MIPodcast—China and the True Jesus Church, with Melissa Inouye [MIPodcast #114]
In this episode we introduce you to a story about a man who was seeking for the true church of Christ. A man who prayed and then reported miraculous visitations. He recorded revelations about the true nature of God and how the true church should be built up, ultimately inspiring a large body of converts. If all of this sounds familiar, here’s the surprising part: This man started this particular movement in China in 1917.
Melissa Inouye joins us to talk about a restorationist Christian movement in China, which continues to exist today despite strict Chinese control of religion. We’re talking about her book, China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church.
Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye is author of the new book, China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church, from Oxford University Press. She received her Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University in 2011 and served as a Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Auckland. She now works for the Church History Department with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
I want to introduce you to a story about a man who was seeking for the true church of Christ. A man who prayed, then reported miraculous visitations. He recorded revelations about the true nature of God and how the true church should be built up, ultimately inspiring a large body of converts. If all of this sounds familiar, here’s the surprising part. The man I’m talking about who started this particular movement in China in 1917.
Melissa Inouye joins us to talk about this restorationist Christian movement in China, which continues to exist today despite strict Chinese control of religion. We’re talking about Inouye’s book, China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church. This episode was recorded last year, but we held on to it to wait until the paperback version of her book comes out. And now the paperback version is out! You can send your questions and comments about this episode to me at email@example.com.
HODGES: Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye joins us today. We’re talking about her book China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church.
Alright. Chinese history. Melissa, this is the first book I think I’ve read that really delves into Chinese history. In fact, while you’re focusing on these Christian movements that cropped up in China, the book also serves as a nice introduction to the history of China in general. Was that a deliberate choice?
MELISSA INOUYE: That was a deliberate choice. I have this kind of irrepressible urge to multitask and I just couldn’t stop myself from doing it. It’s supposed to use the True Jesus Church as a way to kind of work through Chinese history.
I remember in my first Chinese history class just getting lost in the ’20s and ’30s. The political line of Chinese history kind of breaks apart in the ’20s and the ’30s and in my first encounter with Chinese history I couldn’t get it back together after that. So this was an attempt to have one main story that took you through all the different turns of Chinese history.
HODGES: Growing up in the United States—I’m an American, so history began in 1776 or something, right. [laughs] It’s very, very young. I didn’t grow up with this sense of deep time that other cultures experience.
For example, the Qing Dynasty ruled China for centuries. Let’s talk about the Qing Dynasty. It wasn’t just a political entity, it was also believed to be under heaven’s mandate. It was kind of like the kingdom of God was established, or heaven established, on earth. But the Qing Dynasty didn’t last forever. It came crashing down in spectacular fashion. You write about this in the nineteenth century, and it made room for some competing political and religious ideas to begin taking root.
So we had this long standing dynasty that crashes down in the nineteenth century—
INOUYE: 1911 technically. It has problems though in the nineteenth century .
HODGES: In 1911 that’s the official—
INOUYE: That’s the end.
HODGES: —end of it. And then you’ve got all these governing options on the table. Let’s start there. What was it like in China around 1900, around the turn of the century? Christianity started to make real inroads into this place where it had been exclusively the Qing Dynasty for generations before.
INOUYE: China in the early 1900s was a place where so many different ideas were circulating. We tend to think about—especially if we don’t really study Chinese history, we think about China as this place that is way out there. And Chinese people just do Chinese stuff in China. But at this time there was actually an incredible amount of transnational movement between China, America, Europe, and even Australia and New Zealand. So there were a lot of different ideas swirling around.
The people that overthrew the Qing dynasty wanted to establish a parliamentary democracy, and that’s what they ended up doing. But there were all these different competing political ideas. Very shortly after the Qing Dynasty fell actually, someone tried to establish a monarchy again. There were a lot of different ideas on the table.
China had been an imperial system for thousands and thousands of years. So this complete sweeping away of the old and establishing something that was transplanted from the West was always a very fraught task. And you could say that it kind of failed, at least in this first attempt to establish a republic, things fell apart very quickly. The country became fragmented again. And it wasn’t until 1928 that a sort of national government was reestablished. And then it wasn’t until 1949 that there was a new government that actually controlled the entire country.
HODGES: What struck me while I was reading this part of your book was how fragile systems of government really can be, worldwide. They’re trying to set up this new way of ordering things in China and it requires people, leaders to actually do the organizing. But it also requires citizens to buy into it. And to believe in it. And that’s just as difficult as constructing a constitution or doing something like that, is actually getting people to buy in.
INOUYE: And not just the people themselves, but also people who are forming the government, those people also have to buy into the system.
