Book Reviews

Redeemed by Fire

The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China

Lian Xi, Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2010. Available on Amazon.

Reviewed by Brent Fulton

Years ago a Western teacher was having a conversation with one of her students in China about their respective cultures.

“You know what the difference is between you and me?” the student asked rhetorically. “When people ask who you are, you tell them what you do. When people ask me who I am, I tell them who my father is.”

Simply put, the student’s point was that Westerners generally find their identity in their work, while Chinese find their identity in relationship. This difference in perspective carries over to how many outside China view the Chinese church: “How big is it? How is it organized? What do they believe? Where is it? What are its needs.” Unfortunately this functional perspective neglects important questions of relationship—relationship to the early indigenous church prior to 1949, which laid the foundations for much of what we see of Christianity in China today, and relationship to the complex socio-political milieu out of which it was born.

Lian Xi, a professor of history at Hanover College, makes an important contribution to our understanding of the Chinese church today by filling in the details of this oft-overlooked history. Following a brief but helpful survey of early missionary efforts, Redeemed by Fire paints a series of portraits of prominent figures in the indigenous church, beginning with Liang Fa, the first convert to Christianity under Robert Morrison in the early 1800s, and continuing through to movements such as the Taiping, Jesus Family, and True Jesus Church, and on to familiar individuals including Wang Mingdao, John Sung, Watchman Nee, and Calvin Chao, recognized today as pillars in the early Chinese church. In doing so Lian draws upon an impressive array of archival sources both within and outside China, numerous documents , reports, and historical accounts hitherto available only in Chinese, as well as personal interviews with various individuals who had connections to the church during the first half of the twentieth century. These portraits are skillfully hung against a backdrop that weaves together both the unique cultural factors giving rise to the various Chinese expressions of Christianity that emerged over the past two centuries and the complex, at times antagonistic, relationship between foreign missionaries and indigenous church leaders.

Central to Lian’s thesis is the observation the indigenous church, emerging amidst waves of social turmoil, took on a millennial character which came to define early Chinese Christianity and, Lian would argue, continues to color the Chinese church today both in theology and practice. Recurring themes include an evangelistic message emphasizing escape from the chaos of the present world, efforts to create communities that provided a refuge from this chaos, extreme ecstatic experiences, miracles, and predictions of Christ’s imminent return. Drawing parallels between these characteristics and elements prominent in Chinese traditional religions (which were very present in the upbringing of most of the indigenous church leaders under consideration), Lian raises the difficult question of how uniquely Christian these movements were. Taken to an extreme, this millennialism resulted in movements such as Hong Xiuquan’s “Heavenly Kingdom” (Taiping Tianguo) or, more recently, quasi-Christian sects such as Eastern Lightning, the Three Grades of Disciples (San Ban Puren), and the Exalted King (Beili Wang) sect. Lian contrasts this other-worldly character with the reformist agenda followed by many missionaries and the Chinese intellectuals who worked with them.

John Sung, for example, although highly educated, jettisoned his own Western degrees and turned his back on a promising scientific career to become China’s best-known evangelist, preaching a message of spiritual redemption fueled by an urgent conviction that the end was near. Whether, Communist, Nationalist, or Protestant, Sung had no interest in an agenda of national salvation. Likewise, Watchman Nee, Wang Mingdao, and others saw little hope for China’s future as the country was ravished successively by civil war, natural disasters, foreign attack and occupation, and more civil war, followed by the eventual victory of an avowedly atheistic regime.

Lian probes the growing division between prominent indigenous movements and leaders and the foreign missionary establishment, exacerbated by successive waves of anti-Western sentiment that put the onus on Chinese Christians to prove they were not simply tools of imperialist powers. At the very least, this pressure made it inconvenient and perhaps embarrassing to be seen as being too close to foreigners, whose culture and customs were very different from those of the Chinese and who were assumed to be accomplices in a Western effort to colonize China. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Lian quotes a Chinese dressmaker who had served three generations of China Inland Mission pastors as saying, “there seemed to be little inducement to repent and be saved, if going to heaven would entail associating with foreigners for all eternity” (p. 7). At its worst, such as during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and later under the Communist regime, this foreign association could mean death.

