Christianity in China

A Brief History of Christianity in China

Review of A New History of Christianity in China, by Daniel H. Bays. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2012. X + 241 pages. ISBN 978-1-4051-5955-5 (paperback).

aniel Bays has given us the results of decades of study in a volume that is remarkably comprehensive, concise, and compelling. The Introduction explains that this history arises from the need to present the results of the significant research on Christianity in China of the past three decades. Kenneth S. Latourette’s magisterial History of Christian Missions in China is 80 years old; Jean-Paul Charbonnier’s Christians in China, though always fair to Protestants, focuses on the Roman Catholic experience.

The book provides both a broad sweep of the history of Chinese Christianity and sufficient detail to make the story interesting. In each chapter, for example, Bays names the individuals who drove the action; he also gives more extended vignettes of key institutions and movements.

We find a balance, too, between admirably objective discussions of controversial topics and people, and candid “in my opinion” comments, all of which must be taken seriously, regardless of one’s point of view. In other words, Bays has tried to be fair without denying us the benefit of his mature judgment.

As Professor Mark Noll writes, “Readers interested in a solid historical treatment of the dynamic story of Christianity in China need look no further. This is the book.”

Principal themes

The narrative traces several major realities: “The basic tension between “foreign” mission and (Chinese) church”; “the always-present instinct of the Chinese state…. to monitor and control religious movements; as a result, Christianity was usually not seen only, indeed not even primarily, as a ‘religion’ or belief system, but as a behavioral phenomenon which could cause endless trouble.” (2)

Bays detects a “persistent, overriding dynamic” in Chinese Christian history: “The Chinese Christians were first participants, then subordinate partners of the foreign missionaries, then finally the inheritors or sole ‘owners.’” This process was also always a cross-cultural one, “the result of which has been the creation of an immensely varied Chinese Christian world in our day.” (1)

Two major themes which arise from this story are, first, “the notion that Christianity, when it is separated from its bonding with Western culture in a package we may call ‘Christendom,’ is perfectly capable of adapting to function in different cultural settings. “ The other is “the remarkable flexibility and creativity in the Chinese relationship with Christianity (or perhaps ‘Christianities’).” (2)

In every chapter, the development (or demise, as the case might be) of institutional Christianity is woven into the fabric of China’s political and social history, with special attention to the ways in which the “foreign” flavor of the religion helped or hurt its reception among the people and their leaders. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics receive attention, though Bays mirrors Charbonnier after the arrival of Robert Morrison in 1807 by focusing more on the Protestant story. An appendix on the Russian Orthodox mission in China concludes the book.

In the modern period, both Establishment “liberal” efforts and those of “independent” and “conservative” (or “fundamentalist”) Christians receive attention, as do Pentecostals and what Bays calls “sectarian” movements.

A few reflections

A survey of the contents of the book, which I started to write, would make this review much too long, and would violate the spirit of Bay’s volume, which is so wonderfully succinct. Perhaps it would be better just to offer a few observations and reflections.

In the modern period, it would appear to me that the author’s sympathies lie a bit more with those who tried to create the Church of Christ in China more than with those who refused to join. At the same time, he shows how vulnerable the institution-heavy “Sino-Foreign Protestant Establishment” (SFPE) was to criticism for its failure to turn leadership over to Chinese Christians and to changes in political and financial conditions in China and the West.

An expert on Christian higher education in China, Bays highlights the crucial role that graduates of Christian colleges played in the modernization of China, and tries to note both the strong faith of many alumni and the political and social orientation of most. I think that he also honors the heroic efforts of Christian reformers, both Chinese and foreign, while honestly admitting, with John King Fairbank, the “limits of Christian reformism” and concluding that "Christian reform efforts of the ‘Nanjing Decade' came to naught or very little.” (127)

Likewise, the huge campaign of Chiang Kai-shek’s “New Life Movement,” which many missionaries supported, “was of no use in promoting needed social and economic reforms, and faded from the scene, with its Christian supporters losing face among liberals and progressive.” (128)

Many readers will find his spirited account of the rise of independent churches and the careers of prominent leaders very helpful; he helps to explain, also, why these churches have grown more than those aligned with the SFPE. The story is relevant because these two alignments coalesced (with some exceptions) into the present division between unregistered churches and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), Bays’ treatment of which is highly illuminating.

As for the Roman Catholics, Bays displays great admiration for the ambitious program of Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits, while drawing repeated attention to the dominance of foreign clergy until very recent years and the problems caused by the accumulation of power, land and wealth. He seems critical of the strong anti-communist stance of the Vatican, which has, along with Chinese nationalism, created a schism among Roman Catholics up until the present.

The description of Christianity in China today in the final chapter should be required reading for all who want to understand the complex phenomena of rural, urban, “official,” unregistered, and “cultural” Protestant Christianity, as well as both wings of Roman Catholicism. Actually, the whole volume is now essential background for anyone who has anything to do with Christianity in China, even those who will not agree with all of the author’s judgments.

Do not let the brevity of the book, or the limpid style of its author, keep you from noticing the depth, breadth, and sheer brilliance of A New History of Christianity in China. For this reader, every chapter brought new information and fresh insights. Though I am not among them, my hunch is that even very advanced scholars in this field will find A New History of Christianity in China both enjoyable and enlightening.