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Marking Time in the Middle Kingdom
This year commemorated two anniversaries in China: one auspicious, one unnoticed. Or so the government would like to have it.


posted March 14, 2007

Last month, about one-third of the world's population celebrated their calendar's highest holiday: Lunar New Year, otherwise known as Chinese New Year. Millions in Asia gathered at their parents' homes, ate steaming jiaozi (dumplings), and passed red envelopes, ringing in the Chinese year of 4,705. It is an especially auspicious year—the kind that comes once in a lifetime.

In popular tradition, each year is named after 1 of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. Every cycle concludes with the pig, and every fifth cycle concludes with the Year of the Golden Pig. February 18 ushered in one such year, commonly believed to be a time of "booming businesses and family." The Korea Times predicted a 10 percent increase in births as women around the country seek to deliver children during the lucky annum.

Amid all the fanfare, (If Times Square seems festive at New Year's Eve, check out Hong Kong or Shanghai during the days-long celebration of Chinese New Year!) another anniversary went relatively unnoticed. But for followers of Christ, this anniversary meant far more.

Two hundred years ago, Scottish Presbyterian Robert Morrison landed unannounced on the shores of Guangdong. The first Protestant missionary to China, he was able to remain in the country only because of his "day job" as a translator for the East India Company. It was against the law for non-Chinese to learn the language and for Christian books to be published in Chinese, but Morrison did both. By the time he died in China in 1834, he'd translated and printed the Bible and a Chinese-to-English dictionary.

Slowly but steadily, the work he'd started began to bear fruit. The great China missionary statesman Hudson Taylor arrived in 1854, bringing with him such innovations as single women missionaries and missionaries wearing Chinese-style clothing. Unlike earlier Jesuit missions that focused on the country's elite, Taylor's China Inland Mission sought to evangelize the vast Middle Kingdom through a person-by-person, grassroots-level campaign. CIM missionaries dressed like common people in order to reach common people.

These innovative efforts, along with Taylor's inveterate recruiting, led to China's boom of Protestant missions. Fewer than 100 missionaries served in China in 1860; by the early 1900s, that number had multiplied to several thousand. Even as the Chinese church grew, though, it remained under the heavy influence of overseas missionaries. At a national conference in Shanghai in 1907, one foreign missionary stated: "The self-government of the Chinese church is not something which we shall grudgingly concede under necessity but something we shall eagerly anticipate and promote." Chinese Christians had reason to doubt such a statement, says China scholar Daniel H. Bays. Of the 1,100 delegates at the conference, fewer than 10 were Chinese.

Meanwhile, across the Yellow Sea, Korean Christians enjoyed independence from nearly the beginning, thanks to the convictions of a China missionary, John L. Nevius. While Nevius's methods never caught on in his country of service, they became the guiding strategy of Korean missionaries. The methods, derived from the principles of 19th-century home-office leaders Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson, became known as the "three selfs": self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating.

Such self-sufficiency in China, however, didn't become possible until the two World Wars, when political instability foreshortened budding conflict between missionaries and the maturing indigenous church. As foreigners fled the country, Chinese Christians assumed control of their own affairs. But although the church was finally free of Western oversight, following Christ in China became increasingly dangerous, especially after the Communist takeover in 1949.

Then in 1958, Communist leaders took over China's Protestant church, naming it the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) to symbolize its resistance to outside influence. Ironically, the officially sanctioned church exercised little true independence—it endured government infiltration that led to its destruction and later resurrection, with strict rules and oversight, in 1978. It remains compromised by government meddling today. Yet the three-self principles flourish in China's underground church.

No one knows how many believers worship in such churches. Shanghai University professors recently released poll data suggesting that 40 million Chinese are Protestant Christians, a significant increase over China's official 2005 figure of 16 million. Yet the real number may be much larger. The 21st-century edition of Operation World, published in 2001, estimated the total to be more than 90 million. If that's true, China's number of practicing Christians may be approaching that of the United States, where 75 percent of the population claim Christianity, but, according to the University of Michigan's mid-1990s World Values Survey, fewer than half attend church regularly.

It may never be clear how many Chinese celebrated the 200th anniversary of missionaries' arrival in their country. The Chinese government let the milestone pass unmentioned. What is clear is that the year 4,705 is auspicious for more than just a golden pig—as growing millions in China can testify. These believers live in a country in flux, a country gradually opening up to the world without and to new freedoms within. In the not-too-distant future, they may share their stories openly. Until then, Christians everywhere celebrate this anniversary quietly, wishing Chinese believers many more New Years to come.

Related Articles:

The Christian History Timeline of Chinese Missions

'New' China: Same Old Tricks

A Captivating Mission