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Religious Conversion to Christianity Among Students from the People’s Republic of China: 
A Comparative Study

A paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, San Francisco, California, August 14, 2004.


Yuting Wang
Department of Sociology, University of Notre Dame


Direct all inquiries to Yuting Wang, 810 Flanner Hall, Department. of Sociology, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556. Phone #: 574-631-0195 (o). Email: ywang7@nd.edu.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Professor Diane Sandage, William Faulkner and Brendan Maguire at Western Illinois University for their help on the early version of this paper. I thank Professor David Yamane, Dan Myers and William Carbonaro for their valuable suggestions and inspiration. I also thank all of my interviewees and friends who have assisted me with this research.


Sociologists have not addressed the increasing phenomenon of religious conversion to Christianity among Chinese immigrants until very recently. Studies on Chinese Christians have found that dominant theories on religious conversion fall short when extended to the Chinese. Fenggang Yang (1998) proposed a social-cultural-institutional model to explain the uniqueness of Chinese conversion to Christianity, which emphasizes the social and cultural changes in China and places institutional context in the secondary position. Based on in-depth interviews conducted on two university campuses, this comparative study examines the different patterns of religious conversion to Christianity between the two Chinese student communities. Institutional context is found to be the primary factor over social-cultural changes in the process of conversion among current PRC students on college campuses. Implications of this study for future research on immigrant religion and conversion are also considered.

Chinese students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC students) have long been attracted to the unique teaching style and purpose of American higher education. Ever since exchanges started in 1978, more and more Chinese faces have appeared on the campuses of American Universities (Orleans 1988:77). The 1989 pro-democracy student movement and Tian’anmen Square incident were another turning points for many PRC students and scholars coming to study in the United States (Yang 1998). In the last two decades, PRC students have been one of the fastest growing sub-groups among all international students (Zhang & Rentz 1996), increasing from 28 in 1978 to more than 33,000 in 1990 (Young & Wehrly 1990). Though the growing rate of students from Mainland China has been slowing down to 2 percent from 2002 to 2003, a total of 64,757 PRC students were studying in the United States during the year of 2002 (People’s Daily Nov 6, 2003).

Despite the lack of reliable data on PRC students who have converted to any religion, the increasing phenomenon of conversion to Christianity among PRC students on college campuses has been observed since the early 1990s all over the United States. Though few PRC students converted during the 1980s, Yang (1998) found that “in the 1990s, their openness toward the Christian Gospel [amazed] many people and stimulated the formation of evangelization organizations or ministries especially targeting this group of people.” The number of PRC students is noticeably increasing in various Bible study groups and ministries on or around college campuses and in all sorts of programs sponsored by evangelical ministries for religious holidays and semester breaks.

Religious scholars, sociologists and psychologists have been searching for explanations concerning religious conversion for nearly one hundred years. The literature regarding religious conversion to both new religions and mainstream religions is quite rich. However, the growing phenomenon of religious conversion among immigrants has not received attention until very recently (Chong 2001; Christiano 1991; Ebaugh and Chafetz 2000, 2002; Yang and Ebaugh 2001; Ng 2002; Warner and Wittner 1998; Warner 2000; Yang 1998, 1999). In his research on Chinese Christians in the United States, Fenggang Yang (1998, 1999) pointed out, “The conversion experiences of people from third world countries in political and social turmoil differ from those described in the existing literature.” He proposed a social-cultural-institutional approach to understand the religious conversion of Chinese immigrants to Christianity in his 1999 book Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation and Adhesive Identities. Yang (1998) examined the limitation of the individualistic approach taken by the dominant theories of religious conversion (e.g. Starbuck 1968 [1899]; James [1902] 1961; Coe 1916; Pratt 1920; W.H. Clark 1958; Lynch 1977; Richardson & Stewart 1977; Richardson 1980, 1985; Lofland and Stari 1965; Lofland and Skonovd 1981; Lofland 1977; Seggar and Kunz 1972; Snow and Machalek 1983, 1984) and the inadequacy of assimilation explanations of immigrant conversion (e.g. Kim 1999; Hurh and Kim 1990; Min 1992; Kwon, Ebaugh and Hagan 1997; Min and Kim 2002) when encountering the case of religious conversion among Chinese. He went beyond the traditional individualistic model and attributed the phenomenon to macro-level factors. He argued, “the social and cultural changes in China in the process of coerced modernization are the most important factor for Chinese conversion to Christianity… [I]nstitutional factors are of secondary importance.” According to him, the phenomenon of religious conversion at a high rate among Chinese immigrants was highly correlated with the social and cultural changes in China during the process of coerced modernization. In the case of Chinese conversion to Christianity, the commonalities among Chinese converts created by the dramatic changes during the particular time of social and cultural turmoil overshadow the individual personality and interpersonal bonds that are often stressed in previous studies. Meanwhile, the patterns of Chinese conversion to Christianity is also shaped by the changing religious structure in the United States, such as the growth of conservative churches and the effort of evangelical missionaries in both Asia and North America. However, Yang noted that this institutional context in the United States only has secondary importance in the process of conversion experience. Another recent study on Chinese conversion to Christianity explored this phenomenon through a new perspective of assimilation theories. Converting to Christianity, based on Ng’s (2002) study, was a process for Chinese immigrants to learn the “American way” through “a creative deployment of their own cultural categories, symbols, and practices”. This explanation again emphasizes the importance of social and cultural factors.

However, these studies were both conducted within a single ethnographic site in metropolitan area. The Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D.C., was one of about twenty Chinese churches in that area between 1993 and 1994 (Yang 1998, 1999). Victoria Park Community Church was also one of about twenty Chinese churches in the neighborhood of a midwestern city where Ng (2002) carried out his study. The significant influence of Chinese Christian community in these two areas can be one of the factors perpetuating the high rate of conversion to evangelical Christianity. In other words, the multi-functional Chinese Christian community may have played a vital role in evangelizing the Chinese immigrants. This argument will be carefully analyzed later in this essay. Unfortunately, without a comparative ethnographic site, Yang and Ng could not address this issue. By considering two other ethnographic sites, this study takes up Yang’s (1998) suggestion that further studies are needed to test the generalizability of his three-leveled model.

