Redeemed by Fire
BY LIAN XI YALE, £30
Lian Xi reports that at the beginning of the 20th century there were approximately 80,000 baptised Chinese Protestants. There are now 50 million. This phenomenal expansion has largely been a home-grown affair.
During the first five decades of the 20th century western Protestant missionaries (as many as 23,000, half of them American) continued to flood in to China, but they faced mighty obstacles. Their version of the faith was often seen as alien and it would always be associated with dark memories of the previous century during which Christianity had so often been linked to the use and abuse of Western imperial power. The true dynamism of modern Chinese Protestant Christianity would stem from the indigenous population and, as Lian Xi explains, it would turn out to be a decidedly idiosyncratic and admirably resilient religious tradition.
The author identifies various key characteristics. It was often tinged with nationalism and promoted itself as a direct competitor to western Christian models. It exhibited a penchant for messianic musings, millennial expectancy, biblical literalism and charismatic ecstasies and it often had greatest appeal among the rural and lower-class populations.
It also came in many shapes and forms and Lian Xi provides a satisfying tour through its turbulent history. He examines 19thcentury forerunners such as the Taiping movement, early independent groups like the True Jesus Church and the Jesus Family of the 1920s, the visionand prophecy-rich Shandong Revival of the 1930s, and other influential preachers and leaders.
He ends with an analysis of the emergence of unauthorised “house churches” in the last quarter of the century and some interesting words on the influential role popular Christianity is likely to play in China’s future.
The transformation of modern China’s Christian landscape has required a very bumpy journey. First, there were the muddled years of the 19th-century during which the spread of Christianity was routinely seen, in one historian’s phraseology, as just another part of “the western invasion”: something supported by “gunfire and unequal treaties”. Not every 19thcentury western missionary was a scoundrel but the linkage between anti-Western and anti-Christian sentiment was a recurrent cultural motif – summed up most spectacularly in the bloody events of the Boxer Rebellion. Next, there came a century’s worth of indigenous Chinese Protestant exploration. As the author writes, it spilled “beyond the boundaries of Western Christianity in both theology and practice” but its ingenuity and radicalism are not so hard to explain. Social turmoil, the ravages of war, poverty and disease, and unhealthy doses of repression have always tended to push Christians towards bold and/or audacious theological positions.
This book draws on an impressive range of sources in order to provide a fluently written introduction to the Chinese variant of this familiar but always fascinating pattern.