Christianity in China

The Nestorian Stele is a Tang Chinese stele erected in 781 AD that documents 150 years of history of early Christianity in China.[1] It includes texts both in Chinese and in Syriac.

Christianity in China has a history going back to the 7th century during the Tang dynasty. Today, it comprises Catholics, Protestants, and a small number of Orthodox Christians. Although its lineage in China is not as ancient as Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism or Confucianism, Christianity has been one of the religions of China since at least the seventh century and has gained influence over the past 200 years.[2] The number of Chinese Christians has increased significantly since the easing of restrictions on religious activity during economic reforms in the late 1970s; Christians were four million before 1949 (three million Catholics and one million Protestants).[3]

Accurate data on Chinese Christians is hard to access.[4] According to official figures, Christians are 8 million, which excludes children and unregistered churches.[5] On the other hand, some international Christian organizations estimate there are tens of millions more.[6] The practice of religion continues to be tightly controlled by government authorities.[7] Chinese over the age of 18 are only permitted to join officially sanctioned Christian groups registered with the government-approved Protestant Three-Self Church and China Christian Council, and Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church.[8] On the other hand, many Christians practice in informal networks and unregistered congregations, often described as house churches or underground churches, the proliferation of which began in the 1950s when many Chinese Protestants and Catholics began to reject state-controlled structures purported to represent them.[9] Members of such groups are said to represent the "silent majority" of Chinese Christians and represent many diverse theological traditions.[10]


There are various terms used for God in the Chinese language, the most prevalent being Shangdi (上帝, literally, "Highest Emperor"), used commonly by Protestants and also by non-Christians, and Tianzhu (天主, literally, "Lord of Heaven"), which is most commonly favoured by Catholics. Shen (神), also widely used by Chinese Protestants, defines the gods or generative powers of nature in Chinese traditional religions. Historically, Christians have also adopted a variety of terms from the Chinese classics as referents to God, for example Ruler (主宰) and Creator (造物主).

Terms for Christianity in Chinese include: "Protestantism" (Chinese: 基督教新教; pinyin: Jīdū jiào xīn jiào; literally: "Christ religion's new religion"); "Catholicism" (Chinese: 天主教; pinyin: Tiānzhǔ jiào; literally: "Heavenly Lord religion"); and Eastern Orthodox Christians (Chinese: 東正教/东正教; pinyin: Dōng zhèng jiào; literally: "Eastern Orthodox religion"). The whole of Orthodox Christianity is named Zhèng jiào (正教). Christians in China are referred to as "Christ followers/believers" (Chinese: 基督徒; pinyin: Jīdū tú) or "Christ religion followers/believers" (Chinese: 基督教徒; pinyin: Jīdū jiào tú).


Pre-modern history

The Nestorian Stele entitled 大秦景教流行中國碑 "Stele to the propagation in China of the luminous religion of Daqin".
Christian tombstone from Quanzhou with a 'Phags-pa inscription dated 1314.

Earliest documented period

Two (possibly Nestorian) monks were preaching Christianity in India in the 6th century before they smuggled silkworm eggs from China to the Eastern Roman Empire.[11]

The first documentation of Christianity entering China was written on an 8th-century stone tablet known as the Nestorian Stele. It records that Christians reached the Tang dynasty capital Xi'an in 635 and were allowed to establish places of worship and to propagate their faith. The leader of the Christian travelers was Alopen.[12]

Some modern scholars question whether Nestorianism is the proper term for the Christianity that was practiced in China, since it did not adhere to what was preached by Nestorius. They instead prefer to refer to it as "Church of the East", a term which encompasses the various forms of early Christianity in Asia.[13]

In 845, at the height of the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, Emperor Wuzong decreed that Buddhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism be banned, and their very considerable assets forfeited to the state.

In 986 a monk reported to the Patriarch of the East:

«Christianity is extinct in China; the native Christians have perished in one way or another; the church has been destroyed and there is only one Christian left in the land.»[14]

Karel Pieters noted that some Christian gravestones dated from the Song and Liao dynasties, implying that some Christians remained in China.[15]

Medieval period

Painting of Chinese Martyrs of 1307, Chapel of the Martyrs of Nepi in Katowice Panewniki.
Nestorian priests in a procession on Palm Sunday, in a 7th- or 8th-century wall painting from a Nestorian church in China, Tang dynasty

The 13th century saw the Mongol-established Yuan dynasty in China. Christianity was a major influence in the Mongol Empire, as several Mongol tribes were primarily Nestorian Christian, and many of the wives of Genghis Khan's descendants were Christian. Contacts with Western Christianity also came in this time period, via envoys from the Papacy to the Mongol capital in Khanbaliq (Beijing).

Nestorianism was well established in China, as is attested by the monks Rabban Bar Sauma and Rabban Marcos, both of whom made a famous pilgrimage to the West, visiting many Nestorian communities along the way. Marcos was elected as Patriarch of the Church of the East, and Bar Sauma went as far as visiting the courts of Europe in 1287-1288, where he told Western monarchs about Christianity among the Mongols.

In 1289, Franciscan friars from Europe initiated mission work in China. For about a century they worked in parallel with the Nestorian Christians. The Franciscan mission disappeared from 1368, as the Ming dynasty set out to eject all foreign influences.

