“I was born on March 23, 1951, to an extremely poor family in Fangcheng County, Henan Province, during one of the most difficult times in China’s long history.” His father was a carpenter who tried to provide for the family, but “there were still times when we had little food and had to search the fields to look for wild vegetables.” When they could find nothing, they resorted to begging for food, but hardly anyone had enough to spare. “The constant rejection and uncertainty were not easy to deal with, and they have left their mark on me to this day. Those were terrible, painful years for me.” (20)
These were the miserable years of the so-called Great Leap Forward, during which perhaps forty-five million people died, “not only through starvation, but also through beatings, torture, or being worked to death.” (20) His father “just lay down to sleep one day and never got up.” (21) Zhang kept hoping to hear his voice and see his face again, but soon “all I knew that I was hungry and that my mother worked hard to find enough food to feed her children.” (21) Every night, she warned him that. Like his father, she might not wake up again. “That was how I spent my childhood. . . Even now, as I think of those days, I can still feel the pain.” (23)
His mother tried to support his schooling, but ran out of money, so he found a way to catch and sell moles, thus financing four more years. Finally, when there were no more moles, he had to return home to help his mother.
One day in 1961, when he was twelve, Zhang received a visit from his Grandfather Sun, an elder whom everyone respected. Sun took the boy aside and, in the most serious tone, told him the story of Jesus. “He died for you in order to wash away your sins. He was beaten and crucified on a wooden cross, but on the third day He rose from the grave. He continues to live and one day will return and take us to heaven to be with Him forever.” (29)
The old man gave him a Bible, possession of which was not yet illegal, and read Isaiah 53, inserting Zhang’s name for the pronouns “we,” “our,” etc. “After hearing that, “ writes Zhang, “I couldn’t help but weep over the guilt of my sin and the high price that Lord had paid to take it from me. From that day on, I decided to follow Christ.” (30)
He was still in school at the time of his conversion. Immediately, as he began to apply himself to his studies, the transformation of his life showed itself. “This puzzled my teachers. . . . I was able to see the change in myself, and I gave all the praise to the Lord.” (31) He and his mother soon joined his older sister, a Christian, in the country church she attended. “Needless to say, we didn’t have a deep faith but only simple ideas about Jesus, as well as a hunger to learn more.” Eventually, his mother also became a Christian.
After his mother married another man, they moved to a different region, where the people needed someone to care for their sheep on the mountain slopes. Zhang’s family lived on the top of a mountain, so he took on the job of watching over the sheep. “All the time I spent shepherding during those years would prove to be invaluable to me when I served as a pastor and leader,” he realized later. (33)
The Cultural Revolution
When the Cultural Revolution broke out, Christians were targeted, ostensibly because of their previous ties with the West. Grandfather Sun, knowing that his days were numbered, summoned Zhang to his home. He gave his own well-marked Bible to Zhang, saying, “My boy, this book is a heavenly gook. It is our treasure in this life. .. The Bible should be with you as long as you live.” (36) Not long afterward, Sun was publicly humiliated and cruelly tortured. Just before he died, he told Zhang, “I believe that Lord will greatly use you for His purpose. I am going ho9me now. Remember this with all your might: Continue to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, whether the time is right or not.” (See 2 Timothy 4:2). This solemn charge stayed with Zhang the rest of his life and fueled his passion to preach Christ.
Churches had to close their doors, so Zhang and his mother started worshiping together in their home. Then a few others joined them, despite the great risk. They didn’t have any experienced pastors to teach them, or Christian radio programs to guide them, or biblical commentaries. “All we had were the words of Scripture. We prayed that the Lord would help us to understand what we were reading. The Scriptures spoke directly to us and would move us to tears.” (38) They witnessed miracles as a result of praying with simple faith to God. When the group grew too large, so they started another meeting in a nearby village.
