Book Reviews

The Shaping of Christianity in China Today

A Book Review

Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China (Studies in Chinese Christianity) by Li Ma and Jin Li. Pickwick Publications, 2017, 226 pages. Paperback, ISBN-10: 153263460; ISBN-13: 978-1532634604; $27 at Amazon. 

The following two book reviews give Eastern and Western perspectives on a recent publication that looks at the external challenges, internal struggles, and responses to faith of Chinese Christians in Mainland China since 1949. The book being reviewed, Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China by Li Ma and Jin Li was selected by the editor of the International Bulletin of Mission Research as one of the ten outstanding books of 2017 for Missions Studies.

A review by Wang Jun

After the change of power on the Chinese mainland in 1949, massive political events happened frequently, guided by ideology. However, these events have slowly faded into oblivion because of cover-ups by the authorities as well as fear experienced by individuals. People are even less concerned with the connection between these political events and their spiritual lives.

As Christianity experiences a revival in China, a historical continuity of spiritual lives is something Chinese believers deeply desire. In reality, however, such continuity is broken up, suppressed, and distorted by historical political events so that the truth is not presented. Foreign believers and researchers are even more at a loss concerning these events, and this directly affects their knowledge and understanding of China, especially after the so-called 30 years of economic boom.

So, how can we look into spiritual lives behind the major political events in China since 1949? How do we construct a history of spiritual lives from what is covered up, distorted, and forgotten? How do we present Chinese Christians in their choices and struggles concerning their faith in the political social environment? How do we present the choices and struggles in the reshaping of the Chinese church and Chinese society? These are all questions that Chinese believers with an academic calling should be concerned with and working on.

With the publication of Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China (referred to from here onwards as Surviving and Remaking) the newest work of husband and wife team,  Jin Li and Li Ma, a brief history of the spiritual lives behind the ideological shadows begins to be presented. The central goal of the book is very clear: to explore the history of spiritual lives in mainland China since 1949 using oral history; to narrate the faith choices and struggles of Chinese believers in a distorted political social environment; to reflect on the current condition and future direction of the Chinese church; and to display God’s work in China.

Lively descriptions and interviews open this book to which are added the authors’ reflective narratives. It is very readable and richly inspiring. Not only does it fill in the breaks and gaps in Chinese spiritual life, but it also invites concern for and reflection on contemporary Chinese spiritual life. This book is greatly worth recommending as an excellent work on contemporary Chinese church history.

This book can be best understood as looking at the external challenges to faith, and the internal struggles and responses. Since 1949, the mainland Chinese church has not only been reshaped by its outward environment, but also reshaped by the faith within the faith community. The outward challenges come from the unusual political social environments, that is, the hostility, division, suppression, annihilation, oppression, and pressure caused by the political ideology towards the Christian faith. The inner struggle and response mainly refer to the reactions within the mainland Chinese faith community: some cooperated with the political ideology and some did not; some abandoned faith and some held firm to their faith; some passively sought to avoid the struggles and some actively responded; and so on. The reshaping of the church is not finished. One might say that it has just begun. While we wait to see, it is worth reflecting on how God will shape the Chinese church in the future, and how Chinese believers will witness further reshaping.

In this book, ideology is like a phantom, haunting every aspect of the question. Ever since the power change in mainland China in 1949, the ideological phantom has haunted the social and spiritual lives of the Chinese people. Their words and actions cannot escape the control of ideology, and their thoughts are censored as well. Even clothing, eating, drinking—all of living—is closely tied to ideology. This ideology is completely contrary and opposed to Christian faith which insists on believing in one God, opposing idol worship, and living according to the Bible. A spiritual war thus unfolds.

While this book does not directly explain the opposition between this ideology and Christian faith, it is presented through the authors’ background introductions as well as interviewees’ narratives and the difficulties this ideology has caused believers. If we say that believers with their faith choices, struggles, and responses are the main plot of the book, then the challenge of political ideology is its subplot. Even though it is the subplot, it is no less important than the main plot, because if we do not understand this subplot, then we have no way of understanding the main plot. If we do not understand the unique faith environment that exists under this ideology, then we cannot understand the choices, struggles, and responses of Chinese believers.

Even though the Chinese economic reform has caused earth-shaking changes to economic life in mainland China, and urbanization has not ceased progressing, the ideology-based political propaganda, brainwashing education, cultural censorship, and so on, have hardly changed. This has brought many challenges and pressures—and even oppression—to Christian believers in terms of education, culture, charity, marriage, and other aspects. Concerning these, Surviving and Remaking has lively and focused discussion.

In short, political ideology is the background to the questions and narratives in this work and is the main outward environment that causes the difficulties of mainland Chinese believers. In Surviving and Remaking, this theme is either expressly or subtly treated, thus creating the particular perspective the book has. The political ideology cannot be neglected in understanding this book and understanding the history of spiritual lives in mainland China since 1949.