One of the problems with the new parliamentary system in the early twentieth century was people got into power and then they just kind of exploited their power and money for their personal gain. So it’s quite tricky to find a system that not only has buy-in from people who’ll vote or people who’ll support the system and not rebel, but also to find people who will make the system work the way it was intended to work without corruption. And you need to have some pretty powerful ideas or experiences or beliefs holding you together.
HODGES: Now this is where your book takes us, to this crisis point almost in China’s history, as they’re trying to figure out how the Qing dynasty is declining and what will replace it. All these little reformists movements, or these little prophetic movements, start to crop up at this time.
One that you write about is Hong Xiuquan, a person who became a prophetic figure in the 1830s, around the time that Latter-day Saint listeners would think about Joseph Smith in the United States, sort of living in this time of revival. So at the same time, this restorationist Christian church in the United States is being established, you have this prophetic figure in China doing something similar. Tell us about Hong Xiuquan.
INOUYE: It wasn’t exactly the same time as Mormonism, it was slightly later. But the specter of Mormonism was very much in the minds of observers in China. When they saw this new Christian movement—I actually found a source from a London Missionary Society publication, where they referred to Hong Xiuquan’s movement as “Mormonites.” Because he’s quite similar, he’s this guy that had this vision, and in the vision he saw God the Father and he saw Jesus Christ, God’s son. He was told that he (Hong Xiuquan) was Christ’s younger brother. He was given a sword and told to expel the demons from China. So he took this as a sign that the ruling Qing dynasty, who were ethnic Manchu, which is different from the vast majority of Chinese who are ethnically Han Chinese, would fall.
HODGES: So the dynasty is made up of a sort of elite class, that was ethnically different?
INOUYE: Yeah, they’re from the north, from the northern part of China which is traditionally beyond China’s borders. So Hong Xiuquan launches this anti-Qing dynasty rebellion and many people joined him and he was very successful. They started out in the south of China and they ended up sweeping up into the central areas of China, the kind of most wealthy, populated, productive areas in China.
HODGES: And when you say “sweeping up,” they were kind of collecting, gathering people as they went.
HODGES: Because people were swelling in and the movement was a bit militant as well.
INOUYE: Yes, and they had these very interesting cultural norms as well. For example, women fought in the Taiping armies and when they established a kingdom in Nanjing, a very wealthy and prosperous Chinese city. They had rules. People had to go to church on Sundays, people had to sing the ten commandments, people were organized. They went to church in companies, in their military units. And as a group they controlled China, these areas of China, for over a decade.
HODGES: How did Hong Xiuquan become familiar with Christianity to begin with?
INOUYE: He encountered Christianity in what we call Canton or Guangzhou, a kind of major city in the south. He was going to take the civil service examination, which is the exam that is the gateway to fame and fortune in Chinese culture. Because it allows you to become a government official, which is the fanciest, nicest job in the Chinese government. So he ran into a missionary there, and he ran into some religious tracts which he kept and brought home, and I think these tracts include some excerpts from the Old and New Testaments. And eventually when he had his dream, this vision of God, Heavenly Father, and this “elder brother” he kind of put everything together and realized that it was talking about Jesus Christ and the God of the Bible and that he was called to be God’s Chinese son.
HODGES: How did other Chinese figures, especially people in authority, feel about Christianity making inroads here. Did they view it as welcome, sort of, “Oh this is something that other parts of the world believe, that’s great, we can introduce that here.” Or was there reluctance to have an outside ideology come into the country?
INOUYE: Because the Chinese imperial system is inherently religious it has always had an aversion to competing religious movements, especially to very popular, salvation-oriented movements. Usually these movements were Buddhist. They saw the Christians, I believe, as sort of a Buddhist-style popular religious group.
Originally there was a lot of antipathy from the local scholar officials toward Christian missionaries. Now eventually, over time, as western powers made further incursions into China, and began to secure more treaties from China through military victories, starting in 1842 and continuing throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they had to allow more Christian preaching in China.
And eventually, I would say, in the early twentieth century when the dynasty was really weak, when China as a country was really weak, vis-a-vis the western powers there was another sort of strain of thought, which viewed Christianity as a kind of modern religion, and saw the modernity of the westerners as a source of their strength. Right around the turn of the twentieth century, there was this movement within Chinese officialdom to kind of reject Chinese folk religion as superstitious and backwards.
HODGES: These are rituals people would do in their homes?
INOUYE: Yes, like ancestor worship, or worshipping local deities and so on.
HODGES: And the elites were saying, “We need to tamp down this superstition.”
