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Heresies and Cults in China Today by Tony Lambert

On 29 December 1995, Wu Yangming, a peasant from Anhui, was executed for founding a counter-revolutionary sect known as the “Established King”. Wu, who only had primary school education, became a Christian at the age of 29 in 1979 but shortly after was drawn into cultist activities. He was arrested twice and imprisoned but, by the late eighties, was actively spreading his own bizarre teachings proclaiming himself to be the Messiah. Cult members zealously evangelized, attacking the Communist Party and the State-controlled Protestant Three Self Patriotic Movement and declaring that the end of the world was imminent. Claiming to be ‘God Incarnate’, Wu gathered a number of young girls around him and reportedly raped more than one hundred women. Finally, one of them escaped and alerted the police who hunted him down, arrested him and had him executed. The ‘Established King’ cult is just one of many cults and heresies which have arisen in China over the last two decades on the fringes of the orthodox Christian church. These cults are a reminder that it is not only evangelical Christianity which is enjoying growth in modern China – heretical and syncretistic sects are also flourishing, spawned in the weird twilight zone between authentic Christian faith and traditional Chinese folk religion.

One of the earliest cultic groups to spread rapidly was ‘the Shouters’, a heretical offshoot from the ‘Little Flock’ founded by Watchman Nee. In the early eighties, large quantities of literature produced by Witness Lee, based in California, began to circulate in China. Lee’s extreme ecclesiology denounced existing churches as ‘Babylon’; his defective view of the Trinity paved the way for some of his deluded followers in China to elevate him to the position of Christ in their prayers. The aggressive evangelism of the sect combined with their vociferous, mantra-like shouting of Bible verses led to a head-on clash with the State-controlled ‘Three Self church’ and the communist authorities. By 1983, the sect had been declared counter-revolutionary and was everywhere vigorously suppressed, and its key leaders sent to prison for long periods. However, it continues its activities underground, and the death of Witness Lee in California last year appears unlikely to dampen the ardor of its members.

The ‘Lingling’ cult sprang up in Jiangsu province in east China. Its founder, Hua Xuehe, was a primary school teacher who joined the True Jesus Church, an indigenous Chinese church with charismatic roots dating back to the nineteen-twenties and regarded with suspicion by orthodox evangelicals in China. In 1979, Hua broke away and began to preach his own extreme doctrines, announcing that he himself was the ‘Second Jesus’. Cult members celebrate Hua’s birthday on January 17 instead of Christmas. The sect is weak in other doctrine but emphasizes the end of the world, healing and exorcism, thus attracting many poor peasants. It also spreads its teachings with songs put to traditional Chinese folk-tunes. In 1990, Hua was arrested, but has since been released. The authorities claim the cult has been stamped out in Jiangsu, but in the meantime it has spread to northeast China. By 1997, it was believed that at least twenty ‘Lingling’ preachers were active in that region alone. Converts are taught that Christ could not save Himself on the cross so they should no longer pray in the name of Jesus but in the name of a ‘New Lord’. The identity of this ‘new Lord’ is only gradually revealed to be Hua himself.

‘Lightning from the East’ is a new cult which has swept across China. In November 1997, the State-church magazine ‘Tianfeng’ devoted no less than three articles to denouncing it. The editor warned: “This new cult is rapidly influencing believers and church workers in many areas. So we are alerting people everywhere to resist this wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Its breathtaking claim is that Jesus has already returned – and ‘she’ is a woman born in central China! While it originated in Henan, it has now spread to Anhui, Shaanxi, Jiangsu and many other provinces throughout China.

Other cults with a wide following in China include “The Disciples” (mentuhui), which is especially strong in Sichuan, and the ‘New Testament Church’, which has entered from Taiwan.

Several reasons may be posited for the rapid growth of pseudo-Christian cults in China today:

1. The continuing ‘open-door’ policy and China’s growing openness to the outside world. With the vast increase of tourists and businessmen in China, China is no longer cut off from the world as was the case under Mao. Religious ideas, including cultic ones, have a much greater freedom to gain entry. It should be noted that cults strongly based in Taiwan and the Overseas Chinese community (such as the ‘Shouters’ and the ‘New Testament Church’) have made far greater inroads into Mainland China than the Western-based cults such as Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses whose influence appears to be negligible.

2. The backwardness and low educational levels of the peasants. Vast areas of rural China are falling further and further behind the advanced coastal areas and the cities in the race for economic development. Ignorance and superstition are still rife and provide fertile soil for the growth of cults.

3. The resurgence of both Christianity and traditional ‘folk’ religions. Pseudo-Christian cults flourish as parasites on the body of the true church, drawing ideas from traditional folk religion which has also enjoyed a massive revival in recent years. Chinese religion is traditionally syncretistic, and ill-taught Christians can easily be drawn into cultic activities.

4. The collapse of the Mao-cult and ‘crisis of faith’ in Marxism. In the countryside peasants have returned largely to family-based farming and extended-clan associations. Communist Party control is often weak, and there is an ideological and spiritual vacuum.

5. The search for charismatic leaders and new social and spiritual alternatives. Most sect-leaders are charismatic men or women who draw followings from poor and desperate people who have little to lose. This also explains the fixation with eschatology which provides hope and purpose for people at the bottom rank of Chinese society.

6. The lack of trained leadership in the church. Ironically, the explosive growth of evangelical Christianity is China can lead to the growth of cults because of insufficient teaching.

In China, both the registered church and the unregistered evangelical house-churches are fully aware of the threat posed by heterodox cults. In 1996, the China Christian Council published a detailed book entitled Uphold the Truth: Resist Heresy which engaged in a theological critique of all the major cults mentioned in this article. House-church leaders have also circulated mimeographed tracts dealing with the cults (most notably, Pastor Samuel Lamb in Guangzhou). However, mainstream churches still lack resources to combat growing cults.

How serious is the influence of cults in China today? As mentioned, the influence of Western cults is small, although the fact that Scientology’s key text-book Dianetics is readily available in Chinese in State book-stores is a reminder that even educated Chinese may be vulnerable to Western cults with a veneer of ‘scientific’ credibility. However, the major threat is undoubtedly from the indigenous sects outlined above. Outlawed and persecuted by both the State church and the civil authorities, they continue to grow and mutate in secret raising up new leaders and bizarre teachings.

Evidence as to the numbers caught up in sectarian activity in China is difficult to obtain. However, recent official statistics from Henan province, the center of Christian revival and also a hot-bed of cult activities are indicative. They revealed that no more than 10% of the meeting points in that province are run by pseudo-Christian cultic groups such as the ‘Shouters’; well over 90% belong to orthodox Christians whether in the Christian Council or belonging to unregistered housechurches which were separately classified from the cultists. These figures suggest that the problem of cults in China is serious but not yet chronic.

Tony Lambert is a China researcher and author of “The Resurrection of the Chinese Church”.

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