Christianity, Islam...
& Other “Western” Religions

Nestorian Stele
Erected in Chang’an (Tang Dynasty Capital) in 781

Matteo Ricci

Matteo Ricci’s missionary strategy was based on a long-term vision, along with a willingness to acculturate and adapt Catholic teachings in light of prevalent Chinese norms and traditions. That meant presenting a form of Christianity that was not narrowly bounded by European culture. ... However, not everybody was in agreement with Ricci’s accommodationist stance. Some of his successors, and even more their competitors, adopted increasingly aggressive strategies of proselytization and did not shy away from directly confronting ingrained Chinese beliefs and prevalent cultural practices. These differences in missionary strategy gradually developed into a full-blown dispute within the Catholic Church, known as the “rites controversy,” which pitted the proponents of accommodation and acculturation against those who took the opposing view. ... Within the Chinese context, the main issue under debate was whether it was allowable for converts to continue with traditional Chinese (particularly Confucian) observances, such as paying respects to Confucius, conducting customary funeral ceremonies, and performing ancestral rites. ... In the end, the battle was won by the opponents of acculturation and accommodation. ... The intransigent and supercilious attitudes displayed by the Europeans led to an erosion of imperial support for the missions and alienated many among the Chinese literati. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 220-1]
The Protestant missionary influx increased considerably after China’s defeat in the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), when the Qing government was forced to end its isolationist policies and ease the restrictions on Western missionaries operating in China. ... The Protestant missionaries saw themselves as positive agents of change that brought to China the benefits of progress and civilization. ...
Despite these positive developments, among many Chinese there was a lingering unease about the foreign missionary presence. The Chinese felt slighted by Western arrogance — often mixed with racist attitudes — and upset about the unequal treaties forced onto China by the threat of guns. The presence of colonial concession on Chinese territory, the granting of privileged extraterritorial status to Westerners, and their economic exploitation and ill-treatment of the Chinese further intensified the growth of anti-foreign sentiments. Much of that animosity was extended to the Christian missionaries, who were seen as a vanguard for the escalating encroachment into China by the Western colonizers and imperialists.

