Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

China's New Christians

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

China's New Christians

Article excerpt

On the last day of 1899, the nude body of Sidney Brooks, twentyfour, was found in a ditch in northern China, his head sawed off and his limbs rent apart. He was the first victim of Boxer fighters, who lusted after the blood of foreign missionaries, whom they blamed for China's humiliation by Western powers. Claiming immunity to bullets and other supernatural abilities, the Boxers attacked Beijing months later, illuminating their warpath with the kerosenesoaked, burning bodies of captured Chinese Christians.

The Boxer Rebellion did not end until eight colonial powers, enraged by the attacks on their embassies and missionaries, shipped an expeditionary force to China, ending a fifty-five-day rebel siege of Beijing's Legation Quarter. By then, the Boxers had slaughtered two hundred Western missionaries and tens of thousands of Chinese Christians. Peace was won with a lopsided treaty that infuriated the Chinese, especially in the context of the concessions already imposed after the nineteenth century's Opium Wars.

Sidney Brooks' story has haunted me. He died for Christ at twentyfour; at twenty-five, I moved to China, writing about Christianity as a Robert Novak Fellow with the Phillips Foundation. To some extent, our experiences bookend the changing history of Christianity in modern China. He had come to spread the Word; I had come to report back on how the Word was doing. He was an unwelcomed ambassador of a foreign religion; when I arrived, I was foreign but my faith was not. Christianity had endured and adapted, becoming one of the few cultural commonalities I shared with my sources.

I crisscrossed China, attending state-sanctioned churches and "underground" or "house" churches and talking with Catholics and Protestants. And through my travels, I discovered that Christianity in China is entering a new phase: Where it once carried thick association with Western cultural influence, it has now developed into something truly Chinese. It is no longer a niche religion, either, having become something with mass appeal.

Christianity has struggled to find its place in China for centuries. And although the message of Christianity is culturally neutral, the medium rarely was. Western missionaries long sought cultural converts to Christianity. The Jesuit Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606) was among the first to articulate missionary policies, not only emphasizing the importance of "accommodation and adaptation to Chinese culture," as historian Daniel H. Bays writes, but also "indirect evangelism by means of science and technology to convince the elite of the high level of European civilization."

But the Chinese already had a high civilization when Christianity arrived, so the religion was often viewed as a cultural threat. This tension intensified particularly beginning with the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s. European missionaries faced a moral dilemma. On one hand, they had witnessed the drug's deleterious effects on Chinese society and understood the push for prohibition.

On the other hand, European victory in the Opium Wars meant greater opportunity for spreading the Gospel. Indeed, the first round of treaties, from 1842 to 1844, stipulated that Westerners be permitted to build churches, schools, and other community buildings in five key coastal cities. The second round, from 1858 to 1860, granted Western missionaries extensive travel rights, and included, explicitly or implicitly, the right of Chinese to become Christians.

The result was to link Christianity to colonialism, which would bear catastrophic consequences. The Chinese despised the treaties imposed upon them, reasonably considering them humiliating and unequal. And Beijing already feared faith for legitimate reasons; historically, religion had already played a central role in the Yellow Turban, White Lotus, and Taiping rebellions.

The Boxer Rebellion was the first violent national expression of these frustrations. The ensuing violence undermined the legitimacy of the beleaguered Qing dynasty, contributing to its collapse in 1911. …

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