A Collection of Book Reviews on the Church in China

Review
12.21.2015

By all accounts, the church in China grew exponentially from 1950 to today. With this expansion, a cornucopia of books emerged chronicling the Chinese church. Below we discuss a number of the most popular books on the topic to help those interested in learning more know where to begin. A very brief description and review will be offered for each book.

*****

Jesus in Beijing by David Aikman (Regency Publishing, 2006)

Aikman discusses the history of Christianity in China starting from its beginning in the 600s to the present, with particular focus on the period from 1949 onward. The book is based in part on the author’s interviews with many major figures such as Wang Mingdao and Samuel Lamb. The author pays considerable attention to the so-called house church movement, though other groups in China do receive some treatment. Aikman’s writing belies a sympathy to the unregistered congregations in China.

While the book is close to 400 pages, the author writes in a storytelling format that is interspersed with vignettes from the author’s extensive personal experience in China as a reporter for Time magazine. This style makes the book exceptionally easy to read. The author assumes no prior knowledge of the topic yet manages to provide detailed discussions of the theology of both the major house church leaders and the government church leaders.

Jesus in Beijing is an excellent book for those interested in an accessible, lively, and yet thorough history of the church in China from 1949 onward.

*****

A New History of Christianity in China by Daniel H. Bays (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

A New History is the foremost brief academic history of Christianity in China available today. Unlike a number of other similar works, Bays’ book gives roughly equal treatment to the entire span of history. The copious endnotes are invaluable for those who want to either learn more about a topic or find the source of a particular claim. Bays does not discuss the recent developments in either the Catholic church or the underground church as much as some other authors do, but both Western Protestant missionaries and 20th century indigenous Chinese church leaders receive extensive discussion. The author is sympathetic to Christianity but is appropriately critical of some parts of the historic Western missionary establishment.

A New History is dry reading compared to other books such as Jesus in Beijing, but Bays’ work provides an excellent jumping-off point. Anyone interested in a broad, well-researched, brief, yet academic treatment of Christianity by a first-rate scholar who is sympathetic but still critical needs to read this book.

*****

China’s Reforming Churches, edited by Bruce Baugus (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014)

China’s Reforming Churches is part history and part ecclesiology with some sociology and theology interspersed. The book stems from a conference held in the United States to discuss the church in China. The chapters are contributions from a variety of individuals including Chinese house church leaders, historians, and American theologians. The goal of the book is developing churches in China that teach Presbyterian theology and polity. As such, the contributors write from an explicitly Presbyterian perspective. The book contains some unique material such as a detailed discussion of Christian publishing and Reformed education in China today.

China’s Reforming Churches excels in its unique contributions and its focus on fostering healthy churches. The book addresses the city context extensively, meaning those pastoring in rural areas or those working with rural pastors may find some of the discussions less relevant. In addition, the picture painted in chapter 7 about the level of resistance unregistered churches face is markedly different than that of other books such as Jesus in Beijing (see chapter 17 and Appendix E of Jesus in Beijing for comparison). Nonetheless, Christians, both in the West and in China, who care about the further development of reformed and especially of Presbyterian churches in China, will find much useful material in China’s Reforming Churches.

*****

God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China by Liao Yiwu translated by Wenguang Huang (HarperOne, 2011)

God is Red is a collection of roughly 15 interviews conducted with Christians about life under the fierce persecution of Mao Zedong’s government. The author pays particular attention to Christianity in the Yunnan province of China, though some chapters touch on events in other parts of the country. In general, each chapter opens with a brief background about the person Liao Yiwu is interviewing. The rest of the chapter is the transcript of the interview. Although Yiwu is a “nonbeliever” (xiii), he is sympathetic towards Christianity and intrigued by both its growth and the lives of its adherents. While Liao Yiwu originally wrote the book in Chinese, the version reviewed here is a translation by Wenguang Huang.

The biggest strength of God is Red is its gripping, informative, and personal accounts of Christians living under Mao. Many chapters of the book are exceedingly difficult to put down as the stories are harrowing yet instructive. Further, the interviews highlight an evangelistic zeal among Chinese Christians that should be a model for the West. Finally, it is encouraging to hear repeatedly how elderly Christians in rural China see a number of Western missionaries from a century back as positive instruments of God’s work in China. God is Red would be an excellent read for anyone who wants a personal understanding of life as a Christian under Mao.

*****

Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China by Lian Xi (Yale University Press, 2010)

Redeemed by Fire provides a very detailed description of the indigenous Chinese church from about 1900-1950. While Xi discusses other time periods, he primarily focuses on native religious movements and their leaders. Xi provides extensive treatment of the True Jesus Church, Jesus Family, John Song, Watchman Nee, Wang Mingdao, and others. The writing is academic and dry compared to some other books on the same topics, but the documentation is exceptionally copious and the level of detail paid to a few movements such as the True Jesus Church, Jesus Family, and Little Flock makes Xi’s discussions of those topics a valuable contribution.

