Patriotism and Christianity in China: A Reflection on the Fourth of July

thanksgiving1As today is the Fourth of July, churches throughout the United States this past weekend have been celebrating their love for their country alongside their love for their God – a strong spirit of patriotism. One recent survey reports that 61 percent of Protestant pastors in America say it is important for worship services on the weekend of the Fourth of July to incorporate patriotic elements to celebrate America’s birth, with 66 percent wanting to include special music honouring the country. In other words, American Protestants often have no problem with American patriotism.

Given that this past weekend has also had the 95th anniversary celebrations of the Communist Party of China, it is worth considering what ‘patriotism’ means for religion across the ocean. In contrast to what happens in America, many American (and Chinese) Christians are unnerved by groups in China such as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement or the Catholic Patriotic Association – state-sanctioned organisations of Christianity – and believe that the ‘true’ church is in the unregistered house churches or underground churches. Like in the US, I want to claim that most churches in China (registered or unregistered) also hold a very strong love for their country alongside their love for their God – but we should be calling this nationalism, not patriotism.

The difference between ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’ is quite subtle, in English and in Chinese. In fact, in China, these terms did not really exist until about a century ago. In the 1920s, the May Fourth movement brought upon a desire for modernisation and a hope in China’s potential. China had suffered under the hands of Western and Eastern (Japan) powers, and it wanted to build its nation to be an equal amongst other nations. During this early period, there was a tendency for some to believe the state could represent the people and the national interest (‘state nationalism’ guojia zhuyi 国家主义) while others would opposed the state and saw themselves ’speak for the individual, the people, or the nation against the sate’ (‘popular nationalism’ minzu zhuyi 民族主义).1

Wu Yaozong and Mao Zedong
Wu Yaozong (founder of the TSPM) and Mao Zedong

By the 1950s, things would get much more complicated as another word became very dominant in the Chinese political discourse: patriotism (‘love-country-ism’ aiguo zhuyi 爱国主义). As Philip Wickeri explains, ’More than the love of an old civilization, more than simple nationalism, patriotism meant the love for New China, and with it, loyalty to the People’s Government under the leadership of the [Communist Party of China].’2 This is why the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (est. 1954) and the Catholic Patriotic Association (est. 1957) have ‘patriotic’ in their names. Moreover, as the early discussions were underway between certain Protestants and the new government, the former created a group with a much longer name in 1951: the Preparatory Council of the China Christian Resist-America Help-Korea Three-Self Reform Movement. This particularly verbose name was targeted against America, during the Korean War (1950–53), which had troops in the south of Korea moving north while the Soviet Union and China had troops in the north of Korea moving south. This was also a time when the United States had its naval ships in the Taiwan strait protecting the Nationalist party which fled to Taiwan from the Communist party which wanted to continue pursuing them. As a consequence of all this history, the term ‘patriotism’ in China underscores one’s support for the leadership of the Communist party.

Today, these two terms – nationalism (normally, minzu zhuyi 民族主义) and patriotism (aiguo zhuyi 爱国主义) are related but have very distinct emphases. Yet they are often quite confused in popular and academic literature. What I want to say is many Christians in China – within the state-registered ‘patriotic’ churches or within unregistered churches – hold to a very strong sense of nationalism. Many Chinese Christians often pray for their country, for their government leaders, and for the conversion of the people of their motherland. We can even consider the famous Back to Jerusalem missions movement which has a very clear belief that the gospel has traveled from Jerusalem westward until it has reached China, and that China is the chosen nation to bring the gospel ‘back to Jerusalem’. Finally, the most vivid example of nationalism is perhaps in the ‘Canaan Hymns’, written by a peasant woman from a house church in Henan but sung in registered and unregistered Protestant churches throughout China. One of her hymns, entitled ‘China Belongs to the Most High’, reads:3

Even when I have only one drop of blood, one drop of sweat,
It would be shed upon China.
Even when I have only one breath, and one ounce of strength,
It would be offered to China.

China ah!
How many of your children over the oceans
Are weeping in prayers for you,
Standing by the seashore
At all times holding you at heart?
Listen to the sound of a mother’s calling across the ocean
The people of China are sons and daughters of God.

China ah! China!
Quickly come and find rest.
God has found you.
You are no longer lost while scaling mountains, crossing waters.
China belongs to the Most High!

This is all nationalism – a love and a concern for one’s motherland. It is perhaps also an extension of Confucian filiality. But given the pride that exists in so many countries today, I would be inclined to say that this is also part of the universal tension that exists in being both a citizen in this world and a citizen in the world to come.

  1. Lydia H. Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity (China, 1900-1937) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 189. 
  2. Philip L. Wickeri, Seeking the Common Ground: Protestant Christianity, the Three-Self Movement, and China’s United Front (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 94. 
  3. Canaan Hymn 551, ‘China Belongs to the Most High’. Translated in Irene Ai-Ling Sun, ‘Songs of Canaan: Hymnody of the House-Church Christians in China’, Studia liturgica 37, no. 1 (2014): 112-113.