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Bringing the Gospel to Guangxi

Arthur Lin, The History of Christian Missions in Guangxi, China. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2019.

While Guilin is often considered a “must see” tourist site, with its mandatory Li River cruise offering stunning views of mountain peaks straight out of a classic Chinese painting, Guangxi province itself remains, for many, a relatively unknown corner of China.

Arthur Lin’s history of missions in Guangxi helps to fill in this gap, bringing alive much of the history, geography, and ethnic diversity of the region. Part of the ongoing Studies in Chinese Christianity series edited by G. Wright Doyle and Carol Lee Hamrin of the Global China Center, Lin’s work relies primarily on the words of missionaries who served in the region. Meticulously researched and skillfully narrated, Lin’s documentary portrait gives voice to the hundreds, many of them martyrs, who brought the Christian gospel to Guangxi.

Lin begins with a colorful overview of the region’s history as a seedbed for rebellion, most notably the Taiping uprising, one of several peasant movements emerging in Guangxi in the middle of the 19th century. Feuding warlords in the opening decades of the 20th century were followed by Mao’s revolutionary troops and Japanese air raids, before Guangxi was finally subsumed into the newly created People’s Republic of China.

Marked by oppressive heat, wild animals, disease, treacherous rivers and the awe-inspiring karst peaks that divided the province into myriad isolated valleys, the inhospitable environment of Guangxi was matched only by the fierce resistance encountered by missionaries who found that the province was “bitterly opposed to the preaching of Christianity within its borders.” (p. 10) Superstition was rampant among the peasants, who comprised numerous language groups. Thievery, vandalism and kidnapping at the hands of bandits were common.

Following several chapters in which he chronicles the entrance and subsequent work of both Catholic and Protestant missions, Lin highlights a number of prominent missionaries, looks at how various groups related to one another, and analyzes their methods, including how the missionaries reached out to various segments of Guangxi’s population. Rounding out the book are chapters on martyrdom and the personal cost to the missionaries, as well as an evaluation of their results.

Lin brings the story up to date by comparing the Christian presence in the early 1950s, when the missionaries departed China, with that of today, acknowledging growth but also noting Guangxi’s low percentage of believers relative to other provinces: “To the unaware visitor,” Lin writes, “Guangxi still shows little evidence of having been impacted by the gospel.” (p. 135)

Lin also notes that contemporary lists of unreached peoples still include Guangxi’s Zhuang, Dong, Miao, Hui, and Yao minorities, suggesting the ongoing need for concerted outreach toward these groups.

Researchers and historians will find ample fodder for further exploration in the two appendices, which provide detailed statistics gleaned from missionary records and a rich collection of comments from missionaries about their life in Guangxi.

Of the observations to be drawn from Lin’s survey, perhaps most striking is the receptivity to the gospel that occurred during one of the most difficult periods in China’s contemporary history. While much of Lin’s account dwells on the persistent rejection faced by the missionaries and the many setbacks caused by unrest, sickness, and the harsh environment, the picture changed dramatically in the early 1940s, when China was under siege by Japan:

The war conditions, were, of course, not conducive to Guangxi’s economic development. But spiritually, a new openness prevailed and the CMA [Christian and Missionary Alliance] reported a record year in 1941. In the aftermath of the war, the opportunities for spiritual work were unprecedented. (p. 129)

Lin goes on to describe the continued openness that prevailed, at least for a season, following the founding of the PRC:

In 1949, the Communists took over the country, but this did not immediately constrain the church. In 1950, Rev. Desterhaft (CMA) wrote,

The present circumstances have, in most districts, caused the attendance at Sunday worship services to increase instead of decrease. In some churches there has been an increase of nearly fifty percent, and in all churches at least a twenty-five per cent increase. The reason for this, as one speaker said, ‘People’s hearts are suffering bitterly and they now love to listen to the Word of God. (pp. 129-130)

Apart from missionary quotes noting the remarkable change of spiritual climate during this time, Lin does not elaborate on the spiritual or missiological implications. From this reader’s perspective, a bit more analysis and reflection could have strengthened Lin’s careful documentary work. Nevertheless, Lin’s valuable contribution to the history of Chinese Christianity fills out an important chapter, the significance of which extends beyond the borders of Guangxi and even China.

Our thanks to Wipf and Stock Publishers for providing a copy of The History of Christian Missions in Guangxi, China for this review.

Image credit: Judith Scharnowski from Pixabay.