Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

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

To address the relevance of Christianity to the ideological negotiations with the officially established authority, this research will be conducted by asking how the history enthusiasts negotiate the Christianity-related ideology through reconstructing the Christian past and reproducing religious histories that redefine forms of local power structures in Xiamen today.

2012 - 2016
China Scholarship Council

Supervisors: Prof. dr. Heleen Murre-van den Berg & Prof. dr. Frank N. Pieke

This piece of sociological research is an ethnography of Protestant Christianity in contemporary Xiamen, Fujian province. However, it is not a story about the Christian revival in reform-era China. 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 the coast of Xiamen) was thrust into a Western-led modernization process. Since it entered Xiamen in 1842, Christianity has become deeply embedded in the local cultural and social structure and even now 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 a world heritage status application, the local government acquiesces in or even supports the popular efforts. The fact that serves as a starting point for this research is that Christianity on Gulangyu, the former center of the missions that saw the glory time 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 the official narratives of “national humiliation.” The discourse was closely intertwined with the building of the modern nation-state and later to the legitimacy of the Communist regime. Xiamen history enthusiasts who are engaged in the civic movement have no intention of testing the state ideology, even though this challenge has emerged as an unintended consequence. Consequently, tension has been caused between official narratives and the popular reconstruction of the Christian past. This research has revealed the negotiating mechanisms that have spontaneously been 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 interaction between different actors. In this study, I depart from the traditional approach of state domination and 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 is not downplayed in the current situation.

This research also examines the changing Christians networks between 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.  At the turn of the century, the involvement of the Southeast Asian churches began to change as the older generation Christians of South Fujian origin passed away and in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis 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 in relation to the modern image of the United States exerts a deep influence on young people, not only in their beliefs but also in their understanding of the modernity connected to Christianity. However, the American Christian agency that has become trapped in local politics is plagued with troubles. This research has demonstrated the importance of reconsidering the interplay of the international Christian agents and local traditions in the study of Christianity in China today.

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