Understanding World Christianity: China by Kim-kwong Chan. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019. Paperback, 176 pp., ISBN 13: 978-1506416601; ISBN 10: 1506416608. US$25.11 at Amazon; Kindle $14.57.
Fortress Press deserves praise for supporting the World Christianity Series. If you are not familiar with the series, checking it out will be worth your time. You can see the series in its development here.
The series is organized by nation and region, and each volume covers six intersecting topics to describe the history of Christianity and the faith as it is lived out today: historical, denominational, socio-political, geographical, biographical, and theological. In addition to the volume on China reviewed here, the series currently has volumes on Mexico, Eastern Africa, India, and an upcoming title on Russia. If the other volumes are of similar quality to the one reviewed here, we can hope that the series will be long-lived and can set a new standard for quality and international perspective on Christianity around the world.
Understanding World Christianity: China is written by Kim-kwong Chan, a renowned scholar in Chinese studies and theology. He has authored and co-authored 11 books, published more than 100 academic papers in English, Chinese, and French, and written for ChinaSource in the past.1
Through his travels around all parts of China as a nutritionist, Chan became deeply impressed with the stories he heard, leading him to become “an observer of China” (p. xiv). Following these early experiences, he undertook academic study of both Sinology (Chinese studies) and theology, in order to better grasp the object of his new-found affection. Three master’s degrees and two PhDs later, Chan was well prepared for the decades of work he undertook, serving the church both inside the PRC and outside (hereafter, all mentions of China or Chinese refer to the PRC context).
While his academic credentials are impressive, we should not be deceived into thinking that Chan is an arm-chair academic. Many of the stories he relates in this book are based on first-person interviews with his subjects. Through family connections, and as a member of the Hong Kong Christian Council, he has had access to a wide diversity of Christian individuals, leaders, and groups, access rivaled by few scholars of Chinese Christianity. These personal contacts fueled his research. He retired from his ecclesiastical post as an ordained minister with the Anglican Church in 2016, but that has not curtailed his interest in Chinese Christian lives and Chinese Christianity, as this book attests.
Consistent with the framework for the World Christianity Series, Understanding World Christianity: China follows the six-chapter format described above. While I cannot speak for the other contexts, this multi-directional examination of Christianity in the PRC is remarkably well-aimed. Within this framework, Chan sets out two foci for the volume on China: “the experiences of Chinese Christians, and factors that have contributed to their present ecclesiastical reality.”
Although iterations of Christian faith have existed in China for 1,400 years, a great flourishing of Christian faith in China is only a little over 200 years old. Chan does not unearth any new historical data that radically alters our interpretations and understandings. Most refreshing is the balanced presentation of cross-cultural missions that acknowledges the work of foreign missionaries while highlighting a non-ideologically driven critique of the problems of 19th and 20th century mission endeavors.
Chan concludes the chapter by looking at the impact Chinese Christianity might have on the larger world population of Christians. He does an admirable job of correcting a common overemphasis on Protestant Christianity by highlighting recent Catholic and Orthodox Church developments. Chan kept his comments on prospects for Protestant traditions in China brief but insightful. Of note is the claim that “the unique ecclesial mode of the house church—simplistic, devoid of liturgy, laity centered—provides a new ecclesial paradigm challenging many present ecclesial practices” (p. 39).
Chan also highlights the potential that Chinese missionaries may have in the near future to contribute to the spread of the gospel beyond Chinese borders. “These Chinese missionaries often base their strategies on their past ecclesial experience of operating in unfavorable environments” (p. 39). This will be discussed further in the theological section.
Chan has written extensively on this subject, particularly the political experiences of the Chinese church. For those unfamiliar with the political structures under which the church in China operates, this is a concise introduction.2 Chan points out that the current political leadership views religion as “no longer… a cultural phenomenon or a social group but as a social element with implications for national security” (p. 53). This is not new in Chinese history. Religious groups have a very long tradition of political intrigue in China, so naturally the current government will be suspicious of large, rapidly growing religious movements.
This chapter is packed with practical, useful information, and I hope international ministries will take note of several things. First, Chan rightly highlights the vast, gray nature of the politico-religious landscape. Be suspicious of any news media (conservative or liberal) that paints things in black-and-white. Second, observe the uniqueness of the Chinese sociopolitical landscape where you can have “government-organized nongovernment organizations” (p. 60). Yes, you read that correctly. Third, Chan comments that “it is sad to observe that often the institutional interest of some overseas Protestant groups seems to supersede the important goal of unity in the Chinese Protestant church” (p. 65). Chan also points out the struggle against division among Chinese ACCs (autonomous Christian communities). This, in part, relates to my question above regarding the, at times, undue influence of well-meaning but misguided Christians from abroad on Chinese cross-cultural mission efforts.
Chan segments the history well to indicate the rapid transformations various local fellowships and networks have undergone at different points of time. Chan gently points out areas of theological weakness, such as the lack of basic understanding among registered (TSPM/CCC) church leaders regarding colored vestments. Chan also offers incisive critique of nonregistered churches (ACCs), offering a set of theological criteria for church,3 and pointing out how many ACCs fall short of those criteria. Chan does not shy away from mentioning some of the problematic practices and complexity of relationships between local Chinese fellowships and foreign Christian influence. Chan is quite thorough in his presentation of the denominational aspect of Chinese Christianity, including a substantial discussion of interdenominational conflict and possible reconciliation. Chan is careful to include smaller groups that could be identified along some definition of “denominational” lines. These include formal and informal groups like politically and intellectually disenfranchised individuals (such as government officials and “cultural Christians”), and relatively isolated minority groups that are de facto denominational (such as Miao, Lahu, Wa, Lisu, and Jingpo).4
Chan hits all the major points here, so there is not much to mention. He discusses the differences between the urban and rural worlds, (and oddly claims that there is “virtually no crossover” between them). He makes special mention of Wenzhou, and does not leave out the “peripheral” regions where there are many fewer Christians or Christian communities (with the exception of a few minority groups).
