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8th century cross in China
The Chinese were exposed to Christianity and Islam during the A.D. 7th and 8th century, but ultimately they found both beliefs unappealing as they did with Zoroastrianism and Manicheanism” the belief that good and evil exists in all humans, and that life is a struggle between the spirit and the flesh. All these faiths arrived in China on Silk Road

Emperors during the T'ang dynasty (618-907) for the most part tolerated members all sorts of religious sects---Taoist and Confucian scholars, Christian missionaries, Zoroastrian priests, and Buddhist monks. On his trip to China in the 13th century Marco Polo wrote: "The people are for the most part idolaters, but there are also some Nestorian Christians and Saracens [Muslims]."

A survey by East China Normal University counted 40 million Christians. There is evidence that the number is much larger and growing. The numbers are particularly high among the young. Most Christians are concentrated in the prosperous and densely populated areas along the eastern coast and Yangtze River.China has the potential to be the world’s largest Christian nation.

The 2011 Blue Book of Religions, produced by the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a research institution directly under the State Council, reports the number of Protestants to be between 23 and 40 million. A June 2010 the China government State Administration for Religious Affair (SARA) report estimates there are 16 million Protestants affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state-sanctioned umbrella organization for all officially recognized Protestant churches. According to 2012 Pew Research Center estimates, there are 68 million Protestant Christians, of whom 23 million are affiliated with the TSPM. According to SARA, more than six million Catholics worship in sites registered by the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). The Pew Center estimates there are nine million Catholics on the mainland, 5.7 million of whom are affiliated with the CPA. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 China”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, ]

Proselytizing Christianity is banned under Chinese law. Even so there are large numbers of missionaries in Xinjiang and other places, many working as English teachers, and authorities often turn a blind eye to their activities. In his book The Tree That Bleeds: a Uyghur Town on the Edge Nick Holdstock wrote authorities at the university where he worked made it clear that, unlike usually when a crime is committed in China, they would not act without hard evidence.

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Articles on Religion in China ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations ; Brooklyn College ; Religion Facts; Religious Tolerance ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; Academic Info ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies Christianity in China Christianity in China Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; History of Christianity in China Ricci Roundtable

Early Christians in China

Nestorian stele

Nestorian Christians (a sect originally from Syria) arrived in China on the Silk Road in the A.D. 7th century. According to the Nestorian Stone, a 10-meter-high tablet discovered in the 17th century and dated to A.D. 781, Nestorian missionaries, led by one Bishop Alopen, arrived from present-day Afghanistan in A.D. 635.

Nestorian Christianity is largely extinct but at one time it was quite a powerful Christian sect and was at the center of important doctrinal controversies. The Nestorians emphasized the duality of being between man and divine. They were regarded as heretics by other sects for their belief that there were two separate persons in the incarnate Christ, denying that Christ was in one person both God and man. They went on to argue that Mary was either the mother of God (a blasphemous concept to many Christians) or the mother of the man Jesus; but she couldn't have it both ways.

The first Nestorian church in China was founded in 638 in Changsan (Xian) by a Syrian named Raban. Nestorian Christians translated the Bible into Chinese. Their religion was officially tolerated by the Tang dynasty emperors for over 200 years until they were suddenly ordered to return home in 845.

An altar with a nativity scene and an image of the Virgin Mary was discovered in the late 1990s in an ancient pagoda, dated to A.D. 638, in Lou Guan Tai, a two hour drive south of Xian. The pagoda was oriented toward the east like a church rather than north and south like a Chinese temple, which is seen as evidence that it was a church before it became a pagoda. The discovery was viewed as an indication that the Nestorians were not a fringe movement but rather one that penetrated deep into China. Archaeologists have also discovered passages from the Psalms written in the Nestorian’s Syriac language in Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, which showed that Christianity spread as far north as Mongolia.

Marco Polo wrote there were some 700,000 Christian in China when he visited in the 13th century. Describing an encounter with some he wrote: his father and uncle "enquired from what source they had received their faith and their rule, and their informants replied: 'From our forefathers.' It came out that they had in a certain temple three pictures representing three apostles...who had instructed their ancestors on the faith long ago, and it had been persevered among them for 700 years." These Christians were most likely Nestorians.

