Page 1 of 2 Two tormented Chinese Catholic souls
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - In China, it is now trendy to wear a cross, hanging from a small
chain at the neck and fully exposed on the chest. The cross might be made of
wood, metal or, even, silver or gold or with precious stones. However, the
cross is not always worn for the sake of fashion. While it may be worn as
jewelry, it is also worn by many as a religious statement.
Today, when asked about the meaning of the cross, the bearer might answer,
proudly and clearly, "Yes I am a Christian." Yet, after that pronouncement,
everything becomes blurred. Most people do not know the difference between
being Christian (jidujiao in China refers to Protestants) and being
Catholic, or of the various branches of the Protestant faith.
A Chinese government estimate puts the total number of Chinese
"Christians" at 130 million, almost 10% of the population, and at least five
times the percentage of Christians (Protestants and Catholics) as when the
communists took power in China in 1949. Even taking into account the country's
population increase during the past 60 years, the absolute numbers of
Christians has grown immensely from the original 8 to 9 million in 1949.
However, when taking a closer look at these numbers there might, in fact, be
little change from 1949. The Catholics, even in their more optimistic
estimates, make up no more than 12 to 13 million, or about 1% of China'ís
population. Of note, this is the same percentage of Catholics as in 1949. The
rest of the Christians are Protestants or members of similar groups.
I conducted a small survey and found that many Chinese migrants in Italy, who
are free to express themselves, have become Jehovah's Witnesses. Many of these
people report converting to Christianity in their villages (they are mostly
from the Wenzhou area, in Zhejiang province) because a wandering pastor stopped
by their house and saved one sick relative through his prayers. In return, the
In the countryside, there are also many Mormons and Evangelicals. Most simply
follow the pastor they have met as a result of yuanfen, or fate .
Many of those pastors are self-taught, having only recently read a translation
of the Bible in Chinese, and the translation may be not be either accurate or
scholarly. To this very weak biblical basis they add their own preaching, which
is bound to draw more from local Chinese non-Christian lore than from the
Bible, simply because the Bible is not part of Chinese education or tradition.
Many pastors actually mix Christianity with Taoism and Buddhism.
Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons are considered, by Catholics, to be
pseudo-Christians and, thus, they might not be very different, theologically,
from Hong Xiuquan's Taipings, the religious sect that almost toppled the Qing
Dynasty in the middle of the 19th century.
The leader of the rebellion, Hong Xiuquan, claimed to be Jesus Christ's younger
brother, according to a vision he had after reading a partial translation of
the Bible in Chinese. He was responsible for organizing a religious movement
and creating a hierarchical church, where he was the chief leader and his
siblings and friends became senior officials. He also edited his own version of
At its peak, the tightly knit Taiping organization had millions of converts,
and some modern Christians might have sprung from that old, distorted Christian
sect while others might be heirs of the highly literate foreign Protestant
missionaries who flocked to China beginning in the 19th century. Different from
those churches of the past, modern Protestants are not organized into a single
vertical Church. As far as it is known, they also do not plan on bringing down
the government, they are not rebellious and do not want to establish a new
The government, mindful of the past Taiping history, might have been inclined
to suppress these new Christians, however, the Falungong, in 1999, changed the
order of the government's priorities.
Falungong in the firing line
On April 25, 1999, about 10,000 Falungong (a Taoist-Buddhist sect) followers
surrounded Zhongnanhai, China's White House, in a show of force as they
demanded greater political power. Top Chinese leaders had no warning from their
security agencies, and were caught completely by surprise. They later learned
the protest was organized, or abetted, by senior security officials.
Government officials became suspicious that the protest might have been part of
some kind of attempted putsch supported by the most conservative, xenophobic
wing of the Communist Party and aimed at stopping the ongoing process of
reforms. In fact, the Falungong are opposed to modern science and medicine,
adhering to an old line of Chinese tradition, and they claim that diseases do
not exist, but are manifestations of sins. Thus, without sins there would be no
sickness. The Falungong, with a very structured organization modeled after the
Communist Party, with cells, a central committee and politburo, claimed to have
100 millions supporters.
"The fact that so many people believed in this mumbo-jumbo changed the debate
in the party. It proved that it was not that reforms were going too fast; the
problem was that reforms were going too slowly," a senior official told me in
Additionally, the protest proved there was a "spiritual market" outside of the
party's reach. Following Mao Zedong's demise, the party had forsaken all claims
to total "spiritual" answers. The party had long stopped preaching "dialectic
materialism" as some kind of religion, as it had during the Cultural Revolution
(1966-1976). This had created a huge spiritual void and, by the early 1980s,
China was rife with all kinds of breathing exercises, called Qigong, and
derived from ancient Chinese tradition. These exercises all assured better
health and many went as far as promising miracles and immortality. The
Falungong was born in these traditions. Now, people who had lost all faith in
eternal communism, and with traditional Confucian values shattered by decades
of Maoism, turned to Qigong. And following the crackdown on Falungong, many
former Qigong practitioners turned their religious interests to Christianity
"with Chinese characteristics", and with the blessings of government officials
who preferred Christianity to Falungong.
At first glance, those disorganized, scattered Christians were less of a threat
to party rule than one organized church (whatever its creed) and they delved
less in mystic, millennial beliefs of the Daoist-Buddhist tradition, rife in
China since the times of the Yellow turbans (170-184 AD.), the uprising that
brought down the Han Dynasty.
