Surviving the State, Remaking the Church


Review of Li Ma and Jin Li, Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018.

It’s widely known that in recent decades, China’s economy, social structures and citizens themselves have undergone unprecedented change, development and upheaval. This is no less true for the Christian church and its members across the vast country. In this volume — essential for anyone seeking to understand the socio-political and historical shifts in China, and their interplay with Christianity — scholars Li Ma and Jin Li investigate numerous factors at play within both the state and church. These include the power of a communist regime versus that of a Christian worldview; the dramatic shift from rural to urban across the country; distinctives of younger generations compared to their elders, who lived through - and survived – the rise to power and evolution of the Communist party; and how Protestant churches in China have diversified and formed their own social identities.

Li Ma and Jin Li are also Christians themselves, and a married couple as well, so the valuable book they give us is more than just a clinical study. As the subtitle reflects, they are not just chronicling complex, contemporary trends (which they do adeptly) but are also painting intimate, purposeful portraits of what such realities have looked like on the ground – and in the lives of – Chinese Christians themselves. To gather data for their observations and conclusions, the authors conducted at least a hundred interviews from their personal networks from 2010-2015, and observed roughly 40 churches and faith-based organizations in various cities. This unique and nuanced approach is necessary, as reliable studies on Christian trends are scarce due to government censored or limited research, and many potential subjects for data have blocked or ignored memories of living under a suppressive regime. Stereotypes about China, and related to Christianity, abound, as do overly simplified sociological studies, so the conscientiousness with which the authors seek to give a holistic and deeper understanding about their subject(s) is most needed. 

Over an arc of about seven decades, starting with the Three-Self Campaign of the 1950s up to the present day, the book covers a wide breadth of spheres and topics, from the recruitment efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to the rise of Calvinist theology. Li and Ma follow the thread of the “basic tension between the always-present state and local churches” (17), with the twelve chapters roughly building chronologically. Below you will find a synopsis of each chapter, though the authors also provide a helpful and concise “conclusion” section at the end of each chapter in their book. 

The particular burden of these authors is apparent, as they hold out to the reader stories of brothers and sisters in the faith that many have longed to hear. The tone of their writing can at times be prophetic, offering both lament and hope for and to the church in China, and beyond. In their own words:

“In these pages, you will meet real people in their unique political contexts where the Christian faith reshapes the habits of the heart. Out of these changes antithetical actions and even pioneering institutions sometimes spring up. It is our hope you will be both amazed and touched by their humanity” (xvi). 

Chapter One: Captives

It is no secret – and confirms Jesus’ own teaching – that the testing of Christ-followers through periods of persecution is inevitable, and can even reap a great spiritual harvest, both individually and for the growth of the church. In their first chapter, Li and Ma chronicle the effect of the rise of the Communist ideology and regime on both the public and private realities of Protestantism in China. 

Prior to 1949, when the Communist revolution triumphed, Christianity could be witnessed in the forms of public expressions of faith, growing Christian universities and hospitals, and missionary activity, to name a few. From the 1950s to 1970s, however, in pursuit of a new social order and unfailing allegiance to its own values, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) included Christianity as a target in its calculated efforts to eradicate from the country any loyalties to anything – or anyone – besides the state. Social trust and interpersonal networks were undermined as suspicions about foreign influence and “Western” religions arose, causing even parents to be afraid of sharing the Gospel with their own children, for fear of being labeled “counterrevolutionary.” Because so much was lost –even literally -- in the turbulence of those decades, “stories of imprisoned Christians under the...regime were seldom told: they were forbidden and became forgotten (3).” In this chapter, Li and Ma do, however, unearth and unfold the compelling story of 84-year old medical doctor Yuan’s conversion, and subsequent imprisonment for ten grueling years due to his faith and identification with Watchman Nee’s “Little Flock” congregation. They also introduce us to sisters and brothers like the perseverant Professor Xu, a member of the more recently targeted Shouwang church, whose numerous detentions and even imprisonments God redemptively used to strengthen his faith and expand his witness to others. 

The chapter poignantly and rightfully concludes with the observation that “the harshest means of persecution under communism…have often produced results counter-productive to the Party’s intention” (13) and indeed purified the church and it’s members’ loyalties. The authors also make the important observation that the CCP’s efforts effectively drove the church underground through shifting the freedoms and forms of China’s public spaces, and by deeply destroying social norms of trust. 

