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


In A Historical Review, Part 4: Reforms and Modernization

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.

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. After this, there were disputes over systems and applications: whether to adopt the East as a system and the West as an application, or vice versa. At that point, the basic approach was to use the Eastern system while incorporating Western applications. 

After a decade or two, China transformed. Originally, many predicted the Qing Dynasty would be vanquished under the British-French army and the Taiping Rebellion with Hong Xiuquan, but instead, China slowly became a powerhouse in the Far East. At that time, they surpassed Japan as the number one Eastern power, with railroad construction, electrical networks, and a naval army – all of this started the resurgence of Tongzhi. This resurgence continued until the First Sino-Japanese War. The Xinhai Revolution was the second turning point. When Japan and China clashed in war for economic reasons (the two Eastern countries have always had geo-political conflict), Japan, which had adopted a Western system, conquered the stronger China. 

This loss rudely awakened Chinese intellectuals. The first round of reforms started from the top-down, with elites such as Zhou Zhongtang, Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang, the imperial Wenxing, and others who wanted to bring about a modern nation-state. But the loss to Japan inspired the nationalism of other Chinese intellectuals. After the First Sino-Japanese War, there was the Hundred Days of Reform, where intellectuals declared that the generals and elites were not fit to rule anymore. There was an awakening of nationalistic fervor among the people and intellectuals, the aim of which was to save the country from its perils. 

Japan and other powers continued to divide China. How could it continue to exist as a cultural and political body? There were two potential paths – the first was to have a constitution to save the nation; the other was to change through revolution. There were those who wanted a constitutional monarchy, like England, Germany, or even Japan, where the lords established a constitution. The others were those like Sun Yat-sen, who came back from America wanting a republic, like the States. The constitutional monarchy was always the majority opinion until 1905, when Empress Cixi died. 

Empress Dowager Cixi died in 1905, but before that, Cixi herself started a kind of constitutional system (even though she had snuffed out the Hundred Days of Reform.) When she assumed her duties as regent, the first thing she did was to absorb local authority into the central government. Many Han Chinese officials controlled imperial resources, but Cixi was a Manchu who refused to give resources to the Han. She wanted to vanquish all Han, resulting in Yuan Shikai losing his position and the loss of local authority to the central government. The surprising success of the later Xinhai Revolution actually stemmed from utter disappointment in the establishment of the constitution. 

After that, Yuan Shikai established the Republic of China. The transition to the republican system was a process. Several years after assuming authority, 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? Whether it is parliamentary or an American republic, I cannot transform it. In America, you have citizenship; but in China, there are only the people. In every city, there are only people. This situation is still the same today. China is, essentially, made up not of citizens, but peasants.”

He also said that each of us cleans our home, but we open the door and put garbage on the street, because that is outside the home. This system of thought parallels that of the nation, where barbarians are outside the country: China has only peasants, no citizens. He also said that, although he was president of China, no one knew what that was. “For two millennia, everybody knew they had to be loyal to the emperor, but now who should they be loyal to? How can I make it work?” 

Eventually Yuan came up with a plan to save China, reviving the old system of constitutional monarchy. Yuan wanted to recast the system and call himself emperor, but it was now impossible. When a nation has progressed to a certain stage, it is impossible to return to the previous stage. The period of Yuan was actually the trial-and-error of a republic. Those decades were times of swaying back and forth between a republic and a constitutional monarchy. This continued to the post-Yuan era, the era of Yang Du

Yang wanted a revolution and became a huge supporter of Yuan. He supported the idea of a constitutional monarchy, and eventually pushed Yuan to be the emperor. Intellectuals of that time discussed things that were not strictly black-and-white; everybody knew restoration was impossible. China again faced an important problem: a governing system that is two millennia old cannot be changed overnight. The rule of law was a good idea, but it did not work in Chinese society. During this period both the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party were conducting trial-and-error with possible systems, and both were trying to legalize different paths. They eventually revived China’s traditional authoritarianism, but without the title of monarch.

Both the KMT and CCP wielded authority with military force. After the two parties abolished the imperial examination, there was a huge pool of young adults living in the Whampoa Military Academy who could not bridge the economic gap. This academy became the base for young adults – marginalized intellectuals – who became cadres of both parties. It also built a hierarchical system, stemming not from the emperor, but which was nevertheless a top-down authoritative system to aid in the effectiveness of political rule. 

China had traditionally depended on imperial examinations to select officials. The CCP and the KMT replaced the imperial examination, and the two parties produced a never-ending stream of cadres. Eventually, everything returned to authoritarian rule, which solved the governing crisis of the time. New wine was poured into new wineskins, even though nothing had changed. After this, two different paths emerged. 

The first was represented by the KMT, which employed modernized authoritarianism in combination with long-term systemic reforms. Their plan included the use of military force to stabilize authority. There was also training, because they saw Yuan’s method would not work. Training started from the grassroots, and the constitutional government was to chart a path for it.  

The second path was represented by the CCP, which also employed modernized authoritarian rule coupled with communism, which believed in reform through social progress. Social progress was not institutional, because it envisioned a people who were self-sufficient, with an abundance of material wealth and ever-increasing moral values. This would eventually create a utopian and idealistic society with high moral values, where every need would be met accordingly. Under these circumstances, people could depend on internal resources and would not need institutional legislation. In the context of these two paths, we have come to where we are now.  

There were undercurrents in these two paths that reflected systemic and institutional issues of governance. There was also cultural conflict; an undercurrent that was acutely manifested in missionary ministry to China. The Tianjin Massacre occurred because it was unprecedented for an institutional church to be formed in Chinese culture. There were rumors among the people about what happened in the church and what the missionaries were doing. The Catholic missionaries in Tianjin would go to the streets, adopt abandoned children, and raise them. But people questioned why missionaries would adopt children, accusing them of murdering the children when they brought them back to the monasteries. Why did they murder these children? Because they wanted to use the eyes of the infants to make a potion, which could be refined into gold. The legend of the time was that they needed the eyes of the Chinese because Chinese loved money, so only the eyes would be effective. 

The rumors spread, eventually people believed it was child abduction, and a riot occurred. The French consul went to the riot and fired a shot, but he was eventually killed, which led to the Tianjin Massacre. When Zeng Guofan went to investigate, they made reparations, but it left him with an extremely bad reputation.

Over the decades, there were many misunderstandings in this clash of cultures. Ultimately, this led the Chinese people to ask: “What is the church? What is Christianity?” It is this long historical, cultural background that leads us to where we are now. 

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

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