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On Writing A History of Christianity in China | Preface to Christians In China: A.D. 600 to 2000 | Fr. Jean-Pierre Charbonnier

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During my priestly ministry, I came to know Chinese Christians in Singapore, where I worked from 1959 to 1993. I did not know Christians from China itself, although in 1982 I had visited the mainland and met bishops and priests from some of the major cities, and I even celebrated a Mass in Latin at Xi'an. I had not, however, had contact at the grassroots level. One day in 1983 a visitor from China turned up at the Singapore Information Centre, where we were trying to establish contacts with Catholics in China. He was a sailor, twenty-three years old, who came from Fuzhou in Fujian Province. His ship had put in at Singapore, and he wanted to see a priest because his parents had said to him, "You are going to Singapore. Try to find a priest and go to confession."

It was Sunday, and I asked whether he had been to Mass. He said that he did not know what Mass was, nor confession, and he had never been to either. I asked him whether there was a priest in his hometown, and he said that there was, but that he had gotten married so that no one went to church anymore. I wondered whether the sailor really was a Catholic and asked him to say the Our Father, which he did at once in his Fujian dialect, followed by the Hail Mary. He told me that they were six brothers and sisters at home and that they said the Rosary together every night. His name was Xinqiang, which means "Strong Faith".

A few months later, the sailor came to see me again. It was raining heavily, and he took a damp piece of paper out of his pocket. He said, "Our guniang (sister) wants me to buy the books on this list." The ink had run, but I could make out the characters which listed a missal, the Bible, The Imitation of Christ, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux' Histoire d'une Âme (The Story of a Soul). The nun had scribbled on the side, "If you can't find these, buy any books from our Church". I felt that the crumpled piece of paper was bringing a powerful message from a community, which had been buried for a long time in the shadows and was now struggling to reappear in the light of day.

During the Cultural Revolution, it seemed as if Christians in China had been completely annihilated, and yet their faith survived. In fact, the trials that they had suffered during the previous forty years were but a recent phase of the sufferings they had had to endure more than once, over the previous three centuries and more. The communities that are the most vigorous have roots that lie deep in the soil of China's past. The Christian faith is the faith of their ancestors. To begin with, during the first and second generations of Christianity's presence in China, that faith was fragile and vulnerable, but later it became part of family tradition, which meant that it benefited from the tenacity of the basic Chinese principle of filial piety. If one wants to understand Catholics in the China of today, one has to know something about their past.

This is not easy, in spite of the impressive number of books on the history of Christianity in China, because most of them are about the history of the missions. In such studies, foreign missionaries dominate the scene, and Chinese Christians seem to provide the background to the story. Of course, one cannot study Chinese Christians without knowing something about those who brought the Gospel to them, but the story must center on the Chinese. Fortunately a recent study does just that. The first volume of the Handbook of Christianity in China, edited by Nicolas Standaert, S.J., [1] covers the period from A.D. 635 to 1800 and includes several sections on Chinese Christians (pp. 380-455).

The history of Christianity in China records the meeting of two very different civilizations. The West had been deeply influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition and China by the Confucian tradition. Two recent studies have underlined the difficulties inherent in such a meeting. Jacques Gernet's China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures [2] gives the impression that there were two cultures in watertight compartments that just could not communicate. René Laurentin centers his study [3] more directly on Christian history in China, but the subtitle, After Missed Opportunities, with its negative implication about the past, does imply that a new era has dawned.

There is, however, a drawback in equating "China" and "Christianity" as if the two were on the same level. China is a country; Christianity is a religion. Moreover, Christianity cannot be identified with the West, although some Christians still seem to find the idea attractive. It would be better to compare Chinese Christianity and European Christianity; or else Western Christianity and Chinese Confucianism.

One also needs to ask why so many studies start from the assumption that Christianity is a foreign religion where China is concerned. It is worth noting that today the Communist government in Beijing recognizes Christianity as one of the religions of China, together with Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam.

The Christians of today's China are aware that they belong to a modern and independent country and that they are a local Church, free from the control of foreigners that she had known in the past. It is true that for Catholics the idea of an autonomous Church needs to be refined so that her relation to the Universal Catholic Church and to the Holy Father is maintained. Nevertheless, the present development of the Church in China remains a significant fact of the twentieth century. If the Chinese are to develop the characteristic features of their Church, they must become more aware of her historic roots. This happens when anniversaries are commemorated for outstanding Christians of the past who have played a key role in the development of their Church. Thus the review Catholic Church in China, published in Beijing, always has articles on Church history.

