Christian Women in Chinese Society

The Anglican Story

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Editor(s): 
Wai-Ching Angela Wong, Patricia Chiu
Sheng Kung Hui, Historical Studies of Anglican Christianity in China
  • Hong Kong: 
    Hong Kong University Press
    , July
     2018.
     292 pages.
     $60.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9789888455928.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Christian Women in Chinese Society: The Anglican Story is a rare contribution which explores the history of Chinese Anglican women in mainland China and the Hong Kong area from the 19th century to 1970s. Edited by Wai Ching Angela Wong and Patricia P.K. Chiu, this volume presents eleven essays—many translated into English for the first time—that provide a history of Chinese Anglicanism, as well as compelling stories of prominent women missionaries, laypeople, bible women, and most importantly, women’s ordination in the Anglican church. The editors suggest in the introduction that the goal of this volume is to “trace the steps of Anglican women in Chinese society, which also serves to appreciate the strength of Anglican women today” (9). The text achieves this goal of illuminating the history of Chinese Anglican women while also revisiting classic inquiries of Asian Christianity and gender, such as the role of Christian institutions and evangelical womanhood in the lives of women in locations where Western Christian missions unfolded in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and their lasting influence on the contemporary Asian societies.

The first part of the volume, titled “Cross-cultural Partnership,” sheds light on the lives of women in the early years of the Anglican church in China. What makes this part—and the entire volume as well—distinct from existing denominational historiography is its engagement with the postcolonial perspective and focus on women as the agents of historical change. In chapter 1, “The Study of Chinese Women and the Anglican Church in Cross-Cultural Perspective,” renowned feminist theologian Kwok Pui-lan promotes the “cross-cultural approach in the study of Chinese women and the Anglican church in China” (20) over past approaches to modern Chinese history, such as the Western missionary-centered and China-centered approaches that emerged in the 1990s. Kwok considers transnational movement and intercultural influence between missionary and Chinese women as the main focus of the study, and the rest of the chapters in the volume expand on that focus. Judith Liu’s “A Nation Cannot Rise above Its Women: The Social Gospel at St. Hilda’s School for girls, Wuchang, China 1929 – 1937,” uses historical sources and interviews with students of the school in examining the foundational background, the operation of the school, and the lives of the students. Educated based on the western missionary ideal of Victorian evangelical womanhood—women as mothers, teachers, and helpers—Chinese students at St. Hilda’s school fostered a distinctive gendered and religious habitus within Chinese society. When the students’s political movement advocating modern Chinese national identity emerged in the school, they upheld a hybrid Christian social Gospel. This case is an excellent example of the confluence between the western Christian education, the specific Chinese historical context, and the women who creatively lived through it. Moreover, chapter 3, Zhou Yun’s “The Making of Bible Women in the Fujian Zenana Mission from the 1880s to the 1950s,” illustrates how women in the Anglican church shaped their religious engagement and autonomous network through friendship and comraderies among Chinese lay bible women and Western missionary women. The chapter collects and introduces narratives that vividly represent the voices of lay Chinese Christian women such as Mrs. Ahok (70-76), providing fascinating reference points for readers from a number of disciplines. 

With it’s stories of Chinese Anglican women, the first part of Christian Women in Chinese Society already makes considerable contributions to the scholarship of Asian and Global history of Christianity and missions. Yet, they also provide the essential background leading to the second part of the volume, “Women and Ordained Ministry.” This is the most significant and unique achievement of the volume, as the chapters discuss women’s inclusion in the deaconship and priesthood of the Anglican church in China. Drawing on various archival resources, Peter Cunich’s Deaconesses in the South China Missions of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), 1922-1951 provides rich historical details about the issues surrounding the expansion of the deaconship to include women after the Lambeth Conference in 1920. For example, Cunich accounts for the 1920s debate within the Anglican church regarding women’s celibacy and dedication to deaconship, both of which were considered contradictory to their principle role as mothers (88-89). Chapter 5, “The Ordination and Ministry of Li Tim Oi: A Historical Perspective on a Singular Event,” provides rare historical sources—including personal letters of figures who were involved such as Li Tim Oi and Bishop R.O. Hall—to examine the 1944 ordination of the first woman priest in the worldwide Anglican church. The chapter not only relates the decisive moment of Anglican communion, but also humanizes Florence Li as an Anglican woman who went through the ebb and flow of modern Chinese history. The touching and intellectual letters between Hall and Li will assist readers in understanding the pathos surrounding her ordination in wartime China. Finally, in chapter 6 Wai Ching Angela Wong asks a vital question regarding Li’s ordination: “When other provinces were still hesitant about or refusing to consider the idea of ordaining women, why was the Diocese of Hong Kong and South China the first to do so?” (129). Wong explores the “Chinese factor” in the phenomenon and the particularity of Chinese Christianity, analyzing Li’s ordination from a comparative historical perspective. 

After the illustrious accounts of women’s ordination, Christian Women in Chinese Society stillhas many impactful stories to offer. The next part, “Life History,” features three fascinating chapters using microhistorical approaches to women’s narratives in the church. Specifically, chapters about the missionary Wolfe sisters (chapter 7) and laywoman Zhan Aimei (chapter 8) are written by the descendants of each of these women and provide intimate details of their lives. For example, in chapter 8, Philadelphia-based Chinese American journalist Jennifer R. Lin traces the life trajectory of her great-grandmother Zhan Aimei through rare sources including interviews with family members and genealogical information along with conventional archival materials. The final section of the volume, “Serving the Community” concludes the book with stories of Chinese Anglican women’s autonomous organizations and their contribution to the community in the 20th century. 

Christian Women in Chinese Society is a valuable and highly readable book that presents its readers with multiple layers of the Chinese Anglican church in transnational settings—ranging from the lives of lay women to a denominational perspective of missions and ordination. This important contribution should be included in any scholarly bibliography of women and global Christianity. It will also be a compelling choice for upper level undergraduate or graduate seminars in disciplines such as Asian church history, global Christianity, and women and religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Minjung Noh is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Temple University.

Date of Review: 
March 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wai Ching Angela Wong is Vice President of the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia. She has been a longtime faculty member of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and has published widely in the areas of gender, culture, and religion.

Patricia P. K. Chiu is Honorary Assistant Professor in the History Department at the University of Hong Kong. Her research explores the intercultural history of women in education and missionary activity.

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