The Chinese called Muslims, Jews, and Christians in ancient times by the same name, "Hui Hui" (Hwuy-hwuy). Crossworshipers (Christians) were called "Hwuy who abstain from animals with the cloven foot", Muslims were called "Hwuy who abstain from pork", Jews were called "Hwuy who extract the sinews". "Hwuy-tsze" (Hui zi) or "Hwuy-hwuy" (Hui Hui) is presently used almost exclusively for Muslims, but Jews were still called "Lan Maou Hwuy tsze" (Lan Mao Hui zi) which means "Blue-cap Hui zi". At Kaifeng, Jews were called "Teaou-kin-keaou", "extract-sinew religion". Jews and Muslims in China shared the same name for synagogue and mosque, which were both called "Tsing-chin sze" (Qingzhen si), "temple of purity and truth", the name dated to the thirteenth century. The synagogue and mosques were also known as "Le-pae sze" (Libai si). A tablet indicated that Judaism was once known as "Yih-tsze-lo-nee-keaou" (Israelitish religion) and synagogues known as "Yih-tsze lo née leen" (Israelitish temple), but it faded out of use.[16]

It was also reported that competition with the Roman Catholic Church and Islam were also factors in causing Nestorian Christianity to disappear in China; the Roman Catholics also considered the Nestorians as heretical:[17]

«controversies with the emissaries of.... Rome, and the progress of Mohammedanism, sapped the foundations of their ancient churches.»[18]

The Ming dynasty decreed that Manichaeism and Christianity were illegal and heterodox, to be wiped out from China, while Islam and Judaism were legal and fit Confucian ideology.[19] Buddhist Sects like the White Lotus were also banned by the Ming.

Above: Francis Xavier (left), Ignatius of Loyola (right) and Christ at the upper center. Below: Matteo Ricci (right) and Xu Guangqi (left), all in dialogue towards the evangelization of China.


Main article: Jesuit China missions

By the 16th century, there is no reliable information about any practicing Christians remaining in China. Fairly soon after the establishment of the direct European maritime contact with China (1513), and the creation of the Society of Jesus (1540), at least some Chinese become involved with the Jesuit effort. As early as 1546, two Chinese boys became enrolled into the Jesuits' St. Paul's College in Goa, the capital of Portuguese India. It is one of these two Christian Chinese, known as Antonio, who accompanied St. Francis Xavier, a co-founder of the Society of Jesus, when he decided to start missionary work in China. However, Xavier was not able to find a way to enter the Chinese mainland, and died in 1552 on Shangchuan Island off the coast of Guangdong.

It was the new regional manager ("Visitor") of the order, Alessandro Valignano, who, on his visit to Macau in 1578-1579 realized that Jesuits weren't going to get far in China without a sound grounding in the language and culture of the country. He founded St. Paul's College in Macau and requested the Order's superiors in Goa to send a suitably talented person to Macau to start the study of Chinese.

In 1582, Jesuits once again initiated mission work in China, introducing Western science, mathematics, and astronomy. One of these missionaries was Matteo Ricci. In the early 18th century, the Chinese Rites controversy, a dispute within the Roman Catholic Church, arose over whether Chinese folk religion's rituals and offerings to their ancestors constituted idolatry. The Pope ultimately ruled against tolerating the continuation of these practices among Chinese Roman Catholic converts. Prior to this, the Jesuits had enjoyed considerable influence at court, but with the issuing of the papal bull, the emperor circulated edicts banning Christianity. The Catholic Church did not reverse this stance until 1939, after further investigation and a clarified ruling by Pope Pius XII.

17th to 18th centuries

Further waves of missionaries came to China in the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty (1644–1911) as a result of contact with foreign powers. Russian Orthodoxy was introduced in 1715 and Protestants began entering China in 1807.

The Qing dynasty's Yongzheng Emperor was firmly against Christian converts among his own Manchu people. He warned them that the Manchus must follow only the Manchu way of worshipping Heaven since different peoples worshipped Heaven differently.[20]

Yongzheng stated:

«The Lord of Heaven is Heaven itself. . . . In the empire we have a temple for honoring Heaven and sacrificing to Him. We Manchus have Tiao Tchin. The first day of every year we burn incense and paper to honor Heaven. We Manchus have our own particular rites for honoring Heaven; the Mongols, Chinese, Russians, and Europeans also have their own particular rites for honoring Heaven. I have never said that he [Urcen, a son of Sun] could not honor heaven but that everyone has his way of doing it. As a Manchu, Urcen should do it like us.»[21]

19th to 20th centuries

Stations of the China Inland Mission in 1902, with hubs in Zhejiang, and between Gansu, Shanxi, Shaanxi and Henan.

Missionary expansion (1807–1900)

Robert Morrison of the London Missionary Society.
Taiping inscription.

140 years of Protestant missionary work began with Robert Morrison, arriving in Macau on 4 September 1807.[22] Morrison produced a Chinese translation of the Bible. He also compiled a Chinese dictionary for the use of Westerners. The Bible translation took 12 years and the compilation of the dictionary, 16 years.