The simmering resentment of foreigners reached a boiling point during the violent Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901. A number of missionaries were massacred by the fanatical rebels, who were determined to cleanse China of all foreign influences. The peasant-based, anti-imperialist rebellion — that received tacit support from the Chinese elites — was totally suppressed by the Western armies (with Japan also joining the anti-Chinese alliance), which then turned their attention to the plunder and barbarous maltreatment of the local population. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 222-4]
Some of the influences of Protestant Christianity and their intersections with local Chinese traditions are exemplified by the Taiping movement, whose rebellion against the imperial government in the mid-nineteenth century threatened to topple the Qing dynasty. ... Having read some Christian tracts and passages from the Bible, Hong Xiuquan supposedly had a series of mysterious visions, which he understood to mean that God charged him with combating deviancy, including the falsehoods taught by Confucius, and destroying demonic forms of worship. Later Hong sought religious instructions from an American Baptist missionary. Before long, he embarked on a religious vocation as a messianic figure, preaching to ever increasing crowds of followers drawn to his personal charisma and egalitarian message of hope and redemption. ... After careful military preparations, in 1850 Hong Xiuquan and his followers started an armed rebellion against the Qing government, which they perceived as a demonic power that had to be obliterated in order to establish their Heavenly Kingdom. ... By 1853 the rebels captured the ancient capital of Nanjing, which they renamed Heavenly Capital (Tianjing) and turned into their seat of government. From there they ruled a fairly large area that included much of southern China. ... The Western powers initially claimed neutrality in China’s civil war, even as many Westerners were sympathetically inclined towards the Taipings and their ideas, especially in light of their perceived connection with Christianity. However, the Western colonial nations eventually decided that their political and economic interests were better served by propping up the weakened Qing government, which was seen as being preferable to the zealous and unpredictable rebels. As they learned more about Hong and his followers, Westerners also became dismayed by their fanaticism and outlandish theological positions, as evident in Hong’s commentaries on the Bible. That led them to the conclusion that what he preached, after all, was not authentic Christianity. The combined Chinese and Western forces won a string of victories and finally recaptured Nanjing in 1864. In the wake of the final defeat, the Chinese son of God was said to have committed suicide, thus ending his dream of establishing a heavenly kingdom on earth. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 224-6]
The earliest Muslims to enter China were Persian and Arabic merchants and emissaries, who arrived via established trade networks in the seventh-century during the Tang dynasty. A major entry point was the southern seaport of Guangzhou, which was home to a large community of expatriates, although Muslims also came to other ports in the South or entered from the northwest by way of the Silk Road. ... While most of the Muslim merchants were transient visitors, some of them settled in China, joining the sizable communities of immigrants from East and West Asia that thrived in some cities. There they established the earliest Muslim communities in China. Like other foreigners, the Muslims were mostly separated from the Chinese population, although some Muslim men married Chinese women. The lines of demarcation between the Muslim and native populations were reinforced by governmental regulations, which stipulated that foreigners should live in restricted urban zones and trade at specially designated markets. Muslim merchants retained substantial presence in China throughout the Tang-Song transition, especially in large urban centers that were involved in international trade. ... Despite the growing Muslim presence during this period, the native Chinese population, including the sociopolitical elites, had limited exposure to Islam and showed little interest in learning about it. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 227-8]
The second wave of Islamic entry into China occurred under Mongol rule during the thirteenth century, when there was a large increase in China’s Muslim population. The Mongols put an end to centuries of united Islamic rule by their capture of Bagdad in 1258 and the destruction of the Abbasid caliphate. Many of the descendants of Genghis Khan that settled in Central Asia converted to the Islamic faith, along with their Mongol followers. Under the Yuan dynasty in China, the Mongols employed a number of Muslims in their administration and encouraged Arabic and Persian immigration. ... There was a further increase in China’s settled Muslim population during the Ming era, along with its improved integration into Chinese society. Many Muslims became fully acculturated, coming to resemble the Han Chinese population by speaking Chinese and using Chinese names. Some Muslims had successful careers in the imperial bureaucracy, and there were many instances of intermarriage (which almost always involved a Muslim man and a Chinese woman). The best-known Muslim of the Ming era is Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433), who led the Chinese navy to a series of historic voyages. ... The westward expansion of the Qing empire, which by the eighteenth century came to incorporate large areas of Turkestan and other parts of Central Asia (what came to be known as the Xinjiang region), led to considerable increases in China’s Muslim population and its ethnic diversity. This contributed to the emergence of competing visions and interpretations of the meaning of being a Muslim in China (or Chinese Muslim), which persists to this day. There were some strands or orientations within Chinese Islam, typically prevalent in the Muslim heartlands of Northwest China, that at times harbored militant, separtist, or revivalist tendencies. Nevertheless, there were also syncretic and accommodationalist strands, usually representing urban-based versions of Islam that existed amidst the Han majority, which stressed the compatibility of their faith with mainstream Chinese culture. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 228-30]
Muslims in China often found (and still find) themselves in-between two worlds, having to balance dual loyalties to Islam and to China. On one hand, over the centuries Muslims have had to cope with external pressures to adapt and acculturate, exerted by a state or a dominant Chinese majority that habitually expect conformity to their norms and mores. Often that is juxtaposed with a desire to fit in and become part of mainstream society. Conversely, there have been a propensity among Muslims to affirm their cultural distinctiveness and retain a clear sense of fidelity to their religious beliefs and traditions. This has often led to Muslims adopting different patterns of behavior, one for the home or with other Muslims, and another for public interactions with the Chinese majority. ...
Notwithstanding such attempts at acculturation, there were also ongoing tensions and intermittent conflicts between the Chinese state and its Muslim populations. Muslims habitually resisted assimilatory pressures, especially the government’s efforts to bring them into the fold of China’s “civilizing” influence and make them accept mainstream mores. They were unwilling to adopt established Chinese values and cultural observances, such as ancestor worship and filial piety. At its core, the lingering sense of dissonance and disconnect from mainstream Chinese culture and institutions, felt by many Muslims, could be traced back to their distinctive worldview and unique way of life. ... Taken together, these fostered a sense of Muslim distinctiveness and led to the formation of communities that to a considerable degree were economically and socially disconnected from mainstream Chinese culture. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 230-2]