Christianity in Chinese Society
The first contact between Christianity and China was not made until the beginning of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). According to the inscription of 1,780 Chinese characters on a stone tablet which dates 781 and was unearthed in 1623, the initiator of this contact was a Syrian Nestorian called A-lou-ben (Alopen). He, with a number of others, came from, or through, Persia and arrived at the Chinese capital in 635, and thus their churches were called Da Qin Si, or, mistakenly, the temples of Persia. Nestorian Christianity won support and toleration from the government, and its success earned it a Chinese name Jing Jiao, the Brilliant or Admirable Religion. As a religion from the West, Nestorianism was taken as a sect of Buddhism, and satisfied the curiosity as well as the religious pursuit of the Tang Chinese. It became popular in some areas for a reasonably long period until the ninth century when a major persecution of 'foreign religions' was carried out and Nestorianism was, partly due to their actual or alleged relation with Buddhism, swept away from central China. After two other major fluctuations of success and failure respectively in the thirteenth and in the seventeenth- eighteenth centuries, Christianity made its fourth attempt of conversion of China from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Christian conversion gained ground both because of the hard work and self-sacrifice of the missionaries, and because of the pressure on the Manchurian Court from the Western powers, which were clearly embodied in a series of so-called unequal treaties between the Chinese government and the Western nations.
While these treaties provided legal protection for Christian expansion, a close connection between missionary work and political or military pressure proved to be harmful to the former and was often used to stir a strong resistance among the natives. In 1919, a massive protest against the Western powers broke out and made Christianity one of its targets of attack. In some sense, we may well say that this marked the beginning of another decline of Christianity in China. By the middle of the 1950s, under dogmatic Communist rule, almost all the foreign missionaries had been driven out of China, and connections between foreign organisations and Chinese churches were cut off by the 'Three Self Patriotic Movement' (self-administration, self-support and self-propagation). During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Christian activities, if not completely annihilated, were reduced to their minimum, or were carried underground only. Since the 1970s, Christianity has recovered from its setback with the dawning of a new era. While the faithful are proud of their courage in defiance of previous suppression, the new-comers crowd into the old buildings to look for their new faith. The services, which were forbidden or reduced or changed, are restored to their full content. The churches, which were confiscated or destroyed or occupied, have been returned, rebuilt or compensated. The total number of Chinese Catholics and Protestants is not easy to give, varying between 10 million according to the official statistics and 50 million according to the unofficial estimates.
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