The vibrancy of Christianity in China does not mean that believers are full of faith and free from struggle. On the contrary, in the post-totalitarian, atheist ideology, it is still very difficult to choose Christian faith and live according to the Bible. This is full of challenges of all sorts. In Surviving and Remaking, the authors record the pressures experienced by Chinese Christians from the political party and nationalism, those of marriage and educational choices, of career, and others.

Chinese Christians face the test of whether or not to join or withdraw from the Party; they face the threat of oppression by nationalists who think Christianity is foreign; in marriage they must decide whether or not to choose an unbelieving spouse; they must choose whether or not to participate in abortion; whether or not to accept public, ideological education; whether or not to take a civil post in which ideology takes control; and many other choices. Surviving and Remaking uses many lively stories to present the outward difficulties and inner struggles of Chinese Christians. Faith has given these Christians new values, but within the political environment of mainland China, living by faith is difficult every step of the way and every situation tests their faith.

Translated from Chinese by ChinaSource.

A Review by Richard Cook

Surviving the State, Remaking the Church by Dr. Li Ma and Jin Li offers remarkable light on Christianity in China today. The book provides insight into the growth of Chinese Christianity within the cultural, political, and commercial context of the tumultuous changes since 1949. Ma and Li chart the impact of the changes within Chinese society on the Christian churches.

The book is based on “a rich pool of around 100 individual interviews,” collected by the authors “using our personal networks from 2010 to 2015.” (xiv) Access to that interview material makes this book a gold mine, but it is even more than just a collection of interviews. Dr. Ma brings incisive sociological insight to the presentation of the interviews. The authors are thoroughly familiar with current literature in both sociology and modern Chinese Christianity, and they use that literature to help guide their study. They also offer a helpful bibliography, but it is focused primarily on English language literature. While most of their English readers will find that sufficient, some readers might wish they had included more of the literature that is only available in Chinese.

The heart of the book is the extensive interview material, but those intimate and personal stories are carefully positioned in a well-built structure. The book consists of twelve chapters, each given a simple one- or two-word title, such as “Worldview,” “CCP,” and “Marriage.” Although the titles do not reveal much about the development of the book, the chapters are carefully ordered to provide a systematic examination of Christianity through the volatile changes of the past seventy years.

Chapters 1 and 2 start with the formation of the Three-Self campaign in the 1950s, cover the severe persecution of church leaders during the Cultural Revolution, and chart the emergence of secretive house fellowships during the 1980s. Chapters 3 and 4 move into the 1990s, discussing mass conversions and the reentry of foreign Christians into China. Chapters 5 through 12 discuss the churches after 2000 looking through various lenses. For example, Chapter 5 highlights the critical importance of local variations within China (such as the difference between large urban centers and remote rural districts) and therefore also within the development of the churches. Chapter 8 covers the civic engagement of Christians through charity, Chapter 9 examines theological developments, and Chapter 10 offers insight into the challenges of marriage and family living for young urban Christians.

The book has a simple yet profound purpose. It attempts to move beyond a one-dimensional picture of “churches in China as either persecuted or revived,” which, the authors note, “obscures the complexity and fluidity of the whole picture.” (xii) In one sense, this thesis is self-evident. However, the value of the book is not a groundbreaking thesis, but rather fleshing out the lived reality of Christianity in China today. As the authors write, “It is our hope that this book will acquaint readers with the real lives of Chinese Christians in their authentic context.” (xii) In this goal, the authors are successful.

The book is a welcome addition for both students of Chinese Christianity as well as students of modern Chinese history. It fits comfortably within a tradition of firsthand accounts in modern Chinese studies with the addition of sociological insight and a focus on Christianity. At the same time, both China and Christianity are endlessly complex, and as much as the book enlightens, it also demonstrates that there is a screaming need for additional research. For example, there is an almost endless myriad of regional variations, and in each area the “challenges of marriage and family living” certainly vary immensely. A valuable research project might focus exclusively on Christian marriage and family in one particular social setting.

Also, even during the year the book was published, there continued to be profound changes in the Chinese government’s attitude toward Christianity. In that sense, the book already needs to be updated. The continued story of the Christian churches needs to be told, and this book offers a substantial contribution. 

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WANG Jun is currently associate Professor of Philosophy at Southeast University in Nanjing and writes and speaks about traditional Chinese ethics and Christianity. He has authored several books, the most recent being Ethics of Reading.View Full Bio

Richard Cook

Richard Cook

Richard Cook is Associate Professor of Church History and Missions at Logos Evangelical Seminary in El Monte, California and serves as Director of the M.A.I.C.S. Program. He came to Logos in 2011. Dr. Cook served as a missionary and seminary professor in Taiwan for over ten years, and before coming …View Full Bio