Film / Book Reviews

How Christianity is transforming China

Aug 2005    

Jesus in Beijing
David Aikman
Regnery Publishing, Inc. 344 pp.US$27.95

book-August 2005

ONE of the most remarkable books published in 2003 is David Aikman’s “Jesus in Beijing”, the provocative title of a volume which deals with how Christianity is “transforming China and changing the global balance of power”.

For many years a Time magazine reporter stationed in Hong Kong, and bureau chief in Beijing for nearly two years, Aikman made numerous visits, some as recently as 2002, interviewing scores of Christian leaders as well as ordinary members, both from the “underground” and the “Three Self” movement.

As a journalistic effort rather than that of an analyst, his style is fairly riveting, but is understandably less sustained in its presentation. Nonetheless, it is an important contribution to our understanding of Christianity in contemporary China.

Briefly sketching the history of Christian influence on China from the Nestorian mission in AD 635, Aikman provides useful material on the subsequent efforts of the Franciscans, the Jesuits, and the Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the 19th century, pioneered by Robert Morrison. He concludes his survey with the apparent eclipse of Christian missions in China when Mao Zedong inaugurated the new China when around 10,000 Western missionaries were expelled. It is estimated there were then approximately three million Roman Catholics and three-quarters of a million Protestants.

But, the seeds of transformation were nurtured by Christian leaders like Wang Mingdao and Watchman Nee, and others who stepped up their evangelistic efforts “especially among China’s frightened urban population …” thereby ensuring a continuity and growth of the Christian community.

These two “patriarchs” were only two of the top layer of a vast number of “uncles”, itinerant evangelists in the provinces, none more spectacular than in the village of Guan Zhuang in Henan province, a halfway house where they preached, evangelised, taught and sometimes baptised new believers, then moving on to another village – an “underground railroad” of clandestine preachers who were responsible for nurturing thousands of house churches. They survived imprisonment and cruel persecution and showed an astonishing zeal and stamina, to say the least.

The “patriarchs” were supported by another layer of workers – “aunts, nephews and nieces”, local leaders, many (perhaps the majority) of them women.

Coming from a village background in Henan, Sister Ding is a good example of an “aunt”, intelligent, well versed in world events and a strategic planner. She and other leaders took turns to pick up Bibles brought in by Hong Kong Chinese and foreign Christians.

Arrested, she refused to give any information, but learnt to be patient in suffering and faithful under persecution. Even in labour camp, she shared her faith with many prisoners whose discipline and morale raised production levels so that she was released ahead of schedule.

Within the story of the Christian movement is the account of why and how the “Three Self” movement was formed at the initiative of the government when China entered the Korean War in 1950. Christian organisations were instructed to terminate all links with Christian groups in the West, “to thoroughly, permanently and completely sever all relations with American missions and all other missions, thus realising self-government, self-support and self-propagation in the Chinese church”.

However, some of the “Three Self” leaders appeared to be closely related to, or were actually members of the Communist Party, and discredited at least some of the evangelical leaders like Wang Mingdao. Wang himself was convinced that Christian clergy should not be involved in the political process and therefore defied the “Three Self” organisation. This has resulted in a tension between the independent house churches and the “Three Self” movement.

An astonishing aspect of the evangelical community is their several hundred underground urban seminaries across the whole of China, most of them staffed by experienced evangelists, pastors and seminary organisers. Providing periods of full-time training in a highly disciplined environment, they operate covertly. Their trained personnel are sent out as evangelists, some with the vision of “when China will become a Christian country”. All of them risk arrest and physical abuse and not a few have been martyred.

Turning to the Catholic Church, Aikman says that it had from the first been slower to turn over leadership to native-born Chinese, while Vatican policy of opposition to the new regime forced Chinese Catholic priests to make a stark choice: either cooperate with the new government and risk perpetual separation from Rome, or refuse and be subject to arrest, imprisonment and torture.

Like the “Three Self” Protestants, the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) was organised in 1957, followed by the election of new bishops and dioceses throughout China against Vatican objections and non-recognition, though ceremonially correct. While never accepting the CPA as the official Catholic organisation in China, the Vatican did not “cast into outer darkness those priests and bishops who had been taken over by the CPA”.

Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.

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