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Christian Women and Modern China

A Book Review

Christian Women and Modern China: Recovering a Women’s History of Chinese Protestantism, Li Ma. Published by Lexington Books, Lanham, MA, 2021, 256 pages. ISBN-10 ‏1793631565, ISBN-13 978-1793631565, Available from the publisher and on Amazon.

Often the chronicling of China’s mission history features Protestant missionaries with brief mentions of Chinese co-workers. Readers familiar with this history can list numerous foreigners who contributed to the growth of China’s church. But they are probably not familiar with most of the women Li Ma’s book, Christian Women and Modern China: Recovering a Women’s History of Chinese Protestantism highlights. The book interested me precisely because it deals with women’s contributions to the church in China. Ma delves into the lives of Chinese Protestant women by unapologetically placing them front and center in the historical narrative. Women, like the ones mentioned in her book, are still serving China’s church.1

Li Ma’s book traces the influence of Protestant women in society through three eras of Chinese history. Part I, titled “The Era of Revolutions, Missionaries, Physicians, and Reformer Educators” begins in the last years of the Qing Dynasty. Part II, “The Era of Militant Communism: Intellectuals, Resisters, Accommodators” covers early Communist history through the Cultural Revolution. Part III “The Era of Developmental Communism: Influencers, Whistleblowers, Celebrities” is primarily concerned with the era from the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident to the recent past.

Ma aims to recover the women’s histories in Chinese Protestantism by recentering women in the historical narrative. To that end, she places them within religious, political, and social contexts. Ma states that her multi-layered reconstruction seeks to interrupt a hegemonic representation of Christian history as not merely a history of men, but of women who changed society, family life, professional work, and Christian ministry.2 Many women whom Ma researched are mentioned in this book review, but the summarized statements do not begin to describe their incredible lives.

Part 1 details China as it began to emerge from imperialism. As the political reality changed, China recognized women’s usefulness in building a new regime. The women surveyed in this section experienced dramatic transformations and made notable contributions to their country. They were part of a generation of Chinese women educated at Christian schools.

In the late 1800s, the differences in the lives of missionary women and Chinese women were pronounced. Shi Meiyu’s father took note of Western missionary women’s freedoms. He engaged missionary Dr. Katherine Bushnell as his daughter’s tutor.3 Shi received her Doctor of Medicine from the University of Michigan and commenced a career of medical work that included training indigenous medical professionals.4 She and missionary Jennifer Hughes founded the Shanghai Bethel Mission.5

Zeng Baosun and Ding Shujing are also included in Part 1. Zeng’s ancestors were Confucian scholars, but the family converted to Christianity. She founded Yi Fang School for girls and reformed China’s educational system. Zeng is known for synthesizing Confucianism and Christianity. Ding Shujing, a Ginling College graduate, merged her Christian values, feminist aspirations, and negotiation skills to successfully transition the YWCA into an acceptable Chinese institution in the early Communist era.6 She was a champion for women and their needs.

Part II covers the period from Communism’s establishment to the Red Guard rampages. In this era, the women experienced tragedy and triumph. As intellectuals, they were faced with three options—performing their patriotic duties, resisting, or accommodating to the regime. Chapter 5 titled “The Party Could Use You” carries the meaning that the Party could use or take advantage of a person’s expertise toward regime goals. Could use also carries the meaning that a person freely gives their talents and influences to benefit others. The former is how Ma describes the government’s approach, and the latter reflects the desire some of the women possessed. They hoped to be of use to their country. But a complicated relationship existed between Christians and their country. Ma states that the fruits of missionary efforts were left to endure intensifying persecution.7 After missionaries were forced out, the Chinese church faced many hardships.

