Xi Shengmo, whose birth name was Xi Zizhi, was born into a literary class family of traditional Chinese medical doctors in Western Zhang village near Linfen, Shanxi Province. Young Xi received traditional Chinese education which would one day place him among the ranks of the learned Confucian scholars. Among his friends, he was a high-spirited boy, very forceful in character and a born leader. But, when alone, there were always questions about human life, perplexing and disturbing him, and he longed for an answer to the problem of existence. When his father passed away, his estate was divided. Young Xi purchased a farm on the outskirts of the town. He now became a Confucian scholar who in 1851 obtained Xiu Cai (BA), the first of three literary degrees. He soon won the esteem of the humble villagers and was asked to mediate in quarrels, law suits and other emergencies. As a result, his reputation for wisdom spread far and wide.
But with Xi, happiness and rest of soul were not purchased by such paltry trifles. His first wife passed way, leaving no children, and Confucianism did nothing to still the tumult of his soul. His study of Chinese classics, while stimulating the intellectual side of his nature, did not bring peace. At the age of thirty, he was married again, to a girl in her late teens, who became a loving and understanding wife. But the continued conflict in Xi’s soul was affecting his health. When friends suggested that an occasional use of the opium could do no harm and might bring relief, he decided to test its merits.
Temporary exhilaration was followed by a deeper depression of spirit than he had suffered before, however. He soon became an addict and resorted to opium again and again, until he was only a shadow of his former self. Committed to death by his wife and friends, he was dressed in his best clothing and laid on his bed, awaiting the moment of departure. To his great relief, his world-weary spirit seemed to be leaving the body. Suddenly it was arrested by the authoritative command, “Go back! Go back!” Sadly, the order was obeyed and the sick man found himself again facing the realities of life. After his conversion, Xi never conceded that what had happened was the fantasy of a distorted mind, but felt rather that it was the voice of God.
In 1877, a famine of fearful proportions stalked Shanxi province. For several years, there was no rain and, consequently, no crops. Thousands of people perished from hunger, diseases or suicide. In the midst of the distress, it was learned that two foreigners, David Hill (British Methodist missionary) and Timothy Richard (British Baptist missionary), had come to a nearby town. They wore Chinese dress, distributing food and money to the starving people. They also brought with them a religion of which the people of Shanxi never had heard.
With the end of the severe famine in 1879, Hill and Richard conducted a unique type of literature evangelism at the time of the triennial examinations in Taiyuan, and offered prizes for the best literary essays on Christian themes, which covered such subjects as opium, images of the gods, and the regulation of the heart and life; the essays sought to lead scholars to examine the Christian faith.
Urged on by his family to prove his prowess, Xi wrote four essays under four different names, and submitted them for examination. When the results were announced, he won three out of the four prizes offered. He went reluctantly to collect the prize from Hill at the missionary’s house in Pingyang, accompanied by his brother-in-law. Later Xi described the meeting:
As daylight banished darkness, so did Mr. Hill’s presence dissipate all the idle rumors I had heard. All sense of fear was gone; my mind was at rest. I beheld his kindly eye and remembered the words of Mencius: ‘If a man’s heart is not right, his eye will certainly bespeak it.’ That face told me I was in the presence of a true, good man.
Xi became Hill’s assistant in writing literary tracts and translating the New Testament. Within two months, he became a Christian and accepted Hill’s help in breaking his addiction to opium. After Xi started to read the Bible, the Book began to exert a great influence upon him, giving him hope of deliverance from the dreadful habit of opium smoking. One day, as he was reading the story of the crucifixion, he fell on his knees, with the Bible before him, weeping as he read. At that moment, he felt that the dying, yet living Savior, enfolded his weary soul in his great love. His search was ended; peace like a river became his portion. The slave of sin was now and forever the bond-servant of God.
This peace did not last long, however; for a week, Xi neither ate nor slept. In the fierce combat between good and evil, he experienced almost every agony known to the human body. Weakness, faintness, dizziness, exhaustion, fever, chills, depression—-all attacked his enfeebled frame. When the struggle was most critical, the addict cried out, “Though I die, I never will touch opium again.” Through prayer “without ceasing” and Bible reading, it was revealed to him that only the Holy Spirit could enable him to conquer in the conflict. Xi said later of the Spirit:
He did what man and medicine could not do. From that moment, my body was perfectly at rest. Then I knew that to break off opium without faith in Jesus would indeed be impossible.
He was finally delivered from opium bondage and became a new man. When this victory over opium was won, Xi adopted the name Shengmo, meaning “conqueror of demons.” Along with a sense of abundant grace given him came an intense longing to spread the possibility of such an experience to men near and far. Soon he became convinced that he was commissioned by God to do that very thing.
