Christianity as a Chinese Religion

Chinese Catholicism

I have been reviewing a number of very exciting proposals for the Chinese Christianities Seminar for the upcoming meeting of the American Academy of Religion, in November 2015.  They cover so many areas of Chinese Christianities – from various contexts around the world, to various conditions within a given locale.  Though I have tried arguing this in the past, it is important to recognise Christianity as not simply a ‘foreign religion’ or ‘foreign teaching’ (yang jiao 洋教), but in many ways also a Chinese religion.

First, it is worth noting that in mainland China, there are a number of religions which are ‘foreign’ historically – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and arguably even the ‘religion’ of Communism.  But even if we were to take an ideology such as Confucianism (is it a religion, is it a philosophy… let’s not go there for this blog post), the sinologist Arif Dirlik makes this provocative statement:1

It is interesting to contemplate when Confucius became Chinese, when he was rendered from a Zhou dynasty sage into one of the points of departure for a civilization conceived in national terms. When the Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese adopted Confucianism for their own purposes, all the time claiming their own separate identity, did they do so to become part of the Sung or Yuan or Ming, whom they resisted strenuously… ?

Dirlik’s point really challenges whether something as ‘Chinese’ as Confucianism can even be fully owned by those who see themselves as culturally Chinese.

Second, there were many ideas in imperial China that were not considered orthodox but still tolerated.  By and large, such ideologies were considered heterodox when compared with the state orthodoxy which revolved around texts often associated with Confucianism.  It was not until the 1850s that Christianity in China came under the attack as a foreign religion – largely because of its association with imperialism during the Opium Wars.  Since then, this characterisation has stuck.

Generally speaking, it is vitally important to think about Christianity, or Chinese Christianity (if you would like), as a Chinese religion.  It is not uncommon to make the distinction between ‘American Evangelicalism’ and ‘British Evangelicalism’.  It is to say that unique histories and unique conditions have shaped the priorities of each permutation.  However, it also shows how complex any religious phenomenon is when it intersects the sensibilities of a specific context.

At a previous meeting of the American Academy of Religion, I was at a book table of one publisher who was telling me about a particular study bible they had produced and were beginning to translate it into all these different languages.  When I asked if they were adapting it to the various contexts, he was surprised that that should even be a consideration.  Really?  How many English translations of the bible are there – each with their own translation theories and trying to adjust to such factors in the English such as gender neutrality or the evolution of certain English words?  Yet 80-90% of Chinese Protestants read one major translation, the Chinese Union Version (he he ben 和合本), which was produced almost a century ago when a written vernacular Chinese was a mere thought being toyed with by literary reformers.  Surely, there are significant contextual differences that need to be accounted for.

That, of course, is a very simple example.  But the growth of Christianity has come with many adaptations, explicitly and implicitly, which makes its adoption amongst Chinese in the mainland and around the world much more nuanced.  This brings strengths, like the good food that is so often shared in the midst of Chinese Christian fellowship; but it also brings weaknesses, like the church schisms prevalent in Chinese diasporic communities due to power struggles.  Both of these, I would argue, come from deeply embedded Chinese cultural priorities which shape Chinese Christianity as a Chinese religion.  In some ways, it asks if we need a different ecclesiology to account for these dynamics.

To ignore this understanding overlooks the possibility of a more critical reflection and engagement with Chinese Christianities, and overlooks the possibilities of practical and theoretical attempts at addressing concerns that plague Chinese Christians.  But there is also a risk of overdoing it.  It is interesting to see so many Chinese Christians doing work in the area of ‘shame’ as an expression of sin,2 but we need to be careful not to overly essentialise all Chinese as being preoccupied with ‘shame’ and not deal with the more ‘Western’ preoccupation with ‘guilt’ (keep reading).

On the flipside, this suggests that other ‘Christianities’ need to have more critical reflection as well.  Since coming to Scotland, I have had a number of conversations with my colleague James Eglinton about how the Gaelic culture of many Scottish Christians shapes certain aspects of Scottish Christianity.  This needs more critical reflection.  Back to the guilt-shame dichotomy, Andy Crouch has recently written about shame, but within Western societies.3  It is not only Eastern societies that need to deal with shame, and it is not only Western societies that need to deal with guilt.

Let us more critically engage Christianity as a Chinese religion, and Christianity as a Scottish Gaelic religion, or Christianity as a white American religion.  With this in mind, the diversity and particularity of world Christianity poses helpful challenges to global church unity, but also highlights the beauty of the gospel’s catholicity in all tribes and nations.


  1. Arif Dirlik, ‘Timespace, Social Space, and the Question of Chinese Culture’, boundary 2 35.1 (2008): 20. 
  2. See for instance my recent review of Simon Chan’s book here
  3. Andy Crouch, ‘The Return of Shame’, Christianity Today (March 10, 2015), available online

3 thoughts on “Christianity as a Chinese Religion

  1. Interesting article. As you mentioned, “let’s not go there for this blog post” – but, Confucianism is a social philosophy, not a religion. Why? Confucianism does not address the destiny of the soul or even really its existence.

    If we view Christianity as being a “universal” religion, then, yes, there will be local adaptions of it in various countries and cultures. As others have said, Christianity has a different texture in South America than it has in Europe.

    1. Like I said, not in this post. I’ll make sure to blog something about this later.

      I will say that defining a religion in terms of the destiny of the soul is a very Christianised understanding of religion. There is a strong sense of religiosity in this ‘social philosophy’, as can be testified by the numerous temples to Confucius throughout China, or the understanding that one’s life should be oriented to the ‘mandate of Heaven’ (Tianming 天命).

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