October 19, 2011 | Myrna Anderson

Daniel Bays has written the first comprehensive history of Christianity in China since 1929.

Christianity made it to China a lot earlier than people once believed, said history professor Daniel Bays. Until now, the most authoritative book on the subject, the one still used in classrooms, was authored in 1929. It was a history of missions in China, and though it remains a good source, it is not a comprehensive one, Bays said: “The history of missions in China and the history of Chinese Christianity are two different things.”

Last week, Bays celebrated the release of his new book A New History of Christianity in China. “It’s the first book I’ve written that people have said, ‘Great—at last! I’m definitely going to use this as a text in class.’”

Pre-missions history

Bays’ book explores the period before Western countries first established missions in China: He writes about the first-known Christians in China, Nestorians—adherents of the Church of the East—who entered the country in the seventh century. (Mongol ruler Ghengis Khan married his sons to Nestorian Christians.) The Chinese Nestorians were followed in the 15th century by Jesuits from Italy and Spain. “The ones who came to China were trained in the latest mathematics and astronomy. They were impressive,” Bays said, adding that they also made a significant number of converts.

He called Chinese Christianity “an entirely Catholic show” until the advent of the Protestant missions in 19th century. With the coming of communism to China in the 1950s, the missionaries were expelled. “Many people were pessimistic about the church in China,” Bays said. When the country opened up following the death of Mao Tse Tung, however, the West found Christianity flourishing there.

East is east

European and American Christianity has always misunderstood Chinese Christianity, said Bays: “The attitude toward missions until fairly recently was that the model of Christianity was in the West, and as Christianity spread itself around the globe, it would follow the pattern established in the West,” he said. “It was typical that missionaries would assume that the Chinese who became Christians would follow their pattern.”

Instead, Chinese Christianity has patterned itself on Chinese culture. “Chinese Christianity is more group oriented. They concentrate on the conversion of whole families,” Bays said. The Chinese form of belief may incorporate cultural elements, such as ancestor worship, that make Western Christians uncomfortable, he said. And Christianity in China—like Christianity in the West—pursues some weird tangents.

Western Christians also misunderstand the political climate in which Chinese Christians live in the present day, Bays said. “Christianity is legal in China. The authorities don’t really care what people believe. They care what people do.” Many Chinese Christians are comfortable attending state-controlled churches, he said, and some worship in unregistered house churches. The state allows persecution on the local level. “It’s very arbitrary,” Bays said. However, Christianity is getting more visible in China and more willing to fight for its rights. “There are a lot of Christian lawyers in China,” he said. “A lot of human rights lawyers.”

Founding the field

Bays first became interested in Chinese Christianity as a history professor at the University of Kansas in the 1970s. He earned a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to research in that area. In 1996, he collected 20 essays on the history of Christianity in China in a book titled Christianity in China from the 18th Century to the Present. It was a project that brought a lot of scholars together and created a field. In 2000, Bays came to Calvin and began building the Asian Studies Program:

“Dan Bays is one of the world's leading scholars on the history of Christianity in China,” said professor of Chinese and Japanese languages Larry Herzberg. “His latest book on the subject is not only an important contribution, but is extremely interesting and readable.”

Bays hopes the book will fuel an interest in China: “For Christians, it should be of interest because it’s one of the places Christianity is booming in numbers, in self-confidence,” he said. “China has a lot to offer the world.”

Bays book cover

History professor Daniel Bays

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