What is the text about – empirically?

What phenomenon is drawn out in the text?  A social process; a cultural and political-economic shift; a cultural “infrastructure;” an emergent assemblage of science-culture-technology-economics?

The was a revival of religion in China following the “opening up” in 1978. Christianity, long perceived by both commoners and scholars as a Western import, was able to take root in in both urban and rural areas. In Wenzhou, an urban city, Christianity constitutes a “popular participatory domain in which a great diversity of people articulate subjectivities and interests and interact with one another” (2). This domain “involves a larger cultural system that conditions both local religious forms and state governance” (4), and composed of an informal local network and a shared emotional structure.

 Where is this phenomenon located – in a neighborhood, in a country, in “Western Culture,” in a globalizing economy?

The phenomenon is located in Wenzhou, an urban city located on the south-eastern coast of China. Because of its geographical location and language barrier, Wenzhou is characterized by political marginality and rapid commercialization. It was historically not well integrated into the dominant Chinese economy. Economic liberalization in the 1980s allowed Wenzhou to experience rapid industrialization of light industries. The mode of development was nationally recognized as the “Wenzhou model.”

What historical trajectory is the phenomenon situated within?  What, in the chronology provided or implied, is emphasized -- the role of political or economic forces, the role of certain individuals or social groups?  What does the chronology leave out or discount?

The phenomenon is situated in the period decades after the beginning of “reform and opening up” in 1980s. Christianity was introduced to Wenzhou in the late 19th century. The religion is now “indigenized because many local believers have inherited faith from their parents or grandparents” (16). The focus is on situation and interactions of different groups of Christian believers in the 2000s. The Mao era, in which blatant religious persecution was most serious, was largely left out. Though it is mentioned when the author explains the differences in attitudes towards the government between the older and younger generations. Old people tend to view the government more antagonistically due to the experience of being persecuted.

 What scale(s) are focused on -- nano (i.e. the level of language), micro, meso, macro? What empirical material is developed at each scale?  

On the macro level, Cao explains how in Wenzhou, Christianity developed from being despised (due to Maoist propaganda) to a symbol of (western) modernity that people try hard to pursue. It is shaping both business and social morals. Christian morals are perceived to be more superior than colloquial customs and practices. Moreover, as Wenzhou people are used to doing business worldwide, a globalized network of Christianity is formed. This further portrays Christianity as representing idealized modernity.

On the meso and micro levels, Cao analyzes different groups, including Christian bosses, church leaders, female Christians, and migrant workers (mingong).

 Who are the players in the text and what are their relations?  Does the text trace how these relations have changed across time – because of new technologies, for example?

Christian bosses do their businesses based on Christian ethics. They justify their action by citing and interpreting Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Through their economic prowess, they are able to back up, hence dominate, many Christian churches. Because of local laws, Churches have to set up committees of church affairs. Founders of churches usually dominate such committees. The “Wenzhou Model” of business is transplanted to run churches.

 Female Christians are usually forced to confine to inferior positions. A strict gendered structure is established based on merging evangelical masculinity and traditional Chinese patriarchal hierarchy. For instance, Christian women are usually assigned to take up mundane jobs such as greeting guests during Christian banquets. Women are stereotypically labelled as emotional, while male as rational. Some female Christians successfully build up their moral position by exalting their bodily sensations as proof of God’s presence. They emphasize “the spontaneous experience of being caught by the Holy Spirit as a privilege”(112).

 Migrant workers suffer from discrimination by the locals. Many of them try to acquire urban citizenship and recognition by becoming Christians. Yet, believing in the same God does not help break down rural-urban barriers.

What is the temporal frame in which players play?  In the wake of a particular policy, disaster or other significant “event?”  In the general climate of the Reagan era, or of “after-the-Wall” globalization? 

It is era decades after the beginning “reform and opening up.” Businesses are encouraged to thrive, and persecution of religion was relaxed.

 What cultures and social structures are in play in the text?

Different structures are in play: central and local state’s religious policies, economic power built up by the business sector, a gendered structure based on traditional patriarchy, local-ness of Wenzhou, and of course, Christianity of a conservative, evangelical version.

 What kinds of practices are described in the text?  Are players shown to be embedded in structural contradictions or double-binds?

Christian bosses ran their factories based on Christian ethics. They justified their wealth-making through a Weberian framework. They also gained recognition from the government by promoting “modernity” and economic development, and merging their practices with the state’s discourse.

Churches held services, festive banquets, and forums to spread a faith that combines the “success” of the “West” and Christianity.

Female believers can only took up secondary positions. This gender inequality is justified by portraying an idealized Christian version of masculinity (rational, intellectual), and reinforcing the traditional patriarchal hierarchy.