Chapter Two: Worldview

The degrees to which the absolutist and atheistic ideology of Communism have affected the mindset and social fabric both of the general Chinese population, and specifically Chinese Christians, over the last several decades are thoroughly explored in this chapter. The level of control the CCP enforced over all social relationships cannot be underemphasized, and here our authors investigate how the regime capitalized on psychological fear as a means of political power through enforcing “a system of exclusion and violence” in which shame tactics, spying and secret police among communities became normative. The CCP employed organizational means to isolate and control the people of China: borders were sealed, the labor force divided into work units to track citizens and monitor their party loyalties, and family members even pressed to turn on one another if loyalties to the state were at risk of being compromised. 

Though the Chinese mindset – and the very postures of trust –were deeply altered in the 1950s and 1960s by a ruling force with dictator Chairman Mao at the helm, this section reminds its readers of a Christian worldview – with Jesus at the helm – that has shone in the midst of such darkness and offered both substantive comfort and conviction to Chinese believers. Whereas “communism exerts control on individual’s minds and hearts through external means of violence, Christianity reforms individuals from the inside out” (29). As evidence, Li and Ma share the powerful story of Dr. Zhang, who was dramatically converted during the height of Mao-worship, and who was wooed to the Biblical God of justice and truth in a cultural and historical time of great injustice and deception. Dr. Zhang’s growth in the Gospel was catalyzed by the spiritual discipleship of Pastor Liu, also documented in this chapter as yet another brother imprisoned for nearly two decades for his faith. The book’s continued theme of the strong tie between conversion and suffering again weaves through this chapter, as it’s noted that the politically marginalized or punished were often the most fertile soil for seeds of faith to take root. The chapter closes with the affirmation that “the holistic worldview of the Christian faith gives shelter to Chinese converts as a sacred soul-sustaining canopy” (30).

Also of note in this chapter is some history on the availability of the Bible within China and the varied attempts at smuggling Scriptures into the country. 

Chapter 3: Censored

Chapter Three builds on the preceding chapter by further diagnosing the effects of Communist ideology, including the infamous event of the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989, on the modern Chinese psyche. Though the event itself, and surrounding details, were actively censored by the Chinese media in the decades following, this chapter answers important questions about its impact on those who lived through it, and speculates on the disillusionment to come for younger generations who have – or will soon- gradually pieced the details of it together. 

In the midst of a horrific event like Tiananmen, it can be hard to discern what specific good God might perhaps bring from evil. But our authors posit – and confirm with testimonies and cultural evidence – that “the most profound consequence of the Tiananmen crackdown was a widespread spiritual and moral crisis, as the CCP’s moral authority collapsed” (32). In the decade following, most Chinese found themselves in the midst of a deep spiritual crisis, and all sorts of religious sects and forms grew dramatically, including Protestantism, which saw many mass conversions. One of several powerful stories told in this chapter is that of 60 year-old “Huang,” a formerly zealous Maoist whose confidence in the Party started to unravel when he witnessed discord among its members and a lack of cohesive morality in its practices. But it wasn't until after the violent at crackdown at Tiananmen Square that Huang decided to “find a religion” and eventually was baptized through a Three Self church. In this chapter we also meet “Fang,” whose search for justice following the Tiananmen loss of life led him to the Christian God. Other Chinese citizens who traveled abroad to work and study after the 1989 incident also became converted, their faith journey following a similar pattern of distrust and disillusionment followed by a quest for truth. Though plenty of Chinese responded to the turbulence of the times, and the ideology of the party, with a posture of opportunism or survival-ism (which often manifests as pragmatism, rather than true philosophical allegiance), the interviewees in this chapter testify that the Christian gospel enabled them and many others to embrace forgiveness, to worship of God over any earthly power, and to a Biblical and transcendent understanding of true justice. 

The chapter ends with the astute observation that “by the early 1990s, home groups had been sprouting up across China, and the ethical teachings of peace-making and self-giving love represented by close knit house-church groups appealed to people who had seen too much darkness and hopelessness in society” (49). The influence of such groups is further explored in subsequent chapters. 

