A week or so ago, in one of the final classes of the fourth year history seminar on Christianity in China that I am currently taking, the professor, in an apparent effort to coax us into some critical thinking, posed these questions; “Did Christianity become a Chinese religion? And if so, when and how did this happen?” The answers that we came up with in class included when the first Chinese person converted to Christianity, when the first independent churches (meaning churches that were not controlled by foreign missionaries) were established, and when Christianity was indigenized (meaning transformed by existing factors in Chinese culture to create a form of Christianity unique to China).
The prof was obviously not asking whether or not Christianity had assumed a Chinese identity. The focus of the religion is on the relationship between the individual and their church and through it, their relationship with Jesus Christ. Whether or not a state or a society identifies itself as Christian has no bearing on the nature of Christianity or the Christian identity of the individual. Christianity, by its nature and design, can never belong to any one state or society. So what my professor really must have been asking was whether or not China had become Christian, or rather, had Christianity become part of the concept of ‘China’.
But here is my problem; I don’t believe there is any such thing as ‘China.’ I do believe in existence of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China. Both exist as states in established legal terms that allow us to understand them in a standardised way. Both states define themselves as including more people and territory than they are actually capable of using force to control, but, nonetheless, both their legal definitions and the limits of their physical power can be understood by different people, citizens and non-citizens alike, in precisely the same way. Neither the ROC or the PRC or even the PRC and ROC equal China though. China is a concept which is supposed to span space (the territory of the PRC and the ROC, and possibly much more or possibly much less) and time (6000 years, according to some, but again, possibly much more or less) and includes a whole host of supposedly Chinese cultural concepts. A concept of China exists in each of our imaginations, but what that concept is fluctuates so much from person to person that it is essentially valueless for the purpose of discussion. If each of us were to state our definitions of what ‘China’ refers to, I suspect that the only points that we could all agree on are that it refers generally to a large part of the eastern hump of the Eurasian continent and that it has existed in time since somewhere between the time when the first homo sapiens came to the area and the establishment of the Qin Empire.
The PRC’s government has tried very hard to harmonise their citizen’s concept of China, and have had some success. Most PRC citizens seem to agree that something called ‘Tibet’ is part of China and has been since at least the 1240s. The island of Taiwan, they also seem to agree, has been part of China since at least 1662. Cantonese is supposedly a Chinese language and Zheng Chenggong is supposedly a Chinese hero. On some points, the matter becomes greyer. To return to the question of religion, the five institutionalised ‘religions’ in the PRC are Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, ‘Catholicism,’ and ‘Protestantism’ (the latter two, according to the state, are supposedly two separate religions). In my interpretation, at least, by picking these religions the state is suggesting that they are more a part of China than, say, Judaism or Hinduism, both of which have adherents who are PRC citizens. But, based on my own discussions with a small sample of PRC citizens, there seems to be more than a few that would hesitate to say that either Islam or Christianity are parts of China or Chinese culture.
When discussions that require a shared understanding of some aspect of China occur between PRC citizens and foreigners, the vagueness of the term becomes even starker. To bypass the obvious Taiwan and Tibet debates, the case of the two bronze animal heads recently auctioned by Christie’s provides a good example. In the opinion of the PRC’s government, the two bronze animal heads had rightfully belonged to the Qing state, and had been stolen. The Qing state is gone, but the ROC succeeded the Qing state as the government of China, and then was succeeded itself by the PRC in 1949, making it the current and the sole government of China, and inheritor of all the rights and properties of every previous government of China, including ownership of the bronze statues in question. Christie’s obviously did not share this idea that China is a series of linked states succeeding one another, as they went ahead with the auction in spite of the PRC’s government’s denouncements and threats.
So, my conclusion is that unless we are prepared to accept the PRC’s definition of China, which appears to include Christianity, the question of whether or not Christianity is a Chinese religion cannot be answered, because China does not exist outside of our imaginations.