Christianity in China

By Mungello, D. E.; Malatesta, Edward J. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Christianity in China


Mungello, D. E., Malatesta, Edward J., The Catholic Historical Review


Introduction

Thirty years ago, the study of the history of Christianity in China was still a peripheral field of mission history which was viewed from an overwhelmingly European perspective. The field was very marginal to the major concerns of China historians and Sinologists, and research was done mainly by religious scholars and lay mission historians. Chinese scholars contributed few works to the field, and these were little read outside of China. Mainstream China scholars tended to regard the history of Christianity in China as a fairly insignificant field, and this view was reinforced by the belief that Christianity had been largely destroyed by the antireligious movement of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The experience of Christianity was viewed as a byproduct of European expansion and as a passing event in the great span of Chinese history.

The above views have now been revised. The Christian churches in mainland China were not exterminated in the Cultural Revolution. They suffered persecution and were driven underground in a manner that made them imperceptible to observers outside of China. After the Cultural Revolution ended, these churches began to re-emerge, although both Catholic and Protestant churches remain divided today into official and underground bodies. The re-emergence of these Christian churches as a vital and growing force in China has been important to the study of the history of Christianity there. It forces us to view that history within an ongoing chronological framework whose projected growth increases its significance in Chinese history. Numerous works published since 1968 have recast the history of Christianity in China into an increasingly mainstream concern of China historians.

In 1992 the Ricci Institute of the University of San Francisco sponsored a symposium on the Chinese Rites Controversy. Prominent mainstream China scholars, such as Professors Wm. Theodore de Bary of Columbia, Jonathan Spence of Yale, and Erik Zurcher of Leiden, participated in a program aimed at viewing this heretofore narrow topic of the Chinese rites in a broader light. These papers were eventually published as The Chinese Rites Controversy: Its History and Meaning ("Monumenta Serica Monograph Series," Vol. 30 [Nettetal, Germany, 1994]).

One notable deficiency of the Rites Controversy Symposium was the small number of Chinese scholars who were able to take part. This deficiency was rectified by choosing Hong Kong as the site of another symposium devoted to the theme of the history of Christianity in China. This symposium was cosponsored by Baylor University, Hong Kong Baptist University, the Ricci Institute of the University of San Francisco, and the Henry Luce Foundation. It took place in Hong Kong on October 2-4,1996, and its participants were evenly balanced between Chinese and non-Chinese scholars, between Catholics and Protestants, and between clerical and lay scholars. Papers were presented in either Chinese or English with simultaneous translation into the other language.

Because of the broad range of the topics and the editorial problems that would have been engendered by publishing the papers in Chinese and English, it was decided by the organizers that a symposium volume was not feasible. Nevertheless, the quality of the papers was so exceptional, that we endeavored to locate an eminent academic journal willing to publish a selection of the papers in English. We have been delighted that the editor of The Catholic Historical Review has been willing to publish three of the twenty papers presented. We hope that this sampling of papers will give the readers some understanding of the state and quality of current research and of the growing importance of this field in history.

The first paper is "New Trends in the Historiography of Christianity in China," by Reverend Professor Nicolas Standaert, SJ., a young Jesuit scholar at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium).

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