Christians in the Chinese Imperial and Colonial Period

St. Xavier dying in China
Jesuit missionaries were among the first foreigners to arrive in China. At first they were not allowed to preach but their advise was sought on scientific and astronomical matters Their knowledge about astronomy was particularly valued because the Emperor need knowledge about the seasons and the movement of celestial objects to set the dates for important rituals. Later the Jesuits were allowed to preach but they won few converts.

St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552)---the famous Spanish Jesuit missionary who devoted his life spreading Christianity in Asia---died at the age of 46 on the island Sancian off Guandong province in China in present-day Macau during a proselytizing mission. After he died his body was packed in lime and shipped to Goa. His body was buried and later exhumed by Jesuits who cut off his right arm and sent it to the Pope as a gift. What remained of the body was placed in a gold and glass coffin in Goa cathedral.

Protestantism was introduced into China in 1807. After the Opium War, missionary activity increased and Christianity became a part of the Chinese culture. For example, T’ai-p’ing-T’ian-Kuo, a great peasant rebellion in the Ging Dynasty, from 1851 to 1864, was under the banner of God and Christianity. By 1949, China had 700,000 Christians. Generally speaking, Catholicism and Protestantism strengthened the sex-negative and repressive attitudes in China at an official level.

In the 19th century, the Western powers encouraged the construction of missions to expand their influence and power over the Chinese. Many early Chinese converts were labeled "rice Christians" because they were attracted more by church wealth than they were by Christian beliefs. Many Christians are found in coastal cities such as Fuzhou. Many of these are descendants of Christian who were converted by European missionaries, who arrived in the area in 19th and 20th centuries. Sun Yat Sen, the leader of China's first modern revolution in 1911, was a Christian convert. In a speech in 1912 he said "the essence" of the revolution "could be found largely in the teachings of the church."

James Hudson Taylor, the Man Credited with Bringing Christianity to China

J. Taylor Hudson in 1865

James Hudson Taylor, a 19th-century missionary, is credited with taking Christianity to mainland China. Born in Barnsley in South Yorkshire England’s in May 1832 in a tiny apartment above his father’s shop, he converted to Christianity at the age of 17 and, after studying medicine in London, left for Shanghai to work as a missionary. He devoted the rest of his life to religion, spending 50 years in China, where he helped convert more than 18,000 Christians and built 600 churches. Nearly 100 years after his death, his charity, now called the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, continues to work in the Far East. [Source: Sarah Rainey, The Telegraph, January 19, 2012]

In recent years Hudson birthplace, Barnsley, has become viewed as a potential pilgrimage site. Sarah Rainey wrote in The Telegraph, ‘several years ago, a group of leaders from the Chinese church came to England on a holy pilgrimage. They had followed in the footsteps of one of Christianity’s great missionaries in the Far East, travelling for days to worship at the hallowed birthplace of their religious teacher. When they reached their destination, the church leaders got down on their knees and prayed. “This truly is a sacred place,” they said. Canterbury Cathedral, perhaps? Westminster Abbey, or Stonehenge? Not quite. It was a branch of Boots. In Barnsley town centre.

The site where Boots stands was once the Hudson Taylor pharmacy and family home. For his followers, the rows of painkillers and meal deals make for a shrine as worthy as Lourdes. And if a new heritage group has its way, the town could soon see thousands more pilgrims worshipping in the aisles. “There are around 70 million Christians in the Far East who owe their religion to Hudson Taylor,” Dr John Foster, a bakery owner in Barnsley who chairs the James Hudson Taylor group, told The Telegraph. “Yet nobody here knows who he was. Tourists from all over the world come to Barnsley to see his birthplace and the response they get is 'James Hudson who???

A heritage trail should change all that, taking in the landmarks that featured in Hudson Taylor’s life---churches, an independent theatre (once a Wesleyan chapel) and, of course, Boots. Foster’s group is planning an exhibition of artefacts from Hudson Taylor’s missionary work in July, as well as mounting 12 blue plaques in a bid to tempt tourists to explore the town. But it might be a while before the Chinese invasion catches on. “We’re not predicting tens of thousands of people---but it will do wonders for tourism. Barnsley needs something to raise its spirits, and if this inspires a pilgrimage then all the better.”

