For those who have not already heard, the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at the Boston University School of Theology is host to a fascinating collection of Chinese Christian Posters. While there are several sites devoted to archiving Communist posters, this is the first website to focus on the Christian propaganda posters that emerged in the wake of the success of the Chinese Communists. This digital archive of 470 images from the first half of the twentieth century offers fascinating insight into the way Chinese Christians at the time understood the gospel for China, Christian witness in a changing China, and the implications of God’s kingdom for a nation in turmoil.
This intriguing image from the Chinese Christian Posters collection is an example of the ways Chinese Christians used propaganda posters of their own to contribute to the political debates that were sweeping the nation. Titled, “Preach Christ, Reform China, 宣传基督 革新中国,” this 1927 publication from the National Christian Council of China presents the forces of Christ defeating the forces of evil. Charging forward at the direction of Jesus, the victorious Christians advertise their ideals of national salvation through the values emblazoned on their flags: justice, humanity, cooperation, equality, bravery, sacrifice, incorruptibility, freedom, fraternity, and truth, with Christianized life and brightness leading the way. These twelve values stand in stark contrast to the now-defeated evils that were afflicting the nation at that time. According to the black flags, China was being held back by such troubles as laziness, hedonism, aggression, cruelty, greed, social class, evil, ignorance, and superstition. This overtly political messaging carried the Christian church of the day directly into contemporary political debates, offering the people of China a new and uniquely Christian vision of national salvation.
To anyone living in China today, these twelve values upheld by the would-be Christian reformers of the 1920s immediately bring to mind China’s current list of twelve political ideals: the Core Socialist Values 社会主义核心价值观. First adopted by the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, the ideals are typically divided into the three categories of national values (Prosperity 富强; Democracy 民主; Civility 文明; Harmony 和谐), social values (Freedom 自由; Equality 平等; Justice 公正; Rule of law 法治), and individual values (Patriotism 爱国; Dedication 敬业; Integrity 诚信; Friendship 友善). These Core Socialist Values are omnipresent in Chinese society, directing all media production on and offline, shaping the curriculum of all schools no matter the level, and covering the walls of shops, neighborhoods, and restaurants across the nation. The recent publication of the “Outline for the Implementation of the Moral Construction of Citizens in the New Era” by the State Council suggest these ideals will only become more dominant in the coming year. As is the case with nearly all Chinese rules and regulations, interpretation and enforcement of these directives can vary widely from location to location as different officials in different environments apply the laws in ways that they perceive to be best for themselves and their locale.
Like Christians during the Republican era, Chinese believers today also would like to shape the values and course of their nation. In the current environment, however, their ability to publicly present an alternative to the official Party ideals is constrained. Since 2018 the Chinese Communist Party has been pursuing a policy of sinicization (中国化) in religious affairs, a process described by government officials in terms of the “four entrances 四进”:
- Raising the Chinese national flag on church properties
- Promoting on church property and teaching believers about the Chinese Constitution and legal requirements—especially the relevant religious affairs regulations
- Promoting on church property and teaching believers about the Core Socialist Values
- Promoting Chinese traditional culture throughout all aspects of church life
Compliance to these requirements, however, is understood by Chinese citizens to be a fluid negotiation. As the popular Chinese saying goes, “the government has its policies but the people have their ways of getting around them 上有政策下有对策.” Many individuals choose to conform in practice, but give vent to their frustrations through dark humor, using social media to spread political jokes that target some of the inconsistencies and follies in state messaging.
One day, a young Chinese cyber-nationalist who wanted to express his patriotism decided to make 12 t-shirts, each printed with one of the 12 words that make up the core socialist values. The plan was to wear one shirt per day in sequence…He was arrested on the second day [the second value is democracy].
Some Christians, however, choose to respond more directly to unwelcomed official requirements. This more active resistance can take many forms, from outright refusals to cooperate to forms of compliance that subtly undermine the intent or purpose of the original request. In some cases the national flag is flown, but it remains lower than any cross on the property and on poles located in out of the way locations: intentional or not, these gestures decrease its importance relative to the church. In other cases propaganda posters are displayed, but again they are placed in areas with low traffic and low visibility. In this recent photo of a registered Catholic church the Chinese flag is raised (but in the car park, and far lower than the church’s crosses) and the religious regulations are publicly displayed (however the white posters hang on the wall of the neighboring property, located in the back right corner behind the tree and the church’s standalone green announcement board).
In addition to attempts such as these to comply in ways that have the least possible effect on church life and witness, there are also instances of churches going on the offensive, appropriating the official propaganda efforts to suit their own purposes.
One church has placed all the mandated state propaganda posters along a lengthy exterior corridor on their property. Having created a space for public messaging, church leaders then interspersed their own placards among the official posters, addressing such topics as the compatibility of faith and science, the contributions of Calvinism towards healthy church governance (!), an introduction to who Jesus really is, how to discern prosperity theology, Biblical principles for financial stewardship, and other distinctly Christian topics of interest to believers and seekers alike.
A while ago I came across a church that chose to feature the Core Socialist Values prominently, right by the entrance to their property. While this kind of public display of compliance would likely assure officials of their loyalty and quite possibly decrease the amount of direct official scrutiny at that particular fellowship, in this case their “compliance” went further. A closer examination of this particular poster reveals that the official text explaining each of the 12 Core Socialist Values has been replaced with Bible verses.
In some cases, the selected verses shift the meaning of these values quite far from the state’s original intentions. For example, where the state defines patriotism as the subordination of the individual’s desires for the benefit of the nation, this poster presents patriotism in terms of Exodus 32:31–33, Psalm 122:6–7, and Romans 9:3. According to these verses, patriots should imitate Moses’s willingness to sacrifice himself so that God would forgive his people, to pray fervently for the peace of Jerusalem, and to be willing to be cursed in order for God’s people to be called back to faithfulness. But beyond the promotion of Christian values in the place of the State’s own priorities, this poster represents a far greater challenge to official intentions. Grounding each of these terms in scripture is a bold proclamation, locating the meaning and significance of each of these terms in God’s Word rather than the pen of a propaganda department cadre. And there is nothing the Chinese Communist Party fears more than Chinese citizens following a different higher authority.
Of course, this is just one poster—a tiny drop amidst a flood of state-managed media that is quite effectively controlling public discourse. And while many churches are able to keep state propaganda confined to the margins of their life and in some cases even publicly inserting their own messages into the mix, just the presence of political posters on church property can influence Chinese believers’ attitudes towards the state.
Given current interest among some sectors of the Chinese Christian population in using Belt Road Initiative-related opportunities to carry the gospel to central Asia and beyond, there is a real risk that the proliferation of political messaging within the church walls may blind Chinese believers towards the dangers of Christendom—of the confusion of identities that has historically occurred when politics, economics, and religion all move in the same direction. Certainly, growing engagement in cross-cultural mission will eventually require the Chinese church to wrestle with the ways nationalism affects Christian identity; but numbness to pervasive government symbols and slogans in the surrounding environment will not make that process easier. Still, these efforts to creatively comply with and appropriate state messaging to safeguard public Christian witness are important signs of the Chinese church’s determination to persevere under increasing restrictions.
For more on the history and use of Chinese Christian propaganda posters, watch for the 2019 winter issue of ChinaSource Quarterly coming out next month on Christians and the arts in China.
Image credit: Apart from the historical poster credited separately, all images are from the author’s own collection.
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