Christians in China – a book review for pastors

How are Christians in China facing its new, urban – but totalitarian – future? A book review for pastors.


In the swirling uncertainties of 2021, one truth is unchanged: the future looks Chinese. So I’m doing some reading this year, and I’ll blog from time time on how it’s going. If you know what I ought to look at, do let me know.

Today, Ian Johnson’s brilliant survey, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao (London: Penguin, 2018). It has been a superb start.

Johnson traces three different faith communities through a Chinese year, slowly getting to know them, their beliefs, and their habits. We meet the Ni family, who run a Buddhist pilgrimage shrine in Beijing, the Li family, traditional village Daoists who are musicians and manage funerals and burials properly, and Christians and church leaders in Chengdu, the fifth largest city in China; he also encounters a handful of intellectuals and dissidents who are trying to build bridges from traditional Chinese thought into the twenty-first century.  It is a fascinating mix.


The background is the fast-moving modernisation and urbanisation of China, under the centralised plan of the Party.  Let’s stop there and consider this.  It’s not just that China has leapt up the manufacturing and prosperity tables, but that it has done so by implementing the largest human migration in history, from the countryside into the cities.  In a generation, China has gone from a rural economy, run from cities, to a city economy with no need for the rural.

The implications are breathtaking.  Forget the scale, speed and cost.  In a couple of decades, the habits and thoughts of centuries – millennia – have been obliterated, with nothing to take their place, in items of value and meaning.  Ancient villages have been emptied, ancient cities have been bulldozed.  And across the vast land-mass, the subtle and inevitable variations that civilisations produce has been replaced by a bland, gleaming uniformity of newly-laid road, threading through shiny high-rise buildings, and identical megacities linked by high-speed trains. 

Totalitarian states are always brilliant at infrastructure. 

Totalitarian states are always brilliant at infrastructure.

But what about the people?

Under Mao, centralisation was over thought and behaviour.  Among other indescribable cruelties, religious faith of any kind was obliterated, no matter how traditional; and that was on the back of a century-long push back on Christianity.  As first the Nationalists and then the Communists replaced the Emperor and his bureaucrats, they removed its governance-by-tradition with a new model of control. There were well-founded reasons to think that when the ‘bamboo curtain’ lifted, there would be no faith left at all.

Far from it.

Let me put in a vital observation.  What about Islam? There are maybe 60 million Muslims in China, and they’ve had a presence for around 1,400 years. What about them?

Well, here’s the rub.  In China, Islam has remained largely locked into a particular racial profile, and you’ll know that because you watch the news, and you’re familiar with the plight of ‘Uighar Muslims’. They’re a historically distinct Turkic group, based in north-west China.  Bringing that group into mainstream Chinese policy has led to mass ‘re-education camps’, along racial grounds, and resultant resistance from Islamic groups.  A domestic and social policy has targeted a particular dissident culture, with a racial boundary and an Islamic faith.  Outside that group, Islam has never really established itself in China like the other religions. But we need to show neighbour-love to them in our public comments.  They’re being exterminated, with pitiless force.

But head back to Johnson’s groups.

The traditional village Daoists are under extreme pressure from urbanisation.  Delicate, complex cultural artefacts, like music and traditions, are simply being forgotten or trivialised as families move to villages and towns.  These fragile items are being destroyed in a moment, as surely as the white paper wreaths at a funeral. The best they can hope for is being captured in a folk museum.

Buddhism has been a more established, urban phenomenon in China, and it was physically built into the street and temple fabric of its cities.  But the modernising bulldozers have swept all that away too, apart from some historical corners. Again, Johnson’s question is, will anything authentic survive?

The underlying reality for both is that genuine believers went deeply underground during the period of Mao and his successors, and have emerged relatively recently.  Their practices are therefore growing, as more of them appear, and as newer generations seek to find something historical and Chinese to ground themselves in.  The Party has permitted and adopted these, and filtered their thoughts for its own purposes.  But, what is coming through now is thin, and secularised.  Elaborate ceremonies are still practiced, but abbreviated, simplified, and aligned with the Party.  They are allowed because they fed a deep need for history, authenticity and national meaning, but they have lost their specificity and deeper reasoning.  And their location.

Which is where the Intellectuals are at work – not collecting and preserving, but filtering and modernising. You’ve encountered a variant I’m sure: the proliferation of yoga, uprooted from its belief structure, or approaches to mindfulness that are trivial. Well, in China the practices are more deeply worn, but the underlying roots have still been cut.

And people are desperate for meaning.

But the Christians…

Now, the Christians.  And this is where it is fascinating, at least for me.

Catholicism has always struggled in China, because of an awareness of its ‘foreign-ness’.  Its centre is Rome, a rival government, not in China, and always found to the West. How could it ever be authentically Chinese?

But meet the Reformed, justified by grace through faith.  Johnson calls them ‘The New Calvinists’. They’re indigenous Chinese –  no racial profiling here.  They don’t look to anywhere (other than heaven) as their true home.  They read books on urban church planting, and they read city-planning maps with eagerness.  They share their faith, intelligently.  They fill the gap of meaning for people. They’re establishing churches and seminaries at a pace to match the government’s plans.

If the future of China is urban, that suits these wonderful believers just fine. They have a vision for the city which would make Tim Keller proud. 

If the future of China is urban, that suits these wonderful believers just fine.

I’d add, though, that Johnson’s timeline (published in 2018) looks quite rosy. Government has cracked down quite a lot in the last couple of years, and we need to pray for our sisters and brothers.

Johnson has two quotations at the head of his book. One is from the ancient Chinese classic, Book of Documents, ‘Heaven sees as my people see; heaven hears as my people hear.’  But the other is from Hebrews 11:16: ‘But now they desire a better country; that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.’ I have no idea where Johnson’s personal faith lies, but as the government demises the villages and old cities, he’s backing the Chinese Christians.

So how to pray for China?  Yes, for the centralised Party system to collapse.  Yes, for people to realise the emptiness of wealth.  Yes, for people to become Christians.

But above all for that amazing energy and ambition to be harnessed for the gospel, because if the future looks Chinese, let’s pray for people like the extraordinary church-planting visionary Wang Yi.

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