Book Reviews

Constructing China’s Jerusalem

Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou

Nanlai Cao, Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou. California: Stanford University Press, 2011; 232 pages, ISBN-10: 0804773602; ISBN-13: 978-0804773607; $20.86 at

Reviewed by Ronald Yu

The author of the book, Nanlai Cao, is a research assistant professor at the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Hong Kong. This book is his Ph.D. dissertation in anthropology (Australian National University). With B.A. (Peking University) and M.A. (Fordham University, New York) degrees, both in sociology, he has combined the best of two disciplines for a comprehensive analysis of the Wenzhou revival as a regional case study in Chinese Urban Anthropology. His study pursuit in China and Western metropolises puts him in a unique position to interpret the Wenzhou Christian experience of urbanity both in its global and local perspectives. His connection with Wenzhou is also intimate. His mother is a Wenzhou native, and his maternal grandparents in Wenzhou helped him gather information and hosted him in his field studies. The family connection gives him the security and resourceful links to do extensive ethnographic interviews, which may not be possible for researchers from outside, especially on the sensitive topic of Christianity in China.

Cao identifies himself as a “cultural Christian.” Although he appreciates the Christian faith, he has not received baptism or holy communion. He may be an insider as a Wenzhounese, but not as a Christian. He considers this as an advantage because his informants would refuse to share their personal views on church politics if he were an insider of the local church. However, as an outsider, he could not discern the diversity of Christian experiences within the evangelical community and treats Wenzhou Christianity as monolithic. For example, conservative revivalism is different from charismatic revivalism. Cao’s description of feminine spirituality in chapter 5 seems to be based on charismatic revivalism exclusively and may not be applicable to the conservative group.

Religious revival began in the late 1970s and happened in many provinces in coastal and central China. However, Wenzhou was the unique coastal city where economic and religious revival happened simultaneously. Blessed by a flourishing economy, the Wenzhou church served as the powerhouse for Christian missions by publishing and distributing Christian literature, training and sending evangelists nationwide and beyond, and integrating business and mission both locally and globally. This was my previous understanding of Wenzhou as China’s Jerusalem. Cao’s study goes beyond this traditional understanding by delineating the macro-historical forces of social transformation which have led to a distinctive Christian urban culture in the Wenzhou model of urban Christianity and capitalist economy. Cao does not follow the traditional domination-resistance model in the understanding of Christianity in contemporary China but creates his own innovative framework which is succinctly stated in the concluding chapter (7) as “religious revivalism as a moral discourse of modernity.” He has selected three social groups for his study: the boss Christians (chapter 2); the Marthas (chapter 5); and the migrant workers (chapter 6). He shows how the Christian identity of boss Christians transforms business practices (chapter 3) and how their entrepreneurial identity enhances church development (chapter 4).

Christianity had disappeared from the public arena in the Maoist era. Wenzhou boss Christians are the pioneers in restoring Christian identity in the market place during the reform era. They do so by negotiating space with local government authorities on religious issues. As they are law-abiding businessmen having a good tax-paying record, they are able to build state-recognized but unregistered house churches, a third kind of churches apart from the traditional official churches and unauthorized house-churches. After this prototype emerged in Wenzhou, similar house churches multiplied all over China wherever these boss Christians or their relatives extended their business activities. They see the state in a new perspective as a potential partner in their business-as-mission activities. This new church-and-state relation is welcomed by the younger generation of boss Christians as they are increasingly dissatisfied with the social isolation of the traditional churches from both the government and the marketplace. Wenzhou bosses had a bad reputation nationwide for their poor manners and lack of civility. Christian bosses have changed this image by cultivating a modern Wenzhou culture. They know from Weber’s book[1] that capitalism flourished in Christian soil and from their overseas relatives that Western modernity has Christian roots. So they began by imitating cosmopolitan lifestyles of Western metropolises. They copy Western architecture in real-estate development and name it after Western cities. Although the church in China has suffered persecution in the past because of Western connections, Cao concludes that all Wenzhou churches resort now to the West for legitimacy. This may be over-stated because it is another instance of the Wenzhou ethos of imitation, desiring to meet international standards in church ministry as much as in their manufactured products.

