According to legend, St Thomas the Apostle preached in China. The Sigan-Fu stone shows that missionaries from the Church of the East reached China in the 7th cent.; Syriac Christianity survived there until the 14th cent. The first W. mission was that of John of Monte Corvino (c.1294); this ended with the advent of the Ming dynasty in 1368. The famous mission of the Jesuits began in 1582. They succeeded in building up a Chinese Christian community, but their method of accommodation gave rise to controversy, and the subsequent assertion of Papal authority in the 18th cent. antagonized the Emperor. Persecution and imperial decrees banning Christianity followed.
The 19th-cent. missionary movement was faced with the isolationist policy of the Manchu dynasty. The first Protestant missionary, Robert Morrison, who arrived in Canton in 1807, was able to remain only because he was employed as a translator by the East India Company. In the period 1839–65 the Western powers by military action secured for themselves rights of residence and jurisdiction. Missionaries then came from all the main denominations in Europe and America; they founded churches, schools, and hospitals throughout the country. When the Communists came to power in 1949, these Christian institutions were taken over by the State, many churches were closed, and the activities of missionaries restricted. The Korean conflict in 1950 heightened the pressure, as almost all missionaries came from countries at war with China. Most Protestant missionaries had left by 1952. The new rulers, wishing to emphasize the independence of China, put pressure on Chinese Christians to form a ‘Three-Self Patriotic Movement’ (self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating). With more difficulty, Chinese RCs in 1957 were led to form a Catholic Patriotic Association, with no relations with the Vatican, which does not recognize the People's Republic of China. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), evidence of religious allegiance led to persecution and practically all churches were closed for worship. In 1978 a programme of ‘modernization’ was adopted by the Chinese Party Congress; from 1979 churches began to be reopened and new ones built with increasing frequency. Since 1980, when Protestants formed the China Christian Council to act as their main national governing body and Catholics established their own Bishops' Conference, the churches have enjoyed comparative freedom to pursue their own concerns within their recognized buildings and under registered leaders. Some Protestant groups and Catholics deeply devoted to Rome preferred to avoid registration with the State authorities; they still come under pressure. Nevertheless, negotiations between the Vatican and Beijing have recently been taking place. Despite the restrictive atmosphere that prevailed for a time after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989, in the 1990s the number of Christians increased enormously, and the eagerness with which educated Chinese adults enquire into the nature and meaning of Christianity has led to the publication of Chinese translations of classic theological works and the opening of departments of religious studies in many universities.