Chapter 4: Orphans

As many Chinese found themselves fleeing to Christ, or at least were more open spiritually, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen, and the unraveling social fabric of the late 20th Century, the church’s challenge of helping new Christ followers to grow into maturity became significant, especially in a culture where church activity remained covert. In Chapter Four, Li and Ma posit a void of quality discipleship and accessible church membership as a consequence of well intended but incomplete missionary practices, constant state surveillance and limited resources for pastors and leaders. The 1980s brought a renewed effort by outsiders to get Bibles into the mainland, but there were still a sparse number relative to the rising Christian population. Due to many of these factors, the authors describe the converts of the 1980s and 1990s as “a generation of spiritual orphans left to grow up by themselves” (51).

International para-church ministries such as Campus Crusade for Christ employed undercover and highly original strategies necessarily much different from the ones employed by missionaries of the early 20th Century, and sowed a lot of spiritual seeds, especially among University students (and often at “safer” western locations like McDonalds or Starbucks, as the authors interestingly note!) during a time when local churches were not reaching out to such an audience. However, the fellowship groups they spawned often suffered a lack of access to local churches, deeper Biblical teaching on the Old Testament and a holistic Christian worldview, or consistent enough relationships to mentor new believers over the long haul. The stories of “Ying” and “Sun” reflect such campus conversions and their related challenges, especially after graduation. “Pastor Bao’s” interview with Li and Ma both confirms the fruit of such campus ministry, while acknowledging the struggle to truly be rooted in both God’s Word and solid fellowship after initial professions of faith. To shepherd his local flock more fully, Pastor Bao has sought to delve into Christian theology, history and the rapidly expanding Christian publishing industry in China to create a more solid focus on discipleship and church life for his sheep. Other pastors fall prey to face-saving or lack of leadership accountability, since their churches often function independently as silos, or struggle to have a robust enough theology or preaching emphasis to meet the needs of urban elites such as Christian professors of economics and philosophy, and artists.

As they conclude, the authors sufficiently diagnose the mixed legacy left by foreign Christians, and rightly lament the “lonely and truncated journey [of many younger converts]…and the lack of connection and unity among urban congregations,” (64) which they discuss further in the next chapter. 

Chapter 5: Two Cities

A tale of two cities – and church distinctives – is indeed told in this section, as fascinating contrasts are drawn between the inland, “teahouse culture” city of Chengdu and the coastal, cosmopolitan Shanghai. One would presume increasing marketization in China since 1978 would mean an economic and international powerhouse like Shanghai might be among the most “open” or public in terms of its local congregations and unregistered churches. Surprisingly, the authors observe that historical and socio-political influences of each city, combined with differing postures of local authorities, have in fact contributed to a greater degree of secrecy and a more closed approach among Shanghai churches. 

Li and Ma explain that in 1952, now-frenetic Shanghai was the locale of the first meeting of the Three Self Patriotic Movement. Roman Catholics and Protestants largely resisted and therefore went underground in the city from the 1950’s through 1980s (and beyond). Shanghai’s church scene has also been influenced by a network of United Prayer Fellowship groups having a strong presence, and also by the legacy of Watchman Nee’s Little Flock. Chengdu, the more laid-back capital of Sichuan province in the west, has historically been a hub of foreign missionary activity, including serving as a base of China Inland Mission to reach ethnic minorities. The city itself has always had more liberal- leaning tendencies and a greater value of freedom of speech (insofar as it is ever practiced in the country. The tragic 2008 Sichuan earthquake also brought an influx of religious relief workers who were largely welcomed, and who experienced more respect and freedom from local authorities. 

Chapter Five provides a helpful comparison chart (p. 68) of further contextual factors that are true for Shanghai and Chengdu, and can be summarized as follows: Shanghai churches tend to be more leader-reliant, pietistic, and retain a “conflict-perspective” on the state due to high-level party surveillance within the city limits; Chengdu believers generally experience a greater level of tolerance by - and even symbiotic relationship with - the local authorities due to medium party surveillance efforts, and it’s churches are also marked by more socially diversified and public gatherings. 

