A Source for the Church History: the Government Gazetteers

Dr. Kim-kwong CHAN



A Paper Presented at the International Conference

"In the Footsteps of Matteo Ricci"

8th-10thMarch 2007

Macerata University



After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the new Government closed off China from the West resulting into the extremely limited access to reliable information on China. In the historical context of the Cold War, information on China, especially from 1949 till 1980 has been limited and often polemicˇXfrom the Chinese Government's propaganda to promote socialist achievement to disinformation by the West to discredit China. Consequently one of the major challenges for the study of Christianity in contemporary China during this period is the availability of reliable sources. Most of the studies on Christianity in China during this period rely on the following sources: the Government's media such as Renmin Ribao (People's Daily), the official publications from the government-sanctioned Christian organizations such as Tien Feng (Celestial Wind) or Xin Ge (The Message Dove), the overseas Church supported bulletins based on sources from personal connections or information from witnesses such as the China Mission Bulletin, and individual visits and observations appearing in various media.

The Government's media from 1950 to 1980, including newspaper, magazines, and radio broadcasting transcripts, are more or less available outside of China in specialized libraries for sinological studies.  It includes the newspapers and journals from the Central Government, such as Remin Ribao or Hongqi (Red Flag).  Each Province and major Municipalities also published its own newspaper, such as Liaoning Ribao (Liaoning Daily). Other than the Central People's Radio Station, each province would also have their respective radio stations. Media in China had been tightly controlled; there was no private media and all these Government media served one function: to promote the view of the Government. Often the content of these media was almost the sole source to get a glimpse of China behind the Bamboo Curtain. The paper clippings and transcripts, from these media, had been the main authoritative source to interpret China by many sinologists. Much of the news on Christianity was also collected from these sources.[1]  Since the Government had been highly selective to publish (or broadcast) news often to convey a political message, , these Government media are meant to convey more the political thinking of the authority than to report events taken places. In fact, it has been a highly specialized skill to interpret these sources to decipher the subtle political message between the lines. The selective publications of Christian-related news are significant more on the political contexts than of the events themselves. Also most of these available media have been concentrated in major cities, so local, especially rural, events would have little opportunity to appear in these media unless for a political purpose.  While these media had been a good source to understand the political desire of the Government, they are not meant to systematically record events that are of particular interest to Church historians.

As for the officially sanctioned publications from Christian organizations, these publications would have exclusive coverage of the Christian-related events in China. However, the contents and interpretations are politically shaped to echo the Government's policy over the churches. Furthermore, it would not record opposition voices or events that may not be in favor of the current political stance.  Therefore, not only the span of coverage, but also the accuracy of the content, had often been called in question. Often what has not reported are of equal importance as, if not more than, what has been published. Also the distribution and the availability of these publications are extremely limited given the fact that they had not been widely circulated outside of China and many had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

The overseas church supported bulletins cover news on Christianity in China that would often not had appeared in Chinese Government sanctioned presses, such as reports on persecution of Christians. However, these overseas bulletins while on the one hand would usually not promote the Chinese Government's propaganda on the rosy image of Christianity in China, yet on the other hand may portray the Churches in China on the other extremeˇXan exclusive martyrdom scenario.  Further, the coverage of church news was limited to whomever the editors could have contactedˇXoften very few and lack overall representation-- in China.  Therefore, the reliability as well as the representation is often in doubt. The vast majority of ecclesial event in China, especially in areas where the local Christian had no outside links, would have no means to be known. Personal witnesses, visitations and observations are accurate yet are limited in their own context and cannot be generalized. For example, the appearance of a Church service in a city does not mean there are more or less churches in near by cities having similar activities. Therefore these few sources, knowingly biased by their political stance, and limited in coverage with strong emphasis on coastal and major cities, have become virtually the only available data for the understanding of Christianity in China during these several decades. 

There has been no systematic publication on the situation of Christianity in all parts of China until the recent years when the Chinese Government decided to publish the Local New Gazetteers (Difangzhi) since 1984. The Chinese Government has a long tradition, for at least a thousand years, to publish the Local Gazetteers from time to time to record the development of a particular location, such as a county or a city. The Local Gazetteer is a comprehensive official publication covering the history, culture, development, celebrities and events. In short, it is the authoritative encyclopedia of a particular place. It is usually done by the Government and funded by the Government especially during the period of tranquility to celebrate the prosperity of the regime. The previous updating of Local Gazetteers was in the early Republican era during the 1920s and 1930s but with limited success due to civil wars. In early 1980s, the State Council felt that it was necessary to publish a new collection of Local Gazetteers to reflect the tremendous social changes that had taken place since the last revision in the 1920s. It was a huge project that effected all the county governments (more than 2,000) and all the municipal governments (about 200). Each local government formed its own team of Local Gazetteer Editorial Committee and did a systematic review of its jurisdiction in areas of history, politics, culture, economy, geography, dialect, administration and social changes and came up with a volume of authorities compendium of this particular region ranging from several hundred to several thousand pages.