Moreover, Christianity did not preach against science and modernity, as the
Qigong practices, deeply traditional Chinese and suspicious of modernity and
foreign ideas. In fact, the Western tradition proved that Christianity - of all
kinds - could work well, hand-in-hand with modernity and science. It was the
feasible and proven religious answer to the modern world. So China, just as it
had imported science and was importing "modernity", could also hope to import
the religion itself, ie Christianity.
In this process, as happened with modernity and "socialism", religion had to
adapt it to its "Chinese characters". Then, the work of its pastors would be
fully in line with this tradition, just as it was during the work of the
Jesuits, who rose to the top echelons of the Chinese imperial bureaucracy in
the 16th and 17th centuries.
In sum, many of these new Chinese Christians are part of some form of the new
converts to "modernity", which in China is tantamount to "Westernization", that
is, the American way of life. In other words, they pray to Jesus as they may
eat at McDonald's or at Kentucky Fried Chicken. But, as they cannot eat
hamburgers every day and cannot digest cheese and cannot stand its smell, so
they cannot take the whole "pure" overeducated Christianity and even the
"purely" American Presbyterians or Evangelicals are hard to swallow.
As in their food, they add soy sauce or rice vinegar, so here, in their
Evangelical faith, they may add their belief in Feng Shui (wind and
water, Chinese traditional geomancy) and the Yijing (ancient
However, as in food, there are real "gourmets" of faith. A whole legion of
Chinese, now in many seminaries, devoutly study Latin as they seek to become
Catholic or Protestant priests. These people take the old Chinese beliefs with
a grain of salt. They do not believe in the metaphysical power of Feng Shui,
but lend an ear to it when it concerns some of its more physical and
"realistic" aspects, such as recommending not to reside near polluted rivers
because of unclean air or the adage to build your house with its back to a high
mountain where it will be warmer in winter and protected from cold winds.
Can this tiny Catholic minority in China, which is, anyway, more numerous than
Catholics in staunchly Catholic Ireland, be the backbone of a new worldwide
Catholicism? Now, more than ever, only God knows. These Chinese Catholics have
a very strong faith because they have converted twice; they accepted a
religious belief that was strange to them (the Catholic faith) and have also
accepted a culture and rituals totally foreign to them. All the rituals of the
mass and of the life of the church were distilled through at least 30 centuries
of Western tradition, as Catholicism inherited the Jewish, Greek and Roman
traditions, and even the language of the church is Latin. These are all foreign
things to the Chinese people and culture.
This double conversion is at the heart of the ancient problem of China and
Catholics. Non-Catholic Chinese may be indifferent, or even sympathetic, to the
"simple" conversion to the Catholic faith, but the total conversion to a
foreign culture is a different matter. Furthermore, for the sake of world
culture, the idea of "cultural conversion" is not correct. A cultural
conversion of all Chinese people would result in a very important cultural loss
to the world: the Chinese. Everybody would lose out; first, the Chinese and
second, the rest of the world.
Besides, the possibility of converting the culture of all-Chinese is simply
impossible and self-defeating. The Chinese culture is too strong, too ancient,
too entrenched, and attempts for mass "erasure" with a new culture would
backfire. Therefore, either Catholics limit themselves to convert a tiny
minority of "religious connoisseurs" or, if they have bolder ambitions, they
have to first convert the "Catholic culture" into a Chinese mold. This was
first attempted by the Jesuits who worked as true "translators" of culture, as
they brought Western ideas to China and Chinese ideas to the West.
In this, it is important to consider religion separately and in two parts.
There is the kernel of belief about divinity and there is the cultural wrapping
that enables the delivery and the acceptance of the belief. These differences
are not absolute, they can be reconciled once the different cultures are fully
understood and "translated". But this translation work has, presently, been
This is not a theoretical issue, but is very practical as it trickles down to
present day Chinese Catholics, split between the official and underground
church, with many people caught in-between. This is also a political issue,
though not simply a political issue.
Very briefly, in 1951 the Holy See and the newly founded People's Republic of
China broke diplomatic ties. To ensure the party's control over religion, China
established "patriotic associations" to oversee all major religions. These
associations were designed to keep the local religions independent of foreign
influence. The move aroused little controversy, as many Chinese remembered that
foreign religions had been used, at times, as instruments by colonial powers.
Isolated from Rome, but with its hierarchy basically intact, the Chinese
Catholics held on, as they were mostly deployed in the patriotic associations.
Some of them might have found solace in the fact that Jesus had commanded: "To
Caesar what is of Caesar's, to God what is of God's." The patriotic Catholics
then remained loyal to Rome on religious matters, but bowed to the communist
state for all else. Even so, all Catholics suffered, at one point or another,
at the hands of the Maoist government and remained unreconciled between their
two souls, one Chinese and one Catholic.
In the time of the Cold War, Rome had no inclination to look for compromises,
and the hostility was warmly reciprocated in Beijing. In this situation, as the
local clergy grew old and many elderly bishops had died, Pope John Paul II
granted the Chinese Church, in the 1980s, the privilege of a "special
condition". Thus, under conditions of duress and with clear difficulties in
communicating with Rome, Chinese Catholics could appoint their own bishops
without consultation with the pope.
This privilege allowed the underground church to appoint its own bishops who,
then, were not recognized by Beijing. However, the privilege was also called on
by the patriotic association that appointed its own bishops who were, at times,
not recognized by the pope.
In reality, as the years went by, the situation became confusing due to many
gray areas. Most newly appointed bishops were, in