Characteristics of Chinese Traditional Christianity, Reflection on Its History in Terms of 2020 US Presidential Election

A cross on the grass
A cross on the grass (photo:
By Li DaonanFebruary 3rd, 2021

From 2020 to now, if we put the major global events in a sequence, I think the top two must be COVID and the American presidential election.

The impact of COVID is not yet eliminated, and the US election is over. Still, the result of the election is not the end - the follow-up influence will inevitably appear gradually. Since the impact of these two events on the world can affect all aspects of life, Christianity can't stand outside its shadow either. The pandemic has weakened Christianity's influence, which is absolutely different from Christianity's rise, caused by plagues at the Roman Empire. During the COVID, Christianity has had more negative than positive news. Its social influence is gradually fading because of its slow response to the crisis. While the American election went on, President Trump, who Christians elected, performed improperly and consequently brought about division to Christianity as a whole.

Dickens' words may be more appropriate to describe this era, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of ambiguity, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness. It was the spring of hope. It was the winter of despair. We had everything before us. We had nothing before us. We were all going direct to Heaven. We were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so. Far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

For traditional Christianity, this is not a good time because the once fervent religious enthusiasm has almost become extinguished due to the pandemic and the defeat of Trump in 2020. Meanwhile, traditional Christianity has also come to an end era in a mixture of good and bad times. Whether orthodox Christianity can have its revival moment depends on the adjustment and change of conventional Christianity itself. However, we should not hold too much hope for the adjusting and change because traditional Christianity has formed an enclosed system. No one wants to shake their own interests. The solidification of parts also makes it impossible to transform orthodox Christianity to adapt to society.

On the other hand, the history of traditional Chinese Christianity has distinct characteristics of people and regions' times and distinctive features. So, the derivatives of that era are bound to become history, with that era coming to an end.

After China's reform and opening-up, the number of Chinese Christians increased dramatically since it allowed normal religious activities. Now there are at least 30 million believers and at most 50 to 60 million. The number of believers mainly formed before the trend of migrant workers in the 1980s and 1990s. However, most of these believers were from the countryside because the countryside was sacrificed to supplement the city in the past industrialization process. Therefore, in medical treatment, culture and education, old-age care, entertainment, etc., rural areas' development has always lagged behind cities' process.  Other religions were almost eradicated in the past constant social movements. This provided a broad room for the spread of Christianity in rural China. That was why the majority of Chinese Christians had a rural background.

Because the population mainly lived-in rural areas, the following were considered Chinese people's motives for joining Christianity.


This motive was only characteristic of the businessmen in the 1980s who did business by improper means of producing fake and inferior commodities. However, their inner morality and conscience became tense and uneasy, so they joined Christianity to alleviate this torture of conscience. Mainly small businessmen and generally aged over 60, they were keen believers and were financially generous to the church.


Due to the shortage of materials and the lack of entertainment as well as spiritual and cultural development in China's rural areas in the 1980s and 1990s, Christian gatherings had become an almost irreplaceable entertainment project in rural areas, especially Christmas carols and Spring Festival church services, indispensable entertainment opportunities for villagers. This also attracted many people to join Christianity, especially women.

Curing diseases

The introduction of medical insurance to rural regions was only a matter of recent years. In the 1980s and 1990s, the medical cost in rural areas was surprisingly high. As the medical technology was not developed and well introduced at that time, performing healing was brought into play, which absorbed many believers.

Caring for the aged

Like the medical burden, caring for the aged in rural areas was too weighty. Some elderly believers regarded the visiting that the church had done as a facility of care.

The distribution of believers determined the characteristics of pastors.

Most of them came from the countryside and a few from cities. Regarding geography, the north Huaihe River area was the central place where pastors came from, followed by the southeast coastal region. The evangelists in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River accounted for a small proportion. This was probably because the material life in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, especially in the Yangtze River Delta, was abundant with fewer or no natural disasters and wars, and cultural precipitation being rich. This determined the structural characteristics of traditional Chinese Christianity.

Pastors were mainly below the level of junior high school. The proportion of pastors who had high school and university education was very tiny.

Among the pastors who graduated from colleges, very few had bachelor's degrees or above. Most of them obtained certificates, not degrees. They mainly believed in the Lord while studying at their colleges and then took part in church services. After graduation, they became leaders of certain gathering places or professional pastors and lacked social experiences and sophistication.

They were male-dominated evangelists. It seemed to be natural to be prejudiced against women. In some extreme denominations, there were even open stipulations that women couldn't become pastors. This ran the opposite way to the general trend of gender equality in society.