The Chinese church responded by seeking to distinguish itself through culturally appropriate expressions of the faith as well as through indigenous organization and funding (ironically, the same “three selves” propagation, government, and support that missionaries had held forth as their goals for the church and which the Chinese Communist Party would later seize upon in its creation of the Three Self Patriotic Movement). The Jesus Family, for example, expressed its faith in songs that contained more than a hint of popular Buddhist and Daoist imagery. Members lived communally (separated by gender) and supported the movement through farming. The True Jesus Church, likewise, developed its own hierarchical structure and was supported through tithes and gifts from its wealthier members as well as income from church-run businesses and rental properties. On the other end of the theological spectrum, Chinese intellectuals sought new expressions of the faith through indigenous music, art, and literature. Lian’s portraits of these early indigenous efforts provide a thought-provoking glimpse into what the church might have become had it been allowed to continue to develop its own forms and structures further into the 20th century.

Although the indigenous church self-consciously sought to separate itself from its foreign predecessors, it nonetheless bore the marks of much of what characterized Western Christianity at the time. Lian meticulously traces the influence of prominent non-Chinese individuals from various Pentecostal, Brethren, Christian and Missionary Alliance, CIM, and other traditions upon leaders within the indigenous movement. The interplay between, on the one hand, readily incorporating certain theological streams that found resonance in China and, on the other hand, actively repudiating and, in the case of more than a few indigenous leaders, denouncing, the foreign church, is fascinating. While shunning foreign support, they could also find their efforts stymied due to lack of acceptance by foreign missionaries who, quite understandably, might have seen the indigenous leaders as ungrateful recipients of their tutelage, sheep stealers, or even heretics.

A case in point was Watchman Nee, who, early on his ministry, had denounced denominationalism as a sin and advocated a radical separation from Western missions. Nee, according to Lian, “wrote tearfully of his thwarted hope to go to America to study at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago” likely a result of Nee’s having offended the denominational missionaries whose recommendation could have secured him a place at the school (p. ). Lian’s unvarnished portraits constitute a welcome departure from the “hagiographical” tradition that has characterized much missionary writing. The figures that emerge are at once giants of faith, courage and vision, as well as flawed individuals whose egos at time get the best of them, or who end up abusing the privileges that come with leadership and lapsing into questionable, if not outright sinful, behavior.

Bringing his account of the indigenous church up to the present, Lian traces the link between several of China’s contemporary movements and pre-1949 individuals and groups (including the True Jesus Church and the Little Flock, which, according to Lian, emerged in the early 1980s as the largest surviving sects). Those familiar with the Born Again Movement, Fangcheng Church, China Gospel Fellowship, and other rural church networks will find interesting background on the origins of these movements.

As to the future of the church, Lian, who sees in today’s movements ongoing continuity with China’s folk religious traditions, is not hopeful that it will be able to break out of its millennial mold to become a major force for change in society. Thus, while acknowledging the existence of a growing Christian movement among China’s urban elite, he still sees Christianity’s greatest potential as among China’s masses, where it will continue to provide an other-worldly hope to the disenfranchised and a potential (although ultimately unsuccessful) challenge to government power.

On this point Lian, as an historian, is perhaps too wedded to this own historical narrative to see another way forward. China’s emerging urban church has, in the past decade, distinguished itself as being quite cosmopolitan, self-aware, and comfortable with its role in, rather than against, society. Given these discontinuities with the indigenous tradition Lian has described, it is possible that a new chapter is being written and that the role of the indigenous Chinese church in the 21st century may be very different from that of the previous hundred years.

Image credit: Rae Fire. Blowing flames. by U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region, Kaibab National Forest, on Flickr
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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio