CHRISTIANITY IN CHINA
Baptism in Chinna
Despite the Catholic and Protestant missionaries, who began arriving in large numbers in China in the middle of the nineteenth century, Christianity has managed to gain only a handful of converts. Christians are mostly concentrated in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai and are most numerous in Wenzhou and Zhejiang province. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, Countries and Their Cultures, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Catholicism and Protestantism are two of the five officially recognized religions in China along with Buddhism, Taoism and Islam. China’s policy toward believers is more relaxed now than in the Mao era. 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.
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: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de; Chinatxt Ancient Chinese History and Religion chinatxt ; Christianity in China Christianity in China Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; History of Christianity in China Ricci Roundtable
Christians in China
Christianity is considered the fastest-growing faith in China. There are as many as 67 million practicing Christians there, with at least half of them worshipping in unregistered underground or house churches found all over China. According to the official website of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, there are currently about 25,000 Protestant churches and 6,000 Catholic churches in the Chinese mainland for a population of 1.4 billion residents. The Pew Research Center estimated there were 58 million Protestants in China in 2011, along with 9 million Catholics in 2010. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, October 7, 2016; Kou Jie, Global Times January 18, 2016]
By one estimate in the late 2000s there were between 45 to 65 million Christians at that time (35 million to 50 million Protestants and 10 million to 15 million Catholics), 37,000 official churches, and 22 million Bibles in China. Some think there could be as many as 100 million Christians in China. The numbers are also growing. Worshipers at official churches in Beijing often 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. Most Christians are concentrated in the prosperous and densely populated areas along the eastern coast and Yangtze River. The numbers are particularly high among the young. China has the potential to be the world’s largest Christian nation.
According to the U.S. Department of State in 2005, an estimated 0.4 percent of the population belongs to the government-sponsored “patriotic” Catholic Church, an estimated 0.4 to 0.6 percent belongs to the unofficial Vatican-affiliated Roman Catholic Church, and an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 percent is registered as Protestant. However, both Protestants and Catholics also have large underground communities, possibly numbering as many as 90 million. A survey by East China Normal University counted 40 million Christians.
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, state.gov ]
Christianity in Modern China
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.
Brendon Hong wrote in the Daily Beast: “Chinese citizens join churches for various reasons. Some enter with curiosity and end up returning every week. Others join their neighbors, schoolmates, or business contacts for Sunday mass. Becoming part of China’s churches isn’t only a spiritual matter; the draw is also in the social element, the togetherness that a group of friendly people can offer. The most common theme is that church leadership is well liked and respected. Not only is there a sense of community, members of Chinese churches feel like they can trust the pastors or priests who give mass every Sunday, but are also around to offer assistance whenever needed. The clergy embed themselves within the community, and are, well, nice, and don’t exclude anyone. That’s a huge contrast to CCP officials, who amid Chinese President Xi Jinping’s corruption crackdown are still seen as individuals with guarded and selfish interests. [Source: Brendon Hong, Daily Beast, May 8, 2016]
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.
Describing a Sunday morning, service above an oily auto repair shop in Changsha, Colum Murphy and Lin Qiqing wrote in in Six Tone: ,“Acongregation of more than 100 Christians gathered in prayer. The group of mainly middle-aged, working-class men and women sat on flimsy steel-framed chairs and listened as the pastor used an overhead projector to deliver a sermon. The service included the singing of hymns and waving of arms in a gesture of worship,” [Source: Colum Murphy and Lin Qiqing, Sixth Tone, February 21, 2017]
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.
Major Churches Services in Large Chinese Cities
In Beijing, Catholic Mass is offered Sunday morning at two Chinese cathedrals in Beijing; the churches are independent of Rome, and the service is in Latin. Nondenominational Protestant services in Chinese are held Sundays at two local Protestant churches. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds meetings in the homes of members. Information on religious services is available from American Citizen Services, American Embassy. [Source: Cities of the World, Gale Group Inc., 2002, adapted from a December 1996 U.S. State Department report]
In Guangzhou, the Guangzhou Chinese Catholic Cathedral and the Shamian Island Catholic Church hold Masses in Latin, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Protestant services in Cantonese are held at Christ Church, across the street from the Consulate, and at Dongshan Church and Zion Church. Huaisheng Mosque holds services at noon on Fridays.
