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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.

At a banquet in Beijing in 1995 I had an opportunity to ask the man seated next to me, a high-ranking official in the Department of Education, how many Christians he thought there were in China. "Maybe 50 million, maybe 75 million, maybe even more," he replied, "but how should we know? They will not register so that we can count them."

Fifteen years later, the question of how many Christians there actually are in China is still a vexed one, yielding a wide range of answers. The preoccupation offers at least one insight into Western as much as Asian minds: the reality and seriousness of a phenomenon tends to become perceptually proportional to our capacity to quantify it. Numbers interest us, especially big numbers. In absolute terms, of course, all the numbers currently in vogue, from the 50-60 million Chinese Christians suggested by the 2009 Baylor Survey to the 111 million suggested by the World Christian Database, are very large. Moreover, given the considerably higher social and political cost of being known as a Christian in China than is currently the case in North America, it may well be that even the smaller estimates suggests a vitality in Chinese Christianity that bids to eclipse our own.

Numbering the flock is a concern of Lian Xi's Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China. More prominent is his detailed taxonomy of its variegated strakes and spots over the last century. This book will be an important source for Sinologists, church historians, and China-watchers among the Christian laity, even though it is limited in its scope to those movements which derive from or can be loosely associated with more or less indigenous Protestant popular movements of the last century. For important information about Catholics in China, or even about late 19th- and early 20th-century missionaries to China, it will be necessary to consult other studies.[1] Also, partly because of Lian's exclusive focus on popular movements, the book's primary value is for an overview of the rapid growth of Christianity among working-class or peasant populations. It is perhaps especially valuable for the first half of the century, up to the time of Mao Zedong's triumph. After Mao, and especially after 1980, a quieter, less visible spread of Christianity began to occur among the intellectual class. This development, though affecting many fewer people, has become nonetheless at least as significant for the present century as were populist conversions in the 20th century. But in China, 1900-1980 was the era of the working class. (It was also the preeminent era of Christian martyrs, in China as in other parts of the world.)

Later in the same week in 1995 as my conversation with the government official, I was called on by one of my graduate students there. She wanted to share something important. As far as I know, this intelligent and fluently bilingual young woman was not a Christian herself. She told me she had been temporarily hired by an American doctoral student of Harvey Cox as a translator, to help him conduct interviews in relation to his dissertation project at Harvard. His project was to collect data on Chinese views of Jesus and, where possible, to assess their current representation in Chinese churches. On the previous Sunday she had taken him to a large market, so that he could ask a few people what they thought Jesus looked like—for example, did he have Caucasian or Chinese characteristics? His very first interlocutor, she said, was a 12-year-old boy, a mobile joudsa vendor. Unhesitatingly, it seems, the boy responded that he thought Jesus would look Jewish. Apparently this was not the expected answer, and when the Harvard student followed up, the exchange became quite interesting. "Why? Would he not look like a Chinese person?" asked the Harvard student. "No," said the boy, "but Jesus cares for people who have suffered. He would look Jewish because the Jewish people have suffered very much."

On their way back from the market they took a bus. Two nearly toothless old peasant women got on the bus, and began to sing. The song, my graduate student recognized, was about Jesus. Then the pair began to pass out leaflets with a passage from the gospel to all who would take them (she took one, but was afraid, she said, to keep it). When a young soldier confronted the poorly dressed peasant women, demanding to know why they were doing this, they began immediately and earnestly to talk to him—about Jesus. It was, she added, as if the young soldier had suddenly acquired two mothers. Abruptly, at a stop, the two women bid him and others farewell, got off the bus, and disappeared into the evening crowds. It seemed to my student, as she put it, that they had done this not for the first time.

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.

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.

Communitarianism and communitarian extremes provide Lian with another major theme. Here, as is sometimes the case in American church history as well, he lumps together under the cognomen "Protestant" a wide range of heresies, sects, and cults. Some of these more resemble Jim Jones's People's Temple than should make us comfortable. In fact, indigenous origins aside, the reader can hardly help but notice many parallels between American and Chinese movements in this period. The same tension between Pentecostalism and liberal churchmanship is found in China, though adversity there more quickly winnowed out the liberal options. There are far too many fascinating movements and individuals of a charismatic bent (in both senses) to recount here, but Wang Mingdao is one of the genuinely epoch-making figures to whom Lian gives enough space for us to see how the conflict between liberalism and fundamentalism played out in China. Wang is paired with John Sung, the Billy Sunday of China, famous for his stage histrionics during evangelistic revivals, and each in his own way illustrates the curious proximity of the United States and China in this long-running 20th-century conflict, in which at its height Harry Emerson Fosdick of Union Theological Seminary seems to have tried to get Sung committed to a mental hospital. Yet it was men like Sung and Wang Mingdao who were to win the day in China.

Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng) was their successor. Nee introduced Darby's dispensationalism and a typically Plymouth Brethren-flavored rejection of traditional denominationalism in China. Nee was also influenced by the British Keswick movement, and there the leadership of F. B. Meyer (a Baptist) and others moved Nee away from the pursuit of spiritual gifts and toward the rigorous New Testament asceticism for which he became famous. Nee's The Spiritual Man (1928) continues to have an influence. The True Jesus Church and Jesus Family both grew most rapidly in the years just preceding the Revolution. Afterward, there were impediments. During the same period, Watchman Nee suffered a loss of face through a sex scandal and, though he was reinstated in 1948, his and other groups capitulated to the Party and all were absorbed into the new TSPM. (Nee died in a labor camp in 1972.)

Lian captures this period of reorganization in its essentials, and though there is clearly much more to say, his is to date perhaps the most useful source in English on these developments. His last chapter, on the house church movement, is in many ways at the heart of what most readers will want to know still more about, but even as it stands it is a helpful summary: the 1990s "collapse of Communist beliefs," he writes, left a huge void, hastening "the search for alternative inspirations for life's struggles."

So, what does Lian think about the matter of numbers? He writes, "At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were only some eight-thousand baptized Protestants in a land of more than four hundred million. Today there are probably more than fifty million Protestants in China." He estimates about seventeen million Catholics (a figure that seems to me low). By any standard this is momentous church growth, and by now it is growth with many durable "Chinese characteristics."

China-watchers in the church should now be looking for another book, one that cannot quite yet be written, namely a study of the rapid growth of Christianity in the intellectual and governing communities over the past twenty years. By a great irony of history, "true-believer Marxism" has been a precursor, a John the Baptist, to Christianity among cultural élites. In these circles one finds an increasingly vibrant, intelligent faith that has more in common with the Christianity of Roman antiquity just before Constantine than it does with anything currently Western. This major development, uncharted in the present work, is a source of great hope for our Chinese brothers and sisters. For ourselves it may prove an interesting challenge.

David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University.

1. See especially Jean-Pierre Charbonnier, Christians in China, AD 600-2000 (Ignatius, 2002), the essays in Yang Huilin and Daniel H.N. Yeung, Sino-Christian Studies in China (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006), and also the revised edition of David Aikman's Jesus in Beijing (Regnery, 2006).

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