The Cultural Revolution spawned ferocious conflicts. After Zhang witnessed a clash between two rival gangs, he was mistakenly thought to have supported one of them, so they invited him to join them and be a leader for that area. Zhang had read and memorized Mao’s Little Red Book. “To join the rebellion was an honorable thing during those days in China. It would be a way to honor my country and make my family proud. It didn’t occur to me . . . that the Communist Party was opposed to my faith.” (42). Soon, he had more than a thousand people under him. He used his influence to keep Bibles from being confiscated and Christians arrested.
Zhang had not yet been baptized. One frigid winter day, wearing his red armband – the symbol of his authority as a local Communist leader – he joined several others who were immersed in icy waters. “After I was baptized, I became even more excited about sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (46) He traveled to different places and organized new groups of believers. Everything was going well for him: “I thought that the favor of the Lord was with me and that He had blessed my going forth and my coming in.” (46)
Completely unaware that the Communist Party had declared war on Christianity, Zhang joined the Party in 1971. Immediately, they offered him a position at the national level. He was glad that he would have more influence for good. “To be honest, I never thought of serving the party as anything separate from serving the Lord as a good citizen. (48) At the same time, he writes, “I was also enticed at the idea of more power and more money.” (47).
The Cost of Discipleship
The night before his new promotion was to be announced, Zhang attended a baptism in the home of a local church leader. Soldiers surrounded the house, broke up the meeting, and arrested everyone. When Zhang’s superiors learned what had happened, they gave him a chance to escape trouble. All he had to do was to renounce his faith in Christ. Suddenly, he realized that he stood at a crossroads. To his superior’s surprise, he said, ‘I stand with Jesus Christ – how great is the salvation that He has brought; nothing can compare to it.” (54).
The rest of his autobiography unfolds the themes of the first five chapters, and details just how mu and personally demonstrated, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (John 12:24)
Immediately, men whom Zhang had trained began to use the same methods on him. For a full year, he endured food deprivation, sleep deprivation, savage beatings. He was forbidden to speak to anyone else. During this first imprisonment, he learned that “it is essential for the members of Christ’s body to edify and lift each other up. Making yourself vulnerable to your brother in need is absolutely necessary so that both of you can be broken before the Lord and rely on His sustaining power to pull you through hard times.” (63) He discovered that he could speak freely in the toilet area. At first with one, and then with several others, he would share their common faith. He settled into a routine: “I meditated on God’s goodness during the day, as it was the only thing that could sustain me. I also woke up to pray three times every night. I depended on the strength that God alone could provide.” (65)
Zhang would need that strength, for he had been designated as one of the “black five,” who included “landowners, the rich, those deemed to have extreme right leanings, common criminals, and anti-revolutionaries.” (65) The “deplorable” worked in intensive labor teams meant to kill them from overwork, if they had not already been beaten to death or executed. Considered the scum of the earth, the lowest form of human life, and not worthy of living, the “Black Five” had no voice; theirs was only to serve any member of the Communist Party. “Life could be unbearable for a member of the Black Five. AT times, hope seemed out of reach, but I knew that His love would be faithful to the end.” (67)
The label stuck to Zhang even after he left prison for the first time. That night, he visited a fellow Christian’s home and found that believers were praying for him by name. AS he went from one home meeting to another, he discovered that they too were praying for him. Those prayers kept him going for many years.
As a “Black Five,” he had to do slave labor all day. He never knew when someone would begin to accuse him. A group would form, with everyone reviling him. Blows would come from every direction, leaving him half dead and in intense pain. “There was no rest from persecution.” (69)
A local matchmaker arranged for Zhang to marry a farm girl whom he had never met. She wasn’t a Christian at the time, but “she committed herself to me from the beginning, knowing full well that she was marrying an antirevolutionary ‘enemy of the state.’” (71) Looking back on this event, Zhang writes, “Our wedding took place in the midst of much suffering. . . To this day, I feel like (sic) that part of my life was stolen by the enemy.” (71)
They sent him and sixteen others to build a water reservoir on the top of a mountain. There, in addition to the heat, dehydration, malnutrition, back-breaking labor, and utter exhaustion, they faced constant mockery from fellow townsmen, who came to jeer at the “Black Five.” Only after the sudden death of his chief tormentor did people begin to think that God was with Zhang and would protect him. The new supervisor treated him better, even allowing him to go home on the weekends.
