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Authors Note: Sincere thanks to Professor Daniel Bays and a second reader for their helpful
reviews of this article, and to Anne McLaren and Antonia Finnane for commenting on earlier
versions. I am grateful also to a Hong Kong friend for providing research materials, and to Tian
fengs editorial board for permission to reproduce the illustration that appears as Figure 1.
Cult, Church, and the CCP
Introducing Eastern Lightning
Emily C. Dunn
Asia Institute
The University of Melbourne
Eastern Lightning, also known as the Church of Almighty God, teaches that
Jesus has returned to earth as a Chinese woman. It originated in Chinas rural
north in the early 1990s and is now the largest Christian-related new religious
movement. This article provides an introduction to the groups beliefs, and
the ways the Chinese government and Chinese Protestants have responded to
it. It finds that while posing a very contemporary challenge for the Chinese
state and Protestant communities, Eastern Lightning also reflects the influ-
ence of heterodox religious traditions that stretch back far into Chinas past.
Keywords: Eastern Lightning; religion; heterodoxy; cult; Christianity
n April 2002, thirty-four leaders of a Protestant house church network
were kidnapped by a Christian-related new religious movement popu-
larly known as Eastern Lightning, and held against their will for several
weeks in an attempt by the movement to convert them. While all were even-
tually released, the scale and audacity of the act shocked many in the
Chinese Protestant community; the China Gospel Fellowship (Zhonghua
fuyin tuanqi) set up a website largely devoted to recounting it.
Indeed, such
a dramatic event captures the imagination and invites inquiry. What does
Eastern Lightning believe? How is it organized, and how does it relate to
religious and political authorities? In addressing these questions, this arti-
cle finds that while posing a very contemporary challenge for the Chinese
state and Protestant communities, Eastern Lightning also reflects the influ-
ence of religious traditions stretching back far into Chinas past.
Eastern Lightning (Dongfang shandian), also known as the Church of
Almighty God (Quannengshen jiaohui) and Real God or Practical God
Modern China
Volume 35 Number 1
January 2009 96-119
2009 Sage Publications
hosted at
Dunn / Cult, Church, and the CCP 97
(Shijishen), is said to have been founded by a man named Zhao Weishan.
group emerged from Henan province in the early 1990s. Reports of Eastern
Lightning began to appear in Chinese Protestant media around the same time,
and it was formally identified as a cult by the Ministry of Public Security in
1995. Eastern Lightning currently claims to have tens of thousands of congre-
gations throughout China and millions of members (Birth and Development
of the Church, 2006). While observers estimates are more conservative, there
seems agreement that, true to its name, Eastern Lightning has spread rapidly
across Protestant communities in rural North China.
Eastern Lightnings Cosmology
Eastern Lightning and other heterodox Protestant movements are
increasingly recognized in Western academic circles as significant to con-
temporary Chinese religious and political life, but have yet to be studied in
depth (Bays, 2003; Madsen, 2003; Chung et al., 2006). Researching
Eastern Lightning is complicated by the fact that it is suppressed in China
and there do not appear to be substantial numbers of adherents elsewhere.
However, the groups literature can be downloaded from its websites, and
comparison of these versions with hard copies distributed by Eastern
Lightning in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) confirms that the con-
tent on the web is the same as the material circulating on the ground.
texts can thus be regarded as representing the groups official doctrine,
even if they cannot tell us how individuals interpret them.
Eastern Lightnings cosmology is presented in its sacred writingsa
hefty tome entitled The Word Appeared in the Flesh (n.d.) (Hua zai roushen
Chinese Protestant reports of Eastern Lightning confirm that
adherents regard this volume as canonical, and believe it to have been writ-
ten by Eastern Lightnings deity, the Almighty God or Female Christ (a sec-
ond incarnation of Jesus; see below). The titles of the scripture have
changed over time as new pronouncements have been added; this may also
assist the group in evading detection by public security organs. Earlier ver-
sions of Eastern Lightnings scripture have included the titles Lightning
from the East (Dongfang fachu de shandian) and The Holy Spirit Speaks to
the Churches (Shengling xiang zhong jiaohui shuohua).
Chinese Protestant literature portrays Eastern Lightning scripture as the
ravings of an uneducated and mentally unstable person (Jing, 2002: 13334;
Zhang Dakai, n.d.: 16). The scriptures are indeed written in a colloquial
style, and in places are long-winded and repetitive. However, it must be
remembered that the sources that address them are without exception writ-
ten by opponents of the movement. Eastern Lightning has been labeled an
evil cult (xiejiao) by both the Chinese state and Protestants, and commen-
tators emphasize its distance from social, political, and religious norms.
The name Eastern Lightning is derived from the groups use of a verse
in the biblical gospel of Matthew (24:27), in which Jesus talks about his
future return to earth and the end of the age: For as lightning that comes
from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son
of Man.
Eastern Lightning interprets this as prophesying that a second
incarnation of God will come from China (the east), and that its teachings
will eventually spread to Western nations. Christ is proclaimed to have
returned in the form of the Female Christ (n jidu); Genesis 1:27 (So
God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.) is alluded to in arguing that God is both
mindful of women, and is also partly female himself:
Supposing, when God became flesh, he only came as a male, wouldnt
people decide that God was a man and that he was a mans God? They would
never think that he was a womans God too. Then men would think of God
as having the male gender and as being the head of men. What about women?
This wouldnt be fair. Wouldnt it be biased? In this way, all those that God
saves would be men like he is, and no women would be saved. When God
created mankind, he created Adam and Eve. He didnt only create Adam, but
created Adam and Eve according to his image. God isnt only the Lord of
men. He is also the God of women. (Vision of the Work, n.d.)
