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Christianity In China

A reader sends this fascinating Ian Johnson interview with Pastor Yuan Zhiming [1], a Chinese dissident who converted to Christianity after Tiananmen Square, and who now, from his exile in America, is a one of China’s most influential cultural and spiritual leaders. From the interview:

I noticed that the pastors you chose to record for the series of sermons are all from the mainland. Why not from other parts of the Chinese-speaking world?

Most people on the mainland who are interested in Christianity don’t understand a lot of the vocabulary that others might use. They don’t get the Trinity or things like that. But I was an atheist for thirty-six years. I can use stories and reference points that non-believers can understand—when I talk about family life and how I used to fight with my wife. Or I talk about [the Communist hero] Lei Feng or make movie references. But maybe more important is the value system. I can say “I was like that in the past,” and they say, “Yes, that’s what I’m like now.”

The communists know there is this crisis, but they don’t want Christianity. They promote Buddhism or Daoism over Christianity, or they advocate Confucianism.


Because it’s Chinese. Mao is Chinese. Laozi is Chinese. Confucius is Chinese. Buddhism has been in China for a long time, so it’s treated as indigenous. But Jesus is universal. It’s being part of the whole world. This is a threat to the Party, because it wants to use nationalism to rule. Christians can’t believe in a Mao because they have a true God. If just 25 percent of Chinese became Christians, then China would be really different. The spirit of communism would be broken. It’s like a software program. If everyone uses the same software to think, they think alike.

The Communist Party has its software too.

Yes, definitely. They make everyone use it, from elementary school onwards. Every child learns it, so it’s hard to change. But we have to do this. We need to change this nationalistic patriotism, and change it to Christianity. But this change will be peaceful and soft. The Communist Party shouldn’t worry. It won’t be violent. It’s better than the Party being thrown out of power or collapsing.

Here is an interesting fact about Pastor Yuan [2]: he was formally trained in Christianity at a Reformed seminary [3] in Jackson, Mississippi. And now the product of a seminary in a poor state that is the punch line for jokes from people elsewhere in America is now one of the most influential people in one of the two most important countries in the world.

Awesome. You never know, do you?

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Christianity In China"

#1 Comment By Patrick Harris On September 10, 2012 @ 10:41 am

“We need to change this nationalistic patriotism, and change it to Christianity.”

Sadly you will never hear this said in conservative American churches. And I say this as a thoroughly small-o orthodox Christian.

#2 Comment By Mont D. Law On September 10, 2012 @ 10:44 am

[They don’t get the Trinity or things like that.]

So basically he’s teaching the dreaded MTD.

#3 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On September 10, 2012 @ 10:56 am

I don’t think Christianity reduced nationalism in Europe in the past, or the US today. So I don’t think it will help or hurt with there.

What will be interesting, is how will Jesus be depicted. Europeans picture Jesus as looking like them, while some black churches picture Jesus as being black. If you look at this Chinese illustration from 1879


Jesus looks Chinese! So if the Chinese government wanted too, they could blend Christianity into their culture pretty seamlessly.

#4 Comment By EngineerScotty On September 10, 2012 @ 12:28 pm

While it would be ridiculous to suggest that Christianity is European or American–it is a faith that flourished in Europe–and thus tends to be identified with the European diaspora, particularly by non-European demagogues (of which the PRC has many).

And it’s also worth pointing out that many of the other religions mentioned by Yuan are generally non-hierarchical in nature; there is no power structure in Buddhism (excluding Tibetan Buddhism, where the lamas wield considerable influence over followers, and which is oppressed in China) or Confucianism or Taoism that could conceivably threaten the state. Homegrown religions that DO pose a threat get banned–Falun Dafa is probably the most well-known example.

That said, it’s worth to note that THIS is what it looks like when a government oppresses religion.

#5 Comment By PDGM On September 10, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

It’s interesting to think that Christianity is global, and historically it clearly is, what with the “convert all the nations”; and according to Yuan Zhiming it is this in a good sense; whereas for many of this blog’s readers, Walmart or Apple factories in Shenzhen are arguably globalism in a bad sense.

Point of historical fact: Catholic Christianity (and I suspect Orthodox as well) used local saints or even local versions of saints as a means of localizing Christianity. How does low church Christianity do the same thing? Is there any means like the Virgen de Guadalupe for Central and Mexican Americans for evangelicals?

#6 Comment By EngineerScotty On September 10, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

[No Trinity = MTD]

I thought that “MTD” referred to the watering down of faith to the point where Christianity is more of a cultural practice, as opposed to acceptance or rejection of any particular creed. The modern Unitarian Church, being a solidly liberal congregation, might deserve the dreaded “MTD” label; OTOH the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is equally non-orthodox on this matter and I don’t think anyone would accuse Mormons of MTD…

At any rate, many Chinese (including my wife, on occasion) practice a Buddhist-influenced form of “MTD” (minus the deist part, I suppose). My wife and kids regularly engage in ancestor-worship on certain holidays and events (I occasionally participate as well)–not because any of us believe that we are actually providing for dead ancestors in the afterlife (we don’t), but simply because it’s Chinese culture and tradition.

#7 Comment By William Burns On September 10, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

The idea that Christianity’s universalism would pose a threat to the Chinese regime that “Chinese” religions don’t would apply to Islam, another religion the government persecutes, as well.

#8 Comment By EngineerScotty On September 10, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

The idea that Christianity’s universalism would pose a threat to the Chinese regime that “Chinese” religions don’t would apply to Islam, another religion the government persecutes, as well.


OTOH, most Chinese Muslims are from Xinjiang province, a place with significant separatist tendencies (see [5]) that the government is eager to tamp down. There is no Christian state or region which is currently occupied by China but having historical independence, and correspondingly, no Christian separatist movement.

#9 Comment By Auntiegrav On September 10, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

Like its neighbors on either side, that poor state is the punchline for jokes because of the quality of its public schools, not its seminaries.

#10 Comment By Steve in Ohio On September 10, 2012 @ 2:53 pm

Anybody interested in the history of Christianity in China should read “God is Red”. The author is not a believer, but sympathizes with the Church because he sees them as fellow disidents.

#11 Comment By GCR On September 11, 2012 @ 7:16 pm

“We need to change this nationalistic patriotism, and change it to Christianity.”

This worked pretty well in South Korea! 🙂