Li Ma (2019) Christianity, Femininity and Social Change in Contemporary China. City: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. Available at Palgrave Macmillan.
Christianity, Femininity and Social Change in Contemporary China by Li Ma, is not a book to be read in one sitting, however gripping the various accounts! Like so many of the books about China that recount the lives of ordinary people, and women in particular, it is not easy reading. Repeated stories in which abusive relationships; be they between spouses, parents and children, mothers- and daughters-in-law, as well as with parents absent both physically and emotionally; suggest prevalent patterns in the society.
Anyone reading this book who has previously read XinRan’s seminal work The Good Women of China. Hidden Voices (2003) will find echoes of it in Ma’s work as she gives voice to women in 21st century China. In this oral history collection, women share their lives, the political and economic backdrops, as well as the nature of their relationships with their mothers, and the impact that their Christian faith has had on them. They have shown great moral courage in remembering and recounting their pasts in ways that “restore truth, selfhood, and human dignity” (p. 200). They hold out hope for future generations, which is also the book’s main purpose. This is what gives it a different angle to other books that reveal the deep pain that invariably lingers around life for many in China even those with apparent success. As Ma expresses “the narratives of trauma, eruptions of drama and tales of grace are evocatively juxtaposed to provoke reflection” (p. 205) by a generation that is prepared to do this rather than “forget.”
Ma began her research in 2006 looking into emerging urban Protestant churches where she found over 50% of the people with whom she made contact were women. She realized their stories tapped into various key areas of interest often overlooked, even if interviewees were not fully representative.
Questions she began to explore, and which underlie the book, are how gender influenced the women’s understanding of Christianity, the nature of mother-daughter relationships, what influenced their conversion, how the church context altered both their family relations and their career choices.
Life stories are told of fourteen women with pseudonyms, all born around or after 1978, mostly highly educated and with a degree of financial security. Some of the chapters have titles with clear biblical allusions such as “prodigal,” “lost sheep,” mustard seeds” while others point to telling issues like “suicide,” “schizophrenia,” “negative emotions,” “looming tragedy,” “upward mobility.” All seem to trace the cycle of sin and pain down generations and, as Meng observed, “I see my family as a miniature tragedy of rural China” (p. 67). There is alienation, abandonment, emotional distance, abuse, misunderstanding. We read of the great ache that can be attributed to social customs like arranged marriages, political movements like the Cultural Revolution, Party policy like the One Child Policy, economic conditions with marketization and urbanization bringing material prosperity, migrant labor, family dysfunctionality.
It would leave one thoroughly depressed were there not some light shining through as, one by one, they came to a knowledge of Jesus Christ and their Christian faith enabled them to move forward, even if it did not make everything easier. Long noted, “My Christian faith has been a way to solve day-to-day problems” (p. 151) while Xu said, “Life became lighter when I tried to get close to God” (p. 164). Reasons given for conversion naturally varied but there were some recurrent themes too. They were pushed by disillusionment with the official ideology of atheism; cynicism of the Communist Party, trauma within their family, reaction to the burdensome family expectations of success and achievement, awareness of personal sin. They were drawn by Christian grandparents and parents, church attendance in early years that left a residue, exposure to new worldviews through meeting foreign Christians or studying abroad, meeting sympathetic Chinese Christians who held out hope.
Although faith frequently led to increased conflict within the family, strength was also given to face and deal with long-standing conflicts in ways that led to reconciliation and even appreciation between mother and daughter. As younger women took courage and opened up, “broken links” were mended. Wan presciently commented, “A big challenge remains: maybe we have never been prepared for an impending crisis” (p. 38). Given the Covid-19 challenges, it will be fascinating in the coming months and years to hear stories of how the faith and faithfulness of women have made a difference as they have risen.
In a book such as this, which one would hope to reach people who want to understand China and the Chinese church more or who are simply curious, a simple map showing places from where each of the women came, would be a helpful addition. Some of the explanatory material in the endnotes of each chapter, usually only a couple of sentences, could possibly have been woven into the concluding commentary of each chapter. Finally, the rather academically dry title does little to draw a wider audience to enter and hear the voices of the women captured within this informative and worthwhile book of some of God’s women in China.
Our thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for supplying a copy of Christianity, Femininity and Social Change in Contemporary China by Li Ma for this review.
Image credit: João Silas on Unsplash.
Andrea Klopper has taught in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and China. She has mentored Mandarin language students and developed a cultural orientation and acquisition program which she used in two organizations. One of her passions is researching the lives of expats in her city pre-Liberation. She enjoys reading, cycling …View Full Bio
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