The Chinese Church Under Pressure – A Special Series from Our President

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

Editor’s note: Yang Mingdao is the pseudonym used by Chinese staff within China Partnership. This important eleven-part series is from a recent lecture given by China Partnership’s President. It has been edited from the original transcriptions.

The first five posts of the series focus on Chinese history in order to grant a greater understanding of contemporary issues facing the church. As the gospel penetrates Chinese culture, deeply rooted historical and cultural idiosyncrasies impact Christianity’s contextualization. The pressures the church now weathers are greatly influenced by these historical realities. To understand the current challenges, one must be familiar with traditional Chinese governance and the trajectory taken since China first encountered Christianity.

Read the whole series below:

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.’”

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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].

In this second half of the series, we now turn to the ecclesiology (theology of church) developed and deepened by Chinese believers as they face trying times of transition in mainland China. The Chinese church’s understanding and experience of union with Christ, their theology of suffering, and their articulation of the mission of the church are an encouragement and fierce challenge to their Western brothers and sisters.

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.

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 StatesChina 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. 

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.


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


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Further Reading

Witness In Persecution: Heart Struggle
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God's Love in Trials: A Letter of Encouragement
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