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Political theology in China

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Political theology in China includes responses from Chinese government leaders, scholars, and Christian leaders who deal with the relationship between religion and politics. For two millennia, this was organized based on a Confucian understanding of religion and politics; however, since the mid-twentieth century, communist understandings of religion have dominated the discourse.

For Christianity, this relationship can be seen from the religion's earliest encounters in the country during the imperial period, with the Church of the East's interaction with the Emperor Taizong and Jesuit missionaries in the Ming court. But it has developed the most in the 20th and 21st centuries after the establishments of the Republic of China and People's Republic of China. This is particularly true through the establishment of the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the rise of underground and house churches, and interactions with the secular academy.

Imperial China[edit]

Stele erected in 781 recording interactions between the Church of the East and the Emperor Taizong.

For over two millennia, from the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) until the Qing dynasty (1636–1912), the dominant ideology that was upheld as state orthodoxy was Confucianism. During much of this time, all other religions needed to be registered and administered under the Confucian political system.[1] This would shape the history of the relationship between Christianity and politics in China could be traced to Tang Dynasty (618-907), when scholars believe that Christianity first came to China.[2] Emperor Taizong and his successors of adopted the policy of religious tolerance. They allowed the mission of Church of the East monks and invited them to translate scriptures for the empire. In 845, during the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, the Church of the East was misunderstood as a sect of Buddhism and was banned by Emperor Wuzong. In Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), several Mongol tribes converted to Christianity through the Church of the East. During this time, the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church also sent envoys to the Mongol Empire capital Khanbaliq (present day Beijing).

In Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Jesuits initiated mission in China. Matteo Ricci would be the most well-known among these missionaries. Jesuits exerted considerable influence at court via the policy of accommodation and converted several senior officials, such as Xu Guangqi. In Qing dynasty (1636–1912), Catholic missionaries still played important roles at court as consultants of emperors. In the 18th century, the Chinese Rites controversy had raised tension between the Vatican and Qing dynasty's Emperors. Emperor Yongzheng was formally against Christian converts among Manchu people and banned the mission again.

After the First Opium War (1839-1842), with the aid of several unequal treaties, Christian missionaries were allowed to evangelize in China and continue to import the Western civilization to China. Due to an impression that missionaries were allies with foreign colonial governments, many Chinese became hostile to Christianity. This further influenced the relationship between Christianity and politics. Many anti-missionary riots (Jiao'an), the Boxer Rebellion, and anti-Christian movement, can be considered as the consequences of such relationship.

Republic of China[edit]

The 20th century witnessed the emergence of some indigenous theologians in China. Arising from the concern of national salvation in the background of foreign invasion, cultural crisis, and anti-Christian movement, Christian leaders like Y. T. Wu advocated Christianity as a way of saving China. Wu appealed to revolution theory and constructed indigenous Christian theology.[3]

People's Republic of China[edit]


After 1949, the founding of People's Republic of China, the Chinese Protestant leaders encountered new challenges— the new regime of the communist government is based on atheistic ideology of Marxism. They had to decide how to deal with the relationship with the atheistic government. There were different attitudes and theologies among Chinese Christians. Some of them, such as Y. T. Wu, who were willing to support the new government, helped to pen the Christian Manifesto and initiated the Three-Self movement (TSPM) in 1950s; they reconstructed theology in terms of cooperation. Others, such as Wang Mingdao, were unwilling to endorse the radical TSPM and refused to support the new government, are regarded as the forerunners of the present-day house church.[4]

In the 1950s Denunciation Campaigns, some Christian leaders, such as Wang Mingdao, Watchman Nee, from the opposing camp were arrested and sentenced in the name of counter-revolutionaries. During the ten years of Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), all the religious activities were banned and many Christians met and worshiped in the Christians' houses.

In 1980s, religious activities recovered and churches gradually opened. However, Christians who were unwilling to joined the TSPM churches and chose to gather in unregistered house churches which gather in personal houses or apartments.[5] K. H. Ting and Wang Weifan were leaders and representatives of the TSPM church. Wang Mingdao and Wang Yi would be representatives of the house church; the latter Wang is the pastor in the urban church in Chengdu which is not a traditional house church, but who still claims the link to the house church.[6]


In the 1950s, after Zhou Enlai saw the possibilities in Protestantism with the TSPM, a similar approach was taken with Catholicism leading to the formation in 1957 of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), severing ties with the Vatican. Those who chose not to affiliate with the CPCA and remain loyal to the Pope and the Vatican are often considered part of the underground church.[7]

Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, the late Chinese Catholic Cardinal, was a reprentative of the opposing side. In 1950s, he refused to cooperated with Communist government to establish the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Because the establishment of the CPCA was regarded as being schismatic and not in union with the universal Roman Catholic Church.[8] He criticized China's religious freedom situation and reckoned that Chinese Catholics "do not have the freedom to worship."[9] When he was interviewed by the Soul Magazine in 1993, Kung expressed his sympathy for the underground Catholics and Bishops under the Communist goverment and claimed that "The government should understand from history that every time the Church was persecuted, the Church has always survived and grown out of the persecution."[10]