Christianity in China Under the Communists

The Communists have traditionally equated Christianity with imperialism. Mao accused missionaries as being "spiritual aggressors" and kicked an estimated 10,000 foreign Christian workers, more than half of them Americans, out of the country. Churches were turned into public assembly halls, where Communist propaganda performances were held. Church meetings were replaced with ideological study sessions whose purpose was to reform “misguided” thinking.

Christians were forced to bow to Mao. During the Cultural Revolution, priests were beaten up and imprisoned, churches were destroyed by Red Guards or used as grain houses and Bibles were burnt as tomes of superstition. Mao's wife Jiang Qing, reportedly vowed in 1974 to crush the Christian church in "one day."

After the Cultural Revolution, Beijing decreed that all Christians were required to belong government-supervised patriotic associations, forcing them to pray before an altar of the state and pledge allegiance to the Communist Party.

Bibles are not illegal but only the Amity Printing Press in China can print and distribute them. In July 2005, a Chinese protestant pastor and his wife went on trial on charges of “illegal business practices” after being caught with a cache of 200,000 Bibles.

One state-backed Christian leader said that Christians are free to worship and spread their faith as long as they do so privately. He said they should worship in authorized venues and not public places in order to protect the rights of others. “We don’t have religious activities in public places because we don’t want to cause religious disharmony.”

Chinese authorities allow one Protestant seminary per province, as a way to limit the number of pastors and slow the spread of Christianity. Mao ordered the merger of Protestant denominations in China in 1958; while different strands of Protestantism have informally re-emerged since Mao’s death in 1976, they must share a small supply of seminary graduates, and other pastors trained at bible schools operating informally. [Source: New York Times]

Chistianity in China in the 2010s

Y.T. Wu: Founder of the Three-Self Patriotic Association

Y.T. Wu founded Three-Self Patriotic Movement, an organization used by the Communist Party to control all Protestant churches in China. William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “To this day, the vast rift caused by Wu’s organization defines China’s churches. Among the booming unregistered churches, he is vilified. Some worshipers call him a Judas who delivered China’s Christian community into the hands of the Communist government and abetted the persecution of hundreds of thousands of Christians. Yet in government-sanctioned congregations, Wu is revered for creating the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in charge of all Protestant churches.[Source: William Wan, Washington Post, September 7, 2014 */*]

“Wu was in his 20s when his father began the Three-Self Patriotic Association in the 1950s. China’s Communist leaders had finally won control of the country, expelled all foreign missionaries and set up an atheistic government. At the private urging of China’s premier, Zhou Enlai, and after meetings with Party Chairman Mao Zedong, Y.T. Wu — also known in China by his full name, Wu Yaozong — spearheaded the establishment of a national church that would be free from foreign influence and completely loyal to the new Communist government. */*

“The resulting organization took its Three-Self name from its principles of self-governance, self-support and self-propagation of the Gospel. Congregations that submitted to the organization’s authority were allowed to carry on; those that did not were declared enemies of the state. In the ensuing years, thousands of people were arrested and imprisoned, according to church historians, as Christian worshipers, churches and pastors were encouraged to inform on each other. */*

“With the late-1960s Cultural Revolution, registration became moot. All religion in China was banned, and even previously state-backed church leaders were sent to labor camps, Y.T. Wu among them. But from that repression emerged a thriving illegal underground church movement, whose growth outpaced that of the government’s Three-Self churches when they were restored in 1979,” the year Wu died. “A bitter rift between China’s official and illegal churches has existed ever since. To this day, many in the underground churches as well as overseas Chinese Christians question the motives of Wu’s father for creating a state church and ask whether he even believed in God.” */*

Rehabilitating Y.T. Wu

Y.T. Wu and Mao

In the 2010s, Y.T. Wu’s son, Wu Zongsu, then in his 80s, sued the Chinese government to get Wu’s diaries back in hopes of rehabilitating his image among Chinese Christians who demonized him. William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, Now “in the twilight of his life, the son is spending his final years and a small fortune trying to piece together a more nuanced portrait of his father. The key to that, however, lies in a 40-volume collection of diaries that the younger Wu says he lent to the Communist Party days after his father’s death and has been unable to recover. Wu thinks that if church scholars could access his father’s early writings, they would understand his original vision for China’s churches — a vision he says the Communist Party later twisted to suit its own purposes. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, September 7, 2014 */*]