While the doctrine of the Female Christ is central to Eastern Lightnings
cosmology, the female nature of God is less prominent in Eastern
Lightnings writings than outsiders commentaries on the group would lead
one to believe. As evident in the above quotation, scriptures write more of
the Almighty God than the Female Christ and usually refer to God in
male terms. In early 2006, the English translation of Eastern Lightning
scripture began to use she and her to refer to God, but only sporadi-
cally; the Chinese text still uses the masculine forms.
Eastern Lightning sources do not reveal the precise identity of the
Female Christ. Biographical information is scant, though we are told that
she is a virgin and participated in a house church (or family gathering)
prior to the formation of the group. The Female Christ apparently looks
just the same as an ordinary person (Church of Almighty God, 2006: 85,
415, 467); the most extensive description of her upbringing in northern
China likewise emphasizes its ordinariness:
98 Modern China
Christ was born into an ordinary family in the northern part of China. Ever
since she was a child, she has known in her heart that there is a God. She
gradually grew up as an ordinary person does. In 1989 when the Holy Spirit
was doing great works in family gatherings, Christ dropped out of school and
formally entered the family church.
(A Brief Introduction, 2006)
Some reports claim that the Female Christ worshipped by devotees is
a Chinese woman with the surname Deng who failed her university
entrance exam, was subsequently possessed by a demon and suffered a
mental breakdown, and now lives in secrecy in a cave in Henan (Forney,
2001; Jing, 2002: 130; Zhang Dakai, n.d.: 7). This description bears strik-
ing resemblance to that of earlier sectarian leaders such as Hong Xiuquan,
and the likeness may be invoked by detractors to cast doubt on Eastern
Lightnings credibility. However, Eastern Lightnings website vehemently
denies that the Female Christ is a Miss Deng of Henan (Analyzing and
Refuting the Four Main Rumors, 2004), and there is no mention of a
woman named Deng in Eastern Lightning scripture. While there may, then,
be some divergence between the writings of Eastern Lightning and the
beliefs of adherents in China, this would be by far the most significant devi-
ation to my knowledge.
In Eastern Lightnings texts, the advent of the Female Christ is repre-
sented as the culmination of six thousand years of divine work. Eastern
Lightning holds that the Almighty God has implemented a six thousand
year management plan (liuqiannian jingying jihua) and that his interaction
with humankind has been marked by stages. According to Eastern
Lightning, in the Age of Law (lfa shidai), God revealed himself as Yahweh,
guiding the Israelites (as per the Old Testament). In the Age of Grace
(endian shidai), God revealed himself as Jesus and suffered crucifixion to
redeem humankind (as per the New Testament), but did not rid humans of
their sinful nature. In these end times known as the Age of the Kingdom
(guodu shidai), God has revealed himself as the Almighty God and the
Female Christ, and has come to perfect humans by conquering them:
. . . as Yahweh was Gods name in the Age of the Law, in the Age of Grace,
the name Jesus represented God; in the end times, his name is Almighty God.
He is the Almighty, and he guides man by his power. He conquers man and
possesses man and eventually ends the ages. In each age, and in each stage
of the work, all can see Gods nature. (Vision of the Work, n.d.)
The antithesis of the Almighty God is the devil Satan, whom Eastern
Lightning says has become embodied as a great red dragon. This follows
Dunn / Cult, Church, and the CCP 99
the book of Revelation, which records an apocalyptic vision in which a
great red dragon (da honglong) represents the devil (chap. 12). Eastern
Lightnings texts identify the red dragon with the Chinese Communist Party
(CCP) and its suppression of the group; an About Us statement on
Eastern Lightnings website describes China as the land in which the great
red dragon is entrenched and a fortress of the demons and a prison con-
trolled by the devil (A Brief Introduction, 2006; see also Expansion of
the Work, 2006).
Eastern Lightning is not the first heterodox Protestant group to feature
the big red dragon in its cosmology; Hong Xiuquan, leader of the Taiping
Rebellion, also developed his idea of the devil with reference to the dragon
or old serpent of Revelation (Boardman, 1952: 8082; Shih, 1961: 16).
Christians in contemporary China have sometimes equated the dragon of
the Bible with that of Chinese traditions, and interpreted national misfor-
tunes and individual maladies as evidence of Gods displeasure at venera-
tion of the dragon (Geng, 2004; Wang, 1985). Tales abound of pious
Christians smashing housewares that bear the dragon motif, and some
reportedly preach that as descendents of the dragon (long de chuanren),
Chinese people are particularly sinful (Wan, 1997; Zhao, 1996: iv).
Nor are Eastern Lightning adherents the first to be charged with com-
paring the CCP with the devil-dragon; some Protestant preachers were
accused of this in the late 1950s (Liaoning sheng, 1957: 4; Zhejiang
sheng, 1957: 18), and in the early 1980s, the China Christian Councils
magazine reported that Protestants were using the dragon to engage in
counterrevolutionary propaganda (Wang, 1983). Eastern Lightnings treat-
ment of the dragon is thus a fine example of the ways in which its cosmol-
ogy engages with both Chinese Protestant and broader cultural traditions.
Eastern Lightning presents its teachings as fulfilling the prophecies of
both Old and New Testaments, but also argues that overzealous adherence
to the Bible and misinterpretation of it prevent Christians from accepting
Gods new work (A Statement about the Bible, n.d.). Protestant sources
engage in theological critique of Eastern Lightnings cosmology, highlight-
ing its divergence from conventional Christian and biblical teaching. While
not attempting such an examination here, it is worth noting that Eastern
Lightning doctrine does indeed depart from Christian canon. The represen-
tation of God as having a different nature and executing different agendas
in three different ages, for example, is at odds with the Christian belief in
the immutability of Gods nature and the continuity of his purposes and his
plan for the salvation of humankind throughout history. Eastern Lightnings
doctrinal reliance on new revelations would also seem inconsistent with the
100 Modern China
Christian upholding of Jesus life, death, and resurrection and the biblical
record as the basis of religious knowledge.
