A New History of Christianity in China
Daniel H. Bays
Church Times Bookshop £22.50
THIS short, erudite, and accessible history of Chinese Christianity is set to become the best introduction available. As one who has been interrogating the origins of modern Chinese Christianity for more than 30 years, Professor Dan Bays is well-placed to guide us through its highways and byways.
The reader is taken from the first inklings of Christianity in China, through the rise and fall of the Jesuit mission in the 17th and 18th centuries, the wide variety of Protestant and Roman Catholic missions up until 1950, and into the home-grown expressions of Christian faith which have emerged in the past 30 years. Within the next half-century, there are likely to be more Chinese Christians than belong to any other ethnicity; so this reliable and fair-minded introduction is both timely and welcome.
Bays also helps readers to understand the newfound confidence of today’s Chinese Christians. Christianity forms a very visible part of the contemporary revival of Chinese religious life. Bays’s last chapter indicates the part that Chinese might play in the “arena of global Christianity”, the influences of Chinese popular religion on local Christians, and the vicissitudes of Sino-Vatican relations. The book’s illustrations provide welcome visual glimpses into Chinese worship and the legacies of the missionary past.
If I have a difficulty with this book, it is that it provides little space for Chinese Christians to speak for themselves. There are occasional individuals who rise out of the historical narrative, such as the evangelist Marcus Chen Chonggui; but such cases are few and far between. As the title suggests, this work is historical rather than theological; so Bays has avoided spelling out the debates that divide modern Chinese Christians.
Liao Yiwu’s new book, God is Red, might helpfully be read alongside this one, as it records the personal stories of rural Chinese Christians living through decades of repression and into the new openness. These caveats aside, Bays ably guides us through the dynamics that continue to shape one of today’s fastest-growing Christian communities.
Lawrence Braschi is Director of the China Desk at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.