While Xi discusses indigenous Chinese Christianity during the first part of the twentieth century in great detail, he does not provide the same level of depth in discussing the major house church movements and their leaders during the end of the twentieth century. There is no substantive discussion of documents such as the 1998 Confession of Faith or the 1998 United Appeal. Further, both Catholics and historically Reformed indigenous Chinese receive minimal treatment. Unfortunately, Xi’s historical theology is inaccurate at times. For example, he incorrectly refers to Hong Xiuquan as developing “a Chinese form of Protestantism” (24) when in fact Hong’s teachings contravened historic Protestantism on many essential points such as the Trinity and the doctrine of Scripture (see page 299 of Moffett’s work below for details). Nonetheless, Redeemed by Fire is an excellent book for those wanting a very thoroughly researched and well written academic discussion of indigenous Christian movements from 1900-1950.

*****

The Power to Save: A History of the Gospel in China by Bob Davey (EP Books, 2011)

The Power to Save chronicles the history of Christianity in China from the 600s to the present day, paying roughly equal attention to each time period. Davey manages to provide reasonable detail on a large number of figures in Chinese church history without getting into too many specifics for a broad overview book. Davey, by his own admission and design, writes from an explicitly Protestant viewpoint and this is evident throughout the book. Consequently, the author does not address the Catholic communion at any length. Davey is quite sympathetic to Western missionaries and Chinese Christians. At times, this causes the book to border on hagiography.

The Power to Save is an easy and quick read. The author does not assume any prior knowledge of China or its history with Christianity. The lack of endnotes coupled with the fact that the book makes many claims that would not be common knowledge makes investigating interesting points further or checking the grounds of specific assertions nearly impossible. Nonetheless, The Power to Save is a worthwhile read for those who want a very accessible history of Protestantism in China that is written from an explicitly evangelical standpoint and covers the entire relevant history without focusing on any particular period to the exclusion of others.

*****

A History of Christianity in Asia (Volume II) by Samuel Hugh Moffett (Orbis Books, 2005)

A History of Christianity in Asia, written by the late renowned scholar of Christianity in the East, Samuel Hugh Moffett, seeks to tell the story of Christianity in Asia from 1500 to 1900. As such, the book covers not only China, but also India, Korea, Japan, and more. The book contains three chapters specifically devoted to China: (1) Catholic missions in China 1500s-1800, which is the most thorough treatment of Catholics during this time available of any book on this list. (2) Protestants in China (1807-1860), which discusses Robert Morrison’s arrival, the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion and more. (3) Western Missions and China’s Christians (1860-1900), which outlines Hudson Taylor’s work, the Boxer Rebellion, and more.

Given the wide range of topics Moffett discusses in such a short period of time, he manages to provide a lot of detail. The research is probably the most detailed of all the books here. For example, the 40-page section on 1860-1900 contains 162 endnotes. Nonetheless, by nature of covering such a broad geographic region, the author cannot cover a specific period in depth in the same way that Redeemed By Fire covers the first half of the 20th century. A History of Christianity in Asia would be a great book for someone interested in a scholarly yet readable summary of Protestant and Catholic activity in Asia from 1500-1900.

*****

A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China by Rodney Stark and Xiuha Wang (Templeton Press, 2015)

A Star in the East devotes considerable space to sociological analysis of Christianity in China and two surveys concerning Chinese Christianity, both its size and its characteristics. The authors examine various theories of sociology that attempt to explain in secular terms the explosion in the number of Christians in China. The authors argue that the best explanation for this rapid growth is a theory of conversion through social influence as well as cultural incongruity that leads to spiritual deprivation followed by conversion. Based upon surveys, Stark and Wang argue that people converting to Christianity in China are disproportionately wealthy, despite stereotypes to the contrary.

A Star in the East provides the most rigorous answer to the question “how many Christians are there in China?” Nonetheless, it is not really a history of Christianity in China but it would be useful for those looking for a sociological analysis of the growth of Christianity in China and its current traits.

*****

Robert Morrison and the Birth of Chinese Protestantism by Christopher Hancock (T&T Clark, 2008)

Robert Morrison and the Birth of Chinese Protestantism is a detailed biography of the life and ministry of the first Protestant missionary to China, Robert Morrison. Hancock’s work aims to provide an up-close account of Morrison based upon an incredibly thorough reading of Morrison’s papers and those of acquaintances. The book is littered with hundreds of quotations from original sources coupled with scholarly analysis by Hancock. While the author is sympathetic to Morrison’s cause, this book is no hagiography. The reader sees Morrison’s struggles and warts up close.

Hancock’s work excels at providing readers a vivid picture of what life looked like as a pioneering missionary. The reader is brought face to face with the immense cultural, physical, geopolitical, and linguistic challenges Morrison faced. Consequently, this book would be an informative read for anyone who wants to understand what life looked like as a pioneering missionary in the early 1800s.