Shanghai has Catholic and Protestant churches, Buddhist/Daoist temples, and Islamic mosques. The Catholic Patriotic Church is independent of Rome. Catholic services are conducted in Chinese, except for a small Sunday morning service for expatriates that is conducted in English. Protestant services are conducted in Chinese, although simultaneous interpretation/ear-phones are provided at the Sunday service of the International Community Church.
In Shenyang, ne nondenominational Protestant church conducts services in Chinese. Mass at the Chinese Catholic Church is in Latin. Shenyang has one mosque and several Buddhist and Daoist temples. Protestant services for foreigners are conducted at China Medical University and at Riverside Gardens.
Liao Yiwu on Christians in China
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. Liao’s 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; Keith Bradsher, New York Times, May 9, 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]
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
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, state.gov ]
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.
Protestantism in China
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Most of the Christians in China are Protestants. There are about six times as many of them as Catholics and many are evangelicals. According to the New York Times in 2016: “Estimates vary, but many put the number of Protestants at about 60 million, half of them adherents of the government-approved church, the rest worshiping in illegal “house churches.” The Pew Research Center estimated there were 58 million Protestants in China in 2011.
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, state.gov ]
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.
Churches in China’s Christian Heartland
Zhejiang Province in eastern China, not far from Shanghai, is regarded as China’s Christian heartland. Reporting from there, Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “Set in a valley 10 miles from the coast, Shuitou is a small market town of streaked-concrete housing blocks and pell-mell streets. Most of its traditional places of worship — Buddhist, Taoist and ancestral shrines for deceased relatives — are small structures, sometimes built on the side of a mountain and usually hidden from view. But since the 1980s, 14 churches in Shuitou have been financed with donations from local entrepreneurs eager to show off their newfound prosperity and hard-won faith. The naves are several stories tall, and the spires rise more than 100 feet. “Until recently, most were topped with bright red crosses. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, May 21, 2016]
“One Sunday last month, about 300 people attended services at the Salvation Church, women sitting on the left side and men on the right — a reflection of traditional views toward worship. In the front of the church, above a big red cross, were six big characters that read: “Holiness to the Lord.” Most of the people there were in their 50s or 60s, in part because many of the younger worshipers were boycotting Sunday services to protest the church’s decision to comply with the government’s order to remove the cross.
“They have begun attending services on Thursdays instead, to mark the day of the week the cross came down. They used to participate in the church’s Bible study groups, but now study independently. Some wonder if they and others may stop worshiping in registered churches entirely and go underground. A senior church leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he and others had agreed to take down the cross because they feared the church would be demolished if they did not. People were on the verge of losing their jobs, he added, and church elders felt they had no choice but to call on parishioners to give in. “More than three decades ago, we didn’t even have a church,” he said. “Persecution in church history has never stopped. All we can do is pray.”
Congyi Church in Hangzhou has been dubbed the largest Chinese church in the world. Completed in 2005, it can hold 5,500 people. According to the Daily Beast: Nearly $6.5 million was raised to fund its construction. Years later, as Congyi’s membership swelled, even the underground parking lot was reappropriated as a meeting place by younger worshipers, so they raised another million dollars to build a new parking lot. All of the money came from Congyi’s congregation. Their pastor, Gu Yuese, whose name is the Chinese transliteration of Joseph, managed the church’s affairs for years, and eventually became the highest-ranking church official sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). [Source: Brendon Hong, Daily Beast, May 8, 2016]
House Churches in China
House church In China, there are nondenominational "patriotic," churches controlled by the state, and "house churches," unauthorized by the state and located in private homes, improvised halls, anywhere out of view of the government. Police often know where the house churches are located and generally tolerate them. Often the only time they are raided is when local authorities they need money — in the form of fines extracted from the worshipers. Rules are often bent depending on the relationship between Christians and local leaders.
