Life with a dissident in China: searching for ‘horizontal freedom’

The role of women in house churches in China reminds us of both the social malleability of religion and the complexity of female agency.

Flora Chen
5 November 2015

J is known to the Christian circle as a ‘shimu’, a term referring to the wife of a pastor in Chinese. She admitted that when she first quit her corporate job and became a fulltime housewife, or a shimu, to support her husband Wang Yi’s work as a fulltime minister, this term sounded strange and hollow, as very few people knew its implications, and neither did she.

Her difficulty in embracing this new role was also complicated by the fact that house churches, as her husband’s church belongs to, is a form of church that is unable to register with the government due to China’s religious policies that only recognises five “official religions” sanctioned by the state, hence illegal. As such, her place in society has also become dubious by the standard of the mainstream society, and herself anonymous without a recognisable position. And as a former corporate worker, quite a lot of adjustments were needed in order for her to fit in her new role.

Confrontation also came from external pressure. One day she was asked to fill in a form for her son’s school, for which she was embarrassed to put “housewife” as her occupation. Yet neither could she use the title shimu, for it makes no sense to people from outside the Christian circle, not to mention the fact that their church is considered an illegal organisation.


Shouwang church pastor preaching in a snowstorm. Photo: ChinaAid.

She has spent almost all her life with Wang Yi. They were kindergarten sweethearts, and married when both were working as urban professionals in the emerging scene of middle class in China—Wang Yi was a university law school lecturer and J manager in a corporate company. Famous for his sharp insight and powerful argument, Wang was one of the most active commentators, constitutional scholars and civil rights defenders in China with columns in major media. At the age of 31, he was list as the youngest among the “50 Public Intellectuals that Changed China” by Southern People Weekly, the most outspoken newspaper favoured by liberal intellectuals. Openly declared to be an atheist, Wang’s belief was radically challenged when he was involved in cases of house churches and touched by the strength of those who were prosecuted. Because of this involvement and former high-profile civil activities, Wang himself became a targeted by the government: the university suspended his courses, and those major media outlets stopped their contract with him.

That was a testing time for both of them and for their relationship. Not only did they lose half of their income, J also received harassment phone calls to her office, threatening her to convince her husband to give up his opinions against the government. More importantly, as traditional social structure remains important for Chinese today (ironically, even after the Cultural Revolution that was determined to demolish all ties with traditional culture), men are supposed to be the breadwinner in a household. To have a husband who was being punished and had to sit at home was also embarrassing.

I didn’t ask J whether she doubted her husband’s dedication, but that was when she became actively involved in Bible studies and fellowship gatherings, and decided to be formally baptised. Scholars and policy makers have written widely on how, in trying and turbulent times people tend to find comfort and seek sanctuary in religion. Also on the social meaning of religion, Wang Yi later explained in an interview: while humans seek meaningful relationships amongst themselves and often unable to find a solution, the horizontal relationship with God frees the worldly attempts. This is more important for Chinese society, Wang contends, as traditional Confucian society is based on the unit of households, which leaves no space of relationships beyond family ties in society. Christianity, on the other hand, is a form of organising people with a spiritual as well as a communal dimension, which offers security as well as meaning.

Because of this, and seeing the doomed reality of constitutional reforms in China and the limit of worldly support when he faced systematic exclusion and threats by authorities and lost his occupation, audience, livelihood, and worst of all — lost touch with his readers and the outside world--made him doubt his own beliefs as an atheist intellectual. In 2004, Wang decided to become a baptised practicing Christian too, and even took on the role of ministry.

In 2006, when Wang became more high profile in his pastoral work, he was received by George W. Bush, the then president of the United States of America, as a representative of religious leaders in China. This of course infuriated the Chinese government, as house churches are illegal organisations, house church leaders cannot speak for the religious situation in China. As Wang refused to back up, he met with greater pressure from various sources upon his return.


A public security official watches a house church gathering. Photo by a house church activist, via www.rfa.org

Between 2006 and 2015, their church gatherings were raided on a countless number of occasions, and J witnessed her husband being taken away by the authority right in front of her so many times that she does not care to recall. Although she never spoke of her feelings at length, but it is not difficult to imagine how stressful and nervous she must have felt, seeing the police interrogating her family and friends without knowing the extent of the interruption each time, worrying when Wang would be released, how he was treated in detention centre. Wang himself joked that the first thing he would do if indeed sentenced to serve in prison, is to organise a fellowship and begin the first prison ministry in China.

