Christians in China

By J. Millard Burr
Sunday, February 8th, 2015 @ 11:58PM

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In 1979 I spent some months prowling the State Department library in search of material for a study on the history of The United States’ concern with the narcotics trade in China. The final result, some 50,000 words, was submitted to Mathea Falco, the first U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. For reasons perhaps akin to mine — China in all its facets is after all a fascinating study — she enjoyed the report. She would later say that it was a valuable tool as she succeeded in arranging the first US Drug Enforcement Agency alliance with People’s Republic of China.

Two elements of the paper I still recall, and I admit I recall with regret:

When I finished, I promised myself that some day I would undertake a biography of David Olyphant (1789-1851), an early American China trader. Unlike Russell, Delano, Forbes, Perkins, and other US East Coast merchants, Oliphant did not trade in or make his fortune in opium. He was as honest as other American traders were dishonest in their dealings with Chinese. As I understood it, many Chinese factotums (hong) were baffled by the man. They found most foreigners lacking in tact and honesty, and he was quite a different sort. His word was his bond, and he could be trusted. As the decades passed, the reputation that Americans were generally honest was, old reports had it, in large part thanks to the honorable Mr. Olyphant.

The second element that fascinated me was the role the US missionaries played in the twentieth century in an effort to stamp out opium production and narcotics use in China. Theirs was a fascinating history that began not long after the first Protestant church in China was built in 1848 in Amoy (Xiamen) port. That occurred only six years after the end of the Opium War, an event that caused China to open five ports to foreign traders.

Today, when most think of pre-Communist China — if at all — there probably comes to mind such motion pictures as The Sand Pebbles or The Good Earth. Or, perhaps one recalls the bittersweet denouement of Chariots of Fire as Eric Henry Liddell, the good-hearted Christian sprinter, overcomes odds to win an Olympic gold medal. Liddell followed his calling to China and was one of the millions lost in Asia during World War II. In 1941, Liddell was forced to leave his rural mission station in Xiaozhang, Shanxi province. Two years later he as arrested in Tianjin and then interned at the Weifang prison camp where he served as an inspiration to internees. (Tangentially, it was claimed by another camp intern that he had there met Amelia Earhart.) Liddell died in camp in 1945, likely of a brain tumor.

While Liddell’s tale is replicated in the thousands, I thought years ago that a history that relates the common heroism of early American missionaries to China, and of the China Inland Mission itself, should be written. I still believe it.

In 1979, thanks to the urging of US President Jimmy Carter, China’s Deng Xiaoping allowed the reopening of churches closed during the Cultural Revolution that lasted from 1966 to 1972, and the printing of Bibles. He would not, however, agree to the return of foreign missionaries.

A Shaanxi Saga

The agonizing stories of Chinese Christian families who have endured not just years but centuries of persecution probably number in the thousands. One was Catholic priest Fr. Bonaventure Li Chong De. Born in 1923, he lived through one of China’s most turbulent epochs before his recent death in September 1914 at age 92. Born into a Catholic family, he could count “no less than 16 martyrs during the persecution of Geng Zi of the Qing Dynasty of China (1821-1850), as well as 5 priests and 7 nuns.”

Father Li survived both imprisonments at forced labor under the Maoist regime (1958-1965), and the life sentence imposed because of his faith in 1967. He was finally acquitted and released in the political thaw of 1987. In his later years, Father Li was known as a peripatetic Catholic priest who served Catholics throughout Shaanxi province. And he was almost certainly well aware of the Protestant history in the province and their tribulations.

Following the Famine of 1877-79, during which one-third of Shaanxi’s 15 million people starved to death, some 69 foreign missionaries made the pilgrimage to the province to take part in relief work. From that movement emerged Pastor Xi Shengmo, who spent many years combatting opium poppy cultivation and narcotics use. His ministry was known to serve “over 300,000 addicts in Shaanxi and Henan.” Then there was the horrific Boxer Rebellion of 1900, during which 45 foreign Christians were beheaded in Taiyuan. It was later reported that, “In all, an astounding 159 of the 189 foreign Protestants who were martyred died in Shaanxi.” Undaunted, the missionaries returned to Taiyuan and founded a “Western-style” University in 1901.

No doubt the Protestant missionaries provided intense competition for Shaanxi Catholics, especially during the nineteen thirties when a Chinese convert, Yang Shaotang, led Spiritual Action Teams that spread Christianity throughout Shaanxi and to Nanjing and Shanghai.

During most of the Republic of China’s period of rule over mainland-China (1912–1949), the warlord Yen Hsi-shan held Shaanxi, an impoverished province located southwest of Peking. Then, during the Second Sino-Japanese War and following the “Battle of Taiyuan”, Japan occupied the province. In time, Shaanxi became a major battleground involving the Japanese and the Chinese Communist Eighth Route Army under the command of Zhu De (Chu Teh), one of Mao Zedong’s oldest comrades. With the conclusion of World War II, much of the Shaanxi’s countryside served as a base for Mao’s People’s Liberation Army. The warlord Yen Hsi-Shan, who enlisted thousands of former Japanese soldiers among his own forces, opposed the People’s Liberation Army. In the ensuing Chinese Civil War, Yen’s defense of Taiyuan against the People’s Liberation Army finally failed in early 1949.

Following the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, foreign missionaries were expelled from Shaanxi and Christianity everywhere was attacked. Bibles were prorogued and the Christian leadership was persecuted. Still, Taiyuan remained the capital of an impoverished Shaanxi, and an underground Christianity survived there.

