Fisherman in a Boat

Christianity in China

Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou

A review of Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou, by Nanlai Cao. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8047-7360-7. Paper, 261 pages.

A
nthropologist Nanlai Cao has painted a detailed portrait of an enormously significant phenomenon – the rise of “boss Christianity” in the port city of Wenzhou. With their national and global reach, Wenzhou Christians may be building a type of Christianity with immense consequences for Chinese Christianity everywhere.

Noting that Wenzhou has become “the largest urban Christian center in China,” (1) the author seeks to understand “the local significance of Wenzhou’s Christian effervescence” in recent years rather than “studying it as an instance of a general religious upsurge” (2). He believes that Wenzhou is unique in China, so he doesn’t want to extrapolate from what he has seen there, but the last page states that it is in “the contexts of spectacular modernization and social polarization that the story of Wenzhou Christianity finds its wide resonance in contemporary China.” Thus, “[a]lthough Christian entrepreneurs still represent a minority within China’s Christian population, active involvement of the upwardly mobile urban class in church life constitutes not only a trend but a likely future of Chinese Christianity in the context of China’s embrace of a competitive globalizing economy” (172).

For a variety of reasons, the usual domination-resistance model for understanding Christianity in China today does not reflect reality. For one thing, the state is not a monolith. In the case of Wenzhou, unique local history, culture, and distance from Beijing combined with an unusually high proportion of Christians have created a complex situation that is marked more by cooperation between church and government than by confrontation. For another, whereas rural Christians tend to be older, female, illiterate, and poor, the new urban churches are filled with young, male, educated, and prosperous people who are confident of their place in society and of their power to mould a new future for themselves and other believers. Official recognition of Christmas as a popular holiday simply provides one window into this new reality.

Cao seeks to place Wenzhou Christianity “in the context of an emerging postsocialist Chinese modernity that is embedded in a state developmentalist project,” in which “Christian entrepreneurs negotiate identity while seeking to anchor their feelings and emotions in relation to both a larger meaning system [i.e., Christianity] and state ideology [communism]” (12). “Wenzhou Christianity is a historically complex regional construct framed by a moral discourse of modernity… [that] tends to justify various social hierarchies and legitimatizes a new socioeconomic order in the making” (12).

Today’s Christians trace their spiritual lineage back to early missionaries like George Stott and the China Inland Mission church he founded in the 19th century. Like others in their city, they are noted for their regional dialect, which is incomprehensible to outsiders, a penchant for making money, and “migration and sojourning.” Wenzhounese have taken their businesses all over China and the world; in recent years, their Christianity has gone with them, creating national and international networks that feature large churches that are “visual representations of sacred power” (17). Identifying himself as a “cultural Christian” who had come to study their religious life as a part of his scholarly pursuits, the author gained intimate access to almost all phases of Wenzhou Christianity, enabling him to fashion a report that seems to be largely accurate.

The Rise of “Boss Christians” and Their Engagement with State Power

“The Christian revival has been intertwined with regional development for the past two decades in Wenzhou” (25). As Christian businessmen have become prosperous, they have brought their new-found wealth and social status into the church, where they assume positions of leadership. They are models of success, which they ascribe entirely to God’s mercy and grace. Contributing lavishly, they enable fancy new buildings to be built for growing congregations, and full-time workers to be hired. Seeking to do business “by the Book,” they strive both for integrity and a management style that reflects biblical values, and they encourage – or even require – their employees to do the same. Bible study attendance may not be optional for managers; it is certainly a way for workers to earn the favor of their Christian bosses. A Christian businessmen’s fellowship provides them with support and instruction on the application of the Bible to management. Always, it is stressed that doing business is a way to serve God. In short, “they seek to be integrated into the current socioeconomic mainstream and play a greater role in the public arena. Rather than conform to institutionalized religious authority, they shape church culture to suit their emotional and identity needs” (41).

