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


A Historical Review, Part 3: The “Son of Heaven,” Confucian Ideology, and the Opium Wars

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.

When trying to understand Chinese culture or politics, one must first understand the monarchy and its mandate from heaven, which is the basis of the monarch’s legitimacy. The Zhou family, for instance, could be emperors because this was heaven’s mandate. The “Son of Heaven” received authority from heaven to reside in China and rule the civilized world. He had a title, and with this title, there were different emphases every time a dynasty changed. The signs of heaven gave privileges to certain individuals; but there were also signs of the dragon. These signs of the dragon and of heaven are what Yuan Shikai was looking for when he declared himself emperor. 

For example, in one incident a maidservant smashed one of Yuan Shikai’s favorite possessions while she was cleaning the house during afternoon nap time. This item was Yuan Shikai’s favorite, and it meant disaster for the maidservant. She assumed she would lose her job, so she told her boss. The boss told her to wait until Yuan Shikai woke, then tell him about the accident and apologize. She should say that while Yuan was napping, she broke his favorite pot. Yuan’s face would immediately fall, but she must then quickly say that when she saw him sleeping, it was not Yuan, but a dragon. When she did as she was told, Yuan instantly turned from anger to joy; he gave her twenty coins of silver and charged her to tell no one. 

We do not know whether this story is true, but it tells us the basis of Yuan’s governance over China and the legitimacy of his cultural and political rule was the “mandate of heaven.” The emperor constantly strives and positions himself to have this mandate and establish orthodox rule. This applies whether it is modern Mao Zedong thought, Deng Xiaoping theory, “Three Representatives,” or “Peace and Harmony.” In traditional Chinese politics, one must establish certain necessary elements to demonstrate political authority, but this is expressed in different ways.

Linguistically, Chinese characters became universal in early China because they were the tools of governance. At first, they were political tools, so common people remained illiterate. The people spoke entirely differently from the way things were written. Written and oral language were separate entities. At the beginning, Chinese characters were a tool to endow someone with a title so they could build relationships with their surrounding rulers. Whether you were a feudal lord or a general, these characters conferred authority upon rulers, originating from the legitimate authority, who had the signs and the will of heaven. 

If you were one of the barbaric tribes surrounding China, there were also titles that could be conferred. Tributes had to be paid from outside rulers to China, the magnificent motherland. International relations were governed by imperial tributes, which were formed by the conferment of written titles. 

China had a Confucian system of thought. Over two thousand years, China gradually merged its politics of governance and domination, forming an “orthodox” cultural ideology. The relationship between the king and his general was based upon the relationship between a father and son – if the king were to order the general to die, he must; if a father were to command the son to perish, he must. Ethics and relationships were built and maintained upon Confucian ideology.  

Confucian ideology and cultural and political governance formed a huge, universal system. After being molded over the course of a millennium, the system reflected strong inter-connectedness, so that all the elements were involved in propelling the whole body. Today, the larger system has been dissolved, but the basic elements are still there. In mainland China, the leaders are still an important class. The respect and reverence of the lower ranks to the upper ranks is very important. It is a normal thing for people of the lower ranks to help leaders with personal household matters. 

This not only applies to the corporate world, but to government, and even the church. When I visit Chinese churches, I realize it is difficult for them to address me by my name. I wish for more people to address me by name, but they must append “pastor” or “teacher,” so as to be proper. This is a hierarchical society, and the constructed social order following the Confucian system of hierarchy has very strong roots. 

Although there is some deconstruction, Confucian thought remains linked together with the education system. Why education? Consider the historic center of Chinese culture. Traditionally, the center was in the village, not the cities. In villages there were private tutors, many of whom were scholars who taught part-time when they were free from farm work. Some of the students who were taught became officials and worked in the palace. When they retired, they returned to their villages, rebuilt relationships, and the cycle would repeat, forming a system of social mobility. Therefore, the educational system was integrated with the channels of rising political and societal resources. Education had multiple goals. Today, there is an educational crisis in China. If the system is deconstructing, what is education? What does this universal system mean? It is not merely a universal system over a geographical area, but an entire system that includes ideology and governance. It is a power system governed by the “Son of Heaven,” with the resources supporting the top. 

The “Son of Heaven” remains at the top, with authority given by heaven. All other authority is derived from the “Son of Heaven.” Every time there is a dynastic transition, there needs to be a “heavenly mandate” manifested in the qualities of that particular individual. Each power change must also be met with absolute loyalty. In Chinese governance structure, decrees come from the emperor at the top, then go down to the provinces. Traditionally, China has been ruled by provinces. Under the provinces there are towns, and under towns there are self-governing villages.

Traditionally, when a dynasty changes, as long as the towns say, “I’m loyal to you!” they will be accepted. The new provincial governor must work together with lower government and village officials to rule. When the emperor’s decree comes to the province, everything, down to the lowest tier, must function: lowly government officials, civil officers, and town and village officials. When there is a power change, the absolute loyalty of the grassroots to the political system is essential, because you cannot remain day and night demanding loyalty with guns and swords. If there is not absolute loyalty from lower officials, the dynasty will not last. A majority of people must say, “I accept your rule.” For example, when the Qing dynasty came into power, it did not have cultural or political legitimacy. The Qing obtained absolute grassroots loyalty through shaving their heads! Through shaving their heads, the people became like the Qing, their sign of loyalty; absolute loyalty at the grassroots level is required to maintain stability.

When the kingdom of God enters such a culture, it creates a collision.

