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Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China
Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China
Xi Lian
Yale University Press, 2010
352 pp., $85.00

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David Lyle Jeffrey


Christianity in China

An irreducible complexity.

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The American graduate student next wanted to go to an "open" or Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) church in a working-class part of town. Here too he needed a translator. My student was fascinated by the "meeting," for just where she expected the "teaching" to come, two elders stood up to announce a visitor. They explained that, after a week of praying for guidance, it had been decided that a man from Mongolia who had been "sent to them by the Lord" would deliver a message. The old man, a herder of animals with the ubiquitous Mongolian name Khan, stood beside his equally aged wife and in heavily accented Putonghua told how he had a vision of the Lord and the heavenly city whilst riding his donkey on the steppes. He heard a high, thin, musical harmony of some sort, looked up, and saw an entire city of shining golden glass ("more beautiful than all the tall buildings in Beijing," he said) descending down, then hovering only a few meters off the ground in front of him. His donkey was so startled it bucked him off—yet it too then stood stock-still, transfixed. Poised over the arched gate of this beautiful city, looking down at him, was a white-robed man whom he understood at once, he said, to be the Lord. The Lord spoke: "Go to my little flock in _____ district in Beijing. Tell them that I know they have suffered much. But say to them that soon they shall be comforted. I am coming soon." Then the glass city rose up in the air and vanished. The old man remounted his donkey, rode home to his wife, arranged to sell many animals, and came via the long train ride to Beijing (which he had never before visited) to deliver the message. The gathered believers were apparently rapt with attention. When he had said this much and no more, he sat down. There was a long period of utter silence, said my student, except for a few audible sobs and a murmur of prayer from someone invisible to her, which she could not accurately hear. More silence. Then, from the back of the room a woman began to sing a song of which she could recall precisely only the refrain: "Even so, Lord Jesus, come." The crowd gradually joined, singing softly with the woman. Finally, after some minutes of this, the singing stopped, and the congregation quietly dispersed. The American graduate student, said my young interlocutor, was "very uncomfortable," and when they emerged into the sunlight shortly afterward he paid her for her work, saying he was going to have to "reconsider his research method." She had not since heard from him. She herself was clearly filled with wonder at what she had heard and seen.

This one conversation over coffee represents much of the territory covered by Lian Xi's book, and it illustrates the persistence of the phenomena more abstractly reflected in his history, especially as the populist peasant Christianity of the countryside has increasingly migrated into the cities. Lian does not himself offer much in the way of such narratives, which seems a pity, because without the particular stories it is very difficult to give a realistic sense of what has been happening in China; numbers alone just won't tell the story. What he does provide, however, is a historian's overview of various 20th-century Christian movements as social phenomena, and this is very valuable. Lian shows convincingly that there have been a great many indigenous populist Christian movements in China since 1900, some but not all of a cultish character, and that, despite wide divergence geographically and in detail of historical experience, they share a number of themes and emphases. Among the recurrent characteristics he identifies in most of the populist groups are charismatic outpourings, teachings about spiritual gifts, and a preoccupation with eschatology and apocalypticism of various stripes. These are fascinating brief studies, and each reflects an important element of 20th-century Christian history in China. Lian also recounts incidents of lamentable corruption among some of the charismatic leaders, and traces their marked anti-Western, anti-foreign bias, showing how greatly an appeal to nationalism figured in their success.

Lian offers a particularly astute analysis of the groups associated with Wang Mingdao, John Sung, and Watchman Nee, as well as of the growth and trials of the True Jesus Church and the Jesus Family. His briefer review of the history of the heretical movement Lightning from the East and later charismatic groups with such names as "The Shouters" and "The Weepers" recalls the history of English-speaking dissenter Protestantism in the 17th and 18th centuries. He gives only a hint of the sometimes severe repression which these and pretty much all Christian groups suffered after 1950, again without much in the way of concrete personal narratives.

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