Exploring Religious Conversion among Current PRC Students on College Campuses

Despite the fast growing number of Chinese students in the United States, the students from the People’s Republic of China have only recently appeared on American university campuses after being absent for about a quarter of a century. Therefore, the literature addressing this population is sparse (Bulthius 1986). Most work on Chinese students is actually based on studying Chinese students from Taiwan, Hong Kong, or other Asian countries outside of Mainland China (Young & Wehrly 1990), which cannot provide sufficient and trustworthy information for research on students from the People’s Republic of China who have recently arrived in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Distinguished from other Chinese populations in the United States, this group of PRC students has unique characteristics.

Current PRC students on college campuses are a unique group among Chinese immigrants residing in the United States. They differ in significant ways from the earlier generations of Chinese immigrants who came decades ago during the social and cultural turmoil and have already settled down on the new land. On one hand, most current PRC students on college campuses were born in the 1970s. They spent a good part of their lifetime in Mainland China and only attended atheist schools established by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) before they came to the United States to pursue advanced education. Their life courses are less disturbed than those of the earlier immigrants who had suffered from continuous wars and revolutions in China. Nevertheless, these students have also experienced a new wave of dramatic social and cultural changes stimulated by a series of domestic reforms in both economic and political systems. In response to the depiction of “soulless” China, the deteriorating traditional culture and “moral decadence” in Chinese society in the Mass media (Asiaweek 1995; Whitehead and Whitehead 2003), CCP have increased efforts devoted into restoring the traditional Chinese culture as a way to resist the religious revival in the communist reign. The fast development of economy in Mainland China and the improved living conditions have complicated the attitudes of younger PRC students toward the West and the East. Though China has suffered from brain drain for a long time, recently, Economist reported that more and more PRC students have returned to China because of the country’s impressive economic growth and favorable government policy (Economist Nov 6, 2003).

In sum, the gradual restoration of traditional Chinese culture, the growing pro-democracy ideas, the religious revival in the communist reign, the fast development of economy in Mainland China and the improved living conditions shaped younger PRC students on American college campuses into a very unique group among Chinese residing in the United States. The trauma experienced by Chinese immigrants who arrived two or three decades earlier during the social turmoil is no longer applicable to them. In addition, the aftermath of Tian’anmen Square incident may not seem as striking for these younger students as it does for middle-aged Mainland Chinese.

On the other hand, the fast growth of evangelical Christianity in both Asian and North American countries has been well documented (Mumper 1987; Roof, Carroll and Roozen 1995; Yang 1998). Evangelical missionaries in Southeast Asian countries, campus evangelical organizations in North America and the Chinese nondenominational churches and organizations in the US have been very perseverant in recruiting Chinese converts (Mumper 1987; Neff 1998). The increasing number of Chinese Christians and the expanding Chinese Christian organizations have played very important roles in the process of conversion to evangelical Christianity. In the latter half of the century, these organizations have produced all kinds of evangelical materials in both Chinese and English, such as magazines, books and multi-media publications. Many Chinese Christian websites have been developed to provide converts with an online community to share their religious beliefs. Chinese Christian ministries have also been successful in organizing Chinese Bible study groups on university campuses. Chinese evangelical missionaries also frequently visit university campuses and organize training seminars, workshops, camp meetings and conferences (Yang 1998). Though Chinese are used to be seen as reluctant in accepting the Gospel, the efforts of missionaries and evangelical Christian organizations over the last one hundred years have gradually paid off. The increasing phenomenon of religious conversion to evangelical Christianity among Chinese has impressed western missionaries. They in turn have increased the effort of recruitment in Southeast Asian countries, including China (Freston 2001). Though the institutional factor is seen as of secondary importance in Yang’s model, it may play a much more important role in religious conversion among current PRC students on college campuses.

The earlier immigrants were often forced to leave their homeland during the upheavals in the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Most of them shared the sentiment of “rootlessness” and alienation while settling down on a new land, as traditional culture was being disrupted (Tu 1994 cited in Yang 1998). Going back China was impossible for them because of the “horrible Communism in Mainland” and the “terrible Kuomintang in Taiwan” (See the interview notes in Yang 1998). Searching for a new spiritual support was a way to find the feeling of being home again. For them, accepting Christianity, which was brought into China with the invasion of western imperialists, was not an easy decision. The process of religious conversion cannot happen without the voluntary responses from the side of the Chinese immigrants. The social and cultural factors have played the most important role in early Chinese conversion to Christianity. However, unlike the earlier immigrants, current PRC students on college campuses did not experience the catastrophes that happened during the domestic wars and the foreign invasions. They have been raised in a time when China is undergoing enormous economic growth. The increasing economic and educational cooperation between China and the Western world has undoubtedly enhanced their openness to Western ideology and religion and their ability to adapt to a new society. They are more fluent in English and less likely to experience “cultural shock”. They are also more likely than earlier Chinese immigrants to go back to China, where Christianity is not welcomed.

It is thus interesting to look into the surging enthusiasm among PRC students for Christianity to find out the factors contributing to their religious conversion. Given the differences between earlier Chinese immigrants who settled in the host society and the current PRC students on American college campuses, can Yang’s model on Chinese conversion to Christianity provide satisfactory explanations for the religious conversion among the latter? As a unique group among Chinese from communist China pursuing advanced education, does conversion to Christianity among PRC students on college campuses have different meanings than among other converts? Are there more commonalities than variations among their conversion experience? Is the social-cultural factor still the most important stimulus in their religious conversion? Or does the institutional context play a primary role in this process?

