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Secret Missionaries and Smuggled Bibles: China’s Religious Boom

Perhaps this boy is headed to church?

Perhaps this boy is headed to church? (Photo: Tauno Tõhk / 陶诺 /flickr)

Xiao Xue is a young woman from the countryside in Henan Province, central China. Ten years ago, she migrated to the city of Tianjin to work as a helper for, full disclosure, my grandmother. Xiao Xue and her mother are both Christians, and when Xue left home, she got into the habit of always taking her Bible with her. 

In every village, she said, there’s a small church with an altar and a cross. The local government provided money to build a beautiful church in the town near her village, big enough to hold over 1,000 people. She attended service here on Sundays, and it was always packed, with people squeezed onto benches and sitting on the floor against the walls. In the services, there are sermons, songs by the congregation, and testimonials by parishioners about how Jesus has helped them. At noon, the church provides everyone with a hearty free lunch—bowls of pork noodles and thick, white buns called mantou. The younger churchgoers serve the elders and clear up afterwards, contributing to what Xue described as an atmosphere full of love and respect.

After working in the city for several years, Xue returned home and visited her church. At the church service, she was able to make a 200RMB ($30) contribution when the donation box came around—the beginning, she decided, of a lifelong tradition.

It’s a choice that a historic number of people in China are making. In the countryside, Christianity seems to be filling a spiritual void, building a greater sense of community, and often providing a local financial boost. It feels more complicated in cities, where many see the religious rush closely interwoven with chaotic urbanization and a rise in materialism. You’ll hear lamentations from Chinese about how there is no ideology, no morality, no spirituality anymore, with some seeking Christianity for some kind of balance, and others associating it with the West and seeing it as an enabler of greater material wealth.

Some say that what’s happening spiritually in China is “nothing short of remarkable.” One scholar calls this religious revival “one of the greatest awakenings in human history.” 

So is China’s changing religious landscape a spiritual crisis,” as some have said, or a spiritual miracle? 

Perhaps it is both.


 

China's churches don't look like this... yet.

China’s churches don’t look like this… yet. (Photo: Michael D Beckwith/flickr)

After years of religious repression in first half of the 20th century, churches began sprouting up again over the past few decades, while traveling evangelists baptized Chinese villagers in rivers, in the trunks of trucks, in moldy showers.  By the 1990s, as millions of Chinese went to cities in search of work, and thousands of missionaries migrated to China from abroad, Christianity in China began to take on a life of its own.

The last decade or so in China has been host to a religious fervor unlike anything we’ve seen before. Though traditional Buddhism still draws the most followers (18 percent, or 244 million people), in the last few decades the number of Catholics and Protestants has grown to an estimated 9 million and 58 million people, respectively. Fenggang Yang, director of the Center of Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, predicts that by 2030, Christians will represent 16 percent of China’s population.

In parts of the Chinese countryside, Christians already make up 70 or 80 percent of the population, says Xue.

China is one of only two societies where religion was once absent; the other is Albania under Communist rule, according to Yang. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains the largest explicitly atheist organization in the world. From 1966 to 1979, religion had been completely illegal; students were taught the Marxist ideology that religion is the opium of the weak and oppressed. Children were told that God was dead and religion gone, and they grew up worshiping Chairman Mao instead. Temples and churches were nowhere to be found. 

Now, the country is suddenly en route to hosting the biggest Christian community in the world, with Bibles finally available on some store shelves and churches shooting up across the country. And outside the city circles of urban and educated Chinese, beyond the close watch of the Communist Party, Christianity is thriving. Where the miracle began, the miracle continues. 

(Images: Center on Religion and Chinese Society, Purdue University)


The legalities of Christianity in China remain somewhat murky. When Jimmy Carter met with leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979, he asked for three things: for China to allow Christian churches, publication of the Bible, and missionaries. That year, the CCP had just announced that nationals could subscribe to one of the five state-authorized churches—Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Christianity (Protestantism)—but only those. 

After sleeping on it, Deng said yes to the first and second requests, and no to the third. It soon became evident that those were very tenuous “yes”s.

As far as churches go, Carter would be pleased to see that you can find them far and wide, though he might be miffed at their strict regulation. According to the law, Chinese are only allowed to attend official state-run churches, known as Three Self Churches, which technically represent “self-governance, self-support, and self propagation.” (At state-authorized foreign churches, passports are checked at the door, and Chinese nationals are turned away.) These churches receive regulation and oversight from Party officials to ensure they are not going astray in their messages to the masses (they often hold upwards of 5,000 people). Churches unauthorized by the government have had their their crosses knocked down and their buildings closed and sometimes demolished. Prominent Christian pastors have even been sentenced to years in prison. But much of this is concentrated in certain regions—the highly Christian and urbanized regions of Zhejiang and Wenzhou.

Some folks see this as an intrusive extension of the Party and instead join underground “house churches,” which are (illegal) congregational gatherings that take place in apartments or empty buildings or even outside in the snow. House churches refuse to accept oversight by any official authority, and when discovered, members have suffered.

Yet despite the obstacles, there’s still a lot of unbounded optimism. The American-run ministry Project China states on its website, “We want to put a church within reach of every Chinese person.”

House churches—halt! (Photo: Beijing Patrol/flickr)

And what about Bibles? Well, owning a Bible luckily no longer gets you into trouble in China. That said, there have still been occasional Bible-related arrests. Bibles were once very difficult to lay hands on, and previously, they were smuggled into China by the ton. Until 2013, Bibles could be distributed only through official Three Self churches, but recently, they finally starting showing up on commercial shelves, though the hundreds of millions of copies now circulating still struggle to keep up with demand. All that said, these days in China, you can get your hands on just about anything—whether it’s a Bible or Fifty Shades of Grey.

Carter’s final request still lags behind the rest of official religious freedom policy. Proselytizing is rampant, yet illegal, and missionaries have been arrested in increasing numbers over the last couple years. If you Google missionaries in China, the headline “China broadens crackdown on foreign missionaries” shows up right above a link to “Become a Missionary to China.” Most come from America and South Korea registered as English teachers, and if you travel to rural China, you’ll quickly develop a missionary radar. 


 Perhaps no phenomenon better shows the rise of Chinese Christianity than the explosion in reports of the ultimate conversion moment: miracles. These reports emerged from the countryside in the 1970s and 1980s, spurred by failing healthcare and the hope that Christianity could help heal wounds. In rural Zhejiang, Anhui, and Hebei, preachings of the word of were God followed by healings and inexplicable phenomena—the handicapped suddenly walking, the blind gaining sight, the dead being raised. 

Examples abound. Once, when a woman entered a house meeting possessed by a demon, a Christian put his hands on her shoulders and began speaking in tongues; minutes later, she fell to the ground and reawakened, her normal self. In another case, a group of thugs was so stunned by witnessing Evangelist prayer cure the deaf and the paralyzed, that they immediately embraced Jesus. Another story tells of a woman persecuted for her Christian faith hearing that her son had fallen into a well. While the villagers gathered around, the boy rose to the surface of the water. He told them that a man in white had been holding him up. These kinds of stories are now commonplace

The Party still pushes a slogan from the 1920s: “One more Christian, one fewer Chinese.” But the tide has turned away from Communist party zeal. China may well experience more miracles than any country on Earth right now, something that can only spur more young people like Xue to keep a small, sacred book tucked into their bag at all times. It might even have a red cover.