Interview with Xiaoxuan Wang

This interview is with Xiaoxuan Wang, the author of “Solving the ‘Religious Problem’: The Great Leap Forward of ‘Religious Work’ and Protestant Communities in Pingyang, Wenzhou in 1958,” which appears in the January 2024 issue of Twentieth-Century China. Xiaoxuan Wang is an assistant professor of Chinese history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Read the article here

Before we start into the article and your research, could you tell us a bit about your academic background?

I was trained in both China and the United States. My main focus was on Chinese history and religion. But until I began my PhD research, my interest was in the social history of the late imperial era, especially traditional local religions. In imperial China, Christianity was far from being a major religious tradition. So, neither post-1949 Chinese history nor Christianity was a subject I was familiar with at the beginning of my academic journey.

Your article analyzes the suppression of Christianity during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961). How did you come to focus on this interesting subject?

This topic first came to my attention when I noticed that historical accounts of churches throughout Wenzhou frequently mention the widespread closure of churches during the Great Leap Forward. These closures made it impossible for congregations to meet in their original locations. Also, local church histories sometimes describe the events of 1958 as the government’s initiative to “exterminate religion” ( 灭教 miejiao). I have since learned that this perception is widespread, not only in Wenzhou but also among Christians in other parts of China and in some overseas Chinese churches. They believe that the Chinese government deliberately used Wenzhou as a pilot area for the eradication of religion during the Great Leap Forward in 1958. This viewpoint seems to have gained wider recognition after the “cross removal” campaign in Zhejiang—which began around 2014—reawakened bitter memories of the church’s history under Mao.

In this article, you focus on Huqian Village, in Pingyang County, Wenzhou City. Why did you choose to focus on this specific area?

This article focuses on the village of Huqian, roughly equivalent in scope to today’s Longgang (county-level) City, because, in the early summer of 1958, it had been chosen by the Wenzhou Party Committee’s United Front Department for “experimental struggles against religion.” At the end of September of the same year, the Wenzhou government held a meeting in Huqian, inviting officials from the government of Zhejiang Province and from other regions of Zhejiang. This meeting aimed to popularize what was termed the “Huqian experiment.” The head of the State Religious Affairs Bureau participated and delivered a speech. His involvement possibly led to the perception of the Huqian conference as an initiative by the central government to eliminate religion nationwide.

How does your history of the local suppression of Christianity in Wenzhou speak to the overall history of antireligious movements in the People’s Republic of China (PRC)?

This is an insightful question that comes up frequently in my lectures. Wenzhou is particularly significant because in 1949 it had a Protestant population that accounted for about 14% of the country’s total. This prominence made it a focal point for “religious work” (宗教工作 zongjiao gongzuo) from the outset, providing a unique vantage point from which to observe shifts in religious policy throughout China. It’s important to recognize, however, that the implementation and consequences of religious policies can vary from region to region. Moreover, the significant impacts of Wenzhou Christianity on the broader Christian landscape in China today are closely linked to its development during the Maoist era. Therefore, understanding the Wenzhou case is essential to understanding the history of the antireligious movement in the PRC as a whole.

In this article, you argue that the antireligious movement in Wenzhou was the product of local party agents taking advantage of the Great Leap Forward to suppress religions. How does this history add to our understanding of the Great Leap Forward?

The Great Leap Forward is often viewed primarily as a national campaign of rapid industrialization and collectivization that led to the Great Famine. While historical discussions tend to emphasize its industrial and agricultural effects, especially its tragic human and environmental costs, my article sheds light on another important aspect. It examines how the Great Leap Forward affected local politics, particularly in Wenzhou, and contributed to cultural transformations. This perspective reveals that the campaign was not only about economic upheaval but also served as a catalyst for an aggressive antireligious movement. By examining the actions of local Chinese Communist Party agents in Wenzhou who used the chaos of the campaign to suppress religious practices, the article adds a new dimension to our understanding of the Great Leap Forward. It underscores that this period was also marked by a concerted effort to eradicate religious beliefs and practices at the grassroots level, an aspect often overlooked in broader historical narratives.

Your article is a fascinating study of Christianity and antireligious movements in Wenzhou. How did you conduct this research?

This article primarily uses local archives and central policy documents for its analysis. The discussion begins with an examination of socialist education in the context of the Anti-Rightist campaign. It then examines how the Socialist Education movement was gradually and deliberately integrated into the Great Leap Forward mobilization at various local levels, eventually transforming into an antireligious movement. Through this analysis, the article aims to highlight the disparity between centralized policies and local consequences and to examine the interactions between different local actors.

In the article, you discuss how the local Christian community changed its services and conducted church reform in response to political campaigns. How does this expand our understanding of the interaction between state and civil society in the early PRC?