Furthermore, many elements of Eastern Lightnings worldview are con-
gruent with those of popular religions. The doctrine of the three ages, for
example, resonates with the division of history into three cosmic eras
(kalpic cycles) by millenarian sects and secret societies, most notably from
the late Ming period. These groups referred to the world in which they lived
as the Eastern Land (Dongtu; Overmyer, 1976: 135), and believed that a
divine representative was dispatched to bring people back to the Eternal
Mother (Wusheng Laomu) during each era (Naquin, 1976: 9; Overmyer,
1976: 139). She had dispatched the Lamp-lighting Buddha in the past (the
period of green [qing] yang), the Sakyamuni Buddha in the present
(the period of red yang), and would send the Buddha Maitreya in the future
(the period of white yang) (Li, [1948] 1990: 32). The elements of the east,
a female deity, and three cosmic eras each with a divine messenger sent by
a parent deity thus feature in the cosmologies of both Eastern Lightning and
earlier Chinese religious traditions.
In concluding his study of folk Buddhist sects, Overmyer called for
future scholarship to explore, among others, the question How did teach-
ings about Jesus and the church look to one raised in a belief context of
mother goddesses, charismatic healers and hope for a future saviour?
(1976: 2034). Studies of Christianity in contemporary China have pointed
to areas of convergence between Christianity and popular religious tradi-
tions in seeking to account for rural communities embracing of it. Madsen,
for example, has observed similarities between Catholics conceptualization
of the Virgin Mary and White Lotus groups fascination with the Eternal
Mother (2003: 27778; see also Bays, 2003: 49697; Hunter and Chan,
1993: chap. 4; Rubinstein, 1996). Consideration of Eastern Lightnings cos-
mology may likewise help us in addressing Overmyers question.
The Organization of Eastern Lightning
The growth and development of Eastern Lightning has been facilitated
not only by the syncretic nature of its beliefs, but also by its organizational
structure and norms of participation. Information about the organization of
Eastern Lightning can be extracted from the Handbook of Principles for
Church Work (Jiaohui gongzuo yuanze shouce), which is distributed to
church leaders and was available online in early 2006. The principal offices
in the church hierarchy are Inspector (Jianchayuan), Regional Leader
Dunn / Cult, Church, and the CCP 101
(Qu dailing), Coordinator (Banshiyuan), Subregional Leader (Xiaoqu dailing),
Subregional Pastoral Worker (Xiaoqu jiaoguan jiaohui zhi ren), Church
Leader (Jiaohui dailing), and Deacon for Evangelism (Chuan fuyin zhishi).
The primary responsibilities of each are to report to their superiors, and to
supervise and guide those under their care into the Truth (Jiaohui
gongzuo yuanze shouce, 2006: chap. 1). Such a configuration enables
Eastern Lightning to coordinate activities across regions and maintain a
measure of internal cohesion.
Chinese reports of Eastern Lightning and other cults often cite their
financial resources and overseas connections as evidence of their subver-
sive threat (Announcement, [2000] 2003: 80); such discourses are con-
sistent with the anti-imperialist ideology promulgated by the state and
registered religious associations since the early 1950s. The source of fund-
ing for the books and compact discs that Eastern Lightning distributes to
believers and prospective recruits is not clear; church regulations state that
believers are not required to contribute financially to the church because
most are poor peasants, though their contributions are accepted if they are
particularly eager to give (Jiaohui gongzuo yuanze shouce, 2006: chap. 6).
Eastern Lightnings founder reportedly moved to the United States in the
1990s (Aikman, 2003: 243) and its homepage gives contact details in New
York state, so it is possible that finances for the publishing work and inter-
net sites are secured by a small number of believers there. There is, how-
ever, no other clear evidence of international linkages.
Eastern Lightning exhibits strong norms of participation. Proselytizing
is presented as a central part of religious life and a duty common to all
believers; certainly, the movement could not have grown without members
sharing their faith (Shixing zhenli, n.d.). As is discussed below, this often
occurs through kinship and friendship networks, but Eastern Lightning also
dispatches evangelists throughout China, suggesting a significant capacity
for mobilization and organization across time and space.
Other religious activities, too, involve high levels of commitment.
Eastern Lightnings anonymous leadership suggests, but does not stipulate,
that each congregation meet three times per week for two hours at a time
(Jiaohui gongzuo yuanze shouce, 2006: chap. 24). The Plans for Church
Life in 2006 (Jiaohui gongzuo yuanze shouce, 2006: chap. 24) suggests
that each service open with prayer and hymns. Only hymns approved by the
upper levels of Eastern Lightnings hierarchy are permitted to be sung;
these are circulated among the congregations in book and/or CD format
(Gensuizhe gaoyang chang xinge, n.d.).
As the service continues,
members listen to a reading of Eastern Lightning scripture followed by a
102 Modern China
sermon. There then follows a time of fellowship (jiaotong), during which
members of the congregation are encouraged to speak, presumably to share
their reflections on the passage just heard or their own religious experience.
After this, the service may conclude with more hymns and another prayer.
Many of these activities are congruent with common Protestant styles of
worship, but probably provide more opportunity for participation than those
Protestant services that are attended by large numbers of believers.
