Divine Irony: China and the Roman Empire

Sa Zhong Zi (meaning “sow seeds”) is the pseudonym for an American living in China assisting with the support and strengthening of the Chinese house church.

Everyday I run into people from different parts of China. Living in one of China’s major cities, it is quite common to meet someone from any one of the more than twenty-five different provinces and special zones across China’s landscape. I’ve spent the last thirty years learning Mandarin, so communication is not too big of a problem for me. But what might not be immediately obvious to those outside of China is that one hundred years ago the level of communication between people from different provinces would have been much more difficult, perhaps even impossible. 

How could that be? While the Chinese have shared a common written language for many hundreds of years, they have not always shared a common spoken language. Consider the Chinese word for Mandarin. The Chinese word is 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà), which literally means “common language” when referring to oral language. When you travel throughout China you quickly begin to realize that people in different cities and provinces speak different forms of oral Chinese from each other. These different forms of oral Chinese are referred to by the government as “dialects,” but linguists who have researched these “dialects” have said that in many cases they are really different languages.  

While China has long been unified by a common written language, it has only recently been unified through this common spoken language. When the Communist party centralized and systematized the primary and secondary education, it revolutionized China. More people than ever before were able to receive a basic education, and part of being educated meant learning 普通话, or Mandarin. A common oral language was a strategic move that enabled the party to more easily spread propaganda. 

Because of this common oral language that they learn as part of their formal education, there is greater ease than before among modern Chinese to communicate with one another among people from differing regions. As China urbanizes, this common language helps. Having a common language allows for a greater level of communication between people from vastly different parts of China who gather and settle in China’s urban centers, which in turn helps with commerce and government affairs. This common form of communication, the higher levels of education, and the greater ease of connecting people from all parts of China have all had another unexpected consequence. They are all factors contributing to the spread of the gospel in China. 

There is a similarity between China and the ancient Roman Empire. The roads, the common language, and the political unity that characterized the empire all contributed to the spread of the gospel in the first few centuries of the early church. China, like the Roman Empire, has experienced a combination of similar factors that have contributed to the churches amazing growth. 

Of course, there is also one more similarity between China and the Roman Empire. Just as the Roman Empire was ruled by leaders who were hostile to the church, so too are China’s leaders hostile to the gospel. But ultimately Rome set up a system that unintentionally promoted the growth of the church, and today we are seeing the same carried out in China.  

I think that’s called divine irony.

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