Practicing Orthodoxy: Community Celebrations and Chinese Religious Professionals in the Age of Russian Orthodox Expansion in China (1900-1917)

Student thesis: Phd


Almost half of the small Chinese Orthodox Christian community were killed by the Boxer Movement in June 1900. In the aftermath of the Uprising, Russian diplomats and even certain church officials advocated for the Orthodox mission’s closure. Yet, not only was the mission not closed, it grew significantly more active and productive in the coming years. This thesis examines the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in China during its most fruitful period between 1900 and 1917, when the number of Orthodox Christian converts grew more than tenfold. It builds on scholarship on the Russian mission by shifting the focus from the mission as an institution, religious or diplomatic, to the hitherto largely ignored religious community that formed around it. By doing so, this thesis seeks to reintegrate Russian missionary activity and Orthodox Chinese into the broader history of Christianity in China. In order to do so, it focuses not on the activities of the Russian missionaries but on the religious celebrations in which most of the active Orthodox Christians participated. It examines three important festivals: Chinese Lunar New Year, Easter, and the Day of All Saint Martyrs, commemorating the Chinese Orthodox casualties of the Boxer Uprising. In studying these religious festivities, this thesis explores how entertainment, fasting, feasting, and religious processions were used to translate elements of the Orthodox religious message to a Chinese context. A key theme of this thesis is the role played by the Chinese Orthodox religious professionals in this translation process. Chinese monastics, ordained priests and lay preachers stood in between the Russian missionaries, who often lacked relevant language skills, and the Chinese converts. Scholarship on the Russian mission often conceptualises it as being in-between China and Russia and thus facilitating communication between the two countries. This thesis, however, highlights the role of Chinese actors as mediators and transmitters of the religious message: their combination of linguistic, cultural, and religious expertise best positioned them to effectively communicate and interpret the Orthodox message to Chinese audiences. The first two decades of the twentieth century were a formative period for the Chinese Orthodox clergy, with the ordination of the first Chinese monastics and the opening of the catechist college in Beijing in 1907. This body of Chinese clergy, most vividly represented by Father Sergiy Chang, was later able to demonstrate their independence from the Russian hierarchs by contesting their power in the 1930s and 1940s. The key question that this thesis engages with is how Orthodox Christianity was translated and practised in the early twentieth-century Orthodox Chinese communities. The first chapter covers the Orthodox geography of China, shifting the focus from the regions with a large Russian presence (such as Manchuria and East Turkestan) to lesser known locations in rural Hebei, Henan, and Hubei, where the Orthodox Church focused on its missionizing activities rather than on maintaining Christianity among the Russian expatriates. In the second chapter, the thesis moves from ‘where’ to ‘who’, dealing with various aspects of missionary activity and particularly the roles assigned to native Chinese priests and preachers, attempting to recover their stories and reconstruct their roles as mediators of religious space. The final three chapters focus primarily on ‘how’ Orthodox Christianity was practiced by analysing three of the mission’s largest festivities associated with different aspects of Chinese Orthodox identity: one celebration was Chinese, one Christian, and one uniquely Chinese Orthodox. In this way the thesis reveals how religious festivals were used to communicate the Christian message and shape the Chinese Orthodox community with the help of Chinese mediators. It also highlights how Russian missionaries, outside of the borders of the Russian empire
Date of Award1 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorRachel Platonov (Supervisor) & Yang-Wen Zheng (Supervisor)


  • Sino-Russian Relations
  • Orthodox Christianity
  • Religious Mission
  • China
  • History
  • Russia

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