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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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One of the 19th-century movements better known in the West is the ill-fated Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, the only "significant indigenous movement among Chinese Christians" during that period, as Lian puts it—a group easily misunderstood in the West, utopian and Christian in its vocabulary but much more Chinese in its character than outside observers discerned. Flourishing during the 1850s and gaining over a million adherents, this millenarian rebellion was finally put down with great bloodshed in 1864. But there were other less dramatically visible movements as well. One of these was led by a charismatic figure styling himself "Xi the Overcomer of Demons" (Xi Shengmo), who established a network of "Opium Refuges" to wean addicts off the drug with herbal medicines devised and marketed by Xi himself, the most celebrated of which was his "Paradise Pill." Xi performed exorcisms and baptisms and wrote "more than one hundred hymns, most of which he set to popular North China tunes," Lian tells us. "Many of Xi's hymns," he explains, "were in the typical evangelical vein that would easily find approval among the missionaries; some borrowed Buddhist language to expose the 'emptiness' of the dreamlike 'red dust' of this world and to exhort sinners to enter into the 'heavenly city … and the holy capital.'" In 1886, Xi was ordained as a China Inland Mission minister by Hudson Taylor, and he worked closely with the CIM while maintaining independence. Alas, after Xi's death in 1896, many of his followers renounced Christianity and returned to opium.

The opprobrium of the opium trade with Europe was only one of many reasons for resistance to Western missionaries after the Boxer Rebellion (1900). Under Sun Yat-sen the Republic of China was increasingly fervent with nationalism, and indigenous Christian groups tended to identify with "patriotism" for many quite practical reasons. This stance was a source of consternation and grief to the westerners who were trying diligently, in many cases, to do what seemed to them real good in China (one thinks, for example, of the many universities, hospitals, and schools established by their efforts as part of their broader evangelistic outreach). But the die had been cast by the colonialist injuries of the 19th century. Further dysfunction became evident, as it had almost three centuries earlier with the Jesuits and their opposing Franciscan and Dominican counterparts, and in the dissension and competition amongst the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. In 1910, the then prominent Christian leader Cheng Jingyi attended the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh and announced to the delegates: "your denominationalism does not interest Chinese Christians." This attitude persisted through the century, and however disappointing to the missionary organizations, including such as the CIM which saw themselves as non-denominational but were nonetheless adversely affected, the general anti-Western bias expressed itself increasingly as a rejection of Western Protestant denominations, with their specific cultural histories and character. This sentiment prepared the ground for indigenous popular Christian movements to flourish after 1949, and especially a quarter-century later, after the Cultural Revolution had done its grim iconoclastic work.

The tensions between various branches and missions from the West and indigenous Chinese Christians make for a fascinating story. One charge directed by the True Jesus Church at the foreign mission churches was that they were "hanging up a sheep's head, but selling dog's meat." During the tumultuous pre-World War II years, the liberal National Christian Council of China, which included some university-educated intellectuals, tried in vain to moderate the nationalistic and charismatic popular movements. New groups sprang up here and there, many more influenced by Pentecostalism than by anything like the conservative evangelicalism of the CIM. The Jesus Family was one such group. It was founded by Jing Dianying (1890-1957), who had been educated in Confucianism and Daoism but converted to Christianity in his early twenties. Jing, a married man, developed a painful romantic fascination with an American Methodist Episcopal missionary, Nora Dillenbeck; the evidently tortuous affair seems more the stuff of novels than of mission history, yet it, too, is important to the story Lian wants to tell. The subsequent leader of the Jesus Family, Dong Hengxin, an opium smuggler from Shanxi, would make as apt a subject for a novel; a prolific songwriter (some of whose songs are still sung), Dong died by suicide in 1952.

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