Written by David E. Mungello.

An image from the past sometimes becomes embedded in our minds and becomes an emblem, a picture expressing an allegory that shapes our view of an entire age. One such image was a widely reproduced picture of a Catholic priest carrying his suitcase up a gangway into a ship in Shanghai in 1951 and being expelled from China. The priest’s name is unknown, but the symbolism of his act has continued to shape the interpretations of China by historians and journalists alike for the next half-century. The priest’s forced departure from China symbolized the Chinese rejection of Christianity. Many years would pass before the imagery of this picture would lose its hold on foreign minds and lead to a correction: although the foreign missionaries were expelled from China, Christianity remained behind. Initially Chinese Christians were forced to struggle against the hostile Communist forces and suffer persecution, imprisonment and death but eventually they emerged from their underground status in enlarged numbers.

Why did it take so many years to reinterpret this image? Part of the reason was the anti-religious campaigns of Chinese Communists whose propaganda and impact were invested by foreign observers with a power and lasting significance that they never had. Most of these traumatic events were not harbingers of the future, but merely manifestations of the present. But another reason for this misinterpretation stems from our human desire to see events through a dominating image that gives order to the fragments to the past. Eventually the image became so deeply embedded in our scholarship that it took several generations of scholars to break that flawed pattern of thought. This is what happened with the historians of China.

The missionaries were expelled in 1951 along with their “baggage.” It was as if the priest walking up the gangway of departure was carrying these rejected and despised elements in his suitcase. His forced departure included his cultural baggage of Western racism, moral superiority and domination in which the missionaries had participated. Christianity, detached from imperialism, remained behind in China because its seeds had been well planted years before, beginning with Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits in the early 17th century. These seeds, which often converted entire extended families or villages, grew (albeit with torturous slowness) into churches that survived because they were not dependant on foreign missionaries. They became indigenized and sinified and financially independent.

The Chinese churches that continued to function after the missionaries’ departure were largely invisible to foreign observers partly because they were inspired by Chinese churches that blended with popular traditions and had been independent of the missionaries. These churches became obscure house churches or went underground in order to survive Communist persecution. Daniel H. Bays describes how the Cultural Revolution turmoil fostered a period of amazing growth in Protestant Christianity. While the official Protestant governing body, the TSPM (Three-Self Patriotic Movement), as well as the RAB (Religious Affairs Bureau) ceased to function during the years 1966-1978, unofficial house churches compounded the number of Protestants in China by five or six times. Lian Xi has published the most complete study of the growth of independent popular Protestant churches in China during the 20th century. According to estimates, in 1949 there were a half-million Protestants in China. Following spectacular growth after 1949, the numbers of Protestants had grown to 25 million (according to government estimates) or 50 million (according to Lian Xi). Catholics grew from 3.5 million in 1949 to 12 million (government estimate) or 17 million (Lian Xi). The situation in the Catholic church was complicated by a schism. In 1958 when the Vatican refused to sanction the consecration of bishops by the RAB, the Catholic church in China split into an “official” church under the CCPA (Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association) and an autonomous, underground church that was loyal to Rome. This division and the dispute over authorizing the consecration of bishops continues to this day and is a major obstacle to the establishment of official relations between the Vatican and Beijing.

While these hidden churches were developing, foreign journalists and scholars were focused on the political, cultural and economic traumas of China in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The totalitarianism of the little red book of “Quotations from Chairman Mao” along with forced collectivization and political power struggles appeared at the time to be momentous, but ultimately were of passing significance. However, a preoccupation with the dominating narrative of these events caused foreign historians of the sixties and seventies to focus on anti-Christian movements in Chinese history, believing that they had uncovered an essential incompatibility with Christianity in Chinese culture. Many of the leading China scholars of that time joined in this misreading of Chinese history.

The prominent British historian of China, C. P. Fitzgerald (1902-1992), who spent twenty years in China, was in thrall to the Communist revolution when he wrote: “the basic assumptions of the Christian religion were alien to the Chinese and found no welcome.” In the first volume of his influential trilogy Confucian China and its Modern Fate (1958), Joseph R. Levenson (1920-1969) attributed the failure of Christianity in China to it being insufficiently Confucian in premodern China and insufficiently scientific in modern China. In 1961 the China historian Paul A. Cohen began to write a series of pieces on “the anti-Christian tradition in China” in which he spoke of a continuity, both premodern and modern, in Chinese history that expressed “the belief that Christianity is irrational and superstitious –unworthy of the attention of serious-minded people.”

A culminating work among those scholars who argued for an inherent hostility to Christianity in Chinese culture was written by the French Sinologist Jacques Gernet (b. 1921). His 1982 work Chine et christianisme. Action et reaction focused on the negative reactions of 17th-century Chinese literati to Christianity and spoke of “fundamental differences, in the West and in China, in the conceptions of man and of the world.” A turning point in this line of works came with the Dutch Sinologist Erik Zürcher (1928-2008) of Leiden whose initial agreement with Gernet turned to disagreement after Zürcher applied himself to the study of the literature compiled by collaborating literati and Jesuits in 17th-century Fujian. Zürcher came to the conclusion that there was no essential incompatibility between Christianity and Chinese culture.

Today things are quite different. Historians no longer debate why Christianity has died out in China because there is so much evidence of its presence.

David E. Mungello, professor of history at Baylor University, Waco, Texas, is the author of The Catholic Invasion of China: Remaking Chinese Christianity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Image Credit: CC by Benedictine University Library/Flickr.