Despite Eastern Lightnings organizational capacity, there is also evi-
dence that churches are afforded a significant degree of discretion and
autonomy in their religious practices:
There are many kinds of meeting styles: singing hymns, dancing, praying,
and consuming Gods Word can all be used creatively. . . . Each church is to
arrange how many times per week it will meet. You can meet more in the
agricultural slack season; in the future, when the [security] environment per-
mits, you can also have large meetings. The churches themselves are in
charge of these matters; the upper levels do not plan them. (Jiaohui gongzuo
yuanze shouce, 2006: chap. 10.3)
Such decentralization is consistent with the organization of both folk
Protestantism and other religions in rural areas, and reinforced by practical
considerations. The small size, high frequency, and remote location of meet-
ings complicate supervision; there are also security advantages in maintaining
independence. Thus, while accounts of Eastern Lightning present a picture of
a highly structured and well-oiled operation (for example, Wu, 2005: 103), it
is likely that in practice, small groups of adherents go largely unmonitored by
the organizations leadership, paving the way for diversity in religious belief
and practice. Indeed, Eastern Lightning admonishes adherents against enter-
ing into disputes, departing from church doctrine, and recruiting others to form
factions (Jiaohui gongzuo yuanze shouce, 2006: chap. 24), suggesting that the
movement is far from uniform and unified.
Cult and the CCP
The CCP, however, is not taking any chances. Tensions between ortho-
dox and heterodox forces have an illustrious history in China. From the
Yellow Turbans of the Han dynasty to the Falun Gong vigil of 1999, reli-
gious movements have demonstrated a capacity to command allegiance,
generate social instability, and threaten hegemonic rulers. The Taiping
Dunn / Cult, Church, and the CCP 103
Rebellion (18511864) instructs us that heterodox Christian movements are
no exception.
In a speech made in September 2000, Bi Rongsheng, the deputy direc-
tor of the Religion Section of the Public Security Department in Hebei
province, warned colleagues:
In order to safeguard . . . state power and national security, we must heighten
political consciousness and take efficient measures to completely contain the
spread of [Eastern Lightning]. Otherwise it will disturb peoples thought and
seriously endanger the rule of the Party and socialist system as a result.
(Announcement, [2000] 2003: 70)
The Chinese state views Eastern Lightningas other religious move-
ments before itas challenging its authority, and hence as a target of sup-
pression. As Eastern Lightning has been identified as a cult, it falls within
the scope of legislative and administrative frameworks erected amidst the
mass anticult campaign against Falun Gong. In 1999, the National Peoples
Congress Legislative Resolution on Banning Heretical Cults confirmed
the illegality of heterodox organizations and called for the education and
mobilization of all corners of society in preventing and fighting against
cult activities (Full Text, 1999); the State Councils Office for Guarding
Against and Dealing With Cults (Fangfan he chuli xiejiao wenti bangong-
shi) was established in February 2001 (Kupfer, 2004: 275). Eastern
Lightning has been assessed as another evil force next to the cult Falun
Gong (Announcement, [2000] 2003: 66), and is subject to similar, if
lower-profile, political and legal sanctions.
In his speech, Bi demonstrated the need to stamp out Eastern Lightning by
alleging that it had planned an armed revolt in October 1999 (the fiftieth
anniversary of the founding of the PRC), that its core members had been
lites of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, and that they had incited fol-
lowers to pray there in anticipation of the end of the world (Announcement,
[2000] 2003: 6869). Eastern Lightning does proclaim that Heaven is to
destroy the Communist Party of China (Expansion of the Work, 2006).
However, while other heterodox Protestant movements have staged protests
in rural areas (Chung et al., 2006), Eastern Lightnings official materials
elsewhere prohibit members from participating in political activities, and
command respect for the states rule (Jiaohui gongzuo yuanze shouce,
2006: chaps. 15, 19).
These caveats are no doubt due in large part to an awareness of the costs
of political rebellion. Eastern Lightning claims that government organs
104 Modern China
have persecuted, tortured, and/or murdered over one hundred thousand of
its members (Expansion of the Work, 2006; Birth and Development of
the Church, 2006). While this is undoubtedly an exaggeration, the govern-
ment does crack down on the group. Public security organs use secret
agents to infiltrate Eastern Lightning and gather intelligence (Notice on
Further Strengthening, [1999] 2003: 63; Announcement, [2000] 2003:
7071; Birth and Development of the Church, 2006); in response, Eastern
Lightning instructs adherents to be wary of new church members and those
who have recently been detained in case they inform authorities about the
group. It also instructs adherents to meet only in groups of three to seven
people and to hide Eastern Lightning literature; leaders are told to leave their
home areas, keep their names and addresses secret, and change telephone
numbers frequently (Jiaohui gongzuo yuanze shouce, 2006: chaps. 8, 15;
Announcement, [2000] 2003: 68). Groups are not to stop meeting in times
of persecution, but rather to invent strategies to circumvent the authorities
(Jiaohui gongzuo yuanze shouce, 2006: chap. 16.3); similar tactics have
been adopted by unregistered house churches over the past few decades.
Eastern Lightning dismisses as slander government and Protestant accusa-
tions that its own leaders commit fraud and rape and other acts of violence.
Such allegations have been made of heterodox organizations since imperial
times (Yang, 1961: 19496, 210), and have been reiterated in the flood of
anticult propaganda surrounding Falun Gong. While it is impossible to verify
or disprove them, it is worth noting that nobody outside Eastern Lightning
including outside of the PRCactually supports or defends the group. This is
in contrast to overseas sympathy for Falun Gong practitioners, and Western
Christians general concern for the religious freedom of fellow believers.
Government sources note that even when authorities make arrests and
crack down on Eastern Lightning nests, they often rise from the ashes
(Bulletin, [1999] 2003: 47). Eastern Lightnings writings likewise confirm
studies of religious movements in contemporary China that have found gov-
ernment suppression to be counterproductive (Ching, 2001: 17; Feuchtwang,
2000: 172; Kindopp, 2002: 26465; Madsen, 2003: 280; Munro, 1989: 17),
suggesting that suppression has only strengthened their beliefs:
The sufferings we underwent were rewarded. In the depths of our hearts, all
of us have an even greater appreciation of the statement that Only God can
do his work. God did not make it hard on us, let alone unbearable; he just
gave us some small trials in the beginning and nothing more. We were deeply
thankful for Gods guidance, help, care and protection. (Expansion of the
Work, 2006, with some modification of translation).