“From San Francisco, where he now lives, Wu called the lawsuit against China’s government a last-ditch effort that has slim chances of succeeding. “I don’t have much time left, and there is no one after me to do this work,” he said. He is the last remaining heir and has no descendants. “Some call my father a prophet; others say a betrayer. But the truth is he was just a man, a very complicated one.”“ As the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Three-Self association approached, Wu pushed his more favorable view of his father in personal meetings and at academic symposiums. The son said he became disillusioned with Communism in 1989, when Chinese troops opened fire on Tiananmen Square activists. He was teaching at the time at a university in San Francisco and decided to remain there. “I realized then that Christianity and Communism are like fire and water,” he said. “Christianity emphasizes love. Communism emphasizes the life and death struggle of classes.”*/*

“Wu argues that while his father was flawed, he was an idealist who subscribed to the mistaken belief that Christianity could coexist with the Communist government, rather than be controlled by it. During the Communist revolution, Wu notes, party leaders spoke of many of the same ideals as Christians — equality, people’s rights and values. “My father saw Communism and Christianity as two sides of the same truth — in pursuit of the same goal, a better society.” He said he has spent $100,000 — his and his wife’s life savings — to help a Hong Kong professor collect what remains of his father’s speeches and writings from throughout China. He also wrote a 60-page paper on his father’s beliefs and work that caused ripples of controversy among scholars when it was published four years ago. Based on his father’s writings and his own recollections, the work is surprisingly unsentimental and unsparing in parts. Only the title betrays Wu’s sympathies: “Fallen Flower, Ruthless Waters.” The flower refers to his father, Wu explains, the waters to the party. */*

“But all that work pales in comparison to what could emerge from the diaries his father kept, Wu said. Beyond their importance in explaining his father’s intentions, Wu and scholars say, the diaries could yield valuable insights into a crucial era of China’s church history. Wu has petitioned various departments within the Communist government for years without a response. The closest thing he received, he said, was an indirect explanation from leaders in the Three-Self movement that because his father is a historical figure, his diaries were now considered state property. */*

“Wu’s efforts have drawn mixed reactions from Chinese Christians. When Bob Fu, founder of the Texas-based Christian rights group China Aid, invited Wu to speak at a San Francisco conference this year, one of the most prominent leaders in the Chinese Christian community refused to attend. Fu said the leader quoted the Bible, “A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit,” and pointed to the imprisonment of innumerable Christians in China that followed the creation of the Three-Self association. But at the conference, Fu said, many appeared disarmed by Wu’s sincerity and willingness to criticize some of what his father did. “I still think his portrayal of his father as a tragic figure may be an overly gracious assessment,” Fu said. “But there’s probably some truth to both sides.” */*

“Views are also softening among some in the underground church, with the emergence of a new generation of church leaders who never experienced the persecution of earlier decades, said a pastor from an unregistered church in Beijing. Rather than a villain, Wu’s father is now viewed by some as a man who — for better or worse — was used by God as a tool during that era to strengthen churches in China. “How you see Wu Yaozong depends on how you view the Three-Self church he created,” said the pastor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “And opinions are beginning to change as the church itself changes.” */*

Christianity in China Today

Christianity has traditionally been widely embraced by ethnic minorities and overseas Chinese. In recent years, the Chinese government has become increasingly tolerate of Christians as long as they don’t become political.

Many Chinese are attracted to Christianity because of its connection with freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. Beijing doesn’t like this nor do they like the fact that churches and Christian communities are organized groups and conceivably that can organize against the government.

Shanghai’s century-old St. Ignatius cathedral comfortably seats 2,000. Even so, the four Sunday masses that are held are usually standing room only. Beijing has about 30 official Protestant and Catholic churches.

In Chinese churches it not usual to see people sleeping in the pews or plucking their eyebrows. Proselytizing and midweek services are forbidden.

American, South Korean and Taiwanese Christians are very active proselytizing in China and sneaking Bible and religious literature into the country. The United States government, especially under U.S. President George Bush, have been quite vocal in their support of Chinese Christians. When Bush visited China in November 2005 he made a point of attending a Protestant Church for a Sunday morning service. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did the same when she visited. In May 2006, Bush invited three Chinese Christian activists---Yu Jie, Wang Yi and Li Baiguang---to the White House.

