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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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.

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