Yuang Xiangchen was born in Bengbu City, Anhui province. Originally from Guangdong, his father moved to Bengbu with his family while working on the construction of the Beijing-Guangdong Railway. Yuan’s father had received a Western-style education in a Chinese college and, as a result of working with foreigners on the railroad project, his English was quite good. The family eventually settled in Beijing.
Yuan’s childhood did not bode well for his future life: An adulterous, profligate father engaged in constant conflict with an angry mother. Later, he was indulged by well-to-do grandparents and their servants, with whom mother and children lived for several years. The boy emerged with “ a rather paradoxical personality… - he was cowardly and shy yet having a profound hatred of evil; pampered yet feeling unloved; inhibited yet having a strong personality; careless yet conscientious; innocent yet depressive. He was insecure and had no intimate friends.”
There he studied English and memorized much of the Bible.
Partly as a result of his parents’ constant moving, Yuan suffered from depression as a teenager and twice attempted to commit suicide.
When Yuan was thirteen, his father was able to send him to a school where he learned both English and the Chinese classics; he also memorized passages from the Bible. Two of his teachers made a profound influence on him during these years: An American married to a Chinese whose Chinese name was Xiao Anna, and a Chinese named Shi Tianmin. Both were pious Christians. From them he learned the new science and the new social thinking promoted by Dr. Sun Yat-sen after 1911, along with the gospel of Christ. For a while he was passionately devoted to the nationalist cause, and absorbed the writings of Sun Yat-sen. When his youthful spirit could find no peace, he sought answers in Buddhism and Confucianism, but without success.
Conversion and seminary education
Though the two teachers sent him to listen to the famous Wang Mingdao, for a while he refused to accept a “foreign” religion. Finally, on an icy day in December, 1932, Yuan experienced the presence of God in such a powerful way that he repented of his sins, asked forgiveness, and submitted his life to Christ.
At once he began sharing the Gospel with friends, most of whom responded positively. After a period of instruction and a strict examination of his faith by Wang Mingdao, Yuan was baptized, but he still struggled vainly with indwelling sin and guilt, until a visiting charismatic preacher prayed for him and he was filled with the presence, power, and the peace of the Holy Spirit. At that point God’s loved flooded his heart. Yuan was connected to the “charismatic,” even Pentecostal, wing of Protestantism, but worked among, and influenced, all branches of “conservative, evangelical” Christianity.
In 1934, after finishing his first year in senior high school, he left the school and enrolled in a seminary which was affiliated with the Far East College of Theology, where he studied for four years. His parents, who wanted him to follow the “normal” path of education, a stable job, marriage and family, opposed his move, but he persevered. In 1936, he attended a national Bible reading retreat attended by two thousand Christians. He began publishing inspirational articles in 1937. He also translated a handbook for preachers from English into Chinese.
After the Japanese invaded China in 1937, his future wife, Liang Huizhen, who was also a Christian, fled with her family to Beijing, where she met Yuan. They became engaged after Yuan finished seminary. Their wedding took place in July, 1938, in Beijing, and was attended by both Chinese Christians and foreign missionaries. The bride and groom wore Western-style clothing for the ceremony, but were driven to the reception in a Chinese horse-drawn cart.
The dean of the seminary asked Yuan to remain and serve as a translator, but he choose instead to spread the gospel in rural areas. With his wife and first-born son, he went with an American missionary to preach in southern Hebei and parts of Shandong. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, American missionaries were interned. Yuan’s apartment was also looted. His mother, who was very pretty, smeared her face with soot for months to avoid being noticed by rapacious Japanese soldiers, while she and her young son hid in a cellar behind the church building.
Later, Yuan took his family to a village in the countryside, which he used as a base for itinerant preaching in other villages. Since the area was contested by Japanese and Communist forces, he had to carry two sets of papers and two kinds of currencies to pass through their check points. Formerly an urban intellectual, he now wore cotton-padded coats and ate wheat and corn buns like the local farmers.
Yuan returned to Beijing to take care of his mother, who was seriously ill, in 1945, not long before the Japanese surrendered. After the Japanese army left, he persuaded government officials to let him rent a church building that had been used by a Japanese congregation. To support his family, which now totaled seven members, he took odd jobs to pay the rent. He chose to remain when others left to escape the advance of the Communists.
Yuan’s later life was marked by intense striving for holiness; radical reliance upon the Spirit of God; burning zeal for evangelism; and the kind of fierce ecclesiastical independence that marked his mentor Wang Mingdao. All of these would bring him into prominence among the Chinese Christians and trouble with the Chinese Communist government.
He relied on unsolicited donations for support, and would not be bound by denominational ties just to have the “security” of a regular salary. “If we want to evangelize as effectively as the apostles did, we should imitate their methods.” This dependence upon God alone lost him the help of a Norwegian missionary early in his ministry in Beijing, but set him free from foreign entanglements and reliance upon the help of man.