Wang’s optimistic attitude certainly coincides with the journey of their church. During one of the raids the police served them a warrant addressing them with the name that they use themselves, the “Qiuyu Zhifu Church of Chengdu City” (Early Rain Reformed Church, Chengdu). By doing so the authority recognised their church as an operating organisaiton de facto. It is jokingly understood within the circle that they are the first house church in China legalised by the government. Redeemed by the ironies of politics, the growth of the church was beyond their expectation.

Their church, an unregistered, illegal, house church, is a unique case in China’s growing Christianity scene. Starting as a private gathering in their living room with four people, it now has over 400 congregational members as one of the three largest house churches in China. And it functions publicly in an office building of their own property purchased with church funds.

Interesting enough, not only did J receive baptism before Wang the pastor, she also took on the initiative of forming their house church with two other ladies—that is to say, three of the four founding members of their church are women. When I asked why women tend to be more involved in religious practices and more open to foreign cultures, as researchers have observed, J remained quiet while Wang, the former lawyer turned preacher gave me his observation: traditionally, men have better prospects in mainstream society, while women are deprived of most resources and opportunities. Hence, religion is a shelter as well as a source for alternative values.

J was certainly one example of choosing the alternative. Being more and more involved in church work, she began working part-time for a non-profit Christian organisation, which she enjoyed greatly. Soon after that, J found out that she was pregnant. This is when she decided to quit working entirely.

This is not an unusual case for young mothers to stay home in today’s China—there is a new wave of advocating women’s role within the household, in order for them to “enjoy a comfortable life” as a result of increasing income—for men—as well as ideological strategy for maintaining a “harmonious society”. It is an idea that many young women in China find attractive, despite the fact that it covers pressing structural issues. For some Christian groups, this is reinforced by the Bible, that a virtuous woman serves her husband and her family with a gentle and loving spirit. In fact, their church encourages young women to stay home, raise children and pursue their hobbies and interests.

I asked how they see this issue; Wang laughed. “But it mainly is about financials. If the family could afford to do that.” Their church is now operating well and the offerings from the congregation—consisting mainly of urban middle class—are enough to support them. However, J’s worries and pressures are not easily revealed. As a young woman herself, she felt the need to restrict herself in various ways in order to live and serve properly as a shimu.

Where to draw the line as whether the domestic or supporting role of women is an active decision or a “forced choice”? More importantly, how do we learn from J’s unique case as a shimu that embodies so many conflicts of gender, politics as well as basic human rights to safety and freedom of religion and speech? First of all, it is undeniable that traditional view of family and gender roles still plays a crucial part in families and various social groups, religious included, as we can see from the case of their church.

At the same time, the morals about gender structure may also reinforce existing understandings of family and gender. Underpinning individuals’ senses of self, these viewpoints constitute a moral force that integrates with, and even intensifies the regime’s political-ideological system, the very system that activists and dissidents wish to challenge. However, as her faith began with reading and interpretation of the text, we can also see how J actively seeks solutions and takes initiatives to face the challenges and difficulties that many of us cannot begin to imagine. Without her initiative, their house church would not have existed. For J, the spiritual dimension of her religion through understanding promises the horizontal freedom that rescues her doubts and validates her choice.

The development of gender equality now prefers to stress the multiple differences which go to make up identities. The idea that men systematically dominate, oppress and exploit women is challenged by the view that society is structured by a complex set of differences, and that both men and women occupy and negotiate a range of different positions within this complex matrix. Wang and J’s church represents a form of poverty—poverty of rights in today’s Chinese society. However, the fact that their church can survive many upheavals and develop into one of the models of urban house church is deeply connected to their background as well educated intellectuals, which enables, to a large degree, freedom of speech even under an authoritarian regime.

Religion, taken as Clifford Geertz most famously defined, is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. However, as Talal Asad teaches us, religion is also constantly lived and contested as a dynamism, as practice, language, and sensibility set in social relationships. House churches are still a new phenomenon, and Wang and J’s church has only a history of ten years. We are yet to anticipate the changes it will bring to Chinese society in aspects including gender, family and wider social structures; at the same time, how individuals and groups will contest, shape and reconstruct their society with their faith.

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