Drawing from the previous studies on religious conversion, especially from the studies on Chinese Christians, this study explores and explains some important patterns of religious conversion among current PRC students on college campuses by conducting in-depth interviews at the University of Iowa (Iowa City) and Western Illinois University (Macomb). The purpose of this study is twofold. On one hand, this study tests the generalizability of the social-cultural-institutional model on religious conversion among another group of Chinese; on the other hand, by comparing the different patterns of religious conversion between the two PRC student communities, this study tests the validity of the social-cultural-institutional model when taking into consideration the characteristics of the Chinese host community in that area, which has been overlooked in previous studies.

The Two Ethnographic Sites and the Overview of This Study

A series of in-depth interviews were conducted in two Midwest public university towns—the University of Iowa (Iowa City, IA) and Western Illinois University (Macomb, IL) during 2002 and 2003. The sizes of the two Chinese communities in the two cities differ greatly. While there were thousands of Chinese in Iowa City, there were only around 50 in Macomb. While there were three Chinese Christian congregations in Iowa City, there was none in Macomb. Though both cities are located in the heart of the Midwest area, Iowa City has more metropolitan features, while Macomb is more rural.

Choosing the two different ethnographic sites fulfills the purposes of this comparative study. On one hand, in order to test the generalizability of Yang’s social-cultural-institutional model among a different Chinese population, I chose the Chinese Evangelical Church (CEC) and Bible Study Group at the University of Iowa (Iowa City). There are three major Christian congregations for Chinese in Iowa City: the Chinese Church, the Chinese Evangelical Church in Iowa City and the Bible Study Group. While the latter two are for PRC students, the Chinese Church mainly accommodates students and residents from Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Due to the historical reasons and different political backgrounds of Chinese diasporas from different countries and regions, there is almost no one who goes to the Chinese Church, also belongs to the Bible Study Group and the Chinese Evangelical Church at the same time, and vice versa. Therefore, my study was conducted in the Bible Study Group and the Chinese Evangelical Church. CEC and the Bible Study Group in Iowa City, though smaller than Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D.C. (CCC) used in Yang’s study (1998) and Victoria Park Community Church (VPCC) used in Ng’s study (2002), share the same characteristics with the other two in terms of Church structure and liturgy. All of them are Chinese evangelical Christian churches. However, the demographic composition of the three churches is different. CCC members are mostly “well-educated professionals who immigrated from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mainland China, and other Southeast-Asian countries” (Yang 1998). Members at VPCC are also mostly middle-aged professionals from Mainland China as well as Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries (Ng 2002). In contrast, the members of CEC in Iowa City are almost exclusively currently enrolled Chinese students at the University of Iowa from Mainland China. Most of them are in 20s or early 30s. CEC in Iowa City is an ideal site for conducting research on religious conversion among current PRC students. By introducing variables of different values, such as different ages, different immigration status, different social and cultural background, I examine the ability of Yang’s model in making generalization and the primary importance of institutional context.

On the other hand, I chose Macomb as another site because the characteristics of the PRC student community are at odds with the other two ethnographic sites. By comparing the patterns of religious conversion between the two groups of PRC students, one can more easily unravel the social-cultural-institutional puzzle. The primary importance of institutional contexts shows up in a more tangible fashion. Research has emphasized the importance of community and social networking in religious conversion (Lofland and Stark 1965; Stark 1996). The increasing efforts of evangelical missionaries on college campuses and the impact of Chinese evangelical Christian organizations are very important in this process. Though Yang argued in his research that social and cultural factors are of primary importance, when we take the characteristics of the Chinese community into consideration, the institutional factors appear more influential in religious conversion among current PRC students on college campuses. The social-cultural changes in China are indispensable factors in religious conversion of these young PRC students. Nevertheless, the conversion to evangelical Christianity was only made possible when the institutional factors come into play. Therefore, the institutional factors are of primary importance in this case and social-cultural factors should be seen as precursors but not as determining factors.

The definition of religious conversion used in this research does not necessarily refer to those who convert to a religion officially, such as being baptized. Religious conversion means changing from one “religion” to another, and also, a transformation from lack of religious belief to regarding religious belief as essential to life (Marlett 1997). Therefore, this research is not only interested in those PRC students who officially/formally converted to a religion, but in all those who started accepting religious beliefs after they came to the United States, even though they did not have any religious beliefs prior to coming to the United States.

To explain religious conversion among current PRC students on college campuses, during the interviews, I paid special attention to interviewees’ educational background, family background, communist party membership, and their religious beliefs before and after they came to the United States. By analyzing the interview notes, I searched for major factors affecting their religious conversion and put forward some possible directions for further research on the religious conversion among PRC students, which are not adequately addressed in the existing literature.

Specifically, in an effort to distinguish current PRC students on college campuses from earlier Chinese immigrants and well-established professionals, I acquired interviewees’ personal information, including gender, age, major, academic degree, time spent in the United States and community party membership. In order to locate the link between religious conversions among current PRC students to Christianity and Yang’s model, I also asked about interviewees’ family background, attitudes toward their religious conversion, and their opinions toward Chinese traditional culture, current Chinese society and Western ideology.

In the Chinese Evangelical Church and Bible Study Group at the University of Iowa

Iowa City was the site of the original state capital of Iowa and is better known today as the home of the University of Iowa. It is a middle-sized city with a population of about 62,000 as of 2000 (1), which is dominantly white. This city has attracted a large number of Chinese immigrants. The Chinese make up 2.1% of the total population in Iowa City, which makes it one of the cities in North America hosting a large number of Chinese, especially PRC students (2). According to the Chinese Students’ Association at the University of Iowa, by the end of May 2002, there were 475 PRC students at the University of Iowa. The size of the Chinese student community has remained stable between 200 and 500 during the past two decades.

