- Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities
Following the June 4, 1989, tragedy in Beijing, when government soldiers crushed the mass demonstrations by students, workers, and others, the Chinese Students Protection Act was passed in the United States by President George Bush in 1992. That act enabled 52,425 students from the People's Republic who were studying in this country to gain immigrant status and acquire permanent residency. Disillusioned with the Communist system, many of these students embraced both Western democracy and the Christian faith. Among them was Yang Fenggang, the author of this penetrating scholarly study of Chinese Christians in America. Yang had originally come to the United States in January 1989, as a visiting scholar, for the sole purpose of "gathering various materials for my teaching of Christianity at the People's University of China in Beijing." After an intensive exposure to the broad spectrum of American Christianity, Yang, now an exile, enrolled in a doctoral program in sociology at the Catholic University of America and at the same time became a member of the evangelical Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D.C., where he was baptized in late 1992.
It was this Chinese church that provided Yang with "a sense of a big family caring for each other" and the paradigm ("major site") for his ethnographic study of Chinese Christianity in America. Using his home church as a base for his in-depth research, Yang made frequent field-study forays to the twenty Chinese churches within the Washington, D.C., area and to other Chinese churches, conferences, and even Buddhist temples in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. [End Page 568]
Briefly, below are some of Yang's findings.
1. The total Chinese population in the United States is roughly two million. In metropolitan areas like Los Angeles (one fourth of the total Chinese population in the United States lives in southern California) and Chicago, an astonishingly high percentage of Chinese are Christians (32 percent), which, according to Yang, is even higher than the percentage who are Buddhists or members of any other religion.
2. According to a 1994 figure, in that year there were nearly seven hundred Chinese churches in the United States, but Yang says that today that figure may be closer to one thousand.
3. Before 1950 most of the Chinese churches in the United States were still "mission aided and supervised by American denominations." The general decline of these old-line denominations since the end of World War II, as shown in a study by Robert Wuthnow (The Restructuring of American Religion [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988]), has also had an adverse effect on the ethnic ministries of these denominations.
4. Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s Chinese students studying in the United States organized Bible-study groups (BSGs), and many of these groups naturally "evolved" into Chinese churches, especially after the new immigration act of 1965, which enabled more Chinese to come to and remain in America.
5. Since the 1950s the majority of new Chinese churches in the United States have been conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist, and quite independent of the old-line denominations, which, Yang finds, tended to "impose policies either for religious uniformity or for Americanization." Chinese Christians want to avoid both hegemony by and homogenization into either the American church or American society.
7. Chinese Christians aspire to the American way of life, which they see as the good life of success, decency, and virtue, where people can raise their children properly and provide them with a good education, which will help them to achieve even greater success in modern American society.
All in all Yang finds in the Chinese church a social mechanism that provides a home (a "family") for new Chinese immigrants to the United States, where they can be truly, but selectively, Chinese, Christian, and at the same time American—holding all three...