The Death of Chairman Mao – History for September 9

Photo by manos koutras on Unsplash

On this date in 1976, Mao Zedong, or Chairman Mao, founder of the communist People’s Republic of China, died at the age of 82.  Some look at Mao’s death as a positive turning point for Christianity in China, since under Mao China had expelled all Western Christian missionaries between 1949 and 1953.  However, while it is impossible to come up with precise numbers across a 3.7 million square mile country, Christians probably were about 1 percent of China’s population when Western missionaries were kicked out, but by the 1980s about 5 percent of the population went by Christ’s name.  The Christian population grew by ten times, while the overall population doubled.  How did this happen?

Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, authors of the book “Clouds of Witnesses” say the key to this growth was “the resilience of the Chinese believers themselves…securely rooted in Chinese life before Mao.” [1]  In expelling missionaries, Mao was in part responding to “treaty ports” created at the end of the 1839-42 Opium War.  Through these ports foreign powers had extra territorial rights, allowing influences including missionaries to come in, but these ports also allowed opium to flow freely into China from Western countries.  Therefore, in the mind of many Chinese, Christianity became linked with both Western imperialism and opium addiction.  When Karl Marx said “religion is the opiate of the masses” he may have been thinking of this connection.  But native Chinese believers, sometimes planted by Europe-based evangelizing organizations like China Inland Mission, remained behind and spread resilient forms of Christianity that were attractive to the Chinese population.

John Sung
Several of these Chinese Christians are profiled by Noll and Nystrom, including John Sung who lived from 1901 to 1944, before Mao’s communist revolution.  Around Christmas 1926, Sung heard child evangelist Uldine Utley preach a sermon at Calvary Baptist Church in New York, near where he was attending Union Theological Seminary.  This sermon, along with other influences, countered the liberal Christianity he was being taught where the Bible was just “a collection of myths.”  He returned to China, determined to spread the gospel in the land of his birth with frenetic energy.  In a one-year period in 1931-2, Sung and a small group of missionaries “traveled over 50,000 miles, held 1,200 meetings, preached to more than 400,000 people in thirteen provinces, registered more than 18,000 ‘decisions’” for Christ.  Many of these new Christians formed traveling bands themselves.  Sung is considered the last great evangelist in China and Southeast Asia before Mao’s reign. 

Dora Yu
Even earlier, another driver of this resilient, Chinese Christianity was Dora Yu (1873-1931).  Dora’s ministry benefitted tremendously from a 1905 decision by Dowager Empress Cixi to replace China’s traditional Confucian civil service examinations with general public schools.  Under this system, mission-run schools became a valued option, and one of Dora’s early ministries was to train “Bible women” to not only educate women generally, but also to teach them the Bible, pray with them, and teach them to live by faith.  Mostly traveling by foot, in “1903, Dora Yu visited with 925 women and 211 children.”  Later, her ministry grew and she became famous for itinerant preaching, reaching many others who would carry on the Lord’s work.

Because of our proneness to look at
the bucket and forget the fountain,
God has frequently to change His
means of supply to keep
our eyes fixed on the source

Watchman Nee

Watchman Nee
In 1920, Nee Shu-Tsu would hear Dora Yu preach.  Later known as Watchman Nee, he “planted at least four hundred Christian churches over a thirty-year period of active ministry.”  He died in 1972 in a Communist prison after spending 20 years there.  Watchman Nee wrote that “Because of our proneness to look at the bucket and forget the fountain, God has frequently to change His means of supply to keep our eyes fixed on the source.”

Whether it is a European missionary, a child preacher in New York City, a Chinese man temporarily studying in New York City, or a Chinese woman walking miles through the countryside:

How beautiful upon the mountains
            are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
            who publishes salvation,
            who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” – Isaiah 52:7

As Jesus said in Matthew 16:18 – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  This rock is the gospel of the kingdom of God, and not even a brutal regime like that of Chairman Mao could prevail against it.

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Noll, Mark A.; Nystrom, Carolyn.  Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia (2011).  This post is drawn from chapters 12 and 14.