One example is Zhao Luorui, daughter of theologian T.C. Chao, who returned from abroad at her father’s request to contribute to the new China.8 Zhao was a celebrated literary scholar known for her translations of Walt Whitman and T.S. Elliot. In the end, patriotic intellectuals like Zhao Luorui faced persecution and reeducation schemes during the Cultural Revolution. Ma says, “The life story of Zhao Luorui captures how the century-long Protestant establishment in China disintegrated under communist rule.9

Some of the women survived the abuse suffered by the Red Guard, but others did not. Gu Shengying was a world-renowned pianist from a Christian family, lauded as China’s first international gold medal prize-winning pianist.10 Even though she accommodated to the Communist regime by playing folk music for peasants, the Red Guard tortured her. Rather than face further beatings she, her mother, and her brother committed suicide. The Gus were not the only Christians to commit suicide during the turbulent era.  

Lin Qiaozhi had a distinguished medical career but was demoted to nurse whose duties included cleaning toilets. Eventually, she was reinstated as a physician and went on to train barefoot doctors and midwives, deliver 50,000 babies, and become a consultant with the WHO. Her encyclopedia of Gynecological Tumors was the result of six decades of research. Today she is remembered as a “doctor of mercy” who compassionately tended to patients, teaching her students to do the same.11

Part III primarily concerns two narratives. The first dealing with1950–1970 when churches were either co-opted into the pro-communist apparatus or persecuted to the underground.12 The second narrative commences with the 1989 Tiananmen incident. Throughout both periods the church became more Sinicized and self-organized, including an authorized Bible printing process. Social media, consumerism, and changing society gave a wider berth to Christianity. The Christian women of this era gained important roles in the church and garnered international visibility.

Two examples are Cao Shengjie and Lü Xiomin. Cao became a voice for China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) church. She was the Chinese Christian Council’s (CCC) recording secretary, and later its leader navigating the reopening of the church after Mao Zedong’s closures. She, too, endured the Cultural Revolution as a factory worker, even joining the excessive struggle meetings to protect herself.13 She emerged from the period as the church’s voice assuring the West that the church served the broader patriotic mission of the motherland.14 As Cao rose to prominence in the CCC, the TSPM, and internationally, Lü Xiaomin, a converted Hui, rose to prominence in the house church and internationally, but for a very different reason. Lü was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write songs, producing more than 1800 to date.15 Today her song compilation is called “Canaan Hymns.”16

Lily Hsu and Chai Ling broke with social norms by raising their voices on sexual abuse.

Watchman Nee was a revered and prominent leader of the emergent house church movement of the 1950s through 1970s. Lily Hsu was devoted to Watchman Nee’s ministry. Her book Unforgettable Memories: My Life, Shanghai Local Church and Watchman Nee reveals sexual abuse by Nee. Nee was convicted of rape during his lifetime, but some house churches dismissed the charge as a fabrication. Chai Ling’s story of abuse occurred in the Tiananmen era. Chai Ling and Yuan Zhi Ming were influential student activists. Chai Ling was a Christian in 1989, but her accused, Yuan Zhi Ming became a Christian later. Chai Ling, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, released a public statement in 2015 alleging rape by Yuan Zhi Ming. By that time, Yuan was a pastor in the West.17

The final chapter,“Consumerism, Censorship and Christian Celebrity” in the era of a booming Chinese economy and the emergence of a white-collar class. Among the upper class converts, two actresses, Yuan Li and Yao Chen, have used their fame to speak of Christ and to help others. Their humanitarian efforts led to becoming dubbed as China’s Audrey Hepburn and China’s Angelina Jolie respectively. These women are examples of the power and impact of media on faith.


There is much to commend about Ma’s book. Her research is extensive, revealing the good and the tragic in the history of women in Protestantism. Their stories cannot be told as a mere mission history. It would be a mistake to view their lives through a single lens, and Ma does not permit the reader to do so. The transformation of the women’s lives recorded in Recovering a Women’s History of Chinese Protestantism may have begun with Protestantism, but the stories are more than spiritual or missional. Ma’s narrative is necessarily a holistic one telling their stories from multiple angles—religious, political, social, and cultural. Ma shows us how the women were profoundly formed by the changes China experienced during their lifetimes, becoming swept up in and formed by the tumultuous revolutions and societal changes.

