In March of 2012, I travelled with Noel Piper in Sichuan province on a research trip. On the second Sunday of our journey, we found ourselves in the Protestant Church in Huili, Sichuan. Even though the church is in the heart of a city, most of the parishioners were peasants from the countryside, many of them elderly. During the service I spotted this woman intently reading her Bible. I couldn’t pass up the shot.
As readers of this blog will know, I’m always on the lookout for a new book that will find its place onto my current “must read” list. And while I have yet to actually read Evan Osnos’ new book “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China” (it was released just yesterday and my copy is on its way) I’m reasonably sure it will make the list.
I say that because I have followed the work of Osnos for years, and consider him to be one of the more astute observers of contemporary China. Combine that with great writing, and you’ve got a winning combination.
“Evan Osnos, a staff writer at The New Yorker, lived in Beijing from 2005 to 2013. His new book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, is an inner history of China’s transformation, told through the eyes of men and women at the center of it. Osnos writes that, beneath the physical changes, China’s rise is a story of spiritual revival comparable to America’s Great Awakening in the nineteenth century, an attempt to fill ‘a hole in Chinese life that people named the jingshen kongxu — ‘the spiritual void.’’ In this adaptation from Age of Ambition, he explains the five essential dynamics in China’s quest for meaning.”
And here the five points Osnos makes about faith in China:
1. Chairman Mao: the accidental missionary:
“The Cultural Revolution destroyed China’s old belief systems, but Deng Xiaoping’s economic revolution could not rebuild them. People who had learned to believe in a force larger than themselves were left to set out in search of their own faiths.”
2. After the almighty yuan, what?
“In sprinting ahead, China had bounded past whatever barriers once held back the forces of corruption and moral disregard. People did not trust the institutions around them: the Party, the press, big companies that had failed to provide safe food. People are placing their faith elsewhere.”
3. Christianity: China’s largest N.G.O.
“The Party is under increasing pressure to change the way it regards the desire for faith; China today has sixty to eighty million Christians, a community as large as the Communist Party. Li Fan, a secular liberal writer, told me, “Christianity has probably become China’s largest nongovernmental organization.”
4. The Other Xinjiang: Xinjiang and Tibet are boiling
“China’s ethnic and religious politics are drifting toward a crisis.”
5. The home field advantage
“For new sources of meaning, Chinese citizens are looking not only to religion but also to philosophy, psychology, and literature for new ways of orienting themselves in a world of ideological incoherence and unrelenting competition.”
Osnos concludes the piece with this clear-eyed observation:
“Nothing has caused more upheaval in the last hundred years of Chinese history than the battle over what to believe. Today, the Party is not allowing the growth of faith as much as it is trying to keep up with it.”
Those of us who work in China are often asked if we think that the situation for the church in China is getting better or worse. I have always found that to be a problematic question.
First of all, “better” and “worse” are relative terms, so the first response has to be “better or worse in comparison to what?” Compared to the standards that we are accustomed to? Compared to a certain time in the past? By what standard should the question be answered?
The second problem with the question is that it assumes only two possibilities: better or worse/ good or bad. It’s an extremely dichotomous question that leaves little room for the potential of a complicated reality.
If we are comparing the situation to what we are accustomed to, then it certainly isn’t good. There are far too many restrictions on religious practice, and regulations that either permit or restrict activities are arbitrarily enforced. This certainly isn’t good, but is it really “worse” than the situation that existed during the Cultural Revolution?
If, however, we are comparing the current situation to what it used to be, then there is ample evidence that things are better (even if they are not good). Thousands of house churches operate openly without harassment, Christian books are being published, Bibles can be freely downloaded to computers and smart phones, Christian celebrities are open about their faith, and ordinary Christians are using the Internet for evangelism. All of those things would have been unthinkable even as recently as ten years ago.
I have come to the conclusion that when people say that “things are getting worse” in regards to China, what they really mean is “things are not improving at the rate and scope that I would like.”
That is not the same as “getting worse,” and it’s a distinction that we need to be clear about.
Here are the key books I read in the first decade of the 21st century:
Turning Bricks into Jade, by Margaret Wang. This book is a collection of 'critical incidents' of misunderstanding between Chinese and Americans. Perfect for use in a cross-cultural orientation program, it presents the miscommunications, followed by a detailed analysis/explanation of the cultural assumptions at play on both sides. It's an excellent way to get some practice at figuring out what's really going on in cross-cultural communication events with Chinese.
The Good Women of China, by Xinran. This may be one of the most difficult China books I've read. Xinran used to be the host of a call-in radio show in Nanjing for women. Every night she would hear heartbreaking tales of sorrow, exploitation, and downright abuse. This book is a collection of some of those stories, and paints a bleak picture of the plight of women in contemporary Chinese society.
Rivertown, by Peter Hessler. This is another book that caused me to smack my forehead and say "I wish I had written that!" In the late 1990's Hessler went to a city on the Yangtze River to teach English at a small university. He writes about his students, his (successful) attempts at learning Chinese and the unique rhythms of a city that is on the verge of being submerged due to the Three Gorges Dam.
Oracle Bones, by Peter Hessler. OK, I admit it, I'm a Hessler fan. Any of book by Hessler is worth your time. In this one, he explores the direct links between ancient Chinese systems of thought and contemporary China. Despite all the changes that have taken place in recent years, there are more connection points than one would think.
Jesus in Beijing, by David Aikman. If you're looking for a good overview of the development of Christianity in China, particularly during the reform era (post-1980's), this is a great starting point. It's gives excellent historical background, as well as the structure and role of both the registered churches and house churches in China.
China Road, by Rob Gifford. Since I am a great lover of road trips, this remains one of my all-time favorite China books. In the early 2000's Gifford (NPR correspondent in China at the time) hitch-hiked across China from Shanghai to the Kazakh border, along the way chatting with everyone from glamorous party members to truck drivers to Amway salesmen. This book is an excellent 'starter' book for those who don't know much about China and want to get a good overview of the complexity of modern life in China. I wrote a review of the book, which you can read here.
Last Days of Old Beijing, by Michael Meyers. In the years leading up to the Olympics in Beijing (2008) Minnesota native Meyers moved into an old hutong neighborhood of Beijing to experience and document the last days of an ancient neighborhood. It's a good reminder that in the midst of China's high-speed development, history is being destroyed and lives altered.
Factory Girls, by Leslie Chang. Ever wonder where all your 'stuff' comes from? Chances are it comes from a factory in southern China where millions of young people from China's countryside work. Chang (wife of Peter Hessler) follows the journeys of three young women who migrate from their villages to the factory town of Donghuang in search of their dreams. You'll never look at your iPod the same again.
(NOTE: If you purchase any of these books by clicking on the links above, I will get compensation from Amazon. Think of it as a way to support my work in China. Thanks.)