Those brief times gave Zhang the chance to preach the gospel widely. He met with a warm welcome everywhere. “Every meeting was filled with people coming to the Lord for salvation” (81)
Still, Zhang’s life was a “hell on earth.” Weekend preaching completely drained him. “Spiritually, physically, and emotionally, I was utterly spent.” In modern terms, he was “burnt out.” He writes, “I desperately needed rest and spiritual refreshment.” (83) Just at that time, he attended a midnight meeting in which he heard Pastor Li Tianen speak. Li was older, and had theological training. More importantly, God’s Spirit spoke through him, both in the meeting and later when the two conferred in private. Li had suffered horribly during ten years in prison, but God had protected him. He encouraged Zhang to trust God and surrender his life entirely to Christ for his use.
Zhang was sent to prison with twenty-nine other Christians for intensive torture at the hands of guards and fellow prisoners, some of them former church-goers. Thrice-daily beatings that left him at the point of death caused such terrible agony that he cried for God to take his life. All but four from their group denied Christ to escape the ordeal, but Zhang’s faith, though shaken to the roots, held fast. One desperate night, When he was on the verge of giving up, a Muslim inmate said to him, “Zhang, I saw what they did to you today, . . . and I believe that you serve the one true God.” That man later became a powerful evangelist among Muslims.
As the authorities arrested other Christians and threw them into prison, the believers began to strengthen each other through prayer, sharing food, and secret communications. Others saw their faith, hope, and love, and began to trust in Christ.
Readers will appreciate the humble candor with which Zhang describes some of his faults and failures. He was no Superman. Repeatedly, just as Zhang was about to give up hope, God would strengthen him through fellowship, the prayers of other believers, or some special kindness from a guard. God answered his fervent prayers for a room of his own by having the guards assign him to the pigpen, which was on the edge of the camp. Zhang soon began to leave the camp at night and preach the gospel in nearby villages, using the bicycle a Christian had loaned to him.
Finally, in 1978, Zhang went home a free man. He discovered that many in his village had become Christians, including his wife. He longed to stay home with his family, but knew that he must keep traveling from place to place to continue preaching. Otherwise, the police would arrest him and confine him to prison again. Thousands were coming to Christ each year. They didn’t have enough Bibles, teachers, or evangelists, so Zhang began to exhort his hearers to take the gospel further afield, which they did, and “the message went forth like lightning!”
To cope with wildfire growth in 1981 Zhang organized four hundred leaders in Fangcheng County to care for the believers and supervise the expanding work. Despite renewed government opposition, he mobilized teams to take the gospel to every part of China, while he traveled incessantly, preaching and teaching two to five times a day, and even performing baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Finally, his exhausted body gave out, and he spent six months in bed with a high fever.
The government unleashed another ferocious wave of persecution in 1983, arresting hundreds and executing many, including the thirteen top leaders of the Fangcheng movement, excepting Zhang. Despite the danger, more young Christians came forward to preach the gospel. They were sent out into surrounding provinces, spreading the revival that was sweeping the nation. Zhang began to visit other house church networks in neighboring provinces. He found that their leaders possessed a zeal for God and his gospel, humility, faith, and unwavering courage. Sometimes God’s presence filled meetings of believers with such power that they were caught up in worship and praise.
In the 1980s, though the rural house church Christians had already experienced miracles, and the experience of being filled with the Spirit without speaking tongues, Dennis Balcombe, who lived in Hong Kong, played an important role in the spread of Pentecostal theology and practices among these groups.
Together, the Fangcheng, YIngshang, and Tanghe County church networks in Henan and nearby provinces would, at their peak, have a combined membership estimated at thirty million Christians spread all over China. This explosive growth is the greatest in the history of Christianity. Except for Peter Xu of the co-called “Born Again” movement, the leaders were all simple, uneducated men, but their networks were “coming together to form a special relationship that would change the entire social balance of China.” (177).