At the same time, they fit seamlessly into modernization both at work and in the church. Evangelistic services and church equipment reflect the latest in technology, professional production, and efficiency. Other entrepreneurs are invited to evangelistic meetings that feature pretty Christian women as hostesses, outstanding entertainment, and highly successful business leaders as speakers. In contrast to their rural background, their Christianity now reflects, and transmits, high culture.

All of this, moreover, is done without government intervention. The boss Christians see themselves as partners with the local government in promoting both material and moral development in Wenzhou, and in helping to build the “harmonious society” called for by the central government. Good relationships are the key to everything in China, and these businessmen work assiduously to cultivate close and cooperative ties with local officials. They pay their taxes, contribute to government-sponsored charities, and teach their employees to obey the law and work hard. The invite government people to attend some of their evangelistic meetings, and some even serve in the government or in the Party. In return, they are left pretty much alone to pursue their religious agenda, which is to build world-class, modern churches and to bring others to the faith.

Of Manners, Morals and Modernity: Cosmopolitan Desires and the Remaking of Christian Identity

Wenzhou boss Christians are “redeeming the blessing” of having become prosperous by contributing to a new moral culture in their city and around the world. Deeply desiring to leave behind their rural background, they strive to become modern, cosmopolitan carriers of a higher culture. Their Christian identity “implies both a superior spirituality and social prestige, at least among Christians.” That is because “Christianity is a prestigious cosmopolitan faith that embraces both global capitalism and an idealized notion of Western civilization and modernity,” deriving in part from the Western missionary roots of Wenzhou Christianity. “Today Wenzhou Christianity has become a precious cultural and moral resource for the upwardly mobile bosses to reposition and distinguish themselves in the process of catching up with the capitalist West and shedding uncouthness. It is also an integral part of Wenzhou’s urbanization, industrialization, and modernization processes” (43).

The official Three- Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) Christians downplay the Western origin of Protestantism in China, though they invoke the ties they have with “mainline” Protestant denominations in the West to legitimize their own status. The unregistered churches, however, hitch their wagon to the evangelicals in the West with whom they have close links, and do all they can to show that they, too, are modern and civilized just like their Western counterparts. Just as the prosperity and democracy of the United States can be, they believe, traced in part to its Christian heritage, so they aim to use Christianity to make Wenzhou modern, prosperous, and civilized. Sunday schools are copied from Western churches; most households own a piano and have their children learn to play it; English is widely used in a variety of settings, both as a sign of modernity and as a means to upgrade the educational level of Christians. Weddings follow the Western pattern. Some symbols of traditional, non-Christian culture are avoided, such as the dragon, as “Wenzhou Christians consciously avoid infusing Chinese cultural components into Christian rituals” (71).

Successful Christian businessmen are called upon as guest speakers, and their piety, sexual purity, and politeness alike referred to as exemplary for others to follow. They stress that we cannot become good people unless God works in our hearts to transform us; the mark of his work in us is a change in behavior. Wenzhou Christians seek to distinguish themselves from their pagan past and their non-Christian neighbors by their faith, their worship, and their moral probity. On the other hand, traditional Chinese values can still be seen. Weddings, for example, involve lavish expense in what may seem like a competition among successful families to display their new-found wealth and social status; the “economic condition of the young man’s family is still a paramount concern for Christian girls” (71).

The Business of Religion in the “Wenzhou Model” of Christian Revival

Successful Wenzhou boss Christians “explicitly promote production and management of church development in consumeristic and entrepreneurial terms” (74). Although they tout “the Wenzhou model of church” as proof of the “uniqueness and superiority of Wenzhou Christianity,” the author sees “this concept as a metaphor through which boss Christians express their conflicting identities as entrepreneurs, Christians, Wenzhou citizens, and new rich” (75). These businessmen supply the funds for “church building projects, evangelical (sic) organizations, and church initiatives,” (75) and “use locally developed entrepreneurial logic in investing in church infrastructure, establishing investor control over churches, managing church brands, networking, and outsourcing production of church activity” (76). Elaborate, even extravagant, church buildings are symbols of success, sources of further growth, and signs of Christianity’s presence in the city. These structures also enable the bosses to display their own wealth, success, and power. Naturally, given their investment, the bosses expect to control both the buildings and all other church activities. They have, in fact, come to replace pastors, church workers, and traditional church leadership structures.

