By: Steve Hu (University of California, Santa Barbara)
The explosive growth of global Christianity in the last century is nowhere more evident than in China where approximately 67 million Christians, roughly 5 percent of the total Chinese population, claim affiliation to Christianity (Pew Forum Report, Global Christianities: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World Christian Population, 2011). Due to its sheer size and recent ascendency in this context, Chinese Christianity has proved to be a fruitful field of research for scholars interested in the status of religion in China. Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou is an example of this growing research. While existing literature approaches the question of religion in China through an oppositional binary framework pitting the hegemonic state against religion, Nanlai Cao’s ethnography moves beyond this “conveniently defined political context of state-society relations” (7) by examining the everyday practices and lives of Chinese Christians in Wenzhou, China. The key issue in Cao’s book is the relevance of Christianity in the ways Wenzhou Christians construct and negotiate their identity and social power in a rapidly changing post-reformist Chinese society. In addressing this issue, Cao examines the rupture caused by conversion to Christianity and the subsequent tension Wenzhou Christians must face. Based on 19 months of fieldwork completed between 2004 and 2006, Cao argues that the theme of discontinuity figures prominently in how these Christians produce, consume, and interpret themselves in the construction of their Christian identity.
The main actors of Wenzhou Christianity are “boss Christians”—middle-aged private business owners whose financial success, social capital, and commitment to Christianity provide them an increasing confidence and influence in negotiating with the Chinese state. The success boss Christians have enjoyed since China’s transition to a market economy allows them to overtly display their religious identity in public. Cao notes commitment to Christianity requires boss Christians to take a spiritual approach to world matters since Christian identity tends to demarcate a sharp division between the worldly and the spiritual. While economic success has provided financial and social capital for these Christians, the pursuit of business and profit is nevertheless considered a profane activity. Noting that their economic success is the result of “God’s special care” (25), boss Christians are mindful of the rupture wrought by their conversion to Christianity and cast their entrepreneurial pursuits in Christian terms. Instead of crediting economic success to an entrepreneurial work ethic, boss Christians interpret their ascendancy to “the work of the Holy Spirit,” “God’s guidance,” and “God’s mercy” (35). To be sure, reconciling the tension associated with this rupture proves difficult and some Wenzhou Christians resolve this by abandoning either their entrepreneurial or religious identities. Cao notes that as an upper-mobile social group, many boss Christians are finding ways to combine their entrepreneurial and religious identities since they can afford to construct a “dual identity by reshaping the church culture and distancing themselves from traditional rural Christianity” (36). In this milieu, economic success is interpreted as a way one can “work hard for the glory God” while meeting the demands of the secular state. That the manner in which boss Christians combine their understanding of Christianity with a pursuit of economic gain is an example of how Christianity may be deployed to “re-imagine local cultural sensibilities” (see Bialecki, Haynes & Robbins 2008). This deployment of Christianity by Wenzhou Christians has also garnered them recognition “as a useful social force” in the eyes of the Chinese government since local officials prefer to do business with entrepreneurs who adhere to Christian ethics since they are deemed trustworthy (30).
Wenzhou Christians increasingly seek ways to associate their faith with a modern and global Christianity in order to overcome the backwardness that has been associated with rural Chinese Christianity (61). Toward this end, Wenzhou Christians aspire to imitate Western church programs (Sunday School systems and worship choirs) and Western marital customs. Many Wenzhou Christians also view speaking English and being learned in Western theology as an essential part of being modern. This association with the West also allows Wenzhou Christianity to project a global and cosmopolitan posture. This can be seen in how Wenzhou churches regularly invite well-known pastors from the United States and Europe to preach in these churches. By forging transnational ties with other Christians around the globe and by linking their Christianity with the modern West, Wenzhou Christians aim to legitimize their Christian identity. Because Western modernity is perceived as the locus of legitimacy, linking Wenzhou Christianity to a cosmopolitan modernity strategically enables Wenzhou Christians to distinguish themselves and construct a unique identity that furthers their confidence in Chinese society. Cao argues these activities are undertaken in order to elevate the status of Wenzhou Christianity. While attempting to attach themselves to a cosmopolitan modernity, Wenzhou Christians also utilize the discourse of Christianity to assert moral superiority in what they perceive as a corrupt society. Boss Christians also map this moral discourse onto their business model in which biblical principles are applied to enterprise management (66). Furthermore, in legitimizing their Christian identity, Cao observes that Wenzhou Christians “blend” Christian principles with economic development so that ideas such as “doing business is serving God” echo the reformist state discourse of “letting a few people get rich” and “getting rich is glorious” (35). Cao contends that it is through such discourse that Wenzhou Christians continue to construct an assertive public faith that grants them social and political capital in relating with the state.