The Qing government code included a prohibition of "Wizards, Witches, and all Superstitions". The Jiaqing Emperor, in 1814, added a sixth clause with reference to Christianity, modified in 1821 and printed in 1826 by the Daoguang Emperor prohibitng those who spread Christianity among Han Chinese and Manchus. Christians who would not repent their conversion were to be sent to Muslim cities in Xinjiang, to be given as slaves to Muslim leaders and beys.[23] Some hoped that the Chinese government would discriminate between Protestantism and the Catholic Church, since the law was directed at Rome, but after Protestant missionaries in 1835-6 gave Christian books to Chinese, the Daoguang Emperor demanded to know who were the "traitorous natives in Canton who had supplied them with books".[23]

The pace of missionary activity increased considerably after the First Opium War in 1842. Christian missionaries and their schools, under the protection of the Western powers, went on to play a major role in the Westernization of China in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Liang Fa ("Leung Faat" in Cantonese) worked in a printing company in Guangzhou in 1810 and came to know Robert Morrison, who translated the Bible to Chinese and needed printing of the translation. When William Milne arrived at Guangzhou in 1813 and worked with Morrison on translation of the Bible, he also came to know Liang, whom he baptized in 1816. In 1827, Liang was ordained by Morrison, thus becoming a missionary of the London Missionary Society and the first Chinese Protestant minister and evangelist.

During the 1840s, Western missionaries spread Christianity rapidly through the coastal cities that were open to foreign trade; the bloody Taiping Rebellion was connected in its origins to the influence of some missionaries on the leader Hong Xiuquan, who has since been hailed as a heretic by most Christian groups, but as a proto-communist peasant militant by the Chinese Communist Party. The Taiping Rebellion was a large-scale revolt against the authority and forces of the Qing government. It was conducted from 1850 to 1864 by an army and civil administration led by Hong Xiuquan. He established the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace with the capital at Nanjing and attained control of significant parts of southern China, at its height ruling over about 30 million people. The theocratic and militaristic regime instituted several social reforms, including strict separation of the sexes, abolition of foot binding, land socialization, suppression of private trade, and the replacement of Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion by a form of Christianity, holding that Hong Xiuquan was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. The Taiping rebellion was eventually put down by the Qing army aided by French and British forces. With an estimated death toll of between 20 and 30 million due to warfare and resulting starvation, this civil war ranks among history's deadliest conflicts. Mao Zedong viewed the Taiping as early heroic revolutionaries against a corrupt feudal system.[24]

Christians in China established the clinics and hospitals,[25] and provided training for nurses. Both Roman Catholics and Protestants founded numerous educational institutions in China from the primary to the university level. Some of the most prominent Chinese universities began as religious-founded institutions. Missionaries worked to abolish practices such as foot binding,[26] and the unjust treatment of maidservants, as well as launching charitable work and distributing food to the poor. They also opposed the opium trade[27] and brought treatment to many who were addicted. Some of the early leaders of the Chinese Republic, such as Sun Yat-sen were converts to Christianity and were influenced by its teachings.[28]

By the early 1860s the Taiping movement was almost extinct, Protestant missions at the time were confined to five coastal cities. By the end of the century, however, the picture had vastly changed. Scores of new missionary societies had been organized, and several thousand missionaries were working in all parts of China. This transformation can be traced to the Unequal Treaties which forced the Chinese government to admit Western missionaries into the interior of the country, the excitement caused by the 1859 awakening of faith in Britain and the example of J. Hudson Taylor (1832–1905). Taylor (Plymouth Brethren) arrived in China in 1854. Historian Kenneth Scott Latourette wrote that Hudson Taylor was "one of the greatest missionaries of all time, and ... one of the four or five most influential foreigners who came to China in the nineteenth century for any purpose...".

The China Inland Mission was the largest mission agency in China and it is estimated that Taylor was responsible for more people being converted to Christianity than at any other time since Paul the Apostle brought Christian teaching to Europe. Out of the 8,500 Protestant missionaries that were at one time at work in China, 1000 of them were from the China Inland Mission.<[27] It was Dixon Edward Hoste, the successor to Hudson Taylor, who originally expressed the self-governing principles of the Three-Self Church, at the time he was articulating the goal of the China Inland Mission to establish an indigenous Chinese Church that was free from foreign control.

In imperial-times Chinese social and religious culture there were charitable organizations for virtually every social service: burial of the dead, care of orphans, provision of food for the hungry. The wealthiest in every community—typically, the merchants—were expected to give food, medicine, clothing, and even cash to those in need. According to Caroline Reeves, a historian at Emmanuel College in Boston, that began to change with the arrival of American missionaries in the late 19th century. One of the reasons they gave for being there was to help the poor Chinese.

By 1865 when the China Inland Mission began, there were already thirty different Protestant groups at work in China,[29] however the diversity of denominations represented did not equate to more missionaries on the field. In the seven provinces in which Protestant missionaries had already been working, there were an estimated 204 million people with only 91 workers, while there were eleven other provinces in inland China with a population estimated at 197 million, for whom absolutely nothing had been attempted.[30] Besides the London Missionary Society, and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, there were missionaries affiliated with Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Wesleyans. Most missionaries came from England, the United States, Sweden, France, Germany, Switzerland, or the Netherlands.[31]

In addition to the publication and distribution of Christian literature and Bibles, the Protestant missionary movement in China furthered the dispersion of knowledge with other printed works of history and science. As the missionaries went to work among the Chinese, they established and developed schools and introduced medical techniques from the West.[31] The mission schools were viewed with some suspicion by the traditional Chinese teachers, but they differed from the norm by offering a basic education to poor Chinese, both boys and girls, who had no hope of learning at a school before the days of the Chinese Republic.[32]