With so much money, power, and prestige involved, we are not surprised to read that “conflicts over control of the church are commonplace in the reform era” (80). “The boundaries of the entrepreneurial and Christian worlds are quite blurred” and “personal economic relations shape the politics behind the church organization” (82). Church divisions and splits take place frequently, often amidst charges of either corruption or dictatorial control.

Both regular preaching and evangelism are “outsourced” to rotating volunteers who are funded by the bosses, who also draw heavily on their international networking to bring in outstanding speakers from overseas, especially successful businessmen and Westerners, who are seen as the acme of modernization. In all this, the boss Christians hope to turn the “Wenzhou model of church” into an internationally recognized “brand.”

Gendered Agency, Gender Hierarchy, and Religious Identity Making

The different roles of men and women are clearly defined in Wenzhou Christianity. Men provide the funds; lead the enterprises; and demonstrate their rationality by seeking further education in the Bible and theology, while women support the men by running the home, providing food at church gatherings, and serve as pretty hostesses for men-only evangelistic meetings. Serving as “Marthas” (Mada), they are often busy during the sermon, which furthers their marginalized position, which is at the same time highly honored by the men. In all this, Wenzhou bosses justify their continued domination of women, whose spirituality they consider to be emotional and uninformed by sound theological knowledge. They are looking, rather, for “boundless and unconditional love from God” (111), especially in a close relationship to him as “friend, father, husband, and lover” (112).

Wenzhou Christian men eagerly enroll in theological education programs, most of which feature Calvinistic theology, with its stress upon rational knowledge. These courses are taught by experts, often foreigners with advanced degrees, and are strictly for education (teaching) not edification (preaching). Both translated and locally authored and translated books and journals are published to further the goal of education. The women, meanwhile, support each other by forming fellowships in which intense emotional experiences are sought and valued, rather than careful study of the Bible. While men prefer Bible study, the women attend prayer meetings and special devotional sessions where the preaching is highly emotional, with little reference to the Scriptures. At home, women manage the household, including finances; contribute their efforts to the family business; and seek to bear the all-important son. Christian girls may not marry non-Christian boys, but the boys may marry unbelieving girls, since it is assumed that their brides will follow them into the church. Sexual purity is expected of them at all times.

Conversion to Urban Citizenship: Rural Migrant Workers’ Participation in Wenzhou Christianity

Migrant workers in Wenzhou numbered almost two million in 2003. Their life is one of hard work, long hours, cramped living conditions, isolation, and discrimination. No wonder they respond when well-to-do Christians show interest in them. Bosses invite them to evangelistic meetings which are “a constellation of self-evident truths, fanatic passion, public spectacle, and artistic performance with the aid of multimedia technology. For many migrant workers, this ‘red and fiery’ atmosphere in the church is reminiscent of temple festivals and other folk events in their rural hometown” (131-132). They love the “good atmosphere,” which includes “loud music, glamour [the performers are usually attractive girls], glitzy stage lighting, and the presence of large crowds in a theatrelike church building with festival-like interior decorations” (132). When their boss treats them with courtesy, sometimes even praying for them, and when the boss’s wife personally greets them at the door, they feel accepted and honored. The message appeals to them, too. They can find meaning in life and a means to improve their lot by moral transformation. The Christian God brings different goals and produces the power for self-discipline, while educational opportunities are offered by the urban church. Often desperately lonely, they are welcomed into a warm, family-like fellowship of people like themselves. They also find closeness to God and profound emotional healing.

On the other hand, their rural origin, inability to speak Wenzhounese, and lack of education and “culture” set them apart from the local believers. Their meetings are conducted in Mandarin and mostly led by locals, who call them “outside brothers.” No matter how long they stay in Wenzhou or how well they adapt to its church life, they cannot escape their status as “outsiders.” The men cannot hope to marry a local Christian girl or be invited into church leadership. According to Cai, the migrants are seen as objects of evangelism and of “taking culture down” to the countryside, not active agents in the process of becoming a Christian or growing in spiritual maturity and urban sophistication. In fact, Cai believes that the Wenzhou bosses use Christian language and activities to make the migrants’ position on the margins of urban society permanent.