The Bible Study Group located in Gloril Del Lutheran Church on Market Street of downtown Iowa City is the oldest congregation for Chinese Christians in Iowa City. It was originally established by students from Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1970s. Later on, with the increase of students from Mainland China, students from Taiwan and Hong Kong gradually left the group. Now, PRC students are almost the exclusive participants of the Bible Study Group. The Chinese Evangelical Church in Iowa City was founded by the PRC students at the Bible Study Group for Sunday worship, which is mostly for students who have already converted to Christianity. It is located inside of Parkview Church, the biggest evangelical Christian church in Iowa City. PRC students in these two congregations had rigorously planned study and worship programs on Friday evenings and Sunday mornings. The Bible Study Group usually started at 5:45 and ended at 8:45, featuring a variety of activities. The programs on Friday evenings routinely began with a dinner, followed by singing hymns, sharing conversion experience, and studying the Bible in small groups. Sports were organized after the Bible study. The one-hour Sunday worship was very similar to other American churches except that the sermons were often delivered by an elder convert among the PRC students. Sometimes, they would have guest speakers to share with everybody his/her conversion experience and belief in God. The guest speakers were often professional Chinese Christian missionaries.

Attending Sunday worship requires more dedication and commitment, while the Bible Study Group aims at bringing in more potential converts and is therefore less demanding. Though the two congregations are both located inside American Churches, the activities for PRC students are completely independent of their “house” churches. At the time when this study was carried out, there were around 130 PRC students who regularly participated in the Bible Study Group and the Chinese Evangelical Church. The members of both congregations have been growing fast since then. Currently, at least 300 PRC students attend the Bible Study Group, though they may not regularly (3).

I paid a number of visits to both the weekly meetings of the Bible Study Group and Sunday worship held in the Chinese Evangelical Church during the first half of 2003. Around 130 PRC students regularly went to the Bible Study Group and the Chinese Evangelical Church at that time, which accounted for slightly more than 25% of all Chinese students in Iowa City (4). However, compared to the small percentage of Christians in Mainland China, that are largely elderly (5), this is quite noteworthy. The major programs of the Bible study on Friday evenings included a dinner, social, chorus, and small group study of the Bible. The participants were divided into about 10 groups for the small group study of the Bible. A senior Christian student in each group led the study. They read the Bible in Chinese translation, held discussions among the group members and shared opinions with each other. There was also one group led by some American Christians, who helped the Chinese students read the Bible in English translation so that they could improve their English.

I met more than 100 PRC students in Iowa City and had the opportunity to talk with many of them. Most of these Chinese students were either in the Master’s or the Ph.D. programs at the University of Iowa. There were a couple of participants had recently graduated from the University of Iowa and started working in the city. These PRC students came from different family backgrounds, studied in different academic fields, and, of course, had different perceptions of the Bible study and conversion to evangelical Christianity. I heard many stories about their conversions and their testimonies that were recorded when they were baptized. I also read some articles written by them to share with other Chinese, which are all available on the website of the Chinese Evangelical Church (www.ceciic.com). In the 20 interviews carried out, I found that though I heard various conversion stories, the commonalities among these experiences were overwhelming.

Among the twenty interviewees, six of them were females, and 14 were males. Some of them had been in the United States for five years; some of them came several months ago. Thirteen of my interviewees were baptized, four of them have made the decision about conversion but have not been baptized yet for different reasons, and three of them have not made the decision about conversion. Except one woman (6) who converted in Hong Kong prior to coming to the United States, all the others converted or made the decision to convert in Iowa City. Not surprisingly, none of the 20 interviewees had any religious beliefs when they were in China. For some of them, the change happened soon after they came to the United States. For others, the change happened gradually through the years after they came to the United States. Three of them were members of the Communist Party, while the majority was not. Their families and friends in China also had different attitudes toward their conversion.

The conversion of most PRC students to evangelical Christianity in Iowa City usually goes through two stages: “making up mind” (Jue Zhi) and “being baptized” (Shou Xi). Most Chinese students make up their mind about conversion after attending a series of convincing lectures or seminars held by professional Chinese missionaries and/or after watching the movie “Jesus” produced by John Heyman (7). They let the missionaries know about their decision by raising their hands at the end of the lecture or seminar. After making up their minds to convert, they are required to attend a special training course, which helps them learn how to be good Christians and ensures that they really want to become Christians. The transformation usually happens gradually while the new converts learn more about the religion and become stronger in their faith.

Most of my interviewees said they were very confident about the strength of their Christian faith. Nevertheless, I could detect some hidden uncertainty in the conversations with them, which differs from what other researches on Chinese conversion to Christianity have found. Earlier Chinese Christians were found highly committed to the church and held very strong faith in Christianity (Yang 1998). However, two of my interviewees admitted that if they had gone to some other religious organizations at the beginning, they might have converted to some other denominations or religions instead of evangelical Christianity. Two males, though both baptized, said it would be very difficult to maintain their faith if they went back to China because of the ever changing social and cultural environment there. Three females told me that they changed their minds after they made the decision of conversion; that is, they did not want to become a Christian even though they raised their hands in front of a lot of other Chinese in a seminar led by a Chinese evangelical missionary. They all described that moment when they raised their hands as a “sudden emotional reaction.” As a matter of fact, they later realized that they were not ready yet. The rest of the 14 interviewees testified as to their strong faith in Christianity. One male told me, “You might find many explanations of our conversion. But I believe that God created those opportunities for me to better understand my life. God opened the door for me, and I will not close it. I found the true religion.”

Interestingly, when all of my interviewees first came to the US, they were taken to the Bible Study Group by other PRC students who belong to this group. Except for the lady who was baptized in Hong Kong, all others had very limited knowledge about Christianity and were just curious about it at the beginning. Many of them were picked up from the airport by members of the Bible Study Group and settled into their new living arrangements with the help of these students. They all described those from the Bible Study Group as “very nice.” They said that their first visits to the Bible Study Group took place because they were curious about Christianity. Also, they admitted that going to the Bible study group was probably the best way to show their gratitude toward the students from the Bible Study Group for helping them when they arrived.

