The best books about the history of Christianity in China

Who am I?

I come from a long line of Chinese Christians. My grandfather, the Rev. Lin Pu-chi, was an Ivy League-educated Anglican minister, and my grandmother’s brother was Watchmen Nee, a leading Chinese Christian whose legacy lives on around the world. Library shelves are filled with books by missionaries. But where are the stories of the Chinese people they encountered? That’s the starting point for my family memoir, which spans five generations, starting with the first convert, a fisherman from Fujian. These are the books I relied on to place the family story into the broader context of what was happening in China from the period after the Opium Wars until today.


I wrote...

Shanghai Faithful: Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family

By Jennifer Lin,

Book cover of Shanghai Faithful: Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family

What is my book about?

Through the 150-year saga of the Lin clan, Shanghai Faithful vividly dramatizes the remarkable religious evolution of the world’s most populous nation. This book is both a family memoir and a chronicle of the astonishing spread of Christianity in China. The depiction of five generations of the Lin family, buffeted by history’s crosscurrents and personal strife, brings to life an epoch that is still unfolding.

The books I picked & why

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The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

By Ian Johnson,

Book cover of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

Why this book?

Let’s start in the present and work backward. And for a look at religion in China today, there is no better authority than Ian Johnson, journalist, author, and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. I knew Ian back in the 1990s when we were both newspaper correspondents in Beijing. Since then, he’s plumbed the depths of the spiritual awakening in China since 1976 and the end of the Cultural Revolution. In The Souls of China, he examines not just the rise of Christianity through the house church movement, but also explores the revival of interest in Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism.

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

By Ian Johnson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Souls of China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Masterfully opens up a little explored realm: how the quest for religion and spirituality drives hundreds of millions of Chinese' Pankaj Mishra

'A fascinating odyssey ... a nuanced group portrait of Chinese citizens striving for non-material answers in an era of frenetic materialism' Julia Lovell, Guardian

'The reappearance and flourishing of religion is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the dramatic changes in China in recent decades...this is a beautiful, moving and insightful book' Michael Szonyi

In no society on Earth was there such a ferocious attempt to eradicate all trace of religion as in modern China. But now, following…


A New History of Christianity in China

By Daniel H. Bays,

Book cover of A New History of Christianity in China

Why this book?

In my journey to understand the historical backdrop for my family saga, I started with this tightly-written, comprehensive book by the late Daniel H. Bays. A former professor at the University of Kansas and Calvin College, Bays was an incredibly generous scholar. When I worked in China for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Bays was frequently sought out by me and other reporters who needed to understand the long view of Christianity in China. I put this book in what I call the “readable academic” category. Yes, it’s often used as a college textbook, but it’s a good way to get grounded in China’s unique religious history.

A New History of Christianity in China

By Daniel H. Bays,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A New History of Christianity in China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New History of Christianity in China, written by one of the world's the leading writers on Christianity in China, looks at Christianity's long history in China, its extraordinarily rapid rise in the last half of the twentieth century, and charts its future direction. * Provides the first comprehensive history of Christianity in China, an important, understudied area in both Asian studies and religious history * Traces the transformation of Christianity from an imported, Western religion to a thoroughly Chinese religion * Contextualizes the growth of Christianity in China within national and local politics * Offers a portrait of the…


Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China

By Xi Lian,

Book cover of Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China

Why this book?

The Christian experience in China is different. More than a century ago, a popular, independent religious movement began to take hold and continues today through “house churches” that operate beyond the control of the central government. Xi Lian, a professor of world Christianity at the Duke Divinity School, explains the political and cultural reasons for this and focuses on the Chinese Christians at the vanguard of the indigenous movement—including my great-uncle Watchman Nee.

Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China

By Xi Lian,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Redeemed by Fire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is the first to address the history and future of homegrown, mass Chinese Christianity. Drawing on a large collection of fresh sources--including contemporaneous accounts, diaries, memoirs, archival material, and interviews--Lian Xi traces the transformation of Protestant Christianity in twentieth-century China from a small, beleaguered "missionary" church buffeted by antiforeignism to an indigenous popular religion energized by nationalism and millenarianism. Lian shows that, with a current membership that rivals that of the Chinese Communist Party, and the ability to galvanize China's millions into apocalyptic convulsion and messianic exuberance, the popular Christian movement channels the aspirations and the discontent of…


Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China, 1857-1927

By Ryan Dunch,

Book cover of Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China, 1857-1927

Why this book?

Fuzhou serves as a perfect microcosm for examining the rise of Christianity in China. It’s less familiar than Shanghai or Beijing and, as a result, this very accessible history book has a freshness to it. Like Bays, Ryan Dunch, a China scholar at the University of Alberta, is an academic who knows how to make history engaging. The story begins in 1857 after the forced opening of Fuzhou as a treaty port after the First Opium War, and ends with anti-western violence that roiled the city in 1927. I owe Dunch a debt of gratitude. Fuzhou was the birthplace of my grandparents and I discovered on the pages of this book that in 1927, an anti-foreign mob attacked the Rev. Lin Pu-chi—a fact unknown to my family. That event was the key to deciphering the psyche of my grandfather.

Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China, 1857-1927

By Ryan Dunch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China, 1857-1927 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this groundbreaking examination of Chinese Protestants and their place in the history of modern China, Ryan Dunch focuses on the Fuzhou area of southeast China from the mid-nineteenth century until 1927, when a national revolutionary government was established. Though accounting for only a small proportion of the population, Protestants occupied a central place in Fuzhou's political, intellectual, and social life, Dunch contends. He shows how Chinese Protestants, with a distinctive vision for constituting China as a modern nation-state, contributed to the dissolution of the imperial regime, enjoyed unprecedented popularity following the 1911 revolution, and then saw their dreams for…


The Call

By John Hersey,

Book cover of The Call

Why this book?

I know I said in my introduction that there are too many books from the missionary perspective and not enough from a Chinese point of view, but I’m going to make an exception here with the only novel, too, in the group. In this 1985 title, the extraordinary John Hersey captures the urge of American missionaries to proselytize in China, as well as their complicated relationship with Chinese Christians. This sweeping fictional biography of David Treadup, whose character is a composite of the lives of actual missionaries, including Hersey’s father, carries the reader from New York state in the early 1900s to the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s.  

The Call

By John Hersey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Call as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Told in the form of a fictional biography, this account of the life and vocation of David Treadup, a New York farm boy who becomes a missionary to China, portrays the history of China in this century


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