Zhou Han (,[33] romanized at the time as "Chou"[34] or "Chu Han"),[35] a mandarin at Changsha in Hunan, was singled out by the missionary Griffith John and by Christopher Gardiner, the British consul at Hankou, for his publishing of hate literature against the foreign missionaries.[34] One tract featured foreign missionaries praying to crucified pigs; engaging in orgies following Sunday services; and removing the placentas, breasts, and testicles from Chinese. It concluded with repeated calls for their extermination by vigilantes and the government.[33] John sent him Christian literature and it was claimed that he was demoted and even imprisoned,[34] although in fact nothing was done[36] except for a brief period of house arrest[37] and the issuing of an imperial "reprimand" worded vaguely enough that his partisans were able to view it as praise.[35] Having made himself infamous among the missionaries and foreign diplomats, however,[38] he was imprisoned for life when he resumed publishing still stronger anti-foreigner screeds in 1897.[37]

The Boxer Uprising was in part a reaction against Christianity in China. Christianity was prevalent among bandits in Shandong. In 1895, the Manchu Yuxian, a magistrate in the province, acquired the help of the Big Swords Society in fighting against Bandits. The Big Swords practiced heterodox practices, however, they were not bandits and were not seen as bandits by Chinese authorities. The Big Swords relentlessly crushed the bandits, but the bandits converted to the Catholic Church, because it made them legally immune to prosecution under the protection of the foreigners. The Big Swords proceeded to attack the bandit Catholic churches and burn them.[39] Yuxian only executed several Big Sword leaders, but did not punish anyone else. More secret societies started emerging after this.[39]

In Pingyuan, the site of another insurrection and major religious disputes, the county magistrate noted that Chinese converts to Christianity were taking advantage of their bishop's power to file false lawsuits which, upon investigation, were found groundless.[40]

Popularity and indigenous growth (1900–1925)

The Qing dynasty government permitted Christian missionaries to enter and proselytize in Tibetan lands, in order to weaken the power of the Tibetan Buddhist lamas, who refused to give allegiance to the Chinese. The Tibetan lamas were alarmed by Catholic missionaries converting natives to Roman Catholicism. During the 1905 Tibetan Rebellion the Tibetan Buddhist Gelug Yellow Hat sect led a Tibetan revolt, with Tibetan men being led by lamas against Chinese officials, western Christian missionaries and native Christian converts.[41] Wine making vineyards were left behind by them.[42]

Indigenous Christian evangelism started in China in the late 1800s. Man-Kai Wan (1869–1927) was one of the first Chinese doctors of Western medicine in Hong Kong, the inaugural chairman of the Hong Kong Chinese Medical Association (1920–1922, forerunner of the Hong Kong Medical Association), and a secondary school classmate of Sun Yat-sen in the Government Central College (currently known as Queen's College) in Hong Kong. Wan and Sun graduated from secondary school together in 1886. Doctor Wan was also the chairman of the board of a Christian newspaper called Great Light Newspaper (大光報) that was distributed in Hong Kong and China. The father-in-law of Wan was Au Fung-Chi (1847–1914), the secretary of the Hong Kong Department of Chinese Affairs, manager of Kwong Wah Hospital for its 1911 opening, and an elder of To Tsai Church (renamed Hop Yat Church since 1926), which was founded by the London Missionary Society in 1888 and was the church of Sun Yat-sen.

Following the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Glasgow, Protestant missionaries energetically promoted what they called "indigenization", that is assigning the leadership of churches to local Christian leaders. The Chinese National YMCA was the first to do so. In the 1920s, a group of church leaders formed the National Christian Council to coordinate interdenominational activity. Among the leaders were the Cheng Jingyi, who was influential at the Glasgow Conference with his call for a non-denominational church. The way was prepared for the creation of the Church of Christ in China, a unified non-denominational Church.[43] Many scholars term the historical period between the Boxer Uprising and the Second Sino-Japanese War as a golden age of Chinese Christianity, as converts grew rapidly and churches were built in many regions of China.[44]

Era of national and social change: the war against Japan and the Chinese Civil War (1925–1949)

During World War II, China was devastated by the Second Sino-Japanese War which countered a Japanese invasion, and by the Chinese Civil War which resulted in the separation of Taiwan from mainland China. In this period the Chinese Christian churches and organizations had their first experience with autonomy from the Western structures of the missionary church organizations. Some scholars suggest this helped lay the foundation for the independent denominations and churches of the post-war period and the eventual development of the Three-Self Church and the Patriotic Catholic Church. At the same time the intense war period hampered the rebuilding and development of the churches.

Since the division of China in 1949: Communist government on the mainland

The Chinese Civil War resulted in the establishment of the Two Chinas. The People's Republic of China was established on the mainland country in October 1949 by the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong, while the Republic of China led by the Kuomintang maintained its government on the insular land of Taiwan. Under Communist ideology, religion was discouraged by the state and Christian missionaries left the country in what was described by Phyllis Thompson of the China Inland Mission as a "reluctant exodus", leaving the indigenous churches to do their own administration, support, and propagation of the faith.

