In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Christianity in China

  • Introduction
  • World Christianity, Missions, and Christianity in Asia
  • Surveys and Topical Studies
  • Journals and Periodicals
  • Research Guides and Bibliographies
  • Biographical Dictionaries and Collections
  • Christian Dialogue with Chinese Religions
  • Translations and Interpretations of the Bible and Christian Texts
  • History and Theory of the Field
  • Nestorians and Christianity to 1500
  • Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao
  • Christianity in China’s Foreign Relations

Chinese Studies Christianity in China
Charles W. Hayford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0104


In the early 21st century, Christianity in China is a diverse, growing, and small but resilient force. Estimates vary, but one informed report speculates that the number of Christians is perhaps 5 percent of the population, in any case giving China one of the largest Christian populations in the world. Historically, like Buddhism in earlier times and Marxism in the 20th century, both of which also came from outside China, Christianity has become Chinese in many forms: as doctrine and theology, as institutions, as communities, and as spiritual experience. In the 16th century, the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci argued for a Sino-Christian synthesis based on the natural theology that God had placed in Confucian classics as well as the Bible. After the emperor proscribed Christianity and expelled foreign missions in 1724, Catholic village communities grew by melding Christianity into local Chinese religions. In the century after the Opium Wars of the 1840s, Protestant and Catholic missionaries and Chinese Christians established a network of churches, seminaries, schools, universities, hospitals, and publishing houses, which all made key contributions to the emerging Chinese nation. At the same time, independent Chinese evangelicals attracted large followings based on their own readings of the Bible. After 1949 the new People’s Republic of China once again expelled foreign missions and campaigned to suppress or control all religions except officially sanctioned groups. Yet the number of Christians still rose, mainly in the countryside. When the post-1978 reforms brought a loss of faith in Marxism and a spiritual crisis, Catholic and mainline Protestant churches thrived, as did “underground churches,” but the fastest growing groups were independent evangelicals and Pentecostals, again especially in the countryside. In short, over the centuries there have been many and often competing Chinese Christianities. For many millions, Christianity was a spiritual experience and daily practice which gave meaning to life. Doubters saw Christianity as a foreign religion incompatible with Chinese culture, while China’s rulers, both before and after the 1949 revolution, assumed that it was their responsibility to regulate all religions, especially ones they saw as foreign. Nationalists charged that Christianity entered China by what they called imperialist “gunboat diplomacy,” accused converts of being “rice Christians,” and charged that “one more Christian is one less Chinese.” In recent decades, perhaps no other field in Chinese studies has changed more than the study of Christianity. The earliest scholars, often missionaries or their sympathizers, wrote reverentially of struggles to create a Chinese church and plant the seeds of Christianity. Recent scholarship centers on Chinese Christianities as independent and authentic entities, not as versions of western Christianity; on missions as part of Chinese society; on grassroots communities that practice Christianity as a Chinese folk or popular religion; on Christianities which enlarge rather than replace Chinese identities; and on lived experience as much as on orthodoxy and doctrine.

World Christianity, Missions, and Christianity in Asia

This section provides background and comparisons for the study of Christianity in China. Gilley and Stanley 2006 and McLeod 2006 are magisterial volumes in the Cambridge History of Christianity, each containing energetic and well-informed articles on Christian institutions, movements, and social and cultural impact in all parts of the world. Fang 2008 is a pioneering survey based on wide readings in Chinese sources. Dunch 2002 incisively critiques the theory of “cultural imperialism” that emphasized Western power rather than Chinese creative adaptation. Hutchison 1987 lays out the theological issues behind American foreign missions in general. The useful discussions of the sociology of religion in Goossaert and Palmer 2011 provide a framework of analysis for religion in Chinese society. Moffett 1998–2005 is a comprehensive survey of Christianity in Asia.

  • Dunch, Ryan. “Beyond Cultural Imperialism: Cultural Theory, Christian Missions, and Global Modernity.” History and Theory 41.3 (2002): 301–325.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-2303.00208

    Argues that the concept “cultural imperialism” wrongly assumes that cultures cannot change without losing authenticity. The concept reduces two-way interactions that change both sides and create new forms to a dichotomy between an imposing West and a passive East.

  • Fang Hao 方豪. Zhong-xi jiaotong shi (中西交通史). 2 vols. Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2008.

    English title: History of East-West Relations. A pioneering Chinese survey of East-West relations, originally published in Taibei, 1953, which places Christian interchange in an overall context.

  • Gilley, Sheridan, and Brian Stanley, eds. World Christianities, C. 1815–C. 1914. Vol. 8 of The Cambridge History of Christianity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Stimulating scholarly essays on all regions of the world. Topics range from the papacy, theology, and voluntary religion, to musical trends, the Bible, and literature. See Part I, “Christianity and Modernity” (pp. 13–217), Part II, “The Churches and National Identities” (pp. 217–429), and Part III, “The Expansion of Christianity” (pp. 429–601), which includes Daniel H. Bays and James H. Grayson’s chapter “Christianity in East Asia, China, Korea and Japan” (pp. 493–513).

  • Goossaert, Vincent, and David A. Palmer. The Religious Question in Modern China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226304182.001.0001

    This collaboration of a historian and a sociologist sets Christianity alongside Buddhism, Islam, and Chinese popular religion in the context of China’s century-long search for a new “spiritual center of gravity” to replace the “religio-political state” destroyed when the Chinese empire fell in the early 20th century.

  • Hutchison, William R. Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

    The history, social basis, and changing debates in Protestant America on the theological and practical justifications for foreign missions. Missions in China play a large role.

  • McLeod, Hugh, ed. World Christianities C. 1914–C. 2000. Vol. 9 of The Cambridge History of Christianity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521815000

    Like Gilley and Stanley 2006, contains rich essays on the institutional, theological, and cultural challenges in all parts of the world: Part I, “Institutions and Movements”(pp. 29–130); Pt II, “Narratives of Change,”—such as the world wars, decolonization, and struggles around racism—(pp. 131–470), including Richard Fox Young, “East Asia” (pp. 450–470); Pt III, “Social and Cultural Impact” (pp. 471–648).

  • Moffett, Samuel H. A History of Christianity in Asia. 2d rev. and corrected ed. 2 vols. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998–2005.

    Volume I covers beginnings to 1500, Volume II, 1500 to 1900. Chapters in each volume go into detail on the countries of East, Southeast, and South Asia, with abundant notes and references.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.