The culture clash between the East and the West is noticeable throughout contemporary history. In 1793, George Macartney went to the Summer Palace in Chengde to visit Emperor Qianlong on his birthday. This story has an unhappy ending. Macartney brought many gifts and requested an audience with the emperor. The king of England wanted to establish trade relations between China and England, because to Britain, free trade was in its greatest interest. Macartney brought many good gifts, but shortly before he came, they realized there was a problem: the problem of etiquette. When Macartney visited Emperor Qianlong, must he bow down like the rest? Must he prostrate himself fully to worship Qianlong? Based on all prior relationships between China and other nations, even the term “international” was a modern concept. In the traditional concept, there were no “nations;” only China was a “nation” and everything else was barbaric. There were no international relations, only tributes. All foreigners were to present an official tribute and bow down in worship. Macartney refused. He said, “I do not even kneel before my own king, why would I kneel before Qianlong? I will never kneel to your emperor.”

Eventually, he suggested a condition for him to bow and kneel. He brought a portrait of the king of England and said that, after he bowed down to Qianlong, there must be an equivalent ritual toward his king. This equality suggested the idea of international relations, which was a clash. Even though Macartney brought exquisite watches, valuables, and horses, Qianlong declared, “We do not need your worthless gifts.” So the British left. This was quite symbolic. 

The two nations had different ways of governance, culture, and views of international relations. The collision of these paradigms is manifested clearly in the unhappy ending, which eventually led to the two Opium Wars. Opium was only the fuse for the first war; the fundamental drive behind it was free trade. The problem of free trade and the deficit that happened because of opium production led to an imbalance of trade, which led to a trade war, culminating in the First Opium War. After this, China opened up the ports, with five ports marked for trade. But those ports were not successful, because China had no concept of international law and no categories of international trade.  

Right before the Second Opium War, when British-French forces advanced to Tianjin, Xianfeng was the emperor. Xianfeng issued a decree to his general that, if defeat was inevitable, he should just sign the treaty. This was a strategy to force the enemy to retreat; after they retreated, the Chinese could discuss it again. Xianfeng thought treaties were a strategy to get the enemy to retreat. Even after the treaty was signed to end the First Opium War, there were still barriers to the British entering Guangzhou, and they never really did enter the city. There were many small skirmishes in Guangzhou, and the city was even occupied for a small period of time before the British retreated. Both cultures were continually impacted. This resulted in the Second Opium War, for which the trigger was demands for the Qing court to make good on their side of the treaty they signed in the first war. It is uncanny how similar this is to our modern-day situation, where China needs to make good on their deal with the WTO. 

The Treaty of Nanking is interesting. There is a special clause in the treaty: Chinese officials are never to regard Westerners as the “Yi” tribe (one of the barbaric tribes surrounding China). What does this ridiculous-sounding clause mean? Equality. In the process, some foreigners were killed in Guangzhou; the clash between the two cultures was huge. When we Chinese called foreigners “Yi,” we meant they were barbarians. English literature at the time also referred to Chinese as “barbarians.” They called us barbarians, and we called them barbarians.

The Second Opium War came about to force China to make good on its first treaty. At that time, China did not have a department of foreign relations. The governors of Guangxi and Guangdong represented the faraway Qing dynasty. The Qing imperial court also frequently changed the imperial envoys or governors, then denied responsibility by placing the blame on these different governors or envoys. Eventually, the foreigners figured out they had to speak directly with the emperor. 

In the First Opium War, the frontlines reached Nanking. In the second, the lines reached Tianjin. After Tianjin was occupied, Xianfeng became anxious, and eventually signed the treaty. When they had signed the treaty, the British returned to the Queen for her to rectify it. After rectification, they had to exchange the rectified treaty the following spring in Beijing, as per their arrangement. Because of Macartney’s bad experience visiting Qianlong, Xianfeng forbade them from entering the city. At that time, if a foreigner entered Guangzhou or walked the streets of Beijing and went to the palace, yet did not bow down to the emperor, it was a huge disgrace. There was great strife in allowing them to enter the city to exchange the treaty. Eventually, the entire British-French army advanced all the way to Beijing, to the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City. 

What happened during this process? In the Tongzhou district in Beijing, the thirty eight representatives of the Anglo-French army waved white flags to negotiate with the Qing dynasty. Many of these thirty eight were detained; some were killed, while others were amputated. When news broke, there was a great furor over this incident. Enraged, first the French burned the Old Summer Palace, then the British burnt it again. There was a huge clash during this process. Where was the emperor? He went to the Summer Palace in Chengde, leaving his brother to negotiate. 

At that time, when the Eight-Nation Alliance came to Beicheng, they realized the Qing dynasty had removed all armies. Beijing became an occupied city. Under these circumstances, on October 24, 1860, they exchanged the Treaty of Tianjin and signed the Treaty of Beijing. After the treaty was signed, the Qing said, “Foreigners now occupy our city; we have signed the treaty and do not know when they will leave.” They did not trust the treaty – but to their surprise, all foreigners left within a couple weeks. 

The brother of the emperor then wrote a memo to the emperor. In this memo, he explained the matter, and suggested the first reformation policy of the imperial dynasty. This policy included the establishment of a foreign relations department in Beijing to deal with international relations. The official name was the Ministerial Office of Various Countries. This is still a ministerial office dealing with international relations in China, signifying loyalty to imperial China. This department also started the first modern Chinese library. To teach younger generations, much foreign literature was translated. The young also went to the U.S. or the U.K. for their education, where they learned about the West and brought back military and modern technologies. 

After the treaty was signed, the Chinese liked the foreign guns and weaponry, and foreign diplomats spared no effort in selling them. Thus began the first modernization of China, what we also call the Self-Strengthening Movement

Only after the Second Opium War did China begin to form the concept of a “nation-state,” and it was only then that the “enlightenment” started.

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

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