The Chinese Church Under Pressure – Part 2, China and the Modern Nation-State

A Historical Review, Part 2: China and the Modern Nation-State

History helps us see how to face contemporary problems. My thesis is that the persecution of the house church in previous decades, as well as now, is part of a large and extensive transformation of Chinese culture and society. The gospel has entered Chinese culture in modern history, and it continues to win over men and women to build the kingdom of God. In this process, there are both hills and valleys.

First, I’ll discuss how a gospel-influenced Western culture clashes with China.

After that, I will look at the 170 years of contact Chinese culture has had with the gospel.

Then, I’ll look at the current situation.

First, we will look at the clash between Western and Chinese cultures. When we talk about China, we think of a nation and a government. When we think of China as a nation-state, we think of a country with government, authority, lands and borders. Inside this nation are people who share a similar history that continues to shape them. But the term “China” and our impression of it has been influenced by and is a product of the clash between Western and Chinese cultures. This definition of nation-state is actually a modern European concept. Our definition of China is formed by this. What it means to be a modern democratic country is itself is a product of the clash between Western and Chinese cultures.

It is not merely the definition of the nation-state, but a deeper layer that relates to whether we are speaking of a cultural or a political China. We must view the contemporary situation through this lens to understand where we stand. Whether we look at China as a concept or a term, it is not a state according to the modern definition. During the period of the Warring States, China was a cultural concept with a geographical location. To a certain extent, there was a time when Japan and Korea also declared themselves to be “China.”

During that time, “China” was understood to be whatever was under heaven. Anything under heaven and the term “son of heaven” were connected – but what did it mean? The “son of heaven” received a mandate from heaven to live in China and to rule the world. Under heaven was anywhere the “son of heaven” had authority: the “civilized world.” Outside the civilized world – to the north, south, east, and west – were barbarians. The “son of heaven” was a gentleman who did not rule over barbarians. This concept shapes Chinese civilization at its core.

Wherever the “son of heaven” is, there is China. Everybody had to fight for a place and a name. When a name was established in that place, the “son of heaven” had authority from heaven to rule legitimately. Concepts like China and “under heaven” were elemental in shaping Chinese culture and politics. When China met the West, this inspired a deep sense of modern consciousness, and the modern idea of the nation-state was born. It was not until the 1770s to early 1800s, under the labors of the national elite, that the vague boundaries of cultural and political China were slowly defined to become a modern “China” with clear boundaries.

For example, Xinjiang did not become a province in the Qing dynasty until Zuo Zongtang (General Tso). This delineation also included Taiwan, which at the time had a lot of Japanese migrants. Li Hongzhang complained to the Qing government because Japanese ex-pats were being bullied by Taiwanese natives. The Qing government responded by saying that, although Taiwan pays tribute to them, the Qing did not rule over them. When the Japanese understood China’s mentality, they asked if they could establish rule over them, which they were granted, and Japanese troops took over Taiwan. Under this process, our concept of a nation was formed.


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The concept of consular jurisdiction has been considered a disgrace by modern China – how can a foreigner who committed a crime on Chinese soil be judged, not according to Chinese law, but by their consulate? But consular jurisdiction was not suggested by the French or English or outsiders, but by the Qing dynasty. They thought sentencing foreigners was too troublesome. The Qing suggested that, if a foreigner broke the law, foreigners should come and judge them . There was no clear concept of a modern nation or state.

This was true insofar as that, when Allied invasion forces came to Nanjing and their warships were in the harbor, civilians brought and sold produce to the foreign soldiers. When the Earl of Elgin was commanding warships upriver for the Treaty of TianjinSengge Rinchen was fortifying Dagu forts. He disguised the Qing forces as civilians and blocked the river. When Anglo-French forces could not advance, they demanded civilians clear the path. The reply at that time was: these are civilians, it has nothing to do with us. The Qing forces disguised themselves as civilians to fight the foreigners, but appeared to be neutral. So in the north, the Qing dynasty was warring with Anglo-French forces, but at the same time in Shanghai, Anglo-French forces were allied together with the Qing against Hong Xiuquan.

In the same country, on the same soil, there were two wars. In one they were allies, but in the other they were enemies. The modern nation-state concept only started to form when the two sides collided. We have to understand that, as Eastern countries began to form the concept of the nation-state, the Chinese cultural elites of the time used their wits to preserve the greatest geographical area they could. Looking back, we say they gave up Hong Kong, but the elites quickly learned international law. Using these laws in international courts, they were able to preserve the greatest possible geographical area for China.

Traditionally, even before the Qing dynasty, China had 18 provinces. Inner and Outer Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet are areas which were preserved after the Qing came to power. The Summer Palace in Chengde governed these areas, which they considered “outside.” The other provinces were considered “inside.” For two to three thousand years, through the rise and fall of dynasties and the invasion of foreigners, China has been a huge Eastern empire. Chinese culture devoured surrounding cultures, and eventually transformed into a political China. Although there were dynastic changes, some very basic elements never changed, even over millennia. But as China met the West, it encountered a big shock.


Read Part 3


Read the whole series below:

A Historical Review

Synopsis: The current round of religious persecution in China is fundamentally an issue of ultimate allegiances. “The government used to be laissez-faire, but now they need to hear everyone say: ‘I love you.’”

Synopsis: Modern day China is the result of a clash between cultures. Before its engagement with the West, China viewed the world according to two categories – its kingdom and the barbarians outside. 

Synopsis: A discussion of the authority structures that exist in China due to the long legacy of Confucianism. Authority belongs to the emperor as given by heaven and total loyalty to superiors is necessary for the Chinese system to function. 

Synopsis: A two-millennia old system of governance does not easily change overnight. “Yuan realized the universal and interconnected Chinese system could not be transformed into a republican or parliamentary system simply by changing it on paper. In a public discussion in America, he said: “If we do not even have citizens, how can we have a republican system?”

Synopsis: In the past, while China was busy getting rich, the government had confidence in its full legitimacy to rule and there were fewer questions of loyalty. But now, in this time of reconstruction, they ask: “Do you love me? If you do, you must raise the national flag. If you love me, you will register [your churches].

What is the Church?

Synopsis: When a culture desperately needs the message of the cross (not the prosperity gospel, but the central message of Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection) and it is given, the gospel not only crosses and transcends cultural boundaries, it produces long-lasting fruit. 

Synopsis: Chinese pastors are asking the question, “What is the church?” The answer is crucial for determining their response to the government. As they try to define their theology of the church, these pastors are going beyond considering its attributes, to trying to understand the very nature of the church.

Synopsis: In the light of Genesis 3, the most important question to ask is not, “How can we be saved,” but rather, “How can the creative will and plan of God to make a perfect humanity be fulfilled?” The answer is the one-and-many humanity God is calling to himself to make up the church.

Synopsis: Today’s church is the construction site for the new creation God is building and which will be revealed in the final day.

Synopsis: The persecution and challenges the Chinese house church currently faces are no different from those faced by the early church in Acts. The authorities of this world always challenge the church with the same question: “Who do you love?” The extent to which the church’s response to this question is informed by its union with Christ will determine its faithfulness to the Lord in the face of persecution.

Synopsis: Moving forward, we must ask: are we protecting ourselves, or are we doing it for the gospel? A lived-out ecclesiology will inevitably encounter suffering.

Translation provided by Moses, Jane, Ryan, and the China Partnership translation team.

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Further Reading

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Nanjing: Bringing the Gospel Into Life
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Nanjing: A Welcoming City of Newcomers
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Nanjing: A Relational Gospel
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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