By the time Protestant Christianity arrived in China in the early 19th century, Chinese understandings of gender roles had been relatively static for more than two millennia. Confucian teachings during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) nurtured patriarchal understandings which often subordinated women within Chinese society. Genders were also divided along accepted social roles, with men concerned with public matters and women focused on managing the household. In the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties, positive changes in female literacy rates and economic roles improved the status of a growing number of learned and influential women. But the most dramatic changes didn’t occur until the May Fourth Movement in the early 1920s. At that time, reformers rallied against foot binding and advocated for women to have the rights of suffrage, financial independence, and the freedom to choose whom to marry and when to divorce.

Against this backdrop, the history of Protestantism in China includes the story of Christians who were in many ways ahead of the curve in advocating for women’s equality in the church and society. By the 1860s, Chinese women were given opportunities through Christian work to leave the home and engage in education, evangelism, and medical services. By the turn of the century, churches in China discussed female Christian leadership and female ordination. Throughout the 20th century, women played a vital role in spreading the gospel and nurturing new believers. While the influence of female leaders has declined in recent decades, the story of Christianity in China cannot be told without acknowledging the female evangelists and pastors who built the Chinese church.

The rise of Bible women

In 1807, the Anglo-Scottish Congregationalist Robert Morrison became the first Protestant missionary to step foot on the Chinese mainland, basing his ministry out of coastal regions such as Canton (Guangzhou) and Macau. The “unequal treaties” levied against China by foreign nations, led by Britain after the Opium Wars (1839–42 and 1856–60), permitted missionaries to freely rent or purchase property and establish themselves in the inland of the country. While this access provided new opportunities for evangelism, Protestant missionaries quickly realized that Confucian understandings of propriety and social order limited male missionaries to work with only Chinese men. Women in the Protestant missionary enterprise—missionary wives and, later, single female missionaries—focused on evangelizing Chinese women, but they faced challenges with cultural and linguistic differences.

In the 1860s, female missionaries found that one of the more strategic ways to communicate the gospel was to recruit local Chinese women as “Bible women” to evangelize their female compatriots. The earliest Bible women were often recruited from the employees of missionary households or from the wives and the mothers of Chinese male evangelists. Some were educated but many were illiterate. Due to the Protestant priority of the Bible, women missionaries needed to teach them to read Chinese—often through a Romanized form of Chinese characters—before they could read the Bible for themselves and communicate basic Christian teachings. These convictions encouraged female missionaries to create boarding schools to educate Chinese girls. As Chinese society had long prioritized literacy and education for men, the missionaries’ desires for everyone to have the ability to read the Bible opened new vistas for these Chinese women.

Initially, Bible women worked under the supervision of foreign female missionaries. Their main responsibilities were limited to teaching the Bible to women and children, often in rural contexts. As their numbers and skills grew, these responsibilities included visiting the sick and offering various forms of medical care. By the 1880s, some missionary societies allowed Bible women to publicly evangelize and teach the Bible to mixed-gender groups.

One of the most famous Bible women was Dora Yu (Yu Cidu; 1873–1931). The daughter of a Chinese Presbyterian preacher, Yu studied medicine at Suzhou Women’s Medical School. In addition to her healthcare work, she also served as an itinerant preacher. In 1897, she accompanied American Josephine P. Campbell as a missionary to Korea, practicing medicine and preaching the gospel to Korean women. When she returned to China six years later, she eventually gave up medicine to devote her attention to revival preaching. At one revival meeting, she converted a woman named Peace Lin (Lin Heping) and, in a later meeting, converted Lin’s son, the young Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng)—both of whom became evangelists themselves. Yu continued to lead revival meetings throughout China and was invited to be the main speaker at the Keswick Convention, an annual British evangelistic conference, in 1927.

When Mary Stone (Shi Meiyu; 1873–1954) graduated from the University of Michigan in 1896, she was one of the first Chinese women to receive a medical degree from an American university. Upon her return to China, Stone saw a need for missionary work to be initiated and run by local Chinese. She co-founded the Chinese Missionary Society, became the first president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in China, and established the Bethel Mission in Shanghai with the American missionary Jennie V. Hughes. Stone and Hughes’s Bethel Mission would be instrumental in the organization of a number of “evangelistic bands” created to spread the gospel. The most famous of these was the Bethel Worldwide Evangelistic Band established in 1931 by Andrew Gih (Ji Zhiwen), which later included the well-known evangelist John Sung (Song Shangjie).

The question of women’s ordination

Conferences convened in Shanghai in 1877, 1890, and 1907 gathered together nearly all Protestant missionary societies in China to discuss Christian work throughout the country. Yet the voices of female missionaries and Bible women were often sidelined and relegated to a separate category of “Woman’s Work for Woman.” This began to change when the National Christian Conference met in 1922 and allowed the growing number of Chinese Christians to take the floor.

In a paper entitled “Women and the Church,” Ruth Cheng (Cheng Guanyi) of Yenching (Yanjing) University noted that the improved rights for women in Chinese society afforded by the May Fourth Movement were not matched by improved rights for women in the Chinese church. She explained, “I am not advocating that we establish women pastors, but would ask as a matter of principle why women are not recognized as worthy of that office and others in the Church.” Cheng further reasoned that while there may have been legitimate historical or contextual reasons for the prohibition of women leaders in the early church and the Western church, these reasons may no longer be legitimate for the Chinese church. Did women have equal rights in the church or were they subordinate? She concluded, “The question is not simply one for the present, but whether or not provision is being made as we look forward to the future of the Christian Church for the enlargement of operations in the Church for women.”