The Chinese Protestant church entered the communist era having made significant progress toward self-support and self-government. While the Chinese Communist Party was hostile to religion in general, it did not seek to systematically destroy religion as long as the religious organizations were willing to submit to the direction of the Chinese state. Many Protestants were willing to accept such accommodation and were permitted to continue religious life in China under the name "Three-Self Patriotic Movement". Catholics, on the other hand, with their allegiance to the Holy See, could not submit to the Chinese state as their Protestant counterparts did, notwithstanding the willingness of the Vatican to compromise in order to remain on Chinese mainland—the papal nuncio in China did not withdraw to Taiwan like other western diplomats. Consequently, the Chinese state organized the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church that operates without connection to the Vatican, and the Catholics who continued to acknowledge the authority of the Pope were subject to persecution.

From 1966 to 1976 during the Cultural Revolution, the expression of religious life in China was effectively banned, including even the Three-Self Church. Religions in China began to recover after the economic reforms of the 1970s. In 1979 the government officially restored the Three-Self Church after thirteen years of non-existence,[22] and in 1980 the China Christian Council (CCC) was formed.

Since then, persecution of Christians in China has been sporadic. During the Cultural Revolution believers were arrested and imprisoned and sometimes tortured for their faith.[45] Bibles were destroyed, churches and homes were looted, and Christians were subjected to humiliation.[45] Several thousand Christians were known to have been imprisoned between 1983-1993.[45] In 1992 the government began a campaign to shut down all of the unregistered meetings. However, government implementation of restrictions since then has varied widely between regions of China and in many areas there is greater religious liberty.[45]

The members of the underground Roman Catholic Church in China, those who do not belong to the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church and are faithful to the Vatican and the Pope, remain theoretically subject to persecution today. In practice, however, the Vatican and the Chinese State have been, at least unofficially, accommodating each other for some time. While some bishops who joined the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church in its early years have been condemned and even excommunicated, the entire organization has never been declared schismatic by the Vatican and, at present, its bishops are even invited to church synods like other Catholic leaders. Also, many underground clergy and laymen are active in the official Patriotic Church as well. Still, there are periods of discomfort between Vatican and the Patriotic Church: Pope Benedict XVI condemned the Patriotic Catholic leaders as "persons who are not ordained, and sometimes not even baptised", who "control and take decisions concerning important ecclesial questions, including the appointment of bishops". The Chinese state indeed continues to appoint bishops and intervene in the church's policy (most notably on abortion and artificial contraception) without consulting the Vatican and punishing outspoken dissenters. In one notable case that drew international attention, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai whom both the Vatican and Chinese state agreed as the successor to the elderly Aloysius Jin Luxian, the Patriotic Catholic bishop of Shanghai (whom the Vatican also recognized as the coadjutor bishop), was arrested and imprisoned after publicly resigning from his positions in the Patriotic Church in 2012, an act which was considered a challenge to the state control over the Catholic Church in China.

A Christian spiritual revival has grown in recent decades. While the Communist Party remains officially atheist, it has become more tolerant of churches outside party control. Christianity has grown rapidly, reaching 67 million people. In recent years, however, the Communist Party has looked with distrust on organizations with international ties; it tends to associate Christianity with subversive Western values, and has closed churches and schools. In 2015, Hong Kong has become a center of anti-Christian government activism.[46]

Contemporary People's Republic of China

A Roman Catholic church by the Lancang (Mekong) River at Cizhong, Yunnan Province, China. It was built by French missionaries in the mid-19th century, but was burnt during the anti-foreigner movement in 1905 and rebuilt in the 1920s. The congregation is mainly Tibetan, but includes the Han, Naxi, Lisu, Yi, Bai and Hui ethnic groups.

Subdivision of the Christian community

Official organizations—the Chinese Protestant Church and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church

The Protestant Three-Self Church and China Christian Council, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church, are the three centralised and government-approved Christian institutions which regulate all local Christian gatherings, all of which are required to be registered under their auspices.

Unregistered churches

Many Christians hold meetings outside of the jurisdiction of the government-approved organizations and avoid registration with the government and are often illegal. While there has been continuous persecution of Chinese Christians throughout the twentieth century, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, there has been increasing tolerance of unregistered churches since the late 1970s. An instance of the burying alive of a pastor's wife in Henan during a church demolition, with suspicion of official complicity, was widely reported in April 2016.[47][48]

Protestant groups are usually known as house churches and Catholic groups are usually known as underground churches. Much of the Protestant house church movement dates back to the coerced unification of all Protestant denominations in the Three-Self Church in 1958.[49] The Catholic underground churches are those congregations who remain fully faithful to the Pope in Rome and refuse to register as part of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church. There is often significant overlap between the membership of registered and unregistered Christian bodies, as a large number of people attend both registered and unregistered churches.[50]

Chinese Independent Churches

The Chinese Independent Churches are a group of Christian institutions that are independent from Western denominations. They were established in China in the late 19th and early 20th century, including the True Jesus Church. In the 1940s they gathered 200,000 adherents, that was 20% to 25% of the total Christian population of that time.[51]

Miller (2006) explains that a significant amount of the house churches or unregistered congregations and meeting points of the Protestant spectrum, that refuse to join the Three-Self Church—China Christian Council, belong to the Chinese Independent Churches.[52] Congregations of the Little Flock or the True Jesus Church tend to be uncooperative towards the Three-Self Church as to their principle it represents not only a tool of the government but also a different Christian tradition.[52]

Chinese Orthodox Church

There are a small number of adherents of Russian Orthodoxy in northern China, predominantly in Harbin. The first mission was undertaken by Russians in the 17th century. Orthodox Christianity is also practiced by the small Russian ethnic minority in China. The Church operates relatively freely in Hong Kong (where the Ecumenical Patriarch has sent a metropolitan, Bishop Nikitas and the Russian Orthodox parish of St Peter and St Paul resumed its operation) and Taiwan (where archimandrite Jonah George Mourtos leads a mission church).

