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News from the USCCA and the church in China

Spreading the Gospel - Christian Posters in Early 20th Century China

“Spreading the Gospel: Christian Posters in Early 20th Century China,” a presentation by Professor Daryl Ireland, was given at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, on Wednesday evening, April 26. Dr. Ireland is a Research Assistant Professor of Mission at Boston University’s School of Theology.

Between 1919 and 1949, posters were the most common Christian visual imagery in China. They were printed by the millions and hung in tea rooms, on city walls, and on temple gates. Posters were put up in houses and churches; they were unfolded for street evangelism. They were extremely popular because they were aesthetically pleasing, symbolically rich, yet easy to understand. Unlike theological treatises written by Chinese theologians, these images were designed by laypeople and intended for popular consumption. In this lecture, Daryl Ireland will showcase some of the 700 Chinese Protestant and Catholic posters he has located and explain why they are changing the way we think about Chinese Christianity.

about daryl ireland

Daryl Ireland focuses on the history of Christianity in Asia, as well as the intersection of International Development and Faith. His recent book, John Song: Modern Chinese Christianity and the Making of a New Man (2020), explores how a Chinese revivalist’s spirituality, whose itinerant ministry initially operated on the fringe of mainline Protestant Christianity, came to be the dominant expression of Chinese Christianity today. The ten-year investigation into the life and work of Song has prompted Ireland to write more broadly about revitalization movements, the role of women in revivalism, and religious conversion. He is the director of the Chinese Christian Posters project, which has digitized and made publicly available 700 Christian posters from the Republican Era in China (1911-1949). Nationalists, Communists, and Christians all used posters to convert people’s imagination, to visualize for them the good life and what was keeping them from achieving it. In so doing, the posters became a graphic depiction of the contested nature of what China’s national salvation meant in the first half of the twentieth century, and how Christians competed directly with China’s political parties to save the nation. He is also the co-director of the China Historical Christian Database (CHCD), a massive international collaborative effort in the Digital Humanities to identify where every Christian church, school, hospital, convent, publishing house, and the like, were located in China between 1550 and 1950, and to record who was connected to those places, both foreigners and Chinese. The combined temporal, spatial, and relational information allows the CHCD to quantify and visualize Christianity in China in new and powerful ways, allowing scholars to use ‘big data’ to rethink the connections between China and the West.

the presentation

further resources

Drawing on a landmark collection of more than 200 color prints, assembled and analyzed here for the first time, leading scholars in Chinese Studies, mission history, Chinese Christianity, and visual culture reassess various facets of Chinese life in the second quarter of the twentieth century. In an age of revolution, political activists were not the only ones advancing prescriptions for change. Chinese Christians also pursued a New China, as one poster explicitly put it. Though later suppressed and largely forgotten, Christian posters placarded the country for thirty years with an alternative vision of national salvation.

In John Song: Modern Chinese Christianity and the Making of a New Man, Daryl Ireland upends conventional images of John Song and theologically conservative Chinese Christianity. Working with never before used sources, this groundbreaking book paints the picture of a man who struggled alongside his Chinese contemporaries to find a way to save their nation. Unlike reformers who attempted to update ancient traditions, and revolutionaries who tried to escape the past altogether, Song hammered out the contours of a modern Chinese life in the furnace of his revivals.


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