The twentieth century in China was, to put it mildly, tumultuous. War, famine, revolution, and totalitarianism deeply impacted the Chinese in their daily lives for most of the century. Bringing social order was the Communist Party, and yet in bringing order and egalitarianism, many other orders were disrupted and tossed out.
Jung Chang, in her beautiful memoir, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, traces the troubling arc of modern Chinese history through stories from her own family lineage as she tracks three generations of women who evolved with each dramatic cultural shift. Susan Brownmiller provides the context for this book: “The sprawling canvas is held together schematically by narrative accounts of her maternal grandmother, who was a concubine to a warlord in the 1920’s; her mother, who chose a radically different life for herself in the 1940’s as a Communist organizer married to a zealous functionary higher up on the party ladder; and Jung Chang’s own peripatetic adventures, before her departure, as a Red Guard, peasant and factory worker.”
This work must be read through the lens that understands Mao Zedong as the architect of a new China, building communist ideals onto the blank slate of the peasantry. Millennia of tradition and Confucian cultural mores were cast aside in exchange for the materialist philosophy of Communism. William Rosenberg and Marilyn Young in their book, Transforming Russia and China: Revolutionary Struggle in the Twentieth Century, recount how this new culture would begin as a tabula rasa. “As always in Mao’s vision, China’s backwardness did not seem to be an obstacle to socialist transformation but an advantage. …[Mao] insisted that ‘poor people want change, want to do things, want revolution. A clean sheet of paper has no blotches, so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.’ China, ‘poor and blank,’ was capable of painting its own revolutionary epic.”
Chang explains how these draconian policies for engineered culture affected her own life. Rather than culture being created through the spark of creativity in individuals created in the imago dei, social engineering was imposed from the top down. “According to Mao’s rhetoric, we were sent to the countryside ‘to be reformed’. Mao advocated ‘thought reform through labor’ for everyone, but never explained the relationship between the two. Of course, no one asked for clarification. Merely to contemplate such a question was tantamount to treason.” Birthing culture without linking it to deeply held personal values is totalitarian evil in action – it creates a veneer of uniformity on the surface that does not touch or transform the soul.
In the mid-eighties, China briefly thawed to foreign influences, allowing for the first time a wave of English language teachers to arrive and teach. My wife, Karen, was among them – a young Canadian sent to a coal mining institute in Jilin Province, very near where Jung Chang’s grandmother was raised in Jinzhou. Her agency instructed her team of three women to teach English well, gain respect, and not to proselytize. Much like the advice from James Davison Hunter’s book, they were urged to be a “faithful presence” as English teachers. As Hunter states, “God was calling them to something different – not to be defensive against, isolated from, or absorbed into the dominant culture, but to be faithfully present within it.” They served there together for two years and over that period were the first non-Chinese most of their students ever met. Cultural change, through vulnerability, trust and friendship, began to be birthed in the hearts of their students.
When I married Karen, China was all she talked about. But we ended up moving to Latin America. It wasn’t until 2006 when she would return, this time with myself and our two adolescent sons, as representatives of a foundation. Her teammate had married and raised her family in China, and the couple had been instrumental in leading operations for Shanxi Evergreen Service, whose purpose is described as: “Christian professionals from many countries who work alongside local Chinese partners toward the enhancement and sustainability of regional economic and spiritual development.” As people of faith, they work in the areas of health care, education, economic development, mental health, family services, and agriculture. This was faithful presence writ large, and it has taken a few generations of people faithfully investing their lives into the specific region of Shanxi. The Norwegian founder Peter Torjeson’s biography, in fact, is entitled We Signed Away Our Lives. The local government authorities have been so moved by their sacrifice, that they honour and facilitate this work rather than impose roadblocks which are experienced by most foreign efforts.
For my philanthropic clients, I encourage this long-range, deeply-invested, approach to cultural change that begins with the heart but impacts body and soul as well. Leaving one’s comfort zone to discover the vitality of a life of faith lived on the edge like these folks disrupts the status quo and comfort that we are frequently lulled into in our capitalistic, Western contexts.
 Susan Brownmiller, “When Nuances Meant Life or Death,” New York Times, October 13, 1991, accessed May 21, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/1991/10/13/books/when-nuances-meant-life-or-death.html.
 William G. Rosenberg and Marilyn B. Young, Transforming Russia and China: Revolutionary Struggle in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford, 1982), 246-247.
 Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (London: HarperCollins, 1993), 504.
 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World (New York: Oxford, 2010), 277.
 Shanxi Evergreen Service website, “About Us”, accessed May 21, 2018, https://www.evergreenchina.net/press/about-us/.
 Shanxi Evergreen Service website, “History”, accessed May 21, 2018, https://www.evergreenchina.net/press/history/.
5 responses to “Engineering culture”
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I am a hat guy too! Nice ethnographic introduction. I wonder if they wore the hat with the depicted brim fold in the center or wore it flat? Wow, your wife must have some great stories and experiences from her time in China. Both my grandfathers were deep pit coal miners. I wonder if she encountered some of the same stories from “miners” that went deep, worked hard, and contracted black lung (coal workers pneumoconiosis) over time.
2006 was a key year for your family and mine. You went to China, I went to Afghanistan. It is amazing how God knows, plans, and calls people just like us to “go” to places where there is a “life of faith lived on the edge.” (great statement Mark!)
Awesome Post. See you in HK!
Stand firm, 站立得住
I continue to be amazed in reading the blog posts for this week the many connections people have with China and the Chinese culture. Your story is yet another fascinating insight into experiences in that formidable country. The example established by Shanxi Evergreen Service is truly remarkable and one that should be emulated worldwide. Your insight into this organization is useful for all of us to hear.
Mark, how do you influence others to do what you suggested here; ” I encourage this long-range, deeply-invested, approach to cultural change that begins with the heart but impacts body and soul as well.” Is this a promotion toward ministry or a toward supporting a ministry? Not being argumentative, just very curious how philanthropy promotes this.
Your ending “Leaving one’s comfort zone to discover the vitality of a life of faith lived on the edge like these folks disrupts the status quo and comfort that we are frequently lulled into in our capitalistic, Western contexts.” is a wonderful response to taking a step into God’s will for our lives. What a great way to plunge into a life. I have used similar language when taking people on their first international mission trip and those who really do sep out of their comfort zone are really changed for God. Thanks for the post brother.
Mark, so interesting to see how much passion and knowledge you and Karen had about China. I feel like Im learning all of this pretty late to the game. Glad ill be able to sit by you in HK