According to their descriptions, all of them were atheists when they were in China. There was no image of a monotheistic God in their minds. In many of their conversion stories, the influence of Confucianism was evident and the strong dissatisfaction with the utilitarianism in current Chinese society was prevailing. Many of these PRC students made very negative comments on the profit-oriented moneymaking mentality in the Chinese society. They despised the “typical Chinese” (as they called) and thought converting to Christianity was a way to distinguish themselves from those “typical Chinese” who have no faith in anything but money and those who have forgotten the teaching of Confucius. For these PRC students, Confucianism and evangelical Christian doctrines go hand in hand and provide them with guidance toward a fulfilling life. Many of them express little negative feelings toward the political system in China. On the contrary, they were quite satisfied with the achievements CCP has made in the economic growth in recent years. They were more concerned with the side effects of the disconnection between the rapid economic growth and the underdeveloped moral infrastructure in their home country. Though they believed that they were brought to the United States by God’s will, they did not exclude going back to China as an option in the future.

During my interviews, I found most people converted after they attended a convincing lecture or seminar by Chinese evangelical missionaries. Some of them converted simply after watching the famous video “Jesus”. Only two of them read the entire New Testament. None of them finished reading the Old Testament. Many of them did not start learning about Christianity until after being baptized. All interviewees indicated that their conversion to Christianity provided them with a better understanding of the human society and a healthier attitude toward life. All of them agreed that Chinese people need some kind of religious belief. They expressed the opinion that the moral crisis in current China is mainly caused by the collapse of traditional Confucian values and the lack of a satisfactory alternative value system.

The story told by a 25-year-old male Ph.D. student from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, was very representative. He said,

Since Childhood, I was strongly influenced by Confucianism, especially the teaching of filial piety. But I was an atheist. I didn’t believe there was a God. If there was, I believed that there should be many gods just like many other Buddhist people do. It was very difficult for me to accept the concept of one God and worship him and Jesus Christ, his only son. The first day I came to the Bible Study Group, I was so amused by those people who were praying for God’s blessing. I thought they had gone mad. I couldn’t imagine how those people became like this since all of them had been educated in China as believers of evolutionism and atheism. There were three Christians in my department. Two of them were Koreans and one was American. They told me a lot about Christianity and prayed for me a lot. My mind changed gradually. I now realize that my mind was closed at that time. I now also believe that God opened my eyes, since religious conversion should not be a thing that happens randomly and suddenly… I was doing marketing for a medicine factory after I graduated from medical school in China. I was making a lot of money at that time. I saw all kinds of corruptions in this field. I was involved too. If you gave the doctor enough money, he would try to give the prescription of the medicines made in your factory wherever and whenever he could, we all benefited from this. Gradually, I felt tired of that kind of meaningless life. I wasn’t happy at that time though I was making a lot of money. I started thinking about leaving. I’ve been here about a year now. After I listened to them (the three Christians in his department) and learned more about Christianity, I realized that my unhappiness was because of the immoral money that led my life astray from God. I felt sick of myself and those who are still chasing money heedlessly in China. The teaching of Jesus Christ saved me from drowning into the hell. My life was sinful. Only by being a good Christian can I wash my sins. Jesus was crucified to save us human beings. I realized that I should believe in him and love him very much. I also read the book China’s Confession by Zhiming Yuan (8), a Chinese intellectual who was dispelled from the Mainland after the pro-democracy movement in 1989. He told us the Chinese legend was actually about the same story written in the Bible, but Chinese people forgot, ignored and changed the facts. He presented many examples to support his arguments, which are very convincing and reasonable. However, Chinese have gone astray from the right path. That’s very sad. That can also explain the messy situation in China right now, such as corruption, moral crisis, etc., which I did not realize before. 

He also told me that when he first came, unlike most Chinese students, he didn’t have any assistantship or financial support from the University. He paid the tuition from his own pocket. His life was really tough since everything became so expensive when Chinese currency was converted to U.S. dollars. He felt much better once he received assistantship one month before he was baptized. He told me, “God created the chance for me.” He was really thankful for everything that had happened to him. He also said he would never go back to the old life again. Though he could hardly save any money now, he felt spiritually rich and confident about himself. He also hoped that other Chinese back at home would have the same chance to think about their life and their future. He stressed many times that money is not the most important thing in life. He said, “Life elapses in a twinkling. Worshipping God, our creator, is more worthwhile.” He hoped that his parents could embrace Christianity too. He said he was planning on inviting them to visit during the summer in the hope that they could get the chance to learn about Christianity, which was very difficult in China.

Another type of conversion stories has more scientific characteristics than moral considerations. Quite a few male interviewees especially expressed their understanding of the relationship between science and religion. Many of them told me that their ambiguous concept about the relationship between science and religion was clarified after attending lectures on Christianity. They described the knowledge of evolution they learned in China as confusing and dissatisfactory. “Those complicated questions about how the world came into being now become easier and the explanations are quite reasonable and acceptable,” Liu said. Liu had been studying at the University of Iowa for almost 2 years. He was 27 years old and in the Ph.D. program of Mechanical Engineering. He joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1996. He was the president of the Student Union and the chair of the branch of CCP committee on the campus when he was studying in Guangzhou (Canton), a city in Southern China. As the oldest and first port opened up for international trade in China, Guangzhou (Canton) was the first place where people found western Christian missionaries. Liu told me that he had some contact with Christianity and the Bible at that time because it was a good way to learn English from missionaries.