As an evangelist, he used a variety of methods – such as singing hymns and beating a drum with his family outside the door of his church, as well as radio preaching – but he knew that only God can convict sinners and give true faith. His preaching did not centered on the core elements of the gospel – forgiveness of sins, new life, following Christ – and did not dwell on secondary matters. Hard work, persistence, and patience finally bore fruit.
After the Communists occupied Beijing, he urged other pastors to remain calm, assume that the Communists would abide by their pledge to allow religious freedom, and avoid all involvement with politics. He carried on as usual during the early days of Communist rule, though he was forbidden to continue preaching in the street. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement was opposed by outspoken pastors like Yuan’s friend Wang Mingdao who, along with others like him, was imprisoned in 1955. Yuan did not approve of the government policy, but he bowed to pressure at first and took part in political study sessions. He remained silent, however, and would not express support for the Three Self movement as promoted by the government, considering Three-Self leaders like Wu Yaozhong, Ding Guangxun, and Liu Lingmo to be opportunists and hypocrites.
When the Three-Self Patriotic Movement was formed and all churches were ordered to join, Yuan refused, for three major reasons: His church had always been self-governing and self-supporting. Christ was the head of the church, and so the church should not “form any worldly alliance.” Finally, the liberal theology of the TSPM leaders made cooperation, much less submission, impossible.
Finally, during the Anti-Rightists campaign in 1957, he openly expressed his disagreement with Party religious policies and boldly rebuked those who had caved in to the TSPM. As a consequence, he was branded a “Rightist.” That meant he no longer had to keep up a pretence of collaboration by attending political study sessions, so he spent all his time in prayer and Bible study.
A senior pastor urged him to feign compliance, but he refused. His wife and mother were called into the police station, where they were warned that Yuan would be arrested soon if he did not submit to government policy. After much prayer, he still refused to change his mind. As warnings came from well-meaning friends and from the TSPM, Yuan began to realize that he would be taken away soon. His courage failed him at times, but he finally decided, “I would rather suffer than conform… I don’t believe God will give us a burden we are unable to bear.” He told his wife, “A Christian looking forward to the rewards in heaven should not be bothered about what happens on earth.” The noose tightened as co-workers were arrested. Yuan armed himself by reading the book of Job over and over again, and received God’s peace in his soul.
His greatest struggle was the danger to his family should he be arrested, but he finally gave them up also to God’s care.
21 years in prison
On April 19, 1958, police came and arrested him, charging him with being a “counter-revolutionary.” Other police ransacked his house, tearing it apart in a futile search for gold nuggets or anti-Communist literature, and hauling away all that was of value, as his wife and children watched in horror.
Yuan’s wife lost her job, so she went out and found another job at a construction site doing hard labor. The family was forced to leave their home and put into a tiny fifteen-square meter house in what used to be a Tibetan lama’s residence. Her pay was not enough to support her six children, but God supplied their needs through anonymous gifts during the ensuing years.
Yuan had been sentenced to life in prison. One night, while watching a propaganda film outside, he recognized his friend, Wang Mingdao. They said nothing to each other, but looked up at the sky, as if pointing to God in heaven. Once he was punished after a Roman Catholic priest reported to the authorities that Yuan continued to share the gospel with fellow prisoners. At the end of the summer in 1961, a famine raged in many parts of China, sending up crime rates and filling the prisons. Prisoners with long sentences were sent to labor camps in the Heilongjiang, along the border with the Soviet Union.
Conditions there were harsh, especially during the long cold winters. Some prisoners froze to death, but Yuan, though thin and frail, never got sick. In 1962, as China and the Soviet Union prepared for war, many camps were closed. The most “dangerous prisoners,” like Yuan, were sent back to Beijing. There, at least, he could enjoy sweet potatoes, and his family could visit, though only very occasionally. The guards there were also a bit more civilized than those elsewhere.
When the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, prisons in Beijing filled up again, so Yuan was sent with others back to Heilongjiang, but to a different place, where, as before, they had to build their own prison out of bricks that they made with their hands. As the Cultural Revolution spread even into the prisons, Yuan was branded “a lackey of foreign imperialists” and transferred to a jail for closer supervision. He had to attend daily political study sessions, listen to political speeches, and write confessions. Yuan cared nothing about politics, and did not concentrate on the speeches.
One day, however, he casually wondered out loud by they hadn’t heard much about Liu Shaoqi recently. Liu had been purged, so Yuan was accused of “harboring evil intentions” about Mao. During interrogations, he continued to assert his faith in God. As a result, he was put into solitary confinement. For six months, he lived in a dark cell that was only two meters long and two meters wide, with no window and no ventilation. He was fed once a day, but could not wash. He was ordered to sit straight, or he would be beaten. When he was finally released from that cell, he looked like a skeleton, and could barely walk.
