The first appearance of Christianity in China was the arrival in 635 of the Nestorian missionary Alopen,* who entered Sian, the T'ang dynasty capital. The Nestorians met with imperial favor and some success, but provided no Bible and condoned Buddhist-Christian syncretism. By the end of the tenth century Christianity had disappeared. Nestorian missionaries returned to China in the thirteenth century with the Mongol conquerors, but their adherents were few.
John of Monte Corvino,* a Franciscan, followed Marco Polo to Peking in 1294. He claimed 6,000 converts, but the Franciscans also failed in acculturizing Christianity; their converts were merely alien enclaves amid a hostile population, and with the end of the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty in 1368 Christianity had again disappeared in face of persecution.
In the sixteenth century Christian missionaries spurred by the religious awakening in Europe, pressed eastward with European traders into the Pacific Ocean. Francis Xavier,* the great Jesuit, reached Japan in 1549 and hoped to enter “Cathay,” but died near Canton in 1552. The Italian, Alexander Valignano, landed in Macao in 1574; he recognized the importance of knowing the Chinese language and of cultural adaptation. But it was Matteo Ricci* who reached Peking in 1601 who commended Christianity to the Chinese court and intelligentsia by his learning and complete adoption of Chinese culture. He even sought to graft Christianity onto the Confucian system and consequently won over some high officials, but also started the Chinese Rites controversy.* Ricci died in 1610, having made a profound impression on the Chinese, but severe persecutions followed and lasted until the end of the Ming dynasty (1644).
The early Ch'ing (Manchu) emperors proved sympathetic toward Christianity, and missions were opened in most of the provinces. The Jesuits sincerely aimed at a Christian Church composed of Chinese believers. They were joined later by Dominican and Franciscan missionaries, and the number of believers rose to 250,000. In 1717, however, Emperor Kang Hsi ordered the banishment of all missionaries, and persecution continued for a century afterward. The West was not yet ready for a genuine encounter with Chinese culture. In 1840 the Jesuits established their famous base at Zikawei in Shanghai.
China was virtually closed to foreign trade and Protestant missionaries until 1841, but Robert Morrison,* living in Macao from 1807, had by 1819 completed a translation of the Bible into Chinese. The iniquitous “Opium War” (1841) compelled a conservative China to cede Hong Kong to Britain and pay an indemnity; later China was required to open five ports to foreign trade and residents, free from Chinese jurisdiction. What are regarded in Chinese minds as aggressive and humiliating actions of this sort by Western Christian powers have rankled ever since and have implicated Western missions. The Taiping Rebellion (1850- 56) was a pseudo-Christian peasant movement ending in a disastrous orgy of death and destruction.
The “opening of China” through the “unequal treaties” was seen by missionary societies as their long-awaited opportunity. Their representatives first moved into the Treaty Ports and then after 1866, led by J. Hudson Taylor* and the China Inland Mission, into all the inland provinces. Protestant Christianity now began to make an impact on Chinese life, through its schools, hospitals, and churches. By the end of the century there were 500,000 Roman Catholics and 75,000 Protestants.
As Western aggression increased, however, so did feeling against foreigners. In 1900 the conservative empress dowager seized power, and nationalist feeling exploded into the Boxer Uprising; 181 missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, and more than 49,000 Chinese Christians were killed. China now entered on twenty-five years of rapid social, political, and economic change for which Christianity had helped prepare the way. A modern educational system introduced in 1905 produced a new student class. The decay of the Manchu dynasty hastened the Nationalist Revolution (1911), the leaders of which, including Dr. Sun Yat- sen, the first president, were mostly the product of Christian schools. 1901-14 were years of unprecedented prosperity for missions, but warlordism rendered the revolution futile and plunged China into chaos. The Versailles Peace Treaty (1919) cold- shouldered China and favored her enemy Japan. China's only friend seemed to be Russia, and in 1921 the Communist Party of China was formed.
Meanwhile, the Protestant Church was striving to achieve its own identity. Education received prominence as a means to influence the whole country through its future leaders. Excellent universities, medical schools, and high schools multiplied-often at the expense of direct evangelism. But phenomenal growth followed, and Protestant church membership in 1915 was 331,000. New life was stirring, and a national conference in Shanghai (1921) brought into prominence able leadership concerned with the future development and unity of the church. The years 1920-27 were the heyday of missionary expansion; in 1927 there were 8,518 Protestant missionaries in China and three million baptized Christians, of whom one-fifth were Protestants. This period also saw the rise of independent church movements which were expressions of a nationalistic desire to shake off missionary domination.
The rapid growth of the Communist movement was now a serious threat. In 1926 Communist-inspired agitation brought about a general evacuation of missionaries from inland China and slashed Protestant missionaries to 3,000. Between 1924 and 1934, twenty- nine Protestant missionaries were killed and a number kidnaped. To survive, the church had clearly to achieve genuine autonomy. A nationwide spiritual awakening in the 1930s facilitated this development, but continuing civil war boded ill for the future.
The war with Japan (1937-45) severely tested the Chinese Church and left China at the mercy of Communism. Though 3,000 missionaries again dispersed throughout the country, their time was short. In 1949 Chairman Mao inaugurated the Peoples' Republic of China. During 1950-51 all Protestant missionaries withdrew from the China mainland, and the church was left to face the future alone-a church strengthened, however, by a remarkable postwar revival among university students. Roman Catholic missionaries were largely expelled one by one over a period of years.
Church membership, Protestant and Catholic combined, had never exceeded one percent of the population, and the modern missionary movement had again failed to penetrate deeply into Chinese cultural structures. Christianity to the intellectuals of China was Western and alien. To the Communists, the church was too closely associated with Western imperialism to escape opprobrium. The Protestant “Manifesto” of 1950 committed the church to shaking off imperialist shackles and pledged total subservience to the Communist party. Christians were in a dilemma as to their loyalties. Mass trials of clergy were held all over China. Among the millions who died at Communist hands were hundreds of Christians. There were numerous acts of heroism both by Roman Catholics and Protestants. By 1958 the church was immobilized. Finally, in 1966 the visible church was destroyed by the Red Guards in the “great proletarian cultural revolution.” Thereafter silence fell like a shroud over the church in China, though Christians continued to meet secretly. The church endures, though many leaders remain in prison. The underground church forms a nucleus for future expansion when a new day comes.
K.S. Latourette, A History of the Christian Missions in China (1929); A.C. Moule, Christians in China Before the Year 1550 (1930); A.H. Rowbotham, Missionary and Mandarin: the Jesuits at the Court of China (1942); D.V. Rees, The "Jesus Family” in Communist China (1959); L.T. Lyall, Come Wind, Come Weather (1961); International Review of Missions, vol. LV (January 1966); D.E. MacInnis, Religious Policy and Practice in Communist China (1972).