Liao Yiwu’s Christian Book

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Liao Yiwu is an outspoken writer, poet, , novelist, oral historian, and musician who went to prison for four years after writing a strongly-worded poem called Massacre about the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, May 9, 2011]

Liao’s recent book, God is Red, is another collection of interviews, this time with elderly Chinese Christians whose faith has brought them into conflict with the state. God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China tells the story of Christian persecution in the early Communist era, mostly in minority areas of Yunnan province. He has also written that has just been published in Germany to wide acclaim. His fourth book, on China’s new underclass, has yet to be published. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times August 15, 2011]

On why he wrote about Christians, Liao told the New York Times, “I’m the kind of person who doesn’t have a definite plan. I had this opportunity to meet the Christians and it moved me so I did it. I was in Yunnan trying to interview the last landlords of China, the ones who were persecuted in the early communist years. I met some people who told me about these Christians. I went to meet them. It was a really poor place. Unbelievably poor. No electricity, no roads, no telephone. We walked four or five hours to get to one village. But I thought this was so unbelievable. You’d get to a village and there’d be a church.

Westerners had been there before, a century earlier, and built these churches. It was remarkable. They worked in these villages until 1949 when the Communists took over. The foreigners were expelled and a lot of the Christians killed. The stories are unbelievably cruel. In one case the father was executed and left on the side of the road. The family wasn’t allowed to pick up the corpse. When I heard this I cried.

Liao said that while he is not a Christian, he admires their determination and faith. Like other forms of self expression, all religions are permitted on one condition: "First you have to believe in the Communist Party". "If you are willing to pursue your freedom, seek out your freedom, then you could be in trouble," he said. [Source: AFP, South China Morning Post September 14, 2011]

Liao Yiwu on Christians in China

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When asked where his interest in Christianity came from, Liao said, “It began when I met a doctor who was working in the remote areas of Yunnan, moving from village to village. This man had originally been the vice-director of a hospital in the city. Later, he’d gone for a promotion and had been told that if he wanted to become the actual hospital director he’d have to become a member of the Chinese Communist Party. Until that point the hospital hadn’t known the doctor was a Christian, but when they asked him to join the Party he refused. He said: I already have my faith. I have faith in God, so I can’t have a second faith in the Party. After this he left the hospital and moved to the countryside to treat people there. This man was an amazing person. The first time I met him was in a very basic room where he was giving an old lady cataract surgery. These two people were holding two torches, and that’s how they were working. Almost in darkness, using torches to conduct cataract surgery! [Source: Christen Cornell ArtSpace China, November 29, 2011]

Later, he told me that he knew a lot of Christians who had been wronged, and asked if I wanted to go with him to meet some of these people and hear their stories. Of course I was interested, so I went with him. I interviewed many elderly Christians, heard many stories, and their stories were extremely moving. The people in these stories weren’t like those in conventional Christian church groups. Some of these Christians had been killed for their beliefs, some had been imprisoned for years.

There was this one man called Wang Zeming, he was considered to be the most compassionate, to have the greatest faith of all Christians of the last century. He’d been officially recognised in a church in some English city. His story was during the Cultural Revolution; he’d been told to dance the patriotic “Mao Dance” but he’d refused. He said, publicly, there is no way that I can dance the Mao Dance, and there is no way I can declare my loyalty to Mao, because I already have faith in God. He said that publicly.

Of course he was immediately arrested, and for four years they tried to change his views. They tried to brainwash him, but they couldn’t do it. In the end they asked him: Are you going to change your views? Will you declare your faith in Mao? And again, he said: I believe in God, so I can’t believe in Mao. They took him to a denunciation meeting where there were more than a million people. And shot him dead.

I think that faith is an incredibly powerful thing, regardless of what religion you find it in. I'm not Christian but I'm interested in belief, especially the kind you find in very common people, in poor people. I think this is an extraordinary thing. At first I was thinking that if faith was this powerful it could inspire and motivate so many people, but later I became extremely disappointed in other Christians, in Christian groups in the cities and elsewhere. They were already a long way from the original essence of their religion. I discussed this in America too, the corruption of church institutions. They’ve turned God into something for their own purposes.

The churches of the countryside and the cities are totally different. Those in the countryside are very poor, and the people in them too. For them, religion is an essential part of their daily lives, it brings them together and inspires compassion. I think that religion is purest in the most remote places. These people only have God, nothing else. That is a real faith. The Christians in the city are different.