There are a few negatives. Because of Ma’s multi-leveled approach, it can be difficult at times to follow her flow. She intersperses the women’s stories throughout the narrative sometimes interrupting the story with historical or social commentary and detail. This aspect of her writing can be challenging for the reader. A “Chronology” in the front material is helpful in this regard.

In the introductions of the three historical sections, it would have been impactful to introduce the women by name and perhaps a brief introductory statement.18 This would lend credence to the book’s title Christian Women and Modern China: Recovering a Women’s History of Chinese Protestantism and truly recenter the narrative around the women. Recovering their stories means, in part, being able to easily see their names listed and anticipate what each chapter will reveal about them. As a reader, I wanted to scan their names in a roll call, so to speak, and reflect on what I had read about them. One must do a great deal of page-flipping through chapters to find the way back to the names of these incredible women. Still, Li Ma has indeed skillfully presented and recovered a history of women in the context of Chinese Protestantism and modern China.19 Through her writing we discover that the women persevered, truly becoming servants of their country and the church in the best sense of the word.

Our thanks to Lexington Books, Rowman & Littlefield for providing a copy of Christian Women and Modern China: Recovering a Women’s History of Chinese Protestantism for this review.


  1. [1] You can read about some of them in “Women with a Harmonious Purpose—The Missio Dei,” ChinaSource Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring 2021,
  2. Li Ma, “Introduction,” Christian Women and Modern China, xx – xxii.
  3. Shi Meiyu’s progressive father wanted her to become a doctor, nearly unheard of at the time. He also unbound her feet realizing her need to be free to pursue a different kind of life. Shi’s parents also became influential Christians.
  4. Shi returned to China after graduating from the University of Michigan as a missionary for the Methodist Board of Missions. Later she separated from the Board but continued her focus on women’s health and education.
  5. Bethel Mission’s evangelistic bands included evangelists such as John Song and Andrew Gih. The Bethel Bands evangelized throughout China and internationally. See also “10 Women Who Served China,” Chinese Church Voices, May 22, 2018, (accessed September 23, 2021).
  6. Under Ding’s leadership, the YWCA survived the political turmoil of the day making it China’s oldest women’s organization.
  7. Ma, 89.
  8. “New China” refers to the era when Mao rebuilt the country as a Communists republic—The People’s Republic of China.
  9. Ma, 89.
  10. Owning a piano was considered elitist by the Red Guard. This coupled with her extraordinary mastery triggered her persecution.
  11. She is renowned for her habit of treating patients with great humanity and compassion. In 1990 a memorial stamp was minted in her honor.
  12. Ma, 153.
  13. Cao was a colleague of the TSPM’s Ding Guanxun—Bishop Ting, and a contemporary of Wang Ming Dao.
  14. Ma, 134.
  15. Perhaps her most famous song was “5 AM in China.” The song came to her during early morning prayer time and has become an anthem of hope about the motherland for overseas Chinese.
  16. See “5 O’clock in the Morning in China” by Joann Pittman, ChinaSource Blog, August 30, 2019, (accessed September 10, 2021) or “Singing from Underground to the World: Listening to the Music of Contemporary Chinese Christianity,” by XU Song Zan, “A Song in the Night: Chinese Christian Art as Sower, Sustainer, and Disseminator of a Faith Immured,” ChinaSource Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4, December 9, 2019, (accessed September 10, 2021).
  17. The Chinese Christian Life Environment engaged a third-party GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment) to address the rape charges against Yuan Zhi Ming. Three other women came forward. Yuan resigned from his position with China Soul for Christ Foundation, but the foundation challenged the validity of GRACE’s report, Ma, 165.
  18. To be fair, the names can be found in the “Chronology” should the reader utilize this feature.
  19. In the Epilogue, Ma, describes the personal toll taken as she has determined to record Protestantism’s history from an egalitarian perspective and “interrupt the male-dominant narrative,” (Ma, 208). In addition, the reports of sexual abuse in the church have not been sympathetically considered by some evangelical conservatives who have publicly criticized her.
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Hope Bentley

Hope Bentley (pseudonym) served in East Asia for thirty years. She has been involved in teaching and training throughout her cross-cultural career.View Full Bio

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