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AsiaAsian Inculturation

In China, the acceptance of Christianity was made more difficult by the Rites Controversy and related Eurocentric rulings from Rome that were inflexible in dealing with rites to ancestors and to Confucius. This produced an untenable situation in which conversion to Christianity forced one to be unfilial to one's ancestors. Rome later reversed these rulings in 1939 in a case involving Japanese Shinto rites. With the Jesuits losing favor at the court in Beijing, most of the conversions made in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were made by non-Jesuit missionaries working in the provincial cities and rural areas of China. Although magistrates were increasingly harsh in their treatment of Christians, the Catholic rural converts remained faithful.

The first Protestant missionary to work in China was Robert Morrison (1782–1834) of the London Missionary Society who served in Macau and Canton from 1807 to 1834. The missionaries working out of Canton distributed religious tracts that were instrumental in stimulating mystical visions in a frustrated examination candidate named Hong Xiuquan who became convinced that he was the younger brother of Jesus. The result was a powerful blending of Christian and native Chinese folk beliefs in a Taiping movement that nearly toppled the Qing dynasty in 1853–1864. Whereas Catholics emphasized the development of Chinese catechisms, Protestants concentrated on translating the Bible into Chinese. The Delegates Version appeared in 1852–1854 and the Union Version in 1919.

After the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), other treaty ports were opened up to Christian missionaries. However, the missionaries were tainted in the eyes of many Chinese by their association with foreign imperialist pressures. When the Communists took over in 1949 and expelled both the imperialists and the missionaries, there were three million Catholics and 1.5 million Protestants. Because the Chinese communist government and the Vatican refused to normalize relations, Catholic churches split into those registered with the government (Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association) and underground Catholic churches loyal to Rome. Distrust of the government caused a similar split of Protestants into registered churches (Three-Self Patriotic Movement) and unregistered house churches.

Many observers believed that Christian churches were nearly exterminated in China during the antireligious activities of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Actually, religious persecution and in more recent times, the spiritual thirst generated by a rapidly changing society, have fostered strong growth in the numbers of Christians, particularly in native Chinese churches. The emergence of these indigenous movements indicates that Christianity is taking root in China, although it is likely to remain, like Buddhism, a minority religion. Estimates today place the number of Catholics at ten million and the number of Protestants at thirty million. This would mean that 3 percent of the Chinese population is Christian. Of the three billion people in Asia today, 8 percent are estimated to be Christians.


Eber, Irene, Sze-kar Wan, and Knut Wulf, eds. Bible in Modern China: The Literary and Intellectual Impact. Nettetal, Germany: Steyler, 1999.

Elison, George. Deus Destroyed: the Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Gernet, Jacques. China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Mungello, D. E. The Spirit and the Flesh in Shandong, 1650–1785. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions. Hammondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1964. Revised 2nd ed., 1986.

Ricci, Matteo, S.J. The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (T'ienchu Shih-i). Translated by Douglas Lancashire and Peter Hu Kuo-chen, S.J. St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1985.

Spence, Jonathan. God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. New York: Norton, 1996.

Standaert, Nicolas, ed. Handbook of Christianity in China. Vol. 1, 635–1800. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2001.

D. E. Mungello

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterChristianity - Asia - Jesuit Accommodation, Asian Inculturation, Bibliography