The new Christians

Posted: March 6, 2012 in Religion
Tags: , , ,

For Chu Zhen, all it took to spark his interest in Christianity was the movie Forrest Gump. The 21-year-old Nanjing college student was struck by a scene where Gump recounted his trip to China on The Dick Cavett Show. Another guest, John Lennon, found it hard to “imagine” that the Chinese don’t practice religion. “We don’t understand why Americans are surprised that Chinese don’t have faith,” Chu said. “We think that that’s very normal.”

Chu started going to church and Bible studies around campus out of curiosity. Within a few weeks, he was a full-fledged Christian. But if Forrest Gump hadn’t nudged over that first domino for Chu, something else almost certainly would have.  He said that before he found peace of mind in his church community, he was a misfit and heading in a dangerous direction. “I used to be aggressive,” he said. “I did a lot of bad things…to my friends, parents, and people who care about me. At that time I just wanted to find a belief.”

When China’s markets were opened in 1978, the socialist economic system started to break down, and with it went the socialist moral framework. The idea of striving for Communism and putting the needs of the masses ahead of personnel interests started to fall by the wayside. Role models like Lei Feng that embodied this spirit gave way to the Steve Jobs’ of the world.

These days, young people like Chu Zhen often feel conflicted about where their responsibilities lie. On one hand they’re still taught to serve the motherland and be honest altruistic citizens, but on the other they see people becoming highly revered in society for getting rich – even if it’s through less than honest means. And as a young man Chu Zhen has the difficult task of attracting a wife and finding ways to fulfill his filial obligation to support his family. Doing what’s “right” isn’t a clear choice.

“In sociology we have a term called ‘anomie’ when many people in society feel kind of lost and don’t know what to do,” said Purdue Professor Fenggang Yang, author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival Under Communist Rule. “Many people felt lost in this market transition. But then they somehow ended up at a church and realized Christianity provides a clear set of values and moral standards, and that it’s good living a life where you know what you should do and shouldn’t do.”

Besides socialist ideology, Chinese have also traditionally looked to Confucius for guidance. But that too is often lacking in today’s China.  Confucianism consists of several hierarchical relationships. Fei Xiaotong, a Chinese sociologist and anthropologist, described relationships in China as the surface of a lake after a rock has been thrown in. The distance of each circle from the center represents social and emotional distance. Blood connections are closest, followed loosely by hometown people and then those with a similar social identity (rich, poor, urban, rural, white-collar, blue-collar, etc.). [1] The further someone is outside your circles, the more they’re seen as a tool to benefit those within; or simply disregarded.

Christianity, however, introduces a concept largely absent in today’s China: Loving strangers. Naomi, a 22-year-old student from Chonqing, was led to conversion through this route. She’s the youngest of three children in a family that didn’t always take the time to show their love. Her father has unspecified “problems” and her mother is constantly worrying about him. Her sister only completed middle-school before later getting married off and having a baby. “She just lives for her family,” Naomi said, as tears started rolling down her cheek. “And my brother isn’t good at communicating with others.”

When Naomi went to college she started spending time with some Christians from Singapore and Hong Kong who were on the same scholarship as her. “They were so kind,” she said. “They came to Nanjing to see me and have dinner with me. They really care for me.” She started going to church with them and remembers that it took exactly six visits before she declared herself Christian.

On an average day, an estimated 10,000 Chinese will follow in converting to Christianity. In a transitioning society with a unique hybrid of authoritarianism and capitalism, the reasons are many. And unlike the local religions of Buddhism and Taoism, Christianity has the benefit of being western and trendy.

In fact, several Chinese converts reported being told by European or American missionaries who converted them that the West owes its success to Christianity. And if China hopes to duplicate that success, it too must embrace the religion. This bold claim invites scoffs from the not-devoutly-Christian, but there may indeed be some truth to it.

Tomorrow we’ll look at how.


Christianity series Part 1: Can Lei Feng compete with Jesus?

Christianity series Part 3: Divine economics

Christianity series Part 4: What Marx may have gotten right

Christianity series Part 5: Communist Christianity

[1] Wielander, Gerda. (2011). Beyond Repression and Resistance – Christian Love and China’s Harmonious Society. The China Journal. 65 (1), 119-139

  1. Lorin Yochim says:

    That is a seriously dubious statistic in paragraph 9. If I were an editor of this blog (which clearly I’m not 😉 ), I would suggest a healthy dose of skepticism.

    I eagerly await the possible truth of Christianity’s responsibility for the “success of the West.” I don’t think that one needs to be a not-devout Christian to “scoff” at such a claim, but I can be patient! Incidentally, there is a preview of such proofs over on China Hope Live.

