Book Review

Roots of China’s Current Christian Revival


Fierce the Conflict by Norman H. Cliff.  Joshua Press, Dundas, Ontario, Canada, 2001. 207 pp. ISBN: 1-894400-12-7. Paperback. Cost: $12.99 at Amazon.

A Review by Tony Lambert

For those wanting to learn more about the church in China and the roots of the present Christian revival, this is an important book. It is subtitled: “the moving story of how eight Chinese Christians suffered for Jesus Christ and remained faithful.” All have been key Christian leaders but, apart from Watchman Nee and Allen Yuan of Beijing, none are widely known by Christians outside China. Only three of the eight are still living.

Norman Cliff was born in China where his parents were missionaries for many years. He is eminently equipped to introduce the hidden history of the Chinese church to Western readers. His life has been contemporaneous with many of his subjects. He knew or met six of them personally (the present reviewer has known three). This adds vibrancy and warmth to his accounts. Most were born before or during the First World War (1914-1918), so they experienced the many turbulent political changes which wracked China during the 20th century—the Warlords, the Japanese invasion, the Civil War between Communists and Nationalists and the endless political campaigns under Mao. Many came to know Christ through the preaching of Western missionaries and this association cost them dearly after 1949 when friendship with “imperialists” led to ceaseless denunciations and imprisonment. These men—and one woman (Esther Cui)—became people of deep evangelical spirituality rooted in Scripture and prayer. They had a heart for evangelism which led Graham Wu to become a medical missionary to the Miao people in a remote part of southwest China and Esther Cui to join the West China Evangelistic Band.  After 1949 their faith was to be tested to the uttermost.

Allen Yuan was exiled to Heilongjiang—“China’s Siberia”— where winter temperatures fall to -40 degrees Celsius. He was separated from his family and was only allowed to receive a letter from his wife after eleven years in labor camp. Then, later, his wife herself was forced to do heavy manual work during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) pushing wheelbarrows loaded with bricks. There was little money to buy shoes or school stationery for her children so she cried to God in prayer. And he answered—in times of crisis she would find envelopes with small gifts of money pushed under her door.

There are many such true stories both of faith under trial and of God’s faithfulness. Pastor Fan Peiji was forced by the Revolutionary Committee to the heartbreaking task of taking his entire treasured theological library to the wastepaper shop for recycling. His five children were barred from higher education because of their “counter-revolutionary” background, and four were packed off to state farms for “re-education through labor.” Cliff shows clearly that persecution involved not just the individual but, what was most hard to bear, his or her entire family. He does not put his subjects on a pedestal but relates their failings honestly. Graham Wu, for example, escaped beating and imprisonment, but his faith was ground down relentlessly under political pressure. He joined in the widespread worship of Mao early each morning, joining in the singing of adulatory songs to him although he later confessed he had sinned in going so far.

The book is also valuable because it sheds light on a dark period of Chinese church history which the present Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) authorities still gloss over. I refer to the fifties when persecution of Christians began in earnest. Today it is politically correct in China to admit the excesses of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but, in fact, few Western Christians realize that most evangelical leaders in China were first imprisoned many years earlier and often for their opposition to Communist Party control of the church through the TSPM. Cliff’s face-to-face interviews with Allen Yuan, Wu Mujia and others provide vivid firsthand accounts of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and TSPM machinations otherwise still locked away in Party archives in China. Allen Yuan was one of a group of 12 independent Chinese preachers in Beijing (including Wang Mingdao) who declared they could not join the TSPM without compromising their faith.

Cliff is honest, too, in relating the varied experiences of those who survived the Cultural Revolution to take up their Christian ministries again in the more tolerant atmosphere of Deng Xiaoping’s “Open Door” China. Each seized the opportunity. Fan Peiji said, “I am a knife in the hands of the Lord. A knife can be kept sharp and be used, or get rusty and be discarded.” Some, like Allen Yuan, remained convinced that full biblical faith is seriously compromised by joining the party controlled TSPM. He has become a much respected senior leader of the Beijing house churches. In recent years, he has baptized about 300 new converts annually in a quiet spot outside Beijing. Wu Mujia, on the other hand, despite suffering long imprisonment for his opposition to the Three Self in the fifties, decided after much prayer and wrestling with his conscience to teach Greek and Hebrew at the TSPM seminary in Beijing. Like Cliff, I often visited him in his modest apartment and sometimes met the keen young Christians he was mentoring. He was well aware of the continuing political pressures, kept his head down and soldiered on regardless. As one of only two or three Christian professors in the whole country able to teach the biblical languages, he is sorely missed, both for his expertise and his spirituality.

For a paperback, this book is beautifully produced with rare photographs of each of the Chinese Christians. Three sermons, by Wang Mingdao, Watchman Nee, and Fan Peiji, are added in an appendix. There is also a useful map of China.

When Graham Wu was 16 he had an experience of God which changed his life. On October 14, 1940 he wrote, “Today I want to make a promise to Jesus to serve him for ever and to strive to do his will.” Looking back on that decision half a century later, Wu comments, “I have tried to keep that promise, though sometimes I have been weak, but God has always stood by me.” For Christians in the West striving to live for Christ in a decadent and increasingly anti-Christian culture, this book reminds us that Christ crucified and walking the way of the cross has been central to the faith and experience of Chinese Christians. It should be to us, too.

Image credit: new bamboo root growing out by Xianyi Shen via Flickr.

Tony Lambert

Tony Lambert is the director for research, Chinese ministries, for OMF International and the author of China's Christian Millions, The Resurrection of the Chinese Church and the recently published Pray for China! A 30 Day Prayer Guide. View Full Bio