The adoption of Western modernity is also reflected in the development and organization of Wenzhou churches. Whether it is church-building projects, evangelism meetings, or church-related programs, Cao notes boss Christians are the main actors who supply the needed financial and social capital for these organizations to function. In the running of these churches and organizations, boss Christians adopt a secular approach and an enterprise model of management. One example is the construction of new church buildings where lavish spending is undertaken that reflects a consumer mentality that defines Wenzhou society (78). Here, fund-raising for new church buildings mirrors the practice of raising capital for family-owned enterprises which Cao notes blurs the boundaries between the sacred and secular (82). Furthermore, Wenzhou churches are organized and managed like family-owned businesses and even the preaching in these churches is sometime outsourced, relying on a “preacher-dispatch system” (86). When it comes to proselytization, boss Christians also apply entrepreneurial know-how and management strategies to draw more people to their churches. Cao also notes that a division of labor indicates Wenzhou Christianity has adopted a western secular style of management and organization and that the structure and logic of church organization is entrepreneurial. In developing a more visible and positive image, boss Christians “branded” Wenzhou Christianity through the adoption of Western modernity. This process renders Wenzhou Christianity as an amalgamation of modern, familial, and religious sensibilities.
In the last part of the book, Cao examines gender and class relationships that exist within the Wenzhou Christian community and points out that both gender and class are “organizing principles” in this context (97). While both gender and class legitimize individual expressions of Christian faith, Cao contends both categories also sustain and preserve existing ideologies of patriarchy and class in Wenzhou Christianity. What is interesting to point out in this last section of the book is Cao’s analysis of the boss Christians’ desire to construct their brand of Christianity as a modern and cosmopolitan institution. This is because there is a real anxiety within Wenzhou Christianity to distance itself from the “backward” and “feminized” Christianity practiced in rural China since the aim of Wenzhou Christianity is to legitimize itself and fashion itself as modern. To do so, boss Christians need to construct an “other” and objectify it in order to set themselves apart as masculine, cultured, and sophisticated. The other is thus found in women and the migrant workers who flock to Wenzhou factories in search of a better life. To be sure, women and migrant workers are empowered and made “modern” in their encounter with Wenzhou Christianity. However, such empowerment still exists within a power structure where boss Christians have relegated women and migrant workers to a lower status.
While Cao’s work provides a much-needed examination of the status of Christianity in China beyond the oppositional binary framework, this book still presents some shortcomings. The discussion regarding how Wenzhou boss Christians adeptly navigate the question of religion clearly demonstrates the increasing confidence these Christians can assert in the public sphere. The economic success engendered by these Christians has enabled them to actively blend their religious and entrepreneurial identities and thus “depoliticizes” Christianity in the Wenzhou context. Cao notes that Wenzhou Christians desire to be integrated into mainstream society and seek to have clout in the public sphere. It is curious that Cao would assert that the desire for integration into mainstream society would “depoliticize” Wenzhou Christianity. As Cao points out, Wenzhou Christians have adopted a moral discourse that seeks to elevate themselves above the corruption they encounter in Chinese society. While this moral discourse may echo the reformist state discourse and may seem benign, such moral discourse still has the “political” potential, if seized by certain actors, to challenge the state. Furthermore, Cao omits the reaction of local officials regarding the role of Wenzhou Christians and how they perceive their activities. The addition of the voices of local officials certainly would shed light to whether the activities of these Christians are depoliticized. Regardless of these minor omissions, this volume is a timely study of the status of Christianity in China. By sidestepping the typical structuralist approach to understanding Christianity in China, Cao’s ethnography of Wenzhou Christianity offers a nuanced examination of the local production, consumption, and interpretation of Christian identity in southeast China. Cao’s focus on Christian identity and agency in Wenzhou also highlights the need to understand the notion of rupture that is at work in the everyday lives and practices of Wenzhou Christians. This volume is a much-welcomed examination of how Christians in a particular local context construe their identity and negotiate their social position in a rapidly globalizing world and offers an insightful contribution to the growing anthropology of Christianity.
Bialecki, J., Haynes, N. and Robbins, J. 2008. “The Anthropology of Christianity.” Religion Compass, 2/6: 1139–1158.