Jails became so crowded again in 1969 that Yuan and other “serious offenders” were sent to the remote Nenjiang where, once more, they built their own dorms. There he ran into an old friend, Wu Mujia, one of a few church leaders in Beijing who had refused to join the Three-Self movement. Forbidden to speak to another prisoner, Yuan hummed an old hymn. Though Wu looked up and recognized Yuan, he did not join him in humming the hymn tune. Yuan later learned that Wu had given up his faith.
Trials a-plenty tested his faith during his 21 years in prison: Being given only one chopstick with which to eat meager rations; incessant interrogation (Yuan remained silent or gave simple, honest answers); betrayal and beatings by fellow prisoners; solitary confinement; physical abuse; hard labor; worry about his family; a life sentence.
God took care of him, however. Despite intense cold, hard work, and malnutrition, he never once fell sick. The Lord provided for his family, and protected him from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. A vegetarian diet and physical exertion strengthened his health. He never doubted God, nor did he resent his enemies.
Though he suffered awful tortures, Yuan considered himself to have been blessed, because he wasn’t beaten to death by the Red Guards, as he might have been had he lived outside prison in Beijing. He remained healthy, and even grew stronger and more erect from having to carry heavy loads on a pole with a straight back.
Life and ministry after prison
Suddenly, in December, 1979, Yuan was granted parole, on the condition that he remain in his house in Beijing and report regularly to the authorities on his activities and his thinking. He telegraphed his family that he was coming home, then traveled by bus and train across three provinces to Beijing.
His perseverance under trial bore fruit after his release in 1979. Though never rehabilitated (because he would not confess to any crime and did not petition the government for release from all charge), he was able to carry on evangelism, meeting with foreign visitors, writing letters, and supplying taped sermons for seekers and believers in the house church movement. Despite growing government harassment and pressure to join the TSPM, or even to register as a non-profit organization, he refused, lest he come under government control. He did not think much of people like Wu Mujia, who eventually did join the TSPM and was given a comfortable job at Yanjing Seminary.
At first he preached to about ten people in his apartment. Later, hundreds would crowd the alleys hear his home. Yuan eventually rented a larger apartment. Although invited by President Bill Clinton to the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast, he turned down the invitation, because Clinton had also invited members of the TSPM, and he wouldn’t pray in the same room with men who he thought had denied the faith. Nor did he want his church to be connected with any political power, especially America. He also knew that the Chinese government would not issue a visa for him to leave the country. When the foreign organization Open Doors offered help by donating Bibles, he did not accept, believing his church should be self-sustaining.
When foreign dignitaries came to Beijing, the police would take Yuan and his wife to a hotel for a few days to keep them from speaking to them or to foreign media. They would also be isolated during politically important times, such as meetings of the National Assembly, National Day, and the anniversary of the Tiananmen incident. He and his family were constantly harassed by the police. Their phone frequently was tapped and their home ransacked several times.
Yuan remained unbowed, however. The day after the shootings in Beijing on June 4th, 1989, since public transportation was not running, he traveled fifteen kilometers by bicycle to preach to a Christian meeting, where he also expressed disagreement with what the government had done.
Yuan was a man of faith in the Bible; reliance on the Spirit; focus on Christ; insistence upon a changed life as evidence of conversion; belief in the autonomy of the local congregation and strict separation of church and state; willingness to cooperate with other Evangelicals; a belief in the gifts of the Spirit but little enthusiasm for the extremes of the charismatic movement; a conviction that house churches, not denominations - and certainly not the state-ordained Three Self church - were the true pattern for today.
Yuan was not without fault, of course. By Western Christian standards, he neglected his wife. He had a very short temper. Though he diligently supervised his children’s education and made sure that they were organized to do household chores, he seldom “took them out to play and did not know how to communicate with them. As a result, they were afraid of him.” Indeed, “family relationships were not high on his list of priorities.” In later years, he often spoke of some of his weaknesses with co-workers.
Yuan was blessed with a remarkable wife, without whose loyal and courageous support he would not have been able to serve, or even survive, much less succeed as he did. Yuan knew this, and credited her with 80% of his effectiveness.
What were some of the “secrets” of Yuan’s fruitfulness as evangelist, pastor, and leader – and prison survivor? Simple faith in God; very hard work; self-denial; frugal living; a truly outstanding and devoted wife; total dedication; and heroic courage.
Allen Yuan continued to preach the gospel fearlessly up to the time of his death.
His six children were also all dedicated Christians. His son, Yuan Fusheng, was still active in the Christian community in 2010.
- Lydia Lee, A Living Sacrifice: The Life of Allen Yuan. Sovereign World Ltd., 2003.
- Yiwu Liao, God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China. New York: Harper-Collins, 2011, 157-180.