Despite the Anti-Confucius developments of the Cultural Revolution, since the 1980s, there has been a restored interest in Confucianism as offering a renewed political ideology for mainland China. Part of this has included the introduction of New Confucianism from Taiwan and North America. Some have advocated for the building of new Confucian churches in the country.[11] Others, such as Jiang Qing have advocated for a new form of constitutional Confucianism.[12]


Since the late-1980s, there has been a growing interest in Christianity among academics in China's secular universities. Often described as Cultural Christians, many of whom are not self-identified Christians, these scholars have been drawn to Christianity as a source for the modernization of China. One of the key figures of this movement, Liu Xiaofeng at Renmin University of China, in the 2000s began to draw on the political theology of Carl Schmitt for engaging the Chinese political arena.[13] Others, such as Xie Zhibin from Tongji University in Shanghai, has attempted to offer a public theological engagement based on the theology of Max Stackhouse.[14][15] Most recently, Zhuo Xinping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has advocated for the sinicization or Chinization (Chinese: 中国化; pinyin: Zhongguo hua) of Christianity both politically and culturally.[16]

Key documents[edit]

The Christian Manifesto[edit]

This document was published in July 1950 and its original title was "Direction of Endeavor for Chinese Christianity in the Construction of New China." The founding group of the Three-self Movement, including Y. T. Wu, drafted the document in consultation with Premier Zhou Enlai. During the Three-self Movement, 400,000 Protestant Christians signed on this document for public endorsement. The purpose of publishing of this document is:[17]

The 95 Theses of the Chinese Reformed Church[edit]

In August 2015, one of the most well-known Chinese urban church Early Rain Reformed Church led by its senior pastor Wang Yi in Chengdu posted a document titled "Reaffirming our Stance on the House Churches: 95 theses" in an attempt to reaffirm the Chinese house church's position in the relationship between government and society. These 95 theses demonstrates his opinion of the state-church relationship from the perspective of the house church.[18]

See also[edit]

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Key figures[edit]

  • Y. T. Wu (1893–1979)
  • K. H. Ting (1915–2012)
  • Wang Yi (b. 1973)

Related topics[edit]

  • Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association
  • House church (China)
  • Political theology
  • Three-Self Patriotic Movement
  • Underground church


  1. Bays, Daniel H. (2004). "A Tradition of State Dominance". In Kindopp, Jason; Hamrin, Carol Lee. God and Caesar in China. Washington, D.C.: Brookings. pp. 25–39. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  2. Bays, Daniel H. (2012). A New History of Christianity in China. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 4–16. ISBN 9781405159555. OCLC 707263763. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  3. Kwok Pui-lan (May 2016). "Postcolonial Intervention in Political Theology". Political Theology. 17 (3): 223–225. doi:10.1080/1462317x.2016.1186443. ISSN 1462-317X.
  4. Brook, Timothy (1996). "Christianity Under the Japanese Occupation". In Bays, Daniel H. Christianity in China: From the eighteenth century to the present. Stanford: Stanford University Press. p. 334. ISBN 9780804736510. OCLC 33983799. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  5. Liu Tongsu; Wang Yi (2012). Guan kan Zhongguo cheng shi jia ting jiao hui [Observations on the China's house churches in cities]. Taipei: Ji wen she Chuban. pp. 37–45. ISBN 9789868637962. OCLC 829939895. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  6. Chow, Alexander (May 2014). "Calvinist Public Theology in Urban China Today". International Journal of Public Theology. 8 (2): 158–175. doi:10.1163/15697320-12341340. ISSN 1569-7320.
  7. Bays, Daniel H. (2012). A New History of Christianity in China. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 192–193. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  8. "A Call to Fidelity to the Church". www.cardinalkungfoundation.org. Retrieved 2017-12-18.
  9. "Speech Of Ignatius Cardinal Kung". www.cardinalkungfoundation.org. Retrieved 2017-12-18.
  10. "An Interview with Cardinal Kung". www.cardinalkungfoundation.org. Retrieved 2017-12-18.
  11. Billioud, Sebastien; Joel Thoraval (2015). The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China. Oxford University Press. p. 201. ISBN 0190258144. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  12. Jiang Qing (2012). A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China's Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-15460-0. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  13. Sapio, Flora (7 October 2015). "Carl Schmitt in China". The China Story. Retrieved 15 December 2017.
  14. "Zhibin Xie". www.ctinquiry.org. Retrieved 15 December 2017.
  15. Mauldin, Josh (30 June 2015). "Zhibin Xie Interview". Fresh Thinking. Retrieved 15 December 2017.
  16. Zhuo Xinping (2014). "Chinization: The Essential Path to Renewal for Christianity in China" (PDF). Chinese Theological Review. 26: 73–79.
  17. Documents of the Three-Self Movement. New York: National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. 1963. pp. 19–20. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  18. "95 Theses: The Reaffirmation of Our Stance on the House Church". China Partnership. Retrieved 27 November 2017.

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