Church of China

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The Chinese Orthodox Church was an autonomous Orthodox church in China. It is estimated as having had twenty thousand members before the Cultural Revolution.

The beginnings of Chinese Christianity

Christianity was first introduced to China via an Assyrian mission in in 635, and is commemorated in the Nestorian Stele of Xi'an.

Orthodoxy arrived in China, via Siberia, in 1685. In that year, the Kangxi Emperor resettled the inhabitants of the Russian border towns he had captured in China. Maxim Leontiev, a priest who went with them, dedicated the first Orthodox church in Beijing. In the first century-and-a-half of its presence in China, the church did not attract a large following. It is said that in 1860 there were not more than 200 Orthodox in Beijing, including the descendants of the naturalized Russians.

In the second half of the 19th century, however, the Orthodox Church made bigger strides. The Spiritual Mission of the Russian Orthodox Church in Beijing was blessed with scholarly and religious clergy. Numerous translations into Chinese of religious publications were made.

The mission published four volumes of research in Chinese studies in the 1850s and 60s. Two clerics became well-known for scholarship in the subject, Father Iakinf Bichurin, and the Archimandrite Pallady, who also compiled a "very valuable" dictionary.

The Boxer (Yihetuan Movement) Rebellion of 1898-1900, an anti-Western and anti-missionary uprising in China, saw violent attacks on Chinese converts to Christianity. The Orthodox Chinese were among those put to the sword, and in June every year the 222 Chinese Orthodox, including Father Mitrophan Ji, who died for their faith in 1900 are commemorated during the upheavals as remembered on the icon of the Holy Martyrs of China. In spite of the uprising, by 1902 there were 32 Orthodox churches in China with close to 6,000 adherents. The church also ran schools and orphanages.

Rising out of the ruins of the Boxer revolt, a new missionary attitude was established by Fr. Innocent. Having been recalled to St. Petersburg for consultations concerning the mission, Fr. Innocent was consecrated bishop and returned to Beijing as Bishop of Beijing in August 1902, with jurisdiction over all the churches along the Chinese-Eastern Railway.

Rebuilding the mission began immediately, funded by the Chinese government in payment for the damages caused by the Boxer Revolt. Additionally, nearly all of China was opened to missionary work. New churches and chapels began to appear. A church and school were opened in Yongpingfu in Zhili province. Also in Zhili province some twenty chapels were opened by a Chinese priest. In Weihuifu, a church and school were founded through the gratitude of a Henan province official who had received protection from Russians during the revolt.

By 1916, the Russian Orthodox Mission in China had grown greatly. In Beijing, three monasteries were established: Dormition Monastery, the Hermitage of the Exaltation of the Cross in Xishan (Western Hills near Beijing), and a women’s monastery. There were nineteen churches including four in Beijing and 32 missions including 14 in Zhili province, 12 in Hebei, four in Henan, one in Xi’anfu, and one in Mongolia. The Mission also controlled 17 schools for boys and three for girls. In addition the Mission maintained a number of institutions relate to publication of books, and various work shops.

Evangelization of Chinese increased, and by 1916 the number of baptized Chinese numbered 5,587, including 583 who were baptized in 1915. The vast majority of teachers in the Mission schools were Chinese.

Following the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917, the Mission lost its support base and had to fend for itself. At the same time the arrival of many Russian refuges in China greatly increased the number of Orthodox believers. The number of churches also increased, largely to support the Russian arrivals. This led to the establishment of new dioceses. In China, dioceses were established around the cities of Shanghai and Tianjin, in addition to Beijing. A diocese in Harbin had developed out of support for the Russian colony associated with the Eastern China Railway.

During the years after the Bolshevik Revolution many of the Orthodox bishops joined with the exile Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, that was initially headquartered in Karlovci, Yugoslavia, but later in Munich, Germany and then New York in the United States. At the end of World War II, and with the arrival of Soviet forces, particularly in Manchuria, the Moscow Patriarchate gained jurisdiction over the Russian bishops in China and Harbin.