INOUYE: Right, or else we will be eaten up by western powers in this dog eat dog world. So that’s a way of saying official attitudes towards Christianity have shifted over time. And they have always been kind of ambivalent.
HODGES: And Christianity in other countries at that time as well was going through sort of a progressive move where Christianity was thought to be at the forefront of culture. It was thought to lead to medical advancements and advancements in human knowledge. It wasn’t yet stereotyped as being backwards or superstitious in other parts of the world, and it so it kind of entered into China during that phase of Christian existences. This forward-thinking, more progressive, even more “rational” approach to faith.
INOUYE: Yeah, so the major missionary societies, like the London Missionary Society or the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions and other groups, ran major medical and educational institutions in China. And these missionary run institutions were the most advanced medical institutions. And the most well-developed western style places of education.
HODGES: So Hong Xiuquan becomes very successful. In fact he sets up what’s called the Heavenly Kingdom. They kind of take over the government, right? It seems like they believe they’re perhaps going to rule in China generally.
INOUYE: They were close to unsettling the entire Qing dynasty. Eventually they lost, with help from western mercenaries. And with the mobilization of kind of very vigorous local Qing dynasty officials. The western missionaries were a little ambivalent. At first they were really excited, they hoped that the Taipings would conquer all of China and make China a Christian country.
HODGES: This is like a protestant reformation almost happening, right? They were like, “Ooh this is exciting.”
INOUYE: Yes but then they began to view the Taiping teachings as heterodox, that association with Mormons kind of shows where they thought they were on the scale of orthodoxy, and eventually they said “No, these guys are not our kind of Christians.”
HODGES: It’s heresy—
INOUYE: They were worried about the Taipings threatening their settlements as well.
HODGES: And there was violence too, right? In fact, the end of the Heavenly Kingdom was not a nice little ending.
INOUYE: No, it was very terrible, very bloody.
HODGES: So, you think at that point China would be through with Christianity, but it wasn’t through with Christianity yet. It hung around. The next thing you talk about in the book is a man named Wei Enbo’s restoration. This is a man who was one of the native Chinese people who was drawn to Christianity. You talk in the book about how he became a prophetic figure that set himself apart from other Christians in China.
INOUYE: So Wei Enbo is very much like the American prophet Joseph Smith in that he was a poor farm boy that came from a kind of north eastern rural area. And he moved to the big city of Beijing and wasn’t very successful until he became a Christian. Once he became a Christian in the London Missionary Society, he had access to the society’s international networks, to the Christian community in Beijing, which was a very transnational community with friends in high places. You know, the influence of the Western powers was very closely connected to Christian institutions.
So anyway, he becomes this wealthy silk merchant in Beijing, and eventually a Pentecostal. In 1917 he has this theophany—he hears this voice that calls him out to the river outside the city. And he goes to the river with some of his friends, who are fellow seekers, they are fellow Pentecostals. And he goes into the water to be baptized, and he hears this voice, “you must be baptized face down,” so he dives into the water face down and he comes up. And when he comes up out of the water he sees Jesus and hears a voice that tells him to correct the Church. So then he sets about restoring the “one true church” of Christ.
HODGES: What things does he focus on in correcting?
INOUYE: He focuses on a variety of things, but most of them have to do with adhering more closely to the Bible. Part of this is linguistics. For example, the London Missionary Society people and the other “establishment” type people used terms that Wei Enbo said were not in the Bible. They had names, the names of their churches, sounded funny in Chinese. So, for example the London Missionary Society churches were called the London Churches.
HODGES: In China?
INOUYE: Right, and the Presbyterian churches were called the Elders Church. And some other churches had transliterated names that didn’t really makes sense at all. So very much as Joseph Smith does when he’s saying, “Why are all these different churches and why do they not have the name of Jesus in the them?” Wei Enbo and his associates looked around and they said, If it’s the Church of London then it’s a church about London but we are the True Jesus Church.
So there are so many parallels.
HODGES: And print culture helped his message spread. That’s another thing that you talk about in the book. His movement really takes off as he spreads his word through printed materials and other things.
You talk about how scholars sometimes will emphasize things like economic class to help explain the growth of a religious movement. So they would say people who are in poorer circumstances were drawn to this message, they saw it as a way to progress in society and elevate their status and things like that. And you don’t rule those types of factors out, but your research also tries to broaden the picture and say that there is more to it than just class, when people are joining these movements.
INOUYE: Well I think part of that is related to my identity as a religious person myself. As a religious person you read something that says, “Oh they were so poor and so uneducated, therefore they were religious.” And you go, you know it’s gotta be a little more complicated than that.
