Chinese Christianities

When I was doing my PhD, I often described my research as dealing with Chinese Christianity.  Then, when I was pitching my book to a publisher, I was asked to qualify – Chinese American Christianity or Christianity in China?  The latter, of course.  But what I have begin to realise is the ambiguity of the term ‘Chinese Christianity’ makes for a more fruitful discussion of ‘Chinese Christianities’ – in the plural.  We must think about Chinese Christianities across geographies (Mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, North America, United Kingdom, etc.) and across groupings (Catholic, Protestant house churches, emerging urban churches, migrant worker churches, etc.).

There was this whole debate in the 1980s in China about where the essence of Chineseness comes from.  It couldn’t be Confucianism, per se (even though it is what most Westerners would say about China), because the May Fourth movement and the Cultural Revolution were quite lethal against the school of thought.  But it couldn’t be Communism either (although some would argue it is).  The Confucian scholar Tu Weiming argued that the problem we had was we focused on the geography of contemporary China to understand Chineseness rather than the diaspora – the periphery, he said, was the centre of cultural China.1  Perhaps it is a mixture of contexts that is important.

Cao Nanlai, for example, has written a nice ethnographic study on Protestant Christianity in the so-called ‘Jerusalem’ of China (Wenzhou).  But he has shown that the socioeconomic factors that aided its growth in Wenzhou, has also helped bring shape to Chinese Christians in Paris, France – with a vast majority being Wenzhou Chinese Christians.2  Justin Tse’s recent PhD discusses how Cantonese Protestants in San Francisco, Vancouver and Hong Kong engage in secular political activism, giving an insightful look into how religion plays a role in the public sphere.3

Surely the theological concerns of Chinese Christians have similarities with one another, despite geographic/grouping contexts, but differ from the Latin American (Catholic and evangelical) sensibility that focuses on the plight of the poor and oppressed, or North American evangelicalism that focuses on individual personal experience.  The question I have is how do the different Chinese contexts, with the many commonalities across them, bring about a distinctively Chinese understanding to the gospel.  Only by exploring Chinese Christianities more comprehensively can we gain a greater grasp of that.

  1. Tu Wei-ming, ‘Cultural China: The Periphery as the Center’, Daedalus 120.2 (Spring, 1991): 1-32. 
  2. Cao Nanlai, ‘Renegotiating Locality and Morality in a Chinese Religious Diaspora: Wenzhou Christian Merchants in Paris, France’, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 14.1 (2013): 85-101. 
  3. Justin Kin-Hung Tse, ‘Religious Politics in Pacific Space: Grounding Cantonese Protestant Theologies in Secular Civil Societies’, PhD thesis, University of British Columbia, 2013.