Korean Christianity

Chinese scholars of religion have reported that a large portion of the members of the networks of house or unregistered churches, and of their pastors, belong to the Koreans of China.[53] The pastors of the Shouwang Church, a house church in Beijing noted for having been prosecuted by the government, are Koreans.[53] Christianity has been an influential religion among the Korean people since the 19th century, and it has become the largest religion in South Korea after the division from the north in 1945. Christianity also has a strong presence in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, in the Jilin province of China.[54]

The Christianity of Yanbian Koreans has a patriarchal character; Korean churches are usually led by men, in contrast to Chinese churches which more often have female leadership. For instance, of the 28 registered churches of Yanji, only three of which are Chinese congregations, all the Korean churches have a male pastor while all the Chinese churches have a female pastor.[55] Also, Yanbian Korean church buildings are stylistically very similar to South Korean churches, with big spires surmounted by large red crosses.[55] Yanbian Korean churches and house churches in China have been a matter of controversy for the Chinese government because of their links to South Korean churches.[56] Many of the Korean house churches in China receive financial support and pastoral ordinations from South Korean churches, and some of them are effectively branches of South Korean churches.[57]

Heterodox sects

In China there are also a variety of sects based on biblical teachings that are considered by the government as "heterodox", such as Eastern Lightning and the Shouters.[58][59] They primarily operate in a form similar to the "house churches",[58][59] small worship groups, outside of the state-sanctioned Three-Self Church, that meet in members' homes. In the mid-1990s, Chinese government started to monitor these new religious movements, and prohibited them officially, so their activities soon turned underground.

Religious venues and practice

As of 2012 in China there are 53,000 Three-Self churches and meeting places and 21 Three-Self theological seminaries.[60] In the same year, Catholicism has 6,300 churches, 116 active dioceses of which 97 under the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church, 74 Chinese Patriotic bishops and 40 Roman Catholic unofficial bishops, 2,150 Chinese Patriotic priests and 1,500 Roman Catholic priests, 22 major and minor Chinese Patriotic seminaries and 10 Roman Catholic unofficial seminaries.[60]

In 2010 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) revealed its on-going efforts to negotiate with the Chinese authorities to regularize its activities in China. The LDS Church has had expatriate members worshiping in China for a few decades previous to this, but with restrictions.[61]

Demographics and geography

"Merry Christmas" signs (usually, in English only) are not uncommon in China during the winter holiday season, even in areas with little sign of Christian observance

Mainland China

The interior of a former Methodist church in Wuhan, converted to an upscale pastry shop with a Christian-themed decor
Haidian Christian Church during the Christmas in 2007, Beijing.

Although a number of factors—the vast Chinese population and the characteristic Chinese approach to religion among others—contribute to a difficulty to obtain empirical data on the number of Christians in China, a series of surveys have been conducted and published by different agencies. Government figures only count adult baptized members of government sanctioned churches. Thus they generally do not include un-baptized persons attending Christian groups, non-adult children of Christian believers or other persons under age 18 and they generally do not take into account unregistered Christian groups.[5] There is often significant overlap between the membership of registered and unregistered Christian bodies, as a large number of people attend both registered and unregistered churches.[50]

Official membership
Independent surveys[note 1]
Estimates[note 2]

Protestants concentrate mainly in three regions: Henan, Anhui and Zhejiang.[74] In these provinces the Christian population is in the millions, yet small in percentage. For instance, in Zhejiang 2.8% of the population is officially Protestant as of 1999, higher than the national average.[74] In Wenzhou, a city of Zhejiang, about one million people (approximately 11%) are Christians, the highest concentration in one city.[75] The Protestant population consists predominantly of illiterate or semi-illiterate people, elderly people and women.[74] These characteristics are confirmed by the findings of the Yu Tao survey of 2008, which also found that Protestantism has the lowest proportion of believers who are at the same time members of the Communist Party of China in comparison to other religions,[65] and by the Chinese Family Panel Studies' survey of 2012.[76]

The province of Hebei has a concentration of Catholics and is also home to the town of Donglu, site of an alleged Marian apparition and pilgrimage center. According to the Yu Tao survey of 2008, the Catholic population, though much smaller than that of the Protestants, is nevertheless younger, wealthier and better educated.[65] The survey also found that Christianity overall has a higher proportion of ethnic minority believers than the other religions.[65]