    • sinostand says:

      The source of that stat (The National Catholic Reporter) is indeed dubious. But if that’s stretched out to the 3.6 million per year, it’s seems pretty reasonable when comparing it to some other independent estimates over time.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I did follow the link because I thought the studies supporting the stat might be interesting. The trail ended pretty quickly. What the quoting of that stat tell me is that Christians are optimistic about China, which is no doubt a valuable stance when it comes to soliciting financial support for the mission. The other tactic is to focus on oppression.

  2. sinostand says:

    Yes, if you’re not familiar with it already, you might be interested in reading about the “10-40 window”:

    They certainly have their ducks in a row when it comes to converting efficiently.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Interesting link. I’ve observed that since my childhood years in an evangelical church that the rhetoric of these operations has “improved,” if by improvement we mean become more aware of the need to conceal the harsher side of these beliefs. It’s not easy, though, especially when quotes like these are posted for all to see: “We need another surge into the darkness!” of course this shows how skillful these folks are at linking the cause of christian evangelism to political oppression, obviously a way of insulating themselves from critique. But let’s be clear: if all of these countries were tropical island oases filled with happiness and pleasure, they would still be seen as “darkened.”

  3. Joel says:


    Hey, what’s all this bringing me into it and not telling me? 🙂

    I eagerly await the possible truth of Christianity’s responsibility for the “success of the West.” I don’t think that one needs to be a not-devout Christian to “scoff” at such a claim, but I can be patient! Incidentally, there is a preview of such proofs over on China Hope Live.

    I believe the standard claim, which even atheist historians generally agree with (I think I even linked to one), is that the Judeo-Christian heritage made significant positive contributions to the ‘success’ of Western civilization. For stronger claims, see historians like Rodney Stark. (I agree with using scare quotes around ‘success’ of the West.)

    But I suspect you misunderstand what’s happening over at China Hope Live; I was merely responding to a commentor. Also, you seem to have a special interest in China blogs that happen touch on Christianity.


    several Chinese converts reported being told by European or American missionaries who converted them that the West owes its success to Christianity.

    From back in at least the 90’s but maybe into the 80’s (I forget) there was/is the “culture Christian” phenomenon: Chinese academics taking special interest in Christianity not for their own personal beliefs but as a window into part of the success of the West, with the idea of maybe re-appropriating aspects of Christianity in order to build China. That’s where my mind goes first when people talk about Chinese, Christianity, and developing China, not missionaries, and I was surprised you didn’t mention it. Anyway, if you’re unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, this quick google search looked promising.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Sorry, Joel. I know you poke around here so assumed you would eventually see the comments. I don’t really have an interest in this topic at the moment, but it was all the rage for a few weeks. I can see where it would appear that way, but really I’m just reading the more active bloggers. The others tend to slip through the reading list quickly if one is less than attentive.

      On the contributions of Christianity to the success of Western civilization, I think my contributions in this series had more to with clarifying Weber’s position. As I said elsewhere, Weber’s is a theory of the development of capitalism in a particular place and time, not the “success” of a particular civilization. He is, after all, “speaking” to Marx. There is nothing about Christianity that makes it a critical component in capitalism or “success,” unless, of course, one is a true believer. In that case, we’ve left the realm of political economy and the proper object of analysis becomes the faith of true believers as in “Why do (insert delimitation) Christians believe that their faith is a necessary component in what they call the ‘success of societies’?” (Academic supervisors of the world, unite in your objections to this question!) As I see it, what is interesting about the English language blogs on China is not what I can learn from them about China. Rather, it is what I can glean from them about the views of “foreigners” on China.

  4. Joel says:

    Well, again, I think you’re importing a different discussion into this one and responding to it rather than to what I’m actually saying. Specifically: Christianity as a critical component of capitalism, faith is a necessary component in what they call the ‘success of societies’, etc. In the original comment you objected to, I’m referring to what did happen, not what has to happen in every conceivable instance.

    And I don’t think you ‘true believer’ requirement holds up in China. See the “cultural Christians” link above.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I wasn’t really importing, just making reference to my more general comments in Sinostand’s series as a whole. At any rate, my comment on Weber’s position is relevant here, especially in light of your bringing up the lamentable Rodney Stark. As to the standard claim about the Judeo-Christian heritage, instead of putting it in scare quotes, let’s leave “success” out of the equation altogether and we’ll have little disagreement. The notion that societies require ethical frameworks in order to remain more or less orderly and or productive or just seems to me uncontroversial unless, of course, one is a rabid Ayn Randian, in which case one’s philosophical foundation crumbles under the weight of its own contradictions.

  5. Alliana says:

    the fact that this was written by someone like you who does his best to remain unbiased and honest is encouraging (not to mention you don’t share my religion). being a christian myself, i’m glad to see that christianity made such a good impact on chinese lives. it also makes me feel guilty of not really doing anything, but… let’s not go there, thanks! XD thanks for writing such a candid post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s