Dunn / Cult, Church, and the CCP 105
In imperial times, Chinese lites perceived sectarian cosmology as
threatening because of popular belief in an intimate relationship between
kalpic and dynastic cycles. The end of a kalpa was thought to signal the end
of a dynasty, and so proclaiming its imminence was tantamount to proph-
esying the demise of the ruling dynasty. The Confucian orthodoxy thus
responded to White Lotus and numerous other religious movements with
fierce repression. The present Chinese regime similarly reads Eastern
Lightning as threatening its reign. The dragon is eventually vanquished by
angels in the Bible (Revelation 12:79), and so for Eastern Lightning to
link the CCP with the creature is tantamount not only to calling the party
demonic, but also to predicting its downfall.
Kindopp points out that the potency of Chinas evil cults lies not in their
potential to topple the state, but in their ability to disturb the regimes symbolic
order (2002). While Eastern Lightning may lack the organizational and mili-
tary resources to overthrow the CCP, its identification of the CCP with the
devilwho is soon to be destroyed by its Almighty Godcertainly chal-
lenges the partys representation of itself as ushering in a harmonious
society, and remains highly offensive to the regime. The persistence of
Eastern Lightning in the face of state suppression is evidence that, in some
cases, it is winning the battle for the hearts and minds of Christian peasants.
Cult and Church
The Chinese Protestant church has witnessed phenomenal growth over
the last quarter of a century. There were seven hundred thousand
Protestants in 1949; today, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM =
registered church) estimates sixteen million Protestants (Zhongguo
Jidujiao gaikuang, n.d.), while others suggest around eighty million
Catholics and Protestants (Aikman, 2003: 78). This Protestant fever
(Jidujiao re) has been associated with millenarianism and belief in miracles
(especially faith healing), and Eastern Lightning is but the most prolific of
many new religious movements to have taken root within this milieu. The
Shouters (Huhanpai) was the earliest, attracting attention in the early
1980s; other groups have included the Established King (Beiliwang), the
Lord God Teachings (Zhushenjiao), the Efficacious Spirit Teachings
(Linglingjiao), the Disciples (Mentuhui; also known as Narrow Gate in the
Wilderness, or Kuangye zhaimen), and the Three Grades of Servant
(Sanban puren). Eastern Lightnings founder, Zhao Weishan, was formerly
a member of the Shouters, and a (now superseded) About Us statement
106 Modern China
Dunn / Cult, Church, and the CCP 107
on Eastern Lightnings website acknowledged a link between the two
groups (Guanyu women, 2005).
Protestant communities have been concerned by Eastern Lightning (and
similar new religious movements) because they consider it heretical, and
because the vast majority of its converts are drawn from Protestant congre-
gations. Eastern Lightning focuses on evangelizing Christians because they
are thought less likely than the general population to inform the authorities
of their activities (Jiaohui gongzuo yuanze shouce, 2006), and no doubt
also because of cultural and religious similarities. Eastern Lightning tells
Christians that they are slaves to tradition who will be shut out of heaven:
If you do not seek the truth of life provided by the end-time Christ, you will
never be able to gain the commendation of Jesus, and you will never be qual-
ified to enter in through the gate of the kingdom of heaven. (Only the End-
time Christ, n.d.)
Eastern Lightning adherents believe that Gods displeasure with
Christianity is additionally manifest as judgment here and now in the form
of physical affliction. The publication Typical Cases of Leaders in
Catholicism and Christianity in Mainland China Who Resist Almighty God
Being Punished (2006) (Jidujiao gezong gepai didang quannengshen zao
chengfa de dianxing shili) records the experiences of 887 Christians
whose illness or accident, often fatal, is interpreted as being Gods judg-
ment on them for rejecting the Eastern Lightning message.
The story of a
thirty-eight-year-old woman from Henan province reads as follows:
In 1998, people told [Sun] about Gods work in the end times on multiple
occasions, but she rejected it and went around spreading rumors and hinder-
ing others from accepting the true way (zhendao). When someone preached
Gods end-time work to her once more, she hurled abuse, saying: . . . God
will surely punish you in days to come! You believe in an evil spirit, a false
Christ, Satan, the devil, a heretic, a deceiver. . . . On the night of December
26, 1999, Sun X was returning home from Changge on the back of a pedicab
(sanlunche) driven by her husband. When they passed by Yuzhou, she was
hooked by a big oncoming vehicle and dragged away. When her husband
finally found her, all that remained was internal organs and bits of flesh scat-
tered everywhere. Whoever blasphemes against God will definitely receive
retribution! (Jidujiao gezong gepai, 2005: no. 69)
Eastern Lightnings use of these testimonials in recruitment suggests that
the prospect of avoiding illness and accident is a powerful incentive to join
108 Modern China
the movement for people in rural areas, where health care is frequently
inadequate and unaffordable. Such messages resonate with Chinese reli-
gious history; as early as the Han dynasty, popular sects attributed illness
and misfortune to immorality (Seiwert, 2003: 3839, 4750, 46869). On
a more positive note, membership in Eastern Lightning may afford the
believer entry into a social network and supportive communityChristians
report that evangelists are eager to help potential converts with household
chores, and Eastern Lightning instructs church leaders to provide food and
clothing to members in need (Jiaohui gongzuo yuanze shouce, 2006: chap. 1).
