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.”

Hutchinson’s piece irked another Atlantic author, Chang Hsin-Hai, who, six months later, published a strongly worded rebuke. Hsin-Hai argued that the Chinese who had adopted Christianity had done so precisely because of the religion’s affiliations with Western wealth and power. He likened Chinese Christians to men who marry the daughters of wealthy landowners to raise their own position in society:

It is as if a lady is chosen for wife, hardly upon the strength of her own endowments and qualifications, but upon the strength of her having affiliations with millionaires and successful business men, whose worldly honors and glory will always have a universal appeal to the masses of the people. A union of this type does not, however, ensure future happiness to the husband.

Furthermore, Hsin-Hai argued that Christianity would remain a superficial presence in China until the Western nations began to practice what they preached. The Western policies of his day were, he wrote, “irreconcilable with the teachings of the Bible,” and until such policies were banished, it was “useless to think that sensible Chinese will take account of the Christian religion.”

In a sense, Hsin-Hai’s forceful words foreshadowed the “cultural revolution” that would sweep the country a generation later. By the mid-1950s, the Communist government of Mao Zedong had so thoroughly rejected Western influence that it became a crime to practice the Christian religion. In the aftermath of Mao’s regime, James C. Thomson, Jr., the son of Protestant missionaries, reflected on his childhood in China and the legacy his parents had left behind. His Atlantic piece, titled “Recollections of a Cultural Imperialist,” acknowledged the failure of the Chinese mission, but it also offered an idyllic portrait of pre-Maoist China. As he recalled the peaceful China of his youth, Thomson bemoaned the Communist victory, expressing hope for a reengagement with China based not on “cultural imperialism” but on mutual understanding:

Were we imperialists? I suppose so—though judging by the outcome we were less than a success. And if anyone changed anyone, they changed us.

Even as Thomson penned those nostalgic words, China was cautiously reopening to the West. Over the decades that have followed, China’s explosive economic growth has increasingly brought the nation into contact with other parts of the world and with other belief systems. As a result, many new religions will undoubtedly take root in this populous country. Whether Christianity rises to the dominant role predicted by Paul Hutchinson in 1921 or simply coexists with other faiths, the fate of Christians such as Father Aloysius Jin Luxian will continue to shape China’s identity and its relationship with the Western world.