Listening to Chinese Christians

Erhai Lake, Yunnan China. Image from Wikipedia.

Tim Stafford had an article Listening to Chinese Christians in the March/April issue of Books and Culture on a book by Liao Yiwu, God Is Red.

Liao Yiwu is a poet, street musician, and chronicler of modern China who has persisted in antagonizing the Chinese government. After the Tiananmen Square massacre he wrote a protest poem that helped get him imprisoned for four years. Later he traveled about China describing lives of people who don’t fit the Chinese ideal—”hustlers to drifters, outlaws, and street performers, the officially renegade and the physically handicapped, those who deal with human waste and with the wasting of humans, artists and shamans, crooks, even cannibals.” Harassed by the government and refused permission to travel abroad, he escaped from China through Vietnam in 2011.

But not before publishing God Is Red, a book based on interviews with diverse Chinese Christians. Liao makes clear that he is not a Christian himself, despite the attempts of some of these believers to convert him. He is fascinated by the vitality of the churches, however, and by the tenacity and courage of individuals he came to know.

I have begun reading Liao’s book – and it is fascinating. Stafford continues in his review of God is Red:

All the same, he undermines (perhaps inadvertently) what has become the Standard Narrative: that foreign missionaries never adapted to Chinese life or had much success in building the church; that only when persecution came did the church explode in amazing numbers. Liao’s Christians tell a different story: of missionaries who lived sacrificially and won tremendous loyalty and love from Chinese people; of a church that almost ceased to exist under communist terror, with its members abandoning their faith (or at least any visible observance of it) or disappearing during waves of brutal repression; of a church that exploded in numbers only after the worst persecution ended, in 1979, when pastors were let out of prison and rehabilitated and churches were allowed to function again.

I found this paragraph particularly interesting. It was a large part of the reason I picked up and am now reading the book. It has become common, even in relatively conservative Christian circles, to view the Christian missionary movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as something of a colonialist, imperialist failure. Certainly the emphasis on missions has decreased dramatically, or so it seems. I wonder though, how much of this negative image is true.

What is your view of the foreign missionary movement?

What kind of mission work should the church engage in?

My grandfather was a missionary in China with the Christian and Missionary Alliance from 1921-1926. He was based somewhere around Wuchow (now written Wuzhou) in South China, between Hong Kong and Vietnam, with some involvement in what now seems to be Vietnam (it is not clear how to decipher all of the place names). It was a time of civil war and significant unrest in the region. We have copies of the Alliance Weekly with reports of the mission in South China including reports from my grandfather. This one from 11/25/22  gives some idea:

After our annual conference in September political conditions prevented our return to Lungchow via the West River. War was waging between Nanning and Lungchow, consequently all traffic was stopped above Nanning. Desirous of returning to our station before the victorious Kwong Tung army, Mr. Sension and I were granted permission by the Committee to proceed via French Indo-China. Mrs. Worsnip was to travel by launch to Nanning and await further instructions. Our experiences during this trip, how we were captured by Annamese and Chinese revolutionists and taken for French spies: how the Bolsheviki soldiers had determined to kill us; and how the officers protected and liberated us, the readers of ALLIANCE will have seen through Mr. Sension’s detailed article on this subject.

Lungchow is now spelled Longzhou. After a number of incidents – one of which involved a rapid retreat before an advancing army – my grandfather married my grandmother in Wuchow, South China (also a missionary with CMA, I have a copy of the marriage announcement found in an old Chinese bible). Within a year or so after their marriage they left China because of the civil war and unrest. He worked their way home on a ship by joining the Merchant Marine (so family legend tells me).

Diqing, Yunnan China. Image from Wikipedia.

The region Liao visited, where he conducted the interviews in the book was a bit further west, in Yunnan Province, up in the mountains. The picture Liao paints in the book is of missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, who established schools and hospitals, cared for orphans, preached the gospel, and won the hearts of many people – many of whom stood firm in the faith through almost three decades of persecution from the early 50’s until 1980 or so. It was a far cry from the official version Liao had been taught “when Western missionaries were portrayed as “evil agents of the imperialists” who enslaved the Chinese mind, killed Chinese babies, and ruined indigenous cultures.” (p. xviii)

The church in China is not thriving because of western imperialism – and it did not vanish during the communist persecution. Some of the letters home printed in the Alliance Weekly and other newsletters from the early 20th century certainly contain comments that would raise eyebrows today. But they also exhibit a real concern for the people, as people, not merely as souls to be won. The reports are full of references to the local churches and the local pastors leading these churches. The missionary work appeared to concentrate on schools and education at various levels. Seeds were planted by Christians following the great commission to make disciples and to love God and love others.

There is much we can learn by listening to Chinese Christians. I will post on some of the interviews, places described by Liao Yiwu in  God Is Red in upcoming weeks.

Because of the family history I always payed special attention to missions and missionary efforts when it came up in church and in other contexts. Visits by missionaries on furlough, presentations concerning the building of hospitals in Africa, schools in India, and Churches in Asia were a staple of Sunday school, Evening services, and special meetings. But they’ve all but disappeared from the evangelical church. Perhaps this is merely the changing tide of time – a new context and a new emphasis. The world is smaller, and missionary work less important. But I wonder if this is the major impetus. It is a topic worth some discussion.

Should we have more emphasis on missionary work today?

Where and how? or Why not?  What has changed?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you would like to comment please see Listening to Chinese Christians at Jesus Creed.

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