In 1989 the Shanghai Academy of Sciences published a small book Catholicism in China Yesterday and Today, that tells the whole history of Chinese Catholicism. In view of the present political context, the book naturally emphasizes the achievements of the Church, independent since the "Liberation" of 1949, and it also contrasts this with the shackles that hindered the Church in the past, when she was subjected to the colonial powers of the West. This black-and-white presentation of the past is, of course, useful in a propaganda war, but it cannot stand up to a more careful examination of history. Even a Communist author such as Gu Yulu recognizes positive elements in the past, such as evangelization in the spirit of Matteo Ricci and the contribution made by Christians to education and social welfare. It is more difficult for Gu Yulu to face up to the sufferings that have been inflicted on the Church by the present regime, but he is positive about the relations between Christian morality and Communist morality, showing that the two can coexist profitably, although they derive from very different points of view.

Gu Yulu's book is about Chinese Catholicism only and does not consider other Christian churches. This is a common approach in China, where Catholicism and Protestantism are considered as two different religions. Today's ecumenical attitude calls for a reassessment of this approach. Kenneth Scott Latourette's foundational work A History of Christian Missions in China, first published in 1929, treats equally of the development of the Catholic and the Protestant Churches. The same is true of the work of the Benedictine Columba Cary-Elwes, China and the Cross: A Survey of Missionary History. [4] Ralph Covell's book Confucius, the Buddha, and Christ [5] clearly shows how the proclamation of the Gospel in China caused similar problems for both Catholics and Protestants, problems that were solved by developing a similar approach.

I consider that one needs to go further and to examine more closely the history of Islam in China. Islam is a monotheistic religion, based on the adherence of believers to a message. It was brought to China by Arabs and had to face many problems in penetrating the cultural world of China. Christians would find it useful to compare the way Muslims have integrated their community into the Chinese way of life with the path that Christians have followed.

During the past forty years the Church in Taiwan has produced a large number of historical studies. The work of the late Fang Hao has been particularly useful in making known a whole range of outstanding Chinese Christians. Archbishop Lokuang has put together a detailed history of the religious orders and congregations who have worked in China. Fr. Joseph Motte, S.J., though not Chinese himself, has written two books that give its proper place in the history of China to native Christians. These books were published in Taipei by Kuangchi in the Chinese language with the titles History of the Catholic Church in China (1970) and Lay Chinese Apostles (1978). The contemporary scene is less well known, but a certain number of studies and personal accounts have been published, mainly in Hong Kong. Since contacts between Taiwan and mainland China have been resumed, university professors and historians in Taiwan have concentrated on studying the evolution that has occurred within the People's Republic of China.

I have written this book with such an approach in mind. I wanted to describe the main lines of the history of Christianity in China but to tell the stories of actual Chinese Christians at every period, so as to emphasize the unfolding of a constant cultural interaction. The questions I tried to answer were these: How did the Church develop over many centuries in a civilization different from ours? How do Christians in China give witness to their faith? How do they contribute to the life of the Church Universal?

The Christians of China belong to a people who have been molded over the centuries by rich cultural and religious traditions. It would be impossible adequately to describe within the compass of this book the numerous currents of these great traditions, their development and interaction. However, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism must always be taken into consideration as the cultural stock onto which Christianity has been grafted in China. Christians may have rejected the practices of these religions, but they have been deeply influenced by them as regards their view of morality, their spirituality, and also their way of living the Christian life. There is no need to trot out the term inculturation at this point. The Christians of China belong to a Chinese culture, as we will try to show. If they are sometimes labeled as "foreigners", that is because they belong, like Christians in every country, to a kingdom that is not of this world, which does not prevent them from fulfilling their task conscientiously and working actively for the renewal of the society they live in.

- Jean-Pierre Charbonnier, M.E.P.


Translation of the preface to the second edition of Histoire des Chrétiens de Chine (Paris: Les Indes Savantes, 2002).

[1] Leiden: Brill, 2001.

[2] Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985; translation of Chine et Christianisme: Action et Réaction (Paris: Gallimard, 1982).

[3] Chine et Christianisme: Après les occasions manquées (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1977).

[4] New York: 1957.

[5] Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1986.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Two Chinese Churches? Or One? | An Interview with Fr. Daniel Cerezo
Catholicism and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson

Jean-Pierre Charbonnier, a priest of the Missions Etrangères de Paris Society (MEP) now residing in the Archdiocese of Paris after 30 years in East Asia, is the Director of the China Service of the Paris Foreign Missions Society and a respected authority on the Church in China. He was educated at the Major Seminary of Versailles, and at the Sorbonne. He is the author of the Guide to the Catholic Church in China. In 1981 he founded in Singapore the Zhonglian Center: China Catholic Communication Service. Since 1975, Father Charbonnier has visited China and Hong Kong 43 times. Christians in China: A.D. 600 to 2000 is a translated, updated, and expanded version of his landmark work Histoire des Chrétiens de Chine.

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