family and community for self-realization. In the Chinese tradition, preceding the communist rule but likewise continued by it, the individual has first of all obligations to family, community and state; only by fulfilling these obligations and serving the community he himself is also entitled to rights.
The role of religion was and is seen in China not primarily as freedom of the individual person to decide in favour for this or that religious truth, but the priority role of religions is to serve the welfare of the state. To the degree in which they contribute to maintain harmony, to promote the devotion to the society and to other positive activities, they are granted a function regulated by the state via legal guidelines. Religious actions that happen outside of these state guidelines, "in the underground", are branded as "illegal actions" and can accordingly be penalized by the state authorities with penalties like imprisonment and labour camp.
Preview: The Role of Christianity in the Present Crisis of Sense of Life
The historical events of the last fifty years were for the Christian churches in China of crucial importance. The forced separation from their relations and connections to European and North American sister churches and mission organizations first meant an existence crisis. But at the same time it was the great chance to throw off the "western garment" and at last to approach genuine Chinese forms of Christianity. The time of persecution brought Christians together with representatives of other religions and world views within the prisons and labour camps. The attitudes of solidarity, helpfulness, confidence and courage shown by many Christians, strongly contributed to improve the image of the Christians in the Chinese society. With the beginning of the reform politics and the reduced freedom of religion given with it, they despite great difficulties arranged - the church life anew and gave it a "Chinese face". As far as it was possible for them, they also again began to commit themselves within the social range to the welfare of the society (e.g. by the welfare organizations Amity Foundation and Jinde Charities). The connections with the foreign sister churches were established anew. The Protestant Christians could again take up their relations with the World Council of Churches.
For the Catholic Christians it still is a problem that the Chinese government requires of them to be structurally independent from Rome. There are time and again signs of a beginning communication between the Vatican and the Chinese government. So far these efforts have time and again failed because the Chinese side raises conditions as preconditions for negotiations - breaking off of the diplomatic relations with Taiwan and renunciation of any interference into the internal interests of China (i.e. in particular into the appointment of Chinese bishops) -, which are rejected by the Vatican.
There are conciliatory signals on the part of the Roman church leadership. In 2001 the then Pope John Paul II delivered a sensational statement, in which he apologized for errors of the Catholic Church committed in the course of the mission history. In detail the Pope mentioned the wrong attitude of some missionaries who had by too great proximity to the colonial powers and missing respect for the Chinese culture hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. At the same time the Pope expressed the hope that between China and the Catholic Church, which were both very old institutions, it might come to new forms of co-operation and dialogue.
Even though so far there are no formal relations between the People's Republic of China and the Vatican, today the Chinese Catholics - whether they are recognized by the state or not - feel quite decidedly as part of the Catholic universal church and show this also publicly.
In the present sense of life crisis of the Chinese society, which resulted from the loss of the ideological authority of China's Communist Party, there are strong efforts among the intelligence, but beyond that in China's whole society to find a replacement for the outdated Marxist-communist ideas. The supremacy of the CPC is indeed embodied in the Chinese constitution, but the confidence bonus that this regime once had has been long since used up by the many catastrophic campaigns initiated by Mao Zedong - the worst of which was the Culture Revolution. The new start under Deng Xiaoping was first welcomed, because it brought greater freedom and above all economical bloom. But the disaster of the suppression of the student movement on the Tiananmen Place in June 1989 ended the dream of a development to democracy. The following party leaders Jiang Zemin and today Hu Jintao consistently continued the course of economical development, but did not tackle the overdue political and social challenges. Only cosmetic corrections were made. Jiang Zemin succeeded in the masterpiece to open with the motto "Three Representatives" for the new caste of capitalistic functionaries in commerce and industry the way into the CPC, which so is to be made the reservoir of all social forces. The government concept of the "harmonious society" proclaimed by Hu Jintao in the year 2005 has likewise the goal to prevent the emerging contrasts in the Chinese society from becoming too large. But there is lack of consequence.
Already Confucius knew that a state can only exist, when the "terms" are correct and precisely formulated. The CPC governing in China admittedly started under the slogan "learning from the facts", but itself has obstructed the way to also doing that. For as long as one resolutely holds on to the principle that the CPC is entitled to unrestricted leadership, there can be no constitutional state and no reforms really changing the structures.
In view of this ideological crisis the role of the religions has changed in the People's Republic of China. More and more Chinese see them as alternatives to find answers to the question about the sense of human life and orientation for acting. An indication that resorting to religions is a phenomenon running through the whole society is the fact that numerous CPC cadres join religious communities. The repeated campaigns of the party, which insists on communist cadres having to be atheistic, shows that the party leaders do not get the knack of this development.
The Christian churches as well as other religious communities strongly profit from those ideological search movements. For several years all Christian churches have been reporting a more or less strong growth. Main beneficiaries are the Protestant churches, whereas the Catholic Church because of the internal splitting between official and underground church has more trouble here.
The so-called "culture Christians" (re)present a special phenomenon. It is about a movement among Chinese intellectuals looking for philosophical, religious and cultural ideas that could replace the Marxist-communist ideology. They are not attracted by the religious practice of the Christian churches. But they look in the classical works of Christian philosophers and theologians for ideas that could be trailblazing for an ideological and ethical new beginning in China. With a large-scale translation activity of Christian classical authors from the field of philosophy and theology into Chinese these intellectuals have given important impulses for an ideological re-orientation.
The view on the development of the history of ideas in the meeting between China and the west, between the Chinese religions and Christianity has shown that at present we stand in a time of radical change and of a new start. China looks less tensely and resentfully at the west. The economic strength entails that China with self-confidence and pride in its culture and tradition faces new ideas from the west. On the part of the west and the Christian churches an intensified awareness of the legitimacy of cultural and religious variety has developed. The readiness has grown to accept new forms of Christian life and of being church, which are inculturated and adapted to the respective context.
This text was delivered as introduction to the topic 'Meeting of Christianity and Chinese Culture' on 26 March 2007 in the series "China and the West" at the adult education centre Ulm. The theologian and mission scientist GEORGE EVERS was from 1979-2001 Asia assistant in the Institute of Missiology Missio e.V. (Aachen).