Religion, Western Presence in East Asia

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Religion, Western Presence in East Asia

Prior to 1450, Christian missionaries from the west (Nestorians in the seventh century and Franciscans in the thirteenth century) had failed to establish an enduring presence in East Asia. After 1450, the currents of global history generated a continual flow of missionaries to East Asia, where they planted the seeds for a religious presence that has continued to the present day.

The greatest receptivity was initially found in Japan, where Francis Xavier (1506–1552) arrived in 1549 in the wake of Portuguese traders who introduced firearms to Japan. Initially, Christianity was enthusiastically received along with a Japanese craze for Portuguese things; by 1600 there were 300,000 Christians and by 1615 possibly 500,000. However, the victory of the Tokugawa shogunate after a long period of feudal chaos was tenuous and made the Tokugawa fearful of foreigners as a subversive force. This led to a persecution of European missionaries and Japanese converts that intensified until the Portuguese traders and missionaries were expelled in 1639 and replaced by Dutch Calvinist traders who did not engage in proselytizing. The anti-Christian campaign and the Tokugawa's attempt to control foreign trade led to an exclusion policy that lasted until the mid-nineteenth century. Christianity was forced underground and thereafter was reduced to a tiny minority religion in Japanese history.

The Chinese initially were less enthusiastic about Christianity than were the Japanese. The syncretic culture of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) blended the three dominant religions of China (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism) into a unified whole that minimized their differences. Just as Buddhism had once been a foreign religion that was assimilated into Chinese culture by initially blending with Daoism, Christianity now underwent a similar process. With the assistance of eminent literati converts, the Jesuits realized that Confucianism was the most likely candidate for synthesis with Christianity. They believed Confucian moral teachings were compatible with Christianity and needed only to be supplemented with the truths of Christian revelation.

Missionaries became divided on the basis of nationalistic rivalries fostered by mercantilism. The early Portuguese monopoly (padroado) on shipping routes to the East enabled them to dominate the mission field prior to 1800. The Dutch and French began to make inroads on this monopoly in the seventeenth century.

Judaism also formed part of the Western religious presence in East Asia. In the seventeenth century, Jesuits encountered Chinese Jews whose ancestors had arrived in China during the Tang dynasty (618–1279) as part of the Diaspora, or dispersal of Jews from Jerusalem. In the nineteenth century, Shanghai became a growing magnet for Jews, beginning with the arrival of Iraqi Jews, followed by the arrival of Austrian and German Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during the late 1930s. While many Jews fled Shanghai after World War II, others were absorbed into the Chinese populace such that there are no identifiable Jews in China today.

Protestant missionaries (mainly from Great Britain and the United States) began entering East Asia after 1800 during the high tide of colonialism. Europeans and Americans used gunboat diplomacy to force the Japanese and Chinese to open their gates to trade. In a series of military defeats and unequal treaties beginning in 1842, Christian missionaries gained access to inland China. Both Protestants and Catholics proselytized a religious stew of Christianity and Western culture that most sophisticated Chinese found offensively alien. Consequently, most of the nineteenth-century converts in China were poor "rice bowl Christians" who sought baptism as much for the practical benefits offered by the well-funded missions as for spiritual salvation.

The message of the Protestants stimulated one of the most turbulent events in Chinese history. Gospel pamphlets distributed on the streets of Canton (present-day Guangzhou) evoked a mystical vision in a frustrated, poor examination candidate named Hong Xiuquan (1814–1864), who blended an incomplete knowledge of Christianity with peasant Chinese traditions and millennial Buddhism. Claiming in distinctively Chinese style that he was the younger brother of Jesus, Hong attracted thousands of destitute Chinese who followed their messiah's commands in what became known as the Taiping Rebellion. Had the Western powers not rejected Hong, he might have succeeded in toppling the Qing dynasty and replacing it with a theocratic "Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace." By the time he died in 1864, the Taiping movement had caused the death of over twenty million Chinese.

By 1900, Christian missionaries were increasingly viewed in the Chinese countryside as foreign devils who should be driven out of China. This xenophobia blended with one of the indigenous traditions of Chinese peasant secret societies to produce the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers claimed as part of their arsenal of martial arts the ability to render themselves impervious to bullets. Before this claim was disproved by a multinational military force, the Boxers killed many missionaries and Western businessmen in northern China and laid siege to the diplomatic quarters in Beijing.

The decline of traditional Chinese culture around 1900 fostered a new receptivity to Western religions among the youth of China, particularly in the coastal cities where the colonialist presence was greatest. Enthusiastic young Christians from the West flocked to China in the name of an interdenominational and international movement called the Social Gospel that focused on education and social work rather than saving souls. Capitalism was criticized, and religion was said to be compatible with science. However, World War I demonstrated the superficiality of this movement. The cynical treatment of China in the Versailles peace negotiations in Paris in 1919 provoked disillusionment with the Western democracies among Chinese youth, giving birth to the anti-Christian May Fourth Movement.

China attempted to break free of colonialist forces by reshaping Christianity on more indigenous grounds. The Chinese attempted to free themselves of Western denominational differences by merging sixteen different missionary-fostered Protestant churches in 1927. One of the most creative Chinese movements was an expression of indigenous Chinese evangelicalism led by Ni Duosheng (Watchman Nee, 1902–1972). While Ni was reacting against the Western Social Gospel, he was deeply influenced by Margaret Barber (1866–1930), a missionary associated with the Brethren movement of England, which emphasized adult baptism. Ni believed in the principle of local churches, hence the name by which his movement became known, Little Flock, which represented an indigenous Chinese revivalism.

After the Communists took control of China in 1949, they expelled the foreign missionaries, who were seen as tools of colonialism, and they forced Chinese Christians to break off relations with foreign religious bodies. The government forced all Chinese Protestants into the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (self-management, self-support, and self-propagation), which was postdenominational. Catholics were forced into the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. The members of these government-supervised organizations became targets during the anti-Christian campaigns run by the radical leftist government of Mao Zedong (1893–1976). In order to avoid government control and persecution, many Chinese chose to join underground religious organizations. With the Protestants, these took the form of "house churches," which met informally in private homes. With the Catholics, this took the form of an underground hierarchy of priests and bishops who refused to relinquish their apostolic relationship with Rome.

The Western notion of religious liberty has encountered difficulty in Chinese culture because of the lack of a tradition of separation of church and state. One of the major postcolonial legacies in East Asia stems from the fear among China's leaders that international efforts to secure religious freedom in China are disguised attempts to subvert the government of China.

see also Missions, China; Missions, in the Pacific; Religion, Roman Catholic Church; Religion, Western Perceptions of Traditional Religions; Religion, Western Perceptions of World Religions; Religion, Western Presence in the Pacific.


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Leung, Beatrice. "The Sino-Vatican Negotiations: Old Problems in a New Context." China Quarterly 153 (1998): 128-140.

Malek, Roman, ed. From Kaifeng … to Shanghai: Jews in China. Nettetal, Germany: Steyler, 2000.

Spence, Jonathan D. God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. New York: Norton, 1996.

Uhalley, Stephen, Jr., and Xiaoxin Wu, eds. China and Christianity: Burdened Past, Hopeful Future. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 2001.

Whyte, Bob. Unfinished Encounter: China and Christianity. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1988.

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Religion, Western Presence in East Asia

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Religion, Western Presence in East Asia