In October 1948, a young man on the eve of a missionary journey sat down to write a poem. By God’s grace and power, over the following decades his poem encouraged the hearts of many Chinese believers, kindling a fire of revival among them in China and the Chinese diaspora. Many of them spent their lives and shed their blood evangelizing and discipling those awakened by the gospel.
This young poet was Bian Yunbo (边云波). Born in a rural county in Hebei on March 12, 1925, Bian entered a world in turmoil. In the very month of Bian’s birth, Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, died in Beijing. During Bian’s youth, China was wracked by civil war between the Nationalist and Communist parties and war with Japan.
In 1927, during the early phases of the civil war, a major exodus of foreign missionaries fueled a passing of the torch in the Chinese Church. The new generation of Chinese leaders included Wang Mingdao, Dora Yu Cidu, Song Shangjie (John Sung), Dr. Mary Shi Meiyu, and Ni Tuosheng (Watchman Nee).
As a teenager, Bian Yunbo fled to Yang County, Shaanxi, after Japanese soldiers occupied his home village in 1943. During this period of deprivation and emotional turmoil, he met the Lord through the quiet ministry of a China Inland Mission worker, Doris E. Onion. He recalled that she prayed for his lost soul many times, once being prompted by the Lord to rise in the middle of the night and intercede for him during a season when he was despondent and had stopped attending church services. He would emphasize this lesson about the importance of intercessory prayer many times throughout his ministry.
Despite often lacking sufficient food and clothing, Bian studied diligently to complete his high school studies. His success on the college entrance examination led to enrollment the following year at the prestigious National Central University at its wartime campus in Chongqing.
While studying education at National Central, he joined China Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and began a lifelong friendship with British missionary David Adeney. Bian had dreamed of becoming a famous playwright, but during his attendance at the first China Inter-Varsity Summer Conference in 1945, he was convicted of his prideful ambition to be famous and dedicated his life to the Lord.
When Bian became seriously ill with an untreatable form of pneumonia, he took a year-long break from his studies and returned to Yang County. Despite his frail health, even coughing up blood, he walked from village to village to preach the gospel and to work with the high school students who had been the object of Miss Onion’s ministry before she left China. By spring, he found himself so poor that he had to sell his winter clothing to be able to eat. Feeling prompted by the Lord, he broke off a relationship with a non-Christian girl he had cared for deeply.
In the summer of 1946, students from the Northwest Bible Institute evangelized in Yang County. One was Mecca Zhao Maijia, who would later serve in Xinjiang with the Back to Jerusalem Band. He and Bian talked extensively about their call to take the gospel to China’s border areas and beyond.
That fall, Bian resumed his studies at National Central, which had moved back to Nanjing. An X-ray revealed that his pneumonia had miraculously been cured despite his strenuous walking instead of the prescribed time of rest. Reflecting on this healing, he wrote: “This made me feel even more convinced that this wisp of life and breath was a gift from God, and it impelled me to use my strength to live for the Lord as a response to God’s grace.”
While he was in Nanjing, Bian’s missionary vision was further inspired by meeting Zhang Guquan and others from the Northwest Spiritual Movement, who were walking across China to serve in Xinjiang. After graduating in 1948, he declined a scholarship to do graduate studies in Edinburgh, Scotland, determining rather to go preach and establish churches among the minority peoples in the southwestern frontier area of China.
In preparation for the arduous and dangerous trip, Bian Yunbo decided to compose a poem to encourage himself in launching this missionary venture.
He considered that during the turmoil and hardship of the war years, God had amazingly empowered several godly men and women to lead movements that resulted in many new church plants, and coupled this effort with the energetic outreach to northwest China that Bian had discussed with Mecca Zhao and Zhang Guquan.
As Bian wrote, the poem seemed to take on a life of its own, and he found himself chronicling the work of hundreds of unknown workers who had gone before him. He recounted, “Throughout the year in which I wrote this poem, it seemed as though I were speaking face to face with many of these unknown preachers… I was writing so that I and many brothers and sisters could give each other mutual encouragement. It was a vocation entrusted by God, under which I was even more chastened not to quench the Spirit of the Lord…. I barely ate or slept… Many people have asked me how many weeks it took to write the poem. Actually, I replied, it took just a few days.” He finished writing his epic poem on October 30, 1948, when he was 23 years old.
Shortly thereafter, Bian left for the southwest borderlands with other workers to preach the gospel among the Miao people. Unbeknownst to Bian, a copy of his poem found its way to a publisher. It was later put to music and inspired many to dedicate their lives to Christ and his Great Commission.
In the spring of 1953, some five years after going to the Southwest, Bian heard rumors that local authorities were about to arrest him. Consequently, he left his work in the border areas of Yunnan and went back to Hebei where he had grown up. There he took on the care of his mother and oversaw other family matters. During this time, he met Wang Mingdao in Beijing and lived and served in Wang’s church whenever he was there.
When Wang Mingdao was arrested on August 8, 1955, Bian was living in nearby Tianjin, where he also was arrested and charged with starting an illegal fellowship in his home. He was released in the fall of 1956. In 1957, he married Bai Yaoxuan (白耀轩), whom he had met at Wang’s church in Beijing in 1953.
With his degree in education and the shortage of teachers in northern China, Bian soon found a teaching job in Tianjin as a middle and high school teacher. On a few occasions he was sent to the countryside near Tianjin for “labor reform” with other teachers, depending on the current political campaign. His wife was also a teacher, and provided them with a more steady income.
With the onset of the Cultural Revolution, Bian Yunbo, his wife, and their three children suffered great persecution in Tianjin. Details of that time are not available.
After the Cultural Revolution ended and China embarked on a policy of “opening and reform,” the life of the Bian family improved somewhat. The three children were all able to leave China for studies abroad.
In the late 1980s, former Inter-Varsity colleague David Adeney visited Bian in Tianjin and introduced him to some foreign Christians who were working there. Bian’s passion for intercessory prayer led these new friends to launch the “Intercessors for China” prayer calendar series, which was published annually for twenty years.
Over the following decade, Bian compiled several books about Christianity. Since publishing houses had lost their subsidies from the government under new economic reforms, they were eager to print self-funded works. Bian’s dictionaries of the Old Testament and the New Testament were especially welcomed by house church leaders and by the many students coming to Christ on college campuses at this time.
In the 1990s, Bian Yunbo moved to the US. He still had a great desire to inspire more people to answer the Lord’s call on their lives and spoke at many churches and conferences around the globe in the next two decades. At one gathering he shared, “Perhaps the revival in the Chinese and overseas church today is God’s preparation for an even greater revival. Let us ask the Lord to once again raise up a people who love Him as did Gideon’s 300, to take up their wonderful staffs and run the final lap of the race.”
After his bout of pneumonia as a young man, Bian was always somewhat frail, and his extensive travels took a toll on his health. In Australia in 2003, he began coughing up blood. He was in a coma for over three weeks and doctors gave him no chance of recovery. However, the Lord revived him and he lived another 15 years.
In these later years, Bian wrote his book 残 年 忆史 (Recalling History in My Declining Years) that includes a description of the difficult period for Chinese house churches in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as his experience in jail for starting the fellowship in his house in Tianjin and his work with Wang Mingdao at the Christian Tabernacle in Beijing. It also describes the origin of house churches in mainland China and how Chinese Christians gathered under harsh conditions: in caves, cellars, tunnels, forests and wilderness areas. The book is currently available only in Chinese.
As he felt his time on this world drawing to a close, Bian chose to return to his homeland to live out his last days. He went to be with the Lord at age 93 on February 14, 2018, in Ningbo, Zhejiang.