The Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics (5)

August 12, 2022
Emperor Puyi, last member of the Qing dynasty

These articles are intended to present a very particular reality, which plays a determining role in the life of the Catholics in China, either by conscripting them under the banner of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or by casting them back into the catacombs. The article has been published on the website of the Foreign Missions of Paris. This presentation will allow the uninformed reader to understand what are the stakes of the agreement between China and the Vatican, which should be renewed for the second time in October.

40 years after the founding of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, it is possible to decipher the purpose and the objectives that the leaders of the CCP had set themselves and that they hoped to achieve through its creation.

The Chinese Communist Party

1. Heir to an ancient tradition: control of temples and monasticism

Until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the administrative control of religions was one of the functions reserved for the Ministry of Worship (Li Pu), one of the six branches of the central administration of the empire. One of these functions was precisely to grant official approval for the construction of temples, monasteries, and shrines.

It was established that “the private construction of temples and monasteries” was strictly prohibited. “Any violation of this provision by Buddhist and Taoist priests is punishable by a hundred lashes, followed by secularization and confinement to a border garrison; this violation by nuns is, on the other hand, punishable by reduction to slavery in the families of high officials.”

The relative effectiveness of these legal injunctions reflects the degree of government control over an important aspect of people's religious life. “At the beginning of the Qing dynasty, in the 17th century, there were 12,482 monasteries and temples founded by imperial decree compared to 64,140 erected without official approval. 84% of them therefore existed without an official government permit, counter to any order from the authorities.”

There were other effective types of control. Whether or not a temple or monastery was officially approved, its followers (if any) were subject to another set of controls.

The first was an approval by the Ministry of Worship, which dated back to the tenth century and remained in force until the Republican period. This endorsement document listed privileges such as “exemption from military conscription, forced labor, and police surveillance.” These norms, if violated, also provided for the return of the person concerned to the secular state.

A second rule required that upon the death of a Buddhist or Taoist priest his certificate be returned to the competent authorities. Moreover, during his life, after the age of forty, he was recognized as having the right to prepare and form a single novice, destined to succeed him.

Thus, the state was able to control access to religious offices involving the exercise of authority. It retained the possibility of withdrawing the authorization to exercise the religious ministry, and limited the number of those who acceded to these offices. “The application of these rules has always been scrupulously followed by religious officials, and the competent authorities have enforced them, until modern times.”

Another rule, which has come down to modern times, established that a Buddhist or Taoist official who “disturbed the affairs of government by heretical positions would suffer the death penalty.” For centuries, the central power ensured that no deviation occurred in the religious field and especially that religion did

not deviate from the close ties of submission to the institutions of the State and retained a role in the service of the power and the unity of the country.

The penalties provided for were very detailed, as was also the list of offences. The greatest severity was reserved for the case of rebellion organized by religious movements assuming heretical positions or defiance of constituted power and customs transmitted by tradition. The persecution particularly struck those who “recognized a religious leader [a heretic, ed.] as a master or transmitted these erroneous positions to proselytes.”

“The tradition of political domination over organized religion writes C. K. Yang has been so persistent that even during the Republican period, when much of the legal controls on religion were relaxed, the development of a religious movement still depended largely on the support from a prominent political figure.

“The expansion of a Buddhist movement in Hunan Province in the mid-1920s was largely due to the patronage of the provincial governor, Tang Shengzhi, a devout Buddhist. With his support, the Hunan Association for Buddhist Conversion (Hunan Fuhua Hui) spawned a vast network of organizations for Buddhist training and worship in that territory. But when Tang was deposed, this whole movement ended as quickly as it started.”

Yang further observes that “historical facts mask the common assertion that there has never been a protracted conflict between the (Chinese) state and religion. In one case at least, for a period of more than 500 years, “between the fifth and tenth centuries, a constant unilateral persecution by the State against religion was exercised and not a struggle between two equivalent forces. At no time did the state lose its position of dominance” over organized religion.

The policy and the action of the Chinese Communist Party would be grafted onto this very old guiding principle consisting in framing the relations between the State and the organized religion, by continuing the imperial tradition. As an original contribution, they would add to that by adopting elements of the Soviet experience.

The communist states had developed systems of control over Christianity, an organized religion, recently introduced into the life of China. The Empire, unable to bend it to Chinese religious customs, especially because of the existing links between Christian denominations and European powers, had simply kept it “outside the walls of the cities.”

It was time to bring Christianity too inside the traditional religious cell of ancient China.