Rays of a Spiritual Renaissance in China

Nowhere are the follies of tyrannical government more evident than in its vain attempts to quash people’s faith with brutal oppression. In the words of the early Christian, Tertullian, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Deep within the soul of the Christian is the final recognition that ultimately there is no reason to fear those who can harm the body, but those who can harm the soul.

Former Time Beijing Bureau Chief, David Aikman has written a fascinating account of the history of Christianity in China in his new book Jesus In Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (published by Regnery, a sister company of Human Events), the government’s on-again, off-again persecution of the Christian faith and the implications of Christianizing so vast a nation. His story is gathered from numerous interviews and confidential sources. The book is dedicated to the martyrs, Chinese and foreign missionaries, from 635 A.D. onward.

Christianity has reached into every echelon of society according to Aikman, from peasants to students, from artists to journalists and even among military and government officials. Though, for obvious reasons, not every person in these groups wants his or her identity publicized.

The daughter of Li Peng, the former premier, studied in Japan and converted to Christianity. Zhang Boli, a student dissident, was on the 21-Most-Wanted List after Tiananmen Square, became Christian before escaping from China in 1991. He is now the pastor of two Chinese churches in Washington, D.C. His fellow countryman, Xiong Yan, who was also on that favored list, is now preparing to be a U.S. Army chaplain.

Christian roots in China go back to 653 A.D. when the Nestorian Christians, who rejected the idea of Mary as Theotokos, Mother of God, arrived. Marco Polo set out with two Dominicans who got cold feet along the way but was requested by Kublai Khan to bring 100 missionaries.

Eventually, the Roman Catholics obtained a foothold and began building their base in China, against the wishes of the Nestorians. Jesuit Father Francis Xavier died while waiting to enter China. Matteo Ricci, who picked up on his dream of missionary work, was followed by other Jesuits who further strengthened the role of the Catholic Church in China. The Jesuits typically tended toward the conversion of the upper classes while the Dominicans, Augustinians and Franciscans focused on the conversions of the common people.

Protestant missionaries also did a great deal of evangelization in China. Periodically, Christians would fall out of favor with the ruling class and persecution would result. The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was one such time. During the 1920s and 1930s, western missionaries still operated in China even during civil war. By 1949, Mao Zedong and the Communists had seized control and 10,000 missionaries were forced to leave the country. Persecution of Christians proceeded at full throttle.

Two officially sanctioned state church groups were established: one for Catholics (Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association) and one for Protestants (The Three Self). In 1949, with 3,274,740 Roman Catholics and 936,000 Protestants, government officials deemed it necessary to force ecclesiastical cooperation. They feared the influence of 429 middle and high schools, 538 hospitals which were run by Christians. Churches and pastors who did affiliate themselves with the respective groups faced persecution, torture, imprisonment, and death.

Wang Ming Dao was the founder of the Christian Tabernacle. He refused to join the Three Self and spent 22 years in prison. Allen Yuan also spurned the Three Self and spent 21 years in prison deriving comfort from Psalm 27 and the hymn The Old Rugged Cross.

Moses Xie, another despiser of the Three Self, spent 24 years in prison. Upon his arrest he spent 133 consecutive days handcuffed so tight that the metal cut through to the bone. After so much torture he tried to commit suicide by sticking his hands in an open socket. The cuffs derailed the electricity and he fell to the ground.

Afterwards, he said he heard in Chinese very clearly, three times, “My grace is sufficient for you.” (Corinthians 12:9) Xie tells Aikman, “God’s grace was really strong. When I was beaten after this I didn’t feel the pain.” Xie was released under Deng Xiaoping, who allowed prisoners over the age of 60 to leave provided they had already served 20 years. His wife, who had been under constant surveillance during his imprisonment, fled to the United States but Xie remained behind to train future church leaders.

Li Tianen was assigned two fellow prisoners to make sure he didn’t move his lips at night and pray. He was to have been executed three separate times and something happened each time to delay the execution. During an uprising, his nemesis, who had been seeking the executions, wound up in the same cell with him wounded. He told Li, “I was ready to execute you three times, but the Jesus you believe in protected you. Marx was not able to save me. Now I believe the Gospel you believe in is real.” Li told him, “Your sins are great, but God’s grace is greater.”

The “Uncles,” the elders, who teach the faith, are more plentiful in the country than in the cities. Yet in the cities and in the country, there are movable seminaries depending on the severity of government harassment.

The Catholic Church suffers still from the split caused by the officially sanctioned “patriotic” Church and the underground. The government had a much more difficult time trying to gain control of the Catholic Church. Communist oppression of Catholics and priests has been rampant. By 1953, 300 plus priests were rotting in prison. The last American prelate, Bishop James E. Walsh was arrested in 1960 and not released until 1970. Kangaroo courts were established under Mao for the purpose of having the clergy sign manifestos denouncing their superiors. Hence, they could be branded “counterrevolutionaries.”

Bishop Ignatius Kung was taken in to custody at the end of 1955 and not released until 1998. Bishop Fan Zueyan, 85, died one day prior to his scheduled released while serving a ten-year sentence. His body exhibited signs of torture. Brett M. Decker, a Washington Times editorial writer and former editorial writer of the Asian Wall Street Journal observed, “At Christmas and Easter, like clockwork they beat up priests and throw them in jail.”

While the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association went ahead with five consecrations of bishops without a papal mandate early in 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese martyrs, 60 of whom died during the Boxer Rebellion on October 1, Red China’s national day.

Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing declared in the 1970s to foreign officials that “religion no longer exists in China.” On June 18, 1991, under Project Pearl, 232 tons of prohibited literature, namely Bibles, was smuggled into China on a tugboat named Michael and a barge called the Gabriella.

The sense of David Aikman is that the Chinese are on fire for their faith and willing to spread it where western missionaries typically avoid, namely Muslim nations. And Rome, he recalls, was ultimately quite changed by Christianity. Governments, regimes, tyrannies rise and fall. Christianity remains. Why is this? John 1:5 says it best: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness grasps it not.


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