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Flashbacks July/August 2007

The Cross and the Star

Articles from The Atlantic's archives illuminate the history of China's complex relationship with Christianity.

In the July/August 2007 Atlantic, Adam Minter tells the story of Father Aloysius Jin Luxian, a Catholic Bishop in Shanghai who has undertaken the difficult task of leading China’s Catholics while complying with the strictures of the Chinese Communist Party. In bridging the deep chasm between Christianity and Chinese politics, Jin, who spent nearly three decades in prison for his beliefs, must help his countrymen address certain fundamental questions: Is the Church an asset to Chinese culture? Or is it a “hostile, foreign-controlled entity” whose widespread acceptance could only undermine the Chinese way of life? 

Atlantic authors have been tackling these questions since the magazine's very beginnings. In an 1870 report, journalist Lydia Maria Child noted that Christianity held little appeal for the Chinese people. Content with their Buddhist religion, they were unconvinced that the followers of Jesus had anything to offer them. Ironically, Child believed that Roman Catholicism was too similar to Buddhism to attract much notice. “In some particulars,” she wrote, “the parallel [between Buddhism and Catholicism] is so close that it is difficult to perceive any difference, except in names.” She likened Buddha—as a holy man revered by a group of followers—to Jesus, and noted that Buddhists, like Christians, believe in a holy trinity. Buddhists also honor a wide array of saints, she pointed out, and the most religious Buddhists gather in monasteries for communal worship.

When Father Huc, a French Jesuit missionary, visited one of these [monasteries], not many years ago, he was struck with the … resemblance. He says: “The reception given us recalled to our thoughts those monasteries raised by our own religious ancestors, in which travelers and the poor always found refreshment for the body and consolation for the soul.” The same missionary tells us that when he tried to persuade the Regent of the [monastery] to become a Roman Catholic, he listened courteously and replied, “Your religion is the same as ours.”

Even so, missionaries continued to seek gateways into the Chinese soul, and in 1890, China’s “Open Door” trade policy enabled them to enter in greater numbers. In “The Missionary Enterprise in China” (September 1906), Chester Holcombe defended the legitimacy of missionary work in China. Even at that early date, the Chinese people were beginning to reject Western influences: six years earlier, they had risen up against foreign intruders in a protest known as the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Holcombe did his best to clear the missionary movement of all blame, insisting that unfair Western trade policies were the real culprit. “Once for all,” he wrote, “it must be most emphatically declared that, not Christian propagandism, but most unchristian policies and practices of aggression, dominance, and spoliation upon the part of certain governments of Europe brought about the horrors of the Boxer uprising.”

Fifteen years later, another Atlantic writer took a slightly different view of Western missionaries and their place in Chinese society. In Paul Hutchinson’s opinion, Christianity was destined to become the dominant religion in China—but only after the last American and European Christians left the country. “So long as foreign influence is apparent,” Hutchinson wrote, “the masses of Chinese will hold off” from accepting Christianity into the heart of their culture. Hutchinson envisioned a day when “the missionary has withdrawn, and the Christian church in China has become an organization of and by, as well as for, the Chinese.”

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