As Joann Pittman skillfully conveys in her new book, The Bells Are Not Silent: Stories of Church Bells in China. the church bells of China provide a valuable—and until now, largely neglected—window into the life of China’s church.
Following her first serendipitous find during a visit to a TSPM church in Sichuan, Pittman launched on a multi-year journey of discovery that led her to steeples across China. The bells she found bring together the church’s past with its present, and serve as a lens through which to understand the Chinese church’s long and arduous, and ultimately victorious, journey.
As Pittman poignantly tells the meticulously researched stories of these bells, this journey unfolds on several levels.
The history of the bells, including where they came from and how they made their way across the ocean to Asia, reaches back into China’s missionary past, bringing to light the lives of those who came from the West to bring the gospel to China. The bells speak of the cultures from whence they came, the churches that sent them, and, as the bells were transplanted into the steeples of Chinese churches, the cultural interaction that was occurring during that period.
Secondly, the bells tell the story of all that the church endured in the years following the missionaries’ departure. The survival of the bells became a metaphor for the survival of the church itself. One of Pittman’s interviewees, when asked how his church’s bell survived Mao’s Great Leap Forward—a time when anything made of metal was seized and melted down to make bombs—responded, “They tried to destroy it, but they couldn’t; it was just too strong.”
Finally, the bells, many which have been rehung in churches newly built during the past three decades, tell of the place of the church in Chinese society today. Pittman’s guides, in addition to providing invaluable snippets of knowledge about the bells, also help to illustrate how the church has changed and adapted to its current environment. Peppered with keen observations gained through her decades of living in China, Pittman’s descriptions of her encounters with these pastors and lay people, who welcomed her into their churches, are rich in cultural insights.
Noël Piper writes in the forward to the book, “It is difficult for us outsiders to grasp the complexities of Christianity in China. But perhaps the bells in this book can help.”
In Pittman’s engaging narrative, the bells indeed ring with remarkable clarity as they bring the reader into the life of China’s church, both past and present.
Image credit: Joann Pittman.
Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of... View Full Bio