And you know when I looked at the documents and the things that people were saying, they were so excited that the things that were mentioned in the Bible text—which they had read very carefully—were now happening in real life. And they were so excited that there was a church that would adhere to every word of the Bible as it was printed in Chinese as opposed to doing the things that the European churches had been used to doing for hundreds of years.
So I find them quite theologically discriminating, actually. And I think that’s really important, to kind of recognize the texture of their involvement in this religion.
HODGES: You also, it seems, try to take their voices seriously too. Because if you sat down and talked to someone and kind of gave them this explanation of, “Oh I think you’re drawn to this religion because of class,” that would seem very strange to someone.
INOUYE: It would be quite insulating, right. “You’re poor and ignorant so that’s why you’re a member of this church.” And they definitely wouldn’t say that.
HODGES: That’s Melissa Inouye. We’re talking about her book China and the True Jesus.
I want to shift the topic to women in China. Wei Enbo’s church was on the rise at a time when China was going through big cultural changes. We talked about how they were figuring out new systems of government after this dynasty that had been around for centuries had been swept away. But you emphasize that many of China’s cultural norms had deeper roots and didn’t just get easily swept away in these revolutions. Especially when it came to women.
What are some examples where cultural surrounding women didn’t really change even though systems of government was undergoing changes?
INOUYE: You could say it’s actually easier to have a political revolution than it is to have a cultural revolution, right? The assumptions people have about roles for men and women, or about standards of beauty, all of these things are very deeply engrained. And because they are not part of the official institutional structures, it’s much harder to change them.
So for hundreds of years, maybe thousands of years actually, women have always had a subordinate role in Confucian culture. You know, they’re supposed to follow their husbands, and eventually when their sons become old they’re supposed to defer to their sons who become the heads of the household.
What I find interesting about Christianity and women’s issues in the twentieth century is that for many people Christianity was a very emancipating outlet. It was an opportunity to receive education, it was an opportunity to have a vocation. Many widows became Bible women for Christian churches. In Wei Enbo’s True Jesus Church some women became full-time preachers who were supported by the church as they went around preaching.
So I see Christianity in China in the twentieth century as another kind of institutional resource for women. Another way in which women could organize and could hold authority and could accumulate moral and social capital and have more influence in the world.
HODGES: The fourth chapter of your book introduces us to someone named Deaconess Yang. This is a woman who became a leader in the True Jesus Church, but she passed through a number of other roles in society to get to that point. First she was a Confucian daughter in law, then a nurse and a more modern woman, and then finally a religious healer and organizer. Let’s walk through that progression. You’ll give people a good sense of the place women held in China at the time in the experience of one woman who went through big changes throughout her life.
INOUYE: I’m not exactly sure when she was born, but I think she was born basically around the turn of the twentieth century. And she was an orphan, so she married early. One of the reasons for marrying early would be that you don’t have a family to support you and kind of have to attach yourself to a man because that’s the only way you’d have a status in society.
Fortunately for her, her husband died quite soon and so she was a widow. After her husband died, her mother-in-law died, which drew criticism for her because a Confucian daughter-in-law is supposed to take care of her mother in law, so maybe she was criticized for that. But at this point she tried to commit suicide. And suicide is a terrible thing, but in the context of the time she was widely praised for trying to commit suicide. Because the point was, your husband is dead, your mother-in-law is dead, what point is there for you to live? It’s very culturally admirable for you to say, there’s no point in living life, I’m just going to die. That was the attitude of the time. Actually, sometimes people who committed suicide were sometimes honored with ceremonial arches later on.
So anyway, this just gives us a kind of picture of how much independent status women had, which is not that much. After this she became renowned for her suicide attempt, as terrible as that sounds, and she drew the attention of Christian missionaries who invited her to go to a school. In these Christian schools they were often offered low tuition rates or sometimes it was even free to people who couldn’t pay, and especially to women. So she became trained in the school and she eventually became enrolled in a nurse training college and she became a professional nurse.
Now she had a job and salary in a major city in China, in Wuhan, and she was working in the big hospitals. And this kind of shows the direction China was moving, towards an emergence of some professional roles for women, towards more developed educational opportunities for women. Often facilitated by Christianity.
And then interestingly enough she left this path, she joined the True Jesus Church, and one day when she was in the chapel in Wuhan, someone came into the chapel seeking healing. So she laid her hands on this person’s head and, according to an account that I read, when she laid her hands on the person’s head the person cried out and said, “Why is it that when you laid your hands on my head it was like fire?” And the person was healed. And she thought, “Why would I work as a nurse, taking care of sick people, when I could just heal them by laying my hands on their head?”