Factories owners, together with preachers, objectified migrant workers by pointing to their lack of faith, and romanticizing a process of conversion.

 How are science and technology implicated in the phenomenon described?

 Science and technology are not the major focus.

 What structural conditions– technological, legal and legislative, political, cultural – are highlighted, and how are they shown to have shaped the phenomenon described in this text?

Political structure: After opening up, the Chinese government promoted economic development and relaxed control over religion. The local government of Wenzhou tolerated Christian bosses because of their contribution to the economy. Churches gained more spaces through these bosses.

Cultural structure: The Christian faith shaped daily practices of different group of people. Traditional biases such as that against female and rural residents were merged with Christianity.

How – at different scales, in different ways – is power shown to operate?  Is there evidence of power operating through language, “discipline,” social hierarchies, bureaucratic function, economics, etc? 

 A vivid example is the male domination of the Christian spaces. Male exerted power through combining Christian teachings and traditional view towards women. Modernity was equated to an idealized masculinity which stressed on “notions as high end, professionalism, learnedness” and elitism (106). During banquets, only male elites were allowed to attend. Young female believers who were “tall and pretty” were chosen to welcome guests. Such a banquet culture reinforced the gender hierarchy and stigmatized the feminine form of Christianity.

Does the text provide comparative or systems level perspectives?  In other words, is the particular phenomenon described in this text situated in relation to similar phenomenon in other settings?  Is this particular phenomena situated within global structures and processes? 

Since Wenzhou people had long established commercial networks internationally, Christian practices also had global linkages. Christian businessmen who ran business successfully overseas, especially those in America, were invited to give talks back in Wenzhou. This practice consolidated the idea of modernity as Western and Christian.

What is the text about – conceptually? Is the goal to verify, challenge or extend prior theoretical claims?

Challenge the concept of Christianity as a Western import to be adopted (colonial legacy).

Challenge the concept of civil society as based on individual autonomy and pluralistic.

What is the main conceptual argument or theoretical claim of the text?  Is it performed, rendered explicit or both? 

Christianity in Wenzhou is “a historically complex regional construct famed by a moral discourse of modernity. This moral discourse tends to justify various social hierarchies and legitimatizes a new socioeconomic order in the making” (12).

 What ancillary concepts are developed to articulate the conceptual argument?

Other concepts include cultural system, social network, and emotional structure, etc.

 How is empirical material used to support or build the conceptual argument?

Cao describes how different groups, such as Christian bosses and mingong “produce, consume, and interpret Christian values and symbols that redefine forms of local social organization and local power structures” (11). He explicates the “everyday practices” of these people in the Christian participatory domain.

 How robust is the main conceptual argument of the text?  On what grounds could it be challenged?

The argument is quite robust as the text shows, with strong empirical support, that Christianity was indeed produced and interpreted locally. One may challenge that the Western understanding of Christianity, especially that of American evangelicalism, was still highly influential to the local interpretation. That locals interpreted the West as modernity can also be argued as a proof of Western hegemonic influence.

 How could the empirical material provided support conceptual arguments other than those built in the text?


Modes of inquiry?

What theoretical edifice provides the (perhaps haunting – i.e. non-explicit) backdrop to the text?

Previous studies “deploy prepacked notions of Western Christianity in understanding how (preexisting) Christian rituals, ideologies, and practices are implanted into and reconfigure the local Chinese social order and way of life” (11). The text challenges this line of inquiry.

What assumptions appear to have shaped the inquiry?  Does the author assume that individuals are rational actors, for example, or assume that the unconscious is a force to be dealt with?  Does the author assume that the “goal” of society is (functional) stability? Does the author assume that what is most interesting occurs with regularity, or is she interested in the incidental and deviant? 

Since the author is interested in understanding “everyday practices,” he looks to regularity.

What kinds of data (ethnographic, experimental, statistical, etc.)  are used in the text, and how were they obtained?

Ethnographic data are obtained through in-depth interviews and participant observation.

If interviews were conducted, what kinds of questions were asked?  What does the author seem to have learned from the interviews?

The questions are not explicitly presented in the text. Generally speaking, interviewees were asked to describe their experiences in churches, how they understand certain Christian teachings and practices, how they perceived their relationship with other “brothers and sisters,” etc.

Through these questions, the author explains how these people negotiate their identity and roles in the Christian domain.

How was the data analyzed?  If this is not explicit, what can be inferred? 

Interviews are juxtaposed with observed practices and texts such as speeches.

How are people, objects or ideas aggregated into groups or categories?

There are four major groups: Christian bosses, church leaders such as pastors, female believers, and migrant workers.

What additional data would strengthen the text? 

