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China’s growing Church

04 January 2012

Lawrence Braschi reads a historian’s study


A New History of Christianity in China
Daniel H. Bays

Wiley-Blackwell £24.99
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.

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