The Remarkable Story of China’s ‘Bible Women’

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By the time Protestant Christianity arrived in China in the early 19th century, Chinese understandings of gender roles had been relatively static for more than two millennia. Confucian teachings during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) nurtured patriarchal understandings which often subordinated women within Chinese society. Genders were also divided along accepted social roles, with men concerned with public matters and women focused on managing the household. In the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties, positive changes in female literacy rates and economic roles improved the status of a growing number of learned and influential women. But the most dramatic changes didn’t occur until the May Fourth Movement in the early 1920s. At that time, reformers rallied against foot binding and advocated for women to have the rights of suffrage, financial independence, and the freedom to choose whom to marry and when to divorce.

Against this backdrop, the history of Protestantism in China includes the story of Christians who were in many ways ahead of the curve in advocating for women’s equality in the church and society. By the 1860s, Chinese women were given opportunities through Christian work to leave the home and engage in education, evangelism, and medical services. By the turn of the century, churches in China discussed female Christian leadership and female ordination. Throughout the 20th century, women played a vital role in spreading the gospel and nurturing new believers. While the influence of female leaders has declined in recent decades, the story of Christianity in China cannot be told without acknowledging the female evangelists and pastors who built the Chinese church.

The rise of Bible women

In 1807, the Anglo-Scottish Congregationalist Robert Morrison became the first Protestant missionary to step foot on the Chinese mainland, basing his ministry out of coastal regions such as Canton (Guangzhou) and Macau. The “unequal treaties” levied against China by foreign nations, led by Britain after the Opium Wars (1839–42 and 1856–60), permitted missionaries to freely rent or purchase property and establish themselves in the inland of the country. While this access provided new opportunities for evangelism, Protestant missionaries quickly realized that Confucian understandings of propriety and social order limited male missionaries to work with only Chinese men. Women in the Protestant missionary enterprise—missionary wives and, later, single female missionaries—focused on evangelizing Chinese women, but they faced challenges with cultural and linguistic differences.

In the 1860s, female missionaries found that one of the more strategic ways to communicate the gospel was to recruit local Chinese women as “Bible women” to evangelize their female compatriots. The earliest Bible women were often recruited from the employees of missionary households or from the wives and the mothers of Chinese male evangelists. Some were educated but many were illiterate. Due to the Protestant priority of the Bible, women missionaries needed to teach them to read Chinese—often through a Romanized form of Chinese characters—before they could read the Bible for themselves and communicate basic Christian teachings. These convictions encouraged female missionaries to create boarding schools to educate Chinese girls. As Chinese society had long prioritized literacy and education for men, the missionaries’ desires for everyone to have the ability to read the Bible opened new vistas for these Chinese women.

Initially, Bible women worked under the supervision of foreign female missionaries. Their main responsibilities were limited to teaching the Bible to women and children, often in rural contexts. As their numbers and skills grew, these responsibilities included visiting the sick and offering various forms of medical care. By the 1880s, some missionary societies allowed Bible women to publicly evangelize and teach the Bible to mixed-gender groups.

One of the most famous Bible women was Dora Yu (Yu Cidu; 1873–1931). The daughter of a Chinese Presbyterian preacher, Yu studied medicine at Suzhou Women’s Medical School. In addition to her healthcare work, she also served as an itinerant preacher. In 1897, she accompanied American Josephine P. Campbell as a missionary to Korea, practicing medicine and preaching the gospel to Korean women. When she returned to China six years later, she eventually gave up medicine to devote her attention to revival preaching. At one revival meeting, she converted a woman named Peace Lin (Lin Heping) and, in a later meeting, converted Lin’s son, the young Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng)—both of whom became evangelists themselves. Yu continued to lead revival meetings throughout China and was invited to be the main speaker at the Keswick Convention, an annual British evangelistic conference, in 1927.

When Mary Stone (Shi Meiyu; 1873–1954) graduated from the University of Michigan in 1896, she was one of the first Chinese women to receive a medical degree from an American university. Upon her return to China, Stone saw a need for missionary work to be initiated and run by local Chinese. She co-founded the Chinese Missionary Society, became the first president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in China, and established the Bethel Mission in Shanghai with the American missionary Jennie V. Hughes. Stone and Hughes’s Bethel Mission would be instrumental in the organization of a number of “evangelistic bands” created to spread the gospel. The most famous of these was the Bethel Worldwide Evangelistic Band established in 1931 by Andrew Gih (Ji Zhiwen), which later included the well-known evangelist John Sung (Song Shangjie).

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Source: Christianity Today