Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao is a soulful book about the varieties of Chinese religion, including Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity. It was on WORLD’s 2017 Books of the Year short list in the Understanding the World category. The excerpt below, courtesy of Pantheon Books, portrays brave Christians worshipping on Christmas Eve at Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu, the subject of three WORLD Magazine features by June Cheng: “House church on a hill” from April 2016, “Taking the narrow path” from May, and “Reforming China” from October. Our China correspondent also interviewed Early Rain Pastor Wang Yi in May 2016. As Cheng noted in our Books of the Year issue, Johnson’s book “clearly shows man’s natural inclination to search for something beyond the material. The heavens declare the glory of God, and China’s government is unable to hide His handiwork.” —Marvin Olasky
Chengdu: Searching for Jesus
As Christmas arrived, it seemed that Wang Yi’s church might not be able to hold a service. This was usually the high point of the year and a key chance to recruit followers; many Chinese are curious about the Western holiday but don’t really understand it—who is the fat guy in the red suit, and what does it have to do with Jesus? The Christmas service was an opportunity for the congregation to invite friends to a fun evening, and maybe win over a few people. Usually these services were so popular that Early Rain rented out a ballroom. But this year, every time they booked a hotel’s ballroom, they got a call an hour later from the manager apologetically backing out—clearly the result of government pressure. I began to wonder if it had all been too much: the seminary, the expansion plans, and linking up with other Reformed churches.
I visited Peng Qiang to ask him what he thought. He had his own church and had known Wang Yi for years. What did he think of these tensions between churches and the government? Was this a serious conflict? We sat in his chilly offices, like most buildings in southern China unheated in the winter. The damp Chengdu winter penetrated every room, every layer of clothing, but Peng was buoyant and laughed good-naturedly at my question.
“Let me answer your question by telling you about a dream I have. I have always wanted to make a movie about Christianity in China for my friends back in Los Angeles. People there just hear about the crackdowns and arrests, and they get worried for me. Some guy gets arrested a thousand miles from here and they call me up: Are you okay?
“I remember back when we were celebrating out by the river—you remember, back in 2005 when Early Rain was locked out. Do you know what it was like? Was it suffering? Yes, it was suffering. We didn’t know what would happen. But mostly, it was fun! People were happy and enthusiastic. I always say that Christians and revolutionaries have one point really in common: when you go to face a problem, you have joy, you have hope,” he said, emphasizing the last few words by speaking them in English. “A revolutionary is like that, right?! I’m locked up and I’m facing death alone, but I’m happy about it!
“So if I were writing a screenplay about these events, it would be like this.
“They’d see the police blocking their door, saying, ‘Sorry, you can’t go inside.’ Some brothers and sisters, their hearts are angry, but others say, ‘Forget it, let’s go down to the Jinjiang River.’ And they’d find a place in the park by the river. The sun is coming out. It is beautiful. And then they’d start to sing. And these mamas from the church, they’d see the people in the park in the morning and say, ‘Hey, young people, you should believe in Jesus too because then you’ll understand why you’re living.’
“Chengdu is full of teahouses, and they’d split up and go to drink tea. Everyone’s really happy. And the plain-clothes police are following them. But it doesn’t matter. People are talking, sharing, and praying. They’re excited; they’re happy.
“Then they go and eat hot pot, and the plain-clothes police are still going with them. They don’t know why, but they do. And they’re the sad ones. They’re just following. Their lives, these police, their lives are ridiculous. Because every profession, it has something in it that allows dignity to emerge. If you’re a police officer, your dignity is you’re arresting bad people. Your bravery comes out. But here, what are you doing?
“So this script, it’s different from what you read. It is suffering, or at least it’s inconvenient, but overall there is God’s grace. If God doesn’t exist, then it’s meaningless. But if God exists, then it makes sense.”
Peng had other reasons to be optimistic. Yes, he agreed that Xi Jinping’s administration was making a concerted effort to strengthen state control over society by arresting dissidents and lawyers. It was also promoting Chinese traditional values and religions at the expense of Christianity. But Peng stayed positive, not out of naïveté, but because he saw the longer-term problems in the government’s hard-line approach. One is the cost of its “stability-maintenance” program, often known by its Chinese acronym, weiwen (pronounced “way-when”). According to government figures, authorities spend more money on weiwen than on national defense.
“Weiwen is very expensive. If someone in a housing complex hears singing from an apartment, he might call the police, but who pays for it? Police have a lot of real problems, like crime and terrorism. The police have to call up all these departments: the religious affairs office, the local constabulary, the national security, the Ministry of Civil Affairs. All these departments have to pay gas for their cars, overtime, meals. The first thing they’ll all say is, ‘Who’s paying?’ So now unless the central government issues an order to close down something, the local government is not that willing.”
Talking to Peng reminded me why it was important to get out of the capital. There, the government’s power seemed limitless; here it was tamed by distance. It would be naïve to downplay the hard political power of an authoritarian leader like Xi but equally glib to ignore long-term trends beyond the government’s control.