The question of “to hide or not to hide,” and how such answers are defined in the case study of the Shanghai and Chengdu churches, is what the authors use their fieldwork to focus on in the second half of the chapter. They helpfully identify the following factors at play among both cities’ “organizational resources” as determinative for the degree of privacy they seek: leadership, as the “leader’s opinions regarding the church-state relationship strongly influence how the group [decides] about whether they should split into smaller groups or worship outdoors after a government eviction” (72); spatial resources, since owning a space is a turning point for a congregation in terms of consistent worship; inter-group dynamics, meaning the networks at play in each city and questions of ordination, membership-fluidity and the saving-face issue of “sheep-stealing” of members; theological, as a church’s theology affects how it is organized and how much it pursues social activism as an application of faith; and finally political-cultural norms, which are embedded in particular political contexts and which church leaders often interpret, thereby setting the tone for their congregations.

On one level, this section exposes basic questions facing any congregation or church leader: How will we organize? How large do we want our congregation to grow? How open will we be to outsiders? But, as the examples of Shanghai and Chengdu prove, churches must answer these in an extremely intensified and complicated context in China, where persecution of the local church from the state is both a historic and current reality.

Chapter Six: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)

Most of us outside China’s borders – and many within - wonder to what degree the Communist Party currently exerts power over different spheres of governance and society. The reality and significance of the party pose particularly complex questions for Chinese believers. Chapter Six begins to provide answers for questions such as: What degree of influence does the CCP still hold? Why has CCP membership been on the rise? Can – and should – one leave the Party after becoming a Christian? Is CCP membership compatible with following Christ? Can Communists become Christians? 

China is becoming an increasingly pluralistic society with the emergence of a private economy, and though religious diversity has grown, somewhat counter-intuitively so has the number of CCP members. Authors Li and Ma point out that this is largely because post-Tiananmen, even with their moral credibility eroded, the country’s leadership strategically provided more opportunities for political officials to establish symbiotic relationships with economic elites. And though fewer than ever Chinese are loyal to the actual ideologies of the Party, its organizational structures and career opportunities continue to hold great appeal because of the practical benefits of membership. The CCP still highly controls media, the military and universities, aggressively recruiting undergraduates and offering hard-to-resist economic and political benefits for those who join. The Party is extremely difficult to leave, as testified by one of the interviewees in this chapter, Professor Liu, and some have even faced imprisonment for doing so. 

Li and Ma have described the frequency with which college students come to Christian faith, and here point out that undergraduate believers face particular pressure as to whether to submit to the party’s authority. From the interviews described in this chapter, we see that even older believers differ on a conscience and conviction level about aligning with the CCP, some seeking a “positive association between economic success and the spread of Christianity,” (88) but others viewing it as a political religion, accusing Christian Communist Party members of capitulating to religious syncretism. A current statistic demonstrates that 84% of CCP members do have religious beliefs. However, the authors reference a revealing article, entitled “If Party Member’s Religious Conversions Went On Unchecked There Would be Dire Consequences” (helpfully included in the appendix) which clarifies where loyalties must ultimately lie: “Chinese citizens have freedom of religious beliefs, but Party members are not common citizens; they are pioneering fighters in the vanguard for a communist consciousness; they are firm Marxists and also atheists” (184). That statement, and the chapter as a whole, was sobering to this reviewer as it captured the depths of allegiance demanded by the CCP, and how directly it confirms Jesus Christ’s own teachings that “no one can serve two masters” (Matt 6:24).

Chapter 7: Nationalism

The next section builds on the last, taking a deeper look at nationalistic beliefs in modern China, especially as Xi Jinping’s administration has renewed efforts to guard and even improve upon nationalistic fervor as globalization and technology have opened up the country to the world at large. The 2008 Beijing Olympics are cited as a good example of “a catalyst for an upsurge in nationalism,” (104). The authors state that the common allure of nationalism is that it can swallow up smaller socio-cultural identities, especially as the country gradually becomes more pluralistic. Xi also upholds a longstanding suspicion towards Western Imperialism. State-led campaigns have preferred the word “nationalistic-patriotism” to describe the thrust of their policies and government propaganda has a prominent influence in schools, using test taking as a form of indoctrination, or limiting the topics for theses that graduate students may investigate. 

The chapter clarifies that the Chinese demographic still largely buying into patriotism are generally 50-60s somethings, rural citizens, or military or public works laborers. The authors also accurately identify urbanization and age as predominant factors informing nationalistic tendencies in Chinese citizens, with Christian young professionals particularly on guard against the state’s manipulation of nationalistic emotions. They cite the example of a believer called “Huang,” who upon returning home for Spring Festival found it hard to stomach that his Christian family – and even local church -- still subscribed to the nationalistic worship heralded on CCTV and other state-led programming. He laments, “there is still an insurmountable barrier between their faith and their understanding of state-idolatry” (97).