So she became—entered this third phase of her life, where she became a deaconess in the True Jesus Church, Deaconess Yang. And she traveled about establishing new churches and performing healing work.
HODGES: It seems strange, I think, that someone like her would lean in the direction of this new modern woman. That she would be getting an education, being trained to be a medical professional, and then join what seems to us like a “conservative” religious tradition. Where women have different access to power than you might expect in a modernizing China. How do you account for her decision?
INOUYE: I think it just shows that she felt she had more power in the True Jesus Church.
HODGES: What did that power look like in that church?
INOUYE: Well, she felt like she healed people by laying hands on them. Which is very impressive!
HODGES: Were there other avenues for her? Within the True Jesus Church would she receive some sort or priesthood, would she lead a congregation? Or be seen as prophetic figure? What did it look like for a woman in the church?
INOUYE: In the True Jesus Church there are basically three kind of levels. The highest level is Elder, that is a position held only by men. The next level is deacon or deaconess, and that can be held by men or women. And then preachers are also men and women, generally speaking.
So the reason why women in the True Jesus Church can be deaconesses who perform saving ordinances like foot washing is because in the Bible, I believe it’s in 2 Timothy, there’s a verse that talks about, in the King James version, it says “deacon’s wives.” In the Chinese version of the Bible it says the, “female deacons.” And because of the True Jesus Church’s strict adherence to the Bible, since it says female deacons, they have female deacons.
HODGES: And that persists in the church today?
HODGES: Is there any movement within the True Jesus Church for women that seek more than that? Or are there other Christian groups that criticize them for even having that much?
INOUYE: I’m not sure. To my knowledge there is no movement for women to be Elders. You know, I don’t think so. But in China itself the official churches are quite progressive, from a gender standpoint there are female preachers and pastors and so on. So today it’s not so significant, but back then it was quite significant because Chinese Christianity was dominated by these mainline groups like Presbyterianism and Congregationalism and Episcopalianism. And in most of those traditions, women did not hold that kind of authority.
HODGES: So at it’s time it kind of emerged as this progressive—a place where women had more opportunity, but as other Christian groups have progressed over the years, some have caught up, and some have gone further than the True Jesus Church has gone. And the True Jesus Church has kind of stayed in this particular place that they were at in the beginning?
INOUYE: And I wouldn’t even call it “progressive.” I mean what does that mean?
HODGES: Good point, it’s loaded language. It exists on this map of opportunity and possibility within different religious organizations.
So during World War II, China is in real turmoil here. They’re dealing with different political parties within the country, they’re dealing with the invading Japanese. How did the True Jesus Church survive during this really turbulent time during World War II?
INOUYE: Well World War II is a disaster for everyone in China. One of the things the institutional church did was follow the official government of the church at the time, the Nationalist Party led government to Chongqing, which is a city in the interior of China. So we’re looking at a map right now, do you see Chongqing right there? Yeah right there at the edge of the Tibetan plateau?
HODGES: Right there in the south, yes.
INOUYE: Chongqing is hard to get to. The Japanese could only bomb it from the air because it’s in the middle of extremely mountainous region with very deep gorges. So the leaders of the True Jesus Church followed the government to this kind of refuge in Chongqing, along with many citizens. There was this huge refugee population that moved to the southwest during World War II.
HODGES: And they survived there. After 1949, the Chinese Communist Party consolidated its power. And as you say in your book, “it would brook no rivals.” This was a group that wanted to dominate and be in charge of China’s ideology. There wasn’t going to be room for these different perspectives. You say that a battle was waged over who got control over China’s “moral discourse.” Talk about that, the moral discourse of China and how the communist party came in conflict with other groups like the True Jesus Church.
INOUYE: In the early 1950s, before the real high tide of Maoism, there were numerous religious groups in China and they still kind of had some rough toleration from the government. But beginning in the mid-1950s, late 1950s, the political rhetoric in China intensified and kind of penetrated every aspect of society.
At that point, for example, during the anti-rightest movement in 1957, intellectuals were attacked—people who are pastors or preachers. People who discourse form the pulpit about texts and teach about moral values or about kind of ideological systems. Those people also came on the radar screen as people who were teaching backward things, people who were not preaching the party line. Many Christian leaders came under attack during that time.
HODGES: Including the leaders of the True Jesus Church?
INOUYE: Yes. And what’s kind of sad, I guess, but completely realistic, is that, if you look at the records, you can see how there’s this drastic shift in the rhetoric over time.
