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Issue Date:  February 3, 2006

Everybody wants a piece of China, including Christians

Everything seems to be pointing to China being the center of the world in the not too distant future. It is the world’s fastest-growing economy today, with the magic figure of 1.3 billion people cited. Wal-mart sees in China 1.3 billion bodies to be clothed; Nike is counting the 1.3 billion pairs of feet; Oral-B has interest in the 1.3 billion mouths. Every entrepreneur drools over the Chinese market.

There should be a little of something for everyone. Yes, everyone, including the church.

That was why about 150 of us gathered last fall at Sant’Anselmo, a Benedictine monastery in Rome. We were Europeans and Chinese and had come for a Europe-China conference. Our conversation centered around Chung Kuok, or the Middle Kingdom, as the Chinese call their homeland.

We talked about the rapid pace of development in today’s China. We talked about the massive capital flowing into and out of the country. We talked about how China is poised to overtake the United States as the world’s superpower. We talked about the widening gap between China’s rich and poor. And, more important, we talked about China’s record on human rights. Our hope and prayer was that its 1.3 billion people will one day be truly free. Free, as one cardinal who gave the opening address put it, “so that they may be able to embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The statistics reveal that in the last two decades alone, since Deng Xiaoping’s Chinese Communist Party opened the doors of China to the rest of the world, more than 10 percent of its population has embraced Christianity. That means that there are more Christians in China than the entire combined population of Italy and France, two traditionally Christian countries. At the rate missionary activity is going, this figure is set to increase exponentially. There is, therefore, interest in what “Chinese Christianity” looks like. European missionaries presume it differs from the Christianity they have been familiar with. Implied is the supposition that European Christianity is normative while those coming from the peripheries of Christendom are merely derivatives. Otherwise, why do we not hear of interest in “Italian Christianity” or “French Christianity”?

But it’s true that Chinese Christianity will indeed be different. For one thing, it is new and young. The present church is run primarily by the post-Cultural Revolution generation. It was evident at Sant’Anselmo where most of the Chinese participants looked like college kids when compared to the graying and balding European participants. One 35-year-old Chinese nun said that when she is back in her convent the other nuns regard her as one of the “old sisters.” China’s seminaries and novitiates are bursting at the seams with young, dynamic and often newly baptized Christians. That is why practically every religious congregation with able-bodied members wants to enter China. The Chinese church, we can be sure, will one day be sending missionaries out to help support the ministries of these congregations.

Another trait of this new generation of Chinese Christians is that most have had no direct experience of the church of yesteryear. Some call this the post-denominational church in which the scandalous divisions of the historic churches are a thing of the past. While Catholicism and Protestantism are recognized as two independent religions, the main division at present is really between the official or registered churches and the unregistered or underground churches. There are, of course, also those who are “cultural Christians,” namely, the intellectuals who accept Christianity without necessarily joining any Christian church.

Yet another trait peculiar to Chinese Christianity is the government-imposed adherence to the “Three-Self” principles. This means that the church has to be self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating. The most significant implication is that the church in China does not take orders from any foreign powers, including the Vatican. In fact, the faithful of some local communities actually have a say (even if guided by Big Brother) in the appointment of their own bishops and are not subject to an appointment made by someone sitting in faraway Rome, as is the case in many dioceses around the world.

Of course, the most important characteristics of Chinese Christianity will be how it relates to Chinese cultures and religions. It looks like the lessons learned from the Matteo Ricci affair, where Rome forbade ancestral veneration among Christians, will serve as cues for this interreligious engagement. Hence, one is beginning to see theological explorations on themes such as Confucian Christology or the Christotao.

There is much China has to offer, including the example of how the Christian tradition can be brought into a harmonious integration with indigenous religious traditions. This harmony will more likely be one of “diversity in unity,” which was the theme of the conference at Sant’Anselmo.

Edmund Chia is a Malaysian theologian of Chinese descent. He served the Asian church as secretary of Interreligious Dialogue from 1996-2004. He is on the faculty of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

On the Web
This article first appeared on Global Perspective, a Web column that appears Tuesdays on

National Catholic Reporter, February 3, 2006

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