Lost in the Market, Saved at McDonald’s: Conversion to Christianity in Urban China
by Fenggang Yang
The “Golden Arches” of the McDonald’s restaurants have become common scenes in major Chinese cities, often conspicuously dotting the rapidly changing skylines. Walking through the arches are many young people seeking a sense of modernity and a new meaning of life in the globalizing market. It might appear incongruous to associate the icon of American capitalist culture with religious salvation. However, one can observe a close connection between the two in China, which is fascinating and intriguing.
Why do urban young people convert to Christianity in China today? The educated, young professionals who have fared quite well in the growing market economy find Christianity is not something traditional, conservative, or restrictive. Rather, it is perceived as progressive, liberating, modern, and universal. For Chinese converts, Christianity is a faith that provides peace, certainty, and liberation amid bewildering market forces and a stifling political atmosphere.
Why McDonald’s? To the young and educated Chinese who are consciously see king modernity and integration with the rest of the world, McDonald’s appears to share similar characteristics of modernity and cosmopolitanism. What is more, in McDonald’s is a beloved American flavor. Not just the flavor of the food, but that of American culture.
The emerging market economy has allowed greater freedom for adventurous individuals. Through the increase of private-owned businesses, transnational companies, and joint venture enterprises, people have had more choices of jobs and lifestyles. But a sense of security has been lost. In the planned economy, every urban resident enjoyed cradle-to-grave social welfare and every urban adult was guaranteed a job. For many, the emerging market was like the unpredictable and unfathomable ocean. Once you jump into it, you have to sink or swim, all o n your own. Indeed, the emerging market in China has been wild. It lacks clear rules and regulations, and it lacks moral, political, or legal authorities to enforce rules and regulations. The market is primitive, chaotic, and perilous to individuals. As a result, many well-educated, young professionals are finding salvation and purpose in Christianity.
Jennifer graduated from a teacher’s college and became a kindergarten teacher in 1990. She loved the job and devoted herself to caring for every child. Before long, however, her high school sweetheart whom she had dated for six years broke up with her. He wanted big money, fame, and status, and a kindergarten teacher- wife would not help. Bitterness filled her heart. She quit the kindergarten job and tried various job s in the hope of making more money. Wishing for good for tune, she burned incense stick sin front of Budd has and practiced qigong for health. She also tried drugs, sex , and other diversions, but nothing gave her lasting satisfaction. By 1998, she felt exhausted, bored, and desperate. She once visited a church in 1992 and received a copy of the Bible. Not until 1998 did s he begin reading the Bible seriously and participating in a young people’s fellowship. Her life was totally changed.
At a prayer meeting, the Holy Spirit convicted me of my sin. I confessed my sins of communicating with devils [practicing qigong ], premarital sex, drugs, bad relations with people, etc. After repeated confessions of all my sins, I was released, and completely hanged. I realize that everyone has original clean. I found the Bible was full of light, so I finished reading the New Testament without pausing. Then I ordered that “all illnesses leave me.” Miraculously, since then I have rarely become sick. My work attitudes have completely changed. Now when someone treats me badly, I don’t get angry, but pray all the time. When you are filled with the love of Christ, anything can be changed. My current boss was very suspicious of me at the beginning, but I prayed for her, and now our relationship is very good. She even came to share her problems with me.
Monica loved literature and dreamed to become a novelist or poet. But her mother pressured her into vocational school and a wedding-gown business. Monica became extremely depressed.
Only after a failed attempt of suicide by cutting her wrist did her mother give in and close the factory. After that, Monica attended an English-language school and tried working as a saleswoman and as a real estate agent. During this time, her younger sister had problems with drugs and sex, and she herself also slept with various men. Her father also had extramarital affairs. Incidentally, she met some college students from Hong Kong who introduced the gospel to her. In 1996, she and her sister were baptized at an underground house church. Under Monica’s influence and persuasion, her mother accepted Christ and was baptized. Her father has also changed, and now refrains from even visiting questionable entertainment places. Monica is presently working at her parents’ photo studio.
Larry, after college, tried different jobs. For a while he was a salesman for a beer company. The job required him to work in the night, mostly trying to sell beer to nightclubs. He felt tired from working in the night and sleeping in the day, and felt bad about spending too much time at nightclubs. He had a girlfriend for six years. But after she worked at a joint venture company for six months, she married her boss from Hong Kong, then emigrated to Singapore. Larry was confused. How could it be that a six-month relationship was more important than six years? Actually, they still loved each other, Larry said. When they broke up, both of them cried and cried. In Singapore his ex-girlfriend became a Christian, then urged him to go to church. Finally he agreed to try.
On the first day of 1999, I went to church. It was Friday. I went again on the next day and again on Sunday. I stayed through the Mandarin service and the local dialect service in the morning and then attended the young people’s worship service in the afternoon. During the “praise and worship” singing time, I suddenly felt that all of the nameless depressions and bitterness in my heart were taken out and away. Larry has continued attending the church and was to be baptized. He has quit the sales job and began working at his father’s garden construction company.
Cindy faced life-threatening challenges before her conversion to Christianity. Born in Hubei in 1964, she had to work to support the family. While working as a lathe operator, she self-taught and finished high school courses on her own. In 1984, she took a special exam and was admitted to the Television College. She later earned a junior college diploma in law. She found a temporary job at a law firm and did very well. But she could not become a formal employee because the law firm employees had to be cadres and her status was a worker. She should have
had an opportunity to take an exam in order to change her work status, but a government official in charge of legal affairs took the opportunity away and gave the position to his nephew. After
this, she quit her job and moved to Nanfang at the end of 1989.
