Christianity with Chinese Characteristics: The Underground Church and the Reconstruction of Christianity in Contemporary Mainland China


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date27 Jul 2017


During the Cultural Revolution, the Mao Zedong administration declared war against religion along with every other old cultural institution. The Red Guards regarded religion and all forms of traditional culture as setbacks and obstacles to the advancement of Communism and Chinese society. The party-state jailed religious leaders and closed downed religious venues. Religion and cultural institutions went underground during this period. However, in 1981, the Chinese Communist Party leadership denounced the Cultural Revolution and called it the most severe setback and heaviest loss the state had suffered. Riding the waves of disillusionment that arose in post-Mao China, the Deng Xiaoping administration launched a series of reforms that shook up the status quo. Although the central objective of the reforms was economic development, administrative and social reforms followed since the former required the latter. Accordingly, the party-state rehabilitated religious leaders and reopened religious venues. However, this growing wave of reforms lost momentum, particularly after the Tiananmen incident. Since then the state has been closely monitoring all underground church activity and diligently seeking to reconstruct the official church.
As of today, all religious activities, sites, groups, and individuals within Mainland China must be registered with local and provincial authorities according to official regulations provided by the Chinese central government. Registered churches receive guidelines, control, and supervision from state and party-run institutions on a regular basis. The relevant institutions, instead of granting approval, divert qualified applications from independent church movements to the already existing state-sanctioned umbrella church network. However, apart from such state-sanctioned churches, there are also unregistered churches. More than half of the Chinese Christian population gathers in these unregistered churches, also known as the underground church. From the perspective of Chinese law, participating in underground religious activities of any kind is subject to criminal prosecution. After presenting a historical genealogy of the underground church, this study is an effort to understand why there are underground churches in contemporary China and why some Chinese Christians go to underground churches to pray and engage in other forms of worship rather than official churches even today. This research seeks to address these questions through understanding the nature of state-church interactions and a comparison of official and unregistered churches by analyzing data collected during field research. It employs qualitative approaches; interviews, observations, discourse analysis, and document analysis are its primary research methods. Based on the fieldwork done for this study, the fundamental cause of the dichotomy between official and underground churches is the result of a combination of historical events, Sino-Vatican relations, and differences between public and private churches regarding teachings and ceremonies. The research introduces the model of ambiguous administration that is implemented by the Chinese government today. The thesis of administrative ambiguity explains how the current legal framework provides a discretionary power to local governments to decide whether crack down or to turn a blind eye to unregistered religious activities and thus accounts for two contrasting two approaches in the secondary scholar literature. The following chapters elaborate and explain these different, interrelated phenomena.

    Research areas

  • Christianity, China, Reconstruction, Underground Church, Ambiguous Administrative Model, Chinese Characteristics