Controversy exists regarding the veracity of estimates published by some sources. For example, Gerda Wielander (2013) has claimed that estimates of the number of Christians in China that have been spread by Western media may have been highly inflated.[6] For instance, according to Asia Harvest, a US non-profit organization and "inter-denominational Christian ministry", there were 105 millions Christians in China in 2011. The compiler of these figures, Paul Hattaway, indicates that his figures are his own estimate, based on more than 2,000 published sources such as Internet reports, journals, and books, as well as interviews with house church leaders.[77] The study points out that “owing to the difficulties of conducting such a [study] in China today – not the least of which is the sheer size of the country – there is [in the study’s rough estimation] a margin of error of 20 percent.”[70] Citing one of the aforementioned surveys, Gerda Wielander says that the actual number of Christians is around 30 million.[6] Similarly, missionary researcher Tony Lambert has highlighted that an estimate of "one hundred million Chinese Christians" was already being spread by American Christian media in 1983, and has been further exaggerated, through a chain of misquotations, in the 2000s.[78] Christopher Marsh (2011) too has been critical of these overestimations.[79] On the 6th January 2015, David Ferguson published on the People's Daily the satirical news Merry Christmas, 100 million Chinese! criticising such type of journalism.[80]

Christianity by the years, CGSS surveys[69]
Denomination 2006 2008 2010 2011 Average
Total Christian2.1%2.2%2.1%2.6%2.3%
Christianity by age group, CFPS 2012[76]
Denomination 60+ 50—60 40—50 30—40 30-
Total Christian2.9%2.3%2.5%1.2%1.5%

Demographics by province

Christians by province according to the China General Social Survey 2009[81][note 3]
Province Population Christian % Christians' number
Beijing Municipality 19,612,368 0.78% 152,976
Tianjin Municipality 12,938,224 1.51% 195,367
Hebei Province 71,854,202 3.05% 2,191,553
Shanxi Province 35,712,111 2.17% 774,953
Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region 24,706,321 2% 494,126
Liaoning Province 43,746,323 2.2% 962,419
Jilin Province 27,462,297 2% 549,246
Heilongjiang Province 38,312,224 2.2% 843,033
Shanghai Municipality 23,019,148 2.6% 598,498
Jiangsu Province 78,659,903 2.64% 2,076,621
Zhejiang Province 54,426,891 2.62% 1,425,984
Anhui Province 59,500,510 5.30% 3,153,527
Fujian Province 36,894,216 3.5% 1,291,298
Jiangxi Province 44,567,475 2.31% 1,029,508
Shandong Province 95,793,065 1.21% 1,159,096
Henan Province 94,023,567 6.1% 5,735,437
Hubei Province 57,237,740 0.58% 331,979
Hunan Province 65,683,722 0.77% 505,765
Guangdong Province 104,303,132 1% 1,043,031
Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region 46,026,629 0.26% 119,669
Hainan Province 8,671,518 n/a n/a
Chongqing Municipality 28,846,170 1.05% 302,885
Sichuan Province 80,418,200 0.68% 546,844
Guizhou Province 34,746,468 0.99% 343,990
Yunnan Province 45,966,239 1.3% 597,561
Tibet Autonomous Region 3,002,166 n/a n/a
Shaanxi Province 37,327,378 1.57% 586,040
Gansu Province 25,575,254 0.5% 127,876
Qinghai Province 5,626,722 0.76% 42,763
Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region 6,301,350 1.17% 73,726
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region 21,813,334 1% 218,133
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region 7,061,200 11.7% 826,160
Macau Special Administrative Region 552,300 5% 27,615
Total 1,340,388,467 2,1% 28,327,679
Mapping of Christianity in China by province according to the surveys.
Percentage of Christians (both registered and unregistered) by province according to the CFPS survey of 2012[68]
Province Protestants Catholics Total Christians
Gansu 0.4% 0.1% 0.5%
Guangdong 0.8% 0.2% 1%
Liaoning 2.1% 0.1% 2.2%
Henan 5.6% 0.5% 6.1%
Shanghai 1.9% 0.7% 2.6%
China[note 4] 1.89% 0.41% 2.3%
Weighed proportion of Christians on the combined population of the six provinces of Jiangsu, Sichuan, Shaanxi, Jilin, Hebei and Fujian according to the Yu Tao—CCAP—PU survey of 2008[65]
Protestantism 3.54%
Catholicism 0.39%
Total Christianity 3.93%

Special administrations

Hong Kong

Christianity has been practiced in Hong Kong since 1841. As of 2010[82] there are 843,000 Christians in Hong Kong (11.8% of the total population).

Main article: Religion in Macau
St. Dominic's Church in Macau is one of the oldest (AD 1587) existing churches in China built by three Spanish Dominican priests

As of 2010 approximately 5% of the population of Macau self-identifies as Christian, predominantly Catholic.[83] Catholic missionaries were the first to arrive in Macau. In 1535, Portuguese traders obtained the rights to anchor ships in Macau's harbours and to carry out trading activities, though not the right to stay onshore. Around 1552–1553, they obtained temporary permission to erect storage sheds onshore, in order to dry out goods drenched by sea water; they soon built rudimentary stone houses around the area now called Nam Van. In 1576, Pope Gregory XIII established the Roman Catholic Diocese of Macau. In 1583, the Portuguese in Macau were permitted to form a Senate to handle various issues concerning their social and economic affairs under strict supervision of the Chinese authority, but there was no transfer of sovereignty.[84] Macau prospered as a port but was the target of repeated failed attempts by the Dutch to conquer it in the 17th century. Cai Gao was the first mainland Chinese convert of the 19th-century Protestant missions. He was baptized by Robert Morrison at Macau in 1814.

Autonomous regions

Inner Mongolia
Further information: Religion in Tibet
Further information: Christianity in Xinjiang

Christianity is a minority religion in the Xinjiang region of the People's Republic of China. The dominant ethnic group, the Uyghur, are predominantly Muslim and very few are known to be Christian.

