Since the 1970s, the study of Christianity in Asia has been transformed by new approaches in which the scholarly perspective has become less Eurocentric and more Asian. Particularly in regard to China, Western missionary sources have given way to Chinese sources while the meaning of Christianity has been broadened beyond a narrow religious content to include Asian cultural elements.
The history of Christianity in Asia begins with the unconfirmed legend that St. Thomas, one of the original Twelve Disciples, carried the teaching as a missionary to the southwest coast of India. By the third century, Nestorian Christians of the Syrian church were well established in the Malabar Coast region of India. When the Portuguese began landing in India in 1498, they encountered a group of approximately 100,000 St. Thomas Christians.
Christianity in East Asia dates from the arrival of the missionary Aluoben in the Tang capital of Changan in 635. This Nestorian church in China grew with imperial support until it peaked in 781 and then was destroyed in the anti-Buddhist persecution of 845. The period of continuous and sustained development of Christianity in China dates from the entry of Jesuit missionaries in 1580. It was the result of European global voyages, Catholic Reformation fervor, and Chinese receptivity in the syncretic cultural atmosphere of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).
The newly formed Society of Jesus led the way in missionizing Asia in the early modern period. The Jesuits cultivated regional Asian elites in an effort to accommodate Christianity with indigenous cultural elements. While Jesuit accommodation was criticized by other missionaries, it is clear that some process of inculturation (assimilation) was necessary for the long-term viability of Christianity in Asia.
In China, led by the pioneering Father Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), the Jesuits developed a mission strategy focusing on the scholar-officials. A number of prominent literati were converted in the early seventeenth century, including the famous Three Pillars of the Early Christian Church: Xu Guangqi (1562–1633), Li Zhizao (1565–1630), and Yang Tingyun (1557–1627). Instead of syncretizing the traditional Three Teachings (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism), Xu proposed to "supplement Confucianism and displace Buddhism" by blending Confucianism and Christianity. This formula influenced later literati, such as Shang Huqing (b. 1619) and Zhang Xingyao (b. 1633). However, with the Manchu conquest of 1644, Chinese culture became more conservative and less open to creative synthesizing, causing the literati converts to decrease both in numbers and eminence.
In south India, a Jesuit named Robert de Nobili (1577–1656) studied the languages of ancient India (Sanskrit and classical Tamil) to develop a new and fruitful approach to inculturating Christianity into Tamil culture in the years 1605–1656. However, the Hindu and Muslim cultures of this region resisted Christianity, making South Asia far less fertile territory than East Asia. In southeast Asia, Buddhist cultures resisted the penetration of Christianity, with the notable exception of Vietnam. The French Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes (1593–1660) developed a remarkably effective missionary method by creating a Vietnamese group of catechists who were trained in basic medicine and who lived as a celibate brotherhood. This led to the creation of a thriving Catholic Church. In more recent times, evangelical Protestants in Vietnam have grown to an estimated 700,000 in number.
In Japan, missionaries met with striking initial success followed by rejection. The Jesuit Francis Xavier arrived in 1549 while Japan was emerging from a period of warring feudal chaos, which provided a brief window of opportunity for the missionaries. Within sixty-five years, there were 300,000 Christians in a Japanese population of twenty million. However, fears of subversion by this foreign religion led to a harsh persecution of Christians that culminated in the death of 3,125 Christian martyrs in the years 1597–1660. Christianity was exterminated in Japan, except for a small group of underground Christians in the area of Nagasaki. Christianity never again rekindled the interest that it had in the late sixteenth century in spite of the extensive investment of American missionaries and church funds made in Japan in the aftermath of World War II.
The isolation of Korea, which was controlled by China, delayed the development of Christianity by denying access to missionaries. However, Jesuit publications in Chinese did reach China and these stimulated a young Korean named Lee Sunghun (1751–1801) to travel to Beijing and be baptized in 1784. Lee returned to Korea and converted other Koreans. The first Protestant missionaries entered Korea in 1885 and in the twentieth century, Korea became a leading area of Christian growth in Asia.
The entire population of the Philippines was converted within one century after the arrival of Spanish missionaries in 1565. Protestant missionaries first entered the Philippines when the Americans replaced the Spaniards as colonizers in 1898. The Philippines remain today the only Asian country where Christianity is a majority religion, although there has been rapid growth in China, Indonesia, Singapore, and South Korea.
In China, the acceptance of Christianity was made more difficult by the Rites Controversy and related Eurocentric rulings from Rome that were inflexible in dealing with rites to ancestors and to Confucius. This produced an untenable situation in which conversion to Christianity forced one to be unfilial to one's ancestors. Rome later reversed these rulings in 1939 in a case involving Japanese Shinto rites. With the Jesuits losing favor at the court in Beijing, most of the conversions made in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were made by non-Jesuit missionaries working in the provincial cities and rural areas of China. Although magistrates were increasingly harsh in their treatment of Christians, the Catholic rural converts remained faithful.
The first Protestant missionary to work in China was Robert Morrison (1782–1834) of the London Missionary Society who served in Macau and Canton from 1807 to 1834. The missionaries working out of Canton distributed religious tracts that were instrumental in stimulating mystical visions in a frustrated examination candidate named Hong Xiuquan who became convinced that he was the younger brother of Jesus. The result was a powerful blending of Christian and native Chinese folk beliefs in a Taiping movement that nearly toppled the Qing dynasty in 1853–1864. Whereas Catholics emphasized the development of Chinese catechisms, Protestants concentrated on translating the Bible into Chinese. The Delegates Version appeared in 1852–1854 and the Union Version in 1919.
After the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), other treaty ports were opened up to Christian missionaries. However, the missionaries were tainted in the eyes of many Chinese by their association with foreign imperialist pressures. When the Communists took over in 1949 and expelled both the imperialists and the missionaries, there were three million Catholics and 1.5 million Protestants. Because the Chinese communist government and the Vatican refused to normalize relations, Catholic churches split into those registered with the government (Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association) and underground Catholic churches loyal to Rome. Distrust of the government caused a similar split of Protestants into registered churches (Three-Self Patriotic Movement) and unregistered house churches.
Many observers believed that Christian churches were nearly exterminated in China during the antireligious activities of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Actually, religious persecution and in more recent times, the spiritual thirst generated by a rapidly changing society, have fostered strong growth in the numbers of Christians, particularly in native Chinese churches. The emergence of these indigenous movements indicates that Christianity is taking root in China, although it is likely to remain, like Buddhism, a minority religion. Estimates today place the number of Catholics at ten million and the number of Protestants at thirty million. This would mean that 3 percent of the Chinese population is Christian. Of the three billion people in Asia today, 8 percent are estimated to be Christians.
See also Confucianism ; Religion: East and Southeast Asia .
Eber, Irene, Sze-kar Wan, and Knut Wulf, eds. Bible in Modern China: The Literary and Intellectual Impact. Nettetal, Germany: Steyler, 1999.
Elison, George. Deus Destroyed: the Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.
Mungello, D. E. The Spirit and the Flesh in Shandong, 1650–1785. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions. Hammondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1964. Revised 2nd ed., 1986.
Ricci, Matteo, S.J. The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (T'ienchu Shih-i). Translated by Douglas Lancashire and Peter Hu Kuo-chen, S.J. St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1985.
Standaert, Nicolas, ed. Handbook of Christianity in China. Vol. 1, 635–1800. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2001.
D. E. Mungello
"Christianity: Asia." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/christianity-asia
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