Finally, Eastern Lightning adherents are promised an eternity in heaven.
Scholars have related the growth of new religious movements in post-Mao
China to the alienation and marginalization of those left behind in the
PRCs post-Deng economic boom (Munro, 1989); well before this, folk
Buddhist sects provided mutual aid and offered the promise of salvation
(Overmyer, 1981; also Seiwert, 2003: 46575). These factors seem also to
be at work in the growth of Eastern Lightning.
The Plans for Church Life in 2006 provides insight into Eastern
Lightnings extensive recruitment efforts among Protestant congregations.
It confirms reports that Eastern Lightning is most popular in Henan and
Anhui, stating that the Gospel Work has basically finished in the vast area
of the central plains, but there is still much Work to be done in the outly-
ing provinces (Jiaohui gongzuo yuanze shouce, 2006: chap. 24). The itin-
erant nature of some evangelism is evident as instructions for hosting
evangelists from other provinces are given; host families are to provide up
to four dishes per meal in prosperous areas, and just two dishes in poor
areas (Jiaohui gongzuo yuanze shouce, 2006: chap. 8.3).
While distant provinces are in need of proselytizing, Eastern Lightning
adherents are instructed to focus on winning friends and family rather than
strangers. The church handbook confirms that networks of personal con-
nections (guanxi) are crucial to its growth:
In the past, several styles of evangelism have been used with success.
Methods such as following people in the know, establishing connections
(guanxi), making friends, kindly persuasion, building affection, using both
hard and soft tactics, and a mix of all kinds of different styles have all been
used to good effect in evangelism. . . . At the moment there are many mate-
rials for evangelism; giving copies of Gods Word and hymns on CD and also
testimonies is very beneficial. Lots of new people are coming in; we must
make good use of newcomers guanxi networks so as to bring even more
people in. We must conscientiously research and attend to each newcomers
guanxi network, and use our experience to achieve the highest success
Dunn / Cult, Church, and the CCP 109
ratethis is the main tactic for evangelism. In fact, most new members are
sourced from guanxi networks. (Jiaohui gongzuo yuanze shouce, 2006: chap. 4)
Prospective members must gain the consent of the local leader before
being admitted to the church, but no entrance rituals are prescribed.
Churches should guard against those who may inform the authorities of the
group or are too evil or too leftist (guozuo): Provided the person is not
too wicked, too bad, or too evil, and in their heart they truly believe that the
Almighty God is the Word become flesh, you should admit them into the
church (Jiaohui gongzuo yuanze shouce, 2006: chap. 4).
Chinese Protestants portray Eastern Lightnings proselytizers as decep-
tive infiltrators who reveal their belief system only after establishing rela-
tionships within the church community, and prey on drastically misguided
but essentially well-intentioned victims. Like secular sources, they also
allege that Eastern Lightning sometimes resorts to abduction and violence
to win convertsbroken limbs and slashed ears were reportedly inflicted
on nine Protestants in Henan province in 1998 (Jing, 2000; Zhu, 2003:
Representative of these narratives is this from Anhui:
Beginning in 1998, the church met with attack from Lightning, and lots of
coworkers (tonggong) and believers were confused and led astray. Over the last
two years, their influence has been everywhere in the towns and countryside.
They use all sorts of ruses to attack the church and steal coworkers, such as
begging for food, pretending to be looking for someone, and mending shoes
and umbrellas. Sometimes they even use threats and intimidation. (Yi, 2004)
Aside from Eastern Lightnings proselytizing strategy, the TSPM attrib-
utes transmission of its teachings (and indeed all other manner of heresy)
to the low suzhi (literally, quality) of Protestants in rural areas, where
Eastern Lightning thrives and 70 to 80 percent of Chinese Protestants live.
The need to improve believers quality of faith (xinyang suzhi) is widely
presented as one of the most pressing tasks confronting the Chinese church.
At the Seventh National Christian Conference in 2002, the president of the
China Christian Council reported:
At present these heresies are mainly active in rural areas and small towns,
because rural Christians educational level is lower and they lack a correct
understanding of Christian truth; there is also a serious lack in rural villages of
pastors with theological training. These serious facts tell us that if we do not
pay attention to rural church work, and strive to raise the quality of believers
there, the future of all Christianity in China will be affected. (Cao, 2002a: 17)
The rise of Eastern Lightning and Christians poor suzhi is thus related
to Chinas shortage of trained ministers. In 2006, just 878 students gradu-
ated from various theological training courses to serve the sixteen million
Protestants recognized by the TSPM. Of these, sixty-six were from a two-
year theology course in Henan, which has over one million Protestants
(Bible School and Theological Seminary Graduates, 2006). That the
China Gospel Fellowship leaders kidnapped in 2002 were lured into
Eastern Lightnings trap by the false promise of much-needed training from
a theological institute in Singapore reflects a similar state of affairs in house
churches (China Gospel Fellowship, 2002). One Christian told how Inner
Mongolians desire to learn about God enabled Eastern Lightning to pene-
trate communities there:
Were very poor here, and lacking in spiritual resources, but our brothers and
sisters have a real thirst for the Lord. Concerning those who come here from
elsewhere to teach the Bible, brothers and sisters come swarming, and forget
that they should discern whether what theyre being taught is correct. Heresy
often infiltrates through this. Inner Mongolians are very hospitable and solic-
itous toward guests from elsewhere. Providing food and accommodation is
the least they will do. So it was easy for Eastern Lightnings people to infil-
trate the clans and steal believers, and many fellow Protestants turned to
them. (Dongfang shandian rongyi shenru Neimenggu, 2004)
Protestant churches believe that their flocks are less likely to fall for
Eastern Lightnings tricks given proper teaching, and thus theological
education programs are an important part of the churches campaign against
heterodoxy. The China Christian Council has launched training centers for
volunteers and held courses for grassroots evangelists; it has also released
several books and published numerous articles in its magazine, Tian feng,
which expound the basics of Christianity and the dangers and doctrinal pit-
falls of heresies (yiduan) (Jing, 2002; Luo, 2004: 95; Zhao, 1996).