Since 1984, when the first volume appeared, till now, there are more than 2000 county (district and regiment level) Local Gazetteers and at least 200 city (prefecture and municipality level) Local Gazetteers published.  Some local governments even published multi-volume collections with sub-topics in different volumes, such as Religious Gazetteer or Economic Gazetteer of a city.  Publication of Local Gazetteers soon became a reflection on the strength of the local governments--the richer the local government, the better and more elaborate the Local Gazetteer would appear. Some local governments in recent years would come up with a new (and better) volume to replace its former one published 10 or 15 years ago. The re-structuring of administration jurisdictions, such as merging of districts, formation of new cities, and re-drawing of administrative zones, also resulted in establishing of new local governments hence the need to publish new Local Gazetteers to reflect the new administrative reality. Currently there are several thousand volumes of various types of new Local Gazetteers covering virtually every region of China. Eventually, every province and Autonomous Region (provincial level) also published its own multi-volume collections. Later even the military establishments, and major government ministries (such as Agriculture and Public Security) would contribute to this collection of Gazetteers adding at least another 1000 volumes of various gazetteers. In addition, there are also the gazetteers from the initiatives of the local governments below the county levelˇXtownships and villagesˇXnumbering into thousands; however these township or village gazetteers are not recognized by the Central Government as part of the official collection on New Local Gazetteers.[2] 

In each of these Local Gazetteers, there is always a section on local culture; within which there are subsections on folk custom, religion and occasionally local festivals.  If there are national minorities within that location, there is always a subsection on religion and national minority customs under each category of national minorities.  Under the subsection of religion, the editors would list out all religion and religious groups that have ever appeared in that location, including doctrine, feast days, custom, history, organization, events, personnel, sites, and the updated situation prior to the publication of the gazetteer. If there has been an appearance of Christianity, there is usually a record of such in the gazetteer such as the record the missionaries' activity, even if there is no current presence, such as the Nestorians. Depending on the quality of the editorialship, the coverage on Christianity can be amazingly detailed, or just covering the most basic information.  Nevertheless, there is now such official, and authoritative, record of Christianity in a virtually all parts of China. 

Soon after the publication of these New Local Gazetteers, scholars began to notice the evidence in these data on Christianity in China hitherto not heard of. However, due to the limited circulation of these Gazetteers (often with only 1,000 or less in print available for sell often only locally[3]) and extreme local nature of the content, few research centers or libraries can afford to collect these volumes. Therefore the accessibility of these data is rather limited even though the content of these sources are precious to researchers. Outside of China, the Universities Service Center for China Studies (USC) of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, one of the main international sinology research centers which specialized in collection of post 1949 Mainland China publications, currently holds perhaps the most comprehensive collection of these New Gazetteers. In 1998, as about 80% of the New (County) Local Gazetteers have been published, this writer and Pong Kwan-wah edited an index on Christian sources in the published New Local Gazetteers[4] to facilitate the utilization of this source. Through this Index, one can know the availability and the location of Christian sources in a particular volume of Local New Gazetteer, and to look into that volume for the needed information, or to order photocopy of a particular sources from the USC.  There has also been an attempt to photocopy the entire collection of Christian sources from the Local Gazetteers and to publish them, a huge project with more than 20,000 pages (at least 40 volumes with 500 pages each). Initial work had been done by the History Department of University of Kansas in USA. However the lack of funding and the issue of practicality put this project on hold. 

In 2005, the Hong Kong Christian Council and the Hong Kong Holy Spirit Seminary College (of the Roman Catholic Church) initiated a joint project, the first ecumenical project of such nature in Hong Kong, to digitalize the Christian sources from all the available New Local Gazetteers at USC and some private collections, and to make it available to everyone through Internet or CD-ROM format. The whole project was completed at the end of 2006 and both means are readily available.[5] This Project includes Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Nestorian and Judaic sources recorded in the New Local Gazetteers of these administrative level: County, Autonomous County, Qi (Mongolian areas), Prefecture, Autonomous Zhou, Men (Mongolia areas), Municipality, Autonomous Region, and Province. If available, this Project also includes Religious Gazetteers and Public Security Gazetteers of various regional governments, and Gazetteers of the Production and Construction Corps of the People's Liberation Army. The contents are divided according to the Chinese Government administrative divisions, and digitalized images of the content from the Local Gazetteer are linked to location with full bibliographical data included. Those Local Gazetteers with no content on Christian source are listed at the end of each Provincial Section.

There are several areas which this collection may contribute to the knowledge on Christianity in China hitherto not available through other sources. Firstly, this collection sheds new light on Christianity in China from the 1950s to the late 1970s by providing a lot of local informations from the local governments' archives, which many of them are supposed to be classified materials not available to outside scholars, giving researchers a new dimension to understand the Church-State dynamics other than those few well-known sources from the major urban centers.  For example, this collection confirmed the little known Anti-Religious Campaign during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961)ˇXa pilot project in several locations attempting to eradicate religion by force-- at local county levels.[6] This collection also documented the re-surfacing of Christian activities in many rural areas during the same periodˇXa fact that was not recorded in official media. It also officially recorded the re-appearance of Christian activities as early as 1976 in many places, several years before the official re-appearance of Government backed Christian patriotic associations. Further, it shows the relative high degree of freedom Christians did enjoy in rural areas versus the much more restrictive policies in religion in urban areas where we had obtained most of our information, from which we gained our understanding on Christian experiences during this period. It also shows the vast differences in local Church-State dynamics despite the then strong Government's insistence on a uniform society at least in official publications.  In short, these sources describe the Christian activities in China from 1950 to 1980 with diversities varying from one place to another vis-à-vis major national campaigns, a much more complex situation than what was generally described simple as a national suppression of Christianity by unified political campaigns. 