Thus, in a very brief time, he was converted, committed to holiness of life, and feeling a call to preach the Gospel. After Hill received a new appointment and returned to Hankou, Xi was baptized in November 1880 at Pingyang by J. C. Turner, missionary with the China Inland Mission (CIM). Subsequently he worked with CIM missionaries in pioneer evangelism in Shanxi and surrounding areas. His education, forceful personality, and spiritual gifts, together with a fervent faith expressed in a deep prayer life, quickly led to his emergence as a spiritual leader.
Now the opium-drugged victims of Shanxi occupied Xi’s attention. The wide-spread use of the opiate required earnest and intense effort if the enslaved were to be rescued. His first attempt to do so was in a small town near his village. Since they were short of funds, Mrs. Xi sold some of her precious bridal garments and jewelry. They rented a shop and stocked it with medicines, and furnished it with Christian texts on the walls.
For twenty years, the system adopted in this area became a pattern for between forty and fifty others that were opened as refuges for the users of opium. In each station, hundreds of persons were treated with pills that eventually Xi made himself by a secret formula which he believed was revealed to him by God. Loving care, presentation of Gospel truth, and much prayer led to the liberation of thousands of addicts, who then carried the news of their freedom to others. Every new patient was expected to attend daily prayer sessions. Indeed, only those willing to make prayer a major factor in their treatment were admitted. The pills, which took the place of expensive, imported ones, the supply of which had often failed at a crucial time, were the fruit of a season of fasting and prayer, plus Xi’s knowledge of native drugs.
His notable achievement was to establish as many as 50 opium refuges in four provinces; these also functioned as centers for church planting. One of the largest of these centers was at Hongtong County, thirty miles north of Pingyang. These refuges were run by reformed addicts who had come through his system, first as patients, then as converts, evangelists, and assistant refuge keepers. Churches established as a result of the outreach by opium refuges were made up largely of recovered addicts.
Xi remarked that his Christian life was a very real and constant warfare with the powers of Satan. His battle to develop that most effective evangelistic spearhead, the opium refuge project, met with opposition and difficulties. The only thing he could do was to ignore criticism and resist Satan with spiritual weapons. He relied on the strength of God, rather than his own. At times he became conscious of great fatigue and weakness, and these occasions became the call to much prayer and fasting, for it was in this way that he could know that some immediate, perplexing problem was to be prayed through. Always when he thought the will of God was ascertained, or the problem resolved, the unusual energy which was “usual” for him—- and which he considered to be from God—-was regained and the work resumed.
Xi also developed a utopian community called Middle Eden, where he worshipped and ministered together with family members, 50 or 60 disciples, and many recovering opium addicts. Many of the hymns used in churches and the opium refuges were composed by Xi. These were published as Xi Shengmo Hymns by the Shanghai Presbyterian Press in 1912.
Xi was an independent, strong-willed man. For the most part, he was respectful in his relationships with the Western missionaries, although some of them fiercely proud themselves noted that he frequently manifested an anti-foreign attitude. Not all agreed with his charismatic emphasis, his desire for control, nor his use of opium refuges as the principal method in his evangelism. Despite character weaknesses of impatience, dogmatism, and authoritarianism, which mellowed with years, he eventually came to exercise a ministry widely described as apostolic. His pastoral gifts leadership were recognized in 1886 when Hudson Taylor ordained him as superintending pastor over a wide area in Shanxi. Three groups of missionaries—-the seven CIM missionaries known as the Cambridge Seven, CIM single women, and CIM missionaries from Scandinavia—-worked under Xi’s direction. This reflected Taylor’s conviction that Western missionaries were merely the “scaffolding” in the building of an indigenous Chinese church.
In 1895, Xi planned a conference in his own home village with the purpose of enlarging the refuge work. Two hundred persons were present, and the last sermon that he preached was unusually solemn. At the close of the conference, he decided to visit Mr. Dixon Hoste, who later was to succeed Hudson Taylor as General Director of the China Inland Mission.
In the midst of genial conversation with Hoste, Xi fell to the ground unconscious. He rallied, suffering more from weakness than from pain. Within weeks, signs of a serious heart problem developed. For six months he remained with those who loved him. Xi ceased his labor and entered into everlasting rest on February 19, 1896.
- Taylor, Mrs. Howard, Pastor Hsi: Confucian Scholar and Christian (1900; rev. 1949, 1989).
- Austin, Alvyn James, “Pilgrims and Strangers: The China Inland Mission in Britain, Canada, the United States and China 1865-1990” (Ph. D. diss., York University, North York, Ontario, 1996).
- Broomhall, A. J., Assault on the Nine, Book 6: of Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century (1988).
- Latourette, Kenneth Scott, A History of Christian Missions in China (1966).