China and the Church in China, Part 1: Genesis

Editor’s note: Wang Jianguo is the collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese house church pastors writing and thinking critically about issues related to the spread of Christianity in their nation. They are committed to preaching a grace-centered gospel, developing resources for the church, and loving China’s urban centers. This pastor is currently studying at a seminary in the States, but plans to return to China once his studies are complete. You can read the next part of the series at this link: Part 2

As I prepared to share my story, I was overwhelmed and said, “Send someone else. Please. Who am I?” But then I remembered Moses. When Moses asked God to send someone else, God told him, “I made you. I will be with you.” I need the gospel. I come here not because of myself.  God can use any broken vessel, and he can use me, a unique and broken vessel, to share about China and the church in China. I add one thing: me. 

It is good to tell stories. My six-year-old daughter can recite her favorite book almost by memory. We are the same as kids; we need stories, too. So I will use my story, the details of my personal experience, to give you a lens to look at what China is, and what the church in China is.

I use the word “Genesis” to describe the period from 1979 to 1989. Why begin in 1979? Because I was born in that year, the year the Chinese government initiated the one child policy. Our generation is known as the generation that never saw our pregnant moms. My wife was also born in that year. Before 1979, China was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution and planned economics. Before that year, it was darkness, chaos, and emptiness. But in 1978 and 1979, China underwent economic reform and opening, and started market economics. I define 1979 as the genesis, the beginning. 

Another reason 1979 was so important was because of the college entrance exam. This had a big influence on my family, because my dad took the entrance examination so he could go to college. He went from being a manual laborer to a university professor. A lot of the people who lived in Shanghai, especially those of my dad’s generation, went through the ten-year darkness of the Cultural Revolution. For those people, the college entrance exam was a life-changing event. They saw it as the only fair play in China. Even today, my dad is not a Christian, in large part because he is so grateful to the Communist Party for re-starting the exam and allowing him to change his life. 

The exam was first offered again in 1977, but my dad didn’t take it that year, because he was still doing hard labor. He took the exam in 1979, when my maternal grandfather told him, “If you pass the exam, you can marry my daughter.” Obviously, you can see how big this was. My dad worked hard, and through his personal merit, he made it. Because my dad passed the exam, I exist! It is hard for people in my parents’ generation to understand grace. They worked hard to earn things, and they succeeded.

I was born in a university. My grandfather, the one who told my dad he could marry my mom only if he passed the exam, was a history professor at [a prestigious university] in Shanghai. This was also the university I attended. At the beginning of each semester, the school welcomes new students from all over the world. All the nations and all the races and all the languages come to the university, and they were greeted by a statue of Chairman Mao, Mao Zedong. In those years, almost every single university had a statue of Mao Zedong.

Because I was born at a university, I will share what I saw and experienced as a kid, born and raised in that setting. A professor I know told me that in the States, the things that happen in the university influence the world in twenty years. But in China, we don’t need twenty years. It happens right away. This makes a dream.

The term “Chinese dream” has been used widely for five or six years, but even as a child, I knew there was a dream. All the young people had dreams of attending university, equipping themselves, and changing the world. My generation is different from those who experienced the Cultural Revolution: we are a new era. As a child, I saw young, energetic people come to the university. My dad was a professor in the university, my granddad was a professor in the university, and my mom worked in the university. There were many students from all over the world, talking about their dreams. It was exciting!

On the other hand, I now realize we were living in someone else’s dream. The government controlled what we could know and what we could not, and we did not think critically. There is a famous soldier from the People’s Liberation Army called Lei Feng. Every kid in China knows who he is. Every year on March 15, we studied the way he lived, because he is celebrated as a role model. Lei Feng did many good deeds. He read Chairman Mao’s book every day, and there are countless pictures of his actions posted in primary, middle, and high schools across China. Lei Feng was a kind of super man. Every kid wanted to be like him. 

But nobody tried asking how all those pictures were taken? It seems like every time Lei Feng did something good, there was a photographer beside him. For instance, if he was reading Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book in the middle of the night, he needed a flashlight to see—yet there are photos! In my childhood, I never considered these things. We were living in someone else’s dream. We were told what we should know. Our dream was to go college and fulfill someone else’s plans.

Gen. 11:4 says: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” Everyone has a dream. We do not know where the dream comes from, but we have a dream and want to be somebody—even though we do not know who, exactly, we want to be. We are given examples and are told: be like Lei Feng, be like this hero or model.

This was the first ten years of my life.