Ghosts of China past and future seem to loiter over Shanghai's Peoples' Park. Students practice international English, and old men sing Beijing opera. Go east toward a traditional Chinese garden and you see the pale red glow of the cross atop Mu En ("Bathed in Grace") church.
One day on a knoll above this garden, I met a college teacher of Muslim ancestry who researched comparative religion. I asked if his studies had led him to any conclusions. "The world needs the Chinese spirit," he told me with conviction. "And China needs the Western spirit, especially the Christian spirit. For Christianity to become Chinese, this will be the salvation of China."
In a remarkable book, former Time magazine Beijing correspondent David Aikman suggests that, with millions turning to Christ, the "Christian spirit" may well regenerate China. Aikman begins by recounting the long, winding route Chinese Christianity has followed ("like a sheep's intestines" as the Chinese describe a path with many switchbacks): from 7th century Nestorians who arrived over the Silk Road, to Jesuit astronomers, gunboat-riding Protestants, and the miraculous reemergence of the church after the Cultural Revolution.
Aikman also describes confrontations with sometimes ambivalent government agents and the intellectual challenge of relating a "foreign" gospel to an ancient and beloved paganism—one that sometimes finds its way into the Chinese church. At times, Jesus in Beijing reads like Acts of the Apostles in modern journalistic prose.
"Understand two men, and you will understand Chinese Christianity," Aikman notes: Ding Guangxin (by his own preference known as K.H. Ting in the West), who headed China's official Protestant church for most of the Communist period, and Beijing pastor Wang Mingdao.
Understanding the first man is no easy task. Bishop Ding defended some students interested in democracy, but called others "running dogs of Taiwan"; celebrated the closing of churches, but then also their reopening; praised God, but served as Mao Zedong's fly-swatter to squash Christian dissidents.
The life of Wang Mingdao, one of Ding's victims, illustrates how difficult such control has become. Pastor Wang clearly stood for the gospel and a church free of outside control. A stubbornly independent church leader, Wang acted as a thorn in the side first to missionaries in pre-revolutionary China, then to Japanese invaders, and finally to the Maoist regime. The regime imprisoned him for 20 years.
Together these two opposing church leaders exhibit the suppleness and resilience of Chinese character, bent like bamboo in the political gales of the 20th century, returning again to form.
Aikman depicts a movement that is bold and optimistic. In 1998 house church leaders called on government leaders to "admit to God's great power" and "readjust" religious policy "lest they violate God's will to their own detriment." They also wrote a creed much like those of the early church in tone and content.
Jesus in Beijing is first of all a portrait of Christians in China: leaders of house fellowships, artists, song-writers; a gentle Canton pastor who spent 20 years in prison linking coal cars; an American who landed a million Bibles on China's southern coast. The cautious world of Chinese evangelism, hidden from conventional journalism as any hermit kingdom, comes to life here.
Aikman is the right person to write this book. At home in Chinese and Christian cultures, he is also a serious scholar of Marxism and religion. His 1979 dissertation, The Role of Atheism in the Marxist Tradition, traced with erudite pugnacity the Promethian (even demonic) rage that infused the thinking of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. But he is matter-of-fact and fair, if occasionally cynical, about modern Chinese politics.
Aikman is weaker on how Christianity is becoming Chinese. Marx claimed to "abolish all religion and all eternal truth," and his disciples swept the public square clean of bourgeois gods. By contrast, followers of Jesus generally want not to abolish Chinese tradition but to renew it.
"The most important thing is to make people realize that Christianity is related to Chinese culture," Aikman quotes philosopher Yuan Zhimin. Though Aikman fails to fully develop this crucial insight, he does explore political aspects of how the "Christian spirit" may in the future help "save China" and benefit humanity as well. Considering the growth and influence of Christian minorities in other parts of East Asia, Aikman makes the case that if the church continues to grow, "it is almost certain that a Christian view of the world will be the dominant worldview within China's political and cultural establishments."
Some of the implications Aikman suggests—such as more cooperation in the war against terror and state protection of missions to Muslim lands—seem heady and speculative. Aikman more reasonably relates church growth to an Augustinian "sense of restraint, justice, and order in the wielding of state power," and the development of civic virtue.
Chairman Mao, it is clear, did not extinguish the light of the cross that shines into People's Park. It burns ever brighter, though it competes now with neon. The church in China seems "bathed in grace." Reading of lives touched by that grace, told in this well-informed and honest piece of reporting, it is easy to catch the enthusiasm of the Chinese church. The resurrection of Chinese Christianity bodes well not only for China, but for us all.
David Marshall is the author of True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture (Kuai Mu Press, 1996).
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Jesus in Beijing is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Last summer, Aikman testified before a congressional commission on religion in China.