The church at large, though, has demonstrated a blurred response to the nationalistic zeal of their country. Li and Ma describe the eschatological and global missions movement, “Back to Jerusalem,” which, starting in the 1920s, and renewed in the 1990s, has been embraced by many Chinese, and posits that their churches will bring the Gospel full circle back to the Middle East via the Silk Road. Another example of these “grand narratives [which] appeal to the typical aesthetic and imagination of the Chinese,” and marry a sense of historical experience to a sense of importance, is the popularity of “Xiaomin,” a rural hymn writer with a China-centric revival mentality. 

Li and Ma end this chapter with the hopeful declaration that Christian ethics do indeed provide an antidote to pervasive nationalist sentiments, or sensitive historical issues such as forgiveness towards Japan. Christ empowers his followers to love God above all and counter the culture idolatry of patriotism, to seek the universality of churches across boundaries, to dissolve grudges and mirror His own pursuit of harmony over violence.

Chapter 8: Charity

The proper response to the Biblical call on Christians to “learn to do good; seek justice; correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17) is particularly complicated in China. Many of the external (state restrictions) and internal (heart issues, poor theology in churches) challenges to “doing good” by the church in society are explored in Chapter Eight. Surviving the State, Remaking the Church describes the rapidly growing grey sector in Asia, but notes that since 2008 there have also been significantly more regulations placed on NGOs by the Chinese government. In general, there is also a large degree of suspicion among average citizens toward any social efforts that are not government sponsored or controlled. 

This chapter notes that the tragedy of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake did ignite many house churches to respond and prompted many faith conversions (see Chapter Five’s commentary on Chengdu), but also brought a few lamentable instances of Christian workers using patronizing attitudes, manipulation or even favoritism in the name of spreading of Gospel seeds. Due to their pietistic and separationist theology,that holds a secular- spiritual split regarding believers’ degree of engagement with the world, some church pastors wrongly view professional charity workers as those subscribing to more of a social gospel. Years of marginalization or persecution have led some churches to lack confidence that they might change anything in society. 

Some of the interviewees in this chapter gave powerful reflections, expressed in some of my favorite quotes in the book , about how they personally have navigated state and faith issues in regard to vocational callings in the realm of social service. Thirty-two year-old “Zhao’s” story is told as an example a move “from activism to faith” in one long involved with an NGO helping migrant families. When Zhao came to faith in the midst of his labors, he realized his self-righteousness in helping others. The Gospel changed his approach, proving to him that social change has to start in people’s hearts, including his own. The reflections of “Feng,” a former international-consultant-turned-NGO-worker to minorities in the remote province of Yunnan, also attest to his growth in vocational humility as he has come to know the living Christ:

“I find myself facing two Goliaths. One is a [political] system that does not welcome you and even stops you. The other is the massive group of people you are trying to help. I see their needs as well as their weaknesses…and in between these two giants, I see myself, a weak and broken sinner. Faith in God shows my motivations and my brokenness more clearly” (114).

Li and Ma interpret such change in perspective: “the Christian faith does not provide them with a haven to which they may escape; rather, it gives them a microscope to see reality more soberly without being disheartened” (114). This chapter reminds its readers of the need for such wise and persevering laborers as Zhao and Feng in the midst of a culture and country characterized by much brokenness amidst its progress. 

Chapter 9: Calvinism

Though most typical Chinese Christians would identify themselves as “evangelical,” the last couple decades have seen an emergence of Calvinism in the theology of Chinese churches, especially in urban centers like Wenzhou, Beijing and Chengdu, and in this chapter, the authors adeptly explore some of the reasons behind such theological shifts.

The nation has a missionary history of Calvinists, but such influences were diminished in the 1950s with rise of Communism. It was actually the sphere of academia that first reintroduced John Calvin and his tenets in the 1980s, when scholars debated its influence in shaping western capitalism through dissecting and digesting writings such as Weber’s Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism. Augustine’s City of God and Confessions were also translated and introduced into fields of literature and political theory. Beijing professor of philosophy “Song” translated and distributed Calvin’s Institutes, further spreading its influence. Equipped with training in legal matters, lawyers-turned-ministers also helped Christians use such theological resources to respond better to social issues. 