You can often see western missionaries preaching Christianity in the McDonald’s in Guangzhou city. I often went there because I wanted to take the chance to talk to English speakers. I heard the stories in the Bible during those conversations. As I was taught in the school, I didn’t believe in them at all. I thought the Bible was just a book written by the rulers to control and fool people. At best, I treated them as the reflection of the Western culture, or probably more likely stories passed down throughout history. You know, just like us Chinese, we also have a lot of stories about the origin of human kind and stuff like that. At that time, I had very strong beliefs in Communism and the theory of evolution. I was a very radical atheist actually. I didn’t doubt anything I was taught in school. For me, those missionaries were wasting their life by doing something ridiculous. For me, at that time, I thought religion was just the opiate of the people. My mom’s sister and her son are both Christians. I thought they are crazy at that time. … I started attending the Bible Study Group because of the food they provided here. I’m single. It’s (food) a big attraction to me. Also, the guys from the Bible Study Group helped to get some furniture for free when I first came. Actually, if it were not because of the food, I would have not come here and would not have joined. I can study the Bible anywhere.

I was surprised by his straightforwardness. Then, I realized that he was half joking when he talked about the delicious food one could have every Friday evening at the Bible Study Group for only one dollar. But, his smiling face suddenly turned serious. Liu continued,

It is a big decision for me to make up my mind about converting to Christianity. I had very strong faith in the theory of evolution because it used to be able to give me sufficient explanations about how the world came into being and about human beings. I’m a scientific person. I will not accept Christianity if it is not convincing. As I am learning more and more, I find evolutionism can’t explain everything. I have been looking for the right answers to the relationship between science and religion. I thought they could never be integrated. However, after I attended many lectures and seminars, I started questioning the theory of evolution. Since nobody can explain many puzzles of nature ‘scientifically’, why not change our perspective? I was suddenly delighted and enlightened by the idea of creation. I was so excited about my finding. On March 13, 2003, I went to Missouri and stayed in the Christian Witness Center for three days. I raised my hand after the lecture given by a Chinese missionary, who did his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry. Since both of us are students of science, his lecture was quite convincing.

I then asked him if he would have converted to other religions if he had not been attracted to this Bible Study Group by good food. It seemed to me that what he was concerned with was only the theory of creation. Other religions or even any other denominations of Christianity could serve this purpose. I could tell that he was not prepared for this question. He thought for a while and then said, “It’s a good question. Honestly, it might happen. I mean, this is also a question I asked myself. That’s also the reason why I am not baptized yet. Reading the Bible is certainly the only valuable thing one can do besides eating, working, studying and entertaining.” Obviously, he was far less faithful by many others’ standards. He might even be regarded as the free rider. He told me that when he said that he could study the Bible anywhere, he meant it. It really did not matter for him which church he joined. However, when asked further about the reason, he said that Christianity is the biggest religion in the world, and most Americans are Christians. It is just normal for one to join a Christian church. Since most Chinese Christians in town go to this evangelical church, he felt more comfortable to come here. When I asked him if he knew something about other religions, he answered “very little.”

Though only one of my other interviewees (a female) admitted that she could have joined some other churches if those missionaries came to her first or she had friends who belong to other churches, when I talked with other members of the Bible Study Group and the Chinese Evangelical Church, I found that many of them knew very little about other religions, even other Christian denominations. What they knew about Christianity was mainly taught by the missionaries and through the group discussions at the Bible Study Group. They referred to Catholicism as a different religion from Christianity. They were also confused by the main branches within Protestantism. This confusion is common among Chinese Christians because there is no term in Chinese for Christianity as a religion (See Demerath 2003:151).

These conversion stories differ from each other in different ways. I found that the religious institutional context in the U.S. plays the primary role in this process. These PRC students are indeed in need of a religion, though some of them had no intention of embracing any religion until they encountered some sudden changes in their lives in the new society, while some of them were searching for spiritual support before their arrival. However, the choice of converting to evangelical Christianity would not happen at such high rate without the effort of the Chinese evangelical missionaries and organizations. These institutional factors come into play. Missionaries provide a religion sharing similar teachings with Confucianism and Humanism, which greatly accommodate the needs of these Chinese students. Convincing them to believe in the Christian God instead other another God should be attributed to the Chinese evangelical missionaries. Without their efforts, we would have seen a more heterogeneous pattern of religious conversion, which may be explained by various individual experiences. As I compare the PRC students in Iowa City with those in Macomb, it becomes clearer that the institutional context is too important to be regarded as secondary factors.

The Variety of Religious Conversion Experiences among PRC students at Western Illinois University

Macomb, the Home of Western Illinois University, is a very small town in the rural area. Many people believed that it is survived only because of the existence of the university. About 11,000 students were enrolled in this university, among which, there were only about 30 Chinese students during 2002 and 2003, when the research was carried out. There were no more than 50 Chinese in town, including these students. My interviewees told me that the volunteers, arranged by the International Student Office of the university, picked them up from the train station in town or the airport at a nearby city. There was no welcome team organized by the Chinese Student’s Association. Except for a couple who are Uygurs (one of the ethnic groups in China who identify themselves as Muslims) from Xinjiang Province and one male student who had converted to Catholicism when he was in China, the other Chinese students were all namely “the atheists” from Mainland China.

There was one evangelical organization on campus—University Bible Fellowship (UBF), an international Christian evangelical student organization that dedicated to campus evangelism. It has branches worldwide and has been committed to evangelizing students all over the world. PRC students were also invited to join UBF upon their arrival. Some of these students were enrolled in the university English language program (WSEL) before they started pursuing their Masters. Though many Chinese students joined this Bible study group at first, some of them left after a while due to different reasons. At the time when the study was carried out, about five of them were participating on a weekly basis. A couple of them joined occasionally. Though two of them withdrew from UBF, they were baptized elsewhere. Several of them told me that they thought Buddhism was a better choice for them.   

