Surviving the State, Remaking the Church

A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China

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Li Ma, Jin Li
Studies in Chinese Christianity
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , December
     226 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Nearly 15 years ago, Jason Kindopp and Carol Lee Hamrin examined church-state tensions in their edited volume God and Caesar in China (Brookings Institute Press, 2004). The Chinese government is often viewed as the one that performs coercive actions, while Chinese Christians are viewed as rebellious. Li Ma and Jin Li’s work, Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China, carries this insight further, using oral history and ethnographic research in presenting readers with a vivid—sometimes emotional—image of how Chinese Christian churches survived and flourished over half a century. 

Surviving the State, Remaking the Church demonstrates that the church-state relationship is more complicated than just repression and resistance. The use of oral history allows Chinese Christians to speak for themselves, and “captures a unique development of the Christian churches in China” (xvi). The book follows primarily a chronological order, with the first four chapters including personal testimonies on how a series of key societal incidents—such as the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (1949), the Three-Self campaign (1950s), the Cultural Revolution (1967-1977), the economic reform (1978), and Tiananmen Square incident (1989)—have affected Chinese Christian’s beliefs and churches. Ma and Li have made a great effort—through their personal network and snowball sampling—to reach the witnesses of history and carry these personal stories of imprisonment and persecution to their readership. 

Starting with chapter 5, Ma and Li present a series of important themes which highlight the complexities of Chinese Christianity, such as regional variation (chapter 4, “Two Cities”), theological differences (chapter 9, “Calvinism”), and socio-economic diversity (chapters 7 “Nationalism” and 8 “Charity”). For example, chapter 4 compares the churches in two of China’s cities: Shanghai and Chengdu. Although Shanghai is a more economically developed and commercially open city, churches in Shanghai do not welcome new visitors or converts to join their Sunday services, instead requiring a three-month probation. Ma and Li argue that Shanghai “reflect[s] a more socially stratified urban context” (68) than the group from Chengdu, as the public spaces are limited and independent organizations are either suppressed or coopted. The authors’s investigation illustrates how Chengdu benefits from the tolerant and open environment, with its laid-back life-style and also how Christian charity communities behaved during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. Such regional variations show the importance of speaking about Chinese Christianities (in the plural) instead of Chinese Christianity (in the singular).

The complexity of Chinese Christians does not stop at regional differences: Chinese Communist Party [CCP] members may be eager, yet reluctant, to convert given CCP policies (chapter 6); attitudes towards nationalism which are expressed differently in rural as opposed to the urban churches (chapter 7); the emergence of Non Governmental Organizations that provide spaces for inter-religious conversation, yet also challenges the separatist theological standpoint (chapter 8 and 9); and the nuanced relationship between Three-Self churches and house churches which weakens the antagonistic view (chapter 12). In chapters 10 and 11, marriage and education are placed under the spotlight where issues of gender imbalance, an atheistic public education system, and Chinese traditional values such as Confucianism, filial piety are revealed through personal stories from those with various societal statuses.

While the book is about Chinese Christians and the church-state relationship, Ma and Li should have provided more information about these Christians’ media practices—especially digital media practices. On the one hand, the internet is an area that showcases the Chinese government’s control and censorship of online content while failing to do so in the era of digitalization and globalization. On the other hand, Chinese Christians have been very creative and innovative in their digital media practices as, for example, with the usage of WeChat as a social networking platform, and the emergence of Christian apps (for the bible and hymns). These practices have the potential to profoundly change the authority and authenticity of Christianity in China.

Overall, Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China makes founded claims about how Chinese Christians come to their faith. The book’s privileging of an ethnographic approach, along with its fruitful conversations, precise investigations, and detailed background information result in an inclusive, nuanced, and multifaceted analysis of Chinese Protestants in Mainland China under the communist regime. This book highlights the importance of “truth-telling and memory preservation” (176), and will be of interest to those wishing to better understand the Chinese context from both a diachronic and synchronic point of view.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Xinzi Rao is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Heidelberg.

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

Li Ma is a Research Fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Jin Li is a doctoral student at Calvin Theological Seminary.


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