Slowly, denominations began to officially accept formal female church leadership. Historian Dana L. Robert notes that as early as 1871, female missionaries in the American Methodist Episcopal Church believed the advent of the Bible women meant the reinstitution of the biblical order of the deaconess. Yet these female missionaries’ interpretation was debated for several decades in the United States and in mission fields like China. In 1924, the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church met in Massachusetts and spoke of the “very evident and acute need for an effective sacramental ministry on the part of women, in certain home and particularly in the foreign fields.” The General Conference made the monumental decision to permit women limited rights through ordination as local preachers. This would quickly influence work in China and, in the years immediately following this decision, five Chinese women were ordained as local preachers in the Foochow (Fuzhou) and Kiangsi (Jiangxi) Conferences.

Another significant case was the Church of Christ in China, the largest denomination of the time. At its General Council meeting in 1931, the North China Synod asked whether women could be ordained to the pastoral ministry. After some discussion, it concluded that there was no constitutional prohibition for this. Even more surprisingly, the General Council found that many of its constituent churches had already ordained women elders. By the 1940s, its South Fukien (Fujian) Synod would likewise report that it ordained additional women to serve their churches.

In the Anglican Church, Bishop Ronald O. Hall controversially ordained Florence Li Tim-Oi (1907–92) as the first woman to the priesthood in Macau in 1944 in the midst of the Japanese invasion. Globally, there was no precedence for this in Anglicanism. Hence, after the end of the second Sino-Japanese war, to avoid controversy, Li resigned her license. In 1971, when the Anglican Communion eventually agreed that women could be ordained into the priesthood, the first two were in Hong Kong: Jane Hwang Hsien-yuin and Joyce M. Bennett.

A Christian fever goes Calvinist

In mainland China, public religious practice was effectively halted in the 1960s. However, after the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and Mao Zedong’s death, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms allowed a greater openness to competing ideas to exist once again. By the 1980s, government documents began to describe a “Christianity fever” occurring throughout the country, whereby the number of Protestant adherents was growing at a phenomenal rate—both through the so-called house church movement and through local congregations registered with the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). The great majority of the Protestant church—in the 1980s and today—has been made up of women.

In contrast with the first half of the 20th century, the question of women in leadership in the 1980s and 1990s was not debated and the proliferation of female pastors and evangelists became the norm. One of the more well-known examples is the itinerant evangelist Ruth Lü (Lü Xiaomin; born 1970). Coming from a Muslim background as a Hui minority of rural Henan, Lü converted to a Pentecostal-like form of Christianity in 1989 and is best known for her leadership in an unlikely form: hymnody. Lü’s songs, collectively called the Canaan Hymns, have been transcribed by others as she is not trained in Western musical notation. The appeal of Lü’s 1,500 hymns within the Chinese church is so strong that they are widely sung in both registered and unregistered congregations.

But in the last two decades, the place of women in church leadership has become less clear. While strong female leaders continue to be found in government-sanctioned Protestant churches and seminaries, this is different in unregistered churches which have been increasingly influenced by Calvinism. These Christians see Calvinism as offering a strong theological system that can combat the growing number of Christianity-inspired new religions, which the government has branded as “evil cults.” Many of those interested in Calvinism have turned to North American Calvinist and New Calvinist writings by John Piper, D. A. Carson, and Tim Keller to address questions related to nurturing a Christian family and ministering in urban China. Others have drawn from the Dutch Neo-Calvinist teachings of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck for resources to engage the Chinese civil society.

However, this revived interest in Calvinism in China has tended to underscore a strong view of complementarianism, often linked to books written by American Calvinists and translated into Chinese. Fredrik Fällman has suggested that part of the draw of complementarianism is found in its resonances with Confucian patriarchal views. These changes have had a negative effect on the trajectory of female leadership in the Chinese church.

These developments are partly due to stereotypes among some Chinese Christians of gendered understandings of Christianity, such as the view that men have a more rational spirituality (as exhibited by Calvinism) and women have a more emotional spirituality (as exhibited by Pentecostal-like forms of Christianity). Some are afraid that charismatic women with false teachings could lead others astray, as seen in the doomsday group Eastern Lightning—established by a woman who taught that Christ has already returned but now in female form. Hence, Calvinism and complementarianism offer safeguards against uncontrollable and extreme forms of Christianity which are problematic for the Chinese church and society. As a consequence, this has also encouraged an increased sense of subordination of women in the church.

It is impossible to predict how the Protestant church in China will develop in the future, especially in terms of female leadership. What is clear is that the many women evangelists and pastors of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries have left and continue to leave an indelible mark on Chinese Protestantism. Like Mao Zedong famously declared that “women hold up half the sky,” women also hold up half the roof of the church in China.

Dr. Alexander Chow is a lecturer in Theology and World Christianity in the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. He has written two books on Chinese Christianity, most recently, Chinese Public Theology: Generational Shifts and Confucian Imagination in Chinese Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018). He maintains an academic blog at https://alexanderchow.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter at @caorongjin.