This is the most emotionally moving chapter of the book. Chan bypasses the most well-known names in recent Chinese Christian history to focus on other influential giants of the faith that have received surprisingly little attention, including three Protestants and one Catholic. The only name likely to be familiar to some readers is Liu Xiaomin, famed writer of many contemporary Chinese hymns, called Canaan Hymns. Chan is an excellent storyteller, and each brief sketch gives good detail but also leaves you hungry for more stories and detail.
In the final chapter, Chan looks at the theological sphere through two lenses: first according to period, and assigning a motif to each period (cross, temple, and golden lampstand), and second by examining theological aspects from different angles. These include “church growth,” a Chinese Catholic perspective, the sheer number of Christians in China, the Chinese church and missions, and projections for what we might anticipate in the future.
While all of these topics are exciting, this chapter may raise the most questions for readers.
For example, due to political constraints, the Chinese church has been restricted from evangelism practices common in “evangelical circles in the US and UK” (p. 177). Chan then queries whether the rapid growth of the Chinese church in the ’80s and ’90s was possibly due to “divine intervention” (p. 178). Yet, in the next paragraph, he avers that another significant factor “may also be sociocultural,” due to a “nationwide religious resurgence” (p. 178). Chan also seems to endorse a form of church growth that can be “harness[ed] and transform[ed] into a program that reproduces the effect” (p. 178). This seems to be evidence of the influence of an Anglo-American evangelical emphasis on techniques that can, like scientific experiments, yield the same results over and over. Chan concludes that most recently this “pragmatic or ideological fulfillment the Chinese church used to offer [became] inadequate” (p. 181), and so the church perhaps once again “needs nothing less than divine intervention” (p. 181) in order to maintain high growth rates. So, does church growth depend on empirically developed techniques imported from the “West,” or does it depend on divine intervention? A little more clarity here would be helpful.
Chan spends significant space discussing Chinese mission potential. He first references early Chinese mission efforts discussed previously in the book, then heavily emphasizes the Back to Jerusalem Movement (BJM/BTJ), popularized among Anglo-American evangelicals with books like Brother Yun’s Heavenly Man. Chan claims that “the current impact in the [Muslim] field is noticeable” (p. 194) but does not support this claim with evidence that would inspire confidence. In fact, the claim is entirely unsupported, an anomaly in a largely well-documented book. Discussion then shifts to the vast supply of Chinese missionaries, though he notes that many of them have very little education or professional skills that would enable their appeal in Muslim regions, let alone training in cross-cultural issues or any significant understanding of Islamic cultures or languages.
Chan points out some sensitive missteps in recent Chinese mission work, including the martyrdom of two missionaries, supported by Korean missionaries, who were kidnapped and later killed by ISIS in 2016. Apparently, the team (thirteen Chinese, in all) were in Pakistan under largely false pretenses as “Chinese language teachers” but were conducting door-to-door evangelism. This does not sound like Chinese Christians who are familiar with suffering and a restrictive environment doing their best to avoid the unwanted attention that Chan spoke of. This should alert us to the possibility that these Chinese missionaries were following the playbook of Anglo-American “platform” missions, where “platform” refers to “the thing you do not really do, or do not do well, so that you can do the thing you want to do.”
Finally, Chan closes with a view to the future noting the rampant division among Chinese Protestants. While he is right, there have also been some significant cooperative developments that should not be discounted. While Chan’s claim that “Chinese Christians are developing their own ecclesial elements unique to their context” (p. 200) is true, it still seems somewhat overstated. Nevertheless, there is great potential for significant and lasting impact. Chinese Christians have a place in the Father’s House.
Understanding World Christianity: China is not a magnum opus, in the sense of a paradigm-shifting argument for which a scholar comes to be known. Instead, it represents a lifetime of service, listening, and observation, bringing out the multi-perspectival essentials of Chinese Christianity, and presenting the complex web of discoveries in a concise and clear format. Chan deftly manages details with panoramic scope and provides thoughtful analysis of many key issues in Chinese Christianity today. His own quotation of a veteran Sinologist talking about watching China is an appropriate conclusion: “Expect the unexpected.”
- You can see Chan’s ChinaSource posts here: https://www.chinasource.org/multi_author/kim-kwong-chan/.
- For those who are unaware, Chan reminds us that “foreigners in China who conduct illegal religious activities, such as spreading religious messages without permission, and whose acts violate the principle of the autonomy of Chinese religion come under the Ministry of National Security which deals with espionage and foreign infiltration” (p. 50).
- The criteria Chan provides are: “teaching authority, ministerial office, polity, and sacraments such as baptism and Eucharist. These criteria define church membership, ecclesiastical structure, and ecclesial self-understanding” (p. 91).
- ChinaSource has highlighted the question of denominations in China in quite a number of blog posts and articles. See: https://www.chinasource.org/?s=denomination.