World Christianity Professor Xi Lian is a historian whose research has focused on China’s modern encounter with Christianity. He has spent the last few years writing a biography of a Christian woman who was the most important Chinese political dissident during the Mao era.
His new book, Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, a Martyr in Mao's China (Basic Books), will be released in March 2018. It recounts the story of Lin Zhao, a poet and journalist arrested by the authorities in 1960 and executed eight years later, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. The only Chinese citizen known to have openly and steadfastly opposed communism under Mao, she rooted her dissent in her Christian faith.
Lian stumbled on the story of Lin Zhao while giving a talk at Harvard University in 2011. “I was immediately drawn to it,” he says. “A few months after I began my research, a collection of her writings emerged. It was privately printed and circulated among a small circle of researchers. I was able to get a copy. She is just a most extraordinary woman.”
In the 1940s, Lin Zhao attended a Methodist mission school in Suzhou, where she was baptized as a Christian but also secretly joined the Communist revolution. After she was purged as a Rightist in 1958, she embarked on her political dissent.
“She called communism slavery and tyranny; she opposed it as a servant of God,” Lian explains. “Her Christian faith and democratic pursuit came together and she poured out a stream of writings, many in her own blood. She was repeatedly handcuffed, sometimes for as long as six months. She poked her fingers so she could write with her own blood. She wrote on her shirt and bed sheets. … Blood writing was an extreme form of protest.”
Lian is originally from southeastern China. His previous books include Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China, and The Conversion of Missionaries. One of his current projects examines the rise of Christianity among minority peoples in remote areas of China near Myanmar.
“As a historian, my work is quite different from many of my esteemed colleagues who teach Bible, theology or work in the ministerial division,” Lian says. “My work serves the church by helping students develop a historical understanding that I hope will prepare them for the complexity of real life that they are going to encounter. I focus on World Christianity, which mostly means Christianity outside the West.”
One way Lian does that is by teaching a course called “Pioneers in World Christianity,” in which he highlights some of the early missionaries and discusses how resourceful and courageous they had to be in confronting challenges. The course also introduces students to the possibility of new pioneering work as the world changes.
And what does he get from the students?
“Many things, including the spiritual and intellectual maturity most of our students bring with them to the classroom,” Lian answers. “And I’m also beginning to see more diversity. We need more of this. This semester, I have a student from Ghana. He brings the kind of sensitivity, knowledge and perspective from Africa that is wonderful. It’s such an enriching experience for the class and me to have him with us. I hope my courses play a small part in preparing students for their ministry or other Christian service.”