Researching Chinese Christianity: (Mis)conceptions and revelations

Gerda Wielander is Principal Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Westminster, London, and researcher at the university’s Contemporary China Centre. She is the author of Christian Values in Communist China (2013) published as part of Routledge’s Contemporary China Series.—The Editors


Over the last decade the growth of China’s Protestant Christian population has garnered considerable attention from foreign academics and journalists. The seeming paradox of a growing Christian faith in a ‘repressive, atheist environment’ has fuelled much research – often inspired by religious zeal on the part of the authors – which has increased our understanding of the religion’s expansion and impact. These studies remain firmly within the entrenched paradigm of contemporary Chinese Christianity as a movement in opposition to the state. Adopting a non-religious approach, my own recent study aimed to find out what really was the social and political impact of Christianity in China today. [1] Are Chinese Christians a new moral vanguard? And if so, does this moral vanguard constitute a challenge or a pillar of support for the Chinese leadership? Will Chinese Christians usher in political change or would they even welcome it? Is there a significant link between political liberalism and Christian values, ideas and faith in China today?

In December 2012, a petition signed by seventy-one academics and lawyers from ‘within the system’ called on the government to implement the country’s constitution, which guarantees the freedom of speech, assembly, publication and religion, as well as the freedom to demonstrate. While stopping well short of the demands of Charter 08, the petition did demand an independent judiciary, the eligibility of non-party candidates to stand for elections to people’s congresses and actual inner party democracy. This emphasis on the constitution is not a new demand. Its proper implementation as a key factor in China’s political reform has been pioneered by Chinese Christian liberal intellectuals like Wang Yi 王怡and Fan Yafeng 范亚峰since the start of the millennium; the ready acceptance of these concepts in the language of political negotiation ‘within the system’ reflects in some ways the impact of Christian liberal thinking on political debates in China today.

This thinking includes the importance of a ‘transcendental source of values’ outside the human realm and the innate knowledge of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ on the basis of such transcendental values, commonly referred to as ‘conscience’ (liangzhi 良知). Both concepts are not alien to Chinese cultural traditions; they resonate with concepts like dao 道 and tian 天and notions of liangxin 良心as used in contemporary rural China.[2]

Christian intellectuals were also the driving force behind the recently published ‘Oxford Consensus 2013’, a commitment by intellectuals of different backgrounds to work together to address challenges facing China and the world.[3] Christian thought has also gained importance at the grassroots level as individuals rely on available and credible moral frameworks to articulate their grievances and give meaning to their lives in an increasingly insecure world. At the same time, the government in the form of the party-state, which claims that its guiding ideology is based in fairness, (more) equal distribution and enabling a basic livelihood (minsheng 民生), is keen to propose a new moral framework capable of binding individuals, including its own party members, into ethical behaviour.

Christian values have not only had an influence on China’s transformation; their more notable existence in China today is in itself a symptom of China’s transformation. Chinese Christians represent a significant voice in what is already a much more diverse and pluralistic society than twenty years ago. While comparatively small in number, Chinese Christians regardless of denomination have often been presented in mainland media as people of principled behaviour and superior moral standards. Even when keeping a low profile, Chinese Christians are noticeable for their behavior [4], often through what they no longer take part in as a result of their faith and resulting code of ethics: the refusal to join the compulsory singing sessions of party songs, which are still part of political education on campus; the refusal to take financial hand-outs when the source of the funds is dubious; the refusal to engage in business practices and banquets involving sexual encounters.

Belonging to a church community provides the moral support necessary to act on one’s convictions during the week. It also offers opportunities to organise and carry out collective activities, which require negotiation, compromise and democratic decision-making processes. For highly able, idealistic and ambitious individuals, churches also provide a chance to lead and to promote new ideas and ideals and to potentially influence current thinking beyond the immediate circle of their own congregations. This last function is of particular significance for a generation of church leaders and ‘pastor-intellectuals’, for whom the events of 1989 led to a profound disillusionment with their formerly held beliefs in the socialist ideal and the party and to a reorientation towards Christianity.

In addition to recognizing these factors, however, any attempt to evaluate the social and political impact of Christianity must also consider those factors that prevent Christianity from being a transformative force in today’s China. It is therefore important to point out that those voices which are most articulate and best connected, are also very conservative voices indeed. Their actions are guided by a worldview that promotes complementarian gender roles and considers homosexuality a sin.[5] They display little tolerance for those they consider to hold ‘incorrect’ Christian beliefs and show only modest interest or tolerance for believers of different faiths. In particular, they evince remarkably little sympathy (certainly not one that is expressed publicly) for the plight of Tibetan Buddhists, even in publications overseas.