Not having any acquaintances, she wandered to a small coastal city. Alone but determined, she ventured into a privately owned hardware factory. She was taken in and became a warehouse keeper. At this factory of about 2,000 workers, Cindy quickly moved up and became the office director. Then she was offered a new position—the general manager of a liquid crystal manufacturing factory that had 600 employees. That was an exciting challenge for a young woman.
After two years, however, I felt tired of it because the factory had all kinds of people. Some were fugitive murderers who came there to hide. Some were gangsters and bandits. When I fired some men, they threatened to set fire to the building or kill me. So I quit, and then found a sales position at an appliance company. Shortly after, I was assigned as the sales manager at my hometown in Hubei. While working for the appliance company I also opened a store selling auto parts. I worked from six o’clock in the morning till midnight all the time. I made some money, appeared to be a strong woman. I began to despise men, and thought I could control my fate, control everything. I smoked and drank. And my mental status became somewhat abnormal. My male employees were scared of me. I often verbally abused them. Then, suddenly, one day I found blood in my urine. The diagnosis turned out to be bladder cancer, stage IV. I needed surgery immediately. That forced me to stop and think. I thought, “What is all this for? What is the meaning of life?” I was not really afraid of death. Actually I sometimes envied those who had rested in graves. The night before the surgery, I took a notebook and wrote down, “Life, ideals, career, whatever—everything is in the hands of God. No person can change it.” At that time I did not know God, but after I wrote that, my heart strangely felt peace. The next day, before the surgery, the intern doctor took me to take another lab test. A miracle had happened. The cancer cells had disappeared! My sister wondered whether it was a false diagnosis. Even the doctors could not explain it.
Coming out of the hospital, Cindy sold the auto-parts store and moved back to the southern city in which she used to work. From 1994 to 1999, she tried different jobs, made some business trips to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Vietnam, but all her business efforts ended up with failure.
In the past, I could succeed no matter what I did. But now I failed no matter what I tried. I found nothing to hold up my life. I considered suicide. Then I got a phone call from a friend in Singapore who suggested I read the Bible. I bought one and tried to read it. Later I came to Nanfang to attend a psychology workshop. Another participant in the workshop was a Christian, who introduced me to the Timothy Training Course taught by an American named Tom. I took the course seriously, and read the Bible eagerly. During that period, all my past passed through my head as if I were watching a TV screen. I realized that God protected me all along. I confessed all my sins, and cried a lot to God. I believed Jesus took the punishment for all my sins and rose again. He is so good and loving. My heart had never felt so happy.
Since then, not only has Cindy become happy and peaceful, she has also begun sharing the Christian “good news” with others. She began leading the Timothy Training Course in her city. Her testimony helped many people convert. That made her think that what she had experienced was not meaningless, but was God’s preparation for her to do evangelism.
John, a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, came to know the Lord through good fortune. He could not understand why he had been successful in the perilous market while his former classmates or friends often failed. He did not think it was simply because of his wisdom or personal effort. “If it were not for the Lord’s undeserved favor, I would have failed as well.”
His conversion to Christianity was uneventful and had little intellectual or emotional struggle. He first visited a church on Christmas day of 1995. The hymns were beautiful. They sang and sang and sang, with out stop. Very interesting. I thought , wouldn’t it be fun to come on Sundays to practice singing ? The sermon was very good too. I understood it, although it was in the local dialect. It was very moving, touching my heart. So I beg an attending church regularly. As a matter of fact, I loved going to church. For a while, I went to church at least two times a week,by riding a bicycle for 40 minutes each way, sometimes in rain .
John said that the Christian activities were interesting and apparently compatible with his lifestyle. He also experienced personal changes. For example, he used to smoke, tried several times to quit, but each time he ended up smoking even more. After being told by a Christian brother that Christians should not smoke, he quit. This time, he said, it was actually without much struggle. The cigarette simply became nauseating, another sign of God ’s blessing to him .
SAVED AT MCDONALD’S?
McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in China in 1990. By 2000, dozens of “Golden Arches” dotted the rapidly changing skylines of Nanfang . Unlike McDonald’s in America, which is a fast food restaurant where people often rush in and out, the McDonald’s restaurants in Nanfang are always filled with leisurely crowds and chatting noise permeating the whole restaurant . It is viewed as an accessible and acceptable public place to meet. Then noise is good for religious meetings, serving as a barrier of protection. Since religion remains a politically sensitive topic in China, this noisy atmosphere is a welcomed feature for such meetings.
In today’s China, religious seekers often seek out Christian churches to learn about this nontraditional religion. In the context of a globalizing market under political repression, many Chinese perceive Christianity as liberating, democratic, modern, cosmopolitan, or universal. They regard Buddhism, Daoism , and Confucianism as backward -looking and traditionalistic, and thus incompatible with the market economy and increasingly globalizing world. More over, the presence of McDonald’s, foreign teachers, business people, and evangelists have made this nontraditional religion more accessible. At this intersection of time and space, Christianity fills the spiritual void for many people in urban China and is very likely to continue to grow.