 Government documents, Church pastoral documents, speeches, etc.

 Structure and performance?

What is in the introduction? Does the introduction turn around unanswered questions -- in other words, are we told how this text embodies a research project? 

Theoretically, the introduction challenges the idea of Christianity in China as a Western import, and the concept of civil society as opposed to the state. It argues that the religion in Wenzhou is a popular participatory domain.

Methodologically, it questions the theological underpinnings of anthropology which rejects Christianity as an ethnographic object.

Where is theory in the text?  Is the theoretical backdrop to the text explained, or assumed to be understood? 

The theoretically framework is partly explained in the introduction chapter, as well as in the introduction and conclusion of each chapter. One issue is that Cao sometimes will suddenly introduce a theoretical concept within the ethnographic text. Readers may find it hard to follow.

What is the structure of the discourse in the text?  What binaries recur in the text, or are conspicuously avoided?

The text compares the living experiences of different groups of Christians. Different binaries recur, such as bosses vs migrant workers, males vs females.

How is the historical trajectory delineated?  Is there explicit chronological development?

The focus is on the current situation. History serves as a background. The development of Christianity in Wenzhou from the Mao period to after the opening up is briefly delineated.

How is the temporal context provided or evoked in the text?

How does the text specify the cultures and social structures in play in the text?

It points out the interplay between Christianity, traditional patriarchal beliefs, and localness.

How are informant perspectives dealt with and integrated? 

Their perspectives are the essential parts of the whole analysis. Interviews are used as texts for analysis.

How does the text draw out the implications of science and technology? At what level of detail are scientific and technological practices described?

Technology is not a key focus.

How does the text provide in-depth detail – hopefully without losing readers?

In-depth interviews are mixed with the author’s own observations.

What is the layout of the text?  How does it move, from first page to last?  Does it ask for other ways of reading? Does the layout perform an argument?

The book is about how different groups of Christians experience the faith. Each chapter deals with one major group.

What kinds of visuals are used, and to what effect?

There are some photos of, for example, gatherings and posters. They are not particularly useful as the author already describes the scenarios in details in words.

What kind of material and analysis are in the footnotes?

Footnotes include more details of certain events, history of certain Chinese beliefs, more information on the historical development of Wenzhou, etc.

How is the criticism of the text performed?  If through overt argumentation, who is the “opposition”? 

It is opposing the idea that Christians in China are only consumers of the religion, and Christianity is only a Western import.

How does the text situate itself?  In other words, how is reflexivity addressed, or not?


Who is the text written for?  How are arguments and evidence in the text shaped to address particular audiences?

The text, I think, is mainly written for China scholars, as well as scholars interested in Christianity. The author focuses quite heavily on challenging previous understanding of Christianity in China. China scholars will find the book useful in understanding the development of religion and civil society after the “reform and open-up” era.

What all audiences can you imagine for the text, given its empirical and conceptual scope?

 China scholars, scholars studying religion, anthropologists, Church leaders in China, Chinese officials responsible for religious and migration policies.

What new knowledge does this text put into circulation?  What does this text have to say that otherwise is not obvious?

The book provides audience nuanced details of religious life in China. On the other hand, as gender is still an understudied topic in China (even more so in religious lives), the book also sheds some light in this area.

How generalizable is the main argument?  How does this text lay the groundwork for further research?

The argument that Christianity is a participatory domain in Wenzhou can speak to works theorizing church-state relations. This can be a theoretically generalizable argument.

Future research can look to other areas of China, or Christian churches in other non-Christian and less open countries, such as Indonesia, Burma, etc.

What kind of “action” is suggested by the main argument of the text? 

The text seems to have no specific suggestions of action, as it is not addressing a “problem.” However, I think the author would not disagree with a call for better understanding in religions on the part of Chinese officials, so as to avoid repressive policies.

Other modes of expression? 

Describe how the material and arguments of this text could be presented in a form other than that of a conventional scholarly book -- as a graphic novel, museum exhibit, activist stunt, or educational module for kids, for example? 

It can be presented as a museum exhibition. The exhibition would be divided into four zones. The first one would be a general introduction, the other three about each of the groups: bosses, female believers, and migrants. Photos, video clips, and recordings of interviews can be included.



Creative Commons Licence


Contributed date

October 13, 2019 - 10:05pm

Critical Commentary

This sketch was done for UCI Anthro 215A, Ethnographic Methods, Fall 2019.

Cite as

Anonymous, "MOK, CHIT WAI JOHN QUESTIONING AN ETHNOGRAPHIC TEXT: CAO, NANLAI: CONSTRUCTING CHINA'S JERUSALEM", contributed by Chit Wai John Mok, Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 13 October 2019, accessed 18 July 2024.