Zhang sensed that God wanted these disparate groups to come together in some form of unity. Eventually, he was able to overcome differences in practice and doctrine and mutual distrust to get leaders if the five largest networks together at a meeting in 1994. They adopted the name, Sinim Fellowship, based on Isaiah 49:12, which some interpreters think refers to China. These leaders, including Pastor Enoch Wang, Brother Yun (known as “the heavenly man” form the title of his autobiography), and Peter Xu, found that they could agree on the basics of the gospel and their commitment to evangelize all of China.
Xiao Min, the uneducated farm girl who has composed more than a thousand songs, called, “the Canaan Hymns,” united the groups with her music, which has become the hymnal of the house churches, as well as being sung by Chinese Christians around the world. To solidify their common stand in the face of renewed persecution, they issued a Confession of Faith in November, 1998. This document re-states what Christians around the world believe, and is marked by moderation, balance, and the awareness that Christians disagree on secondary issues.
To make its non-political stance clear, the Confession declares, “We oppose the use of the church as a political force. We disapprove of the church that depends on foreign political support. We oppose any activities that may destruct the unity of peoples and nations.” (190-191) Only three representatives could sign the Confession, because several others, including Peter Xu, Enoch Wang, and Brother Yun, had been captured in a raid. “The Sinim Fellowship would never be the same after that.” (187)
The police finally caught Zhang and dozens of other leaders at a meeting in August, 1999. They were sentenced to three years in prison. Zhang recalls that he has been arrested five times and has spent more than fifteen years in prison. During all that time, his wife has stood faithfully beside him. Though she has suffered arrests, police searches and ransacking of her house, separation from her husband, financial scarcity, and the stress of seeing her children and family members being cruelly treated, she has never complained. In a letter to her, he wrote, “You never accepted suffering, but accepted it as a gift from the Lord. . . You are the inseparable friend of God.” (196-197)
A serious illness led to Zhang’s release from prison after only a few months in February, 2000.
Taking advantage of a new government program to modernize, Zhang was able to obtain a passport using an alias and a fake internal ID. In the following years, he made eleven trips overseas, visiting The U.S., Canada, Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, Egypt and Jordan, where he addressed Christians. He especially wanted to thank Christians in England and the United States, whence missionaries had gone to China to spread the gospel.”As a Chinese Christian, I am a recipient of the sacrifices that they have made, and it was my duty to pay my respects.” (201)
Rebellion and Rejection
Meanwhile, under the surface, serious conflicts had been brewing. The growing discord gradually soured the relationships between Zhang and his younger coworkers. Before, shared persecution had held them together, but “as things eased up and we saw more finances come into the church, a demon emerged that we had never tackled. Issues regarding the handling of money, chains of command, responsibilities and duties, and leadership roles were the new problems we were dealing with.” (234) They tried to overlook these, but they burst into open rebellion in the early months of 2003.
Zhang admits, “I was not blameless. My hands were not clean. . . . I expected that I could tell everyone to get over their problems and move on, and that would be the end of it, but it was not so easy. I became increasingly frustrated with my lack of authority over the situation. After only a short while, I became easily irritable and prone to aggressive outbursts of anger, which only escalated the situation and widened the gap between my coworkers and me.” (234)
In the end, despite the efforts of an experienced mediator from Europe, five of the main leaders whom Zhang had trained split off from him in open rebellion. “I really felt that my church was falling apart. Later, I would understand that it was not my church but God’s church. The idea of ‘my church’ was blasphemous.” (236) Eventually, as the new leaders took the gospel to more places in China, he saw that “because God had His way instead of me having mine, there are people today who are part of the church who might never have come to Christ” if he had not “lost” his control over the network.
Back to Prison
Finally, the authorities caught up with him and convicted him of using an alias to obtain a fake ID and then a passport, and thus for traveling outside China illegally. This time, however, the legal system in China had changed so much that no one beat him or shouted at him. They even gave him a lawyer to help with his defense. Still, he was considered guilty even before the trial. The judge sentenced him to eight years in prison, something Zhang now thought he could not endure. He was getting too old for this, his health was deteriorating, and he lacked strength for the hard labor required of the inmates. God comforted him, however, and provided him with many hours of free time by himself, during which he would pray. He got to know his cellmates and shared the gospel with most of them individually.