However, some Christian proponents of classical liberalism “have a natural aversion to institutionalized things, such as church gatherings. Many agree with John Calvin but see Calvinism as problematic.” (125). Others find its emphasis on God’s sovereignty and limits to human freedom worrisome.Some church leaders positively valued this resurgence of Calvinism as a needed counterbalance to rising Pentecostal activity during the late nineties.

Li and Ma identify several characteristics of Calvinist-influenced churches, such as an interest in democratization, constitutional rights and social justice. Many worship services have a more formal liturgy because of the corporate emphasis of reformed theology. Calvinistic churches tend to value Christian education and creedal formation, and find comfort in a doctrinal emphasis of grace that frees them from reliance on self-justification . Such Gospel truths “come like refreshing waters to thousands of Chinese pastors, most of whom labor under a heavy burden of expectations they place upon themselves and that others place upon them” (128). 

In China, Calvinism is more about establishing a comprehensive and cohesive worldview rather than advancing the finer points of the reformed tenets of “TULIP,” again, somewhat in reaction to the historical focus of pietistic theology on the individual, a view that fails to connect dots to real life for many believers. 

This chapter also discusses leadership structures informed by generational differences in Chinese culture. Interviewees talk about Calvinism offering a form of presbyterian governance attractive for providing checks and balances on one church leader’s personality or use of power, especially as their country has a complicated history of dictatorial rule. In general, younger leaders tend to favor a more committee-centric and open church leadership structure, whereas older members, who grew up under the height of an authoritarian culture influence and whose more individualistic faith helped them survive persecution, prefer a traditional family rule model. On the other hand, when schisms happen in churches, some traditional leaders are quick to blame Calvinism for undermining their authority. 

The authors’ research also helpfully touches on the issue of women in leadership (pp.130-131), and how the already challenging topic is complicated due to the imbalance of women to men in Chinese churches (as opposed to the over-representation of males in the general population), and the tension of working out the ideals of theological convictions about the role of women in a real, and complicated, context. 

As with all things placed in the hands of sinful man (and woman), there can be negative uses - or abuses – of Calvinistic teachings in Chinese churches. Prideful attitudes of “spiritual superiority” can be adopted by those who allow theological fine points to become paramount over the Gospel, or let disputes about infant baptism or predestination prevail. This section mentions sister “Yin’s” damaging experiences in her house church, “which became a place where everyone debated with everyone else, and we wounded each other with argumentative words and attitudes” (132). 

The chapter ends on a hopeful note, however, recognizing the health that can come to Chinese churches with a God-centered, rather than man-centered, focus as these new waves of reformed teachings continue to influence both doctrine and practice. But as Yin’s story makes clear, and Li and Ma summarize well, “first generation Calvinist churches also face the tremendous internal challenges of integrating life with doctrine and love with order” (134). 

Chapter Ten: Marriage

While living in Shanghai for seven years, I witnessed firsthand the unique challenges facing both singles and married Christians in China. This section of the book names such struggles and again gives a detailed analysis of the socio-cultural and historical factors at play in the realm of relationships between men and women – and families at large. The authors explore the effect of the 1979 One Child Policy and, as was noted in the prior chapter, how the church manifests a female-dominant gender imbalance quite opposite from the culture at large. The marriage scene can be difficult to navigate in any culture, but in China, “finding a Christian mate and building a biblical marriage has become the most urgently needed ministry among young urban Christians.” Increased demands for marital counseling are further proof of the challenge. 

Particularly interesting is how Li and Ma document the dramatic change in marital expectations and values over a handful of decades. Chinese born in the 1950s placed the highest importance on political associations and the family’s class ranking, with relatives often functioning as matchmakers. By the 1980s, career choices, income and level of education were top priorities. The shift towards consumerism and personal fulfillment became apparent by the 1990s, when owning apartments and automobiles became top rated values in searching for a mate. Christians are not always immune from such worldly temptations, as one interviewee laments: “Unbelieving women usually look at your career and wealth, but many Christian sisters ask for even more – similar secular expectations and your spirituality! Even if a girl does not value these, her parents will push her in this direction” (138). 

