Os Guinness, English author and social critic living in the United States, was born and raised in China prior to the communist revolution. We talked to him about his experiences of some turbulent times, as well as his impressions of the vibrant, underground house church movement that has taken China by storm.
What happened in China?
The 19th century was a time of remarkable missionary entrepreneurialism. My grandfather on my father’s side went out as one of the first missionary doctors to China. He survived the Boxer uprising in 1900, when 2,000 Christians were killed in a week, including many missionaries. And later he treated the “last emperor” in the imperial palace.
Both my parents were born in China, and though educated in the UK, they were married in China in 1938 just after the Japanese had invaded Shanghai. Those were horrible times. It is estimated that 17 million were killed in the Japanese invasion.
And how did you survive that?
My two brothers didn’t survive. We were living in Kaifeng, the ancient Chinese capital of Henan province, and there was a terrible famine. In those days, the Chinese often marked their calendar by the catastrophic famines. In 1943, five million died in three months, including my two brothers, and there were 10 million refugees on the road. I survived and so did my parents, but my mother described how awful it was for her as a doctor when there was no food, no medicine, and people were dying all over the place.
How old were you then?
I was three years old. From my parents’ accounts, the experience was an absolute nightmare. There was cannibalism, crime, prostitution, and parents selling their own children for a meal. It was an absolutely horrendous situation.
The indigenous church at that point, what did they do?
The local Chinese Christians were magnificent, and of course they suffered terribly too. After the war, my parents moved to Nanjing, which was then the capital of nationalist China. I was old enough to remember those years, including meeting General Chiang Kai-shek and his wife. I also remember the day in January 1949 when my dad said to me:
“Son, we’re in trouble. Chiang Kai-shek has just flown to Taiwan.”
And sure enough, three months later, Lin Bao and his communist troops marched into the city and the reign of terror began, with trials every morning and executions every afternoon.
One effect of the looming arrival of the communists was lengthier and lengthier church services, which I found interminably boring as a small boy. But obviously Christians were storing up all the worship, all the teaching, all the prayer, and all the fellowship from which they would soon be cut off as the persecution began. The rest, as they say, is history. When my parents and the other missionaries left, and my parents were among the last to be let out, there were reckoned to be around 750, 000 Christians. Less than one million. And now, as you know, there are 80 to 100 million Christians, or more.
In terms of your experience, how did that shape you and your faith and your vision of the world?
My parents gave me a faith with immense realism. Today, I often meet young Americans who have never seen a dead body outside of a film or TV. I saw hundreds before I was ten, but more importantly my parents brought me up to face and understand the reality of a fallen world, broken and ground down by oppressive regimes. They gave me the foundations for a deep and robust faith.
Looking back, and looking at China now, what are your reflections?
It is a privilege to go back to China every year or two. The old China of bound feet and rickshaws has long gone. The Westin Hotel in Shanghai, for example, is far more advanced and modern than Westin hotels in New York or Washington.
What’s the experience of Christians?
It varies a lot depending on their locality. The house churches in many parts of the country are remarkably free, compared with twenty years ago. But of course, as soon as any group shows that it has the power to organise in a way that might mean resistance, they’re clamped down. The recent destruction of the churches in Wuhan may have been because of that. But at the same time there is considerable openness. Ten years ago, we had to slip into a house church secretly, but in many cases not now. There is amazing openness, even in Beijing.
The Chinese church wants to send 100,000 missionaries over the next ten years abroad. What are your thoughts on that?
Yes, they have already sent hundreds of Christians down the ‘silk road’ towards the Middle East. Not surprisingly, some of them met Muslim opposition, and were killed, and they reeled back a bit because of that. But they will not be deterred for long. They have a courage, a passion, and an implicit trust in the supernatural power of God that puts me to shame.
The same is true of my Korean friends, such as the distinctive way they pray – all of them together at the same time. We have so much to learn from our Asian brothers and sisters, and I constantly thank God for them.