Patriarchy and traditional gender roles and expectations seem to be replicated and reinforced in the contemporary churches to a considerable degree. This is most obvious where church leadership, theological direction and evangelical outreach are concerned. One rarely finds female leadership figures in the contemporary Chinese churches, and one is more likely to find them within the Three-Self Protestant Movement churches, the official Protestant church organisation in China. The most prominent voices in the debates on Christianity, whether so-called ‘Cultural Christians’ (wenhua jiditu 文化基督徒) or the younger generation of Protestant intellectuals and church leaders, whether in China or abroad, are predominantly male. It appears that traditional gender roles and notions of male intellectual prowess conspire to create an agenda and future direction of the churches determined by highly educated, middle-aged Chinese men whose leadership many educated Chinese women unquestioningly accept.

Generally speaking, people take to Christianity because they are looking for something to ameliorate the daily physical and psychological aches and pains they experience. In particular, women have found religious faith helpful in dealing with the daily pressures and troubles of marriage and home life [6] Personal psychological dilemmas and conflicts bring people (mostly women) to churches, where they find solace in the preaching of the Christian doctrine that one should love those who are not lovable, that all humans are sinners and that therefore everybody (including indifferent or cruel husbands) needed their love and God’s. It seems that today’s Christian women, not unlike their socialist counterparts of earlier decades, are called upon to do the loving and understanding, which, in the complementarian view of gender relations prevalent in most Chinese churches, including Three-self patriotic movement churches, often means a quiet deferral to the men’s leadership and wishes. In short, women are regarded as helpers, not leaders. To this extent, the churches could be seen to perpetuate patriarchy, even though they also arguably contribute to the women’s individual well-being and happiness

The fact that more women attend church than men may also have to do with gender expectations regarding the expression of emotions. In Chinese culture, spirituality is often expressed through crying [7]; consequently, in Chinese churches, the more visibly emotional an individual is, the more receptive to God’s spirituality they are perceived to be. Many Chinese men regard the public expression of emotion as a sign of immaturity, weakness and as showing lack of self-control.[8] Consequently, deep devotion to Christianity among Chinese men, especially educated men, has most often found an outlet in advanced theological study. This has led theology to be a male dominated Christian space, one in which a ‘rational’ church leadership provides guidance through scripture, or words, rather than Christian feelings.

This espousing of  male-centered rationality can be seen in many urban churches and is closely tied up with the concept of suzhi 素质, a term that features heavily in Christian writings. Raising the suzhi of congregations, of the pastor, of theological training, of the cultural level, and of particular social groups targeted in evangelising efforts, is central to the concerns expressed in Christian publications and discussions. In this discourse, low suzhi seems to be associated with the rural, the female, the migrant, the ‘outsider’, the overly spiritual, the irrational and thus corresponds to similar forms of differentiation in other sectors of Chinese society. The appeal of the Christian faith is that it is associated with higher levels of suzhi.

Accusations of ‘outside interference’ in Chinese affairs are standard in the official discourse on religion and politics and rarely considered worth further investigation. In the case of Christianity there is no question that Chinese outside China, many of whom left China post 1989, whether as a direct result of their involvement in the democracy movement or as graduate students in the early 1990s, play an important part. They are partly responsible for the link that has been created between Christianity and political resistance. The religious question in China is now generally framed as a human rights issue and has thus appeared on the agenda of human rights organizations abroad. Chinese Christians have also created their own advocacy or mission-based organisations, some of whose members are fiercely anti-Chinese government and have found an open ear in sections of the US media and lobby groups which are connected to the American evangelical movement. As a result these Chinese Christian organisations can draw on considerable resources and influence to help their membership, including assisting individuals who face political harassment to leave China.

More moderate Chinese Christians include mainland-born individuals who are now based overseas but who frequently travel back to China and are closely involved with church building in China. Their firsthand experience of the situation allows them to speak with authority on behalf of other Chinese Christians. Prominent Christians such as Liu Tongsu 刘同苏urge caution and conciliation, cooperation and consensus – as far as it is possible – in dealings with the Chinese government.

