The most widely accepted record of the earliest existence of Christianity in China is a stone stele dated 781 A.D. that detailed Christian missionaries’ activities and the propagation of the religion in China. Since being unearthed in Xi’an by accident in 1625, this stele has stood firm as the most authoritative piece of evidence relating to the earliest presence of Christianity in China.
The stele’s 1,900 word carvings describe a Syrian missionary monk Olopun’s arrival in the capital of China during the Tang Dynasty, Chang An (today’s Xi’an) in 635 A.D. It further states that the Gospel was translated in the imperial library and presented to the Emperor Taizong (599 – 649), who issued an imperial proclamation that says “having examined the principles of this religion, we find them to be purely excellent and natural…it is beneficial to all creatures, it is advantageous to mankind. Let it be published throughout the empire, and let the proper authority build a Syrian church in the capital…which shall be governed by twenty-one priests.”
Indeed, at least one large church was built outside of Xi’an, to which the stele was erected to commemorate. But the vulnerable sprout of Christianity soon faced virtual extinction as the most open chapter of Chinese history drew to a close. The Tang dynasty was in decline during the latter half of the ninth century. The once accommodating imperial court grew inward-looking and xenophobic. The headwind culminated when Emperor Wuzong (814 – 846), a zealous Taoist, decreed in 845 A.D. that all foreign religions be banned. In addition, the Silk Road, on which Olopun had traveled to reach China two hundred years ago, was taken over by Muslims, thus effectively shutting the path of Christian missionaries to China.
No record points to any notable Christian presence until four hundred years later during another period of cultural collision and integration in China, the Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368). As the Mongol Empire extended westward to the Caspian Sea, Christian missionaries, this time directly commissioned by the Pope in Rome, came to China when the country fell to the rule of an invading people for the first time. Giovanni of Monte Corvine (1246 – 1329), a Franciscan missionary, arrived in the capital, Da Du (today’s Beijing) in 1294 A.D. Commissioned by Pope Nicholas to Father China, Monte Corvine had timing on his part. The Mongol emperor was tolerant to all forms of religion, Christianity included. Chinese society was finally enjoying peace and stability after years of turbulence. As a result, Monte Corvine was able to build churches around the capital and convert at least six thousand Chinese and Mongols.
His success so pleased the Pope that Clement V appointed him as Archbishop of Peking, and sent more missionaries to support him. Under Giovanni’s leadership, sizable Catholic communities thrived in the capital and in the southern port city of Quan Zhou. The second emergence of Christianity in China featured a mixture of denominations. The Nestorian tradition, which had strong presence in Asia as attested by Marco Polo, co-existed with Catholicism and there seemed to be intense competition.
Like previous efforts, this round of missionary work was forced to stop. The short-lived Mongol Empire was crumbling with internal power struggles. Nearly a century of Mongol rule brewed anti-foreign bitterness among the Chinese population, who were treated as second-class citizens in their own land. Christianity was largely perceived as a foreign religion, with support from the Mongols and Rome. Therefore, as rebellions against the Mongols spread across the country, Christianity became a target. Moreover, the ruling Mongols, who were once favorable to Christians, were increasingly being converted to Islam. So one year after the establishment of the Ming dynasty by Han Chinese in 1368 A.D., all Christians — both the Catholics and Nestorians — were expelled from China. This is the second virtual extinction during Christianity’s long tortuous journey in China.
It would take more than two centuries before Christianity returned to China — and this time to settle. The New World had been discovered and the Protestant reformation was raging in Europe. Against such backdrop, both the denomination and the travel mode of the missions to China were significantly different. It was the highly educated Jesuits who arrived in Southern China via sea that would lift the curtain of the third emergence of Christianity in the Middle Kingdom. The early part of this mission was defined by one of the mostly talented missionaries in history, an Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci.
After landing in the Portuguese trading enclave Macau in 1582, Ricci devoted himself to learning the Chinese language and culture. As he later moved into Southern China and then to the capital Peking, he translated Chinese classics and created the first Portuguese-Chinese dictionary. In theology, he adopted a more accommodating approach to Chinese traditions, trying to integrate Christianity into existing Chinese philosophy. Ricci’s mission was a huge success culturally — he is commemorated as a cultural ambassador today.