Secondly it also documented the spreading of Christianity in areas hitherto no Christian had ever set foot before 1949, from 1950s till the recent time. Many of the Local Gazetteers recorded that the first appearance of Christianity in that location appeared after 1949 and have since developed into a viable community.  Such records confirm the growth of Christianity in China despite extremely unfavorable conditions, a known fact that the authorities had long denied and now confirmed by these records in Local Gazetteers. For example, some Christian communities in Xinjiang were developed in the 1960s by Christian technicians who were sent from the interior part of China to the frontier regions.[7] Also there have been many new Christian communities developed in the military districts as recorded in those military Regimental Gazetteers, a fact that has hitherto been acknowledged by the authority.[8] Therefore, the records of Christian development especially the genesis of new Christian community after 1949, can provide valuable data on the mapping of Christian development and dynamics in China which may provide a more comprehensive explanation on the pattern of growth of Christianity in China than what is currently speculated by scholars as simply a miracle or mainly a phenomena occurred after 1980 via non-registered groups. These sources also suggest that many of the current Christian communities owed their existence to missiological events and activities occurred in the 1950s and 1960s.

Thirdly, these Local Gazetteers reflect the current understanding about, and more importantly, impression on, Christianity by local officials in China. Senior officials in the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) and in Provincial Religious Affairs Bureaus may have reasonably good knowledge on Christianity.  However one can hardly expect the same degree of religious knowledge among local authorities, especially those have previously little dealing with religion, such as those at the county level. However, it is those local officials who dictate the fate of the Christian communities, as they are the real authority ruling over day-to-day life at such administrative level. From these Local Gazetteers, one can get a sense on the level of understanding of Christianity from the average cadres of a local Government through their records of Christianity as they try to describe Christian faith, culture and practices. With a few exceptions, most of the records suggested that the local government officials have limited, outdated and rudimental, if not erroneous, understanding of Christian faith. From these records, one can easily sense that there still exists a huge gap of knowledge on Christianity by the local Chinese officialsˇXthe official chroniclers who are supposed to be the elites and intellectuals of the society, as such knowledge on religion has long been denied, and even distorted, in Chinese society. Such gap in knowledge may explain on the seemingly good knowledge on Christianity by scholars and senior officials in ChinaˇXwhom overseas scholars and church leader have been dealing with, which should result to reasonable implementation of Policy on Freedom of Religious Belief of the Chinese Government,[9] versus the often reported of cases on abuses of Christians by Chinese authorities in local areas.[10]

This collection of Christian sources in these New Local Gazetteers, however biased in understanding of Christianity and in political interpretation on Christianity in China it may have as viewed from the eyes of local Chinese officials, and also lack of report on the non-registered activities other than occasional records of arrests and suppressions, officially records Christian activities and development in almost all counties and districts in every province and region of China. Some counties and districts were not known to have Christian presence until the publications of these gazetteers. In other places this sources provide clues to understand the seemingly mysterious development of new Christian communities. This collection may open new possibilities, perspectives and themes on the study of Christianity in Contemporary China and perhaps may re-write part of the Church history in China as we gain fresh insights on the complex Church-State interaction through the availability of these data.




[1] For example, see the collections on newspaper clippings from Mainland newspapers on Catholic Church, at the Library of the Holy Spirit Seminary College in Hong Kong.  This collection is available on line through the website of the College: www.hsscol.org.hk. 

[2] Peopleˇ¦s Republic of China State Council Order Number 467 Regulations On The Work of Local Gazetteer issued on 18th May 2006.

[3] In fact there are few buyers of these gazetteers. Most of the printed copies are give-away to various sections of the Government which had contributed to the writing, and to local community leaders. Usually a few copies are deposited with the State Councils and a few are sent to local libraries.

[4] Chan, Kim-kwong and Pong Kwan-wah, An Index of Christianity in the New Gazetteers of China 1980-1988 (Hong Kong: Christian Study Center on Chinese Religion and Culture, 1998).

[5] Chan Kim-kwong and Lam Suet-Pik, editors, http://www.hsscol.org.hk/fangzhi/main.htm.

[6] See Pingyang Xian Gazetteer, Zhejiang.

[7] See Wensu Xian Gazetteer of Xinjiang.

[8] See No 8 Division 141 Regiment Gazetteer of Xinjiang.

[9] See Chan Kim-kwong and Eric Carlson, Religious Freedom in China: Policy, Administration and RegulationˇXA Research Handbook (Santa Barbara, California: Institute for the Study of American Religion, and Hong Kong: Hong Kong Institute for Culture, Commerce and Religion, 2005)

[10] For example, see www.ChinaAid.org for such cases.