So, for example, if you look at records from the church-wide top leadership meeting in 1953, it’s quoting the Bible right and left throughout and using all this terminology, and there’s an amen here and an amen there. And just several months later there’s another sort of document, it reads just like a communist party manual, with all the kind of propaganda terms. It talks about how religion, Christianity is a poison, how this doctrine of unconditional love is simply imperialist weeds, because it teaches us to love enemies even when they’re trying to overthrow, they’re imperialists and horrible people.
This shift in rhetoric was quite striking. And that was about the same time the church eventually went underground, because there’s no way for it to function as a church above ground.
HODGES: You talked about how people reacted to communist control in a lot of different ways. Some capitulated to the new regime by either just doing away with what they had before and joining up the communist cause. And other people merely pretended to do that. And fewer outright openly rebelled with a lot of bad consequences. It seemed like you were trying to make sense out of each of these decisions, without turning to moral judgment on them, without calling someone a sellout, or “this person a fool for sticking their neck out.” What was it like writing about that?
INOUYE: It was quite tricky because it’s so easy to look back on the people who suddenly change their rhetoric and be like, “You faker! You’re like the person who denies Christ,” or something like that. But it wasn’t just their own individual selves who were endangered by a rebellious or recalcitrant attitude. It was also their families. It was also their friends. And even the whole congregation, as well, could be dragged into very sticky situations by the rhetoric of a leader.
So from that point of view, I feel sorry for them. They had an impossible choice to make. They had to speak publicly before both The Communist Party and their people and their own True Jesus Church congregants, who would know exactly what they were saying, whichever way they went. So I feel sorry for them. That was tricky.
HODGES: And the Church went underground, basically meeting in secret, not putting the signs up, not publicly proselytizing, and continuing to practice their faith but with extreme caution, right? Because if they were caught, they could be exiled, they could be in prison, they could, you could be executed.
Over time the communist grip loosens a little bit, these underground communities start to resurface a little. There’s so more breathing room and you talk again about the remarkable story of Deaconess Yang. She was a True Jesus Church member who reported a really remarkable vision in 1973 that kind of breathed new life into the True Jesus Church at a time when it was withering. Tell us a bit more about Deaconess Yang.
INOUYE: Deaconess Yang is an older lady, and she had this kind of multi-day vision where she was lying on her bed and her daughters-in-law thought she was dying or possibly dead. And she later revived. In the course of her multi-day vision of heaven, she dreamed that her—or saw that she was walking along this bright path in the sky, and she comes to this gate of heaven. And it’s manned by these two fierce looking angles, and she listens behind the door, and coming from behind the gates of heaven is this hymn that they sing in the True Jesus Church. And she says, “I wanna go inside.” And they said, “Why do you wanna go inside?” And she says, “Because they’re singing my church’s song in there.” So that’s pretty good credentials, so they open the door and she goes through this gate and she sees this huge hall filled with tens of thousands of people, and people are singing. And in the front, she sees some old people from the True Jesus Church and they recognize her and make a place for her. And in the front of the hall there are angels who are teaching a lesson with Bible stories, and they have like—now I guess it would look like a tablet you know—they’ve got like this big tablet that has moving Bible pictures on it, like scenes from the Bible.
HODGES: It’s like a big screen?
INOUYE: Yep. But like holding it and teaching from it. And they’re writing on a chalk board but in letters of gold. And it’s this very interesting scene. But the gist of the vision is that all of the stories taught in this thing are the stories of people who, in the Bible, stood up to the state. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and all these other stories. And there’s a kind of song that’s associated with this story that very clearly talks about how people followed God and not the government and how that was most important. The message of her vision spread very quickly, and people got copies of it and moved it around. And from that time the church kind of began to revive in southeastern China.
HODGES: Wasn’t that seen as kind of radical though, if she’s basically pitting the True Jesus Church against the government? She’s implying that one of those is illegitimate—and it’s not the True Jesus Church.
INOUYE: Right, but the really great thing about older ladies in China is that they can basically do what they want. The state doesn’t really care about that. The have a lot of status in their families and their communities because of all the relational capital.
So I think it’s a really good example of the kind of power of women have, even when they don’t have access to the top levels of structural hierarchies. They access other very real networks of power, and I think this vision and the basic reality that, during the period of oppression women were the ones that ran the Church and kept it going, it all shows the value of that power, and the substantial nature of that power.
HODGES: And this is quite a long time after the founder of the True Jesus Church had died, right? What did the top hierarchy of the True Jesus Church look like at this point? Did they have a particular leader? Was it governed by a council?
INOUYE: During the 1950s, the centralized leadership was dismantled, and they never recovered that leadership. Now the True Jesus Church is regionalized into different factions.