Bibles in China

left Known as the ‘sacred doctrine,” the Bible is one of the best-selling books in China The 50 millionth copy rolled off the presses, with great fanfare, in 2007 at the only official publisher of the Bible in China, Amity Printing in NanjingThe Bible is not sold at regular bookstores it is sold through a distribution system managed by the official church. Many are sold in small stalls after churches services.

Nanjing Amity Printing Co. is China’s only state-sanctioned Bible printer. Founded in 1988 as joint venture between the Chinese Christian Charity and the Britain-based United Bible Societies it has printed Bibles in 75 languages, including a Zulu verison with a shocking pink cover, and exported them to more than 60 countries. Pocket-size versions sell for as little as $1.35 and hardbound copies as low as $2.10. All revenues go to the company’s charity to fund social programs for the rural poor and help local churches.

The first Bibles made in Communist China were printed by the People’s Liberation Army. Of the 50 million Bibles Amity has produced, 41 million were printed in Chinese and eight minority languages and sold at home, The remainder were exported mainly to Russia and Africa. Sales jumped from 505,000 in 1988 to a high of 6.5 million in 2005, with a large surge during the SARS crisis in 2003. Sales is said to particularly strong among young Chinese.

Amity’s new plant on the outskirts of Nanjing can churn out 1 million Bible a month, or three a second, , making it the largest Bible factory in the world. It was built with $5 million from Bible Societies around the world and boasts top-of-the-line printing equipment. Hundreds of workers there watch over the loud machines that print, cover and bind the books. Ob how he views his products, Li Chunnong, the general manager at the plant told the Los Angeles Times, “We are printers. As long as somebody legitimate sends us an order, we will print them.” Li said, “The Bible is probably the best-selling book in the world. People need spiritual fulfillment. There is a huge demand for what we do. We have certainly benefitted from that phenomena and will not let the market slip from our hands.”

Restrictions on the Bibles in China

The government limits distribution of Bibles to TSPM/Chinese Christian Council entities such as churches, church bookshops, and seminaries. Individuals cannot order Bibles directly from publishing houses. Members of unregistered churches report the supply and distribution of Bibles are inadequate, particularly in rural locations. There are approximately 600 Christian titles legally in circulation. According to a foreign Christian source, in the last 10 years an estimated 200 Christian bookstores and nine domestic Christian publishers have opened in the country. Authorities often confiscated Bibles in raids on house churches. In June 2012, a Shanxi court sentenced a bookstore owner and a fellow Christian to imprisonment of five and two years, respectively, on charges related to distribution of Christian books. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 China”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, ]

Even though Bibles are available in China, visitors still have their Bibles and other religious material seized at the border when they enter China and people are arrested for Bible smuggling. Smuggling Bibles is a serious crime. A leader of an underground church spent three years in jail for illegally printing and distributing Bibles.

Visitors to the Beijing Olympics were advised "to take no more than one Bible into China” China provided free Bibles to athletes, tourists and spectators or anybody else that wanted one during the 2008 Olympics. About 10,000 bilingual copies were distributed at the Olympic Village. Most of the others were given out at official state churches.

Christians in China Today

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Officially, there are 45 to 65 million Christians (35 million to 50 million Protestants and 10 million to 15 million Catholics), 37,000 official churches, and 22 million Bibles in China. The real number of Christians is estimated at between 45 million and 100 million.

The numbers are also growing. Worshipers at official churches in Beijing have to arrive early if they want to get a seat for Sunday services. Protestant churches in Shanghai regularly welcome 5,000 or worshipers for their services. According to government estimates Christianity attracts 500,000 new converts a year. No doubt the real figure is probably higher.

Many believe that new converts to Christianity are looking for something to fill the spiritual vacuum created by the increasing irrelevance of Communist ideology and uncertainty and fears created by market economics and the modern world. Christianity has attracted the disenfranchised, unemployed workers and poor pensioners, and those left out of the economic boom, both young and old.

China’s policy toward believers is more relaxed now than a decade ago. Although only government-sanctioned churches are considered legal and believers regularly complain of government harassment, in certain regions unregistered or so-called “house” churches are allowed to operate without much interference. However, human rights and Christian rights point out, organizers of underground churches are still routinely sent to labor camps without trial.