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: The term "house church" “typically applies to unregistered Christian groups that meet in homes or businesses for prayer meetings and Bible studies. Small groups of a dozen or so members are usually allowed to gather without registration as long as the meetings are small, private, and unobtrusive. As membership grows however, these house churches face difficulties in finding ways to continue conducting religious activities without attracting the notice and control of the government. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
House church members number between 50 million and 100 million. According to AP: In 2011: “more than 60 million Christians are believed to worship in unregistered "house" churches, compared to about 20 million in the state churches, according to scholars and church activists. The growth of house churches has accelerated in recent years, producing larger congregations that are far more conspicuous than the small groups of friends and neighbors that used to worship in private homes that gave the movement its name.”
There are an estimated 1,000 unregistered churches in Beijing, including very small ones that operate out of apartment bedrooms. One of the largest is the Shou Wang house church, where 600 to 700 people attend three services each Sunday on the eighth floor of a commercial office building.A guitar player with a pony tail, attending a house church in Beijing, told the Washington Post, “In China, there are so many things the government doesn’t allow. But that doesn’t mean that everything banned is bad. Everyone should ask themselves, what they truly believe in . We’re all adults. We have the ability to decide what it is we believe in, what is right and wring. People won’t listen just because the government says so.”
House Church Meetings
Many of the house churches are linked by a secret but well-organized national network with a central committee and local cells. The organization operates discreetly (leaders often change their phone numbers every month) and in some cases receive training and funding from abroad, particularly Taiwan and the United States.
Sometimes the group organizes mass baptisms of several hundred faithful in local lakes.The house church movement is especially strong in Henan province in central China.
Describing a relatively large meeting, Bay Fang wrote in U.S. News and World Report, "One by one shadows slip up the concrete stairwell. Suddenly a door slides open and a throbbing hum rolls out. The room is packed with 80 middle-aged men and women squatting on tiny stools, heads bowed and eyes squeezed shut, whispering prayers. They wear the padded cotton jackets of farmers and they pray for forgiveness, for better lives, for protection from persecution. The combined sound of their worship is a low rumble, like distant thunder...They stand up one by one, weaving their way through the crowd to belt out what sounds like traditional Chinese folk tunes but are actually improvised versions of Christian hymns. The sermon is about overcoming adversity, and they read along in battered Bibles carefully covered with plastic bags."Women are at the heart of the house church movement, often leading the meetings.
Describing a meeting at a house church in Qingdao in northeastern China, Terry McCarthy wrote in Time, "Carrying flashlights in one hand and Bibles in another, a small group of men and women hurried [into]...the bedroom of a private house with neither altar nor image of Jesus Christ. 'We pray to the Lord...,' intoned Guo Yan, a 29-year-old woman leading the prayer session. 'Amen' responded the 14 other people in the room, eyes tightly closed."
Young Urbanites Become More Interested in House Church Christianity
Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Just as noteworthy, at least from the government’s viewpoint, is that a growing number are young, educated urbanites — a demographic traditionally at the forefront of political change in China. Beyond the appeal of spirituality and the promise of redemption, many converts say they are drawn by the intimacy and sense of community fostered by unofficial churches. Others, in turn, say they are repelled by certain aspects of government-run congregations: the overcrowded services, the rules against evangelizing and the sermons salted with political propaganda. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 17, 2011]
Huang Yikun, 32, a magazine editor, told the New York Times the house church movement was as a tonic against the ills of Chinese society: corruption, media censorship and the fixation with money and power that dominates so many lives. “There is something so cold and empty about life outside the church,” said Mr. Huang, an intense, bookish man who converted three years ago.