There was no Chinese Christian congregation in town. The efforts of Chinese evangelical missionaries had not yet reached this small community. The main conversion agent was UBF. Two of my interviewees actually searched for a Bible study group when they first arrived. Certainly, at the beginning, they did not plan on converting. They told me that they really wanted to learn more about American culture. For them, Christianity was an important component. Their conversion stories shared a lot of commonalities with what I heard in Iowa City. However, they did not all end up converting to evangelical Christianity. In fact, the patterns of their conversion are more heterogeneous than that in Iowa City. The social and cultural changes in China were also found as the precursors of their conversion. Like PRC students in Iowa City, they had the same concern regarding the moral crisis in current Chinese society and the moneymaking mentality among many Chinese. They despised them too. They were very dissatisfied with the way the communist schools teach children about religion. They thought the best part of American higher education was the access to different schools of philosophy and ideologies it provides, which was unheard of when they were in China. They had the desire of searching for some spiritual support from the very beginning. For them, Christianity again was “a normal” choice for Chinese who wanted to convert to a religion. They all agreed that the hatred toward Christianity associated with the invasion of imperialists in the 18th and 19th century had long gone. Most of them thought that they could not convert to Christianity in China because they did not know anything about it. 

Jing was 28 years old when she converted to Christianity. It was in the winter of the second year after she came to Macomb. She was baptized in the Presbyterian Church in town. She told me that several of her professors were Presbyterians. She started going to this church since the very beginning because of her personal acquaintance with the professors. She liked this church. She said,

I like the music here. Many professors from the Music Department go to this church. They are all professional. We have very beautiful hymns at Sunday worship. I also like the sermons here. Out priest does not force his opinions on you. He always lets you think for yourself. Many of the church members are professors or staff members working for the University. I am the only Asian in the church, but I never feel discriminated by them. They are very nice to me. I also think it is a very good way to build a social network here. After all, I am a foreigner. One can’t adapt to the American society without having a lot of American friends. I am a graduate student and also working for my department. I feel more comfortable to go to church with my professors and co-workers

Another lady was a Yahweh’s witness. She converted in the winter of 2001. She had spent 5 years in Japan before she came to the United States, but did not believe in God until she made some American friends who were Yahweh’s witnesses. She was deeply committed to being a believer. She could not give any concrete reasons as Jing did when I asked her. She said she believed it.

Xiaoping came to Macomb in the fall of 2002. She previously studied in Ohio, from where she earned her Master’s in economics. She was 24 when she came to Western Illinois University to pursue another Master’s degree in accounting. She always told us that she had a lot of religious experiences since she came to the United States. She converted in a Catholic church in Ohio. She told me that she thought this was the right choice for her though others usually would join a Protestant church. She told me that she had been very successful in converting her family members. Her father had already converted and her mother was on the way to Christianity.

By August 2003, one third of the PRC students were baptized Christians belonging to a variety of denominations including Catholicism, Presbyterian, Yahweh’s Witness, Baptist and Lutheran, which was quite a contrast to the patterns of religious conversion among PRC students in Iowa City. Four of them were not formally converted, but still remained members of UBF. A couple of them still went to the churches occasionally but had no intention to convert. Other students who did not join the University Bible Fellowship were mostly not interested in becoming a Christian. They more likely described themselves as Buddhists. There were also several students claiming not to believe in God.

The role of institutional contexts was very evident in these cases. Students were affiliated with different religions and different denominations of Christianity. The absence of a Chinese Christian community created chances for these PRC students, who were in need of religious belief, to get to know other religions and other denominations of Christianity. Unlike the situation in Iowa City, where people were taken to the Chinese evangelical organizations upon their arrival, these PRC students went through different channels to search for their beliefs. Therefore, they ended up in different Christian denominations.

The Importance of Institutional Contexts in Religious Conversion among PRC Students

The conversion stories in Iowa City and Macomb tell us more than what we may expect by studying the literature in religious conversion. The self-descriptive conversion experience told by many interviewees indicated the inadequacy of the individualistic approach in explaining religious conversion. The social and cultural factors are evident in these conversion stories. Though these PRC students did convert for various reasons under different circumstances, most of them expressed the desire of restoring the teaching of Confucianism to fill the “moral vacuum” created when the communist value system failed to catch up with the rapid growth in economy. They were also deeply concerned with the pervasive utilitarianism in current Chinese society. These dissatisfactions and concerns served as the precursors of their conversion.

There is no doubt that the social and cultural changes in China are very important in religious conversion among PRC students on college campuses as among earlier Chinese immigrants. But these changes contain different meanings than those were analyzed in Fenggang Yang’s study. The social changes in PRC students’ conversion no longer refer to the dramatic changes during the wars, revolutions and the aftermath several decades ago. Instead, current PRC students are more influenced by what has happened since the implementation of domestic reforms, and especially what have happened during the 1990s. China has amazed the world with its fast economic growth in the last decade. The living conditions in China have greatly improved. However, the side effects of the unbalanced development of value systems and economy have been regarded as the creator of the “soulless China” (Beijing Review 1994). The cultural changes cry out at the same time. The religious revival has been observed recently (Bays 1996, 2003; Chen 2003; Dean 1998, 2003; Lambert 1994; Isreali 1997; Maclnnis 1996; Madsen 2003; Overmeyer 2003). Though Falun Gong is defined as an anti-government cult, its flourishing during the 1990s before it was banned in Mainland China is a strong indicator of the growing needs of religious beliefs in Chinese society (Leung 2002).However, the more important factor I found in my study for this group of PRC students is not the social and cultural factors; instead, the institutional contexts in the United States was of primary importance. In Iowa City, many of my interviewees expressed that being a religious person seemed “weird” for most educated Chinese. Belonging to a religious organization can also impedes one’s career development. Coming to the United States is always depicted as a turning point in their lives by many of my interviewees. They could finally choose their beliefs without worrying about their life and career being harmed. Internally, they were indeed searching for some kind of spiritual support. They did not know about any religion except what they were taught in school, which was that religion is the opiate of the people. Now they are on this free land and are in need of an alternative belief system. The Chinese evangelical missionaries accommodate them with an alternative belief system they are in need of. The book Chinese Confession often mentioned in the conversion stories is regarded as another important intellectual work for them. This book reinterpreted the Chinese history in the effort to integrate Christian theology with Chinese traditional culture. Many of my interviewees felt that it became much easier for them to find the connection between Christianity and Chinese culture after reading this book, and eventually embrace Christianity. Now these young PRC students are ready to accept a faith and the Chinese Christian missionaries are dedicated to providing them with one. In this process, the Chinese evangelical organizations play the role of an usher who leads these PRC students to a religion that has become no longer foreign to them.