HODGES: it’s kind of in a precarious place in China as you talk about in the book. Perhaps nothing symbolizes it better than a sign posted on one of their church buildings in the city in south China you visited. Talk about that a little bit.
INOUYE: In China, the official line is that there are five approved religions. There’s Christianity, Protestant Christianity, Catholic Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Buddhism. Those are the five official religions. So all of the Christian churches, if you are not Catholic, are supposed to be just generic, nondenominational protestant. So China’s supposed to be a “post-denominational” society. Therefore, you’re not supposed to have the True Jesus Church as such. It’s just supposed to be a Christian church like any other Christian church.
HODGES: Like A Jesus Church, not The true.
INOUYE: Right. Because denominations aren’t supposed to exist. Now of course this isn’t the actual reality, and it’s very important for the True Jesus Church, because they believe they’re the one true church, to kind of maintain this denominational identity. So there’s this church in south China where it’s kind of locally famous because they have this sign, and in Chinese it says, “Chapel,” but then in English it says, “True Jesus Church.” It shows how navigation of the official rules that govern the status quo is very tricky.
HODGES: And that sign, it’s probably escaping certain people’s notice, right? It’s not like the Chinese government would sanction that. It’s kind of a subversive sign. In English, and it’s sort of hidden away.
INOUYE: Yeah, I mean there are differences in enforcement as well. Sometimes churches have really good relationships with local officials and they don’t care. But other times, local officials have a quota of churches that they would like to whack down to show how vigilant they are about maintaining control over the ideological sphere.
HODGES: There’s a section of the book called “Truth and Trust” that I think will resonate with a lot of readers right now. China’s experiencing something of a truth crisis. The True Jesus Church is trying in its own way to respond to that crisis.
INOUYE: So the economic boom has led to a lot of profiteering in China. I’m sure people have heard stories of contaminated food or contaminated milk powder or milk powder with high levels of melamine in it and so on. So just because there are so many fake things in China, religious communities—not just Christian, but Buddhist, Taoist, religion too—has actually been booming in China. Because I think people are hungry for something that’s real, that has moral standards and that makes truth claims.
And this is also compounded, not just by the economic competition and profiteering, but also by the way in which political rhetoric or political ideology doesn’t always match reality. So generally speaking, people in China are very nationalistic, and generally really approve of the Communist Party’s rule. However, there are certain times that if you find yourself on the wrong side of the party state, everyone knows that’s a really bad situation to be in and so on.
There are a lot of education campaigns and ideological campaigns in China to kind of promote values and morality. But the most organic way to do that, really, is in religious communities. And so I think people are flocking to religious communities, looking for connections with people, and for ways to be good. And the people who are part of the True Jesus Church are not just poor uneducated people. In some of the cities where I study, the church attracts members from top-tier universities, young twenty-something-year-olds who are joining the church because they’re attracted to the way of life and the moral standards and so on.
HODGES: And they see it as perhaps more truth-telling than the state party might be, right? The difference between propaganda and news reporting.
INOUYE: Definitely. Because it’s a small community where people have to be accountable to each other.
HODGES: So even though groups like the True Jesus Church are supposed to support the state party and do things according to the state’s interest, it still offers strong critiques of Chinese culture. The church, it almost seems to have, in the book here, a sort of love-hate relationship with China. They don’t just say the state is perfect and great and then go do their own thing. They have critiques to offer as well.
INOUYE: They never explicitly criticize the government itself, but there are plenty of critiques of society. “The state society is morally bankrupt,” “People are just out to make money,” and “You’ll only find true meaning in Jesus.”
HODGES: Do you think they don’t believe the state is, in part, to blame for those problems, or are they just being cautious about what they can and can’t say?
INOUYE: Everyone has to be pretty cautious about what they say about the state. And I think it also depends on how much you have to interact with the state. So obviously, church officials who have to deal with local officials may have a more complicated relationship with the party state than just the garden variety person in the pews who’s never had any problem going to church.
HODGES: The True Jesus Church is also pretty interested in China’s rise to global power as well. The more prominent China becomes on the international scene the more the True Jesus Church seems to like it. What are your thoughts about that, why does that matter?
INOUYE: They’re a Christian restorationist group, so their fundamental claim is that the one true church was established in China in 1917. Sometimes it’s a hard sell, especially for people who think about authentic Christianity of being European, or Middle Eastern, or something like that! You don’t usually think of China when you think of Christianity.
Someone once told me, “You know, when China is a powerful country then people will respect our church more and join our church more.”
HODGES: That’s Melissa Inouye. We’re talking about her book, China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in the Chinese Christian Church.