Protestantism in China

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Bible distribution by
Chinese Protestants
Authorized churches belong to the "Three-Self Patriotic Movement," set up by the Communists in the 1950s to take power away from Protestant churches and to free religious Chinese from a source of foreign funding. Its name is derived from the principles of self-governance, self-support and self-propagation of the Gospel with sermons sticking close to the Gospel and not deviating to make connections with modern life. .

The 2011 Blue Book of Religions, produced by the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a research institution directly under the State Council, reports the number of Protestants to be between 23 and 40 million. A June 2010 the China government State Administration for Religious Affair (SARA) report estimates there are 16 million Protestants affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state-sanctioned umbrella organization for all officially recognized Protestant churches. According to 2012 Pew Research Center estimates, there are 68 million Protestant Christians, of whom 23 million are affiliated with the TSPM. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 China”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, ]

Protestantism was introduced into China in 1807. When the Communists came to power in 1949 there were fewer than 1 million Protestants in China. Now the estimates range from between 25 million and 50 million, with 15 million in government-approved churches and perhaps three or four times that number in unofficial “house” churches. If these numbers are accurate then Protestants outnumber Catholics by about 5 to 1.

Evangelical Cults in China

Evangelical Protestantism is reportedly one of the fastest growing religions in China. The movement is particularly strong in Zheijiang and Heliongjiang Provinces and some of China’s more prosperous regions. More than 600 Protestant churches have opened up every year since the 1980s.

Some of evangelical Christians in China are a little wacky. The Crying School, a house church organization with at least 500,000 members, holds retreats in which followers wail and cry en masse for three days straight to purge their sins and repent in preparation for the apocalypse. Another group, the Shouters, yell and shriek a shortened version of the Lord’s Prayer while stamping their feet.

right Some groups are like cults. The Three Grades Church, which claims to have several million followers, is led by a man named Xu Shuangfu who claims he can talk directly to God. Another group known as Eastern Lightning claims that Jesus has returned to earth in the body of a Chinese peasant woman. Both groups have been accused of kidnaping and beating recruits and employing brainwashing techniques. Biblically-inspired cults are particularly big in Hunan province.

In 2006 members of the of Three Grades Church was convicted on 20 murder charges involving attacks on Eastern Lightning. The group has not done much to hide its contempt for Beijing which referred to as the Great Red Dragon.

In 1999, police arrested 31 people and demolished three churches that belonged to a Protestant sect known as the “Cold Water Religion” in Guangdong Province. The sect claimed that cold water was the blood of God and it could be used to cure a host of illnesses. The cult was blamed for the deaths of at least five people who could have been saved with proper medical care but instead were treated with cold water.

Christian Politics and Activism in China

The Christian activist He Guanghu signed Charter 08, a 2009 document calling for a new constitution, an independent legal system, direct elections, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and other reforms, coauthored by 2010 Nobel-Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Yang said He Guanghu “was the only scholar who studies religion who was among the initial signers. Since then he has been more public in making his position known. His Christian faith has become publicly known. For many years he tried not to say anything about it, but now he feels confident to be out.”

Yang Fenggang, a Christian and a pioneer in the study of the sociology of religion in China, is a professor of sociology at Purdue University and director of its Center on Religion and Chinese Society, one of the most influential institutions studying religion in China. On the Christianity being viewed as a foreign religion and less favorably than other religions by the Chinese government, he told the New York Times: “A few years ago someone published a book which listed the main groups in China. It included the traditional Left, social democrats, socialism with Chinese characteristics, plus some newer groups — but no Christians. You could ignore Christianity because it had no social impact. But now Christians are part of the discussion. I see this as an introduction of Christian scholars to the public forum. [Source: Ian Johnson, Sinosphere Blog, New York Times, October 18, 2013]

On the “cultural Christian” movement in the early 2000s, Yang said: “What they did was to introduce Christianity as a cultural phenomenon and a cultural resource, but not to express social or political concerns. It was cultural: theology, history and the arts.

Image Sources: Map, stele: Wikimedia Commons; 1) Early crosses,; 2) Bible and Baptism. Open; 3) House Church, China Aid; 4) Bible distribution. Chinese Protestant Church; 5) House church raid, Peace Hall com

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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