This can be explained in several ways. First, in some areas, such as Wenzhou, religious communities demonstrated strong resistance to the Maoist revolution in the early days of the PRC. This resistance played an important role in shaping the context for the Great Leap Forward, during which Wenzhou officials intensified their crackdown on religion. However, portraying these communities solely as resistant or passive recipients of state policy doesn’t give the full picture. My article shows that local religious groups were often active participants in the process. Their involvement was a complex mix of coercion and voluntary participation, reflecting the complicated relationship between the state and the local communities.

Prior works have discussed the suppression of religion in the PRC. How does your research complicate or complement these prior works?

Previous studies, circumscribed by limited access to materials, have focused primarily on changes in religious policy at the national level and the poignant accounts of religious repression and persecution provided by refugees. As a result, the prevailing view has been that the Maoist government was consistently aggressive in its crackdown on religion, leading to a linear decline in religious life. However, by delving into local religious life during the Mao era, my research aims to present a more nuanced perspective. This essay emphasizes that disruptions in religious life were sometimes unintended consequences rather than the direct goal of Maoist policies. This becomes clear when the state is viewed not as a monolithic entity but as one composed of different actors with different interests. Moreover, despite its atheistic stance, the Communist government lacked a unified and comprehensive plan to eradicate religion. Another critical aspect of this study is the role of the temporality of the revolution in understanding religious changes during the Maoist period: major political movements have had a heightened impact on religious practices, while at other times religious communities may not have experienced the same level of intense repression.

How do the Huqian experiment and the antireligious crackdown in Wenzhou affect Chinese Christianity today?

One direct consequence of the antireligious crackdown during the Great Leap Forward in 1958 was that it compelled the church to temporarily shift entirely to house meetings. It was during this period that the house churches in Wenzhou, as we know them today, originated. The distinct operational mode of Wenzhou Christianity subsequently spread across the country after the 1980s, propelled by the endeavors of Wenzhou missionaries and businessmen.

Can you give us a bit of background on this project? Is it part of a wider research project?

This study was essentially a spin-off from my dissertation research. My PhD dissertation, later published as a book, Maoism and Grassroots Religion (Oxford University Press, 2020), focused primarily on the religious history of Rui’an, a neighboring county of the Pingyang County featured in this article.

In what ways would you like your research to change the field of Chinese history as a whole?

I don’t have the ambition to influence the entire field of China studies, though I do hope to contribute to it in small ways. I do think that, as history becomes more and more like social sciences, it’s crucial for history scholars to balance their focus on theoretical frameworks and grand narratives with a strong skill set in interpreting historical documents and a deep understanding of past institutions.

Where do you see your research going in the future?

My research has now shifted to the history of the Chinese in Europe during the twentieth century. This shift is partly due to a change in my research interests, but it also reflects the increasing difficulty of conducting archival research on the history of the PRC within China over the past decade. However, I will continue to monitor religious developments in China. If given the opportunity, I aim to explore the religious transformations prompted by rapid urbanization. I view this as another significant challenge, if not an existential crisis, for religion in China after the Mao era. Temples and churches, restored since the Maoist period, are facing mass relocations, consolidations, or even disappearances. Urbanization has also led to dramatic changes in the relationships between religious institutions and communities due to high population mobility. All these factors are reshaping the religious landscape in China and will continue to influence it for a long time. Unfortunately, the study of changes in Chinese religion amid urbanization has not received enough attention.

What historiography shaped this project? For further reading, what historiography would you recommend?

My research has been enriched by two significant trends in the study of Chinese history over the past two decades. The first trend is the increased emphasis on fieldwork in late imperial Chinese history. The second, more relevant to this article, is the focus on local archives and grassroots actors in the study of the history of the PRC. In addition, discussions of secularism within the sociology of religion have served as an important theoretical foundation for my research on religion during the Mao era. I recommend two books that have been particularly influential: The Religious Question in Modern China, which explores the history of religion in twentieth-century China, and Maoism at the Grassroots, which delves into grassroots life during the Maoist period.

Do you have any closing comments for our readers?

Because of the state’s ability to penetrate and permeate local societies through an extensive bureaucratic apparatus, the modern Chinese state’s efforts to control and transform society, including religion, have been more profound, ambitious, and feasible than at any time in history. This is evident in the temple-to-school movement of the early twentieth century, the Great Leap Forward of 1958 discussed in this article, and the more recent movement of Chinafication (中国化 zhongguohua) of religion. A central theme of my research, as partly highlighted in this article, is that the state’s attempts to transform religion, no matter how successful they may appear to be on the surface, often have their own unintended and long-lasting consequences. Even today, with extensive digital surveillance capabilities, there remain spaces that the state has yet to fully reach. State repression of religion and religious reinvention often, though not always, occur simultaneously. From this perspective, we are certainly witnessing a critical period for the development of Chinese religions.