Monday, December 14, 2009

Christianity in Taiwan and China: Disparate Straits

Expressway construction in Taichung.

AP recently ran an article on China's never ending quest to suppress Christianity. It observed:

Christians worshipping in China's independent churches are believed to number upwards of 60 million, compared with about 20 million who worship in the state church, according to numbers provided by scholars and church activists.

House churches have been around for decades, but their growth has accelerated in recent deades, producing larger and larger congregations that are far more conspicuous than the small groups of friends and neighbors that used to worship in private homes, giving the movement its name.

It is fascinating to compare China and Taiwan in this aspect. Although estimates of the actual number of Christians in China are notoriously difficult to pin down (wiki), there are probably around 60-80 million Christians in China, with rapid growth occurring there. Meanwhile in Taiwan, absolutely flooded with Christian missionaries, with Christian cable TV, and with excellent religious freedom, growth is far slower; indeed, it seems to be moribund. All of Taiwan's Presidents have been at least nominal Christians, with Lee Teng-hui being a fervent believer who used to give sermons in churches around the island whenever he had the chance (CORRECTION: Wrong! Chen was not a Christian). The mayor of Taipei even hosts prayer breakfasts, while the Vatican is probably the island's weightiest diplomatic ally. Yet, when you sit down and count, strikingly, Taiwan appears to have fewer Christians than China, a point backed by the figures at Wiki. After fifty years of evangelization by Mormons, there are probably still more Muslims than Mormons in Taiwan, and Muslims are not exactly notable for their public prosyletizing.

The reverse is also true. In the late 1990s, as I recall, China released a White Paper on religion that noted that well over 90% of the population practices some form of religion. After 50 years of official atheism China, atheism is higher in the religiously tolerant Chinese societies around China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, than in China itself!

It is easy to overestimate the growth of "Christianity" in China -- many of those "Christian" groups are syncretic cults -- but I think the lessons are obvious.
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11 comments:

Anonymous said...

After 50 years of official atheism China, atheism is higher in the religiously tolerant Chinese societies around China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, than in China itself!

I might point out that maybe these differences in experience and structure demonstrate that these aren't Chinese societies around China at all, but rather something else.

Thomas said...

My non-expert view is that it is the people who feel left behind that look for alternate forms of salvation. And, as it is becoming more and more difficult to deny, the "China miracle" seems to be leaving just as many people behind as it is elevating. And that is a lot of people.

Karaoke said...

A lot of people in Taiwan are really grounded in Taoism and Buddhism, beliefs that established Ba Gua Shan and the weeks-long Ma Chu festivals. A lot of early missionaries in Taiwan had success with the "Mountain People", Taiwan's earlier inhabitants, because they did not follow the Taoist of Buddhist traditions. It can be harder to change someone's belief than to teach a set of values to a person with a religious "blank slate", and the Chinese haven't had religious support in their lives in recent history. The Bible is still the most printed book in the world, and the most printed book in China in the past 10 years, regardless of government regulations.

Anonymous said...

It may go without saying, but Taiwan never underwent a "cultural revolution", which is why traditional beliefs remain so strong.

Steven Crook... said...

Chen Shui-bian isn't a Christian, as far as I know.

Anonymous said...

"It may go without saying, but Taiwan never underwent a "cultural revolution", which is why traditional beliefs remain so strong."

I might suggest that Taiwan's cultural revolution took a different form under the influence of Nationalist modernism and American hegemony.

The idea that Taiwan is somehow more "traditional" discounts the massive changes in government, economy and social structure that have happened over the course of the past (400)-100 years.

All these changes in Taiwanese society manifest themselves in religious and cultural life giving forms of religious expression new and different meanings. If you believe the Da Jia Mazu festival is in any way "traditional" you are overlooking a lot.

Whai Whai said...

I'm not really surprised. Religion in Taiwan feels more like religion in Japan: you go to the temple at the right times of year, you clean the tombs and you put up an offering if you're feeling very connected to family rituals.

But the area between the definition of folk practice and "religion" is very murky. Most of the time, people are looking for a sense of familial continuity just as much as, or even more than, they are looking for a spiritual experience. And if you're happy with what you have, why should you join a church? If you don't know the ritual, just pay someone (an "honorarium") to tell you what to do.

On the other hand, I have an unsupported hunch that missionaries tend to do well among oppressed groups of people that have no other recourse. For example: the Taiwan aborigine communities. The S. Korean nationalists during the end of the Choson dynasty and the colonial period. Even in African American culture starting in un-emancipated America. (After Christianity, or Islam, for that matter, takes root and becomes a local religious form, it becomes part of the culture. So even if S. Korea is on par with Taiwan and Japan in terms of average wealth right now, it has a much stronger history of local organized religion, and continues to be a very Christian nation.) The denial of spirituality and a feeling of hopelessness in much of the PRC, the part that is being forced to live with the fall-out of economic development, makes today's China a prime candidate for a narrative of salvation.

This could, however, just have to do with my personal distaste for proselytism, especially evangelical Christianity. Heh. Its unholy union with "white man's burden" makes me sick.

Anonymous said...

"I might suggest that Taiwan's cultural revolution took a different form under the influence of Nationalist modernism and American hegemony."

Your point is well-taken in light of the valid reasons you stated, but the injustices that were perpetrated under Chiang Kai-
Shek, though many, do not even begin to compare with those Mao instigated.

Compare, say, works like Chiang Kai-Shek: China's Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost by Jonathan Fenby with Mao: The Unknown Story Jung Chang and Jon Halliday for starters.

Oliver said...

Is it not be true that the more repressed religious beliefs are, the stronger and more devout they become?

Karaoke said...

"Chen Shui-bian isn't a Christian, as far as I know."

His daughter is Christian though, and although he doesn't specify a religion, his first book of letters from prison is called "Taiwan's Cross", with a big cross set over a picture of him with handcuffs raised up.


Taiwan has changed a lot, but modernisation doesn't mean it isn't somehow still traditional.
Example anecdote: A policeman after a hard-to-catch thief went to pray at a Guan Gon shrine (the diety with the beard and broadsword) and overheard the guy praying in front of him, asking the diety for protection from the police. It turns out that person is the guy the policeman was looking for. He arrested him at the shrine.

Anonymous said...

Clearly he forgot to read the bit about karma.