Catholic or Christian?

When I first went to China, I was bombarded with many questions that seemed rather odd: can you use chopsticks? How much money do you make? Why do American parents kick their children out of the house at age 18? On and on they went.

But the oddest question I encountered was, “what’s the difference between Catholic and Christian?”

The question itself made no sense to me; it was like asking, “what is the difference between a Volkswagen and a car?”

Back in the 1980’s the confusion was perhaps understandable. Many Chinese at that time had almost no knowledge of religion, let alone western religions. Truth be told, they had no idea what either of those terms (Catholic and Christian) meant.

It wasn’t until I studied Chinese that I came to realize that the oddness of the question was rooted in linguistics. Catholicism is Christianity, but in the Chinese language it has a completely different name.

In English, we distinguish between different strands of Christianity: Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. But in the Chinese language only one of those strands gets translated as “religion of Christ,” Christianity.

The Chinese word for Catholicism is Tian Zhu Jiao (天主教), “Religion of the Lord of Heaven.” Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit missionary to China wrote a book called “The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven,” trying to link the God of the Bible with the traditional religious notion of a supreme being, which was referred to as Heaven. It thus became known as the Religion of the Lord of Heaven, Tianzhu Jiao.

To distinguish Protestant Christianity from Catholicism, it was translated as Jidu Jiao (基督教), “Religion of Christ.” This then gets translated back into English as “Christianity.” Sometimes it includes the word xin (新),” which means “new” to try to distinguish it, but most of the time this is left off.

Hence the odd question about the difference between Catholicism and Christianity.

Earlier this month I attended a conference on the Catholic Church in China. This topic came up during one of the seminars. One of the participants, a researcher and scholar on China, suggested that one way of clearing up some of the confusion would be to refer to Catholicism as Tianzhu Jiao (天主教), Protestantism as Jidu Xinjiao (基督新教), and Christianity (which encompasses both) as Jidu Zongjiao (基督宗教). Zongjiao is a more scholarly term for ‘religion,’ whereas jiao can be understood simply as ‘teaching.’ Eastern Orthodoxy, by the way, is Dongzheng Jiao (东正教), Religion of the Eastern Truth.

Here are some photos of Catholic Churches in Beijing, Tianjin, Harbin, and Shanghai.

Church of the Savior, Beijing -- also known as Beitang or Xishiku Catholic Church

Church of the Savior, Beijing — also known as Beitang or Xishiku Catholic Church

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception — known locally as Xuanwumen Catholic Church

Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Beijing -- known locally as Xizhimen Catholic Church

Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Beijing — known locally as Xizhimen Catholic Church

 

St. Therese of Lisieux Church, Beijing, known locally as Nangangzi Catholic Church

St. Therese of Lisieux Church, Beijing, known locally as Nangangzi Catholic Church

St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Beijing - known locally as Wangfujing Catholic Church

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Beijing – known locally as Wangfujing Catholic Church

St. Joseph's Cathedral, Tianjin -- known locally as Xikai Catholic Church

St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Tianjin — known locally as Xikai Catholic Church

 

St. Ignatius Cathedral, Shanghai -- known locally as Xujiahai Catholic Church

St. Ignatius Cathedral, Shanghai — known locally as Xujiahai Catholic Church

Gexin Jie Catholic Church, Harbin (originally a Russian Orthodox Church)

Gexin Jie Catholic Church, Harbin (originally a Russian Orthodox Church)

This post was originally published on the ChinaSource Blog.

(all photos by Joann Pittman)

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 thoughts on “Catholic or Christian?

  1. This is fascinating. Can you help me pick through the terms a bit?

    Currently the terms are:
    * Catholicism = Tian Zhu Jiao (天主教), “Religion of the Lord of Heaven.”
    * Protestant Christianity = Jidu (Xin)Jiao (基督教), “Religion of Christ.”

    The proposal is:
    * Christianity = Jidu Zongjiao (基督宗教). – Religion of Christ
    * Catholocism = Tianzhu Jiao (天主教), – Teaching of the Lord of Heaven
    * Protestantism as Jidu Xinjiao (基督新教), – New teaching of Christ
    * Eastern Orthodoxy, by the way, is Dongzheng Jiao (东正教) – Teaching of Eastern Truth

    I’m curious how “new teaching” will help with understanding? Also is there any cultural hierarchy associated with Tianzhu and Jidu? Has there been an attempt to help people understand the two as equivalent in Christian teaching?

    • Even though the character “xin” does mean (in isolation) “new” (and ‘fresh’ and ‘modern’ and ‘recent’) a reader or hearer doesn’t necessarily hear or understand that. Chinese words are often combinations of characters, which are then understood, not character by character. For example, the Chinese term for computer is “dian nao.” It’s made up of 2 characters — electric and brain. But when we read or hear it, we don’t process it as electric brain, but as computer.

      So, using ‘xinjiao’ which is “new religion” isn’t necessarily understood as that, but is understood as Protestantism.

      Most educated Christians understand that xinjiao is a term for Protestant Christianity, as opposed to Catholic Christianity.

      Does any of that make sense???

  2. I have been asked that question countless times by international students from China! I had a vague idea of where the confusion came from – thanks for helping me understand more of what’s behind it!