A cartoon strip, Sister Martha (Mada zimei), which appeared in issues
of Tian feng for several years beginning in 1997, is reminiscent of Maoist
propaganda in its promotion of a model citizen to be emulated by the
masses, and exemplifies the mobilization of the patriotic churchs educative
apparatus in its struggle against heterodoxy. Its heroine, Martha, is a coop-
erative churchgoer (reminding her Christian brothers and sisters to be punc-
tual and dress appropriately for services) and a Good Samaritan (her
compassion symbolized by the radiant heart she holds in the serials logo;
see Figure 1), and also demonstrates unfailing devotion to the TSPM and
the CCP. This includes espousing their views on questions of orthodoxy and
110 Modern China
normal religious activities; in 1999, Martha dismissed Falun Gongs
beliefs as heretical and rejoiced at the governments legal protection of reli-
gious practices (Mao, 1999). Indeed, the creator of the series has stated that
one of its aims is to help Protestants to identify heresies (yiduan xieshuo)
(Mao, 2001).
In May 1998, Martha appeared in the cartoon Dont believe lightly
(Qie wu qing xin), warning her peers against speculation about Jesus sec-
ond coming (Mao, 1998; see Figure 1). The first and second frames of the
cartoon depict Martha urging others not to believe predictions about Jesus
return. In the third frame, Marthas peers come to her, confused by litera-
ture that reads Jesus is coming soon. Jesus told me that you should give
your money to me, stop work and await his coming. I am sent by him . . .
Martha tells them it is heresy. The final frame shows Martha resolving her
peers confusion once and for all by opening a Bible to the verses Acts 1:11
( . . . He will come back in the same way you have seen him go into
heaven) and Matthew 25:13 (Therefore keep watch, because you do not
know the day or the hour), which the final caption echoes.
Mao Songen, the series author and illustrator, chose the biblical char-
acter of Martha as a role model for Chinas Protestants because of her
recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and her diligent Christian service (Mao,
2001; see John 11:27). The irony of this choice is that in the Bible, Martha
was also rebuked by Jesus for being preoccupied with tasks of hospitality
when he visited her home instead of listening to his teaching like her sister
(Luke 10:3842). House churches and their overseas supporters imply that
the TSPM shares Marthas weakness: that its desire to serve society has
been at the cost of promoting the central Christian message of justification
through faith (see, for example, Fu, 2003: 8).
Indeed, while all Protestants deplore Eastern Lightning, differences in
the way this is expressed reflect broader cleavages. The TSPMs discour-
agement of Eastern Lightningstyle millenarian speculation is couched in
Protestant discourses, but the influence of its commitment to the united
front on its war on cults can be seen as it describes heterodox Christian
groups as disturbing social order, antigovernment, and unpatriotic
(Resolution on Opposing Evil Cults, 2002). In addition, some of the
TSPMs efforts against heresies over the past decade have occurred under
the auspices of its project of Theological Reconstruction, which TSPM
patriarch K. H. Ting (Ding Guangxun) has stated aims to respond to Jiang
Zemins call to actively lead religion into mutual adaptation with socialist
Dunn / Cult, Church, and the CCP 111
112 Modern China
Some things unsuitable to socialist society that were drawn out of faith in the
past should be set aside, or at least be downplayed, while at the same time,
we should as much as possible draw out things which can be beneficial to a
socialist society. And that is why today we are promoting theological con-
struction. (Ting, 2000: 23)
TSPM representatives have argued that in addition to making Protestantism
more compatible with contemporary Chinese political and social life,
Theological Reconstruction will help to address the problem of heresies
(for example, Zhang, 2004: 3136). Indeed, discussions held under the ban-
ner of Theological Reconstruction have included such topics as the second
coming, divine revelation, miracles, and even the Chinese dragon (Cao,
2002b; Zhang, 2002: 9798). However, while the TSPM insists that
Theological Reconstruction will preserve the essence of Christianity, crit-
ics have characterized the program as heretical because of its attempt to
Figure 1
Qie wu qing xin (Dont Believe Lightly)
Dunn / Cult, Church, and the CCP 113
dilute (danhua) the doctrine of justification through faith in the Chinese
church (Chen, 2003; Kindopp, 2004: chap. 7). Thus, orthodoxy is contested
within Chinese Protestantism, as well as between Protestant groups and
new religious movements such as Eastern Lightning.
Eastern Lightning has targeted unregistered churches at least as
intensely as it has the TSPM. Unregistered churches, too, have devoted
resources to combat Eastern Lightning, distributing literature (for example,
Zhang Dakai, n.d.) and conducting training classes to equip their members
with the doctrinal and rhetorical tools to rebut heretical teachings. One
handbook used in such courses is divided into twelve lessons, each of
which concludes with Bible verses or a jingle (shunkouliu). The jingle that
summarizes the chapter entitled Eastern Lightnings Tricks cites exam-
ples of its members moral and theological deviance and urges Protestants
to resist the Female Christ:
Eastern Lightning employs bad tricks,
Misleading people and telling lies.
They deceive Protestants who love the Lord,
Using false names and addresses.
They feign devotion to gain trust,
And change their materials frequently.
They have the gall to tamper with the Ten Commandments;
If you refuse to follow them you will be harshly criticized.
They speak recklessly of the day of judgment,
And buy allegiancehow outrageous!
They use marriage to pull people in,
And their promiscuity is frightful.
They fake exorcisms to hoodwink people;
Their acting ability is really not bad.