Once an idealist who thought he could change China through journalism, Mr. Huang told the New York Times he grew depressed by the lack of political reform that he had hoped would accompany the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Becoming Christian, he said, removed such expectations because he now believes political change is beyond the power of mortals. “If I didn’t believe in Jesus Christ, I’d probably be more of a rebel,” said Mr. Huang, who devotes his energies to Bible study and proselytizing among friends and acquaintances, a cornerstone of many unofficial Protestant congregations in China.
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.
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.
Giant Church Opens Near Mao’s Hometown
In 2017, a giant church opens in Changsha, Hunan Province, not far from Mao’s hometown. The church can accommodate 3,500 worshippers, and boasts a towering white cross as is said to look more like an airport terminal than a church. Reporting from Changsha, where Mao spent a fair amount of time, Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times: “Sweeping heavenward like an enormous glass-and-metal ski jump, a new Protestant church dominates a suburban park. About 260 feet tall and topped by a cross, the Xingsha Church is bigger even than the biggest statue of Mao Zedong in China — the massive 105-foot-high granite head and shoulders of the revolutionary leader — about ten miles away on Tangerine Island in the broad Xiang River.[Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, May 7, 2017]
“That disparity, in the very city where Mao spent his youth and first embraced politically radical ideas, has infuriated his most fervent admirers across China. Sensing an ideological challenge to their hero — who founded the People’s Republic in 1949 and denounced Christianity as a tool of foreign imperialism — thousands of Mao’s “red” fans reached for their smartphones and computers this year and charged into verbal battle against this defilement of sacred ground. They railed against the church’s size and symbolism, saying that building it in a public space was a misappropriation of resources in the officially atheist state. “Going for Christianity in a big way damages our nation’s ideological security,” wrote Zhao Danyang of the website Red Morality Think Tank, in a typical post when the furor erupted.
The church is sometimes referred to as the “Two Church Project” because it’s being built by two religious organizations, the Christian Council of Hunan Province and the Hunan Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches Not only is it in Changsha — considered a stronghold of communism with many associations Mao Zedong — the church sits next to the government-sponsored Xingsha Ecological Park, which celebrates heroes and martyrs of Hunan. Among the figures honored by the park next door is Mao’s son, Mao Anying, who died during the Korean War. A bust of Mao Anying stands in the park, not far from a miniature replica of the Chinese spacecraft CZ-5.[Source: Colum Murphy and Lin Qiqing, Sixth Tone, February 21, 2017]
Tatlow wrote: “Wary of a political crisis, Changsha officials rushed to tamp down the controversy.Guards were posted at the Xingsha Ecological Park, where the church, a Bible studies center, administrative offices and residential quarters are near a Cupid Garden for local sweethearts. News reports vanished from the internet. Public debate fizzled. Multiple telephone calls to the provincial headquarters of the state-run Protestant association went unanswered. A bell jar of censorship descended.
” A Protestant cleric at the Xingsha Ecological Park, who gave only his surname, Jiang, said Changsha’s official Protestant churches had about 100,000 members. “There once were many churches in Changsha, but many were knocked down,” said Tan Hecheng, a Hunan native and former journalist whose account of a massacre in the province during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, “The Killing Wind,” was recently released in English but cannot be published in mainland China.
“More than two months after the controversy broke, the Hunan Protestant association is not commenting on what will happen with the church. But people linked to China’s Christian circles said one possibility that had been discussed to appease critics was walling it off from the rest of the park and removing the cross. “Striking a compromise would suit the spirit of a place where people are tough but love, above all, a good time, Han Shaogong, the author of a book about Hunan, said. “Belief in the party has died, and everything today turns on advantage and disadvantage,’’ he said. “Under such conditions, people don’t care about anything, really. Mao is fine. Christianity is fine. It’s all kind of irrelevant.”
Image Sources: Map, stele: Wikimedia Commons; 1) Early crosses, Socdigest.com; 2) Bible and Baptism. Open Door.com; 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 September 2021