The main theological trend to which these individuals belong is the ‘New Calvinist’ school, which expects a degree of social engagement of their believers as individuals and through their churches. Staying clear of conflict is not always easy for the activist-minded Christian. ‘New Calvinist’ church leaders in China, do not call for immediate political change, placing emphasis instead on positive changes already underway, such as the increasing pluralism and diversity of Chinese society. They see political change as inevitable but urge their congregations to focus on the more immediate work of church building, theological training and spiritual elevation.

The international media’s emphasis on the suppression of religion and persecution of individual Christians obscures what may be considered a considerable overlap between the Chinese government’s agenda and the mission of Chinese Christian organisations. Far from the relationship between Christianity and the government being a one-way relationship of oversight and control, both local and central governments are willing to learn lessons from Christian organisations and individual Christians. Indeed, Chinese Christians can also become actors in the interest of the Chinese party-state.

Looking at the work of contemporary Chinese missionaries in minority regions throws up interesting questions, for example. During the Republican period, many non-Han ethnic groups embraced Christianity as a rejection of sinicisation while regarding Christianity and contacts with foreigners as offering alternative pathways towards modernisation. This tied in with the efforts by Western missionaries to bring to the minority groups not just the Christian gospel, but also the ‘civilisation’ of modern Christian nations, in the form of  health and hygiene, science and technology.[9] Translation of the Bible (and sermons) into the languages of these ethnic groups was a very important aspect of this endeavor.

By contrast, today’s Chinese missionary efforts in ‘minority regions’ all rely on the Chinese Bible and Putonghua as the medium of evangelisation. The ‘salvation’ preached by contemporary Chinese missionaries overlaps considerably with state-sponsored civilising projects of ‘liberation’ from cultural poverty and backwardness implemented in recent decades. Where Christian migrant workers are involved in rural evangelising, they often consciously act urban and preach in Putonghua, to show their ability to speak standard Chinese and to link Christianity with urban aspirations and high suzhi.

Self-styled ‘moderate’ or ‘rational’ Chinese Protestant Christians are keen to distance themselves from practices that are too closely associated with superstition, like speaking in tongues or having dreams and visions. Their attitude ties in with the rationality of the Chinese party-state’s modernising project. Such Christians are skeptical about tales of miraculous healing as they emerge from the Chinese rural churches, but they are willing to accept ‘miracles’ that can be explained by science such as when faith healing is ostensibly proven by medical tests or described using medical terminology. In their efforts to draw the line between the orthodox (zheng 正) and the heterodox (xie 邪), Christian groups concerned with this question come very close to the benchmarks employed by the party-state. They have tended to label the more rural, spiritual, and genuinely indigenous Christian groups that have emerged in the reform era as backward, unenlightened and dangerous. Thus, instead of strengthening ethnic or local communities through Christianity, in their condemnation of such practices the contemporary mainstream Chinese Christian mission uses similar arguments as those of the party-state.

The framing of the religious question in China through the distorting lens of political repression, human rights violation and dissent, has perhaps led us to ask the wrong questions. In our attempts to better understand the role and function of Christianity in China today, we need to step around the signposts planted by various interest groups in order to gain a fuller picture of the complex and dynamic realities of this important social phenomenon.

[1] Gerda Wielander, Christian Values in Communist China, Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2013.

[2] Helen Oxfeld, Drink Water, But Remember the Source. Moral Discourse in a Chinese Village, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

[3] Ian Johnson, Q&A: Yang Fenggang on the Oxford Consensus and Public Trust in China

[4] See for example Gao Shining, Dangdai Beijing de jidujiao yu jidutu. Zongjiao shehuixue ge’an yanjiu (Christianity and Christians in Beijing Today. A Case Study in Sociology of Religion), Hong Kong: Logos and Pneuma Press, 2005.

[5] Complementarianism is a theological term, which holds that men and women hold different but complementary roles in the family, society and the church.

[6] This emerged as the main reason for attending bible groups or church by all my female interviewees. It is also a prevalent topic in the Christian publications I have analysed. See in particular chapter three of Wielander (2013).

[7] Haiyan Lee, Revolution of the Heart. A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.

[8] Nanlai Cao, Constructing China’s Jerusalem. Christians, Power and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011, p.113.

[9] Francis K.G. Lim, ‘”To the Peoples”. Christianity and Ethnicity in China’s Minority Areas’, in Christianity in Contemporary China. Socio-cultural Perspectives, New York: Routledge, 2013, pp.105-20.