The Chinese government’s concern on the morality of the nation is reflected in the national propaganda of “Eight Honors and Disgraces.” Boss Christians also emphasize business morals after reading translated works on business ethics and attending lectures by Chinese American entrepreneurs. They also read the Bible as a management book and try to apply biblical principles in their business activities. One boss put a motto in his factory church: “Using the Word to govern the factory.” Cao sees this as an attempt to refashion “Chinese national modernity in religious and moral terms.” However, Cao’s limited ethnographic interviews with a few moral activists cannot lead to the conclusion that it is a dominant trend. According to Mande[2] who runs seminars with businessmen, the majority of boss Christians act like saints in the church but still manage like wolves in their businesses. However, the firstfruit of Christian culture is now visible in some Christian enterprises as described by Cao.

Just as Wenzhou entrepreneurs have created new brands for their products, boss Christians have developed a Wenzhou brand of church culture. Big church buildings fill the urban landscape adding moral prestige and cultural capital to Wenzhou Christians. They copy foreign ministry models just as they copy famous global brand products. They send out itinerant preachers like they send out itinerant traders outsourcing their products. By integrating their dual identities as Christians and entrepreneurs, boss Christians have not only depoliticized Christianity in the state-authorized context of business development but have also developed a “business of religion” in the church. Besides cultivating morality in their businesses and developing churches with their entrepreneurial skills, boss Christians have actually set themselves apart as a social class of elite male entrepreneurs, commanding submission by non-elite feminine Madas (women in service roles like Martha at home and in churches) and rural migrant workers. The domination of masculine elitist culture at church is exemplified by the seating arrangement (men on one side and women on the other), male church leadership (in contrast to rural female leadership), theology and diploma fever, and a top-down elitist approach in lecture and banquet admission. Cao’s gender-reading of the Bible, quoting just Matthew 10:16 and Luke 10:38-40 without sufficient elaboration, is unconvincing. Conservative Christianity in Wenzhou would definitely disagree with him if he implicates the Bible as the source of sexual discrimination in the church.

In relation to migrant workers, boss Christians have turned Christianity into a middle-class and masculine (therefore rational and powerful) faith in contrast to the rural charismatic and feminine (therefore emotional and submissive) faith. One informant expressed his shame of the rural female-dominated church and his eagerness to accept the Wenzhou faith because of its elite rational masculine image. However, it would be premature to conclude that this is the primary factor in the massive conversion of migrant workers in Wenzhou. Cao redefines conversion as a new locus of self-definition and upward mobility and baptism as an embodied experience of a cosmopolitan and urban modernity. He issues a strong accusation at the church: as a dominant urban institution it has created new social hierarchies. By offering migrant workers a false promise of full membership in the urban Christian community, it has misled them into unrealistic dreams of first-class citizenship. Cao’s study recognizes the church’s contribution in helping rural migrants in their upward mobility to become urban citizens, but it is rather unfair to accuse the church of giving them a false promise. The fact is that the church has never defined conversion and baptism in Cao’s urban anthropological terms, nor can any church promise earthly urban citizenship (except the future heavenly Jerusalem) on biblical grounds. It is the government’s hukou policy that prevents migrants from becoming urban citizens, and the church has been made a scapegoat by Cao to bear the guilt of the government.

Biblical faith affirms the existence of class distinction and role differentiation according to sex, knowledge, wealth and other socio-economic factors, but maintains that in spite of all these differences there is equality and unity in Christ (Galatians 4:26-28). The sociological reality of domination and exploitation of the powerful on the powerless is met with the sacrificial event and moral example of the cross. Christ’s sacrificial headship in redeeming and serving his body as servant-King is applied both to the church and to the marriage institution (Ephesians 5: 22-25). Cao’s study challenges the church to do reflective theological thinking on urban anthropology and the boss-Christians as to whether they may steward their wealth and power as servant-leaders to serve the church and the urban community.


  1. ^ See page 35 of the book. Some boss Christians could cite Max Weber’s book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, to highlight the connection of church multiplication and economic advancement in Europe and the USA.
  2. ^ Mande has analyzed and responded to “wolf culture” in his translated essay, “From a ‘Wolf culture’ to a ‘Lamb Culture,'” ChinaSource, Winter 2007, vol. 9, no. 4, p. 6.

Image credit: Voice of America 

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Ronald Yu

Ronald Yu teaches theology and missions at the Chinese Mission Seminary in Hong Kong and facilitates workplace service platforms in China.View Full Bio