In contrast, the varieties of religious conversion experience among PRC students in Macomb are very likely due to the absence of Chinese evangelical organization in that area. These PRC students were in need of a religious faith but were not targeted by the Chinese evangelists. Also, according to what I found in my study in Iowa City, many PRC students knew little about other religions and Christian denominations. Therefore, we could make a reasonable inference that if the evangelical missionaries did not exist in Iowa City, the patterns of religious conversion among PRC students in Iowa City might look more like the patterns among those in Macomb.

By no means am I concluding that none of the PRC students in Iowa City has converted to some other religions or Christian denominations. However, the phenomenon of converting to evangelical Christianity was overwhelming among the Chinese student community in Iowa City. In my interview, I found that very few people have considered joining some other churches or other Christian denomination, which they are unfamiliar with or where they do not have a wide social network. Comparing the conversion stories of PRC students between the two different communities, it is safe to say that conversion to evangelical Christianity at such high rate in Iowa City is not the result of the sole effect of social-cultural changes in China. When the institutional context is absent, as I found in Macomb, PRC students choose their religious beliefs of more varieties. This leads to my argument that social-cultural changes in China prepare PRC students for accepting a religious belief, while the institutional context in the U.S. eventually lead them to becoming evangelical Christians. For religious conversion among current PRC students on college campuses, the institutional context is of the primary importance. Social-cultural changes are also very important, but the importance is secondary rather than primary.

Conclusion and Implication

This study explored and explained some patterns of religious conversion among current Chinese students from the People’s Republic of China on college campuses by employing in-depth interviews in two ethnographic sites. Participant observation and secondary material analysis were also utilized in this research. Though it is not certain if one can generalize the results to a different sample given the limited number of interviews I conducted, the information obtained through the research is useful.

Yang’s (1998) study on Chinese conversion to Christianity captured the large picture of Chinese conversion to Christianity. He noted that the lack of an alternative meaning system after the collapse of Confucian tradition during the process of turbulent modernization in the past one hundred years, the contradictory and cruel reality of socialist experiments in Mainland China, the moral crisis in the current Chinese society, and the relationship between Christianity and democracy in American society are important factors leading to people’s conversion (Yang 1998). All these factors are beyond the explanations offered by the traditional individualistic models of conversion.

In my study, I also observed the significant impact of social and cultural changes in China on current PRC students. Without these changes, they would not be ready to embrace a religion that was foreign to them. The social-cultural analysis is supported, though they now contain different meanings for younger PRC students than what were described in Yang’s study for earlier Chinese immigrants. However, the primary importance of institutional contexts correlated with the size and the location of the Chinese community unraveled through this study was not addressed in previous studies. This study shows that Chinese evangelical organizations have played a very important role in recruiting Chinese converts. The absence of these organizations explains to a great extent why the PRC students in Macomb ended up being Christians belonging to different denominations. It may explain why some of my interviewees thought it would be difficult to be a Christian in China and their hopes of bringing their family members to the United States. The institutional contexts in the United States make it possible for them to claim a religious belief. The evangelical missionaries provide them a religion that is more acceptable to them. I do not intend to question the validity of the social-cultural-institutional model for placing institutional contexts as the secondary factor. This three-leveled model was constructed to explain the religious conversion among earlier Chinese immigrants who came from many different countries and areas. What I propose here is to extend this model to another group of Chinese who are much younger and have different characteristics. For their conversion, the institutional contexts are of the primary importance. It is more appropriate to regard the social-cultural factors as the precursors and of secondary importance in the process of religious conversion.

This study is mainly an exploratory study. In the future, research on religious conversion among Chinese to Christianity should employ more rigorous methods to overcome the limitations of ethnographic techniques and to test the hypotheses that are raised in this study. Researchers should also focus more on the roles Chinese evangelical missionaries play in the process of religious conversion. Also, if it is possible, a follow-up study on converted Chinese students who return to China after graduate from American universities may generate very interesting findings.


(1). Source: The official website of the City of Iowa City. Online available at     http://www.icgov.org/documents/demoinfo.pdf

(2). Source:

(3) See the website of the Chinese Evangelical Church in Iowa City: www.ceciic.com

(4) According to the Chinese Students’ Association, by the end of May 2002, there were 475 PRC students at the University of Iowa.

(5) According to official data, Christians account for 3-4% of the total population in China. Other sources estimate that the percentage is somewhere between 7-10%.

(6) She converted before she came to the United States. She was baptized in Hong Kong in March 2001, one year before she came to the United States, while she was doing her undergrad at Hong Kong University. 

(7) The movie “Jesus”, produced by John Heyman, was filmed in Israel in the late 1970s. This film is a re-enactment of Luke’s Gospel and is called the “perfect” tool to spread the Gospel and lead others to salvation in Jesus Christ. It is now available in 773 languages (Yu 1999).

(8) Zhiming Yuan, a Chinese Evangelist, is a former Chinese TV producer and a dissident activist in the Tiananmen Square Democracy Movement in 1989. He produced a six part video series “River Elegy” for Chinese TV in 1988, which had a great impact on China's students and intellectuals who participated in Tienanmen Square Movement. After the Tiananmen Square event, he fled to the United States in 1990 and converted to Christianity in 1991. In his book China’s Confession, he comes to the conclusion that more than twenty-six hundred years ago, when God prophesied the coming of Jesus Christ through the prophet Isaiah, God also shed light to ancient China through Laozi, the founder of Taoism (Dao Jiao). According to him, Laozi prophesied the Dao of God. The Dao in Laozi is the same as the Dao (word) in the Bible.


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