Modern Chinese Christianity and the Making of a New Man
Series: Studies in World Christianity
- ISBN: 9781481312707
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: August 2020
John Song (Song Shangjie) is, in many ways, the paradigmatic figure of a global Chinese Christianity. Song was born in south China and educated in America, a chemist and seminarian who made a colorful preaching career in early 20th-century China and colonial Southeast Asia. As Daryl Ireland’s recent biography, John Song: Modern Chinese Christianity and the Making of a New Man, argues, his story is the story of modern Chinese Christianity; the broad contours of evangelical revivalism that animate the rapid growth of Christianity in China today were perfected in Song’s early 20th-century revivals. Indeed, even though congregations in China today may not directly trace a direct genealogy to Song’s work, the prevalence of bodily healing, assertive evangelism, and an embrace of progress, all bear Song’s imprint.
More significantly, even though Song only expanded his preaching circuits to incorporate the Chinese diaspora toward the end of his life, his enduring legacy can be found within the Chinese Protestant communities of Southeast Asia, a religious minority within a sizable ethnic minority group in the region. Song’s presence looms large as the Chinese evangelist who affirmed their faith and reinvigorated commitments to being Chinese, Christian, and modern.
Ireland’s choice of protagonist is an astute one. For despite Song’s outsized influence as a Chinese preacher, revivalist, and healer, no critical biography exists, although there are no shortage of texts—circulating within evangelical circles—celebrating Song’s life and ministry. Such accounts, extolling Song’s evangelistic successes and a triumph of “orthodoxy” over Protestant liberalism, have reproduced stories Song himself deployed in legitimating his own credentials, both to the evangelical missionaries whose networks he leveraged and the audiences who eagerly sought tales of divine transformation and self-improvement. Thus, rather than peeling back the layers and uncovering the “truth” of Song’s life, Ireland instead focuses on this evangelist’s obsession with reinvention—Song’s myriad forms of self-fashioning for multiple audiences—and his role as innovator, pioneering a style of Christianity that allowed its adherents in 1930s China to break with the past and embrace an alternative path towards modernity.
Marshaling a comprehensive body of scattered sources about Song, Ireland has managed to produce an impressive biography of this fascinating and flawed individual. At the core of the book are two impressive archival breakthroughs: first, the discovery of Song’s dossier from his time at Union Theological Seminary, and second, Song’s diaries, more than six thousand pages long, which reveal a much more troubled, conflicted, and at times whimsical personality. In popular mythology, Song’s origin story is inseparable from his dismissal from Union Theological Seminary and his heroic repudiation of Protestant liberalism in favor of itinerant evangelism and the charismatic revivals for which he is best known. Yet, as Ireland reveals, Song’s time at Union was mired in mental breakdown and his return to China without incident.
It was only in Song’s subsequent refashioning—in part aided by fundamentalist missionaries mired in their own fight against liberalism—whereby a shameful experience of expulsion and insanity was reworked into a compelling story of conversion, faith, and divine triumph over adversity. Multiple source materials are deployed to great effect in the first two chapters, which trace Song’s transformation within the context of a broader Chinese/Christian intelligentsia, the modernist/fundamentalist battles among Western missionaries in China, and the dominant modernizing ethos of Republican China. Chapters 3–5 track how Song progressively honed and perfected his style of revivalist preaching, which was personal, dynamic, adaptable, and ahistorical.
As Ireland writes, Song the “New Man” had to continually seek breaks with the past, and his “dynamic and adaptable testimony could generate a split with the past every time it threatened to catch up to him” (55). To the rural audiences in his home village of Xinghwa who were interested in stories of divine presence, he foregrounded supernaturalism; to rural migrants in the cities, Song’s preaching provided comfort, dichotomous moralizing, and an ability to blend newness without departing too far from tradition; to émigré women in Singapore, he merged immigrant and revival narratives with the promise of heaven as an eternal home. A final chapter provides a fascinating glimpse of Song as divine healer; he worked in concert with Western biomedicine and nation-building reforms to remake Chinese bodies, but ultimately succumbed to an anal fistula and died in 1944 at the age of forty-two.
Ireland succeeds in situating Song within the world of Republican China and foregrounds his voice as a central participant in debates over the shape of Chinese modernity in the early twentieth-century. For Ireland, Song’s transformation into a “new man” is a central trope that connects various stages in his life. Ireland’s argument is persuasive on this account, and his engagement with multiple bodies of literature in individual chapters—on gender, religion, science, and medicine—is impressive.
However, it seems a missed opportunity not to foreground Song’s role within the transnational worlds of maritime south China and Southeast Asia, where his legacy remains strong even today. Unlike other Chinese evangelical or fundamentalist stalwarts such as Wang Mingdao or Watchman Nee, Song arguably claims the widest following in the ethnic Chinese churches beyond China’s shores, communities which enabled his regional preaching circuits in the late 1930s and 40s. Just as Song transitioned into the transnational maritime space, when the China-Japan war of the 1930s made mainland China inhospitable to his evangelical revivalism, the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the Cold War in Asia also prompted the relocation of many prominent Chinese Christians into transnational spaces. There—like Song—they modified their means and shifted their location and audiences. It is no coincidence that many of the most dynamic and controversial Chinese evangelists, such as Andrew Gih, Leland Wang, and Stephen Tong, were all diasporic actors shaped by midcentury mobilities.
Thus, one profitable line of dialogue would be to extend Ireland’s project both spatially and temporally, for a fuller picture not simply of modern China but also the transnational and global networks that produced Chinese Christians such as Song and the diasporic worlds they connected. Ireland’s book has provided an able base for future scholars to continue this work.
Joshua Tan is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.Joshua TanDate Of Review:February 22, 2022