What is the history of Christianity in China?
Christianity has been active in China for four hundred years and has caused a great deal of mischief there. When Dominique Parennin, a Jesuit missionary, requested permission to proselytize in 1724, the Yongzheng Emperor explained that the Christian God posed a danger to the State because it invited foreign interference:
You say that your law is not a false law, 非左道, and We believe you. If We thought it was false, what would have held Us back from razing your churches and expelling you from the empire? False laws are those which, on the pretext of teaching virtue, fan the spirit of revolt, as is the case with the White Lotus Teaching.
What would you say if We were to dispatch a group of monks and lamas to your country to preach their doctrines? How would they be received? Your Matteo Ricci came to China in 1572 when you Christians were few in number and did not have your people and churches in every province. It was only under my father’s reign that you began to build churches everywhere and that your doctrines started spreading rapidly. We observed this, but we said nothing.
You may have known how to deceive Our Father, but don’t think you can deceive Us in the same way. You wish to make all Chinese Christians, as your law demands. We know this very well. But in that case, what would become of Us? Should We not soon become merely the subjects of your kings? The converts you have made already recognize nobody but you, and, in troubled times, they would listen to no other voice than yours. We know that we have nothing to fear at present, but when foreign ships start coming in their thousands and tens of thousands, perhaps then serious disorders will arise.
Sixty years later, foreign ships came in their tens of thousands and a Christian uprising killed thirty-million people. The dynasty never recovered.
For example, many Christian organisations were involved in opposition to the PRC in the 2019 protests in Hong Kong. To the Chinese, they are not religious believers, but people who oppose the government on religious grounds. They come to China to preach, not with a religious purpose, but to try to organise anti-government forces.
The Chinese do not have a history of ‘belief’. They tend to be oriented to concrete evidence and results. Educated Chinese have not been religious for 2,000 years.
Some History of Christianity in China
There was no high-level contact between the Christian Churches and the Chinese Communist Party until 1949. However, the Roman Catholic Church considered the atheistic Communist Party to be its greatest ideological enemy. The Holy See’s Minister to China, John Ripley, issued several orders and instructions to Chinese Catholics to carry out the anti-communist orders of the Congregation for the Clergy.
Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical stating that in China under Communist rule, priests could temporarily depart from the rules of the Church except for celibacy, and that the celebration of Mass could be done in the same way as in times of “holy difficulties” (i.e. in secrecy).
the Congregation for the Clergy of the Roman Rite issued three anti-communist edicts to Italian Catholics: “Catholics must not join the Communist Party; Catholics must not promote or read books or magazines that support communist theories; and if they violate these two points, they may not receive the sacraments.
the People’s Republic of China was founded, but the Holy See still did not recognise the People’s Republic of China. Minister Li Pei Li remained in Nanjing and even warned Catholics in mainland China not to believe in the Chinese Communist authorities’ policy of freedom of religion.
The Holy See again claimed that anyone who participated in “some organisations set up under the direction and patronage of the Communist Party” would be “punished absolutely under whatever guise”. After the outbreak of the Korean War, Li Peili called on Chinese Catholics to confront the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government, using the ‘bloody and deadly’ ‘honour of sanctification’ as a guide.
Fr Wang Liangzuo and more than 500 other Catholics, including Shang Xizhu, Wang Fuchu and Sun Keqiang, issued the Declaration on Catholic Self-Reliance and Renewal (commonly known as the Guangyuan Declaration), proposing that Chinese Catholics should sever their ties with the Holy See and establish a new Church that was “autonomous, self-supporting and self-propagating”.
The Italian priest Mattio was one of the main perpetrators of the bombing of Tiananmen Square and was also Fr. Li Peili’s ‘Apostolic Nuncio’s representative’ in Beijing. At the time of his arrest, 259 rounds of mortar shells, rifle bullets and pistol bullets, eight hand grenades, 273 pieces of mortar shells, primers and weapon parts were found in his apartment, as well as many pieces of information he had collected for Li Andong and Li Peili.
Fr. Li Peili sent letters to the leaders of the Legion of Mary and Catholic bishops in various places, opposing the cooperation of the laity with the Communist Party and local governments, and the Legion of Mary also printed propaganda materials that attacked and vilified the Communist Party and New China, and sent people one after another to On 15 July 1951, the People’s Daily published a short commentary entitled “Protecting the Freedom of Rightful Belief and Suppressing the Counter-Revolutionary “Army of Our Lady””. In 1951, the Apostolic Nuncio, Li Peili, was expelled from China.
That explains why Christianity in China and relations between Beijing and the Holy See have been poor for so long: Christians keep meddling in China.
Regulation of Religion in China Today
Tang Dynasty religious regulations remain in effect today: civil law still trumps beliefs; public proselytizing is forbidden; believers may not give allegiance to foreign powers; religious explanations of the world may only be taught to adults; if followers incite treason, unrest, or violence, or practice tax-evasion or threaten public order, officials may raze their churches (though not harm their congregants). The Chinese have always treated believers more leniently than Western governments.
Tang Dynasty principles were applied in Xinjiang in 2009, when some Wahhabi Uyghurs massacred two hundred people. When a local court ignored testimony from forensic specialists (hired by the victims’ relatives) that six men could not have killed so many, the censor blocked the families’ public complaints. The defendants were ethnic minorities, he said, with a constitutional right to preferential treatment, and public discussion would only inflame ethnic tensions. The censor again intervened when the attacks resumed in 2014, ruling that publicity would rekindle dormant hatreds, and urging the government to provide more opportunities for illiterate, unemployed, rural Muslim youth.
The government relocated entire industries to Xinjiang and built residential vocational schools across the province (which Western media called ‘concentration camps’). Inspectors from twelve Muslim countries praised them, graduates found good jobs, and the massacres stopped.