Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion

By Morton Klass; Maxine Weisgrau | Go to book overview

4
Reflections on Christianity in China

Morton H. Fried

Although Christian missions were present in China by A.D. 671 and mission-introduced medical and educational institutions have flourished, Christianity has never gained an important place in Chinese religious life. This essay reflects upon the long-term failure of Christianity to adapt to local beliefs and contexts (in contrast to Buddhism), and suggests that the future of Christianity in China is no more secure than its past. --Author's Abstract

THE EARLIEST MISSIONARIES IN CHINA represented no Christian sect but were Buddhists from India, said to have come through central Asia. The exact date of their arrival is controversial but it seems to have occurred in the ist century of the Christian era. The new religion was well accepted and it is estimated that by the 5th century, ten percent of China's population was Buddhist ( Houdous 1946:238).

One of the most interesting of the phenomena of Chinese history is the alternation of periods of comparative governmental centralization and decentralization. The historian Arthur Wright has suggested that "periods of disintegration and . . . loss of the holistic and related are the only periods in which the Chinese have shown any responsiveness to alien ideas" ( Wright 1959:124). 1 Buddhism initially entered China during the Former Han dynasty, a period of stability. After a brief interregnum by the usurper, Wang Mang, the Han dynasty (known as the Latter Han) continued throughout the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D., exerting a strong central government. In the troubled years preceding the fall of Han ( A.D. 200) and during the chaos that followed in the period of the Three Kingdoms, the decentralization was complete. That, presumably, was the period when Buddhism flourished.

____________________
American Ethnologist 14( 1) ( February 1987): 94-106.

-63-

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