In 1904, George Hunter with the China Inland Mission opened the first mission station for CIM in Xinjiang. But already in 1892, the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden started missions in the area around Kashgar, and later built mission stations, churches, hospitals and schools in Yarkant and Yengisar. In the 1930s there were several hundreds of Christians among this people, but because of persecution the churches were destroyed and the believers were scattered. The missionaries were forced to leave because of ethnic and factional battles during the Kumul Rebellion in the late 1930s.[85]

Ningxia Hui

Though the Hui people live in nearly every part of China, they make up about 30% of the population of Ningxia. They are almost entirely Muslim and very few are Christian.

Guangxi Zhuang

Rapid church growth is reported to have taken place among the Zhuang people in the early 1990s.[45] Though still predominantly Buddhist and animistic, the region of Guangxi was first visited in 1877 by Protestant missionary Edward Fishe of the China Inland Mission. He died the same year.


Taiwan, with the division of China in 1949, was the only province to remain under the government of Republic of China, while the mainland became the People's Republic under the Communist Party of China. Taiwan continued the policy on religions that characterised the early republic, and fully liberalised religions in the 1980s, the period of its economic miracle.

Christianity in Taiwan constitutes 3.9% of the population according to the census of 2005.[86] Christians on the island include approximately 600.000 Protestants, 300.000 Catholics and a small number of Mormons.[86] Christians were 4.3% in 1994.[87] Indeed, Christianity in Taiwan has been on the decline since the 1970s, after a strong growth from 1950 to the 1960s.[88]

Restrictions and international interest

U.S. President George W. Bush at the Three-Self Kuanjie Protestant Church in 2008.

In large cities with international links such as Beijing, foreign visitors have established Christian communities which meet in public establishments such as hotels and, sometimes, local churches. These fellowships, however, are typically restricted only to holders of non-Chinese passports.

American evangelist Billy Graham visited China in 1988 with his wife, Ruth, and it was a homecoming for her since she had been born in China to missionary parents, L. Nelson Bell and his wife, Virginia.[89]

Since the 1980s, American officials visiting China have on multiple occasions visited Chinese churches, including President George W. Bush, who attended one of Beijing's five officially-recognized Protestant churches during a November 2005 Asia tour,[90] and the Kuanjie Protestant Church in 2008.[91][92] Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended Palm Sunday services in Beijing in 2005.

Government authorities limit proselytism, particularly by foreigners and unregistered religious groups, but permit proselytism in state-approved religious venues and private settings.[93] During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, three American Christian protesters were deported from China after a demonstration at Tiananmen Square,[94][95] and eight Dutch Christians were stopped after attempting to sing in chorus.[96]

Pope Benedict XVI urged China to be open to Christianity, and said that he hoped the Olympic Games would offer an example of coexistence among people from different countries. Unregistered Roman Catholic clergy has faced political repression, in large part due to its avowed loyalty to the Vatican, which the Chinese government claims interferes in the country's internal affairs.[93]

See also


  1. A survey is a scientific statistical analysis based on empirical research conducted on the population through sampling.
  2. An estimate is a projected number that is usually not based on a scientific statistical analysis.
  3. Data for Gansu, Guangdong, Liaoning, Henan, and Shanghai is updated according to the findings of the Chinese Family Panel Studies of 2012.[68]
  4. Data for all provinces with Han Chinese majority, excluding Hainan, Hong Kong, Inner Mongolia, Macau, Ningxia, Qinghai, Tibet and Xinjiang.



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  •  This article incorporates text from The Chinese Repository, Volume 13, a publication from 1844 now in the public domain in the United States.
  •  This article incorporates text from Life among the Chinese: with characteristic sketches and incidents of missionary operations and prospects in China, by Robert Samuel Maclay, a publication from 1861 now in the public domain in the United States.
  •  This article incorporates text from The Missionary herald, Volume 17, by American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a publication from 1821 now in the public domain in the United States.
  •  This article incorporates text from Chinese and Japanese repository of facts and events in science, history and art, relating to Eastern Asia, Volume 1, a publication from 1863 now in the public domain in the United States.
  •  This article incorporates text from East India (Tibet): Papers relating to Tibet [and Further papers ...], Issues 2-4, by Great Britain. Foreign Office, India. Foreign and Political Dept, India. Governor-General, a publication from 1904 now in the public domain in the United States.
  •  This article incorporates text from The Atlantic monthly, Volume 113, by Making of America Project, a publication from 1914 now in the public domain in the United States.
  • Austin, Alvyn (2007). China’s Millions: The China Inland Mission and Late Qing Society. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans. ISBN 978-0-8028-2975-7. 
  • Burgess, Alan (1957). The Small Woman. ISBN 1-56849-184-0. 
  • Gulick, Edward V. (1975). Peter Parker and the Opening of China. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1975). 
  • Latourette, Kenneth Scott (1929). A History of Christian Missions in China. 
  • Spence, Jonathan D. (1991). The Search for modern China. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-30780-8. 
  • Taylor, James Hudson (1868). China's Spiritual Need and Claims (Third Edition). London: James Nisbet. 
  • Soong, Irma Tam (1997). Sun Yat-sen's Christian Schooling in Hawai'i. Hawai'i: The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 13. 

Further reading

External links

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