Conclusion: Religious Revivalism as a Moral Discourse of Modernity

Wenzhou Christianity defies the usual domination-resistance narrative of popular journalism. Instead, Cai has shown that “the presence of a business community organized at the grassroots level can not only negotiate changes in church-state relations but also move Christianity from the margin to the mainstream of Chinese society” (163). In this town, Christianity is a complex phenomenon, which “is inextricably intertwined with class positions and dispositions, gender differentiation, place distinction, and everyday lived experiences in the local society. The church offers a site for formation of new social experiences and cultural identities among local groups of varying backgrounds” (163). Heavily influenced by the age-old cultural patterns of rural life, this new form of the faith in reform era Wenzhou often includes “a celebration of pragmatism and growing individualism, a supernatural justification of newfound wealth, and simultaneous commitment to religious faith and modern rationality” (164).

Christian entrepreneurs “seek to establish themselves as members of a new local elite through simultaneously embracing evangelical Christianity, rational masculinity, state connections, a freewheeling market, and Western lifestyle” (166). More than that, they are aspiring to transcend “a decadent state moral order captured by prevalent cadre corruption in both official and popular discourse” (169). In doing so, they place themselves firmly in the middle of a modern discourse in China that aims to elevate the culture and produce people of “superior” personal qualities, so that the entire society will progress into greater and greater order and prosperity. Cai emphasizes that Wenzhou Christianity itself is “far from a coherent universe.” It is a “moral discourse of modernity” that “enables a bizarre combination of prosperity gospel, biblical fundamentalism, and moral conservatism whereby the upwardly mobile class can claim an overall economic, spiritual, and moral superiority” (171). Wenzhou Christians’ creation of hierarchies in the church “can be viewed as mainly a product of the earnest efforts of individuals to advance in the historical context of a modernizing China, concomitantly with their equally anxious search for a unifying meaning system and moral order whereby they can make sense of their experiences of growing inequality and dislocation in a rapidly changing society” (171).

This book as a number of major strengths: It is tightly organized and well written; it gives the big picture along with fascinating detail, including quotations from individuals; a strong theoretical framework ties the various components of a complex reality into a coherent whole; the author has done extensive research and presented his findings in a compelling fashion.

On the other hand, it suffers from a serious weakness: Throughout, (as shown in many of the quotes above) religious motives are either denied or discounted, and almost everything Wenzhou Christians do is interpreted cynically as an attempt to seek power and place, rather than to know God or glorify him. It seems that Marxist categories inform much of the analysis, especially the chapters on gender and on class. Consistently, Cai confuses result with motive, so that what Christians achieve as a consequence of their efforts is seen only in sociological terms as the intended product of an entirely pragmatic project to improve one’s lot in this life. In other words, this purportedly objective picture lacks the depth necessary for real accuracy; it is a flat, two-dimensional portrait lacking the essential third dimension of spiritual reality. In logical terms, the author commits the post hoc, ergo propter hoc error ( “after this, and therefore because of this”). Scriptural justification for evangelism, missions, prudential marriage choices, focused ministry to migrants, and the role of women in the church is either ignored or downgraded to mere rationalization for self-seeking motives. In addition, although Cao did his best to understand Wenzhou Christianity, his perspective as an outsider dominates the book, and shows up even in some word choices, such as a consistent misuse of “evangelical” instead of “evangelistic.”

Nevertheless, I found Constructing China’s Jerusalem extremely helpful and I very highly recommend the book to anyone who wants to understand Chinese Christianity today. This review has given only a taste of the richness of a work which should be read several times and carefully pondered. For a preliminary evaluation of Wenzhou Christianity as described by Cai, see “Boss” Christianity, Big Christianity, and Biblical Christianity" at China Institute.

G. Wright Doyle