The Jerusalem of China

Today throughout China the city of Wenzhou has became known as the ‘Jerusalem of China’; it is home to well over a thousand churches, and continues to grow. Over a million of its eight million inhabitants are Christians and many are taking the gospel throughout China, and overseas to Europe and the Middle East.

But how did all this start? Its origins can be traced back in God’s purposes to one Scottish missionary with the CIM 150 years ago….

George Stott would probably have been turned down by most missions today. He had a wooden leg; anyone playing on the safe side would have rejected him as a health and safety risk. China was not a safe place in those days. But Hudson Taylor looked beyond outward appearances. ‘You’re in!’, he told Stott after carefully interviewing him. In 1868 George arrived in Wenzhou, the first Protestant missionary in the bustling port city.

Wenzhou was recovering from the ravages of the great pseudo-Christian Taiping Rebellion, which had been savagely suppressed by the Qing emperor a few years previously. The city was filled with temples and idols. Local officials were often hostile towards outsiders. To provoke riots and attacks they would tell scare stories about foreigners who kidnapped and ate children. This was no safe place for missionaries.

It was in this unpromising environment that George Stott set out to preach the gospel. He rented a modest room, which he turned into a classroom for local boys. There he taught reading, writing and arithmetic along with the Bible. He dressed in Chinese gown and cotton slippers, and wore the queue or pigtail to identify in with the locals. This in itself was a revolutionary step introduced by Hudson Taylor. Plenty of British and American missionaries paraded around the treaty ports in frock coats, with no regard for local culture.

The years passed. Several Chinese turned to Christ and were baptised, and a small church was opened in Wenzhou. One of the young Chinese lads at the school was converted and was himself handicapped. He was paralysed down his left side and found walking very difficult. But this did not quench his thirst for God, nor dampen the clear call he felt to preach the gospel. He went on to become the first native evangelist in Wenzhou.

The gospel spread throughout the city and into the surrounding the villages. A decade or so after Stott arrived the CIM built a large church in the centre of the city, capable of seating several hundred people. It was built in Chinese style with a traditional, graceful Chinese roof. Again, this was in stark contrast to many cathedrals and big city churches, which were built in Gothic or classical style, dropped in to the centre of Chinese cities with complete insensitivity to China’s ancient culture. Western churches seemed almost a provocation to patriotic Chinese. As China entered the 20th Century, they seemed to be visible proof that Christianity was, indeed, a tool of Western cultural imperialism, as the Marxists were quick to claim.

Stott’s method of evangelism was humble and more suited to Chinese ways. Despite the incursions of Western powers and Japan in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and decades of warlordism, civil war, floods, famine and disease, the gospel spread at grass-roots level. Then, in 1966, came the Cultural Revolution. All the churches were closed and many believed that missionary endeavours in China had finally been wiped out.

I have visited Wenzhou several times over the last two decades. The CIM church is still there, but now caters to a congregation of many thousands. Local pastors told me at least 10 per cent of the population of this mega-city of eight million are Protestant evangelicals. The entire municipality, which includes large areas of countryside, large towns and many villages, now have over 2,000 registered churches and over 2,000 registered meeting-points. There are also thousands of unregistered house-churches. What Mao intended to be an ‘atheistic zone’ has become the ‘Jerusalem of China.’

Wenzhou Christians are often good at business and use their companies and factories to spread the gospel throughout China. It is likely that most cities in China have congregations planted by Wenzhou believers. They are also in the forefront of China’s new mission focus to take the gospel ‘Back to Jerusalem’; many have already left for Pakistan, Central Asia and the Middle East.

All this can be traced back to a one-legged Scotsman. The Bible reminds us that God often uses humble, weak and despised instruments to do great things.