Mary Li Ma and Li Jin are Chinese scholars originally from mainland China now based in the US who have been studying the church in China for many years. For this series on research and the indigenous Chinese church, we asked them what advantages they have as indigenous researchers in understanding church development in China. This is their answer.
One obvious advantage we have is our access to what is currently being discussed among Chinese-speaking church-goers, either through our personal social circles or social media. This often gives us strong clues as to which questions of research matter for the present time. For example, when writing Surviving the State, Remaking the Church, we wanted to include the phenomenon of Christian converts quitting their communist party membership because that was a heated pastoral topic in real church life. We are not satisfied with broad-themed discussions on church-state relationships. This “quit or don’t quit” dynamic captures the realism so well like a small prism. So since the use of social media (like WeChat) has become more common among Chinese Christians, we like to do participant observation in cyberspace regarding church dynamics. Recently we have been writing our next book about urban churches’ “mediated publicness,” which was also inspired by our access to ongoing conversations in Chinese Christian circles.
A second advantage is the long-term trust we have built with groups of Christians in China, which is partly possible because of our roles as insiders who walk along with them during changing circumstances. In addition to our academic research, we have been actively serving the church through translation, writing, and networking. As a result, when we interview people, usually through trusted referrals who are mutual acquaintances, people tend to tell us more about what they truly think.
Also, as cultural insiders, we have a tacit knowledge of the culture and can capture the subtler levels of meaning from the behavior and language of our respondents. There are cultural and contextual nuances in how people answer interview questions that are more accessible to us. It is also easier for us to maintain long-term contacts with our respondents because we are considered by them as insiders of the Chinese church.
A third advantage has to do with our past immersion in fields related to China’s social change. Within our respective fields, we both belong to the school of neo-institutionalism which emphasizes the complexity of both formal rules and informal norms of society. These theoretical foundations supplied us with questions that we deem as important. But as indigenous mainland Chinese scholars, we gather from experience and observation that the dynamics of churches, especially their internal governance, are deeply shaped by broader forces of socio-political discourses. To put it in other words, the micro-organisms of local churches in mainland China are embedded in the social currents and undercurrents of the Chinese society as a macro-organism, but China is also integrated into even broader trends of the global economy and what it entails socially. So that has always been our hidden research framework.
Mary Li Ma (MA Li) holds a PhD in sociology from Cornell University. Currently a research fellow at the Henry Institute of Christianity and Public Life at Calvin College, she and her husband LI Jin have coauthored articles, book chapters, and are the authors of Surviving the State, Remaking the Church:... View Full Bio
LI Jin is a PhD student at Calvin Theological Seminary. Prior to seminary he was a PhD candidate in economic history at a Shanghai university. He writes on Christian thought for both public and Christian media outlets in mainland China and Hong Kong. He is a columnist on social and economic issues for China’s largest financial... View Full Bio
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