Melissa, at the end of the book you emphasize how the True Jesus Church is still very charismatic, in the sense that it still promotes things like speaking in tongues and miraculous healings and things like that. You’ve interacted with members of the True Jesus Church and witnessed people living their religion that way. How did you feel as a researcher being so close to something that’s sacred to someone?
INOUYE: You have to be very careful. I was very grateful when people told me stories of the sacred experiences they’d had. As a religious person myself I thought, “How would I like people to treat me if I told them something I believed or something that had happened to me?”
It’s really amazing the kinds of stories that I heard. I had one woman say that she was holding the feet of a dead woman who committed suicide, when the woman came back to life. I’ve heard many stories of miraculous healings. The world of religious experience is very rich and diverse.
HODGES: Did it change anything about how you view your own faith? You’re writing about religion. Did it change you at all?
INOUYE: I think it did. The True Jesus Church is a restorationist tradition. I’m a Latter-day Saint, we are a restorationist tradition. I grew up thinking we were so cool because we were restorationist and we were the only ones who had come up with that idea. But then when you study the history of Christianity, “restoration” is a genre, right? So it caused me to think a little more thoroughly about what it actually was about my faith that was unique and distinctive.
I certainly admire the lives of the True Jesus Church members. I think they’re trying to do a very admirable thing. To build community, to serve each other in the middle of a society which is unmoored in so many ways from strong moral and ideological foundations. I guess you just realize as a researcher that religious experience—even if it’s not your own, even if it’s hard to objectively verify—is very powerful. It shapes how people live their lives. It shapes the meaning that they find in their everyday activities. It strengthens their relationships and affects which relationships they develop. Whether or not you believe in a set of religious claims, the fact that religion is consequential is undeniable.
HODGES: Before we go, I want to ask you about this tension between charisma and organization. Your research speaks to this. You’re talking about the power religion has to help people, to forge their identity, or figure out their place in the world. Those religious activities exist within organizations as well. And there can be tension between individual experience of charisma—like speaking in tongues or prophesying—and an institution’s needs, desires, and directives. And your book explores that tension. I thought we’d conclude with just a few thoughts about how that tension played out, how you saw it playing out in the True Jesus Church. And why you decided to make that the focus of your overall book.
INOUYE: I’m really intrigued by the tension between charisma and organization, because they don’t work without each other, but they also corrode each other.
For example, if you’ve got this really cool idea—like there’s this person that rose from the dead, whose name is Jesus, and he did miracles—that’s a cool idea, but if you don’t have the organization to kind of keep a group of people thinking about Jesus, reading Jesus’s texts, worshipping Jesus and so on, you’re not going to have a Christian movement.
At the same time, if you just kind of become nothing but a bureaucracy, then you will smother that spark of the divine that attracted people in the first place.
And this happens in religious movements like the True Jesus Church. It starts with these very charismatic visions, and eventually the church institutionalizes and they kind of have to maintain these two things. And you see this in other religious traditions. All Christian traditions have to wrestle with this. Buddhist traditions. All religious traditions have this tension.
But you also see it often in political movements. For example, the Qing imperial bureaucracy was held together by this charismatic idea that the Emperor was the Son of Heaven. And there would be earthquakes and horrible things if the Emperor didn’t do a good job as a moral ruler. It’s also there in the work of the Chinese Communist Party. Communism is this very lofty ideal, this ideal that the government is there to serve the people, and the people are the government. And yet, maintaining that across a population as large as China requires security forces. Today it requires very extensive censorship, control of information, policing, all of that stuff as well. So, it’s really hard maintain that balance.
HODGES: And how did you see the True Jesus Church doing it?
INOUYE: Well, being fragmented into little pieces! I think some parts of the church are more charismatic than others. But the fact that they speak in tongues keeps charismatic practice at the center of their worship all the time. It’s pretty remarkable to hear a room full of people speaking in tongues at the same time.
HODGES: Thanks Melissa for taking the time to talk to us. People who are interested, the book is called China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in the Chinese Christian Church and was published by Oxford University Press.
Melissa, thanks for talking to us about the book today.
Thanks for listening to another Maxwell Institute Podcast episode. If you missed it, Melissa Inouye also joined us in an earlier episode to talk about her book Crossings: a bald Asian American woman scholar’s Ventures Through Life, Death, Cancer, and Motherhood. Check it out.
And I want to say hello to more of our Maxwell Institute Podcast completists, people who’ve listened to every single episode. Graham Oxborrow, Dave LeFevre, Aaron Hoskins, thanks, guys. I want to hear from completists, we’re making some little give-away things that we’ll send out once the pandemic settles down. Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. See you next time.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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