In 1949, after establishment of the People’s Republic of China that was under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, treaties between the Soviet and Chinese governments led to transfer of jurisdiction of the Russian churches to the Chinese.

In 1956, in fulfillment of agreements between the Soviet Union and Communist China, the Moscow Patriarchate granted autonomy to the Church of China formally ending the Russian Mission in China. At that time the Church of China had two Chinese bishops, a number of priests, and an estimated 20,000 faithful. Abp. Victor of Beijing, the last Russian bishop in China and leader of the last Spiritual Mission departed for the Soviet Union in 1956, closing the three hundred year old Russian Orthodox Mission in China.

After the departure of the Russians in 1956, the Church in China labored under the restriction of the Communist government, but came under severe restrictions as the Cultural Revolution began in the early 1960s. With widespread confiscation and destruction of church property the Cultural Revolution destroyed the young Chinese Orthodox Church almost totally. The last Chinese bishop, Vasily (Shuan) of Beijing, reposed in 1962 and a successor has not been named.

Leaders of the Russian Mission

Episcopacy of the Autonomous Chinese Orthodox Church

Orthodoxy Today

The government of the People's Republic of China extends official recognition to five religions communities: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, and Taoism, but not to Orthodox Christianity. The major political obstacle is the government's fear that external political forces from outside nations — in this case, primarily Russia — could achieve influence within China.

Several Orthodox congregations, mainly of elderly individuals, continue to meet in Beijing and northeast China (including Heilongjiang), with, apparently, the tacit consent of the government. As of 2005 there was one priest; however, a number of Chinese nationals are currently studying in Orthodox seminaries in Russia, with the intent of returning to China to serve in priestly ministry.

Two former Orthodox churches in Shanghai, until recently, were being used as restaurants and nightclubs.

Meanwhile, as of the early 21st century, the church operates freely in Hong Kong, where the Ecumenical Patriarchate has established the Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia (OMHKSEA); and Taiwan, where rival mission churches representing OMHKSEA and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) exist.

In December 2007, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided at its winter session to open a department concerned with the Chinese Orthodox Autonomous Church (COAC), stressing the need to continue efforts taken by its Department for External Church Relations in the dialogue with the Chinese authorities to normalize the situation of the Orthodox Church in China.1

Nominally Orthodox minorities in China

Although many of them have adopted Lamaism, which is the mainstream form of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, the Evenkis of both Russia and the People's Republic of China are a nominally Orthodox Christian people. Along with their Even cousins and a few other tribes in Siberia or in China, they are some of the only Asiatic peoples who nominally practice Orthodox Christianity, which they had voluntarily (as opposed to being coerced to do so) adopted during contacts from Russian expansion into Siberia. There are also around 3,000 Evenks in neighbouring Heilongjiang Province.

Orthodox Christianity is also practiced by the ethnic Russian minority in China.

Autocephalous and Autonomous Churches of Orthodoxy
Autocephalous Churches
Four Ancient Patriarchates: Constantinople · Alexandria · Antioch · Jerusalem
Russia · Serbia · Romania · Bulgaria · Georgia · Cyprus · Greece · Poland · Albania · Czech Lands and Slovakia · OCA* · Ukraine*
Autonomous Churches
Sinai · Finland · Estonia* · Japan* · China* · Ukraine*
The * designates a church whose autocephaly or autonomy is not universally recognized.

See also

Further Reading

(ISBN 0-7734-5886-7; ISBN 978-0-7734-5886-4)
Shanghai: Xuelin Publishing House (上海 : 學林出版社 : 新華書店上海发行所发行), 1986. 345 pp.
(In Chinese; Available through the National Library of Australia, here.)
  • (Velimirović), St. Nikolaj (Свети Владика Николаj Велимирович). The Chinese Martyrs (Китаjски Мученици). Little Missionary (Мали Мисионар), 1934-1938. pp 33-40.
(In original Serbian here.)

External links