Missions, China

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Missions, China

Though earlier missionizing in China had met with little success, during the sixteenth century Catholic missionaries succeeded in establishing Christianity as a permanent minority religion. From the beginning there was a link between colonialism and Christian missions in China, as power and profit mingled with spirituality and proselytizing. In 1517 the first Portuguese ships arrived in search of trade, casting anchor at the riverfront of Canton. They proceeded to terrify the Chinese populace by firing their cannons in salute and were then driven a hundred miles to the south, where they established the colony of Macao sometime around 1557. This colony became the base of early missionary operations in China.

Infused with the spirit of the Counter Reformation, Portuguese merchants frequently made room on their ships for Catholic missionaries, many of whom were members of the newly formed Society of Jesus. These Jesuits, as Society members are called, became the leading Catholic missionary force: 920 members of this remarkable group served as missionaries in China between 1552 and 1800. By almost any standard, China in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the greatest country in the world, so the Jesuits soon realized that missionizing in China, unlike in Latin America or South India, required accommodation rather than forced conversion. This led the highly educated Jesuits, many of whom came from eminent European families, to cultivate their closest counterparts in China. These were the Confucian literati or scholar-officials. In appealing to this group, they attempted to forge a Confucian-Christian synthesis. Other missionary orders, most notably Franciscans, toiled in the provinces among the common people.

As leaders in the exploratory voyages of the early sixteenth century, Portugal dominated the eastward route to China. This Portuguese monopoly (padroado) is reflected in the fact that more than one-third of the 314 Jesuits in China during the premodern period of the mission were Portuguese. The Italian city-states provided 99 Jesuits, including the most famous China missionary of all, Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), whose respect for Chinese culture endeared him to the Chinese. The second-largest contingent of Jesuits (130) sent to pre-1800 China was provided by the French, who refused to submit to the Portuguese monopoly. The Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (or the Propaganda) was established by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 in order to reduce these troublesome nationalistic and interorder religious rivalries.

Initially the Chinese showed some degree of receptivity toward the missionaries, and this led to the baptism of approximately 300,000 Christians out of a population of 150 million during the early seventeenth century. With the fall of the native Ming dynasty and the conquest of China by the Manchus in 1644, however, the cultural atmosphere became more conservative and it is believed that in the eighteenth century the number of Christians in China declined by one-third. With a decline in the conversions of eminent literati, the Jesuits began focusing on the Manchu court in an attempt to convert the emperor and powerful officials. This effort, however, met with only limited success. Additional damage to the mission in China was caused by Rome's dissolution of the Society of Jesus in 1773 (it was not reestablished until 1814).

As the Catholic mission flagged, Protestants entered the field on the ships of the emerging Protestant colonialist powers. The movement was led by Anglo-Saxon Evangelicals from Great Britain and the United States who sponsored missionary societies, notably, the London Missionary Society (LMS; founded in 1795), the Church Missionary Society (founded in 1799), and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (founded in 1810).

The first Protestant missionary to serve in China was Robert Morrison of the LMS, who worked in Macao and Canton from 1807 to 1834. Unlike the Catholics, the Protestants emphasized the translation of the Bible into Chinese. By 1839 European colonialist nations like Great Britain had grown powerful enough to inflict humiliating defeats on a stagnating China. The Chinese were forced to open treaty ports to both colonialist traders and Christian missionaries.

The most famous Protestant missionary in China was the Englishman James Hudson Taylor, who arrived in 1854 and led the movement to penetrate the Chinese mainland. Taylor forged the creation of the China Inland Mission (CIM), which became the largest sponsor of Protestant missionaries in China. After World War I, the United States replaced Great Britain as the primary sponsor of Protestant missionaries in China.

Around 1900 the CIM's emphasis on evangelism began to be challenged by the Social Gospel movement led by the Young Men's Christian Association. This was a movement fueled by faith in modern science, with an emphasis on education, medicine, famine relief, and public health. The period 1900 to 1914 saw rapid growth in Protestant missionizing, with the number of Protestant missionaries peaking in the 1920s at 8,000, serving a total population of almost 500 million. However, the great age of missions in China was ending, and in the 1920s two indigenous movements began to challenge the missions in a way that foreshadowed the missions' end. One was Chinese nationalism, which found expression in the Christian Three-Self movement (the three "selfs" being self-government, self-support, and self-propagation). Combining love of country with love of church, this was a reaction against the belief of Western missionaries that Chinese culture was irreconcilable with Christianity, and against their refusal to treat Chinese Christians as equals. The other was the emergence of indigenous evangelical groups, such as the Little Flock, led by Watchman Nee (Ni Duosheng), and the True Jesus Church, founded by Barnabas Tung in 1909 or 1910.

The missionaries' penetration into China provoked a powerful resentment that exploded in the xenophobic Boxer Rebellion of 1900, during which hundreds of missionaries and Chinese Christians were killed. In 1950 the new Communist government of mainland China expelled most foreign missionaries, though the link between foreign missionaries and colonialism was exploited for propagandistic purposes as late as the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976. Because foreign mission boards and missionaries had always been reluctant to relinquish control of the Chinese churches to Chinese Christians, the missionaries' expulsion by the Communists turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the development of an indigenous Christianity in China. Although many scholars believed that Christianity in China had been eradicated by the Communists, the churches simply went underground and in fact continued to flourish.

see also Boxer Uprising; Catholic Church in Iberian America; Religion, Western Perceptions of Traditional Religions; Religion, Western Perceptions of World Religions; Religion, Western Presence in the Pacific.


Bays, Daniel H., ed. Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christian Missions in China. New York: Macmillan, 1929.

Mungello, D. E. The Spirit and the Flesh in Shandong, 1650–1785. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

Standaert, Nicolas, ed. Handbook of Christianity in China, Vol. 1: 635-1800. Boston: Brill, 2001.

Whyte, Bob. Unfinished Encounter: China and Christianity. London: Collins/Fount, 1988.

Zetzsche, Jost Oliver. The Bible in China: The History of the Union Version, or, The Culmination of Protestant Missionary Bible Translation in China. Sankt Augustin, Germany: Monumenta Serica Institute, 1999.

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Missions, China