On 29 December 1995, Wu Yangming, a peasant
from Anhui, was executed for founding a counter-revolutionary
sect known as the “Established King”. Wu, who
only had primary school education, became a Christian at the
age of 29 in 1979 but shortly after was drawn into cultist
activities. He was arrested twice and imprisoned but, by the
late eighties, was actively spreading his own bizarre teachings
proclaiming himself to be the Messiah. Cult members zealously
evangelized, attacking the Communist Party and the State-controlled
Protestant Three Self Patriotic Movement and declaring that
the end of the world was imminent. Claiming to be ‘God
Incarnate’, Wu gathered a number of young girls around
him and reportedly raped more than one hundred women. Finally,
one of them escaped and alerted the police who hunted him
down, arrested him and had him executed. The ‘Established
King’ cult is just one of many cults and heresies which
have arisen in China over the last two decades on the fringes
of the orthodox Christian church. These cults are a reminder
that it is not only evangelical Christianity which is enjoying
growth in modern China – heretical and syncretistic
sects are also flourishing, spawned in the weird twilight
zone between authentic Christian faith and traditional Chinese
One of the earliest cultic groups to spread
rapidly was ‘the Shouters’, a heretical offshoot
from the ‘Little Flock’ founded by Watchman Nee.
In the early eighties, large quantities of literature produced
by Witness Lee, based in California, began to circulate in
China. Lee’s extreme ecclesiology denounced existing
churches as ‘Babylon’; his defective view of the
Trinity paved the way for some of his deluded followers in
China to elevate him to the position of Christ in their prayers.
The aggressive evangelism of the sect combined with their
vociferous, mantra-like shouting of Bible verses led to a
head-on clash with the State-controlled ‘Three Self
church’ and the communist authorities. By 1983, the
sect had been declared counter-revolutionary and was everywhere
vigorously suppressed, and its key leaders sent to prison
for long periods. However, it continues its activities underground,
and the death of Witness Lee in California last year appears
unlikely to dampen the ardor of its members.
The ‘Lingling’ cult sprang up in
Jiangsu province in east China. Its founder, Hua Xuehe, was
a primary school teacher who joined the True Jesus Church,
an indigenous Chinese church with charismatic roots dating
back to the nineteen-twenties and regarded with suspicion
by orthodox evangelicals in China. In 1979, Hua broke away
and began to preach his own extreme doctrines, announcing
that he himself was the ‘Second Jesus’. Cult members
celebrate Hua’s birthday on January 17 instead of Christmas.
The sect is weak in other doctrine but emphasizes the end
of the world, healing and exorcism, thus attracting many poor
peasants. It also spreads its teachings with songs put to
traditional Chinese folk-tunes. In 1990, Hua was arrested,
but has since been released. The authorities claim the cult
has been stamped out in Jiangsu, but in the meantime it has
spread to northeast China. By 1997, it was believed that at
least twenty ‘Lingling’ preachers were active
in that region alone. Converts are taught that Christ could
not save Himself on the cross so they should no longer pray
in the name of Jesus but in the name of a ‘New Lord’.
The identity of this ‘new Lord’ is only gradually
revealed to be Hua himself.
‘Lightning from the East’ is a new
cult which has swept across China. In November 1997, the State-church
magazine ‘Tianfeng’ devoted no less than three
articles to denouncing it. The editor warned: “This
new cult is rapidly influencing believers and church workers
in many areas. So we are alerting people everywhere to resist
this wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Its breathtaking
claim is that Jesus has already returned – and ‘she’
is a woman born in central China! While it originated in Henan,
it has now spread to Anhui, Shaanxi, Jiangsu and many other
provinces throughout China.
Other cults with a wide following in China include
“The Disciples” (mentuhui), which is
especially strong in Sichuan, and the ‘New Testament
Church’, which has entered from Taiwan.
Several reasons may be posited for the rapid
growth of pseudo-Christian cults in China today:
1. The continuing ‘open-door’
policy and China’s growing openness to the outside
world. With the vast increase of tourists and businessmen
in China, China is no longer cut off from the world as was
the case under Mao. Religious ideas, including cultic ones,
have a much greater freedom to gain entry. It should be
noted that cults strongly based in Taiwan and the Overseas
Chinese community (such as the ‘Shouters’ and
the ‘New Testament Church’) have made far greater
inroads into Mainland China than the Western-based cults
such as Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses whose
influence appears to be negligible.
2. The backwardness and low educational
levels of the peasants. Vast areas of rural China
are falling further and further behind the advanced coastal
areas and the cities in the race for economic development.
Ignorance and superstition are still rife and provide fertile
soil for the growth of cults.
3. The resurgence of both Christianity
and traditional ‘folk’ religions. Pseudo-Christian
cults flourish as parasites on the body of the true church,
drawing ideas from traditional folk religion which has also
enjoyed a massive revival in recent years. Chinese religion
is traditionally syncretistic, and ill-taught Christians
can easily be drawn into cultic activities.
4. The collapse of the Mao-cult and
‘crisis of faith’ in Marxism. In the
countryside peasants have returned largely to family-based
farming and extended-clan associations. Communist Party
control is often weak, and there is an ideological and spiritual
5. The search for charismatic leaders
and new social and spiritual alternatives. Most
sect-leaders are charismatic men or women who draw followings
from poor and desperate people who have little to lose.
This also explains the fixation with eschatology which provides
hope and purpose for people at the bottom rank of Chinese
6. The lack of trained leadership
in the church. Ironically, the explosive growth
of evangelical Christianity is China can lead to the growth
of cults because of insufficient teaching.
In China, both the registered church and the
unregistered evangelical house-churches are fully aware of
the threat posed by heterodox cults. In 1996, the China Christian
Council published a detailed book entitled Uphold the
Truth: Resist Heresy which engaged in a theological critique
of all the major cults mentioned in this article. House-church
leaders have also circulated mimeographed tracts dealing with
the cults (most notably, Pastor Samuel Lamb in Guangzhou).
However, mainstream churches still lack resources to combat
How serious is the influence of cults in China
today? As mentioned, the influence of Western cults is small,
although the fact that Scientology’s key text-book Dianetics
is readily available in Chinese in State book-stores is a
reminder that even educated Chinese may be vulnerable to Western
cults with a veneer of ‘scientific’ credibility.
However, the major threat is undoubtedly from the indigenous
sects outlined above. Outlawed and persecuted by both the
State church and the civil authorities, they continue to grow
and mutate in secret raising up new leaders and bizarre teachings.
Evidence as to the numbers caught up in sectarian
activity in China is difficult to obtain. However, recent
official statistics from Henan province, the center of Christian
revival and also a hot-bed of cult activities are indicative.
They revealed that no more than 10% of the meeting points
in that province are run by pseudo-Christian cultic groups
such as the ‘Shouters’; well over 90% belong to
orthodox Christians whether in the Christian Council or belonging
to unregistered housechurches which were separately classified
from the cultists. These figures suggest that the problem
of cults in China is serious but not yet chronic.
Tony Lambert is a China researcher and author
of “The Resurrection of the Chinese Church”.