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Christian Persecution in China

Instructor: James Moeller
Christianity has had a rough road since it first arrived in China in the 7th century. Depending on who was in charge, the religion has been embraced, tolerated or outright banned. Let's look at how the persecution of Christianity has evolved over the years.

Early Church Establishment and Formation

Contact between Christian missionaries and the Chinese people was first established during the Tang dynasty in the 7th century, according to writings on the Nestorian Stele. (A ''Stele'' is a large stone with writing on it, and is kind of an ancient billboard.) The Nestorian Stele, which dates to 781, chronicles the arrival of Christian missionaries in China in 635, hundreds of years after Christianity first began. This is probably due to both distance from Europe and the Middle East, as well as the closed nature of China at that time.

Tradition states that two monks of the Nestorian Order, who were spreading Christianity in India, crossed over into China and began their missionary work there. After the establishment of the Christian church, it did not take long for persecution to rear its ugly head. In 845, Emperor Wuzong decreed that Christianity be banned within his empire, and that all church assets be forfeited to the state. By the 13th century, the Mongols were in control of China via the Yuan Dynasty. The Mongols, however, were much more open to Christianity, even to the point of their wives being Christians themselves. This pattern of persecution, re-establishment, and more persecution is a major theme in Chinese history. It was also during this period that envoys of the pope arrived in China to spread Catholicism.

British drawing of the Nestorian Stele. The Nestorian Stele dates to 781 but was not rediscovered in China until 1625.
Nestorian Stele

Middle Ages to the 19th Century

After the pope's emissaries arrived, a Franciscan Mission was established along with that of the Nestorians'. However, in 1368, the Ming Dynasty took over. The Ming wanted nothing to do with Christianity, and the Christian missions were closed and all Christians expelled. This persecution was codified with the primary law stating that Christianity was illegal in China.

The Ming Dynasty was followed by the arrival of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), which saw one of the largest influxes of Christian missionary efforts. The Russian Orthodox Church arrived in 1715, and Protestants came in 1807. It seemed as though nearly every major branch of Christianity was active in China. One of the most famous missionaries, J. Hudson Taylor, came to China during this time and established the China Inland Mission in 1865. From 1859 to about 1911, there were about 8,500 protestant missionaries operating in China. Sadly, all this was about to come to a grinding halt.

Communist China to Modern Times

After a protracted war with the Nationalist Chinese in what is known today as the Chinese Civil War (1925-1949), the Communist Party took power, with Mao Zedong becoming China's leader. ''Chairman Mao'' was no friend of the church and discouraged any kind of religious activity. What essentially replaced the Christian Church is what many historians refer to as The Cult of Mao. Chairman Mao's sayings and quotes were put down in a small tome known as ''Mao's Little Red Book.'' Nearly everyone carried it and there were many photos taken of enormous groups of people reading lines of the book in unison. Essentially, Chairman Mao was the new God.

Red Guard soldiers holding Little Red Books during the Cultural Revolution.

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