This sort of parental pressure cannot be underestimated, especially for singles who risk bringing shame or dishonor upon their parents by not eventually marrying or bearing children. Cultural celebrations such as Spring Festival or wedding ceremonies themselves are particularly thorny for Christ followers due to the aforementioned pressure to marry, a heightened emphasis on “earning face” or flaunting wealth, ancestor worship and superstitions within families. This chapter includes some accounts of courageous Chinese couples who saw their wedding as an opportunity to point their relatives to Christ, even after parents had adamantly opposed their proposed union with a Christian or desire to get married within a church building. 

Weddings are only the beginning of such friction, as the Biblical call to “leave and cleave” is not easily lived out amidst traditional family culture in China, nor once a couple has a child. Chapter 10 includes heart-breaking stories such as that of “Yue” and “Chao,” who faced enormous pressure from their parents to abort their first pregnancy when birth defects were diagnosed in the baby, who was still rejected by its grandparents upon birth. Grandparents expect to take an active and honorable role in primary care for infants and growing grandchildren, so Christian mothers who decide to give up vocational pursuits or income to stay home with their children for a season – or even breastfeed!— can face immense opposition. 

Woven throughout this chapter are instances of the church seeking to support and shepherd its members as they navigate Christian relationships in a very counter-cultural fashion. Shining instances of ministry are noted, such as Yue and Chao’s local house church setting up a benevolence fund for their frail baby, or a pastor urging a gracious response of renewed fellowship to a repentant couple who had fallen into sexual sin. The need for discipline is also recognized, however. “In a social environment where cohabitations and abortions abound, many urban churches impose strict checks on these behaviors,” (140) including possibly being banned from communion. 

Chapter 11: Education

The next section of the book further explores the challenges facing Christian families as they seek to “survive the state.” Once children reach school age, parents face the decision whether to enroll them in state-monopolized schools, where atheistic and socialist ideas continue to dominate the curriculum and overall educational environment. However, greater economic freedoms since the nineties and the rising demand of middle-class families to provide elite opportunities for their children mean that even the school system has been marked by inequality issues such as fees, bribery and corruption by school administrators and teachers. Li and Ma state that, “even good public schools in China now enjoy the reputation of being pricy, politically stifling and staffed by demoralized teachers” (151). 

This chapter paints a portrait of school life for children across China . The typical mainland elementary student would be expected to wear a red scarf, sing “red songs” daily and even join the Youth Pioneers of China as early as first grade. Along with state propaganda, the educational system is rife with academic competition, long school days, a heavy reliance on rote memorization and little development of critical thinking skills or fostering of creativity. Unfortunately, these factors are only heightened as students move up the educational ladder, with one professor quoted as saying he regrets being part of the system, and “seeing the lively faces of first year college students turning into dull, disengaged graduates” (153). 

Because the educational system is test-driven, and student achievement is linked to teacher salaries and bonuses, bribery and favoritism are other stark realities hard to avoid even for well meaning teachers. It is no wonder that more and more Christians and non-Christian families are looking for different options for their children. Many large cities in the mainland have international schools, but these come with a large price tag and often require foreign passports for enrollment. There are some Chinese private schools for younger students, but they tend to be quite small and the government can be wary of them. 

For those Christians who decide to endure the public school system, most recognize how formative the home environment is, and how crucial the need to instill a Biblical worldview in children early on. A revealing interview with “Mu,” who became a Christian while in high school, shortly after his parents converted, demonstrates this. Having to navigate an atheistic and materialistic culture while growing in his own Biblical convictions actually tested and strengthened Mu’s faith, though he realizes that may have not been the case for everyone. He admits, “the earlier a child is taught Christian values and worldview, the better; the more complete and comprehensive the worldview is taught, the better” (158). 

Such a cry for shaping the next generation’s minds with God’s truths has, not surprisingly, led many families and churches to begin their own educational endeavors. Unregistered church-based and mini-schools are on the rise, and many newer churches have the vision of someday hosting a school open to their local members. Such schools often lack fully qualified teachers or developed curriculum, struggle through financial limitations and fear shutdown by the government, but most parents and educators are both convicted and committed enough to persevere. Home-schooling families are also growing in number, with about 10,000 estimated currently. 

