Retrieving the Past Glory: Social Memory, Transnational Networks and Christianity in Contemporary China


Jifeng Liu

PhD defended at: 

Leiden University


This ethnography of Protestant Christianity in contemporary Xiamen, Fujian province, is not simply a story of Christian revival in reform-era China. In contrast to such frameworks as (de)secularization theory and the Global South trend (or even a simplified numbers game), this research illustrates the need to comprehend how Christians or members of Christianity-influenced communities understand their own past within the framework of the study of Chinese Christianity.

As a result of China’s defeat in the First Opium War, Xiamen was forcibly opened up to the outside world as a treaty port, and Gulangyu (an islet off its coast) was thrust into a Western-led modernization process. From the moment it first entered Xiamen in 1842, Christianity became deeply embedded in the local cultural and social structure and even today constantly affects secular life in this area. In recent years, there has been a burgeoning movement in Xiamen to reinvent the Christian past and reconstruct its historical narratives. For pragmatic purposes such as UNESCO world heritage status application, the local government acquiesces in and even supports these popular efforts. The fact that serves as a starting point for this research is that Christianity on Gulangyu, a former center of the missions that saw the heyday of Christianity, was doomed to decline because of the state-led commercialization driven by the development of tourism on the island.

Christianity has long been at the center of official Chinese narratives of “national humiliation.” This discourse was closely intertwined with the building of the modern nation-state and later with the strengthening of the legitimacy of the Communist regime. Although Xiamen history enthusiasts who are engaged in the civil movement have no intention of testing the state ideology, this challenge has emerged as an unintended consequence. This has caused tension between official narratives and the popular reconstruction of the Christian past. This research has revealed the negotiating mechanisms that have been spontaneously formed in local society to deal with this tension.

By closely examining how the government, churches, grassroots groups and individuals attempt to make narratives revolve around the Christian past, this research reveals the dynamic and ongoing interactions between different actors. In this study, I depart from the traditional dichotomous approach of state domination versus church resistance. Moreover, I reflect on the over-emphasis on the negotiating ability of the Christian elite and argue that the role of the state in its interaction with Christianity should not be downplayed in the current situation.

This research also examines the recent changes in the Christian networks linking Xiamen and Southeast Asia. Buttressed by the emigration tradition and lineage connections, the Xiamen church resumed its links with Southeast Asia in the early reform era. However, at the turn of the century, the involvement of the Southeast Asian churches began to ebb as the older generation Christians of South Fujian origin passed away. This loss of the older generation with closer ties to China was aggravated by the diminishing economic influence of the Chinese in Southeast Asia in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis that struck in the late 1990s. On the basis of an analysis of an American Christian organization, this study points out that, after decades of isolation from the outside world, the Xiamen church is now reencountering the world Christian community. The representation of Christianity that emphasizes its relationship with the modern image of the United States makes a deep impression on young people, not only in their beliefs but also in their understanding of the modernity associated with Christianity. However, the American Christian agency that has become entrapped in local politics is being plagued by troubles. This research has demonstrated that, whether or not the Chinese state permits, Chinese Christians frequently interact with and in the future will integrate more actively into the world Christian community. Accordingly, it has revealed the importance of reconsidering the interplay between international Christian agents and local traditions in the study of Christianity in China today.