One day he was told to write a confession, but Zhang refused. In the new legal environment, this defiance did not bring a beating; the officials just took the pen and paper and left. In 2007, Zhang suffered a paralyzing stroke and was rushed to the prison hospital. Again, he met far different treatment from previous prison experiences. The staff did all they could to help him recover. He had plenty of food and could be visited by his wife.
He obtained a Bible, which he read daily and which he used in the fellowship meetings he held with other prisoners. Somehow, he was able to keep it hidden from the prison guards. “Any book you read can leave an impression on you, but when you read only one book day after day and hour after hour, it will leave more than an impression. And when the book is the Word of God, it will transform you... Like a river, its words had flowed into my heart, changed my life one word at a time, and then flowed into the lives of others as I shared them.” (234-235)
In 2010, nine months before his eight-year sentence was to end, the authorities announced that Zhang would be released because of his failing health. Before he left the prison, he writes, “I started to make my rounds and prepare all of the brothers for my upcoming departure. I appointed leaders for the small cell groups and disciple them on how to lead. I taught intensive evangelism classes to prepare them for sharing the gospel with other prisoners after I left. I had them commit to Bible verse memorization and showed them how to search the Bible for the answers they needed.” (234) When he did leave, he gave his precious Bible to one of the cell group leaders.
As he walked toward the prison gate, hundreds of prisoners waved towels and sheets out their windows to say goodbye. He realized then that his previous idea that God has sent him to Kaifeng prison to make him stronger was incomplete. “I realized how selfish those thoughts had been. No, it was not about me at all – it was about them, and, ultimately, it was about God’s glory. It was about God’s love being known to all men – even those at Kaifeng Prison – for His glory alone.” (226)
Zhang has no regrets: “I count it a privilege to have suffered for the name of my Lord Jesus Christ. Through all the lonely nights and hopeless situations, He has never left me nor forsaken me.” (17)
Life after Prison – Again
He returned to find that the church had flourished in his absence. His oldest son, whom he had placed in charge, had taken over the daily affairs of running the ministry. Like his father, this son was now constantly on the run from the police, but the church continued to grow. His wife, too, shared the sufferings that come from being married to a “criminal.” During the years of Zhang’s imprisonment, though her fugitive son could not care for her, Christians had supplied his wife all that she needed.
Zhang’s greatest sorrow comes from knowing that “somewhere in the world we have three beautiful grandchildren growing up [in America] whom we are not able to be with. Whenever the holidays come around, the loneliness of not being around [them] is deafening, and it grows only louder and more painful with age.” (228)
His church, along with others in China, are sending workers to the most gospel-starved and difficult places in the world. The “Back to Jerusalem” movement, of which he is one leader, expresses the determination of Chinese Christians to take the message of Christ through Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East, through Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim nations, until they have fulfilled the Great Commission.
Meanwhile, Zhang continues to receive regular visits from the police. “They want to know where I am and what I’m doing. It’s hard to imagine, but the police officers and I have actually grown old together. Many of the officers have been chasing me their entire careers.” While he was sharing his memories with the person who actually wrote his autobiography, the police, of course, knew everything. One night, they invited him to dinner. His relationship with them was such that they allowed him to say a blessing before the meal.
After the blessing, the police chief leaned over to him and said, “You know, Zhang, it would be interesting if you wrote about your life one day. . . If you do write a book, what would you say? You are not getting younger, you know, and it would be a shame to see you arrested again.” (231)
Zhang writes, “I don’t know if my book will ever be distributed in China, but if it ever is, I would like to give the first copies to my dear old friends in the police department.” (231
G. Wright Doyle
Zhang, Rongliang with Eugene Bach, I Stand with Christ: the Courageous Life of a Chinese Christian. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2015.