The professional characteristics, such as stability, ease, popularity, status, and power, became the main factors in attracting young graduates to join a church and become its pastors. These characteristics caused the pastor to gradually isolate himself from society after entering a church. As time went by and they got older, they gradually became dependent on the church and could not leave the church. Since then, churches were gradually controlled by pastors.

The characteristics of believers and pastors determined the structure and development of traditional Chinese Christianity.

The tension between church and society was increasing significantly when the urbanization process was accelerating. Material l life in rural areas was improving. Electrical appliances were well introduced. The national medical system was well established, culture and entertainment became increasingly diversified. Christianity, which was based on the past tradition, lagged behind social development, so its tension increased. Now, the church tends to be more passive than ever, losing self-confidence. As a response, they have become gradually enclosed and conservative.

Castling Tulou is a building style typical in the southeast coast, and dock castle is a north building style. The courts were used as military defense facilities, which meant that the castle's residents were a blood community. The naming of these villages used to attach a surname as a prefix, for example, Lijiazhai (Li's Castle), Baolou (Bao's Mension), and Liujiabao (Liu's Castle).

Christianity, which was based on rural society, obviously inherited this characteristic. The church became a fortress and a military unit.  It often lacked trust in other churches or people outside the church. Believers of the church called themselves the best soldiers of Christ. They formed a paramilitary unit with the pastor as the leader.

This kind of castling characteristic determined the member structure and mobility characteristics within the church. Marriage within a church was obviously the preferred and encouraged behavior. Marriage with other churches was also allowed, but it would bring the danger of membership reduction, so it was best to marry within a church group. Over time, it leads to an exclusive membership, and the whole group's mentality was gradually lowered.

There is a stern emphasis on obedience, the wife obeying her husband, the husband obeying the pastor, and the pastor following the Holy Spirit, who came from the church leader. In this way, a paramilitary system was established.

This was the continuation of the characteristics of castling. To defend and obtain the maximum survival and security resources, the connection between tulou and castles must be established in a relationship surpassing blood relationship to facilitate defense and attack. This was the blood culture of northern castling people who recognized each other as brothers even though they had no blood ties.

The Christian team's emergence was the reappearance of this castling relationship - forming a larger church entity to develop more entity churches and occupy more territory and resources.

The origin of believers, the culture and motivation of pastors, and the fortress's quasi-military structure determined that the church became an entity of secular interest rather than a spiritual entity. This characteristic decided that the number of believers and economic income became critical for measuring success or failure. In the pulpit, the pastor praised Jesus passionately, emphasizing obedience. In contrast, he tried his best to attract people to his church to the pulpit and increased its economic income. 

The characteristics of traditional Christian doctrine was mainly based on Paul's letters and the Old Testament. Paul's letters emphasized hierarchy, obedience, men's superiority over women, and the difference between Gentiles and the chosen people. The Old Testament stressed the worship of money and power as a measure of God's favor. On this basis, the traditional Christian theology of prosperity was formed with influence, energy, and money as the criteria to measure a church's performance.

In theological structure, Gnostic dualistic system: spirituality vs. worldliness, body vs. soul, church vs. Gentiles.

Based on the above characteristics, the Christian church formed its own set of entirely independent moral value system. That is, it can do anything in the name of God, and obtaining money, fame, and power in the name of God was not bound by the Gentiles' social, moral system.

The unique believer base and missionary characteristics of Christianity determined its own styles and limitations. Of course, such a church group can't say that they completely abandoned Jesus' teaching, but in fact, the content of Paul's letters and the Old Testament in traditional church preaching and teaching were obviously high above Jesus' teaching.

Therefore, we seem to have found the crux of traditional Christianity, that is, we are far away from Jesus' teaching and misunderstand the historical characteristics of Jesus' teaching.

However, how to understand Jesus is still an insurmountable wall on the road of Christian development.

With Trump's defeat, the traditional Christian era has come to an end, but this does not mean that the faith in Jesus has also had the same fate. In fact, the influence of Jesus has been throughout history for more than two thousand years. Any significant social change can see the shadow of Jesus' teaching. It is that Jesus' thought never appears in the form of religions.

Only when the Christian era is over can Jesus enter the public eye. As for the form, it is not what religion can explain. However, a basic logic can be made clear: Jesus' faith will replace the Old Testament and Christianity based on Paul's letters.

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and should not be understood to represent the views of China Christian Daily.)

- Translate by Charlie Li

related articles