Hold fast to the truth and refute Her,
Believers who belong to God shall defeat Her.
(Fangbei bianbo yiduan, n.d.: 82)
House churches have been affected by government crackdowns on
Eastern Lightning, which have in some areas resulted in indiscriminate
labeling of them as cults. However, we might also wonder whether the
existence of groups such as Eastern Lightning may engender not only
greater cooperation between registered and unregistered churches, but also
greater freedom for house churches. After all, in 2002, representatives of
the China Gospel Fellowship reported the kidnapping to authorities in
Beijing and received a sympathetic audience (China Gospel Fellowship,
2002). Perhaps, if only in some instances, authorities may be persuaded by
house churches that they are a preferable alternative to evil cults, and that
releasing pressure on them will be mutually beneficial as both church and
state seek to curb the spread of groups such as Eastern Lightning.
The writings of Eastern Lightning and Protestant communities reflect a
warlike mentality, drawing on Ephesians 6:1017, which urges the early
church: Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand
against the devils schemes. The war between Eastern Lightning and its
Christian detractors takes place primarily in rural churches and households,
and is fought mostly in the intellectual and spiritual realms. Both parties
believe that they will ultimately prevail, that they have God on their side,
and that the events unfolding will have eternal consequences. This makes
for an intense conflict.
Concluding Remarks
Buried among the hundreds of testimonies published by Eastern
Lightning is one that deserves special attention. Xie Qiang writes from
Henan that he was formerly a group leader in the China Gospel Fellowship
(Xie, 2005). He recalls that in mid-April 2002the time at which thirty-
four members of the Fellowship were kidnappedhe was sent to Qingdao
for theological training. On the third day of the course, he realized that his
instructors were Eastern Lightning evangelists and feared for his safety, but
to his surprise, they patiently endured his insults and spent thirteen days
telling him about the Female Christ and the division of Gods work into dif-
ferent stages. Xies testimony ends with him putting his faith in the
Almighty God and urging the reader to do likewise.
The case of Eastern Lightning suggests that for the CCP and Protestant
communities, dealing with heterodoxy is far more difficult than is implied
by Sister Marthas decisive resolution of her peers confusion (figure 1).
While the state has successfully quashed several Christian-related groups in
the past and may yet prove able to suppress Eastern Lightning, the phe-
nomenon of heterodox Christianity in China seems unlikely to disappear in
the near future. Deviant groups have risen and fallen over the past twenty
years, but some form of heterodox Protestantism has persisted. This is not
surprising given the historical resilience of Chinese heterodox sects. While
Eastern Lightnings thunder may eventually fade, then, heterodox
114 Modern China
Christianity is likely to endure; though the Chinese state and Protestant
communities are determined to defeat it, they are in for a very long battle.
1. The China Gospel Fellowships website is at (accessed Nov.
27, 2006).
2. While Eastern Lightnings materials make no mention of Zhao Weishan, all other
sources credit him with founding the movement.
3. In this article, I use the term Protestant to refer to registered and unregistered
churches that are generally accepted by other believers as Protestant. I describe Eastern
Lightning and other new religious movements as heterodox Protestant or Protestant-
related because while they clearly draw on Protestant culture, they depart significantly from
it and are condemned and suppressed by both the state and mainstream Protestants. In many
cases, the boundaries between the two categories are unclear and contested. Nevertheless, it is
important to recognize the differing relationships these groups have with Protestant traditions,
as they themselves do.
4. Eastern Lightnings website is currently at On Eastern
Lightnings use of the internet, see Dunn, 2007.
5. I have obtained a hard copy of this volume and other Eastern Lightning publications,
but cite web addresses rather than page numbers in this article so as to facilitate the readers
access to the material.
6. The biblical quotations in this article are as given by the New International Version
7. Compare, for example, Dui shen xian shi zuogong de renshi with The Knowledge
of Gods Present Work (2006). This and other excerpts of Eastern Lightning scripture were
translated into English in early 2006 under the title The Scroll That the Lamb Opened
(Church of Almighty God, 2006).
8. Family church (jiating jiaohui) is more commonly translated as house church;
family gatherings (jiating juhui) may also be translated as house-church gatherings.
9. Eastern Lightnings hymns can also be downloaded in MP3 format from its website.
They consist of passages of Eastern Lightnings scripture and believers spiritual reflections
set to tunes borrowed from such sources as folk songs, popular television and movie themes,
and songs used for patriotic education from the 1950s onward. I am indebted to Haiqing Yu
for her help in verifying this.
10. The number 888 is generally considered auspicious in China; the fact that the number
of testimonies in the collection (887) is one short of this no doubt highlights the misfortune of
the books subjects to its readers.
11. Madsen (2003: 27980) recounts an instance of a Catholic slashing the ear of a fellow
believer and notes that it imitates a disciple slashing the ear of a servant of the high priests at
Jesus arrest. This suggests that the action has become a means of retribution for perceived
betrayal of faith among Christian-related religious cultures, albeit seldom employed.
12. Theological Reconstruction (shenxue sixiang jianshe, sometimes translated as
Theological Construction) became a major project of the TSPM at the Sixth National
Christian Conference in November 1998.
13. Refers to Eastern Lightnings Shen xuanmin bixu zunshou de shitiao xingzheng
(Ten items of administration that Gods elect must observe, n.d.).
Dunn / Cult, Church, and the CCP 115
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ZHU NING (2003) Jielu Dongfang shandian xiee de benzhi (Revealing the evil nature
of Eastern Lightning). Tian feng 8: 1617.
Emily Dunn is writing her dissertation on heterodoxy in contemporary Chinese Protestantism
at the University of Melbourne. She can be contacted at
Dunn / Cult, Church, and the CCP 119