Christian Women and Modern China
Recovering a Women's History of Chinese Protestantism
- ISBN: 9781793631565
- Published By: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic
- Published: January 2021
The experience of indigenous Christian women has always been crucial to understanding missions and world Christianity. In the study of Protestantism in China specifically, there has been a lack of general treatments of these women since the pioneering works of Kwok Pui-Lan and Jessie G. Lutz. The reason was the diversification of the field; recently, scholars paid more attention to the intersectionality of social status, family situation, race, sexuality, and regional difference instead of viewing Chinese Christian women as a homogeneous community. For this reason, Li Ma’s book, Christian Women and Modern China: Recovering a Women's History of Chinese Protestantism, is ambitious in its attempt to highlight the stories of influential Chinese Protestant women and their institutions so to present a whole picture from 1880 to the present. Through their input in politics, education, social services, science, arts, and literature, these women have contributed to the making of Chinese Protestantism and to the transformation of Chinese society. Ma also seeks to address the shortcomings of current historiography, which often ignores or downplays the importance of gender.
The book has three parts. The first part covers the late Qing Dynasty to the founding years of the People’s Republic (1880-1953). Through the educational and social services built by missionary enterprises, Chinese women were empowered in various ways and the status of women became an important topic as China sought to create a modern nation state. Besides the personal examples of Shi Meiyu, China’s first female doctor trained in modern medicine, and Zeng Baosun, the “Confucian-Christian” congress woman, part 1 also discusses the institutional impact of the YWCA and Christian colleges. While promoting women’s leadership, these institutions inspired different conceptions of womanhood, which created tension between the elite and the new working class.
China’s Reform and Opening up decade was the watershed between the second and third parts (covering 1954-1979 and 1992-2008, respectively). In the second part, the communist revolution introduced new ideals and social orders to create space for Chinese women’s professional lives and expertise, but new forms of inequality also appeared. When political mobilization inflamed hostility against the elite, female intellectuals faced extraordinary pressure and were silenced in different ways, in extreme cases leading women to commit suicide. The situation changed significantly in the era of developmental communism when China emerged as a superpower. The outspokenness of female Protestants was the focus in the third part. In this contemporary era, women showed courage by speaking out on church affairs and politics, and against the unrighteousness witnessed at the intersection of both; with this courage, they were continuing the battle against entrenched gender inequality both inside and outside Chinese Protestant churches.
To review such a long historical period necessitates some omittances and Ma is aware of this. The author admits that the method of focusing on pioneering women who showed significant leadership during their lives is “too elitist” and not inclusive enough (xxvii). One would also love to see more ethnic diversity in the subjects covered and more treatment of the religious renaissance in the 1980s, the only decade not discussed by the book. One of the author’s objectives in this book is to challenge the male-dominated culture and to reflect upon the #MeToo movement in Chinese Protestant communities. While this is a worthy goal, one of the cases she cites is dubious. In chapter 9, the author referenced Dr. Lily M. Hsu and her book to revisit the alleged immoral behavior of Watchman Nee, one of the most famous Chinese Protestants in the West. The radical political climate in the 1950s has long clouded this controversial case of Nee. Hsu was not a first-hand source in this case beyond her interview with one victim in 1956. The author made a mistake in claiming that Hsu interviewed multiple victims thirty years after the incident (xxx, 157).
The book provides a wide-ranging review of recent works and points to promising directions for future research, especially on contemporary developments among Chinese Protestant women. People interested in world Christianity, modern China, and women’s history will find this book useful.
Shu-chen Hsuhsiung is a PhD candidate in the History and Classics Department at the University of Alberta.Shu-chen HsuhsiungDate Of Review:April 30, 2022