By 1605, Ricci claimed there were more than one thousand Chinese converts. It grew to five thousand in ten years, a great number of them were court eunuchs and women. One of Ricci’s converts was the prominent scientist Xu Guangqi, who later was appointed grand secretary to the emperor and would be the first of many prominent Chinese Christians to come. The Cathedral of St. Ignatius or Xujiahui Church in Shanghai, which stands in the center of the city today, was built with Xu Guangqi’s help.
Like previous missionaries, the Jesuits sought to find an opening for Christianity through the Chinese imperial court. Ricci was granted access to the Forbidden City, though he did not meet with the Emperor Wanli. But Ricci’s fellow Jesuits, who carried on his work following his death in 1610, came close to converting the Chinese Emperor, Kangxi. Though never formally claimed being a Christian, Kang Xi wrote two poems that demonstrated his thorough understanding of the Gospel and affinity to Christianity belief.
But the Jesuits’ missionary success among the imperial and literary ruling class drew jealousy from other denominations, which were left to cultivate China’s lower classes. At the center of the issue was whether Chinese ancestor veneration was a cultural or spiritual phenomenon. The Jesuits believed that it was purely a cultural custom that did not conflict with the Christian faith. But other orders disagreed. The dispute had to be put before the Pope, who in the end publicly criticized the Jesuits for being too acquiescent to Chinese culture and compromising gospel truth.
When the Papal bull reached the emperor, Kangxi (who sided with the Jesuits on the issue) in 1715, it spelled disaster. Not accustomed to taking orders, Kangxi was infuriated. The goodwill built up by the Jesuits for more than one hundred years was replaced by vexation. Kangxi contemplated banning Christianity within China. His successor, Yongzheng, finally put it into law, issuing an edict of expulsion and confiscation in 1724. China’s three hundred churches were destroyed or confiscated. With no place of worship, the number of Chinese converts, estimated at 300,000, gradually dwindled over the next decades, though some Catholic missionary priests continued preaching in China at the risk of death.
As the nineteenth century dawned, protestant missionaries arrived in China for the first time. Despite its unpromising beginning, their missionary effort would shake the whole country with a number of prominent individual Christians. The first one is a Protestant convert Hong Xiuquan, who started the Taiping Rebellion from 1850 to 1864 that nearly toppled the Qing government.
Another individual is an English Protestant missionary, Hudson Taylor, who revolutionized Christian missions in China. As noted above, previous Christian missionaries sought to work among the ruling literal class. But Taylor had an audacious idea. He founded the China Inland Mission (CIM) with the aim to take the Gospel into the hearts of Mainland China. It was the first massive grassroots missionary effort ever taken place of this type in China. Taylor decided that CIM would be interdenominational and accepted single women as missionaries. It turned out to be a huge success. By 1895, there were 641 missionaries in every Chinese province except Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.
As Chinese society struggled in turmoil at the turn of the twentieth century, Sun Yat-sen, an overseas Chinese Christian, rose to lead a revolution that gave birth to the Republic of China. The once unthinkable — that a Chinese leader would be a Christian — became a reality. Moreover, China’s next leader, Chiang Kai-shek, turned to Christianity in order to marry the future Madame Chiang Kai-shek (whose father was a Methodist) and Chiang was publicly baptized in 1930. Despite facing a deadly blow during the anti-foreign outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900s, Christianity’s presence in China is irreversible as its monarch rule came to an end.
The expulsion of foreign missionaries after 1949 opened a new chapter of Christianity in China as the Chinese government tried to gain full control of all religions. Over a thousand years since the Nestorian monks’ arrival in Xi’an, and against a culture (namely, Confucianism) that has no place for God, Christianity was playing critical roles in education, medicine, science and society. In 1949, Chinese Christians numbered approximately three million Catholics and around 800,000 Protestants. Today, China’s Christian population has grown to over one hundred million, combined, according to various unofficial estimates