Christianity in China appeared in the 7th century, during the Tang dynasty, but did not take root until it was reintroduced in the 16th century by Jesuit missionaries. It comprises Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals and a small number of Orthodox Christians. The word “Christianity” is often used to refer to protestantism in China. Protestantism was introduced into China successively before and after the opium war.

History of Chinese Christianity

The first documentation of Christianity entering China was written on an 8th-century stone tablet known as the Nestorian Stele. It records that Christians reached the Tang dynasty capital Xi’an in 635 and were allowed to establish places of worship and to propagate their faith. The leader of the Christian travelers was Alopen.

In 845, at the height of the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, Emperor Wuzong decreed that Buddhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism be banned, and their very considerable assets forfeited to the state. Some Christian gravestones are dated from the Song and Liao dynasties, implying that some Christians remained in China. 

Christianity was a major influence in the Mongol Empire, as several Mongol tribes were primarily Nestorian Christian, and many of the wives of Genghis Khan’s descendants were Christian. Contacts with Western Christianity also came in this time period. 

Further waves of missionaries came to China in the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty (1644–1911) as a result of contact with foreign powers. Russian Orthodoxy was introduced in 1715 and Protestants began entering China in 1807. The pace of missionary activity increased considerably after the First Opium War in 1842. Christian missionaries and their schools, under the protection of the Western powers, went on to play a major role in the Westernization of China in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Subdivision of the Christian community

Official organizations—the Chinese Protestant Church and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church

The Protestant Three-Self Church and China Christian Council, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church, are the three centralised and government-approved Christian institutions which regulate all local Christian gatherings, all of which are required to be registered under their auspices.

Chinese Independent Churches

The Chinese Independent Churches are a group of Christian institutions that are independent from Western denominations. They were established in China in the late 19th and early 20th century, including both the Little Flock or Church Assembly Hall and True Jesus Church. A significant amount of the house churches or unregistered congregations and meeting points of the Protestant spectrum, that refuse to join the Three-Self Church—China Christian Council, belong to the Chinese Independent Churches. Congregations of the Little Flock or the True Jesus Church tend to be uncooperative towards the Three-Self Church as to their principle it represents not only a tool of the government but also a different Christian tradition.

Unregistered Churches

Many Christians hold meetings outside of the jurisdiction of the government-approved organizations and avoid registration with the government and are often illegal. Protestant groups are usually known as house churches and Catholic groups are usually known as underground churches. Much of the Protestant house church movement dates back to the coerced unification of all Protestant denominations in the Three-Self Church in 1958. The Catholic underground churches are those congregations who remain fully faithful to the Pope in Rome and refuse to register as part of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church. There is often significant overlap between the membership of registered and unregistered Christian bodies, as a large number of people attend both registered and unregistered churches.

Chinese Orthodox Church

There are a small number of adherents of Russian Orthodoxy in northern China, predominantly in Harbin. The first mission was undertaken by Russians in the 17th century. Orthodox Christianity is also practiced by the small Russian ethnic minority in China. The Church operates relatively freely in Hong Kong (where the Ecumenical Patriarch has sent a metropolitan, Bishop Nikitas and the Russian Orthodox parish of St Peter and St Paul resumed its operation) and Taiwan (where archimandrite Jonah George Mourtos leads a mission church).

Korean Christianity

Chinese scholars of religion have reported that a large portion of the members of the networks of house or unregistered churches, and of their pastors, belong to the Koreans of China. Christianity has been an influential religion among the Korean people since the 19th century, and it has become the largest religion in South Korea after the division from the north in 1945. Christianity also has a strong presence in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, in the Jilin province of China. 

Heterodox Sects

In China there are also a variety of sects based on biblical teachings that are considered by the government as “heterodox”, such as Eastern Lightning and the Shouters. They primarily operate in a form similar to the “house churches”, small worship groups, outside of the state-sanctioned Three-Self Church, that meet in members’ homes. In the mid-1990s, Chinese government started to monitor these new religious movements, and prohibited them officially, so their activities soon turned underground.

How many Christians are in China today?

Christians in China tend to attend either government-controlled Three Self churches or underground churches. Official statistics are sparse for both but still sufficient to deduce the number of Christians in China today. 

During the World Council of Churches (WCC) Executive Committee meeting held in China November 17-23, 2016, China’s Three Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council reported that that number had risen to 38 million. There are 43.5 million baptized Three Self church Christians in China in 2018.

At a closed-door meeting at Peking University in 2006, Xiaowen Ye, the then head of the Chinese Communist Party’s Religious Affairs Bureau reported that Protestants in China numbered 110 million. About 234 million as the total number of Protestants in China in 2018.