An interview with educator “Liang” ends this chapter with a vision for more than the narrow and expensive option of sending Chinese students abroad once they are of college age. The challenge to establish Christian-influenced educational choices through not just the elementary and secondary levels, but up to the upper levels of academia also provides an exciting opportunity: to establish indigenous Christian colleges in a country that formerly only knew them as foreign-missionary-led in the early 1900s. Li and Ma share a brief and interesting history of Christian colleges in the mainland in this section, and recognize a chance to do better moving forward. Christian urbanites are both empowered and financially able to see this dream become a reality, though as educator Liang puts it, “since we are building something organic in China’s own soil, we need to be patient, like gardeners” (162).

Chapter 12: Crosses

Many Christians outside the mainland often wonder about the Three-Self churches in China that they hear about. What are they? How do state run churches work? Are they legitimately Christian? Are they viewed positively? This final chapter of Surviving the State, Remaking the Church provides a helpful exploration of the topic, and, as usual, a mix of answers. The last decade has indeed witnessed Xi Jinping’s administration tighten controls country wide, including pressure on religions to sinicize and heightened measures against foreign influences. The sometimes forcible removal of hundreds (and perhaps thousands, since 2014) of crosses atop state-sanctioned churches in Zhejiang province is the example--and also the image used on the cover of their book--the authors again hold up to show how tenuous the relationship between church and state has become in recent years. 

The Chinese government still appoints leaders and controls the actions of the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the “China Christian Council,” an organization intended to promote socialist allegiances. Local pastors and the political culture of each city still greatly shape the freedoms and decisions of each Three Self congregation, however. There are eighteen Three-Self seminaries in the country, and they tend to recruit young, less educated students who’ve been vetted with thorough political screening. Some Christians like “Bian,” who has served in both house and state-run churches, thinks pitting the two against one another is unhelpful as they are not rivals, but exist under “government imposed categories.” Many Three-Self clergy themselves seem wary of its state-prescribed theology and administration. TPSM churches have grown in attendees since the 1990s, though many outside of Christian networks seem unaware of the differences between them and underground gatherings. 

Grace Church in Wuhan is a Three-self church with a vibrant, growing group of believers with an outreach focus, operating within local and national boundaries and building generally positive relationships with officials and businesses in the area. The lines in cities like Wuhan are more blurred, whereas the differences between house churches and state-run are more distinct in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, or may become heightened during seasons of increased surveillance or persecution by local authorities. Grace Church baptizes up to 300-400 converts a year, but female Pastor Hong invests deeply in personal discipleship, being burdened by how many new Christians think baptism is an “end achievement of Christian identity” (p. 170) rather than the very beginning of it. Grace Church and its leadership challenge many of the traditional stereotypes of Three Self congregations. 

Not every pastor has the stamina or calling of Pastor Hong to remain preaching and shepherding within state boundaries, however. Some find the Three-self seminary training they received to have been theologically insufficient to fulfill the ministry demands of their congregations. Others feel anxious working under the state when they have strong and often risky connections to local house churches and colleagues. Others like female clergy “Xue” simply bristle at having to submit to the authority of those clearly not led by the Holy Spirit or the Bible. This results in some pastors eventually leaving the TPSM to start their own unregistered fellowships, though these also create their own stressors. 

As they end this chapter, Li and Ma express a growing uncertainty as to how political authorities will deal with churches in the future in an environment of increased repression, and with Christianity posingg a bigger threat to nationalistic identity. Their caution is warranted, for at the time of this review in the spring of 2019, there have been recent and heightened waves of persecution toward both Three-self and house churches across the vast country. 


Surviving the State, Remaking the Church is an extremely eye-opening and encouraging contribution to studies on modern China and a generous contribution to the universal church as well. In specifically defining the uniqueness of the Chinese church and what it has endured – or perhaps more so what God has preserved it through – it gives powerful and public voices “for all the saints” who have staked their lives on the Gospel through the turbulence of the cultural revolution and Mao era, the progress and temptations of an increasingly consumerist-materialist society, and the lamentable breakdown of shared social fabric in China in recent decades. 

On a personal note, Li and Ma’s studies and interviews resonated powerfully with my own experiences as a foreigner living with and among Chinese believers in Shanghai from 2006-2012. I witnessed many of these realities and tensions of the modern and largely underground church play out anecdotally, but this volume provides the historical-social context – and the needed perspectives of insiders – to give me or any reader a more comprehensive and culturally insightful picture of Christian citizens in China.

ReviewsSarah Sawyer