The Shaanxi Church Under Communist Rule

From a churchman, who himself survived arrest and imprisonment, “Similar arrests and detentions of China’s church leadership over the past 50 years have reinforced the belief that, that which does not destroy us makes us stronger.” The Church’s ability to endure has in recent years led to the exponential growth of the Christian religion itself and to the creation of a cadre of dedicated Christians. It has been said that, “For years the underground church in China has viewed such arrests and imprisonments as something of a ‘rite of passage’ for its leadership.”

Such a survivor was Shaanxi Catholic official Giovanni Chrysostom Lan Shi, the Coadjutor Bishop of the diocese of Shaanxi, who died in September 2014 at the age of 89.

He was born in 1925 in Tongyuan, Gaoling County (Shaanxi) of a Christian family. At the age of fourteen, Lan Shi entered the diocesan Seminary and at twenty-nine, he was ordained a priest and served as pastor in Jingyang village. In 1965, at the approach of the Cultural Revolution, he was arrested, detained and then sentenced to forced labor until his release in 1979. In 1980, following the liberalization of religious activities, he was allowed to serve as a village pastor until 2000, when he received the approval of the Holy See to serve as Bishop Coadjutor of Sanyuan. Even during his final years, Father Lan Shi remained the peripatetic evangelical, travelling on foot throughout Shaanxi province. Renowned as a leading member of the “Group of Charity and Evangelization of St. Paul,” he was welcomed everywhere throughout the Archdiocese of Taiyuan.

Bishop Lan Shi’s funeral took place on September 24, 2014 in the parish of Xiushidu and “several local bishops, forty priests, a hundred nuns and about two thousand faithful” attended it. As for Father Li himself, he must have died content, given the health of the revived cathedral at Taiyuan and the recent phenomenal growth of Christianity in China. While local officials could have quashed the funeral, they chose to ignore the event because Christianity, thanks to Churchmen like fathers Lan Shi and Li, has become a powerful — albeit still cautious — force in Shaanxi.

The reason for caution is obvious. Even though Chinese statistics often raise more questions than they answer, the government’s own statistics calculated the number of Protestants in “official churches” at 800,000 in 1979, 3 million in 1982, 10 million in 1995, and 15 million in 1999. There the accounting ceases. Regionally, there are an estimated 800,000 Christians in Hong Kong alone. And in Wenzhou, a coastal city located south of Shanghai, there are an estimated 1.2 million Protestants present in a city of some nine million people. (Wenzhou is known as “China’s Jerusalem.”)

At Hangzhou, a city of about 8 million people and capital of coastal Zhejiang province, the Chongyi Church is one of the largest in China, and known for its “lighted steeple and giant cross penetrate the night sky.” Chongyi Church has 1,600 volunteers, can seat 5,000 people and holds multiple services on Sunday. In churches like Chongyi, and for observers of churches including those located in Beijing itself, “For China, it is a stunning feeling. Most of the society exists behind closed doors and is tough, driven, material, hierarchical. The country values wealth, power, and secrecy – not to mention that both government and schools officially, (like those in the United States) promote atheism.”

Official Concern

The growth of Christianity in Hangzhou has caused official concern that religious freedom has begun to undermine Communist authority. Thus in August 2014, the Communist leadership initiated a campaign to suppress Christianity throughout Zhejiang province. The party issued a statement that it would soon unveil an “official Christian theology.” Wang Zuoan, the head of China’s religious affairs ministry, has since told the state-run Xinhua news agency that Christianity was spreading so rapidly that a new theology was needed “to avoid problems.“ It was his opinion that, “Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture.” What that meant was anyone’s guess. However, one thing was clear. While the Party keeps a close watch on officially registered churches like Chongyi, it seems to have little control over illegal “house churches.” Reportedly, there has been an exponential growth in such meeting places, where more than half of all China’s Christians gather privately.

The Christian Science Monitor has found that despite the appearance of religious freedom, “in the past year authorities have attacked and even destroyed official Protestant churches, as well as unofficial ones. Many Evangelicals feel they are now on the front lines of an invisible battle over faith in the world’s most populous nation, and facing a campaign by the party-state to delegitimize them. Underneath it all is a question: Will China become a new fount of Christianity in the world, or the site of a growing clash between the party and the pulpit?”

It is no small question given that there are now an estimated 70 million Christians over age 16 in China, according to a joint study undertaken by Baylor University and Peking University in Beijing. In contrast, Communist Party membership is about 83 million. It is generally assumed that Christians will soon outnumber Communist Party members (who are not allowed to be Christian), if they have not already done so.

The restoration of the Church that began following the demise of the Cultural Revolution has moved expeditiously — and without the direct help of foreign missionaries. Today, indigenous Chinese Christians see China as a vast field awaiting harvest. Every large city has a church or cathedral (including a half-dozen sites in Beijing, one being the popular Haidian Church where the faithful stand in line to attend service). Western missionaries founded China’s first sixteen colleges, and their Chinese inheritors retain an interest in education. While it now appears that the regime has once again initiated a systematic attack on Christianity, including attacks on officially recognized churches, it is already evident that limits on religious expression will not be easy to impose.

A consequential indication that Christianity will not be easy either to contain or to eradicate in China is derived from the news that in 2008 the Amity Printing Company, China’s only authorized Christian publisher, opened a Bible production factory in Nanjing, which would be the world’s largest such enterprise. It apparently has the capacity to produce one million Bibles a month, which reportedly would increase domestic production by a third.

Today, there are a reported 100 million Bibles found in China. That fact alone has led observers to posit that if Church growth remains constant, China will have 245 million Christians by 2030. That would make China the most populous Christian nation on earth. Chinese officials are surely aware of that fact, but how they will manage their Christian “problem” remains to be seen.

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